7 Essential Films From The 1970s

Taxi Driver 7 Essential Films From The 1970s

The 1970s are typically regarded as a period of Renaissance for the American movie industry. Financially, Hollywood was struggling, unable to match the heyday of the previous decades of the 40s and 50s, with television on the rise and new restrictions on the major studios. This resulted in a greater willingness for those with the big bucks to take chances on young filmmakers, many who had been studying film for their entire lives, and had been influenced by the evolving styles seen in Europe, France in particular.

A new generation of directors were able to foster in a new era of box office and critical successes, and this led to a wave of new voices and new visions being given the opportunity to have their work shown to a massive audience. These were movies that deviated pretty significantly from what was previously the Hollywood mainstream of musicals and wholesome Westerns. It gets romanticized quite a lot, and there are surely comparable advances constantly occurring in the world of cinema, even and perhaps especially today. But any decade that witnesses the arrival of the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Steven Spielberg, and George Lucas is worthy of some serious respect.

Here are 7 key movies that are essential to understanding what the 1970s were all about in the film world. It’s a list meant to serve as a taste rather than an exhaustive summation of a remarkable decade.

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1) A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork Orange 7 Essential Films From The 1970s

Stanley Kubrick proved himself in the 1960s. Dr. Strangelove was like his “What’s up, guys?” and 2001: A Space Odyssey was like “Yeah. What’s up.” In 1971, he didn’t really have to prove himself as a respectable and virtuosic filmmaker; at this point, he just was one. And so his next project was decidedly one of the most shocking movies ever made, an X-rated satirical examination of violence and social psychology.

One of the qualities that marked movies of the 1970s was a consciousness of movie history unlike ever before. It’s an awareness that informed the work of cinephiles like Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg as they were rising to the fore of American cinema. A Clockwork Orange shares this awareness, this consciousness of cultural influence and the perceived effects of popular culture on the greater society.

But Kubrick subverts this modern notion, placing at the center of the film’s violent actions and sensibilities Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, as well as the generally amiable and harmless tune “Singin’ in the Rain,” sung by the main character Alex during a particularly gruesome and disturbing scene. It’s notable also that the film depicts violence with this kind of distance, in a slightly absurd manner in terms of some of the musical choices but with a disturbing level of realism in the nonchalance with which these violent deeds are carried out. The entire movie is deliberate and detailed, and challengingly ambiguous. But most of all, it’s cruelly compelling. All marks of surging trends at this time.

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2) Badlands

Badlands1 7 Essential Films From The 1970s

Keeping in the spirit of detachment from violence, Terrence Malick’s debut feature Badlands marked quite the arrival of a unique filmmaker. Now known for his poetic style that has all but divorced itself from the conventional ways of narrative, Malick’s first work displayed the influences of contemporary artists as well as making significant departures in key areas. In a sense, it was perhaps the most appropriate time for him to begin making movies.

On one hand, Badlands is a kind of variation on the Bonnie and Clyde story, a young man and woman traveling the American Midwest, in love with each other, and robbing and killing people. Their exploits, though, aren’t analyzed as much as their psychology, their relationship with each other and with the nature that surrounds them. We hear narration from the perspective of the girl, Holly, but the romanticism and poetry of her thoughts plays in rather stark contrast to the apparent lack of any thought of the people they’re murdering. This creates a dissonance that is simultaneously disturbing and compelling. It would appear as though artists and audiences were becoming more comfortable in and curious about this dissonance.

Badlands marked the first of several films that demonstrate Malick’s tendency, in a good way, to observe human behavior the same way a nature documentarian would observe animals. It’s worth watching simply for some of the most gorgeous photography of any film to that point.

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3) Mean Streets/Taxi Driver

Mean Streets 7 Essential Films From The 1970s

The notion of personal filmmaking took hold in America during the 1970s, with Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets being one of the foremost examples. With an encyclopedic knowledge of film history, which he’s made hay out of recently with Hugo and his lecture works on classical film, Scorsese drew from his fluency in cinematic language as well as his experiences growing up in Little Italy, his exposure to seedy mob characters and devout Catholics. It’s easy to see this movie as just another mafia movie, but that’s only because we’ve all seen The Godfather, The Sopranos, and Goodfellas. Appreciating Mean Streets takes on new meaning when you consider that it was released in 1973.

Taxi Driver shared a certain strength of perspective with Mean Streets, exploring the more complex aspects of the hero/villain dichotomy, a new kind of subjectivity for movies. Anti-heroes seem almost commonplace now in the era of Walter White and Don Draper, which follows Tony Soprano and countless other television and movie figures who were bad guys who we sympathized with, but the novelty of this was strong in the 70s. So putting an audience in the mind of a guy like Travis Bickle, this deranged loner taxi driver living in Manhattan, and on top of that presenting his perspective without the attempt to pass some sort of objective, above-the-fray judgment on his actions and situation, was astonishing. Doing so with the energy Scorsese likes to operate with made for captivating drama, in both these movies.

