(Check out the list so far)
The Movie: The Godfather (1972)
One Sentence Plot Summary: In one of the best American films ever produced, Francis Ford Coppola tells the epic story of an American crime family over the course of a decade.
Why It’s on the List: What do you even say about a film that has some of the very best writing, directing, editing, acting, and musical score ever in the history of American film. There’s this great moment in the hospital when Michael tells his father he’s with him. Vito is in the hospital and smiles. Although there are a number of iconic major moments that have crossed the threshold into mainstream popular culture, Francis Ford Coppola nailed the small moments too. Just moments after Michael tells his father he’s with him, there’s this great moment involving poor Enzo the baker as he is hardcore shaking after staring a car down. Everyone in this world is written to be specific, and that’s why every moment of The Godfather works.
There has been a lot of discussion about what the greatest American film ever made is, and there is a legitimate case to be made about Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, and Citizen Kane, but I’ve always believed this is it. The Godfather is the greatest American film ever made for all the reasons I mentioned above. I know some hate the idea of three hour movies, but this earns every minute with the way it shows and doesn’t tell throughout. The dialogue sings. I’ve watched this movie 10-15 times officially and bits and pieces on cable over the years. It sucks me in every single time. It’s so different from movies made previously and even ones made after. It really brought mob movies to the forefront and we’ve seen a cottage industry in both movies and television.
There’s just something about mob stories that work, especially one where everyone seems…cool. This is a clear upper middle class sensibility with this family, but there’s also a hint of working class with many of the older people associated with the Corleone family. This also has to be one of the best casts ever. Marlon Brando gives his last great performance where he actually seemed to care about the work and wasn’t just collecting a paycheck. Al Pacino is outstanding as Michael in every scene and probably should have won the lead actor Oscar. It’s another case of category gerrymandering. Robert Duvall is underrated as Tom Hagen, and you only miss him when he doesn’t appear in Godfather, Part III. So many of the smaller characters excel in their role.
It’s hard to discuss such a film because of all the critical writing that has already been done, but you should fully expect to see this very high on the list because it’s close to perfection as we’ve ever seen on screen.
*This movie is VERY patriarchal. Just a lot of little comments mostly. The most extensive scene involving a female character is Connie in distress arguing with her husband.
*The five families don’t want drugs sold to kids or in front of schools but have no problem getting Black people addicted. Yeesh.
MVP: Could it be anyone other than Francis Ford Coppola? Mario Puzo wrote the source material, but admittedly, this is one of the rare cases where the filmed version is much better than the book. Coppola had one of the best decades a filmmaker could ever have in the 1970s. His output included two Godfathers, The Conversation, and Apocalypse Now. Admittedly, the ensuing three decades haven’t exactly had nearly the quality, but to have crafted these four movies alone makes him one of the all-time greats in American filmmaking. Coppola changed movies and helped to usher in more modern sensibilities while setting the stage to be able to tell more nuanced stories. For better and worse, this helped to make the idea of anti-heroes cool.
Best Performance: Holy hell, this might be the most difficult choice ever in this category, and as much as I respect Marlon Brando’s work as Vito Corleone, I think this or Godfather, Part II are the best performances of Al Pacino’s career. This was not his film debut, but it was most certainly his arrival in major American filmmaking. His Michael Corleone is the one who truly grows from the beginning to the ending. Vito Corleone doesn’t really change. There are long stretches of the film where he is unconscious in the hospital. James Caan as Sonny is just a hot headed asshole the whole time. He’s quite good under those same circumstances, but Michael Corleone starts the film as a war hero and the clear favorite of Vito. By the end, he’s set up a scenario where the leaders of the five families can be murdered at the same time while Michael’s nephew is being baptized. Pacino plays the role perfectly in every facet as he slowly becomes more familiar with the family business. He serves as a bit of a surrogate first and goes through a huge metamorphosis as he kills two people in a small Italian restaurant before going to Italy and returning to take on the role of Don.
Best Quote: “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.” – Vito Corleone (There are a million other lines I could have gone with in truth.)
Is there a sequel? Yes, the second one is also regarded as one of the greatest films ever made. While it is a bit bloated, there are still some phenomenal performances across the board. The third one has some interesting elements but is three major steps down from the first two.