By Don Druker
It's not been the best of years for new films in Chicago —though I've seen worse. Yet it's not been that bad a year for films generally. If we've had no unqualified masterpieces from fledgling directors or established figures, we've at least had some immensely promising first films, some satisfying works from directors demonstrably capable of better, and a host of wonderful older works only receiving their Chicago premiers in 1974.
I had originally chosen Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, a sumptuous work of audacious dramatic resonance, as the best film of the year but realized that Terry Fox, David James, and about six other people (myself, unfortunately, not included) had seen it in 1970 during its first Chicago run. That disqualified it from consideration, but not from inclusion in my list of personal favorites, where it now safely resides.
1. Images (Robert Altman) So if rules have to be rules, I'll pass over The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (and thank Ruby Rich and Camille Cook at the Film Center for showing it again, as well as the Northwestern University Film Society) and move Robert Altman's Images to the top spot. Through the good offices, once again, of the Northwestern University Film Society (as well as Ron Lichterman at Playboy and a moonlighting film critic at the Biograph), Chicago audiences had a number of opportunities to see this flawed but fascinating, dense, seductive stud of emotional and sexual crisis, and to marvel at the intensity and grace of Susannah York's performance as a young woman whose fantasies double and triple back on themselves. Altman has managed to present both a clinical and metaphoric view of madness, without violating either the artistic imperatives of his dramatic material or the stringent cinematic rules he lays down for himself. Nearly three years was a long time to wait, but I think it was worth it.
2. Little Theater of Jean Renoir (Jean Renoir) And four years was definitely too long to wait for The Little Theater of Jean Renoir, a work of jewel-like clarity and precision which, if it did not achieve the mythic level of his bitter comic masterpieces Rules of the Game and The Golden Coach, nevertheless forms a benign coda to the career of the modern cinema's master humanist.
3. Amarcord (Federico Fellni) Amarcord reaffirmed my faith in the maestro's mastery of the art of mixing memory and fantasy and serving it up with a generous helping of visual excitement. Amarcord is Fellini's best work since8 1/2, which is to say a film swarming with lovingly observed and preserved comic moments, alive with the energy of Fellini's inspiration, and rich in emotion.
4. Memories of Underdevelopment (Tomas Alea) Memories of Underdevelopment goes back to 1968, yet its Chicago premiere in 1974 qualifies it for inclusion. Alea has managed to present a portrait of social crisis as it affects a single individual, without once either obscuring the fine satiric edge that gives the film its bit or lapsing into the smugness that so often characterizes revolutionary cinema. Notable for being the first Cuban feature to win world-wide critical acceptance, the film is a personal document that transcends nationality.
5. Harry and Tonto (Paul Mazursky) Harry and Tonto is another entry in the genre that Mazursky has virtually created in the seventies: the comedy of loss and resignation. Art Carney's performance alone, as an old man who finds that the love for humanity he carries beneath a crusty exterior far exceeds his fellow men's capacity to accept it, would qualify the film for inclusion. But Mazursky masterfully exploits the possibilities in Carney's performance and produces another in his series of finely observed portraits of America without tears and without illusions. Sadness has rarely been used for such superb comic effect.
6. The Mother and the Whore (Jean Eustache) This marathon examination of the sources of anxiety and fear in the lives of three young people is an audacious film, uncompromising in its documentary intensity and unstinting in its meticulous probing beneath the multitudinous layers of glibness and banality that these young people have so carefully heaped over their souls.
7. Wedding in Blood (Claude Chabrol) yet another late entry in the Chicago cinema sweepstakes, but, again, the short wait was eminently worth it, for Chabrol's magnificent portrait of the banal passions of the bourgeoisie is as forceful and assured as anything Chabrol has ever done. Stephane Audran and Michael Piccoli are superb as the adulterous couple for whom escape from the dismal trap of their deception is unthinkable.
