Just two years after his re-election to the Presidency with the largest margin of votes in American Presidential history, Richard Nixon would resign in 1974 amidst the Watergate scandal. The actions of the President and his White House staff left the nation reeling, a corruption of trust from which they might never have recovered to this day. Vice President Gerald Ford would pardon Nixon, an act which might have cost him the election which saw Jimmy Carter become the President.
Movies were never better than they were in the seventies. With taboos gone, filmmakers were free to create films about anything they desired, thus drug addiction, divorce, prostitution, mental illness, homosexuality, impotence, psychosis, and Vietnam found their way into films through the decade. Nudity and profanity became common place in film, replicating life.
Cinema enjoyed one of its most productive decades, not only from an artistic point of view but at the box office as many films made tens of, and eventually hundreds of millions of dollars, unseating one another through the decade as top grossing films of all time. A new breed of director emerged, one educated in cinema, with a strong love of cinema to go along with their fresh new ideas about the medium. Francis Ford Coppola would have a decade unlike any other director in movie history, directing four films, all of them among the best of the decade, he would produce another for George Lucas that altered pop culture history, and win his first Oscar for writing Patton (1970). IN addition to two awards as Best Director from the DGA, Coppola would receive two other nominations thus nominated for every single film he directed in the seventies. Among the other young filmmakers to emerge were Lucas (American Graffitti, Star Wars), Martin Scorsese (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver), Steven Spielberg (Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind), Brian de Palma (Phantom of the Paradise, Carrie), along with Robert Altman (M*A*S*H, Nashville) Hal Ashby (Shampoo, Coming Home), Michael Cimino (The Deer Hunter), Sidney Lumet (Dog Day Afternoon, Network), Sydney Pollack (Jeremiah Johnson, The Way We Were) and Alan J. Pakula (all the President’s Men).
And of course there was a second coming of method acting, an explosion of talent which saw some of the finest acting ever put on the screen from artists such as Jane Fonda, Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, Robert de Niro, Jill Clayburgh, Sally Field, Marsha Mason, Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman, George C. Scott, and Liza Minnelli to name a few.
One word of warning, you will not find Star Wars (1977) on this ten best list, though it would make the top twelve. In honesty, I love the film, but felt that The Empire Strikes Back (1980) surpassed the original, so you will find that film among the best of the eighties. Star Wars (1977) was revolutionary, startling, wildly entertaining and a film unlike any we had ever seen before, and truly I love the picture, but I do not believe it is among the ten best of the seventies.
THE TEN BEST FILMS OF THE SEVENTIES (1970-79)
1. THE GODFATHER PART II (1974)…Francis Ford Coppola resisted making the sequel until they offered him complete control over the film and a million dollars to make it. Going back to the book, he would bring to the film Vito Corleone’s past, casting a younger actor, Robert de Niro in the young version of the character Brando made famous, and would move into the fifties to show MIchael (Pacino), now in Las Vegas, ruthlessly consolidating his power, but losing everything and everyone near and dear to him. The picture explores how absolute power corrupts absolutely, and through Pacino’s finest performance we see Michael, his eyes cold and dead, routinely wiping out his enemies and banishing his wife Kay from his life after learning she had an abortion, slowly losing his soul. Pacino has never been better than he is in this magnificent film. And De Niro as the young Vito?? Imagine the weight on this young actor having to portray a younger version of a character now in the American lexicon of pop culture, a role played I might add by perhaps the greatest living actor at that time? Yet he does it, nailed it in fact, from the raspy voice, hand gestures, to the suggestion of danger, something both he and Pacino radiate without saying a word. Outstanding supporting work from Robert Duvall, John Cazale, Lee Strsberg, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire, and Michael V. Gazzo make this what it is, which is simply, the greatest American film ever made, and it goes without saying, Coppola’s finest hour. The film is possessed of a grand epic sweep as the immigrants arrive at Ellis Island, yet remains a startling character study of men who make their living through crime. Six Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Supporting Actor, for De Niro.
