People always talk about “The Golden Age of Hollywood” and how it typically refers to the 1930s-1940s. I get it…it was the early years and a lot of legends were formed…but I have never been that drawn to that particular area in which many films often felt too docile when confined to the censorship process known as The Hays Code, not to mention a lot of issues with Hollywood itself ranging from women getting shafted, minorities getting shafted, and also the quality of acting could often come across as too bombastic by today’s standards.
By the 1950s (as I stated in my last essay about the 1960s), World Cinema outside of the United States was taking off tremendously due to not having as many restrictions on content. Thus, we were able to get films by the likes of Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Akira Kurosawa, and Francois Truffaut to name a few…and a lot of their films made ours look completely ridiculous in comparison. I mean…put something like a Douglas Sirk movie up against anything by any of these men and you’d probably die laughing…with all due respect to Douglas Sirk.
American cinema did eventually grow into its own by the end of the 1960s but it was the 1970s that brought us up as equals in my eyes…and with that, I find the 1970s to be my favorite decade for cinema quite easily. It is such an embarrassment of riches that I don’t even know where to begin…and because of that, I am already going to break my rule of limiting myself to 10 films, plus 5 honorable mentions. Instead, I am going to take a suggestion from my friend Tommy at the TV based blog “That’s Alls I Know” and do a list where I still do a top 10 but I mention a film that bares some kind of connection to it so it is practically like I am giving you Buy One Get One Free Top 10 lists.
However…because the 70s are such a goldmine. I am going to go crazier than I will on any of the lists….those others will be sticking to my “Top 10/Honorable 5” template.
For this list, I will be listing a two honorable mentions for each year of the decade and then also two per year for my top 10, so essentially this will be like a top 40 list. To keep the content down to a readable amount, I will still only discuss my Top 10 (….20) at length.
So with that in mind…let us begin!
Patton (Franklin J. Schaffner)
Five Easy Pieces (Bob Rafelson)
The Hospital (Arthur Hiller)
Fiddler on the Roof (Norman Jewison)
The Emigrants (Jan Troell)
Sounder (Martin Ritt)
American Graffiti (George Lucas)
Badlands (Terrence Malick)
A Woman Under the Influence (John Cassavetes)
Chinatown (Roman Polanski)
Jaws (Steven Spielberg)
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Milos Forman)
Small Change (Francois Truffaut)
Face to Face (Ingmar Bergman)
3 Women (Robert Altman)
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg)
Midnight Express (Alan Parker)
The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino)
Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola)
Breaking Away (Peter Yates)
I am still going to further break my template by still sticking to the year by year format. Two films per year will be discussed.
M*A*S*H (Robert Altman)
-I was never an avid viewer of the TV series adaptation of M*A*S*H though I do respect it very much. I also feel like the film version was also quite the unique little gem as it contained the Altman staple of having a strong ensemble at its score while also maintaining such a bleak and dark comedic tone. Plus, as the movie begins and you hear the haunting title tune, “Suicide is Painless” (which an instrumental version would be used as the TV theme), you are left dumbstruck by the very cold lyrics…even more so when you realize they were written by Altman’s 14 year old son Mike.
Women in Love (Ken Russell)
-While not as discussed nowadays, WOMEN IN LOVE was such an interesting film…and it doesn’t just have to do with the nude wrestling scene between Alan Bates and Oliver Reed. Led by an Oscar winning performance by the brilliant Glenda Jackson, this film was based on the D.H. Lawrence and was adapted by novelist, playwright, and gay rights activist Larry Kramer, who just so happens to be one of the most fascinating people to have walked the earth in my opinion. I have always been a sucker for British settings and this very droll and dreary atmosphere set around two different love stories has always been a guilty pleasure of mine.
