The Top Tens: The 1970s

Every month, our contributors submit lists of ten films fitting certain topics. Each month, we feature an alphabetical list of films along with commentary explaining our selections. There will also be an itemized list at the end of each of our individual selections.

When looking at the 1970s, one must consider that among film historians, it’s considered one of the strongest in cinema history alongside the 1930s. For some, it could even be the best and by the number of different films we’ve come up with and even not been able to add to our lists, it’s clear that the decade holds a place in each of our hearts. It’s surprising then that the film that placed on the most lists was one that I thought I might be the only one selecting. Robert Altman’s Nashville managed to pick its way onto three lists. Several films showed on a combination of two lists: Cabaret, A Clockwork Orange, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Exorcist, The Last Picture Show, Network, and Star Wars.

As the directors that had dominated the 1950s and 1960s began to fade and the new voices of the modern cinematic era rose, it’s fascinating to see which directors managed multiple appearances on the list. Far and away the big winner in this situation is Francis Ford Coppola who features a staggering four films on the list including both Godfather films as well as The Conversation and Apocalypse Now. Only two other directors managed a place on the list and both were major presences in 1970s cinema. Bob Fosse had two with Cabaret and All That Jazz and Sidney Lumet had two as well with Network and Murder on the Orient Express.

After the break, dig into our setups and follow that by reading about each film.

The Introductions

Wesley Lovell: I was very disappointed that I had to dump so many great films from my list to make way for only ten. Films like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Annie Hall, Autumn Sonata, and several others. Yet, the final list I feel represents well the myriad genres that excelled in the 1970s as well as the dramas that helped redefine the era. I almost put Godfather and its sequel together as one entry, but felt both films deserved separate attention.
Peter J. Patrick: The 1970s produced many iconic films including The Godfather, The Godfather: Part II, Annie Hall, and Star Wars from the U.S., The Emigrants / The New Land, Cries and Whispers, and Autumn Sonata from Sweden, Day for Night and Lacombe, Lucien from France, Amarcord and The Garden of the Finzi-Continis from Italy, and Women in Love and Sunday Bloody Sunday from the U.K. It was also the decade in which Japan’s Yasujiro Ozu’s catalogue including Tokyo Story and Russia’s Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev made their U.S. debuts. Unfortunately, none of them make my list which is comprised mainly of less celebrated albeit equally unforgettable films.
Tripp Burton: The 1970s were a major period of change in cinema, especially in Hollywood. This isn’t my favorite decade, but these are some of my favorite films and represent the new found voices that Hollywood was now showcasing.
Thomas LaTourrette: Except for the films that were made before 1930, I probably had more new ones to watch than in any other group. I was too young for the R-rated films when they came out, and often had just not gotten around to watching them until now. Some were quite interesting to watch, though only one, Patton, made my list. The others on my list I had seen before, though often not for decades. I was impressed at how well many of these old favorites have held up and have stayed enthralling and engrossing films. They are not necessarily light films, but not as heavy as The Godfather, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, or The Last Picture Show, but they were all ones I enjoyed. Even two of the three comedies deal with some serious issues, with only Young Frankenstein being a total farce. I will do a shout out to some of the semi-surreal films of the time, A Clockwork Orange, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeosie, Cries and Whispers, and The Ruling Class. These films all had striking imagery, often strong performances (Malcolm McDowell and Peter O’Toole were especially brilliant) and stay in memory. However, I am just not sure that I liked or understood them well enough to have them make my top ten list. Still, I will not forget them for a long time.

Alien (1979)

(dir. Ridley Scott) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – This sci-fi horror adventure was a new breed, not only for the science fiction and horror genres, but also for representation by women in action hero parts. Sigourney Weaver translated the typical scream queen role into something more transcendent and bolstered an already brilliant picture even more so.

All That Jazz (1979)

(dir. Bob Fosse) Commentary By Tripp Burton – Bob Fosse’s autobiographical musical about sex, dancing, and death is a divisive film — I know at least one of the other contributors here can’t stand it — but I find it a thrilling, moving, and electric celebration of show business and life itself. With a cast of standouts and Fosse’s signature choreography, it is a summation of a decade of gritty realism and Hollywood showmanship.

