By John H. Foote
The new American cinema began in 1967 with four films which would change the fabric of cinema in North America with their courage, exploration of society, urgency, and more their artistry. Bonnie and Clyde, Cool Hand Luke, The Graduate and In Cold Blood challenged audiences and critics in a way few films in the decade had, asking them to go on a journey with them, to experience something new. The door to explore which had been previously taboo was opened and the artists stormed in. Suddenly people on screen talked realistically, swearing peppered their language, sexuality was explored, nudity was commonplace, and films began to explore drug use, mental illness, divorce, cultural unrest, urban alienation, Watergate and Viet Nam. To quote Bob Dylan,… the times were a-changin’… and change they did. The studio system fell, young directors suddenly gained control of Hollywood, and exciting new artists emerged each year.
By the end of the decade (1970-79) the seventies had been declared the most important ten-year period in cinema history, the director’s era, the films out of America hailed around the globe. Within two years into the eighties, the director’s era was dead.
Through the sixties, universities and colleges were now offering courses in film, and many of the major directors to emerge in the seventies had gone through school, while others cut their teeth in TV. Coppola, Scorsese, De Palma, Lucas, Spielberg, Woody Allen, Sidney Lumet, Alan J. Pakula, Sydney Pollack, William Fiendkin, Peter Bogdonavich, and Hal Ashby gave us stunning films through the decade, though many of them would also experience a major box office failure, as the studios allowed these new directors whatever they needed for their films. Many directors from Europe tried their hand at movie making in America, some with great success, Roman Polanski, and Milos Forman, others, such as Ingmar Bergman, not so well.
And with Marlon Brando and Jane Fonda leading the way, there was a second renaissance in method acting, which saw an explosion of major acting talent. No longer did actors and actresses have to possess model good looks, realism was the new order of the day. Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, Ellen Burstyn, Jill Clayburgh, Sally Field, Robert De Niro, Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, Liza Minnelli, Barbra Streisand, Robert Duvall, Bruce Dern and Diane Keaton were among the finest actors of the decade, bringing realism and grittiness to their characterizations.
One director, a gifted filmmaker is responsible for the first three films on this list. Two were Best Picture winners, the other should have been, he was a DGA nominee for all three, winning twice, and dominated American cinema in this decade. Directing four films, The Conversation (1974) being the fourth, he also produced American Graffiti (1973) and wrote Patton (1970) and The Great Gatsby (1974) winning an Oscar for the former, raspberries for the latter. None of it mattered, he was an unstoppable creative force through the decade, though he has never enjoyed that kind of acclaim again.
And finally,…nope. You are not mistaken, The Deer Hunter (1978) is not there…nor should it be. And yes, a single director made the top three films…and numbers two and three could be interchangeable.
20. WOODSTOCK (1970)
One of the greatest documentaries ever made, this study of the great rock concert in upstate New York on Yasgars farm is a stunning document of history. In what was meant to be for perhaps twenty thousand spectators, it became for more than half a million kids, descending on the small town to watch the greatest collection of rock and roll artists ever play their music in a peaceful demonstration against the war. The cameras catch the acts, but go so much further than that, heading into the crowds to talk to the people who had come there, to find out why, to the townsfolk who loved the kids and went out of their way to feed the multitudes, to the organizers who could not believe what had happened to their little event. A soaring work of art, capturing the time in history that will never be forgotten.
19. STAR WARS (1977)
Yep way down here. I have always believed Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) to be a better film than this, and frankly, the best of the original trilogy was The Empire Strikes Back (1980), but for the sheer impact alone, it has to be here. Set in a galaxy a long time ago, it is a western in space, the good guys, Luke Skywalker and friends versus the bad guys, Darth Vader and his. The effects were groundbreaking at the time but it was the creation of an entirely new galaxy that was so extraordinary and took audiences breath away. From the opening crawl to the final scene reminiscent if a Riefenstahl rally, Lucas told his tale with remarkable confident and savvy for a man who did not direct. Seven Oscars and I cannot fully explain the impact the film had on pop culture. Think about life without the force, lightsabers, hyperspace, death star, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Darth Vader…
18. DOG DAY AFTERNOON (1975)
Al Pacino is electrifying, blazing in his brilliance, as Sonny, a married homosexual who decides to rob a bank in order to pay for his lover’s sex change operation. This black comedy sees the actor give one of his best performances, but also one of the most moving of his career. Nothing goes right for these two robbers, the other portrayed as a sad sack psychopath by the great John Cazale. The money is gone, and the cops figure things out fast. Sonny realizes Sal is dead serious about killing the hostages and wants the plane they are getting to go to Wyoming. He knows he is in trouble, as the scene outside the bank becomes a media sideshow. Sidney Lumet directed the film with his usual detail and power. Realizing he has an actor ready to give it all for a stunning performance, he sits back and allows it.