8. Badlands (Terrence Malick) Terrence Malick's Badlands is a stunning directorial debut, a film that opts for no easy answers and no facile strategies in portraying the pathology of aimless violence in the lives of two of society's millions of overlooked, undefined personalities. Attacked in some quarters for its coldness, Malick's film is as intense and strongly felt as any of the early films of Nicholas Ray; but because Malick is not prepared to give his detractors the gratuitous "excitement" they crave, he must rest content in the knowledge that he has made a difficult but powerful first film and announced the presence of a potentially major talent.
9. Even Dwarfs Started Small (Werner Herzog) Werner Herzog's Even Dwarfs Started Small again took its time reaching Chicago, and again we have the Film Center of the Art Institute to thank for screening it. Dwarfs is one of the most disturbing films ever made, a film in which twenty-seven dwarfs act out in an obscene parody of modern life and by their actions drive home Herzog's message that revolutionary consciousness is not the exclusive property of the oppressed. Apart from Rainer Fassbinder, Herzog is the most impressive, courageous, and assured talent to emerge from the new German cinema.
10. The Last Detail (Hal Ashby) Of the three American films on this year's list, two are comedies; and of the two Hal Ashby's The Last Detail occupies the final spot on my ten-best list for 1974. It is surprising how much in common The Last Detail has with Harry and Tonto; both deal in loneliness and regret; both steadfastly avoid easy sentimentalities; and both feature smashing performances—in Harry by Art Carney and in The Last Detail by Jack Nicholson as a career sailor who is forced against his careerist instincts to confront the problem of liberation in an overly routinized world. The superb ensemble playing of Nicholson, Randy Quaid, and Otis Young, coupled with Ashby's fine sense of comic pacing, make this one of the finest American comedies in years and a worthy successor to Ashby's remarkable black comedy Harold and Maude.
If I could make a list of my thirteen favorites, I'd surely include Rainer Fassbinder's The Merchant of the Four Seasons, a surprisingly austere study of lower-middle-class life in modern Germany from a director not generally known for his cinematic reticence. And that list would also include Lina Wertmuller's Love and Anarchy, a flamboyant examination of the relationship between passion and politics in Mussolini's Germany, as well as Louis Malle's Lacombe, Lucien, a stunning portrait of the banality of evil in wartime France.
And if the list could be expanded to the top twenty-five, titles like Bresson's Four Nights of a Dreamer, Polanski's Chinatown, Ted Kotcheff's The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Judy Collins' and Jill Godmillow's Antonia, Rainer Fassbinder's Ali, Richard Lester's The Three Musketeers and Juggernaut, Robert Aldrich's The Longest Yard, Robert Altman's California Split, The American Film Theater's production of Butley and Three Sisters, Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation, and Blake Edwards' The Tamarind Seed would easily make it.
And 1974 also saw the first publication in English of Christian Metz's Film Language, the publication of P. Adams Sitney's Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde, Jean Renoir's autobiography, Vincente Minnelli's I Remember It Well, and a new edition of Halliwell's The Filmgoer's companion. Not a bad record at a time when the publishing industry is reputed to be in even more trouble than the film industry.
By Virginia Wright Wexman
Any way you look at it, this has been a great year for movies in Chicago. Box office has been boffo (as Variety would put it) and lately it seems that virtually every theater you drive by is embellished with lines of shivering people waiting to get in for the next feature.
Not only did the public become interested in seeing more movies during 1974, they were also interested in better movies. The Playboy Theater people were stunned by the success of The Mother and the Whore last winter, and this fall's European biggies Amarcord and Scenes from a Marriage did astonishingly well in spite of their subtitles.
Even more significantly, Chicago saw a boom in art and revival theaters last year due to the success of the Art Institute's Film Center which set a mouth-watering example of crowd collecting for audience-hungry local film entrepreneurs. Only time will tell whether the recent arthouse craze may turn out to be no more than a fizzle. But we still have Bruce Trinz at the 400-Adelphi-Devon company, and the college film societies are going strong (most notably the Northwestern Film Society and the Documentary Film Group at the University of Chicago).