A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick)
-Based on a brilliant novel by Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange was set in the futuristic hell-scape known as…hmmm…1995…and revolves around a rather repellant group of thugs known as the Droogs, who go around beating and assaulting both men and women, or as it is termed: “Ultra-Violence”. This group is led by Alex, played by a maniacal and oddly fascinating Malcolm McDowell, and eventually he will get captured and put under an experiment known as the Ludovico Technique to try to rehabilitate him…but does it actually end up working? In many ways, this film was Kubrick at his most vibrant and colorful. The atmosphere of this film is so rich and disturbing, and it also helps that Alex is a fan of classical music which also gets something of an update with many pieces being played on a synthesizer…most memorably a very robotic rendition of “Ode to Joy” and a cartoonish sped-up sex scene accompanied by “The William Tell Overture”. Also, who can forget McDowell’s rendition of “Singin’ in the Rain” as he and his friends plan to assault a woman right in front of her tied up husband? It is an uncomfortable film that was controversial at its time…and still packs a punch today…but it is also brilliant despite its uneasy nature.
The Last Picture Show (Peter Bogdonavich)
-Of all of the New Hollywood directors that would come into vogue during the 70s, Bogdonavich was the one that took the hardest fall and is often forgotten about…and frankly, I can understand why. After The Last Picture Show, he only made one film that I truly loved which was 1973’s PAPER MOON and maybe a couple of solid efforts like 1985’s MASK with Cher. However, this film was more than worthy to stand with the films of his colleagues from this decade: a sleek but gritty black & white filmed tale about a small Texas town called Anarene set in 1951. With a great ensemble that was filled with a who’s who of actors that are now legends but were unknowns then, we follow two friends played by Timothy Bottoms and Jeff Bridges whose choices will end up affecting various people around them. For example, Bottoms’ character Sonny has an affair with his Football coach’s wife Ruth because she is suffering from feeling alone in light of her husband’s closeted homosexuality. This is one of those films that doesn’t benefit from a lengthy discussion as it is better served by simply watching it. Character driven storylines can be hard to describe…so how about you just go watch it if you haven’t seen it?
The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola)
-An atypical choice, but if the shoe fits. I actually have had a rather erratic history with this film and its sequel in that I always admired them but never exactly LOVED them. It wasn’t until I recently revisited both of them (the third installment will never be worth my time) that I decided I was wrong in not loving them. The films feel close to perfect and they are so magnificent in the way they are presented that they are in a class by themselves in terms of being mentioned with mobster movies; they feel like they are worth more than that. One of those rare movies that seemed to have hit the right notes in terms of critical and audience admiration.
Cabaret (Bob Fosse)
-For many years, the Broadway musical adaptation of this was my absolute favorite…and it still ranks among my top 10 of all time. You would think that this film wouldn’t be something I would be drawn to considering how much it drastically differs from the stage version…which includes completely cutting out the character of Herr Schultz and reducing Fraulein Schneider to a single line. However, since Fosse’s vision for the film was quite the visual feast, I am able to view it as its own beast…and you sort of have to when you realize that the character of Sally Bowles went for an English woman who didn’t exactly have the most pleasant singing voice to…an American played by Liza Minnelli who was definitely her mother’s daughter.
Scenes from a Marriage (Ingmar Bergman)
-Before MARRIAGE STORY and KRAMER VS. KRAMER, there was SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE which did not gain any kind of award season traction at the time (not that it would’ve gotten a lot of attention anyway) due to the fact that it actually began as a 6-part TV miniseries in Sweden. The plot is simple: Marianne (Liv Ullman) and Johan (Erland Josephson) are married but over a 10-year period, we watch their marriage disintegrate. We get such themes as affairs and abortions which may seem commonplace today in film or TV but were not for the faint of heart back then…at least not for American audiences. While I do love the theatrical cut, which runs 168 minutes, I do feel it is best to seek out the full original miniseries which is available on The Criterion Collection. Bergman may often have been made fun of for being such a bleak and depressing filmmaker but he was simply a genius who was beyond worthy of praise.
