When critics and historians of the cinema sit down to discuss uh, cinema, the conversation almost always turns to the great decades in movie history. And n nearly conversation I’ve been a part of, the 1970s reigns supreme as the single decade of brilliance.
It was a time of enormous artistic growth for film, as up-and-coming directors grabbed Hollywood and ran with it, merging their love for cinema and the works of John Ford, Billy Wilder, and Elia Kazan (among others) with their own fresh ideas. And the releases of “Bonnie and Clyde,” “The Graduate” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” had already announced the arrival of the new American cinema by the end of the 1960s.
But the next 10 years brought us Francis Ford Coppola, who exploded onto the scene wit four brilliant works and mentored many of the younger directors of the time. Steven Spielberg would earn the name “whiz kid” for his incredible visual storytelling gifts that would eventually make him one of the greats of all time.
Martin Scorsese was making unsettling character studies that alarmed the studios but thrilled critics and actors, who felt challenged by his work. Woody Allen evolved from comedy writer, to comedic actor-director, to world-class filmmaker by the end of the decade. And Oscar winning film editor Hal Ashby would make a name for himself behind the camera with a swath of works.
Sidney Lumet, William Friedkin, Peter Bogdonavich, Bob Fosse, Roman Polanski, Bernadro Bertolucci, Alan J. Pakula, Milos Forman, and Michael Cimino would all leave their mark in the 1970s and continue directing to varying degrees of success in the 1980s and beyond.
Society heavily impacted the work as films about the war in Vietnam dominated much of the 70s’ final years. Watergate raged mid-decade. Stories were plucked from the headlines and committed to celluloid. Movies were exciting, well made, and interesting. Films like John Frankenheimer’s “Black Sunday,” Milos Forman’s “Hair” and Don Siegel’s “The Shootist.”
Big budget disaster films enlivened the trade, along with movies about divorce, drug addiction, mental illness, organized crime, vigilantes, prostitution, and countless other topical issues that were explored with great courage on screen. I found narrowing it down to a 10 best list to be nearly impossible and enormously frustrating because some the films left off the list should really be here. But that’s just a testament to the era’s resilience.
10. “Cabaret” (Bob Fosse, 1972)
The greatest musical ever made, the darkest ever created, and a work of sublime art from the great Bob Fosse. “Cabaret,” Fosse’s study of the rise of Nazism in Berlin, is powerful yet subtle. Joel Grey is superb as Emcee, offering us a character that is a metaphor for evil, for Hitler, for Satan, or for the everyman. Liza Minelli was never better than she was here, finding in Sally the role she could do better than anyone else on the globe. Decadent and alarming, the film is a masterpiece of the musical genre and the first one I truly appreciated as art.
9. “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (Steven Spielberg, 1977)
“It was like seeing God,” the woman said as I exited the theater back in 1977 after seeing a matinee of Steven Spielberg’s newest picture. I felt the same, euphoric, stunned, emotionally galvanized in some way I did not yet understand. “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is an exploration of aliens contacting man for a meeting, not to kick our ass, just to let us know they are out there, an attempt at communication. When the little alien steps forward, his wise eyes as old as time itself, he offers those hand signs, and then a sweet smile – I don’t mind telling you, I wept along with hundreds around me.
8. “Chinatown” (Roman Polanski, 1974)
Roman Polanski brought his own dark, haunted soul to “Chinatown,” the greatest film noir ever made and a stark crime drama that will bring our hero, J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson), into a web of corruption, moral decay, lies, betrayals and most shocking: incest. In a brilliant stroke of casting, wily old John Huston (director of “The Maltese Falcon,” itself a masterpiece of the genre) is the villain of the piece, a cackling old gargoyle, too rich to be caught and too perverse to care. A masterpiece of acting, directing and certainly writing, Polanski did a superb job capturing the Los Angeles of the 1930s.
7. “All the President’s Men” (Alan J. Pakula, 1976)
The great accomplishment of screenwriter William Goldman was his success in adapting the Pulitzer Prize-winning work of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward for the screen. He made the story exciting by twisting it into a detective story. “All the President’s Men” is also the best work of director Alan J. Pakula’s career, a film that glides like a finely tuned noir. The film is eerie in its authenticity, dead-on in its study of journalism, brilliantly directed and acted. But the real star will always be Goldman’s adaptation, one of the finest scripts of the decade.
6. “Taxi Driver” (Martin Scorsese, 1976)
Martin Scorsese’s descent into the hellish mind of Travis Bickle left me stunned in the summer of 1976, unable to move, unable to breathe. Never before had I seen such a bloodbath in a film. Never before had I seen such destructive madness portrayed so brilliantly. Robert De Niro is seething in the title role of “Taxi Driver” as a Vietnam vet in New York, disgusted with the city, appalled by his surroundings, eventually seeing himself as the white avenging angel. De Niro is like a time bomb throughout, but the film is a dark, unsettling work that still has enormous impact.
5. “Apocalypse Now” (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)
The premiere of this film in Cannes 1979 was front-page news, as critics from around the world stood and applauded, stunned and mesmerized by what they had just experienced. I remember it like it was yesterday, reading those reports in the major papers, counting the days till the film opened here in Toronto. The lights went down and Coppola proceeded to plunge his audience into the madness that was Vietnam. Martin Sheen is quietly spooky, Marlon Brando is superb and Robert Duvall steals the movie. The film is a stunning achievement – and yet it only won two Oscars. A shame.
4. “A Clockwork Orange” (Stanley Kubrick, 1971)
Probably the greatest tribute one can give Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” is that today, 37 years later, it still depicts a future that is not out of the question. Based on the book by Anthony Burgess, once it became a Kubrick film, it became something wildly original, wickedly funny, and darkly frightening. Malcolm McDowell is all jaunty menace and twisted evil as Alex, the leader of his gang of the Droogs, who rape, steal, pillage and finally murder, leading to that infamous “rehabilitation.” Still timely, still terrifying, and still all too possible, the film is Kubrick’s greatest and darkest achievement.
3. “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (Milos Forman, 1975)
Milos Forman was the perfect choice to helm the adaptation of Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” because he brought to the film a sense of realism, almost documentary-like in its execution. Perhaps a Scorsese or Lumet might have done the same, but I shudder to think what a mainstream American director would have done to this work. Jack Nicholson does the finest work of his career as the Christ-figure Randall Patrick McMurphy. The film remains a glorious study of the abuse of authority and raises the often-asked question, who is really crazy, the keepers, or those kept?
2. “The Godfather” (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972)
Francis Ford Coppola took a pulp novel written by Mario Puzo and created a work of art, forging a perverse study of the American dream. In “The Godfather,” the Corleone family, immigrants, have established themselves as powerful and wealthy, but their business happens to be crime. In a stroke of genius, Coppola made the film a study of two families, those connected by blood, and those that are part of a larger crime family, with loyalties to each of equal importance. Marlon Brando was superb with an Oscar-winning performance, but the real star of the film is Al Pacino as Michael Corleone.
1. “The Godfather Part II” (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)
Together with “The Godfather,” this film is the finest American achievement in cinema: period. Sequels are not supposed to surpass the original film, yet this one did by not being a standard sequel, deepening the narrative, allowing the characters to grow and become more complex. Coppola wove a superb narrative as Michael Corleone consolidates his far-reaching power as head of the family business. In flashbacks we see how Vito Corleone, brilliantly portrayed by Robert De Niro, rose to power after arriving here in poverty. It is remarkable how De Niro captures the essence of Brando, creating a younger version of the same character. Dark, complex and astounding on every level, this film has it all.
Have your say! What are the best films of the 1970s?