The Top 20 Films of the 1970s

20. The Way We Were (1973)

Mistakenly confused in the memory with the sentimental theme song, the film is actually a barbed character study that explores how politics can become a kind of obsession that in this case drives a wedge between a happy-go-lucky, apolitical screenwriter (Robert Redford) and his stridently leftist wife (Barbara Streisand) during the McCarthy period.

19. The Deer Hunter (1978)

Though essentially missing the point — we can agree that the Vietnam War wasn’t about Russian Roulette — this intensely atmospheric war drama nevertheless works on the level of its bruising, draining drama.

18. Heaven Can Wait (1978)

In the 1970s, even romcoms were bittersweet and played in minor keys. When a football player (Warren Beatty) is mistakenly spirited off to heaven before his time by an overeager angel (Buck Henry), he struggles to get back on the field in the body of a tycoon — who makes a romantic connection with a political enemy (Julie Christie). When he learns he must say goodbye to her, it’s a moment of exquisite sorrow worthy of the finest tearjerkers — even though the movie is delightfully funny overall.

17. Papillon (1973)

The gutty, grueling prison movie typified the 1970s love of all things dank and depressing and this Steve McQueen drama was typically stark in its depiction of a 1930s French prisoner determined to escape from Devil’s Island at all costs. The indomitably cool McQueen never delved so deep, and as his brainy sidekick, Dustin Hoffman was the epitome of a great character actor who disappears into the role.

16. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

A pioneering cinematic work of absurdist comedy, the directorial debut of Terry Gilliam (who co-directed with Terry Jones) extended a sketch-comedy style to a winning picaresque tale by devising unforgettably ridiculous characters such as the Black Knight and the cowardly Sir Robin. The outrageously inventive script must be one of the most quoted of all time.

15. The Exorcist (1973)

Building on Rosemary’s Baby and a fad for all things occult, this was a new kind of horror film, seemingly firmly grounded in reality and yet delivering with monstrously creative, physically exhausting scenes of demonic possession that employed some of the most astounding uses of special effects ever devised for film. Few escaped without a cold shiver down the spine.

14. Superman (1978)

Breezy and yet deceptively involving, the first big-budget Superman film established a template for future comic book movies — witty, self-aware, yet fully convinced of the need for myth-making, particularly as it ties into the American self-image. Hardly any of the dozens of superhero movies that followed surpassed it.

13. Manhattan (1979)

The opening sequence, in which Woody Allen pays tribute to the mysterious wonderland looming in the distance from his native Brooklyn, is one of the most intoxicating montages ever assembled, and the film that follows is as pungent as the city, full of spiky problems and yet resolving itself in another grand moment of appreciation. 

12. Jaws (1975)

Somewhat deliberately paced by today’s standards, Steven Spielberg’s shark tale made a virtue of its mechanical limitations (a malfunctioning ersatz shark) and grew into a Hitchcockian tale of unseen suspense that pays off terrifyingly in the final encounter with the sea beast. At last, monster-movie tropes got expert handling from a true master of cinematic grammar rather than a second-rate journeyman.

11. Star Wars (1977)

Establishing a new and exciting union between children’s fantasy and the tart dialogue and wised-up acting of more mature fare — Han Solo could have been a Humphrey Bogart character — George Lucas’s space opera combined action, myth, comedy and the sheer wonder of fanciful new worlds to redirect the attention of mainstream Hollywood away from earthbound dilemmas and into the lands of imagination.

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 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!