10 Movies Millennials Must See to Understand the 1970s

1. "New York City is falling apart!"

Taxi Driver (1976)

Pre-Giuliani New York City was a nightmare.

Artsy liberals who lived there at the time claim to miss those "colorful," unsanitized Seventies. I don't find this attitude as troubling as some conservatives seem to; that New York City birthed punk rock, for one thing. You could still smoke pretty much anywhere, too.

Besides, millions of other (non-artsy, non-liberal) Americans harbor nostalgia for the Depression and even World War II.

James Lileks is one of the nay-sayers:

New York isn’t completely regretting the massive cleanup of Times Square, but they’ve finally conceded one of the lingering, stinging critiques: it’s too clean. C’mon, this is New Yawk. Times Square is supposed to be gritty. ("Gritty" usually means hookers.) If you never saw it at its worst, you probably think the visions in Taxi Driver look almost… well, romantic. All those marquees, jutting into the stream of pedestrians like the prows of once-great ocean liners. The vibrant community of hustlers, pornhounds, streetwalkers, square-johns down for a walk on the wild side. Animated neon signs that drew pictures in the night, instead of great blaring walls of color that make you feel trapped in a Blade Runner remake.

Lileks rightly selected Taxi Driver as his macro for "grimy, dangerous New York City in the Seventies."

There were LOTS of "the Big Apple is rotten" flicks produced during that era that capture the sights, sounds, smells, crime, pessimism, crime, vermin infestations, decay and crime.

However, Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976) is the ur-text of pre-Giuliani NYC. (It tops Time Out's "100 Best Films Set in New York City.")

It is, yes, seductively beautiful– the peerless score, the POV shots of Bickle's night shift – but it's that lurid, decadent beauty Lileks wrote about.

You can sympathize with Travis's alleged motives for his climactic rampage  -- to "wash all this scum off the streets" – while still preferring Mayor Rudy's tactics.

By the way: one theory posits that much of what we see in Taxi Driver is simply a glimpse into Bickle's fevered, psychotic imagination; the on-screen gore and perversion never actually "happened." This "buffer" theory makes the film more palatable for some viewers, but not all. Your mileage will vary.

Honorable mentions:

The Warriors

Dog Day Afternoon

The Taking of Pelham 123 (1974)

Little Murders

Eyes of Laura Mars

Mean Streets

The Panic in Needle Park

The Police Tapes ("Watch" this cinema verite documentary "and lose all nostalgia for NYC in the 1970s," VICE promises.)

The Out-of-Towners

The Goodbye Girl

The French Connection

The Boys in the Band


Carnal Knowledge

Kramer vs. Kramer

Annie Hall

An Unmarried Woman

All That Jazz

The Hospital

Looking for Mr. Goodbar


Saturday Night Fever

Diary of a Mad Housewife


Hi, Mom

The Blank Generation

The Landlord

The Last Days of Disco (1998)

54 (1998)

Summer of Sam (1999)

Man on Wire (2008)

The BBC's Once Upon a Time in New York: The Birth of Hip Hop, Disco and Punk (2011)

The Secret Disco Revolution (2012)

Streets of New York (2013)