Thursday, July 15, 2010

#8: Francis Ford Coppola

- “A number of images put together a certain way become something quite above and beyond what any of them are individually.”

Placing Francis Ford Coppola in a countdown of this scope has been, without question, the most difficult task of the entire project. Trying to slot him into a comfortable position made me examine exactly how I was judging and ranking each director, and at the end of it all, I’m still not certain that consistency has been maintained. I say this because, as I have repeated many times in discussions on various blogs throughout the ‘net, I am a person who is much more interested in seeing how high one can reach, rather than dwelling on misfires. I don’t care if a director makes ten duds if he manages to squeeze out one or two masterpieces along the way; I’m much more interested in devoting my time to the great ones than worrying about the stumbles. Considering Coppola’s career in that frame of mind, he could make a strong case for jumping all the way to the top spot. If we’re stacking up irrefutable masterpieces, Coppola in my opinion boasts as many as any other director you will find in this Top 30. In my eyes, Coppola _owned_ the 1970s. I’d be leery of anyone claiming that The Godfather, The Godfather: Part II, or Apocalypse Now are not truly great films. I'd personally make the argument of elevating The Conversation to that level as well. On the basis of those four films alone, Coppola would enter this countdown.

And that’s precisely what makes placing him so difficult – it is almost solely because of those four masterpieces that he merits such lofty praise from me. The Godfather Part III and Dracula are very good films, but to me they pale in comparison to Coppola’s best. The conundrum is made even more difficult by the fact that at this stage of the countdown – meaning the Top 10 – every single director has multiple masterworks on their resume. So a certain amount of depth and consistency has to come into play. In that area, Coppola doesn’t quite match up to those ahead of him.

I also am not one of those who constantly cry and lament over the “lost genius” of a once transcendent filmmaker. Make no mistake, I don’t think he has done anything post-Apocalypse Now that comes close to his four masterpieces of the 1970s, but I do still like Dracula the final installment of The Godfather trilogy, and even enjoyed his recent Tetro. Even so, it’s hard not to at least give thought to the “what might have been” scenarios in which he continued making truly great films into the next decade as some of his contemporaries did. Rather than dwelling on such hypothetical situations, though, I instead just return again and again (and again and again…) to my favorite Coppola works. I have yet to tire of The Godfather films. Apocalypse Now arguable trumps them all. The Conversation improves upon Antonioni’s intriguing original vision. For all of the mythology and hoopla that has come to surround his biggest productions - not to mention the seriously grating, conceited personality that he regularly displays - it is important to never forget how great a director Coppola can be.

The top three on my list are completely interchangeable, with any ordering being perfectly acceptable. For now, this is what I will stick with (even though during the 70s poll last year at Wonders in the Dark, I had Apocalypse Now as my #1 for the decade...)

1. The Godfather (1972)
2. The Godfather Part II (1974)
3. Apocalypse Now (1979)
4. The Conversation (1974)
5. Dracula (1992)
6. The Godfather Part III (1990)
7. Tetro (2009)
8. The Outsiders (1983)
9. Rumble Fish (1983)
10. Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988)
11. The Rainmaker (1997)
12. Jack (1996)


  1. Well, I've never really hooked on to the Coppola's "lost genius" bandwagon, just because I haven't seen a single "lesser" film of his (Heck, I've only seen masterpieces).

    1. Apocalypse Now
    2. The Godfather
    3. The Conversation
    4. The Godfather Part II
    5. Tetro
    6. The Godfather Part III

  2. Oh I want to see Tetro so badly. I'm desperate to see him climb back on the horse in any fashion.

    1. Godfather II
    2. Apocalypse Now
    3. The Conversation
    4. The Godfather
    5. Godfather III
    6. Rumble Fish
    7. Dracula

    I'm not too keen on 6 or 7, but neither is terrible and his visual acumen is clearly on display in both.

  3. Absolutely right, Dave: Coppola ruled the Seventies, and as soon as the decade ended he blew it big time. But he pulled himself back together and his work remains interesting if problematic today.

