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William Friedkin's Top 5 Films

Updated: Aug 15, 2023

Very sad today to hear about the passing of another great American Film Director, William Friedkin. Abrasive, bold and trail-blazing, Friedkin has been on the scene since his big screen debut in 1968 with "The Night They Raided Minsky's".

1971 was the year he truly exploded on the scene with "The French Connection", where the tales of the lengths he went to capturing the action live and without permits are film legend.

While the 90's saw him languishing with lesser efforts, his 2012 off-the-rails film with writer Tracy Letts was one of my favorites of that year.

Friedkin never settled for average. His in your face style created some of the best films of the past 50 years. RIP Mr. Friedkin.

For me, these were his top 5 films:

#5. To Live and Die in LA

Back in his "French Connection" mode, director William Friedkin delivers an intense, action filled thriller with 1985's TO LIVE AND DIE IN LA.

William Petersen (Gil Grissom on the original CSI) stars as Secret Service agent Richard Chance. After Chance's partner is killed investigating a counterfeit ring, Chance becomes obsessed with getting to ring leader Eric Masters (a young Willem Dafoe).

Petersen brings a lot of swagger and style to his role as he finds himself willing to break every rule and every law to gain revenge against Dafoe's oily, evil forger.

Friedkin nearly matches the brilliance of his French Connection car chase when Chance and his partner find themselves on the run, driving over 100 miles an hour the wrong way on a crowded LA freeway. Along with an exciting sequence in the LA train station, Friedkin shows his chops for perfectly edited & designed action.

80's rock group Wang Chung wrote the music score, which alternates between dated and clever in accompanying the film's long, dialogue-free scenes depicting the creation of seemingly endless supplies of faux-$100 bills.

TO LIVE AND DIE IN LA is a neon bright, violent, adult action flick and a smarter, grittier, west coast spin on Miami Vice. We'll buckle up and give it a solid B+.

#4. Killer Joe

Are you ready for sick and twisted?

Are you ready to never look at your drumsticks from KFC quite the same way again?

There might be no way to prepare yourself for this profane, dark, hilarious, demented, depressing and sick thriller from two great minds.

The first great mind is the screenwriter, Tracy Letts, who I had the true privilege of seeing on stage in his brilliant "August Osage County". It is my all time favorite play, a three hour thrill ride through one family's depraved lineage as they tear each other apart emotionally, limb from limb. The verbal genius on display in that three hour stage masterpiece (now being filmed with Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep in lead roles) is also in full view here, with Letts' one-liners and verbal assaults peppering the screen.

The second mind is William Friedkin, the director "The Exorcist" & "The French Connection" who has never considered subtle one of his directing tools.

Matthew McConaughey is very good as Killer Joe Cooper, a Texas detective and part time professional hitman for hire. Emile Hirsch is Chris Smith, a young man who's only luck is bad luck, scheming for a way to payback a bad drug deal to a local crime boss. The less you know going in beyond that, the better. Thomas Hayden Church is excellent as Chris' really dumb Dad and Gina Gershon bares literally all as Chris' stepmom from hell.

When Killer Joe takes Chris' sister Dottie (Juno Temple) as collateral on a contract, things really begin to spin out of control.

This is a really funny movie at times, but it's certainly not a mainstream comedy, it is JET black.

If the profanity, full frontal nudity, violence and depravity of the first ten minutes don't scare you off, don't worry, the last 15 minutes was jaw dropping for me.

Friedkin and Letts seem committed to seeing how far they can take you past all the limits of good taste and while my first reaction was an urge to discard the whole movie because of what will forever be knows as the KFC scene, the sheer power of the Tarantino style, distinctly Letts dialogue won me back. The final thirty seconds is nothing short of shocking and hilarious.

If you get offended easily or even not so easily, I would tell you not to check out Killer Joe. But if you like your dark comedy thrillers Tarantino violent, vulgar and brilliantly written, Tracy Letts has cooked up quite a meal for you here.

Go ahead, don't be chicken! A-

#3. The Exorcist

For most of my lifetime, every scary film has been judged against 1973's THE EXORCIST. After all these years, nothing else compares.

The film opens with a long sequence at an archeological dig in Iraq, where Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) encounters the first findings tied to an ancient demon. As he watches, the unburied artifacts cause disturbing behavior all around him. The sequence concludes in an onslaught of dissonant noises and dust.

The next scenes are idyllic pictures of Georgetown, Washington, where famed film actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) and her daughter Regan (Linda Blair) live in a beautiful brownstone on a perfect street.

When things begin to go bump in the night in the attic and Regan demonstrates odd behaviors, small at first and then escalating in severity, Chris takes Regan to every doctor and psychiatrist looking for answers.

Director William Friedkin is at his best here in his thrilling follow up to his 1971 Best Picture winner "The French Connection".

Friedkin escalates the tension throughout, making us suffer through Chris's fears, Regan's medical tests and the rising horror as Regan begins demonstrating some very powerful and very nasty behavior.

