Death was inevitable. The era of the big studios owning actors, directors, and writers was coming to a close. The rise of the independent filmmaker was just beginning, and the creative freedom of the 1960s was finally starting to gel into something more concrete than useless hippie idealism. Stories were grittier, the subject matter was more personal, and the films of the 1970s remain as a testament to the last great decade of Cinema.
Since the dawn of the medium, movies have existed to entertain. They also exist to line the pockets of the big studios. Movies have also been a mirror, a reflection of the society they propose to entertain. By the 1970s, the world had an overall feeling of burnout. In 1888, the first actual movie was made. Titled “The Roundhay Garden Scene,” it lasted only 2 seconds but it’s technically the first film of actual movement. From that time until the 1970s, the world had experienced the machination of the workforce, the change from horse-drawn carriages to cars, and the introduction of home-based entertainment in the form of radio and television. The world had also seen two World Wars, the Korean Conflict, and the Vietnam War. Movies provided escapism, entertainment, and joy in the form of dramas, comedies, musicals, and horror. By the time the 1970s began, big studios had been creatively spent, and the rise of the more independent filmmaker making storytelling more personal became a de rigueur priority.
The 1970s was called the “New Wave of American Cinema.” It’s looked upon as the time when the movies rose out of the torpor of jingoistic WWII films, beach movies, and musicals, and began to plumb the depths of the individual psyches of the viewers. About halfway through the decade, however, the gritty realism began to give way to the blockbuster, frighteningly ushered forth by Steven Spielberg in 1975. While the decade started out strong, the end saw a focus on more of what Spielberg had accidentally unleashed - an insatiable desire for the blockbuster which would put the studios in the black many times over. However, the decade remains the last great time in American cinema.
If one were to just take even a cursory look at a random list of impactful films from that era, the most casual observer would be floored. The herculean amount of emotional weight behind most of the films is staggering. Consider this: the decade began with a satirical look at the Vietnam War juxtaposed as the Korean Conflict, in the form of Robert Altman’s MASH. This was a new way of looking at war; one that didn’t glorify the involvement of the US. The same argument, or even a better one, could be said for Patton. This was an insight into a character who was as deeply flawed as he was charismatic. This theme of conflict, both internal and external, in the decade was book-ended by great war/antiwar films Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter. Airport heralded the genre of the disaster film, while Star Wars, Star Trek, and Alien took us farther into space than anyone else had.
One standout from the decade was the rise of the antihero. The common every-man had had enough, and was not going to stand for it anymore. From Inspector Harry Callahan to Popeye Doyle, from Doc McCoy to Sonny Wortzik, from Bo “Bandit” Darville to Swan, leader of the Warriors, all these antiheroes were characters we rooted for. The more anti-establishment, the better. It was realistic escapism, and we ate it up like we were starving.
The police were also a focused upon subject, as evidenced by films like The French Connection, Dirty Harry, Serpico, and even Chinatown, with the protagonist a private investigator as opposed to a cop. Criminals took center stage as well in Dog Day Afternoon and Midnight Express. Crime itself, and crime families, were included too, in A Clockwork Orange, The Panic in Needle Park, The Godfather, Death Wish, and even white collar political crime in All The Presidents Men.
What follows is a list of what I consider to be the best movies of each year, from 1970-1979. I did not include sequels, except for one, because in many cases the sequels were quite sub-par and tainted the originals to some degree. I have seen every one of these films, and can vouch for each. While this is not a complete list by any means, it is a compiling of what I think are the must-see movies from the last great Hollywood decade. Movies I highly recommend, that you may not have seen yet, are in bold. However I can’t say this enough - you should watch or rewatch ALL of these films:
1970: MASH, Airport, Patton, Little Big Man, A Man Called Horse
1971: The French Connection, Dirty Harry, The Last Picture Show, A Clockwork Orange, THX-1138, The Panic in Needle Park, Willy Wonka, Shaft, Play Misty For Me, Harold & Maude, Straw Dogs
1972: The Godfather, The Poseidon Adventure, Fritz the Cat, Silent Running, Deliverance, Blacula, The Last House on the Left, The Getaway, Jeremiah Johnson
1973: Last Tango in Paris, Soylent Green, Paper Moon, American Graffiti, The Wicker Man, Papillon, The Sting, Serpico, The Exorcist
1974: Blazing Saddles, The Great Gatsby, The Conversation, Chinatown, Death Wish, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Towering Inferno, Young Frankenstein, The Godfather Part II
1975: (The decade that began the insatiable desire for the blockbuster and all the money it brought) Jaws, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Death Race 2000, Nashville, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Dog Day Afternoon, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
1976: Taxi Driver, The Man who Fell to Earth, All the President’s Men, Murder by Death, Logan’s Run, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Car Wash, Carrie, Network, Rocky, King Kong, The Bad News Bears
1977: Star Wars, Slap Shot, Annie Hall, Smokey and the Bandit, The Hills Have Eyes, Looking for Mr. Goodbar, Close Encounters of the Third Kind
1978: Up in Smoke, Midnight Express, Halloween, Watership Down, The Deer Hunter, Superman, Invasion of the Body Snatchers
1979: The Warriors, Norma Rae, The China Syndrome, Apocalypse Now, Alien, The Amityville Horror, Star Trek, The Jerk
So there you have it, the last great decade of movie making. We can look upon other decades with a lens colored by nostalgia, but there is no other decade in cinematic history quite like the 1970s.