    1. Apocalypse Now
    2. The Godfather Part II
    3. The Conversation
    4. The Godfather
    5. Tucker: The Man and His Dream
    6. Bram Stoker's Dracula
    7. Youth Without Youth
    8. The Godfather Part III
    9. Peggy Sue Got Married
    10. The Cotton Club
    11. One From the Heart
    12. Finian's Rainbow

    These are all the Coppolas I remember seeing. I've never seen the 80s youth movies, but I vaguely recall seeing Gardens of Stone without really paying attention to it.

  4. Make sure you see Youth Without Youth, Dave. I thought it was a masterpiece and easily one of the decade's ten best.

  5. Undoubtedly one of the giants of American cinema. My top 5 Coppola films are:

    1. The Godfather
    2. The Godfather Part II
    3. Apocalypse Now
    4. The Conversation
    5. The Godfather Part III

    It seems I've missed a number of your posts in this series, including the likes of the Coen bros. & Orson Welles

    So, here's my favourite Coen films, even though this is out of context vis-a-vis the current post:
    1. Fargo
    2. No Country for Old Men
    3. Miller's Crossing
    4. Blood Simple
    5. Big Lebowski
    6. The Man Who Wasn't There
    7. A Serious Man
    8. Burn After Reading
    9. Barton Fink

    My 3 fav Orson Welles films are:
    1. Touch of Evil
    2. Citizen Kane
    3. The Lady from Shanghai

  6. As you say positioning Coppola is tough but then he has four films that many people would call masterpieces (how many others can say that?) and others that are an interesting mixed bag and then still some pure failures. Coppola has sometimes just went the commercial route for the money to finance his more personal projects. I can't blame him for that though films like Jack and The Rainmaker are embarrassing for someone of his greatness. The saddest part is he wasted IMO so much of his talent and time on making wine instead of making films.
    Some of his works that I still need to see are Garden of Stone, Tucker, Tetro and Youth Without Youth.

    Below is every Coppola film I have seen. The first four are essential masterpieces.

    The Godfather 2
    The Godfather
    Apocalypse Now
    The Conversation
    The Rain People
    The Godfather 2
    The Outsiders
    Rumble Fish
    You're A Big Boy Now
    The Cotton Club
    Dementia 13
    One From the Heart
    Peggy Sue Got Married
    The Rainmaker
    Finian's Rainbow
    New York Stories (segment -the worst of the three)
    Tonight For Sure (bet not too many others have seen this, lol)

  7. Dave, you really, really need to see The Cotton Club. Along with Dracula it's probably my favorite Coppola film. I've never connected with The Godfather films the way some people have, although I do think they're great films, and as impressive as Apocalypse Now is, it's overshadowed in my mind somewhat by Aguirre and the later Come And See. But again, it's definitely a great film, and probably my favorite of the Vietnam movies of its time (which admittedly isn't saying much).

  8. I do agree with John that THE GODFATHER 2 is Coppola's masterpiece and one of the greatest of all American films. And I can't contest his placement here either. The one that you didn't include Dave, PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED is one I would include on the second tear, as it's a wistful, elegiac piece that continues to resonate. I am not the fan of TETRO that many others are, but it's still heartening that it received such good reviews. TUCKER and DEMENTIA 13 are others I like quite a bit myself. HEARTS OF DARKNESS is a fine documentary on the making of APOCALYPSE NOW, BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA has become of a classic of its kind, THE CONVERSATION is a near-masterpiece and he did a great (expressionistic) job with S.E. Hinton's RUMBLE RISH. Yeah, THE COTTON CLUB is quite good as well. THE GODFATHER III is better than some give it credit for, and it's use of Mascagni's "Cavalleria Rusticanna" is sublime.

    Unfortunately, the man's deplorable handling of the silent classic NAPOLEON, where he basically blocked the release of the rightful version and the superior Carl Davis score (to accomodate his composer father Carmine) is a blight on a great career, and a sad commentary on greed and power.

    Should he be as high as #8 on this countdown? Well, I wouldn't go that high myself, but I can't argue with it, as on the strength of the "Big 3" a vaunted placement seems warranted. You've again written a great, engaging piece in defense here!

