With all the talk about 2007 as a singularly great year for movies, we at The A.V. Club have been discussing among ourselves what years we'd nominate as the best-of-the-best. For the next several weeks, The A.V. Club's regular film reviewers will offer our individual choices.
(Note: Due to the vicissitudes of film distribution—especially foreign-film distribution—it's sometimes hard to pin movies down to specific years of release. When in doubt, we took the year tagged on the not-always-reliable IMDB. Since this is a thought experiment and not a court of law, we're asking that people not be sticklers about this.)
To qualify as "the best ever," a movie year needs to be both bounteous and pivotal, and there are a surprising number of worthy candidates. Consider 1948, with its mix of noir classics, maturing Hollywood musicals, and encroaching European realism, or 1957, with its psychological Westerns, sophisticated melodramas, and early New Wave murmurs. Both those years, and dozens of others, aren't just historically significant, they're a heck of a lot of fun, filled with varied entertainments that aim high and low. But for sheer volume of American and European classics—and for the intersection of several waxing and waning cinematic movements—it's hard to beat 1974.
By 1974, emerging "New Hollywood" directors Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Brian De Palma, and Francis Ford Coppola had made their initial splashes and were settling into becoming reliable working filmmakers, showing different facets: Scorsese with Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, Spielberg with The Sugarland Express, De Palma with Phantom Of The Paradise, and Coppola with arguably his two best movies, The Conversation and The Godfather Part II. Even the more mainstream American movies of the year, like Robert Aldrich's The Longest Yard and Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein, have more of a naturally shaggy sensibility, while middle-aged mavericks like Robert Altman and Sam Peckinpah, given free rein to explore, delivered the minor miracles Thieves Like Us, California Split, and Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia. In the Hollywood of 1974, the inmates had fully taken over the asylum, and were preparing to run riot for the next few years.
Meanwhile, in Europe, the giants of the French and Italian New Waves were delivering complex, mature films—Jacques Rivette's Celine And Julie Go Boating, Louis Malle's Lacombe Lucien, Robert Bresson's Lancelot Du Lac, and so on—while the burgeoning German New Wave produced Rainer Werner Fassbinder's supreme masterpiece Ali: Fear Eats The Soul, Werner Herzog's wonderfully gamy The Mystery Of Kaspar Hauser, and Wim Wenders' tender Alice In The Cities. And for those who like their art dragged through the muck a little, 1974 was a banner year for exploitation fare, offering the likes of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Deathdream, and Dark Star. Rarely had the cinema felt so lively, so eclectic, and so confident that its core audience consisted of intelligent adults, looking for something a lot smarter than what they could get on TV or in the latest paperback bestseller.
Noel Murray's top five of 1974 (give or take a couple):
1. It may be a cheat to declare a tie, but it's hard to deny the full scope of Altman's achievement in helming the loose gambling comedy California Split and the comparatively tight gangster movie Thieves Like Us in the same year, and filling them both with some of his most accessible storytelling and poetic images. (And all this with Nashville waiting in the wings.)
2. The Godfather Part II won all the awards and accolades—and is undeniably excellent—but the side of Francis Ford Coppola that strove to be more cutting-edge gets its most successful venting in The Conversation, a riff on surveillance and paranoia that doubles as a remarkable showcase for Gene Hackman's clipped naturalism.
3. The wry Eastern European sensibility of director Roman Polanski meets the historical fetishism of screenwriter Robert Towne in Chinatown, a neo-noir that uses the corruption of Los Angeles as emblematic of a turning point in the American character.
4. The kaleidoscopic Vietnam War documentary Hearts And Minds assembles political speeches, protest-movement rhetoric, high-school-football pep rallies, and combat footage into a snapshot of America in the early '70s that confirms the simplistic summaries of every subsequent Nixon-era movie montage and goes deeper into the roots of a nation in turmoil.
5. The Douglas Sirk-inspired melodrama of Fassbinder's Ali: Fear Eats The Soul confronts Germany's lingering racism through the ironically modernist filter of old Hollywood. It also proves that a tight shooting schedule and budget don't preclude fluid cinematic expression. Indie filmmakers worldwide continue to take note.
Sleepers: Any year in which one of the best movies was made for television was a good year indeed. So it was with 1974 and The Law, a passionate legal drama with a social conscience and a terrific lead performance by a young Judd Hirsch. For the title alone, The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three should be on this list, but it's also a crackling urban thriller about a meticulously planned subway hijacking. Also delivering on a great title: Monte Hellman's Cockfighter, which turns a drive-in-worthy subject—the seedy world of cockfighting tournaments—into an involving portrait of loners and outcasts. Finally, The Holy Mountain leavens the pop surrealism of Alejandro Jodorowsky with some trenchant anti-authoritarian satire and eye-poppingly elaborate imagery. The fact that a filmmaker like Jodorowsky had a prominent place at the table in '74 speaks volumes.
Still unseen: I have some 1974 wonders yet to discover, including Celine And Julie Go Boating, Dark Star, and the almost-forgotten Martin Scorsese documentary Italianamerican, about the experience of two immigrants—his parents—in New York City.
Noel Murray's runner-ups: If I weren't already revisiting 1974, I'd love to spend a year in 1955, where Sirk's delirious domestic potboiler All That Heaven Allows, Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly's melancholy post-war musical It's Always Fair Weather, and Charles Laughton's feverish The Night Of The Hunter shared screens with classics by Ingmar Bergman, Satyajit Ray, Nicholas Ray, Henri-Georges Clouzot, Anthony Mann, Max Ophüls, and Frank Tashlin. Or I could relive a year from my recent past, 1996, if only to re-experience the debut films of Wes Anderson, P.T. Anderson, and the Wachowskis, along with bona fide American classics like Fargo, Jerry Maguire, Tin Cup, Lone Star, Flirting With Disaster, and Waiting For Guffman.
Next week: Keith Phipps on 1967.