All the President’s Men (1976)

(dir. Alan J. Pakula) Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – A break in at the Democratic headquarters in the Watergate building at first got little press, but two reporters kept looking for a bigger story. As the mysterious Deep Throat tells one of them, “Follow the money.” And so they do, which leads to a bigger story than they ever imagined. Despite more seasoned reporters wanting their story and witnesses that seem strangely reluctant to talk to them, the two reporters doggedly pursue their story. The cast is uniformly strong with an Oscar-winning supporting performance by Jason Robards as senior editor Ben Bradlee.

Annie Hall (1977)

(dir. Woody Allen) Commentary By Tripp Burton – Woody Allen’s comedic exploration of relationships and Los Angeles is one of the most quotable films of all time. It also features one of the greatest comedic performances of all time from Diane Keaton. Put all together, and it is a near perfect film, which utilizes every cinematic gimmick in the book to get to the honest truth.

Apocalypse Now (1979)

(dir. Francis Ford Coppola) Commentary By Tripp Burton – Francis Ford Coppola claimed that Apocalypse Now wasn’t about Vietnam, but it was Vietnam, and that might be the most down to earth thing about the movie. This is a huge movie, but it is about huge themes, and it is a masterpiece of epic filmmaking and metaphorical filmmaking. If it feels ridiculous at times, maybe that is because war itself is ridiculous.

Cabaret (1972)

(dir. Bob Fosse) Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – An almost perfect film musical but not a direct transfer of the Broadway version of Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin stories and more of a remake of the 1955 non-musical version, I Am a Camera, reversing the nationalities of the American writer and British singer and jettisoning five of the six songs from the score not sung in the nightclub. The only song not sung in it is of course the Nazi youth song “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”. Most conspicuous by its absence is “Married” sung by Greta Keller in German on a phonograph in the background. Top notch entertainment nevertheless with a never better Liza Minnelli.

Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – Director Bob Fosse created a sizzling view of pre-war Berlin in the musical Cabaret. The film deviated from the stage version in many ways, for one making Sally Bowles a talented singer, though still delusional. In the capable hands of Liza Minnelli she became a career defining role. Minnelli would go on to win the Oscar for Best Actress as would Joel Grey as the seedy Master of Ceremonies at the Kit Kat Klub. Cabaret deservedly won eight Oscars, but sadly set a record for most Oscars by a film that did not win for Best Picture.

Chinatown (1974)

(dir. Roman Polanski) Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – Polanski’s tribute to film noir remains his career high with brilliant performances from Jack Nicholson as the cop turned private detective through whose eyes the entire film takes place and Faye Dunaway as the wife of the man whose murder he is determined to solve. Polanski also gets a strong performance out of legendary director John Huston as Dunaway’s father, a role turned down by Ralph Bellamy. Robert Towne’s otherwise perfect script had its ending altered by Polanski who insisted on giving it a tragic one. It wasn’t until his commentary on the 1999 DVD release of the film that Towne admitted Polanski was right.

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

(dir. Stanley Kubrick) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – One of only two X-rated films ever nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, Stanley Kubrick’s treatise on violence and society’s extreme response to it was more profound for its time than most films both in terms of its visual splendor and its thematic resonance.

Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – Kubrick’s film eliminates the redemptive final chapter of Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novel which Kubrick had never read because the original U.S. publication of the novel had also omitted it. Burgess hated the omission, but it didn’t affect the critical acclaim given the film which still stands as the favorite of Kubrick’s films for those who find Dr. Strangelove too satirical and 2001: A Space Odyssey too enigmatic. Malcolm McDowell’s sadistic gang leader, Alex, solidified his stardom after If…, paving the way for a career that is still thriving.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

(dir. Steven Spielberg) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – While this film always seems to take a back seat to 1977’s other science fiction saga, Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi drama looked at aliens in a way films hadn’t done before. Rather than treating them as a terrifying possibility, they were treated with curiosity and wonder. This was an example of what modern sci-fi storytelling could be.

Commentary By Tripp Burton – There were two classic science fiction films released in 1977, and if Star Wars is the one that was more successfull commercially, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is the more successful artistically. This is Steven Spielberg at his most personal, bringing a humanity to the spectacle of alien contact, and giving us the most realistic vision of what it might be like someday if a UFO landed in America.

The Conversation (1974)

(dir. Francis Ford Coppola) Commentary By Tripp Burton – Made in the middle of the epic Godfather films, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation is a smaller film but even more remarkable and innovative. Its use of sound was groundbreaking, but it is the performances of Gene Hackman and John Cazale, and the pervading paranoia that seeps through the film, that make it one of my favorite thrillers and a masterpiece of tension and mood.

