I tend to rate many films made in the 1970’s very high in terms of quality. I am not alone on that opinion, and when I compare the 70’s best to recent flicks, I am all the more convinced of a marked reduction in present-day overall film quality. Looking back with 20/20 hindsight, there were three key factors in the late sixties & early 70’s that combined to create a perfect storm of artistic creativity – end of the studio system, end of the Hays Code, and an astonishing batch of young, talented directors stepped up to take charge behind the cameras. A list of the 70’s breed of young directors reads like a Hollywood Hall of Fame; Ridley Scott, John Carpenter, George Lucas, Robert Altman, Steven Spielberg, Roman Polanski, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese, and Terry Gilliam to name a few. The hands-on filmmakers, and not the money men and executives of the major studios, steered the creative ship. By 1968, the strict moral guidelines of the Hollywood Hays Code were replaced with the movie rating system still in use today. My top films of the decade differ significantly from Academy voters, only two out of my 13 picks garnered Best Picture awards (Rocky and Godfather). This difference is not surprising since I tend to favor genres such as, action/adventure, mystery-thriller, comedy, and horror; whilst the Academy favors serious drama above all others. All the movies on my list are in my humble DVD library and I still enjoy watching them. I recall with a twinge of nostalgia the first time I saw these movies in a downtown art-deco cinema or a drive-in theater in vivid Technicolor.
Listed by ascending order of theater release dates.
1. Catch-22 1970 comedy
A cast of unheralded, talented comedy clowns are showcased in this WWII farce about a group of misfits in an American B25 bomber squadron based in Italy. When I first saw "Catch-22" back in 1970, I had little understanding of the senseless killing during the last few months of WWII in Europe. The film ridicules the almost messianic belief in mass aerial bombing even as the military value of the targets drastically diminished in 1945. The Allies knew the war was won, and no airman or infantryman wanted to have the distinction of being the last man killed in the war. The dark humor captures the craziness of war in a way - I think - no other anti-war movie does. This film often gets compared to *M*A*S*H*, which also debuted in 1970, and in retrospect I think that Catch-22 has aged the better of the two films. The MASH-style humor is too sadistic for my taste.
2. Klute 1971 mystery thriller
A sleek and sexy film that takes us into the dark side of Gotham City. It is a tough, honest movie, but never needlessly violent. We hear brutal scenes but are spared the visual impact. It is almost an art house type flick. The heart of the movie is a low-key, mismatched love story, and a showcase for one of cinema's most gripping performances, that of Jane Fonda as actress/call girl, Bree Daniel. The film is also a time capsule of hippie attitudes, styles, and New York City with fantastic camera angles that surprise and please. The musical score is perfect: jazzy and soft for the romance scenes; haunting and menacing for the danger. Fonda's performance is reason enough to see the movie. You can't take your eyes off her. Look away for one scene, and you miss something. A masterpiece; very underrated.
3. Godfather 1972 drama crime
Here we have an inside look, mostly from the executive suite, of an American-Sicilian gangster family. The Godfather trilogy of films is the penultimate example of a curious myth invented by Hollywood to capture the public fancy. The myth goes something like this: The Sicilians, long known for success in organized crime, exported the Mafia crime rings to the big cities of the United States. These Sicilians, endowed with a canny gift for secrecy and an ironclad honor system based on strong family ties enabled them to elude the law, and flourish. It hardly needs mention that they also were savagely ruthless when crossed. Wait a minute! To believe that Sicilians owned a monopoly on organized crime is of course ridiculous and ignores the facts. Back to the movie – this film captures the look, mood, and feel of the late 1940’s, and this adds to the success of the movie as an outstanding period piece. The all-star cast delivered a knock out performance especially Marlon Brando, James Caan, Al Pacino, and Robert Duvall. The soundtrack by Nino Rota is also very memorable, bringing back memories of the film every time I hear it. The movie is well-crafted, entertaining and a masterpiece of mythology. If you haven't seen it, you are in for a treat.
4. Magnum Force 1973 drama crime
This movie is a surprisingly good sequel in the Dirty Harry series. In fact, there are many fans, including me, that believe "Magnum Force" is a better movie than the original, "Dirty Harry." In the latter, Harry Callahan is up against a lone murderous psycho, while in the former Harry battles an entire vigilante squad of ruthless, rogue cops. Being an avid target shooter, I loved the scenes at the gun range and the Police Pistol Marksmanship Tournament. Great acting by Clint Eastwood; he is perfect in the role of old-school detective, Harry Callahan. The city of San Francisco provides scenic beauty, and Hal Holbrook plays the obnoxious Police Chief you love to hate. I liked it; I bought it.
5. American Graffiti 1973 Teen comedy
This movie was a surprise box-office phenomenon. The script seemed funny enough; the cool cars and period rock music was enticing--but who knew these young, mostly unknown actors would magically bring these characters to life? It seems almost a fluke, shot in 29 days and on a tight budget, but American Graffiti is a classic film that captured lightning in a bottle. Like a page out of the high school year book, this movie jumps back into the early 60's, before the Vietnam War. A very re-watchable classic and loaded with important life lessons.
6. Chinatown 1974 mystery-thriller crime
The year was 1974. The motion picture is "Chinatown". The acting is as good as it gets. This was the movie that cemented Jack Nicholson as a Hollywood superstar, John Huston played the unforgettable Noah Cross, Director Polanski has a famous cameo scene with a knife, but Faye Dunaway steals the picture with a haunting performance as the alluring, wealthy femme-fatale with plenty of secrets. The storyline is complex, mysterious yet simple to follow; it is dark and seedy without relying on vulgarity. The production is outstanding - with a sense of time and place that evokes the '30's Los Angeles in striking detail- every building, the cars (lovely rare automobiles), hairstyle and apparel. The tight script hurdles the story forward faster than Faye behind the wheel of her Packard convertible. The storyline has plenty of film-noir reoccurring themes: the rich but dysfunctional family, hidden blood relationships, jealousy, and of course, greed leading to murder most foul. The ending has been described by some movie fans as too dark. Dark? Are you kidding? It is crushing.
