Top Ten 1979

1. The China Syndrome
2. Apocalypse Now
3. My Brilliant Career
4. Tess
5. Alien
6. The War At Home
7. Norma Rae
8. Manhattan
9. The Bronte Sisters
10. A Little Romance


The performance I find the most riveting in 1979 is the work done by Jack Lemmon in James Bridges’ superb masterpiece The China Syndrome.  Lemmon already had two Oscars by this point so it is no surprise that he was not crowned yet again, but his journey from Keep-Your-Head-Down minute man to morally outraged whistleblower is compelling and provides this terrifying movie with its vulnerable moral centre.

Honour Roll: Robert Duvall, The Great Santini; Dustin Hoffman, Kramer Vs. Kramer; Klaus Kinski, Woyzeck; Al Pacino, …And Justice For All


Forget the brilliance with which she delivers the dialogue and singlehandedly navigates the dramatic power of the movie; very few people have stood silent with a sign above their heads with more integrity than Sally Field in Norma Rae. Well before she made something of a joke of herself by playing suffering women and proclaiming to the world, with mawkish gratitude, that “You really like me!”, Field deservedly swept the awards season of 1979 with her powerhouse turn in Martin Ritt’s excellent drama. I don’t know that it was cool to like her again until her role onBrothers And Sisters brought her television fame, but everything converged perfectly on this particular project.

Honour Roll: Judy Davis, My Brilliant Career; Jane Fonda, The China Syndrome; Marsha Mason, Chapter Two; Bette Midler, The Rose


Giving the prize to the feisty old man is a strong Oscar tradition, but when you’re giving it to Melvyn Douglas, you can bet it is well deserved. Douglas’ power to steal movies never abated, not even in his final years of making movies, and in 1979 he gave two performances that gave life to otherwise mediocre projects. In the dull Being There he winningly plays Peter Sellers’ aging employer, and in The Seduction Of Joe Tynan he perks up government offices as a senator who watches amusingly as Alan Alda drowns in his own political idealism. Douglas would go on to make four more movies before his death in 1981 at the age of 80.

Honour Roll: Joseph Bologna, Chapter Two; Robert Duvall, Apocalypse Now; Peter Firth, Tess; Justin Henry, Kramer Vs. Kramer


Merely two years after she started making feature films, a new talent showed up on the horizon to critical acclaim and managed to carve out for herself, over the next thirty years (and counting), one of the most impressive careers in the movies. Meryl Streep already had one Oscar nomination under her belt (for The Deer Hunter) when she won her first of three trophies (and a record, so far, of nominations) for her performance as the conflicted mother in Kramer Vs. Kramer. That same year she also provided intelligent sex appeal as Alan Alda’s political love interest in the less-seen The Seduction Of Joe Tynan. What she has accomplished since these two movies is a wonder to behold, but it’s nice to know that, much as she really has grown into herself in the years since, the spark was obvious from the beginning and the praise with which she was greeted was justified.

Honour Roll: Jane Alexander, Kramer Vs. Kramer; Candice Bergen, Starting Over; Barbara Harris, The Seduction Of Joe Tynan; Marie-France Pisier,Love On The Run


Madness in the jungle has never been more entertaining: when Francis Ford Coppola set out to adapt Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart Of Darkness to Vietnam and called it Apocalypse Now, I hardly imagine he was planning to put himself through a years-long ordeal that would nearly kill him. The result is a film that not only hasn’t aged at all, but has not ceased to be created. Co-winning the 1979 Palme D’Or as a work in progress, it was released to great acclaim and in recent years has undergone re-edits and restorations that have only improved its potency. Sure, it gets superhero-ridiculous in the final compound sequence involving Marlon Brando’s overripe Kurtz, but the journey is a blisteringly fascinating one, beautiful in its horror and rich in its phantasmagoria. That being said, anyone expecting a factual or detailed exploration of the reality of Vietnam needs look elsewhere.

Honour Roll: Gillian Armstrong, My Brilliant Career; James Bridges, The China Syndrome; Roman Polanski, Tess; Andre Techine, The Bronte Sisters