You can’t talk about the history of American cinema without mentioning Francis Ford Coppola. Arriving in Hollywood right as the industry was losing money, he was lucky enough to hit his artistic stride when the studios decided to take a chance on some young kids.
Coppola is one of the greatest of his generation, coming up with Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Steven Spielberg, William Friedkin, and George Lucas. A crop of filmmakers who radically refined what kind of films got made for big money and what kind of films made money. Coppola’s run in the 70s is unmatched with Godfather, The Godfather Part II, Apocalypse Now, and The Conversation. Throughout his career, Coppola firmly cemented his name in American film history.
Let’s take a look at the ten best films of his illustrious career.
Easily the best of Coppola’s 21st-century films and funded with his own money – Tetro strikes a peculiar balance of artistic experimentation (his closest film to Fellini) and heartfelt narrative.
Partly inspired by his own life, Coppola cast Vincent Gallo as the titular “Tetro”, the self-destructive, highly combustible writer who fled to Buenos Aires to escape his abusive family. But, real inspiration and tensions strike because his estranged brother Benny – played by Alden Ennerhich who Coppola is partly responsible for discovering – comes to find him, opening up the past in a sloppy and ugly fashion.
While it doesn’t quite reach the heights of his early masterpieces, the intimacy of the setting and gorgeous, old-school B&W cinematography was a welcome foray for Coppola back into cinema’s good graces.
9Cotton Club Encore
When Cotton Club wrapped filming, the final cut had been taken away from Coppola, dampening his original vision of giving voice to the black artists performed in prohibition-era clubs, shifting the focus to the gangsters behind the scenes. Radically recut, Coppola delivers his original vision of the politicization of black art and also shows an insightful portrayal of Hollywood’s inauthenticity.
Starring Gregory Hines as a dancer who can’t hang out in the club and Richard Gere as a musician who wants to be an actor, both navigate the criminal underworld. Coppola shows his deft hand at creating another strikingly modern crime epic. The film also features a deep supporting cast of Laurence Fishburne, James Remar, Tom Waits, Nicolas Cage, and Bob Hoskins, all operating behind the scenes of the smoky clubs.
When Coppola set out to make The Outsiders, he had one mission: discover the next crop of young American talent. And he passed with flying colors. The Outsiders introduced the world to Tom Cruise, Emilio Estevez, Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, Diane Lane, C. Thomas Howell, and Ralph Macchio before they became stars.
Following the youth gang culture of the acclaimed Young Adult novel from S.E. Hinton of the same name, Coppola directs the young ensemble as they navigate the poverty of the lower class and violence from the rich kids all in a glowing throwback 1950s artifice. All of this while never losing the heart of the source material.
Coppola’s first foray into horror with Dracula turned into the gothically costumed opera covered in blood, flesh, and artifice. It features the likes of Gary Oldman as the titular monster who falls for the beautiful Mina Murray (Winona Ryder).
The horror delves into a beautiful and elegant ride into a horror camp. Where monsters, beasts, and men can only display their true affection through violence. While the ensemble features big names, Hopkins steals the show as the famed monster hunter Van Helsing.
6Tucker: The Man and His Dream
Tucker: The Man and His Dream is a gorgeous ode to the ambitions of American car manufacturing legend Preston Tucker (Jeff Bridges) as he battles the evil machinations of America’s most powerful corporations and their ties to politics. Coppola keeps the material and narrative light as it shoots from his time developing military vehicles to his revolutionary car concept the “Tucker Torpedo” that pit him up against the three titans of the car industry.
With his right-hand man Abe Karatz (Martin Landau, who was Oscar-nominated) leading him through the fray, we sadly see how ill-fated his dreams are and how most that challenge the system are doomed to fail. The cinematography from Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now) is also gorgeous and reminiscent of his work on The Conformist.
While taking a break from wrapping the Godfather Part II, director Francis Ford Coppola decided to make yet another masterpiece in its wings. Featuring a quietly subdued, paranoid performance from the great Gene Hackman as Harry Caul, a surveillance expert who believes he’s caught in the middle of a government conspiracy.
The Conversation detours from a thriller into a depressing character study that seemingly manifests in the middle of The Watergate scandal, as Caul is terrified of whats to come to a young couple he’s been tailing. A reflection of the times that are reminiscent of other taut conspiracy thrillers of the 70s, but also one that has aged with unfortunate beauty because of mass government distrust. Coppola executed a low-key film with profundity.
The closest Coppolas has come to touching the wavelengths of French New Wave, Rumble Fish is constructed as a heightened, fever-pitch noir set against the S.E Hinton playground of violent youth culture. Featuring star-making performances from the young ensemble of Matt Dillon, Diane Lane, and Mickey Rourke, Rumble sings because Coppola seemingly threw the playbook out the window and exists as the perfect response to The Outsiders, floating on the opposite end of the spectrum, stylistically.
3Godfather Part II
If The Godfather gave us the hopes of Michael Corleone taking his family business into its next phase, The Godfather: Part II sees that idealism turned to tragedy. Featuring the heartbreaking arc of Fredo (John Cazale) as other members of the family turn against Michael’s quench for power and his crushing blows to family loyalty.
Godfather Part II remains the quintessential sequel because it showcases the development of thematic material and how quickly things can turn for the worst. Part II also rewarded Robert De Niro an Oscar (like Brando) for his portrayal of the young Don Vito Corleone as he takes his family from the streets to the throne. Godfather Part II remains one of the greatest sequels ever made and is another indelible piece of mafia fiction.
One of, if not the greatest War films ever made Apocalypse Now saw Francis on the brink of collapse. Nearly bankrupting himself to get the film made while also plunging himself and the film’s crew into the heart of the jungle, what emerged became a seminal piece of American cinema and history.
The young Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) is sent on a top-secret mission to assassinate the violent and murderous Walter E. Kurtz (another iconic Marlon Brando performance) who went AWOL to the furthest stretches of the Vietnamese villages. Apocalypse is a war film like no other, a hallucinatory nightmare right into the heart of darkness.
Every other crime epic made will live in The Godfather’s shadow. It’s perhaps the most influential film and the most artful piece of pop cinema ever to touch the big screen.
A mafia film about powers corruption in America’s model of becoming your boss, AKA, capitalism. A king (Marlon Brando) with his three sons Michael (Al Pacino), Sonita (James Caan), and Fredo (John Cazale) all vying for their father’s throne as the future of the business closes in on him.
Everything about the film became iconic, from the character’s arcs, the music, the dialogue, and Gordon Willis’ god-level cinematography of the dimly lit halls in which the powerful do business. The Godfather will forever stand the test of time because of the genius levels of artistry being executed on every level.