7. Jaws 1975 Action adventure
Prior to 1975, Steven Spielberg had directed four mediocre films; however, his fifth film, Jaws, made him a household name. This movie is a modernized version of the legendary Moby Dick fable, and was the box office king of 1975. I will never forget the first time I watched this film. I was glued to the seat from start to finish. It was a gripping experience: I was there, on that boat, in that small cabin with the crew of the Orca, listening to Quint’s sea-dog tales. I cared about them. And when I watch it these days I still marvel at the artistry: the straightforward plot, realistic small town atmosphere and the believable performances. This is old school Spielberg years before diversity casting and his penchant for sugary Oscar-bait scenes. He has never bested this classic.
8. Rocky 1976 drama sports
Without a doubt, the best underdog story in the sports genre. Not only is Rocky one of the best boxing movies, but also one of the best movies of the drama genre. This Oscar gold best picture has an unforgettable script (penned by Stallone) and amazing performances by a cast of B-list actors. Many more Rocky Balboa boxing flicks were to follow, but watch the original. It is clearly the best.
9. Star Wars 1977 Action adventure Sci-Fi
OK, I assume we don’t need another review of the original Star Wars movie, so I will spare you my repeating comments that already been said at least a million times before. Instead consider this: A film can never be evaluated on its technical merits without due attention to its production date. In the 70’s, hand-held calculators were high tech, and giant computers called “main-frames” ran on keypunch cards. The actual computer room was locked down and only the white-robed, high priests of Computer Science had access to the “Main-frame”. I am not joking. So to say that the Stars Wars special effects artist were ahead of its times is indeed a bit of an understatement. The film set off something akin to an arms race in the special effects movie business. The Star Wars franchise and a wave of imitators were one of the primary drivers of the American economy and powered us out of a lingering recession in the dilapidated late 70’s and early 1980’s. I will always be grateful to RD-D2, the Princess, Chewbacca, C-3PO, and the rest of the gang for the economic miracle.
10. Goodbye Girl 1977 comedy romance
A first rate movie, and much deserved Oscar Gold for Richard Dreyfuss. He is perfect as a struggling actor who is handed his first big break – a starring role in the trendy Off-Broadway Theater. The play within the film is a daring new production of a famous Shakespearian story. The rehearsal scenes with the nutcase director are hilarious, and worth the coin for admission. Dreyfuss & Marsha Mason generate as much chemistry as I have ever seen on the big screen, and the little girl adds a family touch that is missing from most rom com flicks . Great New York City feel to the film. Thankfully, it's a rom com film that guys can enjoy - unpredictable and no annoying scenes.
11. Halloween 1978 horror
Who would have thought this indie, B-movie made for $300k by a group of 20-year-old kids, would be the surprise box office super hit of the year, and become an all-time classic horror film? Many know-it-all film critics certainly did not, including sharp-fanged Pauline Kael who wrote a scathing review in The New Yorker. Yet with only a token advertising budget, the film relied on word-of-mouth for success, and suddenly box office receipts went thru the roof. The plot is simple and effective – the personification of pure evil. The minimal cast is excellent – we have Jamie Lee Curtis in her film debut playing an innocent, yet surprisingly tough teenager; and Don Pleasence at his most eerie. The story is perfectly paced and restrained – there is no blood and gore; just a steady building of tension and fear to the sound of a creepy, haunting music score. Do not watch this movie alone.
12. Alien 1979 Sci-fi Horror
One of the greatest horror/suspense/Sci-fi movies ever made, and a genuine motion picture masterpiece. This movie brings it all together: a superb script, haunting music score and brilliant acting. The cast of B-list actors knocked this one out of the park. Back in 1979, Sigourney Weaver was virtually unknown, yet she achieved overnight stardom for her stunning performance as Ripley. A classic, unforgettable movie that is often copied but never equaled. Highly recommend. The movie has a few disturbing scenes, so it is NOT for little kids.
13. China Syndrome 1979 Drama Thriller
By sheer dumb luck, this film was released a mere twelve days before the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island (TMI) on March 28, 1979. Life imitates art and art imitates life: in the movie, and in real life at TMI, a nuclear reactor core comes dangerously close to a meltdown and a massive release of radioactivity. TMI remains the worst nuke accident in U.S. history, but has been overshadowed by Level 7 nuke disasters in Russia and Japan (Chernobyl in 1986 & Fukushima in 2011). Back to the film – it skillfully captures the zeitgeist of the 70’s activist era especially with Jane Fonda in the lead role. She turns in a great performance as TV reporter Kimberly Wells. She never looked better. Even if you are bored by the power plant operations and politics, this is a chance to watch a legendary actress in her prime. The film has outstanding production reality – seamlessly flowing back and forth from a nuclear plant control room to behind the scenes of a TV news station. A good thriller that is still relevant, decades later, because it asks the hard question: What exactly will happen when the fancy, high-tech machines malfunction?
Honorable Mentions: Dirty Harry, Godfather 2, Cabaret, Annie Hall, Three Days of the Condor, Poseidon Adventure, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Play Misty for Me, The Man Who Would Be King, Saturday Night Fever, The Conversation, Hospital, Apocalypse Now, Patton, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, A Bridge Too Far, and Ulzana’s Raid.