The 1970s were to the movies what the 1950s were to cars. In the US, Europe, and Japan especially, filmmakers were going big and bold; this was a decade of movie-making that brimmed with confidence, verve, and vision. I could have come up with 50 movies for this decade because movie after movie had an edge and energy to them that don’t appear in ensuing decades. Here are my favorite picks, separated into American and foreign film favorites.
My Favorite American Movies of the 1970s
Based on Larry McMurtry’s semi-autobiographical coming-of-age novel, this brilliant film is set in a small town in north Texas in the early 1950s. It’s a powerful film about two high school friends living through their final year in a dying town. Director Peter Bogdanovich draws some powerful performances out of a remarkable cast: Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Ellen Burstyn, and Cloris Leachman, among others. Shot in black and white, this deeply melancholy movie was nominated for eight Academy Awards and retains a 100% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. A year after this film came out, Bogdanovich went on to make one of my favorite comedies ever, What’s Up Doc? (1972). You should see that too, but first put The Last Picture Show in your queue.
Many people have argued that Part II is the greatest American film of all time. I’m not going to get into that argument (even though I do like it far more than the generally-accepted champion, Citizen Kane (1941). Suffice it to say, these two films are a pair of high water marks in American moviemaking and culture. Director Francis Ford Coppola took Mario Puzo’s mafia potboiler novel and turned it into three magnificent tales showing the ruinous effect that a life of crime has on families and on a nation. Oh, so you’re saying that you just watched both of these a year ago? Enough time has passed. You can rent them again.
The film producer Robert Evans tells the story of taking screenwriter Robert Towne out to lunch. He was pitching Towne on the idea of adapting F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby, for the screen. Towne demurred, saying he didn’t want to try to outdo Fitzgerald. Towne told Evans, however, he had a screenplay he had written about water rights in Los Angeles in the 1930s, which sounds about as dull a topic for a feature film as I could imagine. Evans reluctantly bought the script and then set about having it made. Shot in the style of a 1930s hard-bitten detective story, Chinatown is brilliant, troubling, and cynical in ways that are hard to even imagine. Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and John Huston give performances of a lifetime.
Two men enter a bank on a hot afternoon in New York City with the plan to rob it. Why? So one of the men (married with kids) can raise the money for his lover’s sex change operation. Yeah, right, you say. Except it pretty much actually happened in 1972 in Brooklyn. Sidney Lumet directs this great crime drama and pulls remarkable performances from Al Pacino and John Cazale. Originally, there were three robbers, but one panicked and took off and then the two robbers discovered they arrived after the daily cash pickup and there was virtually no money in the bank. It’s a frantic and sweaty story and you keep hoping that somehow these two knuckleheads get away with their idiotic plan. Which, of course, you know they can’t. One of the best-acted movies of the 1970s.
In the more than 40 years since this movie opened, an extensive—and at times overburdened—mythology has sprung up surrounding this film’s universe. What is sometimes lost in all of this miasma of fandom and memorabilia and convoluted storylines is how utterly original and refreshing the first film was. I saw it on the day it opened in 1977, and remember walking out of the theater just giddy with what I had seen. This wasn’t another lame-o science fiction movie with cheap special effects and a tedious script. This movie was fun and exciting and a thrill ride from start to finish. Most importantly, it was clever. Director George Lucas took all the tropes of science fiction and turned them on their head. The characters were swashbuckling and funny. The space aliens hung out in dive bars and got into drunken fights. The robots—R2D2 and C-3PO—were a bickering middle-aged couple. And the bad guy wore a black cape… like all bad guys should! What more could you want? Turns out, people wanted plenty more…and they got and continue to get it as this seemingly endless story continues.
My Favorite Foreign Films of the 1970s
Oh, I know what you’ve been looking for all this time: a bizarre and violent tale of the conquistadors pillaging the Peruvian Amazon rainforest, then getting lost and destroyed under the command of a madman. Am I right? And it’s in German, by the way. Don’t let any of this put you off this amazing movie. Director Werner Herzog and actor Klaus Kinski team up for a movie that is volatile, crazy, and a total masterpiece—a true cult classic that every film lover should see.
After you watch Aguirre, you might be up for something a little more restrained, quiet, and thoughtful. Three sisters gather in the family castle for the final days of one of the sisters. That’s pretty much all the heart-pumping action of the movie. The rest of it is muted emotional and psychological drama, worked out in quiet and desperate ways. Ingmar Bergman is one of the titans of 20th-century film, and if you’ve never seen a Bergman movie, this is a good one to start with. It’s powerful and affecting and a good movie to watch on a Sunday afternoon when the house is quiet and you’re home alone. Stunning cinematography by Sven Nykvist.
Andrei Tarkovsky is a legendary Russian film director who made just seven movies. I’ve seen two of them, and both were unforgettable. The first one I saw was Andrei Rublev (1966), a period drama about 15th century Russia with a title character who is considered one of the finest iconographers in Russian history. Doesn’t sound like compelling viewing, but it truly was. Solaris is a tremendous science fiction film. It tells the story of three astronauts stuck in a dead-end mission, orbiting endlessly around a distant planet named Solaris. Everyone is in a state of emotional distress and the psychologist sent to check on them goes into a crisis when he sees his long-dead wife on the space station. And then it gets weird. Don’t miss this movie. No less than Salman Rushdie has called it “a sci-fi masterpiece.”
If these first three foreign films aren’t quite strange enough for you, try this French movie from the Spanish surrealist, Luis Buñuel. Here’s the synopsis: six upper-middle-class people sit down to a formal dinner and keep getting interrupted as they attempt to eat. And then it gets weird (but in a much different way from Solaris). This movie is a satire on the conventions and vanities of bourgeoisie. Some of the interruptions are real, some are surrealist products of their imaginations. The movie is also quite funny and farcical. It won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and Buñuel and his screenwriting partner shared the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, “original” being the operative word here.
If you’ve never seen a Federico Fellini movie, this is a good introduction to the Italian master filmmaker. The movie is a semi-autobiographical tale, a reminiscence by Fellini about his childhood in the 1930s in a village near the Adriatic coastline of Italy. The movie is filled with amusing and satiric portraits of village life…while underneath, the country and the village are blithely accepting the idiocies and dangers of Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime. This is a sentimental journey with a biting edge.
I was going to recommend Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night (1973), but then I remembered this wonderful German movie by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. I first saw it in the mid-1970s at a University of Minnesota Film Society screening and have never forgotten it. It tells the story of an unlikely and tragic love affair between Emmi, a lumpy, 60-year-old widowed cleaning lady, and Ali, a Moroccan immigrant guest worker in West Germany. They begin to date, they fall in love, and they decide to marry. Societal and family disapprovals, however, conspire to destroy their love and marriage. This is a powerful and—it turns out—unforgettable film.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.