Why 1974 was the best year in film history

All week long our writers will debate: Which was the greatest film year of the past half century.  Click here for a complete list of our essays.

I was one of the first to select years for this particular exercise, which probably allowed me to select the correct year. The answer is, of course, 1974 and all other answers are wrong.

No matter what your criteria happens to be, 1974 is going to come out on top. Again, this is not ambiguous or open to debate.

We have to start, of course, with the best of the best.

“Chinatown” is one of the greatest movies ever made. You can't structure a thriller better than Robert Towne and Roman Polanski do, nor shoot a Los Angeles movie better than John Alonzo has done. Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway give the best performances of their careers, which is no small achievement. If you ask me to list my 10 favorite movies of all-time, “Chinatown” will make that short-list every time and it'll often make my Top 5, depending on my mood.

But “Chinatown” will never top my rankings of 1974's best movies.

“The Conversation” is a glorious movie. It's a flawless slow-burn of a thriller carried by the best performance of Gene Hackman's career, which is no small achievement. If you go through cinema history, there are a couple dozen years in which it would be the best film of the year. But in 1974, it wasn't even the best film to be written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola.

Francis Ford Coppola's best 1974 film, that year's Best Picture Oscar winner and my usual answer when I'm asked to list my favorite films, is “The Godfather: Part II.” No longer held back by the pulpy structure of a Mario Puzo inspiration, Coppola made a decade-spanning sequel that's in all ways richer and more nuanced than “The Godfather” and “The Godfather” is, as you may have heard, an all-timer. 

[“The Godfather: Part II” features one of the top three performances of Al Pacino's career and even though Pacino went up against the aforementioned peaks for Nicholson and Hackman, as well as Dustin Hoffman in near-best form in “Lenny,” none of them won the Best Actor Oscar. That's a thing that happened.]

But do you want to know the funny thing? Even though Francis Ford Coppola had one of the epic years ever for a single director, I can tolerate an argument that says he wasn't even the filmmaker whose 1974 output had the greatest influence. “Godfather II” was, after all, a sequel, while “The Conversation” was just one '70s conspiracy thriller amongst the multitudes and if you want to try telling me that Alan J. Pakula's “Parallax View” was actually 1974's best '70s conspiracy thriller, I would nod sympathetically. This was, as I've mentioned, a heck of a year.

No, when it comes to influence and importance, it's necessary to remember that somehow Mel Brooks had both “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein open in 1974. That's two Top 15 all-time comedies — Don't trust me, trust the AFI — from the same director in the same year. That's two comedies that show as much verbal inventiveness and anarchic visual imagination as anything the genre has ever showcased on the big screen, from the same director in the same year.

[I've gone back to try finding a better year for a comedy writer-director. Preston Sturges had “The Lady Eve” and “Sullivan's Travels” in 1941. That's as close as I can come and as masterful as both movies are, I'm not sure they're close, at least in terms of impact.]

The mind-boggles.

I could stop here.

I won't. That's not how I roll.

When it comes to directors double-dipping in 1974, Robert Altman fans would tell you that “California Split” and “Thieves Like Us” make for a pretty great pair and really smart people would point out that Martin Scorsese had both the Oscar-winning “Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore” and the documentary “Italianamerican,” which cemented his place as his generation's most intriguingly versatile filmmaker. [And then there'd be the foreign film fans who would cite Rainer Werner Fassbinder's “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul” and “Effi Briest” as a rather fine double, but we're not supposed to get into foreign films.]

As 1974 rolls around, we find ourselves in the early stages of the renaissance of new '70s storytelling voices, the mavericks who would change the cinematic language forever. So we have Steven Spielberg's marvelously overlooked “Sugarland Express,” Brian DePalma's marvelously loopy “Phantom of the Paradise” and Michael Cimino's “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” announcing the arrival or adding luster to the early development of a new generation. Working on smaller or more independent or more experimental canvasses, you also had John Carpenter's “Dark Star,” Monte Hellman's “Cockfighter,” John Waters' “Female Trouble” and Jonathan Demme's “Caged Heat.” And just because John Cassavetes and Sam Peckinpah might have been a bit more venerable than these Young Turks doesn't take away from “A Woman Under the Influence” and “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia,” movies that are boundary-shifting regardless of the age of their directors.

I mentioned Demme's work on “Caged Heat” and I'm not sure that I'd argue that “Caged Heat” is a great movie, but if you look at the importance of 1974 in cinema, you can't ignore the explosion of low-budget exploitation cinema. You had movies like “Gone in 60 Seconds” and “Dirty Mary Crazy Larry,” but you also had the explosion of blaxploitation films, topped in this year by the likes of “Foxy Brown,” “Three The Hard Way” and “Sugar Hill,” as well as the ongoing legitimization of sexploitation films, including genre classics “Flesh Gordon” and the legendary “Emmanuelle.” Yes, I'm mentioning porn, because 1974 was a great year for that as well.

And 1974 was also the year that the horror/slasher film began to gain legitimacy in the United States. Larry Cohen's “It's Alive” is an influential cult favorite, Bob Clark's “Black Christmas” is a solid classic of the genre, but the year's obvious and indisputable classic is Tobe Hooper's “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” which helped write the aesthetic book for the entire genre and also became one of the most profitable movies ever made. [“The Exorcist” opened in the last week of 1973 and topped the box office for the first month-plus of the year. It doesn't count for the sake of my argument, but most people who saw the movie saw it in 1974.]

And if you like your movies delivered on a bigger scale with more studio gloss, 1974 offered the likes of Joseph Sargent's “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three,” Sidney Lumet's “Murder on the Orient Express,” Robert Aldrich's “The Longest Yard,” Sydney Pollack's “The Yakuza,” Ronald Neame's “The Odessa File” and Richard Lester's “Juggernaut.” I'm not going to tell you that those are great movies, but I'm telling you that any year in which you get that many solid, distinctive mainstream movies, that's not too bad. 

We're not supposed to dwell on foreign and documentary releases in this stories, but coming from overseas in 1974, you had Jacques Rivette's “Celine and Julie Go Boating,” Pier Paolo Pasolini's “Arabian Nights,” Luis Buñuel's “The Phantom of the Liberty,” Werner Herzog's “The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser,” Federico Fellini's “Amarcord,” Liliana Cavani's “The Night Porter,” Wim Wenders' “Alice in the Cities,” Peter Weir's “The Cars That Eat People,” and, depending on how you count “overseas,” Teddy Kotcheff's “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz,” one of the most important Canadian films ever made. On the documentary front, you're looking at things like Peter Davis' shocking Vietnam expose “Hearts and Minds,” Barbet Schroeder's “General Idi Amin Dada” and the first installation of Jack Haley Jr's “That's Entertainment.”

This is easy, folks: For the past 50 years, when it comes to movies, 1974 is impossible to top.

Other pieces in this series:

1973 by Brian Formo

1974 by Daniel Fienberg

1977 by Louis Virtel

1980 by Richard Rushfield

1982 by Alan Sepinwall

1988 by Drew McWeeny

1995 by Jane Hu

1998 by Michael Oates Palmer

1999 by Kris Tapley

2001 by Chris Eggertsen

2012 by Zara Lisbon