Broker Check


December 04, 2023

If you have been following the write-ups all year, you have been reading my top-rated films in several different genres. It only seems fitting as I write the final one for the year that we discuss the overall number one film on my list with a plus-sized review; giving it the respect and adulation it has earned by its champion status. Those that know me well are not surprised when I reveal that number one is The Godfather (1972, dir. Francis Ford Coppola).

If you have somehow lived this long and do NOT know the plot, here is a summary for you. The Godfather follows the Corleone crime family, which some suggest has already peaked and is now on the decline in the New York organized crime scene. The current don, Vito (Marlon Brando) is older and may be looking to pass control of the family onto one of his sons – Sonny (James Caan), the hot-headed middle son who is likely next in line, Fredo (John Cazale), the oldest but least equipped to handle the job, and Michael (Al Pacino), the youngest but seemingly least interested. Throughout the film, we see Michael grow into the obvious choice as he alienates close relationships with his longtime girlfriend Kay (Diane Keaton) while slipping into the darker world of the Mafia. By the end of the film, Michael has made it clear that he is the only choice to take over.

You could write a doctoral dissertation on what makes this film great, so I will try to focus it down as much as possible. It starts with the performances, as most great films do. The film was notably slow to get off the ground due to significant disagreements in casting choices. Thankfully, the right choices were made. It was rumored the studio was pushing Robert Redford or Warren Beatty for the role. It is difficult to imagine either of those great actors taking on the role of Michael instead of Al Pacino. He brings a subtlety (hard to imagine that knowing the Al Pacino of recent years has been very loud and in your face) that some might argue is boring. I would argue it is far from boring and shows a level of calculation and calm in the face of significant danger that is essential for the character. You could go all the way down the cast list and not find a single out-of-step performance. You absolutely believe Caan’s Sonny is that hot head reactionary. You see countless examples of Cazale’s Fredo wishing he were better at this but simply not being who he thinks he is. Brando’s Vito is a legendary performance despite having few lines – he commands every moment he is on screen. And this does not even begin to get into the supporting performances of Robert Duvall, Talia Shire, Richard Castellano, Gianni Russo, Abe Vigoda, and on and on.

If I am forced to quibble with anything in the film, I find only two flaws. First – the “Michael in Sicily” section drags a bit for me. It is essential in his development, but I believe it could be accomplished with some more liberal cuts. Second – and this is very minor – but the street fight scene with Sonny and Carlo is laughably bad in how you can clearly see Caan pulling his punches. (Russo would probably disagree that it was not realistic as he ended up in the hospital with several broken ribs as a result of shooting the scene.) Beyond that, there is not much to argue as anything less than pinpoint brilliance.

As we talk about brilliance, I did want to single out the finale. (The movie came out over 50 years ago and is as iconic as can be, so I do not believe I am spoiling much here. However – if you have NOT seen it, maybe skip this paragraph.) As flawless a segment of film as has ever been created, the climax of Michael settling all family business in the wake of his father’s death is truly stunning filmmaking. The juxtaposition of Michael going through the baptism of his nephew while knowing all the killings he ordered were happening simultaneously is breathtaking to me every time. Then the final punch comes when Carlo is “forced to answer for Santino.” Coppola lets you think the punishment is not as harsh as you are expecting before he drops the hammer.

If you have never seen The Godfather, you are missing out on the best cinema has to offer. Take a moment (or nearly 3 hours of moments) and soak it or rediscover it. Then watch the sequel. It is a brilliant film in its own right – taking you through the aftermath of the first film while also giving you a second plotline that shows a young Vito Corleone rising to power. It is NOT, as some critics have argued, better than the first, but it is easily the greatest sequel of all time. But you cannot be better than number one.

FUN FACT – Michael Rizzi – Connie and Carlo’s baby at the aforementioned baptism scene – is played by director Francis Ford Coppola’s daughter and future Oscar-nominated director, Sofia Coppola. She was three weeks old at the time of filming and makes her unique in the Godfather trilogy as the only actor to play two roles. She also has a major role in the third film as Mary Corleone – a truly dreadful performance that “won” her the Razzie Award for Worst Supporting Actress.

Here is my overall top ten – many of which I have written about in previous months. It is a pretty eclectic mix proving to me that there is no formula for brilliant filmmaking.

  1. The Godfather
  2. Strangelove
  3. From Here to Eternity
  4. Rear Window
  5. Psycho
  6. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
  7. Life Is Beautiful
  8. Casablanca
  9. Inception
  10. Smith Goes to Washington

Just Watch says that The Godfather is currently only streaming on Showtime. It is available to rent or buy on most platforms, including Redbox, AppleTV, and Amazon Prime (where it is 20 cents cheaper…you’re welcome).

As a reminder, here is the original post that details the scores and weighting system.