Thursday, July 22, 2010

Year in Review: 1974

1974 has to rank as one of the high water mark years for movies – in particular American movies. The studios were at their most daring this year, and gave young filmmakers a chance to make pretty much anything they wanted to – and they didn’t disappoint. When critics wax nostalgic about American movies in the 1970s, 1974 could be the year they are thinking of. Any of the top five films could have easily been a number one in more recent years.

10. Blazing Saddles/Young Frankenstein (Mel Brooks)
I hate putting ties on my top 10 lists – after all by doing so, you are making them a top 11. But in this case, I made an exception as both of these Mel Brooks films are spoofs of classic movies, and I cannot tell you which one is better or funnier – as both are genius. Blazing Saddles sends up the Westerns brilliantly, with Gene Wilder as the shakiest gun in the West, and of course having a – gasp – Black sheriff. There are more funny moments in this movie than practically any comedy made in the last decade. Young Frankenstein is just as good, sending up the Universal Horror films with Gene Wilder as the mad scientist, and Peter Boyle excellent as the monster. In one of the most inspired cameos in film history, Gene Hackman is wonderful as the blind man who befriends – then maims – the monster. Both of these films are the work of a comedic genius at the top of his form.

9. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper)
Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre takes place in a world without hope, without joy. It is a depraved film, but one that speaks to something deeper than just it’s surface level. Yes, it is a violent, vile, depressing movie where a psychopath with a chainsaw, and a mask made of human skin, cuts, stabs, impales and other brutally kills a group of young people one by one – including one poor sap in a wheelchair. And yes, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one of the scariest films I have ever seen – making great use of its dark cinematography, it’s top notch low budget production design, which is creepy in the extreme, it’s hulking villain, and the screams of the innocent people he hacks to pieces. Yet somehow, I think this movie works magnificently well, and never resorts to the type of torture porn that we have seen in many recent horror films – films that their makers insist were inspired, at least in part, by this film. It is a dark portrait of the times in which is was made, where the hope of the 1960s had given way to cynicism. Is the film a statement on the Vietnam war? I have read some convincing pieces that argue that this group of young people, wandering around in a land they do not understand, and are hacked to pieces by an enemy that they don’t see coming and is completely ruthless. But I’m not sure it really matters if it’s about Vietnam, or America as a whole in that time. Yes, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one of the best, scariest horror films ever made – but it is so much more than just that.

8. California Split (Robert Altman)
For some reason, when the great films of Robert Altman come up, I rarely hear California Split mentioned. It is one of his funniest, most cynical movies – and one that ultimately ends in sadness – not just for the characters, but for the audience, as even though the two characters at the center of the film are not really sympathetic – we feel for them anyway. That is how acutely Altman observes them – and how wonderful the performances by George Segal and Elliot Gould are at creating them. They meet at a poker game and bond when they are mugged in the parking lot afterwards. They don’t know much about each other – and neither do we – except that they both like gambling. They have found someone else to share in their obsession. The film is funny – perhaps as funny as Altman’s MASH – but it is a film that is still full of despair. This is the film that defines the phrase “We laugh so as not to cry”. The two characters are constantly tired, constantly drunk or hung over, and exist on sheer nervous energy – the high they get while they are gambling. The film gives an insight into gambling and gamblers that we have not really seen before. The film has an energy brought on by Altman’s style – the overlapping dialogue, the almost documentary feel of some scenes. By the end of the film, one of the characters at recognizes he has a problem. Will he be able to stay away, or will it drag him back in again. He has nothing else in his life, and if he does walk away, he’ll lose his only friend. California Split belongs on any list of the best Altman movies.

7. Harry and Tonto (Paul Mazursky)
With all the great films in 1974, it may seem odd to some that I put Harry and Tonto on this list. Surely, there are more accomplished films that didn’t make the cut, but Harry and Tonto is such a simple, beautiful, sad film it is one that I love beyond all reason. Art Carney won an Oscar for his performance as an old, stubborn man who is forced to move out of his apartment before the wrecking ball comes and destroys it. This was his home for decades, and he didn’t want to give it up. Other than his cat, Tonto, it meant more to him then anything in the world. After he is forced to leave, he goes on a road trip and meets all sorts of fascinating people. Tonto is the only constant in his life, and he loves that cat. The people he meets along his journey are sometimes kind, sometimes not, but all are interesting for the time they are on screen. The variety of actors include Geraldine Fitzgerald and Chief Dan George. But to me, this will always be a movie about a relationship between this old man and his beloved cat. When Tonto gets sick, and has to be put down, the movie wisely does not show us the scene with the injection. Rather, it gives us a scene where Carney goes to the back and finds Tonto in a cage, lying down. The scene between them in so touching, so honest, so real that just writing about it now, I’m feeling the urge to cry. Harry and Tonto is a film that is not mentioned much anymore – but it is a wonderful story of an old man and his cat – and to me, will always be the best film Paul Mazursky ever made.

6. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (Sam Peckinpah)
Sam Peckinpah is one of the best directors in history, despite the fact that many of his films don’t live up to the standard he set in his few masterpieces. His early films were interesting – showed us a gifted director – but were also compromised by interference. In his later films, he had descended so far into alcoholism that at times they are a complete mess. But there was a brief period – perhaps no longer than five years – between The Wild Bunch in 1969 and this film – where Peckinpah was a master. If Roger Ebert is right, and Peckinpah had already descended deeper into depression and alcoholism at this point, it is still clear that he had his faculties about him to make this masterwork. The film stars Warren Oates as a sad American piano player living in Mexico, lost in his own alcoholic abyss. But he hears of a reward offered by an angry father who wants the head of the man who impregnated his beloved daughter. Oates finds out that the man is already dead – all he has to do is find his grave, dig it up and chop off the head. He travels with a prostitute to find the head, and the two shares a common delusion – they love each other, perhaps because no one else will love either one – and they will make a fortune and live happily ever after. But things don’t turn out that way. During the course of the movie there will rape and murder – brutal and ugly as only Peckinpah can do it. But Oates has the head, and it is his fortune. He will do anything to protect it, even if it costs him his life. As Peckinpah said ''I did 'Alfredo Garcia' and I did it exactly the way I wanted to. Good or bad, like it or not, that was my film.'' This is one of the masterpieces of Peckinpah’s career.

5. The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola)
Between the two Godfather movies, Francis Ford Coppola made this film. But if he was at all rushed, it doesn’t feel like it here. Inspired by Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up, The Conversation is about a security expert (Gene Hackman) who specializes in plant sound devices on people to gather information – mostly in infidelity cases. In one such case, he overhears a conversation that haunts him. He believes what he is hearing is two people plotting the murder of another person. He starts to dig deeper, and gets in way over his head. Hackman is great in the lead role – but perhaps most fascinatingly, he isn’t very good at his job, despite how often people praise him. He allows himself to be bugged, and doesn’t realize it, the tapes he gets are often garbled, and he completely and totally misunderstands what he is hearing in that conversation. Coppola has structured The Conversation as a thriller – and it works as a merciless one as we only gradually see all the pieces come together over the course of the film. Yet, it is even better as a character study of Hackman’s lonely, pathetic character – who tries to be a hero, and fails miserably. Coppola has a long, great career but he has really only made four masterpieces – the first two Godfather films, Apocalypse Now and this film. I can think of no higher praise than to say that this film deserves to be mentioned in the company of those ones.

4. Scenes from a Marriage (Ingmar Bergman)
Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage is exactly what the title implies – a portrait of a long marriage, giving us single scenes that take us through the years they have been together. When we meet them Erland Josephson and Liv Ullman have been married for 10 years, have children and claim to be the personification of a happy couple – but we sense something underneath that false happiness, and perhaps see their future in the other couple they have dinner with. When we next see them, time has passed, and they are not quite as happy – she has become uninterested in sex, and he is flirting with younger women – but they continue to pretend they are in love. The third episode is when Josephson admits his affair, and tells his wife that he is going away with her lover – devastated Ullman tries to stop him, and enlists the help of her “friends” who admit they have know about the affair for a while. Next, Josephson is tired of his mistress, and comes back to Ullman, who now has a lover of her own, they discuss divorce, try and fail to make love, and decide to perhaps try again. The next segment is the two of them meeting at a lawyers to sign the divorce papers, and soon arguments ensue. The final segment takes place years later, when both have married other people, but are unhappy, so get together one last time to have an affair of sorts. This is the only time they seem happy. Originally made for Swedish television, in six one hour segments, Bergman edited the film down for theatrical release to a lean three hours – but the result is the same. The movie is really about these two people who love each other, hate each other, but cannot get away from each other. Their lives are intertwined, and no matter how they try, they cannot stay away from each other forever. Bergman’s film is one of the best I have ever seen about marriage – about love and relationships and the impossibility of ever truly moving on when you’re so involved with the other person. 30 years later, Bergman would make his final film, Saraband, which essentially adds a seventh segment to this movie, and while it isn’t as good as this – one of Bergman’s very best films – it is still wonderful.

