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.
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.