Uncertain times brought definitive masterpieces.
Welcome to Debate Week, the first of what we hope to be many weeks in which we open up a topic of a discussion to our entire team. This week: What was the best year in movies, ever? Throughout the week, our team will each make the case for their chosen year. Follow us on Twitter to place your votes on Saturday, April 7.
It was a time of change. It was a time of distrust. And the movies of 1974 reflected the uncertainties of both the real world and the ongoing revolution of the film industry. The year saw the US president resign in the midst of a major political scandal, for goodness sakes. And the big screen was having its own turning point, moving forward but with much nostalgia for old Hollywood as it continued its progression away from its Golden Age innocence. As a result of all that was going on in American culture, 1974 was a significant year for the horror genre, paranoid thrillers, disaster flicks, hard-hitting spoofs, unresolved crime films, and more.
You could highlight just the two Francis Ford Coppola movies released in 1974 and not need anymore evidence that it was the best year for cinema. Or you could even just highlight the two Mel Brooks comedies. Or the two incredibly influential slasher films, if horror is your thing. The year also gave us some of the best documentaries of all time, one of the most underrated biopics, and the official release of Terrence Malick’s only masterpiece (yeah, that’s right).
Sure, 1974 also had some trouble moving forward in some areas. MGM’s That’s Entertainment! was very popular but it’s just a supercut tribute to the studio’s old musicals. Legendary director Billy Wilder delivered one of his few mediocre pictures by remaking The Front Page and somehow turning the material into a slog. And the various disaster and mystery movies, for better or worse, packed too many stars together to desperately package box office draws before the industry knew about true blockbusters.
But none of the schmaltz and the stumbles made as the movies finished their last year before summer releases became king could take away from what was otherwise a peak and a pioneering time for cinema. Let’s break it down by genre.
The Godfather Part II, which would be named the best picture of 1974 at the Academy Awards, arrived at the very end of the year and wasn’t immediately well-received. Today it’s considered not just one of the best sequels of all time but some consider it one of the rare sequels better than the original. Coppola’s follow-up to his Best Picture-winning Mario Puzo adaptation is also partly a prequel, with the movie going back and forth between the origins of Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro) in the early 1900s and the rise of Michael Corleone in the 1950s.
Such a non-linear structure is very common on television nowadays, which is why it’s especially ironic that when first aired on the small screen, the first two Godfather films were thrown together and played in chronological order (admittedly, that’s how I first saw them). While not in response to Watergate, the sequel’s themes of betrayal and corruption certainly fit with the atmosphere of doubt at the time, particularly for traditionally trusted institutions.
Corruption and deviance in business and family also permeates Roman Polanski’s detective drama Chinatown, which isn’t quite a crime film but is related by way of the neo-noir subgenre. The ending of the movie is particularly noteworthy for being a hopeless conclusion that coincidentally fit with the effect of the Watergate scandal on the American people. Out the same month, Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View is a crime film in as much as conspiracy counts, and though inspired more by the previous decade’s assassinations and the theories surrounding them, it too arrived just as concerns about the government were being validated. It also has a sick propaganda film sequence.
Coppola’s other, arguably even better 1974 release, The Conversation, also deals in despair and betrayal and justified paranoia. Brilliantly acted by Gene Hackman as a show of confidence turned to confusion with what he thinks he knows, it’s a story where those involved in surveillance become the surveilled, where it’s kill or be killed, where anybody good or bad needs to watch their backs, and where perspectives can be deceiving. Sort of an aural companion to Hitchcock’s Rear Window, especially when Blow Out later melds them together for inspiration, The Conversation plays with the clarity of voyeurism and loss of privacy, ideas that were very topical in 1974.
Badlands is officially designated a 1973 film, due to its festival premiere that fall, but Terrence Malick’s debut didn’t release theatrically until March of 1974, and if the Academy had had any sense they would have nominated it for Best Picture contending against the two Coppola titles (somehow it wasn’t nominated for anything at all). It’s a different sort of crime film, one that may have seemed a Bonnie and Clyde wannabe on paper but was a more poetic take on the two lovers on a violent spree narrative.
How happenstantial that a month before its actual opening a teenage Patty Hearst was kidnapped and would, a few weeks after Badlands’ release, join her captors in their criminal activities. Sissy Spacek’s character is more romantically and yet also more apathetically along for the ride when older boyfriend Martin Sheen kills her father and whisks her away, as modeled after the case of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate. As an influencer of so many copycats of its own over the years, including two near remakes scripted by Quentin Tarantino and the popular new series The End of the F***ing World, it’s surprisingly not as well-known today as it should be, especially as a distinct outlier among Malick’s cliched oeuvre.
We never really need fictional or dramatic works inspired by true stories to remind us of themes experienced in the real world. Documentaries weren’t as big a deal in 1974 as they are today (That’s Entertainment! aside), but they were beginning to prove important as chroniclers of current events thanks to filmmakers like Peter Watkins, whose Oscar-winning Vietnam War film Hearts and Minds (presented at festivals in 1974 but released in 1975) remains a classic work of the form and a major piece of history. Barbet Shroeder, before he was known for great fiction films, also gave us General Idi Amin Dada, an essential portrait of the infamous title dictator before he’d actually reached peak notoriety. But that wasn’t even released commercially in the US until two years after its Cannes debut in 1974.