Day for Night (Francois Truffaut)
-Not as many people discuss Truffaut on the same level as they do Bergman or even Fellini. Most remember Truffaut for his occasional acting, like his stint in Spielberg’s CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. Day for Night is about the making of a French film and the drama that goes on behind the scenes with its cast and crew, with particular praise being given to Valentina Cortese, whose performance as Severine is one for the ages. The film they are making is a melodrama called “Je Vous Presente Pamela” or rather “I Want You to Meet Pamela”…and a lot of the behind the scenes drama matches the heightened nature of the film.
The Godfather Part II (Francis Ford Coppola)
-I feel like I said a lot when discussing the first film, but this film does add the interesting angle of Robert DeNiro as young Vito and how he came to prominence as a mobster in NY after migrating alone from Italy when his mother is brutally murdered right in front of him…something we get to watch him avenge later on. We also watch Al Pacino as the legendary Michael Corelone further grow from something of a blank canvas to a menacing and ruthless mob Don who took on a darker approach than his father.
The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola)
-Coppola was on a roll in the 70s…something he sadly didn’t continue beyond the decade. In many ways, I feel like this is his most underappreciated film and perhaps my own personal favorite of his work. Gene Hackman, a brilliant actor who was known for his very brash performances, brings it down tremendously as the awkward and subtle Harry Caul, a surveillance expert who ends up getting an audio recording of what he believes is someone getting murdered. Thus begins him trying to solve this mystery while becoming obsessed and paranoid beyond belief. The interesting “life imitating art” angle of this film is that a lot of the equipment used in the film was similar to that used during the Watergate scandal which was purely coincidental…but it did help get the film more recognition…and it was recognition well deserved.
Dog Day Afternoon (Sidney Lumet)
-Based on a real life bank robbery that occurred in 1972 at Gravesend, Brooklyn, DOG DAY AFTERNOON is a film that contains one of, if not, my personal favorite performance of Al Pacino as Sonny, a desperate man who robs a Chase bank with his accomplice Sal (the late John Cazale) in hopes to obtain funds to help his partner Leon get a sex-change operation. The film’s hot and intense setting make for perhaps the greatest film that is based around a hostage situation. Movies like this one are basically the prime example of how the 70s were filled with the early prototypes of the “anti-hero” which has now become far more commonplace in film and TV today…and while it was based on a true story, the angle of the character Leon (based on transwoman Elizabeth Eden) is such a unique and bold additional that made the film feel more alive and also helps the film pack a punch even in today’s society.
Nashville (Robert Altman)
-This is often considered the crown jewel of Altman’s career and it probably was his greatest achievement. A movie like Nashville feels unique as the world of Country music doesn’t often get much traction in cinema…especially nowadays. In fact, living in New York, I feel like country music is so underplayed and laughed at that I don’t even know who some of the biggest stars are in that genre anymore. Things were different back then and I do feel that Altman was able to capture such a fascinating tone for this film, which would revolve around the build-up to a gala for a populist outsider running for the Republican nomination for President….that really hits close to home doesn’t it? This ensemble is fantastic, particularly the memorable work by Lily Tomlin, Barbara Harris, Henry Gibson, Karen Black, and Ronee Blakley. It is a film that most film fanatics always cite as a true classic masterpiece but it still doesn’t seem to have the widespread fame that other films from that era have.
Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese)
-There is the Woody Allen lens of New York and there is the Martin Scorsese lens of New York…and it just goes to show how differently one can view the city. Scorsese has said before that while he loved a lot of Allen’s work, he found his version of NYC “extremely foreign” to him. Allen did live in something of a bubble in his Upper East Side apartment/eventual Brownstone…but I feel like the real grittiness of New York was always well captured by Scorsese. This was a New York that was dripping with crime and grime; a city that was struggling after rather erratic mayoral reigns from the likes of John Lindsay and Abe Beame…and with that, we get one of the most famous anti-heroes of all-time: Travis Bickle, played by Scorsese favorite Robert DeNiro. Bickle is a Vietnam vet who drives a taxi and…he is blatantly racist and has no social grace at all…and yet somehow, you get why he is so angry at the world. NYC is a cesspool and he ceases to have change by cleaning up the streets (not sure though how much he would take to the Guiliani-fied New York though). A lot of his drive begins with his failed relationship with a woman named Betsy played by Cybil Shepard…a failure that is essentially his own doing…and then his quest to be a hero by trying to impress and save a young teenage prostitute played by Jodie Foster by considering to assassinate a political figure (another moment that hits close to home) and eventually, murdering her pimp and others whom he feels are trapping her. TAXI DRIVER remains one of Scorsese’s most powerful and memorable films…and I think it also holds up tremendously well, even if the NYC it shows feels like it disappeared over 2 decades ago.