And, yes, the situation is finally looking up for women. After last year's endless diet of male-buddy police movies, we are now in the midst of a disaster movie cycle. Maybe the women all get killed off in some of these new films (along with most of the men), but at least there are women. And not just prostitutes and screaming bystanders either. The disaster-movie cast of characters must represent a cross-section of society. That mans that not only do there have to be women, but the women can't all be buxom, hipless eyelash-batters; singing nuns and ample grandmother types have to be included too. I'm still waiting for a movie directed by a woman in which a capable Karen Black rescues a hysterical Charlton Heston from the brink of annihilation, but last year's disaster epics are at least a step forward after the disgusting treatments women got in the movies in '73.
My ground rules for selecting the year's ten best films are the same as those used by the other Reader critics: the movies on my list have been chosen from among all those shown for the first time in the Chicago area during 1974. This means that a few of my favorites among those films that played commercially here last year (like The Mirages and Day For Night) don't qualify. But these are my choices among the movies that do:
1. Chinatown (Roman Polanski) The hard-boiled detective formula as tragedy. Jack Nicholson is superb as an unconventionally prosperous and slick private eye who gets in over his head on a case involving civic corruption and incest among other things. The elegantly stylized thirties milieu creates a strange, unreal world, and stars Faye Dunaway and John Huston match the decor with mannered, stylized performances. The conclusion is a total reversal of what we've come to expect from the hard-boiled genre—the hero doesn't win out—yet somehow it seems inevitable, a telling tribute to the masterful manipulation of our responses by director Polanski.
2. Images (Robert Altman) Altman made Images in 1972, but it didn't make it to Chicago until last year, showing up first at the Northwestern Film Society last winter (how they got it is still a mystery) and then paying commercially at the Biograph in December. In a year that gave Chicago three new Altman films, this was the best of them. A prismatic study of a young woman who becomes a homicidal maniac. Images is a disquieting horror movie that identifies the sources of terror not with chaotic forces in the environment but with uncontrolled impulses within the self. Susannah York plays the victimized villainess of the piece with an appropriately malignant sweetness.
3. Juggernaut (Richard Lester) Who ever would have thought that it was possible to make anything out of a disaster movie? Not me for sure, so Juggernaut came as a total surprise. Lester avoids the dreary method used in most other disaster epics of interspersing shots of various mishaps and reaction shots of all the stars, and instead comes up with a complex, moving study of lie a it is seen from the edge of destruction. Richard Harris as the cocky bomb expert and Shirley Knight as the footloose married lady are both incredibly fine in this story about an ocean liner about to be blown up, and Omar Sharif as the ship's captain is luckily given little to do other than to stand around looking solemn. Lester's sharply-etched photography and editing add to the suspense as well as define the characters and their situations for us far more precisely than the script alone could do.
4. Badlands (Terry Malick) An extra-ordinary first film by a graduate of the American Film Institute's Fellowship Program, Badlands combines a lush, lyrical virtual style with a musical score by Carl Orff and a running commentary out of True Romances delivered by the female member of a young outlaw couple on the run. The girl keeps a catfish for a pet and isn't much bothered when her boyfriend kills her father, though she finally gets annoyed when he tries to keep her all to himself for too long. With such unlikely and unlovable characters, Malick can't hope to gain the audience's sympathy, but he does manage to keep our attention by creating the weirdest of moods and then sustaining it perfectly throughout the course of the film.
5. Amarcord (Frederico Fellini) This delightful anagram of memories about the town in Rimini where Fellini grew up contains many moments of humor, but my favorite scene was a serious one in which the young protagonist and his father visit his sick mother in the hospital. Fellini shoots the woman as her churlish husband sees her; she is sitting on the edge of her bed huddled over the bluish-pink flowers he has brought. We follow the man's glance as it strays to a peasant woman in a black shawl who sits by the next bed, and then he slowly turns to go to the window. In this instant the situation becomes achingly clear to us: the man has just realized that his wife will die; and more than this it has just come upon him that he loves her deeply but that he lacks the ability to express that love. Fellini's ability to make us feel all this with such an economy of means attests, more surely than any other criteria, to his genius.
