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Ah, the 1970s - a revolutionary era for technology, social awareness, and, especially, the movies. Among the best ‘70s movies, we saw the birth of the blockbuster with Jaws, the birth of a celebrated franchise with Star Wars, and, depending on who you ask, cinema’s finest achievements with Francis Ford Coppola’s two-part adaptation of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather (whether or not Part II surpasses the first film is up to you).
If we are starting to make you feel nostalgic now (or, for younger audiences, curious), we have our own favorites from that period picked out, including where you can find them on streaming, rent or purchase them digitally, or even buy a physical copy of them if you do not own any of them that way already. The following are our picks of the greatest hits of the ‘70s, starting with one that never fails to make you scream, if only anyone could hear it…
The 1970s were a transformative time for both space movies and horror movies (for reasons that we will get into later), but it was not until the decade was near its end when we saw, just about, the most perfect combination of these two genres with this pulse-pounding exercise in suspense set in the most dangerous environment known to man. Following a crew trapped with a slimy, malevolent beast, director Ridley Scott’s Alien is a brilliantly crafted fusion of the slasher with the creature feature that turned Sigourney Weaver into a leading Scream Queen for generations to come.
All The President's Men (1976)
People assume news media and politics are at each other’s throats more than ever these days, but this inspirational retelling of an ambitious crusade for truth amidst a firewall of corruption proves that today’s conflict is just the latest chapter in one long, ongoing story. Based on the book by The Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward (portrayed by Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford), All the President’s Men chronicles the authors’ own struggles to get to the bottom of the Watergate Scandal in 1972.
Apocalypse Now (1979)
Richard M. Nixon has a slight connection to this masterful epic from co-writer and director Francis Ford Coppola as the United States Military was still involved in the conflict in Vietnam during his presidency. Inspired by Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and set during said infamous war, Apocalypse Now follows Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) on a secret mission to cross the Cambodian track down and assassinate a Green Beret colonel with a dangerous god complex, played by Marlon Brando.
Being There (1979)
While we are on the subject of politics, how about a film that opts not to take them so seriously? From acclaimed director Hal Ashby, the thought-provoking satire Being There stars comedy legend Peter Sellers in one of his final roles as a simple-minded gardener who, unexpectedly -- and for reasons even he does not understand -- becomes a close advisor to a powerful businessman and, eventually, an influential voice to goings-on in Washington, D.C.
Cheech & Chong's Up In Smoke (1978)
While we are on the subject of comedy legends, how about two who take absolutely nothing seriously and, somehow, to dazzling and hilarious effect in their first feature-length film? Whether or not Up in Smoke, co-written by and starring Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong (collectively known as Cheech and Chong), is the all-time greatest stoner movie is up for debate, but few would disagree that it is the first great movie.
Murder, corruption, and vile secrets are the central themes of this crime drama that borrows from classic noir thrillers of Hollywood’s golden age with twists that were shockingly unique for the time but still timelessly entertaining today. Set in 1937 California, Chinatown traces an increasingly complicated, life-threatening case tailed by small time private investigator Jake Gittes, played by Jack Nicholson in his fourth Academy Award-nominated role.
Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977)
Before he earned a reputation as one of the most exciting and influential names in cinematic history, a teenage Steven Spielberg made his feature-length directorial debut with a small, self-funded sci-fi flick called Firelight in 1964. Thirteen years later, he remade it into one of the most iconic alien “invasion” movies ever made - Close Encounters of Third Kind, a breathtaking story of ordinary people making contact with extraordinary beings featuring one of the top John Williams scores of his career.
The Conversation (1974)
Writer and director Francis Ford Coppola had two films up for Best Picture at the 1975 Academy Awards, with one of them that we will mention later taking home the prize and the other (The Conversation) still acquiring universal acclaim and being regarded as a striking cautionary tale way ahead of its time years later. Gene Hackman plays a lonely, disillusioned surveillance expert who begins to question his own moral boundaries, and that of his profession, when he uncovers evidence that a young couple may be targeted for murder.