3. A Woman Under the Influence (John Cassavetes)
Another film about a terribly complicated marriage, A Woman Under the Influence is without a doubt the best film of John Cassavetes career. It gives us a portrait of a woman, played with amazing ferocity by Gena Rowlands, who is somewhat beaten down by life. She has no privacy in her own home, and tries so hard to be exactly what her husband (Peter Falk) wants her to be, but can never quite pull it off. It’s clear that she has emotional and psychological problems – and the movie essentially focuses on the period right before and right after she is checked into a mental hospital. And yet, I think that perhaps the key to A Woman Under the Influence is that everyone in the film is as crazy as Rowlands is, but they seem to fit in better. Surely, Peter Falk has problems of his own – highlighted by the scene where he tries to force his kids to have fun at the beach, and then gets them drunk, and his ill planned party he plans for Rowlands on her release. Rowlands mother, played by her real mother Lady Rowlands, tries to help her daughter, but doesn’t know what to do. Her father seems completely weak willed, and beaten down, and when he eventually does try to help his daughter, it is far too little too late. And then there is Falk’s mother – played in a great performance by Cassavetes real life mother Katherine, who still exerts control over her son, to the detriment of his marriage, and is capable of becoming as hysterical as Rowlands herself. The film is one of the most honest depictions of a marriage I have ever seen – a dark, penetrating, and at times funny, depiction of two people who are equally mad, but somehow work together.

2. Chinatown (Roman Polanski)
Chinatown is one of the most detective movies and film noirs of all time – perhaps the best that wasn’t made in the noir heyday of the 1940s and 50s. It functions as a mystery if you want it to – a twisty, turny complex plot that reveals layer after layer of corruption in Los Angeles in the 1940s. But what elevates the movie is that Polanski, and screenwriter Robert Towne, create characters who are not merely pawns in the plot. They are real. Jack Nicholson’s performance as JJ Gittes is not just him donning the old Humphrey Bogart role as detective. They are similar, but there are differences. Gittes is sadder and lonelier – and later angrier – than Bogart ever got. This is not one of those performances where he goes over the top brilliantly, but one where it plays it exactly how it should be played. He looks ridiculous with that bandage on his nose (“You know what happens to nosy people? They lose their noses”). He gets involved with what seems to be a normal adultery case, but then things spiral out of control as he digs deeper, and people aren’t who they appear to be. The two other major characters are Faye Dunaway, as the femme fatale, but not a typical one. She is damaged, and Gittes senses that, but he is still angry when she lies to him. Her father is played by John Huston – who is one of the best screen villains of all time. Think of Charles Foster Kane crossed with Daniel Plainview (who, in his performance, you can tell Day-Lewis is channeling Huston) and you’re on the right track. Yes, there is murder, there is incest, there are brutal beatings in Chinatown. But the real crime is much bigger. As Huston says, it’s “the future”. The movie is bleak – both in its magnificent visual look and its outlook on life. The ending is justly famous because it doesn’t fit in with the typical noir ending. Things don’t work out, the wrong people die. And things continue just as they were before. This, out of all of the film is his career, is Polanski’s masterpiece.

1. The Godfather Part II (Francis Ford Coppola)
What can one say about The Godfather Part II that hasn’t already been said? Certainly the film is the equal of its predecessor – perhaps even greater, even though it certainly isn’t quite as entertaining. It is a darker, more nuanced film and has an epic scope to it, covering the early lives of Vito Corleone (now played by Robert DeNiro), as he leaves Siciliy, comes to America and becomes a gangster, as well as his son Michael’s (Al Pacino) complete fall from grace. When we see Michael in the first film, he doesn’t want anything to do with the family business. By the start of this film, he is running it, and over the course of the movie he will fall even farther – climaxing with his having his simple minded brother Fredo (John Cavalze) murdered on that boat. Michael, who was perhaps the only moral character in the first film (although Vito certainly has his own set of morals he lives by), has completely lost them by the end of this film – where he sits completely alone, isolated from everyone around him. The performances in the movie are all amazing – there is a reason why this film tied the record by having 5 acting nominations – and Coppola has perhaps never been in such full control of his films narrative drive and structure. The filmmaking is impeccable – not just in the films big set pieces, like the stalking and murder of the local Don by Vito which is justly infamous – but in every scene. The Godfather Part II is one of the very best films ever made.