6. Boy/Shonen (Nagisa Oshima) Hardly anyone showed up for the program of Oshima movies at the Art Institute; it was too bad because Oshima, who has been labeled the Japanese Godard, is one of the most original young talents now working in international cinema. Boy tells the story of a quasi-family on the fringes of society in which the women and children are ruthlessly exploited by the male head of the household. Though he is only ten years old, the boy of the film's title is forced by his father into a con game in which he must fake injuries in order to shake down affluent motorists. Oshima uses a fragmented, experimental technique to present the action as it is experienced by the child, and his handling of his young actors is magnificent. There is a long inexpressively poignant scene in which the boy builds a snowman for his three-year-old brother that is the most moving evocation of the wonder and helplessness of a child's world I have ever seen on film.
7. Thieves Like Us (Robert Altman) A tender tone poem that breathes new life into the tired old outlaw-couple-on-the-run formula. Gangely Keith Carradine and pop-eyed Shelly Duvall make unlikely substitutes for Romeo and Juliet-type lovers, but Altman's affectionate photography brings out a diffident sweetness in them that is wholly original in the plastic world that we usually see in Hollywood movies.
8. California Split (Robert Altman) I admit that I'm partial to Altman, but everything he does is touched with an incandescent magic that many of us find irresistible. California Split shows Altman's charm at its most easygoing and most accessible. This story of two gambling freaks (George Segal and Elliott Gould) lacks the resonance of other Altman films which play off traditional America genres, but its throwaway humor is so frenetically paced and so casually understated that it succeeds through sheer inventiveness. The characters are all social degenerates but Altman manages to give their perversions an aura of naive ingenuousness that makes us love them all the same. Gould is at his wacky best, and the shtick he does with a shopworn sombrero and a fake parrot can stand with anything done by Keaton, Chaplin or Fields.
9. The Mother and the Whore (Jean Eustache) The definitive statement about the new sexual morality and the Hyde Park graduate student mentality. The story has Jean-Pierre Leaud taking time out from reading the newspapers at the local coffee house to invite a hip young nurse home with him to share his bed. The problem is he's already sharing his bed with Bernadette Lafont—who pays the rent. Lafont can't seem to liberate herself enough to get into the swing of having someone else make love to her boyfriend on the pillow beside her, and eventually she gives up trying and gulps down a few sleeping pills. So Leaud takes a few minutes out from his important new relationship to get her to gag up the pills, and life goes on … and on … This is the movie everyone under thirty-five went to and realized what it was that all of their friends were doing wrong.
10. Les Enfants Terrible (Jean-Pierre Melville) Originally made in 1949, Less Enfants Terrible finally reached Chicago this year via the Film Festival. It's actually more Jean Cocteau's movie than it is Melville's: the ornate poetic script was adapted by him from his own novel. The plot concerns the narcissistic attachment between a young brother and sister, with the sister mesmerizingly portrayed by Nicole Stephane. The atmosphere is heavy with a languid surrealism which comes partly from the script but more importantly from Melville's visual style, a style he was later to apply to the American gangster formula with electrifying results.
With some misgivings, I left Scenes From a Marriage off my list because, though it explores ordinary human relationships with typically Bergmaneque depth and complexity and the performances are marvelous, its made-for-TV status means that it lacks the visual richness which adds so much to Bergman's best films (such as Cries and Whispers or Wild Strawberries). The Little Theater of Jean Renoir seemed to me similarly impoverished when set against Renoir's best work, though for other reasons.
Other films I was sorry to have to omit were Bresson's Four Nights of a Dreamer and Fassbinder's Merchant of the Four Seasons, both of which premiered in Chicago at the Northwestern Film Society (the NU group, by the way, had an amazing 1974 season under the enterprising chairmanship of Tom Bruegerman). Another runner-up to my top ten was The White Dawn made by Philip Kaufman, an alumnus of the University of Chicago's Documentary Film Group. My list of runners-up also included Lester's The Three Musketeers and Chabrol's Wedding in Blood.
