Best Films of the 70’s

February 10, 2010

We’re going to have to end on a high with these lists. At this time, I can’t honestly go further back than the 1970s in compiling large lists of favourite films. However, assembling these things has strengthened my resolve to busy myself tracking down and watching more classics. As far as I’m concerned, the entire history and body of film prior to the 70’s represents one giant catalogue of my Cins* for the most part. There are several notable exceptions to his, of course, but far too few for one to be remotely satisfied with. For now, I shall turn to my selection of the best films from the decade in which I was (just barely) born. The criteria remain the same; films I have seen, how much I’ve enjoyed them and their wider cultural and cinematic impact. Glaring omissions here will include Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Manhattan and All the President’s Men.

D Wigfields Top 50 Best Films of the 70s

The arbitrary nature of looking at films produced in a single decade is quite apparent here, given that what was significant about this era of filmmaking (for Hollywood) occurred more accurately over a period lasting approximately fifteen years, from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. What came to be known as “New Hollywood” or the “Hollywood New Wave” saw an unusual shift from overbearing studio-driven projects to unprecedented creative control being granted to a new generation of young filmmakers keen to pick up where their influences in the European cinema of the 60s had left off. Congruent with the era in which these films were made, strong anti-establishment and counter-cultural themes appeared in Hollywood cinema, the controversy of which was offset by their strong box office success invigorating cinemas that had seen declining revenue with the advent of television some years before. Explicit, challenging films intended for ‘adults-only’ audiences were nonetheless strong commercial and critical successes and a number of highly talented young men had their egos dangerously fed with endless plaudits and fat cheques. Arriving a little later at the party, two directors in particular, regarded as somewhat safer and geekier than their peers, each delivered a massively successful film that gave the studios a winning formula for exponentially larger financial rewards. Steve Spielberg’s Jaws and George Lucas’ Star Wars contributed to the end of this fine era by demonstrating the safe bet of the blockbuster and the innovation of merchandising tie-ins. Others from the same generation played their own part in the eventual demise of “New Hollywood” with a number of wildly misjudged pictures that became hugely expensive, box-office disasters and it wasn’t long before the studios began to once again exert full and firm control over the films they were financing.

My choice for the top slot has loomed large in my life from a young age. The only reason I can’t more firmly and swiftly declare Miller’s Crossing my favourite film overall is because I have to keep considering it alongside this epic, towering achievement. There isn’t much here that needs to be said about The Godfather. Widely regarded as one of the greatest films ever made, Francis Ford Coppola‘s magnum opus retains its power and beauty in a timeless fashion. Every aspect of the film is superb and executed on a grand scale and its deep, lasting penetration into popular culture is thoroughly deserved. The story of the transition of Mario Puzo‘s novel to the big screen is filled with its own intrigues and it’s a wonder that the film was ever even made. Two highly regarded young directors of the time had already turned the film down and Francis Coppola didn’t want to do it either, when first approached. Reluctant to exploit his Italian-American heritage, he was nevertheless pursued by the flamboyant and eccentric producer Robert Evans, who was chasing the authenticity he felt Coppola could bring to the story. It was only when the idea came to Francis Coppola to make The Godfather as a metaphorical comment on American capitalism (framed as an epic drama akin to a tale about “a Roman king and his three sons”) that he agreed to do it. From there the production was still fraught with disagreements between the director and Paramount studios, especially with the casting. Marlon Brando had already firmly convinced Hollywood that he didn’t give a flying fuck about his career and was content to get fat and crazy when Coppola decided he wanted the legendary actor in the picture. That battle was won only when they had legal agreements binding Brando to commit to the film and not sabotage it. The director was also adamant about casting the then-unknown Al Pacino as Michael Corleone whereas the studio wanted an actor like Robert Redford to play the part. Ultimately, Coppola won the day and delivered a major financial and critical success for Paramount which, to this day, continues to top critic’s and public polls alike as one of the all-time greats. “I work my whole life – I don’t apologize – to take care of my family, and I refused to be a fool, dancing on the string held by all those big shots.“**

The director himself, after having a phenomenal decade as a filmmaker making such films as The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, The Conversation and Apocalypse Now (as well as writing and producing other films at the time, helping a young George Lucas in particular), went on to suffer something of a fall from grace as he delivered a series of commercial and critical failures in the 1980s, with the massive financial losses of One From The Heart being regarded as particularly disastrous. Francis Ford Coppola has subsequently said, in his own words, that the man who made The Godfather pictures and The Conversation “died in the jungle making Apocalypse Now“. The account of that production, replete with excesses and insanity and Coppola’s near-nervous breakdown, certainly suggests a torturous experience that the man, as an artist, may never have recovered from. A cursory glance at his later career does little to assuage this tragic conclusion.

Notes – * A Cin is a term coined by my friend Josh to denote a highly regarded/classic film that one has not yet seen. I have many terrible Cins that need addressed, particularly from the entire history of film prior to the 1970s. When these have been addressed, and I have properly repented, more lists of this type may follow. For the immediate future, however, the above is as far as I can go.

** I simply couldn’t stomach the cliché of laying down the “offer you can’t refuse” line there.



  1. Nice, well-rounded list. Good mix of blockbusters and off-beat stuff. Brought me back to a few films I haven’t seen in years (Straw Dogs, Network, The Wicker Man) and reminded me of a few I still haven’t checked out (Last Tango in Paris, Demon Seed, Get Carter). Also being just barely a child of the ’70s, many of these blockbusters here were some of my first video experiences (as my folks didn’t get a VHS player until about ’86) so I can relate with them, even though I wouldn’t necessarily find a place for them today. Anyhoo, I enjoyed this rundown. Here’s just a few honorable mentions I would like add to the mix:
    Zombi 2
    The Warriors
    Pink Flamingos
    Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song
    Flesh for Frankenstein
    Blood for Dracula

  2. Very astute analysis and summary, Mr. Wigs. It seems like you could close your eyes and throw a dart at any period in the 70’s and hit a classic.

    Anyway, I’ve spotted a few of my major CINS on this list:

    Badlands (or any Terrence Malick, for that matter)
    The Outlaw Josey Wales
    Last Tango in Paris
    Enter the Dragon

    And Lenny, though I’ve never even heard of it! I read the summary and now I’m thinking I need to see this movie as soon as possible. I love me some early Dustin Hoffman.

  3. Do you know mch about Lenny Bruce, Switts?

    The Hoffman flick is a pretty good biopic, maybe a little forgotten now.

  4. Damn, forgot about The Warriors.

    “Can you dig it?”

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