Dawn Of The Dead (1978)
The late George A. Romero introduced the modern, undead, flesh-eating incarnation of the zombie with Night of the Living Dead in 1968. Ten years later, he resurrected the genre he pioneered with the chilling, surprisingly thought-provoking economic satire Dawn of the Dead, which is unfortunately unavailable to stream or rent digitally and will cost you more than pretty penny to buy on DVD or Blu-ray, too.
The Deer Hunter (1978)
The aforementioned The Conversation is actually one of five films on our list starring late actor John Cazale, who, until his 1978 death due to lung cancer, actually made only five films - all of which were nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. His final role was in The Deer Hunter - a heartbreaking, unforgettable meditation on the debilitating effects of war seen through the eyes of three close friends (Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, and John Savage) who become separated after suffering traumatic circumstances while serving in Vietnam.
Dirty Harry (1971)
After western period pieces like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly made him a star, Clint Eastwood brought his signature outlaw persona to a civilized, modern-day western landscape to the title role of Dirty Harry at the turn of the decade. Eastwood’s rebellious San Francisco cop hero must rely on instinct and his own controversial methods to catch a ruthless murderer inspired by the Zodiac Killer in the first of five almost equally iconic movies that changed the crime thriller genre forever.
Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
The third film to pair the late John Cazale with Al Pacino was Dog Day Afternoon, in which the two play regular people whose attempts to rob a bank in order to fund the transgender operation of Pacino’s characters lover (Chris Sarandon) turns into a media circus. The most shocking aspect of director Sidney Lumet’s Oscar-winning masterpiece is that it is actually based on true crime.
The Exorcist (1973)
Another classic instance of fact translating to Oscar-nominated, commercially successful, and extremely influential cinematic gold is The Exorcist - the terrifying story of an actress (Ellen Burstyn) desperate to cure her 12-year-old daughter Regan (Linda Blair) of the sinister forces that have taken over her body with the initially reluctant help of a doubting priest (Jason Miller). The curious thing about this adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s novel is that director William Friedkin never approached it as horror, but a commentary on the mystery faith, which could be key to why it is not only regarded as one of the best horror movies of all time, but one of the best horror movies based on a true story nearly 50 years later.
The French Connection (1971)
When discussing the evolution of the crime thriller, we cannot forget about that same year’s Best Picture Oscar winner from director William Friedkin and starring Gene Hackman in, arguably, his defining role as Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle, whom you could call the “Dirty Harry” of New York City. Based on the book Robin Moore (itself inspired by truth), in which Doyle and his partner (Roy Scheider) uncover European drug smuggling operation in the States, The French Connection is a tightly-paced, gritty suspense drama with one of the most hypnotically intense car chases of all time.
The Godfather (1972)
Speaking of acclaimed book adaptations, there are few films that are often considered to be as good, if not better than, their source material. Director Francis Ford Coppola’s winner of three Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone, The Godfather practically defines that short list, telling the powerful story of how one man (Al Pacino) is lured into the violent lifestyle of the family business and setting the tone for nearly every mob movies to follow.
The Godfather Part II (1974)
Of course, you cannot refuse the offer to continue the story of the Corleone Family, now officially led by Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone as he looks to expand the family business while suspecting some foul play from within. Also awarded Best Picture at the 1975 Oscars, The Godfather Part II also serves as a prequel to the first film, tracing the rise in power of Don Vito Corleone as played by Robert De Niro in his first Academy Award-winning role.
Hollywood had never been so frank about the high school experience before John Hughes emerged in the 1980s, but Grease sure gave it a good try by funneling its relatively honest confessions of teen angst through upbeat show tunes. Director Randal Kleiser’s adaptation of the hit romantic stage show, set during the 1950s, is technically John Travolta’s second major musical in a row. We will get to the first one soon.
With a few key exceptions, the horror genre (particularly the subgenre involving the senseless killing of innocents) had struggled to be viewed as sophisticated art. That would change when director John Carpenter and his co-writer, Debra Hill, made Halloween which introduced audiences to the modern slasher movie, the unmistakably chilling evil of Michael Myers, and the beloved Scream Queen status of Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode.
