After the destruction of the Hollywood norm back in the 1960s, the 1970s provided a uniquely gritty approach to cinema. There were no more barriers as to what could and could not be talked about anymore, so everything was fair game. Luckily for these filmmakers, there was no shortage of topics to talk about, including the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, and the overall death of “Classic America.” This is personally one of my favorite decades in cinema, as it brought a lot of opportunities for independent filmmakers to give their unique takes on the medium. Here are my personal seven favorite films of the era.
7. “Jaws” (1975)
“Jaws” follows a sheriff, a marine biologist, and an old sailor on the hunt for a shark that has been terrorizing the small island town of Amity, New England. This is a classic, no doubt about it. It’s the reason I never got into a pool until I was 7 years old. There are very few movies that just about everyone can agree are just great movies and this is most definitely one of them. Director Steven Spielberg and composer John Williams do wonderful jobs building an immense feeling of suspense. This film has reached a sort of untouchable iconic presence in film history and it really does deserve it, as it really is a wonderfully crafted movie. It also serves as the first “Summer Blockbuster” in film history, as it was the first movie ever to gross $100 million in the box office.
6. “Network” (1976)
“Network” tells the story of Howard Beale, a crazed News Anchor, and the greedy producers that try to use him to their benefits. In terms of satire, I would say that this is the most biting and accurate of them all. It’s one that hits somehow even harder today than it did in 1976. The screenplay of this movie truly is an absolute feat in writing. The film’s stellar script is matched perfectly with the film’s stellar cast. Just about everyone in this cast gives a positively stunning performance. Every performance is so good in fact, that Beatrice Straight, despite only being in the film for exactly five minutes and two seconds, won the 1977 Academy Award for best supporting actress. This film offers any new viewer a movie-going experience like none other.
5. “Five Easy Pieces” (1970)
“Five Easy Pieces” follows Robert Dupea, a man who leaves his upper-class life to work in oil fields, but must return to his old life after hearing his father is unwell. Jack Nicholson’s performance in this is by far one of the greatest performances of all time. Robert is most certainly an interesting character, in that he most likely will not gain the audience’s sympathy, but he will most certainly gain their empathy. Jack Nicholson portrays him as not a very likable person (a role he’s sort of perfected over the years), but an understandable one. Not to mention the beautiful script written by Carole Eastman, and Bob Rafelson. This is something of an underrated film, but I would recommend it to any who consider themselves a fan of Nicholson, or just good anti-hero performances as a whole.
4. “The Godfather” (1972) & “The Godfather: Part II” (1974)
“The Godfather” and “The Godfather: Part II” follow the Corleone family, a prominent Italian organized crime family. I am a very indecisive person, a trait that does not work well when making lists like these. However, the one thing I just knew was that I absolutely could not rank one “Godfather” film over the other. It feels like a sign of disrespect toward both of these gorgeously crafted films. What’s there to say that every “film-bro” hasn’t said already. The performances by those such as Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Diane Keaton, James Caan, and especially that of Marlon Brando are absolutely amazing. The story also just weaves like a perfect quilt, especially in the second one, in which they cut back and forth between a young Vito Corleone, and his son Micheal. All in all, it is an absolutely amazing duology of films, in which there is not a third. So stop telling me there is!
3. “Apocalypse Now” (1979)
“Apocalypse Now” is a light retelling of Joseph Conrad’s novel “Heart of Darkness” set in Vietnam during the war. Although this film has a tumultuous production to say the very least, it is an absolute masterpiece. It does an amazing job not only adapting the themes of the original Conrad novel, but also including more modern themes about the nature of warfare. It is a brilliant character study of Martin Sheen’s disturbed, self-destructive Captain Benjamin L. Willard, the film’s adaptation of “Heart of Darkness” protagonist Charles Marlow. Marlon Brando also gives a brilliant performance as Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, which is really saying something considering he just improvised most of it. In terms of war movies, I would say this is by far, the best of the best.
2. “Taxi Driver” (1976)
“Taxi Driver” follows Travis Bickle, a pessimistic, mentally-unstable veteran slowly losing his sanity whilst working as a night-time taxi driver. This is yet another magnificent character study of a disturbed, self-destructive man. I firmly believe that Paul Schrader is one of the greatest American screenwriters of all time, and I use this film as definitive evidence. His script feels real and lived in. Despite being made in the 70s, it still has a sense of danger and immediacy. His manifestos sound eerily close to those of mass shooters today. It’s one of those rare movies that will make everyone see themselves in a different light. Robert De Niro as the film’s lonely main character, Travis Bickle does an outstanding job, and creates a perfect character study in every sense of the word.
“Dog Day Afternoon” (1975)
“Dog Day Afternoon” is based on the true story of a failed bank robbery done by two lovers. Director Sidney Lumet somehow manages to bring out some really funny moments in a story that’s as serious as a heart attack! The credit also goes in big part to Frank Pierson, the film’s screenwriter. Al Pacino and John Cazale also do wonderful as the aforementioned two lovers, Sonny and Sal.
“Alien” follows a spaceship crew as they are terrorized by an alien lifeform. Any lover of horror films that keep the audience on edge, even after the credits roll, will appreciate this one. The feeling of something lurking in the shadows and rapidly approaching intensifies with every second of the film’s near two-hour run-time. This in part is because of production designer Michael Seymour and concept artist H.R Giger. In all, it is simply an “out of this world” horror film.
“Shaft” follows slick private detective John Shaft, as he searches for the daughter of notorious mob boss Bumpy. This is by no means a perfect film. However, it is extremely fun to watch. It’s got a groovy soundtrack, cheesy action, and an overall cool tone. I would highly recommend this film for the ultimate buddy movie night, as it delivers action, laughs, and camp-galore. (See my review here.)
1. “Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope” (1977)
At his point, I am absolutely positively certain there isn’t a soul who doesn’t know Star Wars. It’s rare that a film has a story so good, it is comparable to that of Greek myth. However, “Star Wars” does this with absolute perfection, the likes of which have never been matched. To say this is one of the greatest films of all time is a complete understatement. It is one of the greatest stories of all time. The characters are simple archetypes, however, they also seem incredibly fleshed out. The casting for all of those characters is simply perfect. The score is epic, sprawling, and absolutely legendary not only in terms of film scores, but in terms of music as a whole. To say all the stars aligned for this one is saying the absolute bare minimum. This film, without a doubt, is an absolute perfect masterpiece.
The 1970s aren’t talked about much in terms of American history, but I believe it truly was one of the most unique decades ever. It was one of the few times the nation felt ultimately vulnerable. The American people were lost and trying to find some sort of identity. A sense of identity that these films managed to bring to them. If there was any time in which cinema was most important, it would most certainly be the 70’s.