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In terms of connecting the movie industry’s past to the present, perhaps no decade better embodies the line of demarcation than the 1970s.
Riven by Vietnam and Watergate, the ’70s saw a new generation of filmmakers create signature works, as well as the pivotal rise of the modern blockbuster with “Jaws” and “Star Wars,” which rewrote not only summer release patterns but studio expectations.
As a consequence, putting together a list of essential movies from those years required plenty of tough choices and still spilled past 10, with the added cheat that “The Godfather,” for these purposes, is included as one sprawling two-part saga.
Even at that, the list feels incomplete, given the long tails of movies like “Apocalypse Now,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Animal House,” “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” “American Graffiti,” “Alien,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “The Sting,” “Young Frankenstein,” “The Omen,” “The French Connection,” “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” “Three Days of the Condor,” and “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” although some of those have clearly aged better than others.
Heck, you could assemble a perfectly respectable list just using a combination of movies from 1976 and those starring Jack Nicholson.
The choices were further complicated by the talent involved with them, raising the question of whether “Chinatown,” directed by convicted rapist Roman Polanski, can be divorced from that and taken on its own terms. (Because a movie consists of more than just its director, it ultimately made the cut.)
With that disclaimer, here are “The Essentials” for the 1970s, presented in chronological order:
Few movie images are more striking than George C. Scott strutting in front of an American flag as the foul-mouthed, self-destructive World War II general. Patton saw himself as a man living in the wrong time, but Scott’s performance is one for the ages.
‘Dirty Harry’ (1971)
Clint Eastwood’s detective carried a big gun, investigated a Zodiac-like killer and defined a popular genre of vigilante movies. There’s more nuance than that, and humor, in director Don Siegel’s original film, which inspired multiple sequels and birthed a character whose later “Go ahead. Make my day” line would be picked up by, among others, President Reagan.
‘The Godfather’ I and II (1972 and ’74)
Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Mario Puzo’s mob novel belongs on any list of the best movies ever. Beyond Marlon Brando’s often-quoted performance, the movies launched an entire generation of stars, including Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, James Caan, Diane Keaton and Robert Duvall.
‘The Exorcist’ (1973)
William Friedkin’s head-spinning horror classic about demonic possession gave audiences nightmares, the standout in a decade that further altered the contours of the genre with “The Omen” and “Halloween.”
Jack Nicholson played the hard-bitten, nosy detective in Polanski’s riveting tale of greed and corruption in 1930s Los Angeles, with standout work by Faye Dunaway and John Huston.
Audiences screamed in unison at then-28-year-old director Steven Spielberg’s ocean-faring thriller, which filled theaters while making movie-goers think twice before stepping into the water.
Few writers have seen the media future more acerbically than Paddy Chayefsky, with his dark satire about an anchorman (Peter Finch) who thunders, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore,” getting turned into a ratings dynamo on a network where the programming chief (again, Dunaway) will do anything – anything – for ratings.
Sylvester Stallone’s underdog tale about a struggling palooka given one shot at the heavyweight championship is a stirring sports movie with a level of charm and sweetness that dissipated in the rounds (and rounds) of sequels that followed.
‘Taxi Driver’ (1976)
De Niro and director Martin Scorsese’s collaborative genius produced a disturbing look at alienation, violence and misplaced hero worship. The result is a film with troubling aspects, although it’s hard to fully appreciate ’70s cinema without it.
‘All the President’s Men’ (1976)
Journalism has never appeared a more noble calling than in this taut thriller starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Woodward and Bernstein, the dogged reporters who helped expose Watergate. Credit, too, writer William Goldman for coming up with the line Deep Throat never actually said: “Follow the money.”
‘Annie Hall’ (1977)
Woody Allen is another problematic figure, but he wrote, directed and starred in a string of great comedies in the ’70s, none better than this quirky romance co-starring Keaton as the title character.
‘Star Wars’ (1977)
Although not even the best film in the series, George Lucas’ space epic started it all, with an impact on movies, special effects and even videogames that continues to ripple through pop culture with a force that can’t be overstated.
‘Being There’ (1979)
Released 12 days before the decade ended, the whimsical tale of Chance (Peter Sellers) – a simple-minded gardener who stumbles into national politics – works brilliantly on most every level, not the least as a cautionary tale 40 years later. And one really has to watch the closing outtakes to fully appreciate Sellers’ straight-faced performance, as well as the restraint of those playing opposite him.