Chris finds herself turning to her local, rebel priest Father Karras (Jason Miller) for answers.

He in turn, brings in Father Merrin to support him in the film's final scenes.

This is a film classic. From the time Regan first turns violent through the harrowing final 20 minutes in which Merrin and Karras perform the rites of exorcism over her tortured body, the film twists its suspense tighter.

What a cast!

Burstyn is 100% believable as a tortured mother running out of answers. Miller is superb as Karras. His recent loss of his mother haunts him and the demon's leverage of that fact (Dimi, why did you abandon me!!??") tear Karras apart. Miller will make you feel it.

Lee J. Cobb is pitch perfect as police detective Kinderman, Kitty Wynn is good as Chris's loyal assistant Sharon and Von Sydow is perfection as Father Merrin.

The only weak link in the acting department are Linda Blair's scenes in the first half hour of the film. Before she's possessed, her line readings are horrible and you can feel Burstyn and Wynn pulling her along, it's painful.

But once the demon takes hold, you have to credit Blair with a strong physical performance and actress Mercedes McCambridge for the voice work she does for the possessed Regan.

That husky, life time smoker voice that emerges from Blair "It's a wonderful day for an exorcism" still haunts & deeply disturbs.

The makeup by Dick Smith is startling, the Oscar winning sound mix is SO unsettling, I defy you to not get the creeps listening to what in the hell is going on behind Regan's bedroom door as Merrin and Karris first approach it together.

The screenplay adaption by William Peter Blatty of his own best selling novel also won an Oscar, deservedly so.

The only films that I have ever felt even approached this one for creating terror have been the two "Conjuring" films, but even they don't equal the white knuckle dread that a good, loud presentation of THE EXORCIST still generates in a darkened room.

It still scares the hell out of me in all the right horror movie ways and gets an A.

Followed by numerous inferior sequels, including the laughable "Exorcist II: The Heretic" in 1977.

#2. Sorcerer

Back in 1977, Director William Friedkin was looking for his next film to follow "The French Connection" and "The Exorcist". He found that film in SORCERER, one of his least appreciated and underrated films.

Four men running from their lives end up in a tiny, poor South American town, hiding from an assortment of hit men, bankers and bad guys.

The film opens in four cities around the world, starting in Paris, where banker Victor (Bruno Cremer) is faced with a crumbling empire built on fraud. Escaping a life of luxury, he heads for the jungle.

Arab terrorist Kassem flees after executing a brutal bombing in Jerusalem and hit man Nico is played by Francisco Rabal, escaping a hit gone wrong.

These four strangers find themselves recruited by an oil company to transport volatile cases of nitro nearly 300 miles in decrepit trucks through the Amazon to the site of a burning oil well.

With nothing to lose, the four face death at every corner for a big payday that only half of them are expected to survive to collect.

Friedkin continued his amazing work of the 70's here, tracking the trucks and our anti-heroes across some of the most brutal terrain ever captured on film.

When the trucks must cross a raging jungle river by traveling a decaying suspension bridge made of vines, one of Friedkin's finest film sequences ensues, building incredible tension with little dialogue, raging sound from all directions and the unusual, haunting music score by Tangerine Dream, which they composed in its entirety without ever seeing the film.

Audiences at the time were cold to the film, as were critics, perhaps confused by the title and expecting something very different after "The Exorcist", but time has been kind to this challenging and powerful film.

Friedkin considers it his favorite film, Quentin Tarantino called it one of his favorite dozen films of all time in 2012 and audiences continue to discover it as a unpredictable, smart and tension filled version of Clouzot's original film classic, "Wages of Fear".

The new Warner Bros high-def-Blu-Ray collector's edition is beautiful to watch, sounds terrific and looks brand new.

The photography by Dick Bush is beautiful and really shines in this archival transfer. Fire up the sound, get as big a screen as you can and allow yourself to be immersed in SORCERER.

It's a hidden gem from the seventies that deserves your attention.

A tough, relentless and exciting A+ that earns Friedkin's second spot in my all-time Top 100 films.

#1. The French Connection

1971's THE FRENCH CONNECTION is a terrific thriller based on a true story. New York City detectives Popeye Doyle and Buddy Russo (in great performances by Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider) start following a low level thief that leads them to one of the biggest narcotic busts in history. Even though the majority of the film is basically us watching Hackman watch the criminals, director William Friedkin (The Exorcist) builds great suspense and takes us along for the ride.

Hackman's now classic car chase in pursuit of a sniper on an elevated subway car is a thriller. Knowing that Friedkin filmed it "guerilla style" with no film permits and using mostly handheld cameras makes it all the more exciting today. Winner of 5 Academy Awards including BEST Picture, BEST Director for Friedkin and BEST Actor for Hackman, The French Connection is a timeless A+ and screams its way to my Top 100 of all time.

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