Friday, March 21, 2014

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Picture 1974

The Contenders:
Chinatown
The Conversation
The Godfather Part II
Lenny
The Towering Inferno

What’s Missing

The five nominees for 1974 are a pretty strong group, although there are certainly a few others worth mentioning here. Mel Brooks’s pair of Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein spring to mind. The Last Detail, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and A Woman Under the Influence are noteworthy releases as well, as is The Longest Yard, which was better than its premise. In the “never would be nominated” category, John Carpenter’s first film Dark Star was released in 1974, as was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. This was also the year of the release of That’s Entertainment!, one of the best documentaries about the film industry ever made. On the foreign front, we have Profumo di Donna, Zerkalo, and Angst Essen Seele Auf. I’m certain there are others that will soon appear in the comments.

Weeding through the Nominees

5: Of the five nominees, the one that seems to oddest one out is The Towering Inferno. This isn’t a bad movie, but it is kind of a tedious one. It’s far too long and far too melodramatic for me to take it very seriously. I like quite a bit of it, but doesn’t come anywhere close to what feels like a Best Picture nominee. The effects are good and there’s certainly a great deal of drama in rescuing people on the 135th floor of a building trapped by fire. But it’s big and blustery and kind of silly, and virtually all of the characters are cardboard cut-outs rather than real people. This is in spite of the almost 3-hour run time.

4: I feel guilty putting The Conversation fourth, but something has to go here, and with the choices I have, it’s the one that belongs here. This is an excellent film and probably worthy of the nomination, even if it didn’t have a single chance of winning. It’s a great performance by Gene Hackman, one of his best, in fact, and he’s supported by a fantastic supporting cast of players. It’s also a great plot all the way through, revealing secrets at the precise right speed to keep the audience intrigued without spoiling everything too quickly. I like this film a lot. I just don’t think it’s the best picture of its year.

3: What I just said about The Conversation? It’s also true of Lenny. This was a hard film to track down, but I was really happy to have found it when I did. This is a smart film, and nearly perfect in its construction. Dustin Hoffman is close to perfect as Lenny Bruce. Just as critical for the success of the film, director Bob Fosse manages to demonstrate the frustrations of Bruce’s life in a way that is completely understandable and frustrating for the viewer as well. It’s a hell of a good film and worth seeking out. Again, it’s just not the best film of 1974.

My Choices

2: Here comes the controversy. I realize that tons and tons of people place The Godfather Part II not only at the top of the list for 1974 but at the top of the list for the 1970s in general. I agree, but not completely. It’s a hell of a great film. It might even be considered close to perfect in virtually every aspect of filmmaking. My problem with it is only this: I can’t think of the last time I genuinely wanted to watch it. It might honestly be the best film of 1974 and possibly the 1970s, but it’s not what I would place in the top position. It’s a choice I absolutely cannot fault in any way. I just can’t make that choice myself.

1: So, by process of elimination, my vote goes to Chinatown. I like every single thing about Chinatown. I love the way the characters interact. I love the way that the meat of the story is revealed so perfectly that at virtually every point, a first-time viewer thinks he or she knows the full story and is almost always wrong. I love the genius of forcing Nicholson to act with that massive bandage on his face, making him far more vulnerable than he would be without it. This is neo-noir filmmaking at its best, and for me, no other movie of 1974 gets to this level.

Final Analysis

16 comments:

  1. Great analysis here. Ahh '74, whatta year. You bring up a good point about Godfather Part II's rewatchability. That's something Chinatown definitely has over it. My to choose one over the other is very difficult. Flip a coin, I say. Both are remarkable.

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    1. I agree. The reason I frequently have multiple films below the "my choices" label is that those are the films that I think are really worth the award. I'm totally satisfied with The Godfather Part II winning and don't really have a single complaint about it even if I wouldn't choose it.