For years, Hollywood did not have a specific name for a film that could only be described as a cultural event that had audiences lining up and down block awaiting its release. That would change when director Steven Spielberg made Jaws, the heart-racing creature feature that pits Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw against a 25-foot great white shark and is often credited as the very first definitive “blockbuster.”
Few filmmakers have mastered the star-studded ensemble comedy quite like the celebrated, late Robert Altman did. Few films have represented that talent of his as well as Nashville - an inspired satirical examination of American culture as explained through the cross-section of politics of country music.
National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978)
Few filmmakers have mastered the raunchy, star-studded ensemble comedy quite like John Landis did with National Lampoon’s Animal House. Then again, the critical and commercial hit following the members of a maligned fraternity (including scene-stealer John Belushi) in uproarious conflict with their own school is one of the first of its kind and, after more than four decades, is still considered the best.
One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest (1975)
Jack Nicholson’s first Academy Award-winning role was as R.P. McMurphy - a criminal whose plea of insanity lands him in a mental institution where he is subjected to a fate worse than prison: the cruel treatment of Nurse Ratched (fellow Oscar-winner Louise Fletcher). From director Miloš Forman, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is yet another inspirational and often witty tale of rebelling against authority - a definitive theme of the era.
Another definitive theme of the 1970s is the will to overcome insurmountable odds, which describes Sylvester Stallone’s struggle to make it in Hollywood. The actor would channel these experiences into his screenplay for Rocky - the story of an amateur, underdog boxer taking on an undefeated champion - which would go on to win the Oscar for Best Picture and spawn a franchise that still lives on through the Creed movies.
Saturday Night Fever (1977)
Sylvester Stallone would also make it as a director, too, and would, at one point, helm Staying Alive - a sequel to Saturday Night Fever from 1983. Of course, that critical and commercial misfire would not hold a candle to John Badham’s era-defining classic starring John Travolta as a young Brooklynite escaping his harsh realities on the dance floor with the disco music of The Bee Gees as his guide.
Star Wars (1977)
Speaking of era-defining classics, while the aforementioned Jaws may have been the first blockbuster movie, the first movie that comes to mind when describing the term would be released two years later and was helmed Steven Spielberg’s good friend and collaborator, George Lucas. Cinema had never seen anything quite like the first of the Star Wars movies, in which Jedi-in-training Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) teams up with rebellious pilot Han Solo (Harrison Ford) to rescue Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) from the tyrannical Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones), and it has never been the same since.
Taxi Driver (1976)
No film in director Martin Scorsese’s long, celebrated filmography is as bleak and uncompromisingly brutal as this Paul Schrader-penned story of a disturbed, sleepless Vietnam veteran (Robert De Niro at his most transparent) whose hatred for urban nightlife begins to consume him after taking a job as New York City cabbie. Some might argue that, if not for the stunning performances and subtle commentary on toxic masculinity, Taxi Driver would be nothing more than a mindless exploitation of cynicism and savagery at its darkest.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
While this pure, unrelenting, country-fried nightmare transferred to celluloid was marketed as, and even opens with the claim that it is, based on a true story, that is not entirely true. In fact, writer and director Tobe Hooper’s inspiration for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre - in which five road trippers are stalked by the grotesque Leatherface and his cannibalistic family - was really just one part the murders of Ed Gein and another part his own morbid curiosity while browsing the power tool section of a crowded department store.
Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory (1971)
Author Roald Dahl, more so than simply capturing the imagination of his readers, was able to unlock new avenues of what the imagination is capable of in his books, such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, about a young poor boy who becomes one of five children given the opportunity to tour the never-before-seen establishment of the most famous candy maker in the world. Directed by Oscar-nominated documentarian Mel Stuart from a screenplay by Dahl himself, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory is a timelessly whimsical adventure, perfected by the late Gene Wilder’s truly magical performance as the titular chocolatier.
Would you say we have covered all of the best movies that the 1970s had to offer? If so, which is your favorite?
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Jason has been writing since he was able to pick up a washable marker, with which he wrote his debut illustrated children's story, later transitioning to a short-lived comic book series and (very) amateur filmmaking before finally settling on pursuing a career in writing about movies in lieu of making them. Look for his name in just about any article related to Batman.
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