Special awards go to the Art Institute's Film Center for giving us the best series of the hear with its Chabrol retrospectives, the Women's Film Festival for providing the most welcome film event, and Antonia and A Very Curious Girl for presenting the most liberating portraits of women.
On the negative side, the year's most sexist portrayal of women was in the abysmal Going Places, and the most disappointing film event was the Chicago International Film Festival which should concentrate more on quality than on quantity as it has been doing in the past.
Finally, predictions for 1975: Biblical epics will have a revival because the combine the thrills of disaster movies with the currently fashionable nostalgia for old-style Hollywood formulas. Also women directors will make it big in American film and be put in charge of commercial, big-budget projects (this kind of prediction could also be called invoking the power of positive thinking).
By Myron Meisel
As time goes by, it get harder to ascertain precise rules, and as with us, so with the cinema. The following represents my best efforts to concoct a list of the best films to first play Chicago this past year, and if I should violate some criterion of inclusion or another, I please nolo. For example, it is my belief that Yosujiro Ozu's The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice and Kenju Mizoguchi's Utamaro and his Five Women played at one or another of the myriad 16mm sites, only I can't prove it. But if the point of these lists is to define taste and priorities in viewing, then the best films of this year are really no more than a temporary accounting of the best films of all years.
In that spirit, I have to confess that 1974, while boasting a respectable field, is seriously lacking a a class near the top. In short, no masterpieces this year, not by any stretch of critical fervor. In fact, there is no clear choice for the top spot, which is represented instead by a troika:
1. Lacombe Lucien (Louis Malle) A film that's as good as everyone says, though not for the reasons everyone uses. "The banality of evil" has become, through rhapsodic repetition, a banality itself. Malle's film, in its careful emotional distancing, starts from that premise to elaborate a profound demonstration of how our private and social lives are dispassionately linked.
1. Love and Anarchy (Lina Wertmuller) Fellini's former assistant far outdistances her old master with this deliciously witty, overwrought political melodrama that sustains daring changes of tone by a heady use of sharply etched behavioral metaphors.
1. The Merchant of Four Seasons (Rainer Werner Fassbinder) A film so difficult to like, so obstinate in its ground-breaking cinematic method, that to respond to it at all is to live it. Fassbinder's actors achieve rhythms like no others.
When I think of it, all three of these films are more or less about the same subject. Either that's a trend or my bias revealed or maybe both.
4. The Mother and the Whore (Jean Eustache) A treatise on the way we fuck up our lives. Eustache presents searing shocks of recognition with heavy doses of social pleading. Brutally exact, candid and unflinching, the film can even take courage in acknowledging its own fundamental confusions.
5. Chinatown (Roman Polanski) Perverted schmaltz, which is why everyone can swallow this dose of romantic despair. Personal, quirky, well-mounted and over-calculated, it all works better than it should on people who should know better, and it's all Nicholson's fault.
6. The Tamarind Seed (Blake Edwards) A dazzlingly rich conceit, with spying and bedding down interpenetrated in an intriguing fashion. From America's finest working director, this should have been even better; as it is, it's his best since Darling Lili (1970), still the best American film of the decade.
7. Scenes from a Marriage (Ingmar Bergman) An odd hybrid, neither cinema nor television, and for the most part beyond category or criticism. Kehr made some points, but he missed two for every one he made.
8. The Three Sisters (Laurence Olivier) Picked up by the AFT to complete its first season's program, this is Olivier's best job of film direction, attentive and nuanced, and the best English version of Chekhov on screen, marred only by a trace of politeness that is the most-misplaced of all British traits.
9. Daisy Miller (Peter Bogdanovich) The most misunderstood movie of the year, or is "neglected" the better word? Attacking his most difficult project yet, Bogdanovich gained a visual complexity beyond any of his previous efforts.
10. A Man is Not a Bird (Dusan Makavejev) His first, seen here last, like all his others only better. A parable on Socialist living, enacted on the playground of peasants in the industrial landscape.