17. BLACK SUNDAY (1977)
To this day, the finest film ever made about international terrorism and the most realistic. A Middle East terrorist group calling itself Black September has brainwashed a Viet Nam veteran, a former POW portrayed with ferocious power by Bruce Dern into commandeering the Goodyear blimp and blowing up the Super Bowl with a bomb especially designed to kill sixty thousand or more fans. Dern is alternately terrifying and heartbreaking as we see what has destroyed him and angered him, which does not make it right but does allow us an understanding. John Frankenheimer directed the film giving it a taut tight tension, Robert Shaw portrays the Israeli intelligence office and Marthe Keller is the terrorist who has recruited Dern, who should have won the Oscar. Superbly shot like a documentary and edited for maximum tension.
16. JAWS (1975)
Based on the best selling novel about a killer white shark feeding on swimmers off the New England coast, director Steven Spielberg made this one of the greatest thrillers ever made and the first summer blockbuster. Though they built three mechanical sharks for the film, they could not use them often as they sunk or did not work, so Spielberg cut around it, showing the attacks from the shark’s point of view, not showing the shark as often the script called for. He was fortunate to get outstanding performances from Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and best of all Robert Shaw, who deserved to win the Oscar for supporting actor. Still terrifying, a masterpiece, one of the finest directed films of the decade, displaying the promise and genius of the young director.
15. CABARET (1972)
The greatest movie musical ever made, directed by the great Bob Fosse and acted with startling star power by Liza Minnelli giving the performance of several lifetimes. Set in Berlin 1931 the film explores the relationships between several people transplanted to the city during the rise of Nazism, which is taking place in the background, and eventually the foreground. Minnelli is just extraordinary as a woman who deludes herself and must be the center of attention. Joel Grey is equally superb as the haunting Emcee, who might be a metaphor for the devil, evil, Hitler, the Nazis. All but two of the songs take place in the seedy Kit Kat Club, the Money song the most entertaining of the film while the one in the beer hall is the most haunting. The most chilling of the film takes place in a beer hall, Tomorrow Belongs to Me, sung by a beautiful blonde boy, who happens to be a Hitler Youth, wearing the swastika. That others sing the anthem with him is paralyzing in its raw visceral power. Eight Oscars…
14. ANNIE HALL (1977)
The premise and rules for any Hollywood love story are simple, buy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. Since the thirties, it has been so and will continue to be. But Woody Allen added a fourth rule in the seventies, boy loses girl forever, and suddenly love stories became realistic, honest and perfectly powerful. There was a realism about them that had never been there before. Annie Hall (1977) draws a great deal from the love affair between Allen and actress Diane Keaton during their years together, the writing is bitingly funny and honest, and the performances, Keaton especially are for the ages. Won Woody his Oscar for Best Director and one of three for writing.
13. COMING HOME (1978)
Hal Ashby directed this picture, his best film, about the impact of the Viet Nam war on the men and women who experienced it. Two men fight the war, Luke (Jon Voight), and Bob (Bruce Dern), Jane Fonda portrays the woman who loves them both. Voight is exceptional as a man left paralyzed from the waist down, angry and raging over the war, who falls for married Fonda while she is volunteering in a veterans hospital. Her husband, Dern, is a hawk, cannot wait to get to Viet Nam but once there is betrayed by the war and his country, and returns home to find his wife too, has betrayed him. The performances are superb with Voight and Fonda winning Oscars and Dern deserving of one. His final moments will stay with you long after the credits fade…once I was a soldier…once his life meant something.
12. AMERICAN GRAFITTI (1973)
The beauty of this film is we knew people like the people in the movie, we were the people in this movie and finding out their fates before the closing credits are bittersweet and bring a genuine sadness to the film, a loss of innocence. Beautifully acted by its young cast, superbly written and directed, and told with a truth that was alarming. Richard Dreyfuss, Candy Clark, Paul LeMat, Ron Howard, Cindy Williams, Charlie Martin Smith and MacKenzie Phillips are excellent in every aspect. And that score, the rock ‘n’ roll of the time, Buddy Holly, Beach Boys…sweeps you back at once to a kinder, gentler world. Anyone who grew up in a small town with a main street will get it and be swept back to a time when the kids cruised with windows down and music blaring, filling the streets with rock and roll. It is the last year of American innocence, one year before Kennedy will be assassinated in Dallas, a few years before the war in Viet Nam is escalated before young people stop trusting their elders. The beauty of the film is that we know the people in the story, hell, we were the people in the story. Its familiarity is drawn from the fact so many of the characters were who we went to high school with, who we left behind. Lucas might be famous for Star Wars (1977) but this was the best film he has ever made.