Cries and Whispers (1972)

(dir. Ingmar Bergman) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – Ingmar Bergman was a driving force of the vaunted Swedish film dominance of the 1960s and 1970s. Above all of his other films, Cries and Whispers stands as one of his greatest achievements. A simpler period story about a woman dying of cancer visited by her two sisters is a visual standout and a thought-provoking exploration of repression and grief.

Day for Night (1973)

(dir. François Truffaut) Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – This French charmer is one of the best films about the making of films. François Truffaut directs, writes, and stars as the director of the film within the film. Day for Night chronicles the making of a film and all the foibles of the cast and crew as they go through their daily routines. Actresses forget lines, love affairs come and go, and even one of the leads dies, yet somehow the magic of film happens.

The Exorcist (1973)

(dir. William Friedkin) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – This film above all others is responsible for what has become of the supernatural horror genre in the intervening years. A part of the most impressive decade of the horror genre in history, The Exorcist is a frightening tale of possession with innocence stripped away by vile demons.

Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – William Peter Blatty’s novel was one of those reads that made you go to sleep with the light on. Friedkin’s film from Blatty’s script gave initial audiences just as many goosebumps. Those experiencing it for the first or tenth time today still get those same goosebumps. None of the film’s various sequels, remakes, and rip-offs have come close to capturing its genuinely earned shocks. Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller, Max von Sydow, and Linda Blair are perfection in their award-winning roles as is Mercedes McCambridge whose voice of the devil went uncredited until she threatened to sue Friedkin for denying her billing.

Five Easy Pieces (1970)

(dir. Bob Rafelson) Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – Jack Nicholson made his film debut in 1958 but did not become widely known until his breakthrough Oscar-nominated role in 1969’s Easy Rider. In his first starring role, the actor creates the brooding persona that would sustain him throughout his career. More a character study than a fully plotted film, the title refers to a book of piano lessons for beginners but can as easily be interpreted as his relationship with the women he meets. Riveting from beginning to end, Nicholson has often been as good, but never better. Karen Black and Lois Smith are the standouts in the excellent supporting cast.

Gates of Heaven (1978)

(dir. Errol Morris) Commentary By Tripp Burton – As funny as it is poignant, the pet cemetery documentary Gates of Heaven is one of the most thoughtful films about death and grief ever made. It is surprising at every turn, and like many of the great films of the 1970s, was also the promise of a great filmmaker in blossom, giving us Errol Morris who would spend the next few decades reinventing documentary filmmaking.

The Godfather (1972)

(dir. Francis Ford Coppola) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – A generational saga about a crime family put to paper in book form by Mario Puzo redefined the gangster genre by giving it a kind of humanity that was not often seen among films set in the criminal underworld. Filled to the brim with terrific performances, Francis Ford Coppola’s saga was the pinnacle of one of the greatest decades in cinema history.

The Godfather, Part II (1974)

(dir. Francis Ford Coppola) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – The law of diminishing returns for sequels will be forever stymied by films like The Godfather, Part II, which is in many ways superior to its 1972 original. Although the films are on par in terms of their overall quality, this film gave us a more rousing backstory that set in motion the events of the prior film and gave us another cadre of brilliant performances.

Hair (1979)

(dir. Milos Forman) Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – The original 1967 musical was just a series of skits built around the wonderful songs. Forman’s film has a fully fleshed out screenplay about a draftee from Oklahoma who is embraced by the New York hippie culture and falls in love with a rich girl from the suburbs. Every song is brilliantly choreographed by Twyla Tharp and staged for maximum effect. The performances of John Savage, Treat Williams, Beverly D’Angelo, Annie Golden, Don Dacus, Donny Wright, Cheryl Barnes, and Charlotte Rae were the best thing any of them ever did on film, with Melba Moore, Nell Carter, and Nicholas Ray among those contributing unforgettable cameos.

Heaven Can Wait (1978)

(dir. Warren Beatty, Buck Henry) Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – Here Comes Mr. Jordan did not make my top ten of movies from the 1940s, though it did come close, but its remake from 1978 is making this list. Warren Beatty plays a star quarterback who gets plucked to heaven too early by an overly anxious escort. A new body needs to be found and for the meanwhile he goes into the body of an industrialist who was to be murdered by his cheating wife and personal secretary. It works for a while, but a permanent body needs to be found. It’s a charming comedy and Beatty would equal Orson Welles with four Oscar nominations for writing, directing, producing, and acting in the film, though he went home totally empty-handed.