    1 The Godfather Part 2
    2 The Godfather
    3 Apocalypse Now
    4 The Conversation
    5 Bram Stoker's Dracula
    6 Peggy Sue Got Married
    7 Dementia 13
    8 Rumble Fish
    9 Tucker: A Man and His Dream
    10 The Cotton Club
    11 The Rainmaker
    12 Hearts of Darkness (documentary)
    13 The Outsiders
    14 You're A Big Boy Now
    15 Tetro
    16 Finian's Rainbow
    17 One From the Heart
    18 The Rain People
    19 The Terror
    20 New York Stories

    Now there's another fairly well-known Italian-American director lurking around here, no? You know, the guy who directed that black and white boxing movie, the picture about that psycho cab driver, and those mobsters who played hardball? Odds are he may be showing up to the party! Ha! Viva Italia!

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  10. Yeah, add me to the list praising THE GODFATHER PART II as Coppola's finest moment. I love many of his films and revisit them often. He has created some truly memorable classics during his time. My picks:

    1 The Godfather Part 2
    2. Rumble Fish
    3. Apocalypse Now
    4. The Godfather
    5. The Conversation
    6. The Outsiders
    7. Tucker: A Man and His Dream
    8. Bram Stoker's Dracula
    9. One From the Heart
    10. The Cotton Club
    11. Peggy Sue Got Married

  11. Actually, Dave, HEARTS OF DARKNESS was NOT directed by Coppola, but by George Hickenlooper. It was about Coppola and APOCALYPSE NOW, but it was of course directed by someone else. Sorry about that.

  12. The Outsiders is really underrated. Especially if you watch the "directors cut" version where he did away with his dad's soundtrack and used rock n roll of the time instead in addition to some extended scenes. I have yet to see The Conversation, but I've had it in my queue a long time. I have 480 movies in my queue, so it takes a while to get to some of them. The Godfather and II are brilliant and knock me out everytime I watch them. I remember liking Andy Garcia in III, but that was about it.

    Godfather II
    Apocalypse Now
    The Outsiders
    Rumble Fish

  13. A erratic career with incredible highs. I always felt that after his 70's work his ambition clearly waned. Apocalypse Now took a toll and he seemed to lower his level of commitment. With his top 3 or 4 films though he had nothing left to prove and is justified this high placement.

    1. The Godfather Part 2
    2. Apocalypse Now
    3. The Godfather
    4. The Conversation
    5. Dracula
    6. The Cotton Club
    7. The Outsiders
    8. Peggy Sue Got Married
    9. Rumble Fish
    10. Tucker: A Man And His Dream

    Put me in the camp that thinks The Godfather part 2 is superior to its predecessor.......M.Roca

  14. I forgot Godfather Part 3. I would slot it in at number 6 after Dracula.....M.Roca

  15. Ha Maurizio! Somehow I forgot to insert THE GODFATHER PART III as well, despite mentioning it as underrated in my pre-list commentary. I would have it now at #7, but since HEARTS OF DARKNESS has now been self-invalidated, I still have 20 choices in total.

  16. JAFB – The six you have seen are likely to be among the favorites of all Coppola fans. Those first four are stone cold classics.

    Jake – Coppola struggles with how to end Tetro, but for most of the way, it’s a very good movie.

    Samuel – Yep, the 70s were his. His non-top shelf work is still interesting, but there is certainly a lot of separation between those top four and the rest, IMO.

    Adam – I recently got a copy of Youth Without Youth but just haven’t had the chance to watch it yet… glad to hear that it will be worth my time.

    Shubhajit – Good lists all around!

    John – That is a lot of Coppola that you have seen, John, so I am impressed. We’re on the same page in trying to make sense of Coppola’s overall placement in a project like this. I guess it depends on how you approach it. Ultimately, the masterpieces are enough to put him over the top for me, so I think this spot is justified.

    Doniphon – Will do on The Cotton Club, I’ll bump it up the Netflix queue. I obviously disagree regarding The Godfathers and Apocalypse Now. The first two GF and Apocalypse would all make a Top 20-30 movies of all time list for me.