Were it not for the unswerving boundary of ten, Francis Ford Coppola's two films, The Conversation and The Godfather, Part II, would also share top honors. Other runners-up would include: The Little Theater of Jean Renoir (Jean Renoir); Wedding in Blood (Calude Chabrol); Les Enfants Terribles (Jean-Pierre Melville and Jean Cocteau); Fear Eats the Soul/Ali (Rainer Werner Fassbinder); The Seduction of Mimi (Lina Wertmuller); Harry and Tonto (Paul Mazursky); The Three Musketeers and Juggernaut (Richard Lester); California Split and Images (Robert Altman); Butley (Harold Pinter); The Terminal Man (Mike Hodges); My Name is Nobody (Tonino Valerii); Badlands (Terence Malick).
The two sleepers of the year were Stephanie Rothman's The Working Girls (her best yet) and, much as I hate to acknowledge it, Peter Hyams' Our Time. The most overrated "underrated" film was Mark L. Lester's Truck Stop Women. And it may be poaching off the preserve, but the most overrated piece of work was John Korty's The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.
To complete the record, I did not see Amercord, The Front Page, or Chabrol's Ophelia, each of which might have qualified for inclusion. John Cassavetes' A Woman under the Influence would have been the Best Film of the Year, but it hasn't played in Chicago yet nor have Ozu's Early Spring or Kurosawa's Dodes'ka-den.
The acting this year was not up to the high standards set by last year's male performers, although there were more good women's parts this year, largely from abroad. Most important, this year's best thesping was more critically integral to the artistic success and value of the year's best films, a tendency that may be worth the demise of the star system.
Jack Nicholson takes top honors for Chinatown and The Last Detail. Other worthies include Alan Bates (Butley), Erland Josephson (Scenes from a Marriage), Jean-Pierre Leaud (The Mother and the Whore), Gene Hackman (The Conversation), Dustin Hoffman (Lenny), Art Carney (Harry and Tonto), Giancarlo Giannini in the two Wertmullers, Barry Brown (Daisy Miller), Richard Dreyfuss (The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz), and surprise of surprises, Omar Sharif being subtle as well as sensitive in The Tamarind Seed.
A pair of female performers share the highest accolades: Joan Plowright in The Three Sisters and Liv Ullmann for Scenes from a Marriage. Also, Irm Hermann (The Merchant of Four Seasons), Mariangela Melato (the Wertmullers), and Francoise Legrun and Bernadette Lafont (The Mother and the Whore).
Among supporting roles, two films alone are abundant blessings: The Three Sisters, for Ronald Pickup, Sheila Reid, Louise Purnell, Frank Wylie, and Derek Jacobi; and The Godfather, part II, for Michael V. Gazzo, Robert DeNiro, John Cazale, Lee Strasberg, and Talia Shire.
In addition: Anthony Quayle (The Tamarind Seed); Holger Lowenadler, Aurore Clement and Therese Giehse (Lacombe Lucien); Randy Quaid (The Last Detail); Eileen Brennan (Daisy Miller); Ann Latham, John Schuck, Bert Remsen and Louise Fletcher (Thieves Like Us); Gwen Welles and Ann Prentiss (California Split); Roy Kinnear (the Lesters) and Lina Polito (Love and Anarchy).
By Dave Kehr
The ten best list is the once chance all year that a reviewer has to be completely arbitrary and only marginally rational, and not feel obligated to cover up for it. That's probably why they're a lot ore fun to write than to read, but if you'll bear with me I'll try to get this over with as painlessly as possible. by way of excuse, 1974 was easily the worst year for movies that I can remember, and so a few things made it on this list that normally wouldn't have. But to live is to compromise, as Voltaire once said in one of his more light hearted moods, and there you are. Under the circumstances, I've bent the rule a little; one of the films on the list hasn't yet played Chicago, another played only at the Chicago Film Festival, and one is five years old (but wasn't released until this year). and, as always, I reserve to right to deny that I ever wrote this at all.