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  2. I know I'm in the vast, vast, VAST minority here, but I couldn't get into Chinatown (as you might remember from my 60/60 Review a few years ago). For one, I had a hard time following the plot and understand what was going on. And on top of that, I just really didn't give a damn about a water conspiracy. Though as simplistic as the water conspiracy sounds, it turns out to be overly complex and convoluted. The twist was good, but it's the only memorable part of the movie to me. Then again, I've only seen it once, and it's been like 3 years. My review gave a positive review by the end, and I apparently liked it. I just don't recall much about it. So I fully admit I could be entirely wrong in my opinion.

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    1. It's worth seeing again. The "water conspiracy" is sort of the plot McGuffin. It's there to drive Jake Gittes into digging into the mystery, leading to that plot twist.

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  3. I think I might line up my five that way, too. I might swap The Conversation and Lenny, but that's a minor quibble.

    This was a hell of a year. I picked 1994 as the second best year for movies (1939 as best), but 1974 would probably be in the Top 5.

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    1. It is a surprisingly good year. These are difficult when I genuinely like most of the films a lot. In this case, I even like The Towering Inferno a bit.

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  4. Good analysis and post. I haven't yet seen Lenny, but the other four are all terrifically enjoyable films. I would probably also rate Chinatown ahead of The Godfather Part II. I am in a very small minority that thinks Part II is quite over-rated -- very good, but over-rated. The De Niro portion of the movie is brilliant, but that's less than half of the film. The "modern day" pieces were either forgettable or just a less inspired and quite predictable rehash of the original.

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    1. You're right about the De Niro portions of Part II. Those are by far my favorite parts of the film. I think I like The Godfather more in general. I like both movies, but, gun to head, I think I'd watch the first one over the second one two times out of three.

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  5. This was a terrific year for Movies. The first movie writing I ever did was for my high school paper on the five nominees that year. The Towering Inferno was the big commercial picture, included much like Airport a few years before, probably because the cast was huge and the effects were exciting but the melodrama as dull. Chinatown is the classiest detective film since The Maltese Falcon. Jerry Goldsmith' s last minute score is a thing of beauty. If I was showing a movie at my own funeral I might choose it. The main reason I think you and others (myself included) see it as so searchable is that it is half the time commitment of Godfather ll. The Coppola sequel is a masterpiece and deserves it's win here, the acting ensemble is so incredibly impressive it has to dwarf Chinatown. I can see you are conflicted but that's my two cents.

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    1. Yeah, I really have no complaints about The Godfather Part II winning, and I can't think of a reason I'd have voted for it other than the fact that I genuinely like Chinatown more.

      I like the comparison with The Maltese Falcon. Nicholson makes an interesting detective. He'd have been a very good choice to play Spade or Marlowe in that era--at least as interesting as Elliott Gould playing Marlowe in The Long Goodbye.

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  6. I'm still trying to figure out how Coppola didn't win Best Director for the first Godfather. I definitely think he and the film got their just rewards for 1974.

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    1. I haven't looked at 1974 director yet (or 1972 for that matter), but I'm thinking my opinion is probably ballpark with yours.

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  7. Wow, this was a really impressive group of movies at the Oscars. I haven't seen Lenny or the Towering Inferno, but the top three are all classics. I totally agree that the Oscars did okay this time. I'm not that surprised by you putting Chinatown at the top spot. It's one of those movies that people really like, yet it's still kind of underrated in how good it really is.

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    1. Of the two you haven't seen, I highly recommend Lenny. The Towering Inferno requires a large bucket of popcorn and a willingness to turn off the higher functions of your brain. Don't get me wrong--it's fun. It's just not what many people would call "great."

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  8. Chinatown is not only my favorite film of 1974, it's also my favorite color film, and also my favorite film that was made in my lifetime. (I was born in 1964.)

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    1. You could do a lot worse. Chinatown, while it won't hit being my favorite in any of those categories, might well be my pick for greatest movie of the 1970s.

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