10 movies you can’t miss from 1974
#10 – The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
Directed by Tobe Hooper. Starring Marilyn Burns, Paul A. Partain & Edwin Neal.
One of the best, original slasher films out there. Don’t mistake it for its 2003 remake, because this one is the true icon of cinema.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is the bloody and brutal brainchild of Tobe Hooper, who managed to put together this film on an absolute shoestring budget of $140,000. Stories include filming long into the nights to reduce equipment rental costs and casting unknown actors from Texas that meant limited wages. Despite it all, it was a success, being hailed as an iconic film and turning nearly $31 million at the box office. Critics have analysed the film through the lenses of contemporary American culture, violence against women and animal rights.
While listed as one of the greatest horror films of all time, it’s also considered one of the most controversial as its graphic violence resulted in a ban in several countries. If you can stomach horror and a bit of violence, “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” is worth a watch. It’ll chill you to the core.
#9 – Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
Directed by Martin Scorsese. Starring Ellen Burstyn, Kris Kristofferson & Diane Ladd.
Martin Scorsese proves that he’s not all crime and Italian-Americans with this masterpiece of a dramedy from the 27th Cannes Film Festival.
In an Oscar-winning performance, Ellen Burstyn plays Alice, a widow who travels with her young son across the southern United States in search of a better life. It’s a story of a strong woman forced to fend for herself against the world, chasing a dream of becoming a singer.
Even in his first Hollywood production, Scorsese is as much of a perfectionist as ever. He auditioned no less than 300 boys for the role of Tommy before settling on Alfred Lutter, and Scorsese demanded nothing less than perfection in the script and on-screen. The result is a moving and hilarious tale that is lauded for every detail, even down to the perfect accents of the actors as the setting moves across America.
Even the trailer above has an interesting charm to it. It’s worth checking out to see exactly why Scorsese’s career rocketed to the stars from here.
#8 – Death Wish
Directed by Michael Winner. Starring Charles Bronson, Hope Lange & Vincent Gardenia.
Before Batman graced the silver screen, there was another dark vigilante film worthy of a mention.
Death Wish is a gritty action film starring Charles Bronson as Paul Kersey, an architect who seeks vengeance after his wife is murdered and his daughter assaulted during a home invasion. Resonating with the American public as crime rates skyrocketed in the USA in the early 1970s, this film became a huge success and a cult classic.
Initially, the film was controversial for seemingly supporting vigilantism, but its critical and commercial success triggered a debate on how to deal with rampant crime, and it became an influential contributor to the culture of America at the time. Critics still slam it today for what they argue is an immoral philosophy, but there’s no disputing its precise and masterful direction and wonderful performances in a story that presents uncomfortable but relevant themes.
Make up your own mind about its ethical value, but Death Wish is probably Michael Winner’s greatest work and it’s certainly worth a watch.
#7 – The Longest Yard
Directed by Robert Aldrich. Starring Burt Reynolds, Eddie Albert & Ed Lauter.
As bad as the Adam Sandler remake was, the original The Longest Yard remains a cinematic icon. Burt Reynolds really nails this one.
Reynolds plays former NFL player Paul “Wrecking” Crewe, who recruits a group of prisoners to play American football against their guards. It features a host of actual NFL players and legends in the cast, including Green Bay Packers Hall-of-Famer Ray Nitschke.
It’s funny and heartwarming, and it also tells a beautiful story much more effectively than the 2005 remake ever managed. The matchup between two groups of brutal and crazy characters from different backgrounds (the prisoners and the guards) is a natural plot that provides both laughs and a satisfying story.
This is one that your teenage son is going to love. Try to steer him away from Sandler and towards Reynolds, if you can.
#6 – Young Frankenstein
Directed by Mel Brooks. Starring Gene Wilder, Peter Boyle & Marty Feldman.
Mel Brooks’ wacky sense of humour lends itself perfectly to this goofy blend of comedy and classic horror. Somehow, Frankenstein is better when he’s funny.
A parody of the often-campy horror movies of the 1930s, Young Frankenstein stars Gene Wilder in a typically wild and hilarious performance as Dr Frederick Frankenstein, grandson of the original doctor and creator of Frankenstein’s monster. After years of living down his family’s legacy, Frederick inherits his grandfather’s mansion and attempts to revive many of the old experiments.
Wilder as Frankenstein, Peter Boyle as The Monster and Marty Feldman as Igor are all fantastic. The humour is over-the-top, goofy and flippant, and the black-and-white atmosphere perfectly encapsulates the campy horror style that the film attempts to parody. Brooks himself has stated that he considers this the finest (although not the funniest) of his films.
Interestingly, it was actually Wilder who came up with the idea for Young Frankenstein, and he even wrote some of the scenes, which he pitched to Brooks while he was starring in…
#5 – Blazing Saddles
Directed by Mel Brooks. Starring Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder & Slim Pickens.