The Last Picture Show (1971)

(dir. Peter Bogdanovich) Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – The film’s west Texas town is the main character in this film centered around a movie theater closing in 1950. Filmed in black-and-white with a cast of upcoming actors (Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Randy Quaid, Sam Bottoms) and veteran character actors (Ellen Burstyn, Cloris Leachman, Ben Johnson, Eileen Brennan) bringing Larry McMurtry’s characters to life, Bogdanovich’s film remains the crowning achievement of a screen career that began as an actor in 1958 and continues today. Johnson and Leachman won well-deserved Oscars for their haunting performances while Bridges and Burstyn had to settle for nominations.

Commentary By Tripp Burton – Coming of age stories can easily fall into traps we’ve seen a million times, but The Last Picture Show avoids many of those (even when they exist) by always putting honesty before plot mechanics. With a wonderful cast of future stars, Peter Bogdanovich’s small town tale is still the best of a genre and a movie just as heartbreaking today as it must have been 45 years ago.

Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977)

(dir. Richard Brooks) Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – Judith Rossner’s 1975 novel was so specific to New York City that filming it in San Francisco and Los Angeles severely undercut the film’s sense of place but not the power of its narrative as Diane Keaton, a teacher of the deaf by day, a promiscuous player by night, searches in vain for the elusive Mr. Right. Keaton, Tuesday Weld as her sister, Richard Kiley as her father, and William Atherton, Richard Gere and Tom Berenger among the men in her life are all terrific and Brooks’ direction is right up there with his work on Elmer Gantry and In Cold Blood. This is the 1977 film Keaton should have gotten her Oscar for.

Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

(dir. Sidney Lumet) Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – This may not be as important as some of the films that did not make my list, but it is one that I am very fond of. I saw it in theaters three times when it was first released, something I never did. Watching it again just now, I enjoyed it afresh. An all-star cast brings Agatha Christie’s story to life. An unrecognizable Albert Finney plays Hercule Poirot, and while he was not the man that Christie created, he did make the character distinctly his own. Train travel has never looked so luxurious and last year’s remake was nowhere near as good. It may not be brilliant, but it is enjoyable, and it boasts one of my favorite film scores of all time.

Nashville (1975)

(dir. Robert Altman) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – I have never been more impressed with the work of legendary ensemble director Robert Altman. Nashville tells the stories of several individuals within the Nashville music industry, from up-and-coming talents to fading stars. The performances in this film are superior to almost any other film made in the 1970s, marking it as a fascinating entry for the decade.

Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – Politics meets country music in Altman’s masterpiece about a few days in the country music capital leading up to a political convention. In a score largely written by cast members, Keith Carradine won an Oscar for the film’s most haunting song, “I’m Easy,” which he also performs. It was the film’s only win out of five nominations which also included Best Picture, Directing, Supporting Actor Henry Gibson, and Supporting Actresses Ronee Blakley and Lily Tomlin. Tomlin’s role of the gospel-singing mother of two deaf children was written for Louise Fletcher who lost the role after Altman had a falling out with her husband who was his business partner.

Commentary By Tripp Burton – Robert Altman’s masterful and sprawling American epic is a film completely of its time, yet in this day and age feels even more ahead of its time in the blurring of politics and show business. The music is wonderful, and the neverending cast is wonderful, but it is the way that Altman weaves through the city of Nashville that makes this his masterpiece.

Network (1976)

(dir. Sidney Lumet) Commentary By Tripp Burton – Twenty-five years before reality television, and forty years before “Fake News,” Paddy Chayefsky’s script of Network anticipated all of it to perfection. More than being prescient, though, Network is also a wonderfully told story, with great characters, brilliant performances, and a wicked sense of humor.

Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – Paddy Chayefsky wrote a searing and satirical story of what people will do for ratings. A newscaster who is going to be fired due to lousy ratings starts telling the world what he really thinks of it, and the audiences eat up his rants. The network loves the attention and the ratings too, and a fight ensues between the news and entertainment divisions of fictional Union Broadcasting System over who should control the show as it blurs between news and entertainment. The cast is exceptional and won three Oscars as did Chayefsky for his writing. It is a fascinating and disturbing film, and seems even more relevant today than when it was released.

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973)

(dir. Sam Peckinpah) Commentary By Tripp Burton – Sam Peckinpah’s sprawling epic, filled with Bob Dylan songs and a cornucopia of character actors, is a violent masterpiece marking the end of an era. It was the last of the great westerns, at least for another 20 years, and still feels shocking and exciting today.