Network (Sidney Lumet)
-Along with DR. STRANGELOVE, which was featured on my Best of the 60s list, Network is easily among the best depictions of satire ever captured on film…and the sad thing is, it actually feels more relevant today and seems more like it could actually happen than it did in 1976. Lumet does a great job directing this film but it is certainly helped by the magnificent and passionate script by Paddy Chayefsky, who was basically the Aaron Sorkin of his day. At its core, Network revolves around the fictional UBS Television Network which ranks last in the ratings behind CBS, NBC, and ABC. One major push from the executives is to fire News anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) who then announces on the air that he plans to commit suicide due to this development since being an anchor was all he had to live for. From here, ratings begin to take off while a programming executive named Diana (a crazed and brilliant Faye Dunaway) steps in and essentially uses this man’s nervous breakdown to build up the network’s ratings all while having an affair with Max (William Holden), the news division president and Howard’s oldest and dearest friend. A lot of what NETWORK says is true about society and how it feels like corporations are the true being of how the world works. The film may be a satire, but it is also an extremely disturbing mirror to how our world really is.
Annie Hall (Woody Allen)
-Often considered to be the defacto answer for the triumph of his career, Annie Hall was a major stepping stone for Woody Allen, who went from making farcical comedies like SLEEPER and BANANAS to this little film which quietly told the story of a love affair that eventually didn’t work out all while being funny without resorting to punch lines…it all came from character beats and relatable situations. The script for the film is fantastic and as for a performance, Woody Allen has never been better…and Diane Keaton creates such an indelible character with Annie Hall that you can’t help but fall in love too. When I first saw this movie, I found it to be highly overrated…I was only 13 or 14 years old…but I revisited it in college and that is when I fell in love. Some may bemoan that it beat out STAR WARS at the Oscars but screw that….ANNIE HALL beats that in a cakewalk.
Eraserhead (David Lynch)
-After beginning a career in art/sculpture and then progressing to really surreal short films, David Lynch spent five years making this 90-minute film with help from AFI grants and donations by Sissy Spacek and her husband Jack Fisk about a rather peculiar man named Henry (played by Lynch favorite Jack Nance) who ends up courting a girl across the hall who ends up giving birth to a deformed baby…or whatever it may be. I can’t really discuss this movie….it is a movie that needs to be seen. Lynch is notorious for making his films be heavily reliant on visual imagery and interpretation and he often won’t share his opinions on the content. He once referred to Eraserhead as his “most spiritual film”. When asked to elaborate, he bemusedly just said “No.” In a decade that took so many bold chances, the surreal nature of this film never gets mentioned as much as it should. I get that it may not be for everyone but I fell in love with its eerie and trance-like tone. It is simply a masterpiece and, perhaps, the crown jewel of surrealist cinema.
Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick)
-Another entry in the “Film That Received a Mixed Response When it was released” group that has now become highly regarded was true cinematic achievement….and it also must be said that DAYS OF HEAVEN is in contention of being one of the most beautiful, stunning, and visually arresting films ever made. Its legend become some prominent that many film fanatics waited with baited breath for 20 years before Malick released another movie: THE THIN RED LINE. The reclusive Malick is a genius and this film remains his finest achievement to date. It revolves around Bill and Abby, played by Richard Gere and Brooke Adams, two lovers who travel to the northern Texas panhandle to harvest crops for a wealthy farmer. Things become sticky when Bill encourages Abby to marry the farmer, played by the late great actor/playwright Sam Shepard, after he falls in love with her and he admits he is dying. Bill says he will pose as Abby’s brother so they can eventually gain an inheritance upon his death…which leads to inevitable disastrous results. It is a true tragic piece that deserves to be seen by everyone.