2. THE GODFATHER (1972)…What is remarkable when watching The Godfather (1972) again is that Brando has perhaps thirty minutes of screen time in a film that is three hours long, yet he dominates the film even when not onscreen. His presence is felt by both the audience and the actors onscreen, and we ait anxiously for his scenes, for him to come back. As the seventy year old Don Vito Corleone, Brando was electrifying, creating a character whose business just happens to be crime. The old man has taken the American Drea, and made it perverse, warped it, as an immigrant who came to this country with nothing and yet found enormous wealth and power, through criminal activities. As good as Brando is, and he is sublime, the film belongs to Pacino, who we first see as an idealistic young war hero, but over the course of the picture will become a cold blooded killer, and eventually take his fathers’ place as head of the family Corleone. Subtle yet with quiet brilliance, Pacino becomes the godfather of the title. Surrounded by excellent supporting performance from Robert Duvall, James Caan, Richard Castellano, Diane Keaton and John Cazale, the two godfathers would create one of the greatest ensembles in American film history. A masterpiece, three Oscars, yet how did Coppola lose Best Director?? Years after we are still asking.
3. APOCALYPSE NOW (1979)…Emerging from the theater after seeing Apocalypse Now (1979), opening day in 1979, I remember sitting on a bench on the street, my body shaking, stunned by the visceral experience of the film, and taking stock of my life. One thing for certain, I no longer wanted to be an actor because I knew I was incapable of the art I had witnessed within the film. Looking around I wanted to tell people about the film, to grab them and sit them down, to discuss with them the experience I had just had, to celebrate the wonder of the cinema, which led me to film criticism. From the moment that gentle swaying jungle exploded into the inferno of Viet Nam, through to Kilgore’s strutting around the beach loving the smell of napalm, to Brando’s whispering “the horror, the horror” the film had me in a grip unlike any other film I had ever seen. A surrealistic journey into Viet Nam, but also into the dark hearts of mankind, the picture made demands on its audience, yet offered a journey worth those challenges. Nothing prepares us for what Willard finds when he comes face to face with Kurtz, now a shell of the man he was, or has he in fact, become a better man? Martin Sheen was superb as Willard, the young Captain sent to kill another American in Viet Nam, the ultimate madness. Robert Duvall, pure genius as the fearless Kilgore (love the name) and Brando, haunting a the man war has slowly eroded into madness, or good sense? The cinematography in the film won a richly deserved Oscar the first of three for Stararo, yet there should have been more. How did Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) a very good film, win Best Picture and Best Director over this daring American masterpiece? I will never understand that.
4. A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971)…Seething with rage. That is the first impression I had the first time I saw Alex (Malcolm MacDowell) staring out at us at the beginning of this most unusual film experience directed by the gifted Satnaley Kubrick, and let me say from the very beginning, that I consider this Kubrick’s very best work. What makes A Clockwork Orange (1971) such an astounding experience to this day is that the future created in 1971, forty-one years ago, still seems futuristic to me, could be the future, and the film still has that same urgency, something many lose to the passing of the enemy time. Malcolm MacDowell gave the performance of his life as Alex, the leader of the Droogs, a group of punks who go about terrorizing the streets of London. Finally caught he undergoes an experimental treatment that takes his ability to choose right from wrong, which brings the whole thing under the attacks of the so called bleeding hearts. Once back into society Alex will relive his earlier life, coming into contact with nearly everyone he ever hurt and wronged, an irony that will lead him to great reward. Kubrick’s roaming camera gives the film an inner energy, yet more so MacDowell’s performance gives the film a jaunty feel that defies its subject matter. Like a car wreck there are times we should look away…but cannot.
5. ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1975)…The only word that describes Jack Nicholson’s brilliant performance in this film is to call it breathtaking. Nicholson was never better than he was here as R.P. McMurphy a small time crook doing jail time who fakes mental illness to get a cushier time in custody. Little does he know that he has now been committed by the state, and they can keep him as long as they like, until they believe he is safe enough to be let back into society. The hospital is run like a microcosm of society, run with an iron fist by Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), a woman who enjoys her work which involves emotionally and metaphorically castrating men on her ward. She can whither with a glance, and the men live in morbid fear of her, except McMurphy who goes after her. As she sees his influence over the men growing, sees the men following him, she grows nervous, and though there is a chance to send him back to jail, she wants him kept, in a sequence that is chilling, because you have to ask…why? She cannot control him, he disrupts her ward…why keep him? Well, we find out. McMurphy will become the saviour of the men, but sadly as a spirit, as it is his friend the Chief that sets him free after he has been rendered harmless. Nicholson won his Oscar, as did Fletcher, but the acting around them was equally superb with Brad Dourif stunning as Billy Bibbit, Will Sampson brilliant as the Chief and Sydney Lassic haunting as the weak Cheswick.
6. TAXI DRIVER (1976)…Travis Bickle is a time bomb of destruction, a simmering cauldron or rage. Martin Scorsese’s seething portrait of a man slipping into utter madness is a journey into hell, acted with stunning force by Robert de Niro, Jodie Foster and Harvey Keitel. De Niro is Travis Bickle, a Viet Nam veteran, struggling with insomnia, who takes a job as a cab driver, going into all the toughest places in the city This was the New York before the clean up, before it became what it is now, when Times Square was a sewer of prostitutes, drug pushers and massage parlors. There, his obsession to clean up the city escalates and urban alienation never was as terrifying as it is within this picture. When his relationship with a blonde campaign worker for the latest senator fails, Travis slips further into madness and targets the senator for assassination. When that fails he attacks the pimps holding a 12-year-old girl as a hooker. Having befriended the girl he becomes a dark avenging angel, allowing his rage to explode in a carthetic a sea of blood, that is as much about saving the girl as it is about having to do something, anything. Incredibly, Travis is elevated to hero status by the newspapers for saving the girl, but at the end of the film, we see his eyes in the rear view mirror, as mad as they ever were, and understand, the time bomb has begun to tick again.
7. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977)…”It was like seeing God”, the lady told the news crews as we emerged from seeing the film in Toronto, my brother and I. We looked at one another and smiled, tears still brimming in our eyes at what we had seen on the screen, and knew she had seen the film we had, felt the same way we did. Spielberg gave us a film filled with wonder, allowing us to feel awe at what we saw, as man-made contact with aliens for the first time in known history. If it were to ever happen, is this not how it should? These aliens did not contact us to destroy the earth, but rather to let us know they were out there, to return some of the people they had taken, and to remind us, we are not alone. Richard Dreyfuss was excellent as Neary, an ordinary man struck with a vision and then an obsession after a UFO sighting. His journey will alienate him from his wife and children, but take him and many others to Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, where mankind is preparing to make contact. The last forty-five minutes of the film are astonishing in their innocent beauty as we come face to face with an intelligence vastly superior to ours, and who communicate with a smile and sign language used to teach music to the deaf. Just remarkable, and so full of hope for the human race, humanity all living things. That said, it is still Spielberg’s most naïve film, sadly, but a masterpiece nonetheless. He admits the film dates him, because as a father he would never commit the act Dreyfuss does within the film when he leaves his wife and children to journey into space. Yet actor and director sell the decision with that beautific look of absolute joy on Dreyfuss’ face as he walks into the ship, at last at leace with himself and the universe.
8. ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976)…Based on the best-selling book by the two reporters who broke the Watergate scandal, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, this brilliant film, directed with detective like precision by Alan J. Pakula, makes sense of the myriad of facts and information that made up the scandal. Robert Redford bought the rights to the book when he heard about the men writing it and actually played a role in the execution of the style of the book, making it clear to them that they were the story as much as Watergate. With grim fascination we watch as Woodward (Redford) and Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) dig into something that appears a routine burglary and becomes a crime that will see the President resign in shame. As Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, who had everything to lose by standing by his reporters, Jason Robards is magnificent, winning an Oscar in the process for Best Supporting Actor. One image will forever stay with you, that of the two reporters in the Library of Congress, going through cards to see who might have had a book, and the camera pans up and up and up until we see them as tiny specks in Washington, fighting a massive machine. The film won the NYFC Awards for Best Film and Supporting Actor, as well as the National Society of Film Critics Award as Best Film. Oscar, sadly, chose…differently.
9. MANHATTAN (1979)…There are those who believe Annie Hall (1977) is Allen’s best film, but I disagree, selecting Manhattan (1979) as his best, and one of the best of the decade. This black and white valentine to New York and love is a very funny, but equally moving love story, involving several characters whose lives will intersect. Isaac (Allen) is a writer dating a seventeen year old high school girl, Tracey, portrayed with winning charm and great wisdom by Mariel Hemingway, the smartest character in the film which is populated with intellectuals. Mary, portrayed by Diane Keaton is terrific as the caustic, neurotic woman Allen believes he is in love with, so he breaks the teenagers heart to be with her, and is then never happy. Of course he will realize too late what he had with the girl, but it is she who gives him hope, asking him “to have a little faith in people”. Hemingway got a well deserved Oscar nomination for her supporting performance, but the Academy strangely snubbed the film for Best Picture, Actress and Director. New York looks better in black and white, it seems to romanticized the city, making it worthy of Allen’s deep affection and obsession. The greatest comedy of the decade.
10. AMERICAN GRAFFITTI (1973)…Without sounding condescending (and I so do not mean to do so), this film may mean something to you as you grow older. There is something about the powerful ending, telling us the fate of the teenagers that gives the picture a strength and melancholy it might not otherwise have. Think about the people you went to high school with, think about who is left, how they died, what their lives were. Beautifully acted and directed, the picture will be instantly familiar to anyone who grew up in a small town. I did, and Friday night we filled the car with gas, for five or six dollars and cruised all night, the music pouring out of the vehicles into the night. It was incredible. Friends knew where to find you, we did not cause any trouble, we just hung out with people who meant something to us. George Lucas has created a film that is about his life growing up in a small town, populating it with the characters he knew, that we all knew from high school. Ron Howard and Cindy Williams are the class president and head cheer leader, destined for marriage, while her brother Kurt is the class brain, a writer. One of his good friends is John Milner, twenty-two and still living in the past where as a teen he mattered. Terry the Toad is the geek, desperate for a girl, who he meets in Candy Clark’s dumb blonde. Paul LeMat, Charlie Martin Smith, Candy Clark MacKenizie Phillips (that one!), and Dreyfuss are all terrific. And that score, man those rock and roll tunes!!!! The film kicked into high gear a nostalgia craze that saw the soundtrack sell millions, bring about a renewed interest in the music of the Beach Boys and Buddy Holly, saw TV shows like Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley become hugely popular, and reminded us of our youth. We knew these people, hell, we were these people. A bittersweet ode to America in 1962, before innocence was forever taken away. The best film Lucas has ever made.
- CHINATOWN (1974);
- STAR WARS (1977);
- THE CONVERSATION (1974);
- FIVE EASY PIECES (1970);
- BLACK SUNDAY (1977);
- NETWORK (1976);
- JAWS (1975);
- BARRY LYNDON (1975);
- THE LAST DETAIL (1973);
- THE LAST PICTURE SHOW (1971);
- CABARET (1972);
- THE SHOOTIST (1976);
- COMING HOME (1978);
- HAIR (1979);
- YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974)
Tags: All the President's Men, Francis Ford Coppola, Manhattan, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Taxi Driver, The Godfather, The Godfather Part II