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The Top Ten Films of the 1970s

While the 1960s would be typified as a sort of waking dream, where television and film seemed to bind at the genetic level with the political and social worlds, the 1970s came to be looked at as the Sunday morning after the bad acid trip. It opened with two deadly shootings at Kent State and Jackson State Universities and ended with Three Mile Island and the Iran hostage crisis. The presidency became nothing short of calamity as we suffered through the Nixon resignation, pre-empted by Spiro T. Agnew’s plea bargain. The drug-culture haze had cleared, and what was left was bedlam, corruption, and greed run mad. But at least we got out of Vietnam, right?

It came as little surprise then to see that the film culture focused on the ghosts of Vietnam and corruption as an unspoken but inherent facet of family and business in America. The bulk of the films on our list of the best movies of the ’70s feature outcasts, raging and then doubling back on themselves, only to be swallowed once more by American institutions that would not stand to be mocked or overthrown. The top-grossing film imagined an entire other galaxy (far, far away) where rebellion was plausible and where creatures of every sort fought against an all-powerful Empire, but by the end of the decade, even the fantasy seemed to give up on hope and change.

If nothing else, the 1970s rethought the lengths and depths of big-budget filmmaking and the Hollywood picture, basically prognosticating the American arthouse film that would become much more popular and prominent in the 1980s. At moments (always too fleeting) it felt like Hollywood was in the business of making films interested in exploring America rather than offering it complacency. Here are some of the best it had to offer.

01. The Godfather
Perhaps Academy members showered The Godfather with 11 Oscar nominations and three wins (including Best Picture) because they were afraid they’d be whacked if they didn’t. Such is the power of Francis Ford Coppola’s Mafia masterpiece: A grim but gorgeously shot study of family loyalty and dishonor that devolves into a thrillingly lurid chain of double crosses, ambushes, vendettas, assassinations, and yes, the occasional severed horse head. Plot mechanics aside, the film offers an abudanza of memorable star turns, not just from the iconic Brando but also from James Caan, Robert Duvall, and of course, Al Pacino, the initially ambiguous eye of the storm and the man fated to lead the Corleone clan through three films’ worth of murder and brooding until it all ends with his silent scream. To quote another crime lord: Just when he thought he was out… DW

02. Annie Hall
It’s hard not to hesitate when citing Annie Hall as Woody Allen’s crowning achievement; this popular Best Picture winner feels almost too easy for a Woodyphile eager to champion later, less-cited works. But Allen’s free-wheeling dissection of a failed relationship between an angst-ridden comedy writer (guess who) and the titular, flighty la-di-da-ing Midwestern gal (Diane Keaton, never better) is, indeed, far more hilarious and heartfelt than anything he’s made before or since. Allen, making his transition into more serious films, uses broad comic touches — subtitled thoughts, split screen, fourth-wall-busting, sight gags, and even animation — to have ridiculous fun with a bittersweet love story. The film thrives in part because it successfully translates its seventies self-analysis into a neurotic language anyone can understand. When a movie like (500) Days of Summer claims, in 2009, to be an intelligent, playful, and stylish, but truthful take on the romantic comedy, what it’s really saying is: Please, please, please let me be one-quarter as wonderful as Annie Hall. La di da indeed. JH

03. Network
Decades before reality television grabbed viewers’ lemming-like brains, Network imagined it. Writer Paddy Chayefsky won the Oscar for his incredibly prescient screenplay about media gone mad, where one failing network scores huge ratings at nearly any cost. It is one of those rare films where the screenwriter has been more celebrated than the director; a shame, seeing as it’s a key film from an American auteur known mostly for crime films. Peter Finch was awarded a posthumous Oscar for his unforgettable portrayal of a commentator whose angry dive into insanity makes him an on-air prophet — with big profits. Director Sidney Lumet keeps Network sharp and ferocious, enough to have a nation yelling, ‘I’m mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take this anymore!’ NS

04. The Godfather: Part II
The debate rages on about whether the continuance of the life and times of the Corleone family is stronger than the original (it isn’t) but it is one of the few times where an argument can even be made. Like its more commercial binary, the original Star Wars trilogy, the second installment of Francis Ford Coppola’s crime saga is unquestionably the darker, more emotionally complex and impactful of the films; a Shakespearean tragedy spanning the globe and offering what is still do this day the most passionate and unconventional story of crime’s inherent role in the American identity. Here, we see not only the quiet, calculating monster that Michael has become, brooding and raging with equal power, but how family has become simply a pretense for business and capital. Death and desperation hang over The Godfather: Part II but its deep well of pain gets in your veins and won’t let you go. To borrow one of the film’s canonical quotes, it breaks your heart. CC