AN UNMARRIED WOMAN (Paul Mazursky)
-I was going to say that the 70s were a strong decade for mature comedies but then I realized…the 70s were strong in pretty much every genre! However, a movie like AN UNMARRIED WOMAN is a gem because it helped tie in to the Sexual Liberation movement of women in the 70s but also showed that women didn’t necessarily need men in their lives…even if this film does have our lead find love eventually. Jill Clayburgh, who was primarily known as a stage actress prior to this film, gives an absolutely fantastic performance as Erica, a woman whose life is turned upside down when her wealthy stockbroker husband lives her for another woman. It may sound like a typical plot you’ve heard many times before but this movie was a pioneer for this kind of story and it also captures a late 70s NYC in such an indelible and gritty way. You could say it is a something of a slightly darker companion piece to Rhoda being divorced by Joe on the sitcom RHODA at that time, which was met mostly with apathy by the viewing public…however film was a different ballgame. It may not be as well known to the masses today, but I still think this is a very important and well made film.
All That Jazz (Bob Fosse)
-Joe Gideon (played by Roy Scheider) essentially IS Bob Fosse…and Fosse is willing to put himself through the ringer with this film as we watch Gideon coast through his hectic schedule while consuming an abundant amount of drugs and alcohol and having tons of sex…and it is also aided greatly to real life by Fosse casting his real life mistress Ann Reinking as his girlfriend in the film. The film also takes on a surreal approach by having the Fosse/Gideon character hallucinate talking to Angelique, who is dubbed an angel of death, played by Jessica Lange in only her second film role. As someone who loves the world of theatre, a movie like ALL THAT JAZZ was essentially made for me…and it also doesn’t hurt that upon seeing the film, Stanley Kubrick was quoted as saying that the film was the best film he felt he had ever seen…that is HIGH praise indeed coming from perhaps the most meticulous and perfectionist director to have ever lived.
Being There (Hal Ashby)
-Considering this is the last film I will be discussing for the 70s, I also feel like I am still leaving out so many worthy films for even just 1979…like KRAMER VS. KRAMER, ALIEN, THE LIFE OF BRIAN, LA CAGE AUX FOLLES….but I decided to give a nod to Being There, which was based on the Jerzy Kosinski novel about a simple-minded man named Chance (Peter Sellers in his final film role before dying in 1980), who has spent his life tending to a garden of an old wealthy man and has yet to leave the property. His whole life is gardening along with whatever he has learned through his main social source: the television. When his wealthy benefactor dies, the lawyers of their estate seize the property and Chance naively tells them he has no stake in the home and he must vacate. Eventually, he finds himself in the home of Ben Rand (Melvyn Douglas, in an Oscar winning performance), an elderly advisor to the President of the United States and his much younger wife Eve (Shirley MacLaine). From here, the film dissolves into a series of misunderstandings which leads Chance (or as people end up referring to him: Chauncey) to becoming a prominent member of the aristocratic society that the Rands are involved in. There is something so whimsical about BEING THERE that is so fetching and a lot of that has to do with the performance of Peter Sellers, but the whole film just feels like a dream…with an ending that is rife for interpretation in a way that felt ahead of its time.
So yes, as expected, I ended up listing 40 films while discussing half of them and I still feel like another dozen or so could’ve been mentioned with deserving fanfare. The 1970s were the pinnacle of cinema, if not for the whole world, at least for here in the States. So many iconic films and directors came into prominence then while the quality and content of the films became so much more substantial that it was hard to believe that just a decade prior, we were still living in a world when you couldn’t so much as swear in a movie without a lot of scandal. The 1980s will have films that I love but nothing will come close to the vitality that was achieved in the 70s.