My Favorite Films of 1974

The Taking of Pelham 123 (Directed by Joseph Sargent)

From my review: The most fascinating character, in my opinion, is Mr. Blue, the head of this quartet of criminals. The audience will eventually learn he’s Bernard Ryder, a former British Army Colonel who became a mercenary in Africa. We’re never entirely sure how this crew came to be, but we can assume they met in prison or after getting out. Blue is a rotten man, down to his core. He sees no value in human life but is also calculating. He’s not going to run in shooting; he’ll figure out the angles and force his opponent’s hand. Mr. Green, on the other hand, is, as his name implies, not confident in this criminal activity. Green got involved in the drug trade and was arrested in a bust; upon release, he had trouble getting a job of any means. We learn he operates an airport forklift and leaves in a hole of an apartment. One is utterly unsympathetic, while the other will likely elicit empathy from the audience. Green doesn’t want to kill anyone, but he has gone all-in with this crew. Society seems not to have a way to reintegrate these people, leading to the revolving door of crime.

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (Directed by Martin Scorsese)

From my review: Ellen Burstyn runs away with the movie and delivers what is arguably the best role of her career. It’s enjoyable to spend time with Alice, and getting to know her enriches your time with the film. I’d read there were mixed opinions about the movie’s portrayal of women, and I’m confused as to what the disagreement was. The best way all people can be portrayed emotionally in cinema is as realistic as possible, especially when you are making a grounded film like this one. Alice is not a superwoman, but she’s also no idiot. She makes mistakes and lives her life. When it seems like love has come into her life, she doesn’t compromise, like with Donald. Alice clearly lays out what David will need to accept if he wants a relationship with her.

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (Directed by Sam Peckinpah)

From my review: Bennie is introduced to us as a less-than-savory character and precedes to experience a soul rot as he embarks on his macabre mission. There’s a moment early into the trip where two bikers approach Bennie and Elita. They make it clear they will rape her, and holding both of them at gunpoint, there’s not much the couple can do. Elita’s response to this was the most interesting to me. She is so apathetic about the situation, resigned to what will happen to her. Peckinpah films it to imply she may be into the act, but I think the actress was projecting something more world-weary. Elita is poor, she works as a maid, but she is aging and isn’t going to escape her situation. This isn’t the first time she’s been forced into sex, so she’s numbed herself. Elita shuts her brain off because she doesn’t want to die, and in this situation, that is the only other option.

Female Trouble (Directed by John Waters)

From my review: Female Trouble glories in its celebration of crimes and murder, an intentional decision to challenge social norms of the time. The film is dedicated to a member of the Manson Family whose murders were fresh in the cultural zeitgeist. While he’d made many beloved and hated movies up to this point, I think Female Trouble is his best of this early era. It’s still very messy and bloated with scenes, but it’s also his most coherent in terms of theme. Not every moment is dark comedy; there’s some genuine pathos here. In one scene, Taffy runs away to meet her biological father, Earl, the skeevy driver played by Divine. Even after learning this is his own child, he attempts to drunkenly rape her. Taffy responds by stabbing him to death in an extremely bloody scene. There was some camp, but Mink Stole’s performance had so much pain that it caused me to really think about the ideas Waters was exploring.

Blazing Saddles (Directed by Mel Brooks)

From my review: Blazing Saddles is, at its core, a story about how a Black man ultimately makes a fool out of every white asshole in his vicinity and still saves their lives. No one in the script has more character than Bart, a man who is true to his word, kind and ultimately stands up for himself if pushed back against. The story could easily have let The Waco Kid act as a co-star to Bart, and I think many people may remember it that way. However, it’s simply not the case; Cleavon Little is THE star of this film. Wilder is a highly talented supporting player in the story. Bart gets the girl, Lili von Shtupp (Madeline Khan), a white burlesque performer. The Waco Kid does not have a love interest. The villains in the film are white wealthy men. Funny enough, Brooks first went to John Wayne to star as The Waco Kid, but the actor rejected it for the film being “too blue.” Wayne was the king of reactionaries, so I don’t think he would have been a good fit anyway.

The Conversation (Directed by Francis Ford Coppola)

From my review: The great irony of Caul’s story is that he is ultimately revealed to be a terrible listener. When I was going through my Master’s program, there was a class where the instructor had us do listening exercises. The idea was that as educators, so much of what we do hinges on listening to our students. Hearing was differentiated from listening as being the act of acknowledging sound, while listening is the more profound understanding of what is said. Caul is very good at hearing people talking, but his great folly is failing to listen to what they say. In conversations with his colleagues and even his supposed lover, Caul always feels distracted. He’s never in the moment, anticipating something else which he likely couldn’t fully articulate if pressed. Sound makes up his life, but he’s incapable of understanding what it all means.

Scenes From a Marriage (Directed by Ingmar Bergman)

From my review: One of the most stunning moments occurs in episode three, where Johan reveals his affair and his firm plans to leave, not even sitting down with his daughters to explain why he will be gone. Marianne’s reaction is so calm, lost in shock at the final knife in her marriage. She never explodes with anger in this episode, which will come later, and just so mournfully goes about a routine of helping her husband pack. He becomes increasingly irritated, having prepared himself for a likely outburst, and appears to resent her submissive nature. I found Ullman’s performance so realistic, most people’s reaction in response to a sudden life-changing event. We cling to normality, routine to avoid facing reality. Bergman frames these moments in a way that audiences will find harsh but very honest.

A Woman Under the Influence (Directed by John Cassevettes)

From my review: A Woman Under the Influence is a film about gender & class but not in any reductive sense. This picture tackles these ideas from every possible angle, barreling forward into the most complicated and complex parts. Mabel is a product of the 1950s good little housewife ideology. She came of age during that time. Now she is an aging wife and mother with no identity outside of those titles. Nick is also a product of this society which informs his constant embarrassment of his wife, shouting at her in front of guests. There’s a part of him that wasn’t wholly warped by this conformist way of thinking, and you can see that manifest as guilt on his face. He isn’t let off the hook, though, as Nick becomes a feckless person by the end of the picture. He does a lot of yelling, a typical male response to stress, but it amounts to nothing. There’s no evidence he can parent, and he certainly fails as a supportive spouse.

The Godfather Part II (Directed by Francis Ford Coppola)

From my review: One of the most significant themes in Part II is how power alienates the powerful. The entire film culminates with Michael being alone; his lieutenants are the only people close to him. He’s aggressively pushed away his wife and thoroughly broken ties with Fredo and Tom. Coppola doesn’t want us to view Michael as a cold, distant figure, though, and chooses to flashback to a moment before the first film where young Michael tells his siblings about joining the military to serve in World War II. This moment of nostalgia links the prequel and sequel elements, spotlighting the family Vito built so full of love and life and pointing to a time when Michael believed in something when he had a chance to escape the family business.

Hearts & Minds (Directed by Peter Davis)

From my review: The title of this documentary comes from the colloquial saying referring to the way of winning support for a military effort. You must appeal to people’s emotions and logic. That is what the Vietnamese did in their ferocity and unwillingness to submit to their invaders. The hearts and minds of the American people and the young men being forced into battle were broken in the wake of this horrible war. The film presents many iconic moments that you’ve likely seen reproduced in still photos, images of true horror. I respect the unflinching manner in which the scenes are presented, emotion is raw, and people’s hearts are revealed. It is essential to hear the offensive words of national security advisers and General Westmoreland, the awful man that commanded the troops and was directly responsible for swaths of murder.

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