    Sam – Haha… between you, John and Maurizio, and now throwing in Coppola and the other Italian director you mention, it’s starting to feel like this countdown should be headquartered on Mulberry Street… or Palermo… or Naples… or Rome! LOL! You’re taking over! Your thoughts on Coppola are pretty spot on, but as you also acknowledge, the strength of those three masterpieces really pulls him up a list like this. And I agree concerning Hearts of Darkness – even though it wasn’t directed by Coppola, it is absolutely essential viewing for anyone who likes him or Apocalypse Now. As for Coppola’s narcissistic personality, there really is no defense. He doesn’t come across as a likable person, but then again many of my other favorite artists/entertainers (Van Morrison, Prince) come across as pricks as well.

    J.D. – Well I never thought I would see someone place Rumble Fish above The Godfather, but it’s lists like this that make these lists so interesting!

    Retro Hound – I really am a fan of The Outsiders, but feel like my love is more toward the novel that I read as a child. I read Hinton’s novel in the fourth grade, as did all of my friends (most of whom never read anything for pleasure) and I still have great memories of how much everyone loved that book. Coppola handles it well enough, but I still cherish the story from the actual novel, so it’s hard for me to compare.

    Maurizio – “With his top 3 or 4 films though he had nothing left to prove and is justified this high placement.” This line pretty much says it all. If those were the only four on the resume he would still place.

  17. I hate to be the voice of dissent, but I would easily place Powell & Pressburger, the Coens and Sam Peckinpah above Coppola.

    True, there are four bona fide masterpieces - the first two Godfathers, The Conversation and Apocalypse Now, and a handful of very good films that don't quite live up to his best work - but there are as many films again that are overblown (The Cotton Club), bland (Tucker: The Man and His Dream), self-indulgent (One From The Heart), or just plain awful (Jack). Hell, even Peckinpah's penultimate cringe-fest Convoy is better than Jack.

    By comparison, Powell & Pressburger have at least eight masterpieces on their filmography (for most of the war years, they did nothing BUT create masterworks); the Coens, too, have far greater consistency; and Peckinpah - while enjoying nowhere near the indulgence with which the money men treated Coppola and therefore weathering a rougher ride in terms of studio backing - brought a certain set of ethics (even if often compromised) to every film he made, therefore identifying him as an auteur even in his lesser films and an outright genius at his best.

    For me, Coppola at his best made four of the best American films of the 70s; elsewhere, however, there is nothing that unifies, coheres or lends his body of work - taken in its entirety - a specific voice or aesthetic raison d' etre.

  18. Neil - I can't really argue what you're saying regarding the resumes of P&P, Coens or Peckinpah. In terms of depth of quality films, they are all ahead of Coppola. But for me personally, none of those directors have a single film that I would put ahead of The Godfather, The Godfather Part II or Apocalypse Now. MAYBE I could slight Pat Garrett ahead of one, but I doubt it. And I LOVE films from all of them - The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, The Big Lebowski, Pat Garrett are all undisputed 10/10 greats.

    So just keep in mind, I'm not arguing greatness or consistency. Just favorites - hence the title of the series is "30 Favorite Directors" rather than "30 Best" or "30 Greatest." Like I said, I still struggled with where to place him.

  19. An interesting conundrum here, do we rate a director by his peaks, his overall consistency or both? (And for "director" you can substitute "era" as well, which is pretty much the gist of a conversation I had recently on Wonders, which Doniphon among others was a part of.)

    As for Coppola, he definitely deserves a place here. Besides, it's not as if he has only one masterpiece (even if two of them deeply related): four stone-cold classics is nothing to sneeze at! Yet I feel the same hesitation as you; perhaps it's because his masterpieces were all so clustered together? Would his reputation be stronger if years or decades celebrated his most acclaimed films? Or would it be weaker, since more diluted? All hypothetical, but fun to ponder.

    I thought Youth Without Youth was very strange - I attended a screening which he introduced (before running out for some reason!) and he said he wanted to make it like a student film. Well, he succeeded - only all to well! Yet for its indulgences and misfires, it was also adventurous and intriguing. I'd love to see Tetro - so I guess I should, instead of just saying I'd love to...

  20. I don't care if a director makes 15 "Lady In The Water's" as long as they make 3 or 4 Apocalypse Now's. I always judge a director's greatness more on the amount of masterpieces they create as opposed to middling consistency.......M.Roca

  21. I love Coppola's work. I really enjoyed his first effort Dementia 13, I rank that above most of his other works personaly. There's just something about that film that's creepy.