5 Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
Visually striking and aggressively vital, Coppola took on the vampire legend to memorable results. The chameleon-like Gary Oldman as the immortal Count is a major win, as is most of the rest of the cast (not counting Keanu Reeves not quite convincing turn as an English gentleman) that includes Winona Ryder, Tom Waits’ spectacular Renfield and Anthony Hopkins as dedicated vamp-killer Abraham Van Helsing. Coppola and screenwriter James Hart set this version of Dracula apart by having portraying the ghoul as driven by lost love, and Oldman takes many forms as the bloodsucker, appearing first as a Romanian knight in his prime, then as a pale and ancient hermit with an alarming hairdo. Excellent costuming, set design, makeup and cinematography aid the terrific cast and Coppola’s enthusiastic direction in this unique horror romance.
4 The Conversation (1974)
A wonderfully executed thriller about voyeurism and paranoia that only gets more relevant with time, this tense flick has Gene Hackman at his best as a heavily guarded and reserved surveillance expert, agonizing over the ramifications of his work. The film’s tone is set very well by a brilliantly staged and edited opening scene in San Francisco’s Union Square concerning Hackman’s Harry and his team spying on a couple they’ve been paid to record for unknown reasons while microphone reverb blots out words of dialogue. We learn about Harry’s guilty past via the prodding of an obnoxious colleague and sense his determination to not make the same mistakes again. The Conversation is a relatively small film about very big ideas, and succeeds on every technical and thematic level. The film was nominated for Best Sound, Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture, which, as we know Coppola was destined to lose to his own self.
3 Apocalypse Now (1979)
The trial that was this film’s troubled making, and its wholly justifying result, is as great a case as any for Coppola as a maker of films. A war movie quite like no other, Coppola and screenwriter John Milius took inspiration from Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart Of Darkness, transporting the action from the Congo to Vietnam. A troubled Army captain (Martin Sheen) is tasked with bringing in a renegade, extensively decorated colonel named Kurtz (a larger than life Marlon Brando) who has set up his own (quite nutty) command of indigenous peoples in Cambodia. Sheen journeys down the DaNang River with a patrol boat crew (that includes a young Laurence Fishburne) and an assured descent into madness and /or death for all involved ensues. This disturbing, engrossing film won unanimous accolades upon its release, for its performances, cinematography, effective use of sound, and of course Coppola’s direction, which earned him another Academy nomination in that category.
2 The Godfather (1972)
The original mob epic that put Coppola on the map, this film is a remarkable case of all the right elements (script, cast, direction, cinematography, score) coming together to make something unforgettably perfect. The Godfather has Marlon Brando (as mumbling patriarch Vito Corleone) and Al Pacino’s (as his civilian son turned mob wiz-kid Michael) legendary performances at its center with a host of able-bodied support from the likes of James Caan (as explosive Corleone brother Sonny), John Cazale, Talia Shire, Al Lettieri, and Diane Keaton. So many immortal scenes and lines were crafted by Coppola and company within this film, that one can imagine someone seeing it for the first time later in life will suddenly have so many previously cryptic references made in other films and TV shows finally made clear all at once. The baptism/rubout montage, Sonny’s tollbooth ambush, the opening wedding and much more make this the essence of iconic American film.
1 The Godfather Part II (1974)
Considered by many to be the greatest sequel of all time, Coppola continued the legend of the Corleones by wisely casting Robert DeNiro (who would win the best Supporting Oscar for his efforts) as young Vito for the film’s immaculate flashback scenes while Al Pacino returns to steward the crime clan’s dark future as an older, wiser Michael. From 1890s Sicily, to 1920s Little Italy, to 1960s Havana, The Godfather Part II is a beautifully realized and shot portrait of vengeance, betrayal, and power changing hands. John Cazale’s performance as the hapless, shaken Fredo, Diane Keaton as the fed-up Kay Corleone, Michael V. Gazzo as an outspoken Corleone family lieutenant and Lee Strasberg as an elder statesman Jewish mobster deserve particular recognition for their acting work. The film became not only the first sequel to win Best Picture, but also got Coppola his only Best Director win.
The Cotton Club (1984) – A troubled production that definitely shows some weaknesses, this story of the legendary Harlem nightclub and the entertainers and gangsters that populated it gets high marks for its music and its layered view of the sinister play land that was 1920s NYC.
The Rainmaker (1997) Considered by many the best of all John Grisham adaptations, this crack legal drama has a great team in leads Matt Damon and Danny DeVito.
That’s how Francis Ford Coppola’s best work boils down. If you’re one of those people that just really loves your Rumble Fish and just has to let us know, then you are welcome to do so.