Two in a row for Mel Brooks! That’s got to be some sort of record, and I’m sure it’ll never happen again… In any case, Blazing Saddles is another hilarious and silly Brooks masterpiece.
Yet another genre-parody, this one mocks the often casually racist American Western and its depiction of Native American and African-American struggles during Frontier times. It’s full to the brim of Brooks’ iconic gags. My personal favourites are his deliberate anachronisms (chronological inconsistencies), such as the song “April in Paris,” references to the “Wide World of Sports” and the inclusion of the German army from World War II.
Renowned critic Roger Ebert refers to this film as an “audience film,” and I think nothing could sum it up better. This is a film designed to leave you in stitches. It does everything it can to make sure there isn’t a scene in the entire film where you aren’t laughing. In fact, any Brooks movie is perfect to just kick up your feet, unwind and let yourself laugh until you cry.
Interesting fact: the original story outline was written by Andrew Bergman and was meant to feature James Earl Jones as the Sheriff. Oh, what could have been.
#4 – The Taking of Pelham One Two Three
Directed by Joseph Sargent. Starring Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw & Martin Balsam.
I’ve heard stories that at the end of the scene above, audiences in cinemas would stand and give this film a rousing ovation. I can categorically believe it.
Holding a 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is one of the most inventive thrillers of all time. It focuses on the hijacking of a New York City subway car for ransom, as in the 1973 novel by John Godey. And I can’t write a review here without mentioning the score by David Shire, which is absolutely astounding.
This film is fast-paced, funny and action-packed. It develops the tension nicely and creates a story that is focused on the people rather than the formula of the plot. You develop relationships with each of the characters on the screen, which makes for a real experience that sets it apart from your standard thriller. The performance of Robert Shaw, in particular, was lauded for this reason.
This film is simultaneously a lot of fun and an interesting thriller to watch from a post-9/11 perspective, which has led to a modern revival of its analysis and even a remake.
#3 – The Conversation
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Starring Gene Hackman, John Cazale & Allen Garfield.
In a world that was becoming increasingly under surveillance, The Conversation became one of the most relevant and successful thrillers of all time.
I love a film that poses a moral quandary. In this Francis Ford Coppola masterpiece, surveillance expert Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is faced with a dilemma when he overhears a conversation that reveals a potential murder. It’s a tale of paranoia and intrigue that engages really thoroughly with the question of where the line is between surveillance and invasion of privacy.
The themes are remarkably advanced for its day, and Coppola is a master of suspense, which is surprising given the genre he is usually more renowned for. It was nominated for three Oscars and is still held to universal acclaim today. Expect an exhilarating thriller in which you can trust nobody and nothing.
Coincidentally, the audio surveillance equipment used in this film is identical to that used by the Nixon administration during Watergate, although Coppola has admitted that he didn’t know that at the time. Still, a neat little historical tie-in.
#2 – The Godfather Part II
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Starring Al Pacino, Robert Duvall & Diane Keaton.
Whoops! Another two in a row for a director! There’s no way I could justify including The Godfather two weeks ago without including its prequel-slash-sequel.
I admitted previously that I was not a big fan of The Godfather trilogy, but “Part II” pairs with the original. Telling the story of Michael (Al Pacino) as the Don and a young Vito (Robert De Niro), it complements what some consider to be the greatest film of all time with what I would say is a superior film. Pacino and de Niro are both stellar.
Even an anti-Godfather film buff like myself has to appreciate the warm tones, masterful direction and incredibly-crafted script. Sweeping up no less than six Oscars and being accoladed as equally brilliant, if not better than the first, you have to tip your hat (and kiss the ring) to The Godfather Part II.
I do find it incredibly interesting to hear Francis Ford Coppola talk about his idea of juxtaposing a father and son at the same age, so I’ll appreciate this film for what it is and give it a worthy place at number two.
#1 – Chinatown
Directed by Roman Polanski. Starring Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway & John Hillerman.
Here’s the film that I rather controversially say is better than The Godfather Part II. And I’m about to tell you why.
Roman Polanski’s mystery Chinatown, which was nominated for eleven Oscars and features a brilliant performance from Jack Nicholson, focuses on a series of political conflicts called the California Water Wars. It’s a neo-noir mystery that showed some of the absolute best of what Polanski could do before he left the United States as a fugitive and in disgrace.
Polanski controversy aside, this film was lauded as one of the greatest mysteries of all time. The wit and intelligence in this script are astounding, and it’s one of those films that leaves you with a great sense of satisfaction when it concludes. In fact, Robert Towne’s screenplay is considered to be perhaps the greatest ever written.
Judge for yourself. Maybe you’re a Godfather fan and you hate me for this, but give Chinatown a chance. If nothing else, you’ll appreciate one of Nicholson’s most nuanced and interesting performances.