10. The Man Who Would Be King (1975)
A roaring, timeless Kipling adventure directed by John Huston and starring the incomparable duo of Sean Connery and Michael Caine, the film is simultaneously a swashbuckling imperialist adventure and a cautionary tale about venturing into dimly understood lands to take advantage of easy pickings there. The scene in which the two old soldiers laugh their way out of doom — their voices cause an avalanche that seals an unpassable chasm — is a mini-tutorial on the payoff from looking at the bright side.
9. Three Days of the Condor (1975)
The paranoid political conspiracy thriller that peaked in the 1970s was never done better than this smart, gripping, twisting man-on-the-run story about a professional reader for the CIA who finds rogue agents trying to assassinate him. Such films often fall apart at the end, but the payoff in this film (crazy as it is) is worth the buildup, and the Robert Redford-Faye Dunaway love story is surprisingly credible given that they meet when he kidnaps her.
8. Annie Hall (1977)
Woody Allen’s best romantic dramedy is easy to watch again and again. It’s sweet, personal, endearing, wise, arch and witty. Allen bridged the gap between mere jokes and sharp insights into the human condition, with the famous concluding musing “I need the eggs” providing a poignant way to look at setbacks in love and life.
7. Five Easy Pieces (1970)
Perhaps the best movie about men ever written by a woman (Carole Eastman), this small-scale drama about a callous roughneck (Jack Nicholson) and his ditzy girlfriend (Karen Black) unfolds as gradually and gracefully as origami, with more and more sides to its haunted, alienated, disgusted and yet tender and hugely talented lead character emerging as the film goes on. Director Bob Rafelson, Nicholson’s close collaborator, peered within a man’s soul and shone a light on all the shadows and folds within.
6. The Godfather, Part II (1974)
Slightly more brooding and more mature (if a bit less entertaining) than its predecessor, whose roots were in pulp, the second film is also a bit less focused, expending considerable energy on the somewhat superfluous backstory of Vito Corleone’s beginnings that drives the film well over three hours. Nevertheless, the interplay of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) with both his family and his Family is spellbinding. The character develops into one of the most sinister and terrifying figures in cinema history.
5. Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
“New York is crazy” is the first thought that occurs to everyone visiting the city, but this film’s director, near-lifelong New Yorker Sidney Lumet, took on a task that even Woody Allen never did — taking the measure of the insanity, painting a portrait of each clown in the many-ringed circus, cheering it and razzing it and ultimately even shedding a tear for the freaks, weirdos and losers that give New York its funky tang.
4. The Godfather (1972)
Better than any crime movie ever made to that date, Francis Ford Coppola’s game-changer found a new level of depth to gangsterism, which he found strongly linked to notions of blood ties, loyalty and levels of feuding and vengeance that harkened back to ancient drama. Though the film unquestionably places a gloss of nobility on the mafia (which is why wiseguys love it), as mythmaking it has few equals.
3. Apocalypse Now (1979)
Woozy, colorful, exotic and chaotic, Coppola’s fourth great film (including The Conversation) of the decade was what Catch-22 wanted to be — a monstrously entertaining, scabrously satiric, chillingly dark fable about the insanity of war.
2. Rocky (1976)
A story of almost childlike simplicity turns magic in the execution. Among the first films to make use of the Steadicam (on Rocky’s run through the streets and up the stairs of the art museum), it combined endearing kitchen-sink realism with a soaring spirit to deliver one of the most imitated movies of all time. The Coppola films, great as they are, cannot compete with it in its humanity and its dizzying emotional payoff.
1. All That Jazz (1979)
Funny, cynical, naughty, self-destructive and hugely talented, Bob Fosse’s alter ego Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) was a delightful outrage. Taking the circumstances of his own heart attack five years earlier in the midst of editing Lenny and directing the original Broadway version of Chicago, Fosse made a livelier and more jaundiced version of Fellini’s 8½ that presented his excesses as conversations with a beautiful angel of death (played by young Jessica Lange).
The opening “On Broadway” audition number was revolutionary and exhilarating in its editing, to be copied in a million music videos, while Fosse’s reimagining of the gravest events of his life as the stuff of cute Broadway entertainment gave my favorite film a crackling, eerie tension between dark and light. Making a movie — “something good,” he would later say — “matters more than your health. So you trade a couple years.” It’s showtime, folks!