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I have this ongoing inner debate with myself concerning which was the best decade for film (awesome, I know) and it’s always between the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. The ‘70s are consistently regarded as a sort of turning point in American cinema, a time when auteurs who grew up watching European cinema from the ‘50s and ‘60s were able to thrive, taking the medium to a place beyond what the traditional studio system had been offering up to that point. The ‘70’s, of course, brought us directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and saw the coming out parties of others such Woody Allen and Robert Altman. So, the point here is that I won't be doing a Top-5 for every decade of cinema, only this one and maybe one other, because it's so chalk full of great classics that are available right now.
At various points in time, several of my all-time favorites from this period have been available to watch instantly on Netflix: Network, Annie Hall, The Conversation, Apocalypse Now, Taxi Driver, etc. All of these would probably make this list were they still available. So the key here is that you need to take advantage of watching the films on this list while you can.
One other quick note before my list: two films that aren’t from the ‘70’s, but resemble the style and themes of that era in just about every way (and it could even be argued that they paved the way for the ‘70’s) are Midnight Cowboy (1969) and The Graduate (1967). If for some insane reason you haven’t seen these, then please add them to your queue, along with the others listed below.
Top 5 of the 1970’s:
There’s a reason that Jack Nicholson is simply referred to as “Jack” in Hollywood, and if you’ve ever wondered why, then look no further than this film. His performance as R.P. McMurphy, a recent admittee to a mental institution, certainly goes down as one of the best all-time leading performances in my book. As McMurphy begins to win over the other patients in the institution and undermines the terribly evil Nurse Ratched, an uplifting Christ-figure story plays out with such humor and effortless charm that it will make you grin from ear to ear at points and tear up in others.
2. A Clockwork Orange (1971)
My favorite Stanley Kubrick film, Orange is an endlessly stylish tale of adolescence in futuristic Britain. Malcolm McDowell stars as Alex DeLarge, one of the creepiest lead characters in any film ever, who leads a band of “droogs” in a series of violent crimes before being subjected to a government brainwashing program. Kubrick’s use of explosive colors and his patented long takes are just a couple of the things that make his direction a perfect complement to the source material.
3. Paper Moon (1973)
Father-daughter combo Ryan and Tatum O’Neal star as a couple of depression-era cons in this hilarious comedy by Peter Bogdanovich. The dialogue is sharp and quick, and the O’Neal team (Tatum in particular as a 10-year-old) develops amazing chemistry throughout the movie as they deliver this dialogue. The always amazing Madeleine Kahn also stars as a call girl. Don’t miss this one.
4. Chinatown (1974)
It’s Jack again. In this Hollywood crime drama by Roman Polanski, Jack stars as Jake Gittes, a private investigator who gets caught up in a case that’s simply way over his head. As the ball of yarn unravels on the case, the eerie atmosphere is amplified and strange details emerge (to say the least). Faye Dunaway (who’s always great) costars here in a particularly meaty role.
5. Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep. That’s really all it should take to get you to watch this if you haven’t already. A very realistic story about the parents of a young child splitting up, something that sadly, millions of American families must go through every year. There’s a scene where Dustin Hoffman makes French toast with his son, and it’s one of the more touching moments I can recall in any family drama.