1. A CLOCKWORK ORANGE 1971
Stanley Kubrick was technically part of the older generation of moviemakers, but his groundbreaking films in the ’60s (including Dr. Strangelove and 2001: A Space Odyssey) had established him as part of the avant-garde. And yet A Clockwork Orange, his adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s dystopian novel, still surprised and shocked people with its violence, sex, and social commentary. The image of a juvenile delinquent having his eyes propped open to force him to watch films meant to recondition him remains indelible.
2. THE LAST PICTURE SHOW 1971
It was fitting that as Old Hollywood faded away, an up-and-coming filmmaker like Peter Bogdanovich would make something set in the past, shot in nostalgic black-and-white, that depicted a town where the old ways were dying. Roger Ebert observed that The Last Picture Show “is above all an evocation of mood,” full of lovely melancholy as its young, restless characters in a moribund Texas town struggle with where to go and what to do next.
3. THE FRENCH CONNECTION 1971
Gene Hackman, one of the most admired actors in Hollywood, was at the peak of his career in the 1970s: In addition to this cop thriller (for which he won an Oscar) and its sequel, he had I Never Sang for My Father, The Poseidon Adventure, The Conversation (which could also be on this list), Night Moves, Superman (he remains the quintessential Lex Luthor), and a hilarious turn as a blind man in Young Frankenstein. The French Connection cast him as a New York police detective chasing down drug smugglers, and director William Friedkin guided the film to a win for Best Picture of 1971.
4. AND 5.. THE GODFATHER (1972) AND THE GODFATHER: PART II 1974
You knew these would be on the list. It has become cliché to cite Francis Ford Coppola’s monumentally popular and lavishly praised mafia epics as the best the ’70s had to offer, but only the most stubborn of contrarians would deny the truth of it. With blockbuster performances by an impressive array of stars present and future—including Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire, and James Caan—and an epic story spanning several decades, Coppola created a saga that has inspired countless filmmakers (and gangsters).
6. SERPICO 1973
Al Pacino is another actor whose heyday was the ’70s; besides the Godfathers, we could mention The Panic in Needle Park, Scarecrow, and Dog Day Afternoon. He was nominated for an Oscar for his role as Frank Serpico, a real-life New York cop who exposed corruption within the police force, while director Sidney Lumet—who was always interested in social issues, as seen in movies like 12 Angry Men, Network, and The Verdict—brought the full force of his righteous indignation to the edge-of-your-seat story.
7. THE EXORCIST 1973
After he scored with The French Connection, William Friedkin cemented his place in movie history with this colossally popular and monumentally frightening horror film about a girl with a demon inside her. It inspired fainting and vomiting; it made people think they were possessed; it became the first horror film nominated for Best Picture; it made Ellen Burstyn a star. And it’s still one of the most terrifying possession stories ever told.
8. CHINATOWN 1974
If you can separate the art from the artist (in this case, director Roman Polanski), Chinatown is just about the closest thing we have to a flawless movie, with a screenplay by Robert Towne that’s taught in screenwriting classes. Reviving the dormant detective noir genre, Polanski gave Jack Nicholson a chance to shine as a nosy Los Angeles P.I. snooping around a land deal with sinister implications. Faye Dunaway is unforgettable in her shocking role, and the last line—”Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown”—is an all-time classic.
9. BLAZING SADDLES 1974
Mel Brooks released two classic comedies in 1974, but this writer’s subjective opinion is that Blazing Saddles is funnier than Young Frankenstein. Co-written with Richard Pryor (who would have starred in it, too, except that Warner Bros. found him too unreliable), this Western spoof is often like a Looney Tunes short come to life—with the added bonus of mocking racists with gleeful abandon. Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder, and Madeline Kahn give hilarious performances.
10. THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE 1974
This low-budget horror flick, basically the godfather of the “teens go somewhere remote and get murdered” genre, isn’t nearly as bloody as its reputation suggests. That’s partly a testament to director Tobe Hooper’s ability to suggest ghastliness without actually showing it, and partly due to the fact that most of the film’s many imitators are drenched in gore. More than 45 years later, the film’s raw, nightmarish final 30 minutes are still horrifically effective.
11 .The Shootist 1976
The Shootist is a 1976 American Western film directed by Don Siegel
Aging gunfighter John Bernard “J.B.” Books arrives in Carson City, Nevada on the same date as Queen Victoria’s death: January 22, 1901. Books’ life is also ending soon as he is diagnosed with terminal cancer by “Doc” Hostetler. Doc directs Books to a boarding house owned by Bond Rogers, a widow who lives with her teenaged son, Gillom. Books’ attempt to remain anonymous fails and Bond, unreceptive to Books, summons Marshal Thibido. Thibido orders Books to leave town until Books says he will die soon. Thibido allows him to stay, but wishes him a quick death. Word spreads that Books is in town, causing all manner of trouble from those seeking to profit off his name to those seeking to kill him. Doc prescribes laudanum to ease Books’ pain, and advises him to choose how he dies, as opposed to allowing the cancer to do it. Books orders a headstone, but rejects the undertaker’s offer of a free funeral, suspecting he would charge the public admission to view his remains. Two strangers seeking notoriety try to ambush Books as he sleeps, but he kills them. Gillom is impressed, but his mother is losing boarders and she is angry. She is also concerned the fatherless Gillom will be influenced by violence and alcohol. Books and Gillom have a dispute over Gillom procuring a buyer for Books’ horse without his permission, but resolve their differences and their relationship improves after a shooting lesson. Books asks Gillom to tell three men – Mike Sweeney, Jack Pulford and Jay Cobb – that he will be at the Metropole Saloon at 11 am on January 29, Books’ birthday. Sweeney seeks revenge for Books’ killing of his brother, Pulford owns the saloon and gambles professionally, and Cobb, Gillom’s employer, is a local troublemaker.