1. Le Petit Theatre de Jean Renoir (Jean Renoir) Irony, anyone? The best film of 1974 was made in 1969, and that just about sums up this whole lousy year. Renoir's film is the only one released this year that I can confidently label a masterpiece, a brilliant climax to a brilliant career. It was worth waiting for.
2. Fear Eats the Soul (Rainer Werner Fassbinder) Fassbinder escaped the realm of esoterica with this remake of Douglas Sirk's 1955 film All That Heaven Allows. By coupling his elemental style with an expressively melodramatic story, Fassbinder made what was at once his most accessible film,and one of his most experimental.
3. The Tamarind Seed (Blake Edwards) All right, so it starred Julie Andrews and Omar Sharif. You wanna make something of it? Edwards' film was still one of the few examples of a genuinely expressive visual style to come along this year, an uncompromised love story with some remarkable spiritual overtones. Posterity, not the New Yorker, has the last word.
4. Wedding in Blood (Claude Chabrol) Chabrol's film played a linear narrative against an ironically circular visual style for an utterly devastating effect. Too long misunderstood as a Hitchcock imitator, Chabrol may yet turn out to be the most significant of the New Wave directors (remember them?). He's already the most depressing.
5. The Three Musketeers (Richard Lester) Lester made his comeback in grand style with this finely wrought film, in which the standard international cast was continually upstaged by Lester's magnificent color and lighting. A feast for sore eyes, The Three Musketeers incidentally managed to be the funniest film of the year as well.
6. Chinatown (Roman Polanski) A big year for comebacks, no? After turning out a steady stream of self-indulgent dreck for the last four years, Roman Polanski finally got a grip on himself and turned out a piece of very fine (if very grim) work.
7. The Phantom of Liberty (Luis Bunuel) After a single viewing, Bunuel's new film struck me as fairly lightweight stuff, not exactly in the same class with his other recent efforts. Still, I'd like to reserve judgment until I see it a couple of more times —Bunuel has fooled me before, as he has every right to, after all.
8. Lacombe, Lucien (Louis Malle) Malle's ice-cold style makes him the least intrusive of contemporary directors, and Lacombe, Lucien is one of his subtlest films. I'll still take Otto Preminger in the last analysis, who shares Malle's fascination with the ambiguities of perception but strikes me as the superior rhetorician.
9. The Godfather, Part II (Francis Ford Coppola) The only sequel that I can think of offhand that's really better than the original, Coppola's work here is infinitely superior to his overrated The Conversation. Like a lot of new directors, Coppola seems to need the discipline of economic pressure to do his best. Still, somebody would have kept a closer eye on Gordon Willis, whose yellow tinged cinematography made the film look like it has been cast in bronze.
10. Juggernaut (Richard Lester) The year's most misinterpreted film was also one of the most enjoyable. Lester's sense of the absurd effectively subverted a silly screenplay, giving us the only watchable disaster film so far.
Stanley Donen's The Little Prince and Robert Aldrich's The Longest Yardboth had serious flaws but got gold stars anyway. The Edgar G. Ulmer award, given annually for the best achievement in a thoroughly disreputable genre goes to Joseph McGrath for his insidious film Digby, the Biggest Dog in the World. Despite a nice try by Robert Altman (California Split), the worst film of the year was easily Peter Bogdanovich's Daisy Miller, which was actually bad enough to retroactively become the worst film of 1960 through 1974 inclusive.
by Terry Curtis Fox
Every year I say the same thing: it's my imagination, this can't be the worst year ever. Then I pore over the reference books and, yup, 1974 was pretty bad. Not financially—financially the conglomerates get to smirk their way through the depression. But consider—ten years ago, in 1965, there were 13 American films I would have to cite as major cinematic works of art. (Mind you, this is without counting those imports that first opened that year.) Twenty years ago there were twenty essential American films on the list. This year, combining European and American product first exhibited in Chicago, I get three (count 'em, three) four star pictures. The rest are all pretty good—I'd go back and see them all a second time—but they are not the sort of films I choose to dream about and live with. Well, at least there were three. Who knows what next year won't bring?
