I love it!
When I began writing for this site it was my hope to be able to cover current Oscar material and reach back into the past to perhaps gain insight into how the Academy has thought, how that impacts today’s voting, and pay tribute to the films both honored and snubbed. Mr. Rutherford’s comments about 1973 got me to thinking about the best year in film, and while 1939 was a terrific year, as well as 1956, for me the finest year, with great films that hold up equally today is 1974.
This was the year of Francis Ford Coppola’s utter domination of cinema with “The Godfather Part II” in my opinion the greatest film ever made, which won six Academy Awards including best film and director. Deeper, more complex, darker and more sinister than the first (which is the second best film ever made) Coppola brilliantly explored how powers corrupts absolutely. Throughout the film we have Al Pacino’s finest performance radiating danger with a glare, rarely raising his voice above a whisper. As if that masterpiece were not enough, Coppola hit audiences and critics with another superb film that same year, the low budget thriller “The Conversation” which was a timely study of professional bugging at a time when the American government was in turmoil over the White House’s practice of that very thing. Gene Hackman gave a superb performance as a professional bugger, a near silent piece of acting, so paranoid is his character about being caught on tape. Both of Coppola’s films were nominated for best picture, though despite double nominations from the Directors Guild of America, Oscar nominated Coppola just once, and then handed him the Oscar, one of the most richly seserved directing Oscars ever given.
Had “Chinatown” been released in any other movie year, it wins best picture hands down. The best written film of all time, stylishly directed by the controversial Roman Polanski, and with excellent performances from Jack Nicholson, suggesting a more educated Bogart, Faye Dunaway and best of all wretched old John Huston as the most vile of villains, “Chinatown” remains the best film noir ever made, and perhaps the greatest film never to win best picture.
Though Bob Fosse had bested Coppola for the Oscar two years before for “Cabaret” a seething musical that saw the director oust Coppola for “The Godfather” which went on to win best picture, he would watch Coppola win the prize this time over his direction of the biopic “Lenny”. A breathtaking black and white film about Lenny Bruce, the film is a dark work, with a powerhouse performance from Dustin Hoffman and a shockingly good one from Valerie Perrine. Harrowing in its honesty.
How about “Badlands” perhaps the most influential film of the decade? Terence Malcik’s superb film uses the Godard theory of “a guy, a girl and a gun” in making this film about two young people on the road killing everyone who comes across their path. Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek became stars with this one, which had a profound impact on Quentin Tarantino.
“Young Frankenstein” is surely one of the finest comedies ever made and easily the best Mel Brooks parody ever made. John Cassavettes, the godfather of the early independent American cinema hit hard with “A Woman Under the Influence” guiding his wife, the sublime Gena Rowalnds to an Oscar nomination, only to lose to Ellen Burstyn in “Alice Doesn’t Liver Here Anymore” possibly the finest study of a woman of the seventies. Sidney Lumet gave us the all-star cast vehicle “Murder on the Orient Express,” not in the league with his later pictures, but still a worthwhile watch.
And from Canada came “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz” which contains arguably the best performance Richard Dreyfuss has ever given as a young Jewish boy growing up in the Montresal ghetto obsessed with getting ahead to the point he shafts anyone and everyone.
What makes these films and this year the finest in my opinion is that film by film they hold up. Time is a film’s greatest enemy, yet it has not chipped away at a single frame of any of these pictures. There have been other fine years since, 1976, 1982, 1997, 2002 and I thought last year was very strong, but ’74 holds up, again because time has not chipped away at the power of the films.