11. NETWORK (1976)
A devastating black comedy satire about the state of television but also about what television would become. How could they have known that the sort of reality programming they explore in this film would become the television of the 2000s? How could they know the staggering big business TV would become? Sidney Lumet directs this powerful film about an anchour man who loses his mind on the air and rather than get him help everyone around him knows he needs, the network exploit his madness to create a hit TV show. Believing himself to be the hand of God, he offends many groups before being taken out, murdered on live TV for a hell of a rating. Peter Finch is terrific as the mad as hell TV anchor, but the film belongs to William Holden and Faye Dunaway as lovers at odds with the news department. Holden watches with tired eyes his beloved news division bastardized by the grasping, power-mad Diana (Dunaway), the woman he leaves his wife for, the demon who steals his heart and he knows too late will bring about ruin to all she touches. Blacky funny, yet scalding in its brilliant satire.
10. MANHATTAN (1979)
Many Allen purists will disagree that this film places higher than Annie Hall (1977) and I understand, but I think the extra years as a director gave Allen a greater command of the medium. He was just a better director, a more confident filmmaker, and a better actor. Allen portrays a writer who is having an affair with a seventeen-year-old high school student wise beyond her years, portrayed by Mariel Hemingway. He ends it with her, devastating her, to take up with Mary (Diane Keaton) who he believes is his soulmate, though we in the audience know his soul mate is the younger girl. Shot in black and white which romanticizes New York City, and superbly acted. The best script Allen ever wrote. The film is drawn from his life, and in a way comes back later in his life to haunt him, that attraction to very young girls. That said, this film is very funny, often melancholy and ultimately deeply moving. Who says the older generation is most wise? Here the greatest wisdom comes from a seventeen-year-old school girl portrayed with luminous beauty by Hemingway.
9. CHINATOWN (1974)
Possibly the greatest film noir ever made. A twisting, turning film in which we cannot possibly guess what is going to happen, Roman Polanski directs with a confident hand the dark, outstanding Robert Towne script. Jack Nicholson is JJ Gittes, the private eye, Faye Dunaway, is Evelyn Miulwray, the femme fatale (though also a victim) and John Huston is Noah Cross, the villain, father to Evelyn, obscenely wealthy, obscenely corrupt within, and a more disgusting villain the seventies never knew. Nicholson is pulled deeper into and deeper into a nightmare of murder and incest, realizing before it is too late people he cares about are going to die and he is helpless to do anything about it. The script is the star of the show, and elements of it will haunt you long after the final scene. As Gittes walks away at the end, his world crashing down around him, viler than he ever thought possible, he is told, “It’s Chinatown, Jake…it’s Chinatown.” Beautifully scored, with perfect production design and costumes, the film is beautiful to look at but first, you disappear into the plot, which becomes a nightmare. Huston is appalling as Cross, a horrific human being.
8. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977)
In so many films aliens come to earth to wipe out humanity. But what if they came to say hello…to return some of the people that had abducted through the years…to let us know they are out there. Their technology would far surpass ours, what possible reason would they have to come here and destroy humanity? Obviously they have been watching for centuries, and finally, they come down to make contact. Steven Spielberg’s masterful film is a love letter to the possibility of life beyond the stars, beautifully acted, directed, and shot, with remarkably real visual effects. Richard Dreyfuss is a perfect everyman who is inexplicably drawn to the meeting and does not know why. The smile between mankind and the tiny alien, finally face to face is haunting and beautiful…I remember leaving the film in tears. I hope with all my being if this is ever to happen, it happens like this, with love and peace and wonder.
7. ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976)
The amount of information in this film, adapted by William Goldman from the best selling book, is remarkable as the writer makes sense of Watergate, starting at the very beginning and moving through seeing the writers create the articles that will bring down a presidency. No social media in the seventies, just following lead after lead, interviewing terrified government workers, piecing together a myriad of leads and phony leads, trying to figure out the truth. Alan J. Pakula directed the film like a suspense thriller, the perfect tone for the film, drawing top-notch performances from Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as the reporters and best of all Jason Robards as Ben Bradlee. Should have won Best Picture and remains one of the greatest films about reporting ever made. The wisest move? Making the film a detective drama, reaching into the White House.
6. ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1975)
Based on Ken Kesey’s groundbreaking novel, Czech director was given the job to bring to the picture a documentary look and feel, which the producer, Michael Douglas felt essential for the film. Jack Nicholson gives a breathtaking performance as a rebel committed to a mental hospital and becomes the leader of the men, pitting them against the controlling, deceptively dangerous Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), who is more lethal than he can possibly imagine. Nicholson will break your heart yet fill your eyes with tears of laughter and joy and finally despair in the best performance of his career. The supporting cast is filled with actors who would go on to become fine character actors including Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, and Brad Dourif. Astounding.
