Francis Ford Coppola’s 1970s classics still hold a contemporary feel and artistic vitality, four decades later. From the consummate tale of family and power in “The Godfather” to the ever-prescient political thriller “The Conversation,” his best works are definitive genre exercises, blending unwavering realism with escalating tension and a potent moral consideration.
Though his directorial stamp is unmistakable, Coppola has under his belt among the most celebrated family, political, crime and war films in the American canon. He has twice won the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Director, and is one of only eight filmmakers to win the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’or twice.
Below, check out Indiewire’s picks for the famed director’s five best films.
“The Rain People” (1969)
Before “The Godfather,” both James Caan and Robdert Duvall teamed with Coppola on “The Rain People,” an experimental and existential character study. Shirley Knight plays Natalie, a pregnant housewife who skips out on her husband for the illusive search for something better as a “break.” In gradually making her way across the country, she has various encounters, including with an ominous stranger named Killer (Caan) and a lonely highway patrolman (Duvall). “The Rain People” is a strange, hypnotic early effort from Coppola, as provocative and uncommercial as anything he put out in his prime. Frequent collaborator George Lucas worked on the film as an aide.
“The Godfather” (1972)
With too many classic scenes to count (as well as two sequels), dubbing “The Godfather” Coppola’s most substantial achievement feels like a necessity. The film introduces the Corelone family, a fictional New York crime dynasty starring Marlon Brando as its ruthless patriarch, Vito, and Al Pacino as his black sheep son, Michael. Over a decade, Coppola tracks Michael’s evolution, from skeptical outsider to the new leader. The morality play of “The Godfather” is epic in sweep and yet intimate in execution; its visual language, most famously in its climactic baptism, is as vital as its narrative. The film went on to win Oscars for Picture, Actor and Adapted Screenplay, and remains one of the most influential films of all time.
“The Conversation” (1974)
40 years later, “The Conversation,” Coppola’s masterclass in pacing and tone, is as relevant and sharp as ever. This taut, brilliantly-acted thriller stars Gene Hackman as Harry Caul, a surveillance expert who’s been hired to bug the conversation between an unsuspecting couple. What he records is cryptically troubling, and when realizing that the release of the tape could lead to a murder, he’s left with an impossible choice. Hackman’s tragic and morally-minded embodiment of Harry ranks among the best performances in his illustrious career, while Coppola inches the film into darker, murkier and more nail-biting territory with uncompromising patience. The film won the Palme d’Or and scored three Oscar nominations.
“The Godfather: Part II” (1974)
Coppola consumed a fair amount of the conversation in 1974, with “The Conversation” generating universal acclaim before his “Godfather” sequel emerged as a critical and commercial phenomenon. “The Godfather: Part II,” considered by many to be even bolder and more accomplished than its predecessor, presents parallel dramas. The film resumes the saga of the Corleone family, with Al Pacino’s Michael recovering after an attempt on his life as he tries to push the family business forward, while also telling the story of his father, Vito, played here by Robert De Niro. The film holds an uncontested power, with its ambitious structure working as an illuminative exploration of cyclicality. The film won Oscars for Best Picture and Director.
“Apocalypse Now” (1979)
Coppola’s second Cannes-winning film, “Apocalypse Now” proves that the making of a film doesn’t have to go entirely smoothly for the end result to be pure movie magic. Horrid weather patterns, a heart attack suffered by a lead cast member and the dysfunctional behavior of another in Marlon Brando couldn’t keep the visceral intensity of “Apocalypse Now” down. In fact, the chaos of the shoot filters into the film’s disoriented evocation. Hauntingly realistic and definitively experiential, the film delves into the Vietnam War with a perspective so humane and yet so tragic that it, in comparison, dwarfs most every other classic American war film.