Patton (1970)

(dir. Franklin J. Schaffner) Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – General George S. Patton may not have been a nice man, but he proved a fascinating lead for a biographical film. He was a bigger than life character and George C. Scott was electrifying in his portrayal of him. Karl Malden provided strong support as General Omar Bradley. Scott would go on to win and famously turn down his Oscar, but sadly Malden was not even nominated in what was probably viewed as a one man film. The battle scenes were excitingly filmed which helped it to go on to win the Oscar for Best Picture and Directing.

Sleuth (1972)

(dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz) Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – Featuring bravura performances by Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine, this is a cat and mouse game between competing lovers for the same woman. Caine plays a hairdresser in love with writer Olivier’s wife. Olivier is obsessed with games, as the décor of his house clearly shows. And the game between them turns downright nasty, if not deadly. Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz keeps the action flying. If you have not seen the film, this is definitely one to watch without knowing any spoilers.

Star Wars (1977)

(dir. George Lucas) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – While 1977’s other sci-fi masterpiece (Close Encounters) is the superior film, there is no other film in cinema history that can match this one in terms of the impact it’s had on future generations of moviegoers. Making stars of leads Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill, Star Wars has grown far beyond the massive lines that greeted the film during its initial release.

Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – Director George Lucas created a whole new world and now dynasty with his science fiction film. Today practically everyone knows who Princess Leia, Han Solo, and Obi Wan Kenobi are. 41 years ago they were new to the world and breathed fresh life into what could have been tired movie tropes. The effects dazzled and the film was a box office success. The film was nominated for ten Oscars and won six of those. It was exciting to watch on the big screen, and it played on the biggest of them, and we really had not seen anything like it before.

Suspiria (1977)

(dir. Dario Argento) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – For fans of horror, there are several pinnacles of experience in the 1970s from The Exorcist to Alien to Friday the 13th, but Dario Argento’s film about a private dance school with a horrific secret at its heart was one of the most unusual. A defining moment in the giallo horror genre, Suspiria is a film that every horror enthusiast must see at least once.

The Turning Point (1977)

(dir. Herbert Ross) Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – With a screenplay by Arthur Laurents (West Side Story, Gypsy), this was several cuts above the old-fashioned woman’s picture its detractors accused it of being. Director Ross, who also directed the same year’s The Goodbye Girl, had been a Broadway dancer and choreographer before becoming a director, which helped him seamlessly incorporate the film’s numerous dance sequences into the narrative. The performances of Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine at mid-career heights still shine, as do the supporting turns of Leslie Browne and Mikhail Baryshnikov, Tom Skerritt and Martha Scott.

Young Frankenstein (1974)

(dir. Mel Brooks) Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – For me, Mel Brooks can be a bit of a hit or miss writer and director, but he was firing on all cylinders with this fantastic parody of the Frankenstein legend. The film will be even more enjoyable if you have seen James Whale’s versions of Frankenstein and especially Bride of Frankenstein as some of the characters and even costumes come straight out of those 1930s films. The movie is outrageously funny and moves along at a brisk pace. The entire cast has some of their best roles done on film, with brilliant comic turns by all of them. I can understand why the Academy Award for adapted screenplay went to One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but it would have been great if they had given it to this film. It is also a pity that none of the cast received a nomination as Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman, and Teri Garr all could have easily gotten one. It’s Mel Brooks’ best film.

Wesley’s List

Peter’s List

Tripp’s List

Thomas’ List

  • Alien
  • A Clockwork Orange
  • Close Encounters of the Third Kind
  • Cries and Whispers
  • The Exorcist
  • The Godfather
  • The Godfather, Part II
  • Nashville
  • Star Wars
  • Suspiria
  • Cabaret
  • Chinatown
  • A Clockwork Orange
  • The Exorcist
  • Five Easy Pieces
  • Hair
  • The Last Picture Show
  • Looking for Mr. Goodbar
  • Nashville
  • The Turning Point
  • All That Jazz
  • Annie Hall
  • Apocalypse Now
  • Close Encounters of the Third Kind
  • The Conversation
  • Gates of Heaven
  • The Last Picture Show
  • Nashville
  • Network
  • Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid
  • All the President’s Men
  • Cabaret
  • Day for Night
  • Heaven Can Wait
  • Murder on the Orient Express
  • Network
  • Patton
  • Sleuth
  • Star Wars
  • Young Frankenstein

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