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4) The Godfather Parts I & II/ Apocalypse Now

The Godfather 7 Essential Films From The 1970s

Everyone talks about The Godfather. It’s a cultural icon. It doesn’t exactly need defending. But the degree to which it diverges from American cinema in its time cannot be understated. Parts I and II tell an epic story in a style and with an aesthetic that stood out in a remarkable way. And it is necessary to think of the two films as a singular work, even though the progression of the second in terms of its storytelling is obvious. Francis Ford Coppola’s work in the 70s, when you can see the high quality version offered on Blu-Ray, feels like it could be made today, rather than other films from the era that immediately come off as dated.

Apocalypse Now is another example of this contemporary yet timeless feeling these movies are imbued with. While the extended Redux version waters down the tightness of the original movie a little bit, the atmosphere that is sustained over the course of this Vietnam War story is eerie and captivating, alien and familiar. It’s hard to even put a finger on what makes these movies feel so alive, making it hard to take your eyes off of them. But talking about them doesn’t come close to measuring up to the visceral understanding achieved by watching them. They have a way of leaving people at a loss for words.

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5) Rocky I & II

Rocky 7 Essential Films From The 1970s

In discourse today there’s a tendency to presuppose that any continuation of a movie story through the creation of a sequel is inherently a desperate grab for more money, a cynical attempt to capitalize on the success of the past by simply repeating it. I’m not even certain that this is a rule, so I hesitate to suggest that Rocky II is an exception, especially since it was a franchise that was started shortly after The Godfather Part II, perhaps the greatest sequel ever made. The Rocky franchise may have devolved into schlock and borderline propaganda by the fourth movie, but it started off as a rather beautiful little character story, centering on this relationship between the brash but kind-hearted Rocky and the strong but silent Adrian.

The first Rocky movie is still met with mixed responses; most people seem to agree it’s the best of the series, but its Oscar win and subsequent franchisification knocked it down a few pegs in critical circles. But like Rocky himself, the first movie is really an underdog story in itself, being made on an extremely low budget and becoming one of the most popular and emotionally resonant movies of the 1970s. Then it managed to follow this success up with a sequel that matched the emotional notes of the original, exploring new territory instead of rehashing the same points covered in the first one (which is what Rocky III ended up doing).

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6) The Deer Hunter

The Deer Hunter 7 Essential Films From The 1970s

Another legacy of Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather movies was that, for a while at least, sprawling epics about American identity and deep explorations of character were hot commodities. The Deer Hunter is fascinating because it simultaneously demonstrates precisely what people love so much about 1970s movies, their complexity, their deliberateness, their distinct aesthetics, while the story of director Michael Cimino and his disastrous followup, Heaven’s Gate, may explain precisely why studios rarely took a chance on projects like this ever again.

The Deer Hunter itself is a wonderfully complex portrait of a group of Pennsylvanian steelworkers who serve in the Vietnam War. But unlike other Vietnam War movies, this one is less focused on the national implications of the war and more on the personal and relational impact that spring out from traumatic experiences. It’s not always intellectually accessible but the emotional tone of the movie is undeniable, and devastating.

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7) Jaws

Jaws 7 Essential Films From The 1970s

The charm of Jaws is that while it’s a thriller, making use of famously foreboding music and suspenseful moments galore, it doesn’t lose its sense of enjoyment. It understands that audiences are more afraid about what could happen to the character on screen if they’re people that you don’t want bad stuff to happen to. So even if you’re not personally, physically affected by the scares, if you don’t get the shakes any time you hear the trademark notes indicating danger, you are invested in the story of these characters and their hunt for this great white shark. It would be fun to see Steven Spielberg return to a similar style of filmmaking, just one more time.

There are so many more films from the 1970s that are emblematic of what the decade meant for movies. While today’s movies, especially the independent variety, as well as cable television shows, are arguably back at the level of this prolific decade of quality, it’s a period that stands on a bit of an island in American film history, and deserves attention for that reason. If you like old movies that don’t feel like they’ve been pulled out a time capsule but instead like they’re fresh and contemporary in spirit if not in technology, then films from the 1970s are a good source to tap.

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  • Sicktir3d

    Lotta films better than Jaws and Rocky but this a nice list

    Check out my new single “Jwoww and Snooki” Youtube: Sicktir3d

    • Phil

      You’re gonna recommend Jwoww and Snooki after saying there’s better films than Jaws and Rocky? Way to blow your credibility. What do you figure was better, Track of the moon beast?

  • Eugene Willys

    What about the Dirty Harry movies?

  • sledgeh2711

    Um, seriously – did you forget about a little film called Star Wars?

  • Levi Everaerts

    This list isn’t complete without I Spit on Your Grave (or Day of the Woman, depending on which title you prefer)