5. A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971)
What makes this such a remarkable work is that today, forty-seven years later it still looks futuristic, and the future created within the film looks possible!! Malcolm MacDowell gives a jaunty, upbeat performance as a pure sociopathic psychopath, the leader of the Droogs, a gang who rape and pillage during the night hours. Kubrick daringly made this picture in the early seventies the sex and violence; among the most shocking on film at that time, earning the film an X rating. And dark it is, yet there are moments you cannot tear your eyes off, the near comedic perversity pulling you in. For me the finest film of his career, and the best of 1971. What shocks you while watching the film is that you cannot help but feel for the monster Alex, or even like and pity him, despite his actions.
4. TAXI DRIVER (1976)
As Travis Bickle, Robert De Niro gives a seething, incredibly focused performance as a former Viet Nam veteran now prowling the streets of New York City in the seventies as a late night cabbie, his mind slowly being eroded by the filth he sees around him. Like a ticking time bomb we know he is going to go off but we do not know when or really know what it will be that sets him off. Scorsese created a dark masterpiece, his camera right down on the streets of the city with its character seeing the hell he sees, the very hell building his rage. The opening shots, with steam rising from the sewer grates suggests hell is bubbling just beneath the city is alarming. Jodie Foster is superb as a teenaged prostitute and Harvey Keitel all sleazy charm, suddenly erupting to violence when crossed. De Niro was astounding as the lonely man who is dangerously delusional, and it turns out viciously violent. Watch the look in his eyes in the rearview mirror at the end of the film, the bomb is ticking down again, how long before Travis again goes off?
3. THE GODFATHER (1972)
Hailed upon release as the finest work since Citizen Kane (1941), The Godfather explores a father and his sons, and the mafia of the forties. In the immediate years after the war, the Corleone family is among, if not the, most powerful crime organizations in New York, but there are others moving in. When the Don (Brando) is shot but survives, war is declared and many deaths are racked up including the Don’s son Santino (James Caan) the hot-headed eldest. A superb study of the American dream turned perverse, about a family making their wealth through criminal activity and a fathers loyalty to his sons. Though Brando got the most attention and the Oscar, it is Pacino who shines brightest as Michael, the son who wanted nothing to do with the family, but is drawn in and becomes a lethal, powerful Don. Robert Duvall, John Cazale, James Caan and Diane Keaton are all superb in this excellent ensemble. DIrected again with confidence, yet a subtle hand, superbly shot by Gordon Willis, the master of shadows. A masterpiece.
2. APOCALYPSE NOW (1979)
Francis Ford Coppola’s masterful, surrealistic, hallucinatory epic about the war in Vietnam brings the nightmare of that war crashing into Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. From the haunting opening, through to the shocking finale, we are transfixed and hypnotized by what Coppola puts up on the screen, the images startling in their raw beauty and power. Willard (Martin Sheen) is a military assassin sent into Cambodia to terminate a much-decorated Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) who has gone mad and set up his own army deep in the jungle. The closer to Kurtz draws Willard, the more he sees of the war, the more he understands this enigma of a man. Along the way, they encounter Kilgore, a fearless, war loving man who talks about how much he loves the smell of napalm in the morning. In doing this, his jolly exterior exposes his utter madness. When he finally encounters Kurtz, he finds he does indeed understand and gives the tired old warrior, exactly what he wants. The cinematography is the best ever created for a film. Haunting, forever a masterpiece. A work of undisputed genius.
1. THE GODFATHER PART II (1974)
Incredibly, Coppola made a more complex, deeper, darker and richer film than the first, though they really work together as two films, with the first The Godfather being the middle film. For Part II Coppola, using a broken narrative moved easily back and forth through time, showing us how Vito (Robert De Niro) rose to power in Little Italy at the turn of the 20th century, and then to the fifties to continue the life of Michael (Pacino) solidifying his status as the most powerful family in America. With no intention of ever becoming legal, Michael again casually wipes out his enemies, but is stunned to learn a traitor is among his family and he is forced to deal with that too. Above all the film explores how absolute power corrupts absolutely, there is no escape from it happening. Pacino gives the best performance of his career, perfect as Michael, his very presence radiates danger and menace, while De Niro perfectly captured the essence of Brando in his young Brando, moving the same, sounding the same. There are brilliant performances from Robert Duvall, John Cazale, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire, Lee Strasberg, and Michael V. Gazzo. Eleven Academy Award nominations, the film won six, including Best Film and Coppola for Best Director. His direction is bold and confident, perfect in every way. The greatest film of the decade, arguably the greatest film of all time.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.