Then there’s Orson Welles’s F for Fake, one of the greatest and most originally meta documentaries of all time. Again, it premiered at festivals in 1974 and didn’t officially open for another couple years, and even then it didn’t become the classic influencer it is known as today until recently. Like The Godfather Part II, its structure was so fresh that it wasn’t well-embraced immediately. However, even though it took decades to be properly cherished, it’s very much of its time with its contribution to the themes of unknowing and deception and the difficulty to trust what you’re hearing or seeing. Media literacy was becoming so important in the 1970s. Comedies
As the world was becoming more and more screwed up, we needed to laugh, but comedy too was changing in 1974. Not that you could see it in the success of a throwback like The Front Page, because the best laughs came through spoofs, not remakes of the classics. Mel Brooks was responsible for the two only really notable comedies of the year: Blazing Saddles in February and Young Frankenstein in December. They paid homage to Westerns and monster movies, respectively, as well as musicals jointly, yet they did so while also satirizing modern culture, with much focus on race and sexuality.
While hardly the first parody films, these two Brooks features were incredibly pioneering of a certain type of spoof, alongside the Monty Python movies in the UK (Holy Grail would arrive just one year later), and yet there’s always talk of how they could never be made today — the racially focused Blazing Saddles in particular with its politically incorrect language. Certainly Brooks never did as well with his later lampoons of Hitchcock, Star Wars, et al., which sometimes were funny but never so bold. These two comedies work on many levels, from the smart deconstruction of genres and taboos to the lowbrow fart jokes and slapstick. They engaged but also entertained, letting us escape while also keeping us conscious.
Speaking of taking humor seriously, the least-seen of the year’s Best Picture nominees (by a criminal margin) portrays the life of a controversial figure who’d helped change stand-up, and comedy in general, forever. In Lenny, Dustin Hoffman inhabits the powerful and tragic role of Lenny Bruce and gives a fantastic performance of performance, the sort of thing we got best from director Bob Fosse. Lenny depicts a story that ended almost a decade before, but its address of free speech and obscenity laws was as relevant as ever in the mid-1970s. Movies were themselves dealing with threats of censorship at the time, as cinema grew more daring. And just a few months before the movie’s release, Larry Flynt’s Hustler magazine made its debut, and from that we’d get another biopic dealing with the same issues as Lenny about 20 years later.
Lenny shouldn’t be forgotten at all, and it really shouldn’t be overlooked for Valerie Perrine’s Oscar-nominated leading performance as Bruce’s wife, Honey. But the two top performances in the Best Actress category for the year belonged to Ellen Burstyn and Gena Rowlands as troubled housewives in Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and John Cassavetes’s A Woman Under the Influence, respectively. The characters’ problems couldn’t be any more different, but together they cover necessary approaches to the increasingly recognized issues of women’s place in family and society at a time when feminism was on the rise. Personally, I think Rowlands deserved the Oscar over Burstyn, and her movie, with its equally authentic treatment of the husband (Peter Falk) deserved a Best Picture nod over The Towering Inferno.
While released at the very end of 1973, The Exorcist continued to dominate the box office in 1974 through mid February (when Blazing Saddles took over the number one slot for a while). And it made history that same month by becoming the first horror movie nominated for Best Picture. The year would continue to prove substantial for the genre, in part through Young Frankenstein’s lampooning of the old monster movies but mostly in the rise of the slasher subgenre with Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Bob Clark’s Black Christmas.
I’m not really a big fan of horror, and I honestly don’t love either of these two trailblazing classics as far as their scares and gore go, but even I have to recognize their importance and influence, as well as how both are often cinematographically fascinating. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre can also be appreciated for its extreme culture clash story as the hopefulness of the 1960s hippie scene was dying out and conservatism wasn’t just on the rise but also, obviously, was being represented by crooks corrupting trusted institutions from within, like political cannibals. The government had its own self-destructive family in the form of the Nixon Administration (see the Saturday Night Massacre), and its chainsaw was the National Guard (with the Kent State Massacre).
I’ve only focused on the tip of the iceberg with 1974 in cinema, which also gave us the US release of Fellini’s Amarcord and Bunuel’s The Phantom of Liberty, plus a version of Murder on the Orient Express that looks even better now next to Kenneth Branagh’s remake (and with the same year’s And Then There Were None it helped build a nice wave of Agatha Christie adaptations), and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s progressive homage to classic Hollywood — specifically Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows — in the beautiful Ali: Fear Eats the Soul.
Foxy Brown continued Pam Grier’s run as a blaxploitation icon. Emmanuelle took the pornography craze to a place of softcore pleasures and female sex-positivity. Death Wish, regardless of its worth as a film and the whole slew of followers it inspired, gave us the first film appearance of Jeff Goldblum (but not Denzel Washington, as was long believed). The Taking of Pelham One Two Three continued to showcase the dark wonder of NYC as Nightmare City. The Man With the Golden Gun delivered one of the best James Bond movie villains plus one of the franchise’s most fun action sequences. And finally, Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise gave us one of the decade’s greatest original soundtracks.
Like that last film, 1974 was dark and full of problems, mixed up in the nostalgic and the new, and also best remembered for a lot of fun moments. It was the worst year as far as many things were concerned, but it was the best year for movies.