The 1970s was a traumatic decade in the U.S. A. The first half of the decade was dominated by historic failure – 1974 saw our president resign in disgrace, and 1975 saw the fall of Saigon, the official end of more than a decade of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Post 1975 was dominated by economic issues, as we started to lose our grip as the leading economic super power. We were throttled by runaway inflation and gas shortages and rising interest rates. There was the emergence of serious automotive competition from Japan, and the start of the decline of our textile and steel industries.
Culturally, the 70s is remembered as an age of hedonism, of sexual freedom and casual drug use. The writer Tom Wolfe summed it up best when he referred to it as “the Me decade.” The culture of self absorption was summed up in popular music, with the early 70s dominated by the laid-back, California sounds of the Eagles and singer songwriters like James Taylor and Jackson Browne, and the late 70s dominated by the pulsating beat of the disco explosion. Punk rock came around in the mid 70s as a form of rebellion against both of these forms.
As mediocre as much of the music output was, film was going through a renaissance, with the emergence of some of the greatest American filmmakers ever. The 70s saw young directors like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Robert Altman, Terrence Malick and John Boorman making some of their most innovative and personal films, stretching boundaries and bringing the influences of rock and roll and the French New Wave movement of the 1950s to mainstream Hollywood. Woody Allen transformed from brilliant comic to serious and talented filmmaker. Giants like Stanley Kubrick and John Huston continued making great films. Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino and Jack Nicholson established their places with the greatest film actors ever, and Faye Dunaway and Jane Fonda were not only brilliant actresses but also pioneers, breaking down barriers, challenging stereotypes, and changing perceptions of women in film.
For me, film in the 70s can be divided between the personal and introspective films of Scorsese (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver) , Coppola (The Godfather, The Conversation) and Altman (McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Nashville) and the emergence of the big budget, special effects, sensory orgies of Lucas (Star Wars) and Spielberg (Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Mind). In fact, one film strived to combine these two genres with exhilaratingly mixed results, Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.
The fact that the Lucas and Spielberg extravaganzas were huge box office successes would have a profound effect on how films would be made, marketed and distributed in the decades that follow. Unfortunately, the personal and introspective films that Hollywood liberally produced in the early 70s would become few and far between, with sequels to big moneymakers taking their place.
My favorite film of the 70s is Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, which is more than a homage to the great 1940s detective films, it takes its place alongside The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep as the best the genre has to offer. Although it takes place in the 40s, the film is really about the 70s – its story, centering on the manipulation of the Los Angeles water supply, suggests the government scandals of Watergate, and the self absorbed and murky morality in Robert Towne’s screenplay neatly echoes the confused chaos of the time. Throw Polanski’s atmospheric direction, and great performances by Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway into the mix, the result is pretty damn close to perfection.
Here’s my list of favorite films of the 70s:
20. Jaws (1975), Directed by Steven Spielberg
19. Manhattan (1979), Woody Allen
18. Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 1977, Spielberg
17. Network (1976), Sydney Lumet
16. Deliverance (1972), John Boorman
15. The Godfather (1971), Francis Ford Coppola
14. Dog Day Afternoon (1973), Lumet
13. Wise Blood (1979), John Huston
12. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Milos Foreman
11. Days of Heaven (1978), Terrence Malick
10. The Conversation (1973), Coppola
9. Nashville (1975), Robert Altman
8. Mean Streets (1973), Martin Scorsese
7. Taxi Driver (1976), Scorsese
6. Apocalypse Now (1979), Coppola
5. The Godfather Part 2 (1974), Coppola
4. The Man Who Would Be King (1975), Huston
3. Annie Hall (1977), Allen
2. A Clockwork Orange (1971), Stanley Kubrick
1. Chinatown (1975), Roman Polanski