On January 29, the headstone arrives which includes Books’ death year as “1901” but no day carved. Books gives Gillom his horse, bids farewell to Bond, who has grown to like him, then boards a trolley for the Metropole Saloon. The room is deserted except for the four men and the bartender. Books orders a drink and raises a toast to his birthday and his three “guests”. First Cobb, then Sweeney, and finally Pulford all attempt to shoot Books, who successfully shoots and kills all three, but is wounded in the gunfight. Gillom enters the bar in time to see the bartender fire a shotgun into Books’ back as Books turns to leave. Gillom kills the bartender with Books’ gun, then throws the pistol across the saloon. Books smiles, nods approval at Gillom’s decision, and dies. Gillom covers Books’ face and leaves the bar in silence as Doc arrives. Gillom sees his mother outside and they walk home together.
12. ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST .1975
The 1970s were a fantastic decade for Jack Nicholson, who appeared in 15 movies including Five Easy Pieces, The Last Detail, the aforementioned Chinatown, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest—and those are just the ones that earned him Oscar nominations. He won for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, in which he plays a non-insane man in an insane asylum who questions authority and tries to break people out of complacency, themes that still resonate today.
13. JAWS 1975
Jaws invented the “summer blockbuster” as we know it (that season was previously considered a dead zone), rocketed Steven Spielberg to the A-list of young directors, and made millions of ordinary people sharkphobic. Jaws also happens to be an expertly made dramatic thriller, with superb editing by Verna Fields (whom Spielberg credited with saving the picture) and an instantly iconic musical score by John Williams.
14. TAXI DRIVER 1976
New York City was a violent cesspool in the ’70s, and nobody captured it better than Martin Scorsese did in this jarring drama—it’s almost a horror film—about an unstable cabbie (Robert De Niro) who longs to clean up the sleazy streets. Long before “toxic masculinity” was a common phrase, Travis Bickle was taking women to porno movies on first dates and personifying the violent ends to which some men will go to get what they want.
15. ROCKY 1976
Watching the many, many sequels, it’s easy to forget that the original Rocky was more character drama than boxing movie, focused on a working-class schlub who just wants to go the distance, win or lose. Sylvester Stallone’s down-to-earth screenplay and natural performance were enhanced by the journeyman sensibilities of director John G. Avildsen, who later brought the same rousing spirit to The Karate Kid
16. ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN 1976
After the national trauma of Watergate and the disgrace of Richard Nixon’s resignation, Americans needed a film to sort it all out for them. Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, both already big stars, played household-name Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in a steady, methodical film directed by To Kill a Mockingbird producer Alan J. Pakula. With moral clarity and a thrilling story, All the President’s Men stands as the best and most important political film of the decade.
17. NETWORK 1976
Just as trenchant in this bicentennial year as All the President’s Men, Network (directed by Serpico‘s Sidney Lumet) satirized that most American of inventions: the television industry. Nearly every outrageous thing that happens in this depiction of a fictional broadcast network run by ruthless executives has since happened in real life, making the film even more potent now than it was then. And the performances by Faye Dunaway, William Holden, and Peter Finch are terrific fun.
18. STAR WARS 1977
George Lucas’s space fantasy, a sort of interstellar Western, elevated old good guys vs. bad guys tropes to the level of high (and highly successful) art. The effects of the Star Wars franchise on Hollywood and the world need not be recited here. What’s notable is that even if there had never been a sequel, spinoff, or toy tie-in, the original Star Wars would still stand as, well, an original.
19. APOCALYPSE NOW 1979
In the annals of movies whose behind-the-scenes stories were as troubled and disastrous as the stories they depicted, few rank higher than Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. But the result of a year of filming plagued by weather, sickness, and Marlon Brando’s unpreparedness was a movie that has only risen in people’s estimation since then, vividly depicting the insanity of the Vietnam War through the eyes of a rattled Martin Sheen as he searches for a rogue Army Special Forces officer.
20. ALIEN 1979
Alien could be on any list of important movies for its famous advertising tagline alone: “In space no one can hear you scream.” Directed by Ridley Scott from a long-in-development screenplay by Dan O’Bannon, this sci-fi thriller about a killer E.T. in a spaceship is a masterpiece of tension and horror and chest-bursting. Look how many other films on this list influenced it: O’Bannon pitched it as “Jaws in space”; Scott called it “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre of science fiction”; and 20th Century Fox only gave it a greenlight because Star Wars had suddenly made outer space cool again. Whatever it took to get it going, the result was worth it.