05. Apocalypse Now
Apocalypse Now is one of the foremost representations of the grandness and audacity of the filmmaking vision of the 1970s. Francis Ford Coppola’s sprawling masterpiece was so daring that it took the polarizing, controversial (and quite recent at the time of the film’s 1979 release) subject of Vietnam and used it as a mere backdrop for
intense, uncompromising psychological drama. It is not a movie about war; it is a movie about what war does to a soldier’s humanity. The film shows Coppola at the very height of his directing glory, with a cast that represents a cavalcade of brilliant performers, but it is the film’s uncompromising content that vaults it into the best of the ’70s or any other decade. War is vicious, war is hell, and war tears away at humanity until there’s nothing left. The horror… the horror… JM

06. Chinatown
In his snarling cameo in Chinatown, it was very plain to see where the troubled young Roman Polanski, only five years after his pregnant wife became the central figure in the most heinous and inexplicable of modern crimes, was going as both an artist and individual. Obsessed with corrupt power, fascinated by incest, and without a single iota of hesitation, Chinatown remains the darkest and most full-bodied of neo-noirs; the cackling, shivering skeleton that brought the heckled noir genre out of the closet. Jack Nicholson, who was undeniably the star of the 1970s, gives one of his most assured and devastating performances here, but even he couldn’t dare stare into the abyss of director John Huston’s monumental supporting performance as the all-powerful King of California, Noah Cross. Underneath the structure and knowledge of Chinatown lies a man without hope who has seen the lengths of human corruption. We are told to forget it, as Nicholson is, but that was never really an option, was it? CC

07. Taxi Driver
Few movies possess raw anger like Martin Scorsese’s remarkable character study about a disturbed NYC cabbie obsessed with a prostitute and idealistic to a delusional fault. Robert De Niro’s now-infamous portrayal of Vietnam vet Travis Bickle is an uncomfortable jaw-dropper, filled with confusion, rage, and something lethal under the surface. Credit De Niro with getting that electricity from others’ performances as well, from Harvey Keitel as a sleazebag street pimp to Scorsese himself as a passenger spying on his cheating wife. An urban nightmare on the heels of a post-war America and a near-bankrupt New York City, Taxi Driver captured cultural distress like few films have since. Decades of people parroting ‘You talking to me?’ hasn’t blunted the power of De Niro’s superb, spontaneous anti-hero, nor have years of bad-boy auteurs trying to harness Scorsese’s urgency dulled the film’s pulverizing rush. NS

08. Alien
Aided by surrealist H.R. Giger and inspired by the existential dread of H.P. Lovecraft, director Ridley Scott produced a high-tech haunted house story that has yet to be beaten. It starts with a grungy workaday future — almost comforting in its 8-to-5 banality — that blithely coasts into the stuff of nightmares when a deep-space cargo ship makes a pit stop on the king of wrong planets. While Alien works brilliantly as stimulus response, its real terrors touch on something much more profound. The universe has no place for humanity, it whispers to us, and indeed our concepts of life and morality become utterly irrelevant when faced with the horrors between the stars. As good as it was, James Cameron’s sequel never quite scuttled into our subconscious so profoundly, while the remaining films in the series only demonstrated how rare such an achievement can be. RV

09. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Milos Forman, using his unique sense of community and character along with his odd but undeniable visual lexicon, gives weight and breadth to Ken Kesey’s magnificent, claustrophobic novel of the same name, adapted by Bo Goldman and Lawrence Hauben. The warring entities of Jack Nicholson’s McMurphy and Louise Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched provide an excellent center stage, but as with the Czech director’s foreign work, the beauty and nuance of the film lies in the smaller roles: Will Sampson as Chief, Christopher Lloyd as Taber, and most effective, the brilliant Brad Dourif as Billy Bibbit. Forman has yet to make a better film but then crafting something as unpredictable and moving as Cuckoo’s Nest would make any mere mortal end up in the loony bin. CC

10. Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope
The so-called ‘New Hollywood’ filmmakers brought greater realism and innovation to mainstream cinema. They also took themselves way too seriously, and by the end of the seventies, audiences were tired of liberal politics and cultural commentary. George Lucas’ imaginative vision brought traditional entertainment values back to Hollywood, and the success of Star Wars transformed the industry and paved the way for decades of blockbusters (action, comedy, sci-fi, fantasy) that take modern moviegoers where we increasingly want to be: Long ago and far, far away. DB

Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):
A Clockwork Orange
A Woman Under the Influence
All the President’s Men
Animal House
Badlands
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
The Deer Hunter
The Exorcist
Jaws
Mean Streets

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