Just Missed The Top 10: Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (Martin Scorsese),Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Rainer Werner Fassbinder), The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (Ted Kotcheff), Death Wish (Michael Winner), F For Fake (Orson Welles), Lacombe Lucien (Louis Malle), Lenny (Bob Fosse), Murder on the Orient Express (Sidney Lumet), The Parallax View (Alan J. Pakula), Phantom of the Paradise (Brain DePalma), The Sugarland Express (Steven Spielberg),Thieves Like Us (Robert Altman), The Yakuza Papers Volume IV: Police Tactics, The Yakuza Papers Volume V: Final Episode,

Notable Films Missed: Alice in the Cities (Wim Wenders), Celine and Julie Go Boating (Jacques Rivette), The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (Werner Herzog), Female Trouble (John Waters), India Song, Lancelot du Lac (Robert Bresson), The Phantom of Liberty (Luis Buneul), The Towering Inferno (John Guillerman), Xala (Ousmane Sembene).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture & Director: The Godfather Part II (Francis Ford Coppola)
1974 represents one of the few years where the Academy went against critical consensus, and actually ended up picking the better film in my opinion. At the time, the most critically acclaimed American films of the year were Chinatown and The Conversation – both also would have been worthy choices – but the Academy recognized before many critics did just how great The Godfather Part II was, and gave the film its very deserving Best Picture prize. In doing so, they gave it to one of the most violent, darkest best picture winners ever. The Godfather was easy – because it was so entertaining – but this film is much more complex, so you have to give them credit for giving it the Award. The nominees this year – among them Chinatown, The Conversation and Lenny represent the darkness of the country at the time. You can almost forgive them for nominating The Towering Inferno for the fifth spot for at least lightening the mood a little.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Art Carney, Harry and Tonto
This was a year when four of the nominees would have been deserving winners. Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson and Dustin Hoffman, along with Carney were all excellent in their films (although my choice would have been Pacino). But Carney’s win shocked a lot of people, who expected one of the younger actors, who had already been nominated for a bunch of Oscars prior to this year, to prevail. Carney carries Harry and Tonto from beginning to end, and creates such a lovable, touching character that you cannot help but love him and his performance. Yes, I think Pacino and Nicholson delivered better performances that Carney. But I will not insult this win, as it really is a wonderful performance.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Ellen Burstyn, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
I feel somewhat bad that the years on either side of this – 1973 and 1975 – were such weak years for leading actresses in American movies, because 1974 has any number of great performances that deserved to win this award. Among the other nominees here were Faye Dunaway, Gena Rowlands and Valerie Perrine (who, if she had of been nominated in her proper category – supporting – would have gotten my vote). While personally, I think Rowlands delivered the best performance, it is hard to fault the Academy for giving the Oscar to Burstyn for her excellent work in Martin Scorsese’s only movie to center on a female protagonist. Burstyn plays a recently widowed mother of a somewhat demanding child, who takes him on the road to try and start a new life for herself. She is not all that much unlike Rowlands, as both women are struggling with the gender roles that have been forced upon them, while the world outside seems to be constantly changing. In many year, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore would have made my top 10 list, and Burstyn’s performance would have been my clear choice – but this year it wasn’t.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: Robert DeNiro, The Godfather Part II
The Academy nominated three actors from The Godfather Part II in this category, but made the right choice in giving the award to DeNiro (although, it would have been a tougher choice for me had they nominated John Cavazle, who was better than the other two nominees Michael V. Gazzo and Lee Strasberg). DeNiro captures the mannerisms and voice that Brando used in the first film wonderfully, so what we are really watching here is an extension of that performance. And yet, DeNiro brings other notes to the role as well, and creates a portrait of an ambitious young man on the rise. It must have seemed impossible to fill Brando’s shoes – few actors would have even attempted it – but DeNiro pulls it off brilliantly. Good call.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Ingrid Bergman, Murder on the Orient Express
I really do love Ingrid Bergman, but like her first two Oscar wins, for Gaslight and Anastasia, I cannot say her work in Murder on the Orient Express as a Swedish missionary just back from Africa where she helped all those “little brown babies”. I will admit that I think Bergman is a riot in this role, and is probably the best thing about the film (although Albert Finney is a lot of fun as Hercule Poirot as well), but I cannot say she deserved to win. Out of the nominees, Valentina Cortese in Day for Night would have been my favorite (that film is actually a 1973 film, so you’ll find my write up of it there), although the nominees – Diane Ladd’s over the top best friend in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Talia Shire as Michael’s grieving sister in The Godfather Part II and Madeline Kahn, hilarious in Blazing Saddles, were all worthy as well. I can’t say that this win bothers me too much – it is the best of her three Oscar winning performances – but still does not represent Bergman anywhere near her finest.

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