1. La Petit Theatre de Jean Renoir (Jean Renoir) Strictly speaking, this isn't a film of 1974. Renoir shot it for French television in 1969. It's taken five years to get this last masterpiece of one of the world's greatest filmmakers across the Atlantic and into Chicago, but it's more than worth the wait. Le Petit Theatre is a film in which Renoir manages to look at the past, present, and future simultaneously. In doing so, he created the one enduring masterpiece we saw all year.
2. The Tamarind Seed (Blake Edwards) The only significant American film of the year and one of the most intelligent studies of a man/woman relationship I've seen. The Tamarind Seed is a film about trust that gives its audience every reason for trusting.
3. Wedding in Blood (Calude Chabrol) The last of Chabrol's bourgeois melodramas, this is a further working out of the relationship between fate and guilt that has become Chabro's major theme. Two other Chabrol films —Ophelia (1962) and Le Tigre Se Parfume Avec la Cynamite (1965) got their first Chicago showings this year. It's only a belief that these things shouldn't be all old films that keeps them off ten-bestdom.
4. Fear Eats the Soul/Ali (R.W. Fassbinder) Fassbinder's remake of All That Heaven Allows is extraordinary in that it manages to attain the Brechtian ideal of thoughtful comprehension of an emotional state without ever lapsing into artifice. Fassbinder's Merchant of Four Seasons got a single Chicago showing: it deserves more.
5. Juggernaut (Richard Lester) The return of Richard Lester really is the most interesting artistic/commercial story of 1974, and Juggernaut is the classic case in point—Lester subverting himself to a commercial project and emerging with a wholly personal film.
6. The Three Musketeers (Richard Lester) The only comedy of the year worth talking about.
7. Badlands (Terence Malick) The most intelligent fusion of American narrative and New Wave sensibility to emerge from the first generation of self-conscious American cineasts.
8. The Front Page (Billy Wilder) A curious, comparatively slow, look at an American classic. A film about the need for emotion disguised as a cynical comedy.
9. The Mother and the Whore (Jean Eustache) Against the films of Jacques Rivette (which are a clear influence on Eustache), this appears a bit tepid, but it remains a valid investigation of three states of mind.
10. Daisy Miller (Peter Bogdanovich) This edges out Aldrich's Longest Yard and Francesco Rosi's Lucky Luciano because, despite its failures, Daisy Miller is the bravest film Bogdanovich has made since Targets. It's not Henry James, but it is a startling combination of Lubitsch and Welles.
Other runners up are Robert Altman's California Split, Ted Kotchoff's The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Paul Mazursky's Harry and Tonto, Brian de Palma's Phantom of the Paradise, Jonathan Kaplan's Truck Turner, Laurence Olivier's Three Sisters, and Harold Pinter's Butley.
As always, this list is tempered by the films Chicago didn't get to see. Alain Renais' Stravisky, for example, belongs very near the head, and I haven't yet seen Bunuel's Fantome de la Liberte, Cassavetes' Woman Under the Influence, or Chabrol's Nada. I'm told that Sam Fuller's bizarre Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street is in circulation—if so, that would belong on the list as well. Chicago got to see Mark Lester's Truck Stop Women; I didn't.
I did have the misfortune to sit through Roman Polanski's Chinatown, the single most corrupt movie ever made. It is based on the principle of the lie, from the credits on through, and is the single worst major feature of the year. The most overpraised film besides Polanski is Bergman's Scenes From a Marriage, a film which tells its audience little, thus letting each member read in his or her own life story and come out thinking this vacuum was profound. Lee de Forest would have been proud.
The two most significant cinematic events of 1974 did not occur onscreen; the death of John Ford and the publication of Jean Renoir's autobiography, My Life, My Films. In terms of history, this most dismally significant action was taken neither by Bergman nor Polanski. It was the abandonment by Technicolor of its SIB process, a step which guarantees short life and lesser color for the films of the future.