1969’s breakthrough Indy film Easy Rider clocks in at #84 on our list.
The story revolves around 2 bikers from LA (Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper) who make a big score with a cocaine deal and then travel the country in search of first Mardi Gras and then, a retirement spot in Florida with their money. Along the way, they pick up a hitchhiker, spend time on a hippie commune, swim naked in a lake, follow a marching band parade and get arrested for “parading without a permit”, meet an alcoholic lawyer (Jack Nicholson) who rides with them, get refused service at a restaurant and at motels, get assaulted by locals and the lawyer killed, make it to Mardi Gras, pick up some hookers and spend the night partying and doing drugs and then ultimately leave town for Florida, only to get shot by some rednecks on the road.
There is a lot to unpack in this film. It basically follows a repeating sequence of scenes and songs from the road, followed by conversation at various stopping points, often campgrounds. The dialogue spans from the mundane, such as UFO’s and aliens, to the present, like how to smoke a joint, to the deep, like the meaning of freedom. The photography and editing is absolutely beautiful and captures the essence of different parts of the country in the 60s. The soundtrack is among the best I’ve ever heard and actually sparked a revolution in how music was used in films. And Fonda and Hopper are superb in the film, as is Nicholson. And the film feels utterly real – it is even reported that real drugs were used in the shooting. It is a heck of an accomplishment for a film with a reported $400K total production budget and became the inspiration for two generations of independent film that have followed.
This movie has something to say, in a real way, about freedom, counter culture and southern hatred of anything different. While these themes seem like old hat now, the film was jarring at the time and still has a very raw feel to it.
It is not without its flaws. A third of the way through the 96 minute film, I was struggling to get into it – it grips you slowly but does not pull you in immediately. The context of the film is a bit hard to follow – you don’t know much about the protagonists before the movie starts and it makes some of their actions and tendencies in the film confusing. The drug-induced scene at Mardi Gras, while artistically beautiful, is all over the place and seems disconnected from the rest of the film. And the ending, while impactful, seems sort of out of place and unearned. And the various antagonists are extremely one-dimensional and paper thin characters.
As a narrative, Easy Rider is uneven. As a piece of art, it is splendid. In an era where film making mostly consisted of big budget musicals and epics, this is endearing piece of counterculture. And it’s influence is broad – it largely launched independent cinema into what it is today and clearly inspired everything from El Mariachi to Reservoir Dogs.
I think Easy Rider likely belongs not the list sheerly for its influence on the last 50 years of cinema and its ability to create beautiful art on a shoestring budget. But it is far from a perfect film.
Production Quality 10/10
Rewatch Value 7/10
Total Score 33/40
Next up, 1997’s Titanic. I’ll try to keep an open mind about a film that I recall hating at the time.