Until the 1970’s film was mainly just a pastime. You went to the movies to unwind. You enjoyed comedies, musicals, and sprawling adventurous epics. The 1970’s effectively changed what movies were and what they could be. This important decade paved the way for modern film making by not only challenging traditional methods, but by fundamentally changing audience expectations of what movies could be. The 1970’s gave birth to the blockbuster, piqued our interest in regards to violence and sex on film, glorified the exploits of bad guys for the first time, and really pushed the boundaries to explore new frontiers that had never been depicted on film before.
Here is our list of the 25 films from the 1970’s that everyone should see:
25. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
The film adaptation of the beloved Roald Dahl novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the film follows a young boy who wins a chance to visit a mysterious and often dangerous chocolate factory.
Children’s films are rarely this exciting, inspirational, and entertaining. It doesn’t matter how old you are, this film is magical. Full of interesting visuals and important lessons, it is a very unique film and one of the few “happier” toned films of the 70’s that has lasted the test of time.
24. Superman the Movie (1978)
The story of the famous superhero as he leaves his homeworld and lives his life on earth as his alter ego, Clark Kent. Villainous Lex Luthor threatens to take over the world and it’s up to Superman to stop him.
It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s…a special-effects driven blockbuster starring the incomparable Christopher Reeve. This one paved the way for the comic book movies of today that dominate the box office. Rarely are big-budget movies this charming, endearing, exciting, and respectful to the material on which they are based.
23. Network (1976)
An esteemed news anchor is forced to retire due to his age, which prompts him to make a startling announcement on air. The resulting media-fueled spectacle is hauntingly prophetic.
This is a rare insightful film that engages you with its satire and the energy of its performances including one of the most famous rants ever to make it to the big screen. It correctly predicts what would become our morbid fascination with hyping news for entertainment purposes. More relevant, and meaningful today than when it was made.
22. Dirty Harry (1971)
Harry Callahan is a no-nonsense cop who will do pretty much whatever it takes to dole out justice. Assigned to hunt down a mad man on a killing spree, Callahan has to find a kidnap victim before it is too late.
Clint Eastwood establishes himself as the ultimate action hero by asking punks if they feel lucky in this edgy 70’s action flick. One of the best action films ever made, it has all the right ingredients and technical competency to remain just as entertaining to watch today as it was when it was first released.
21. Halloween (1978)
A disturbed man who murdered his sister when he was young escapes from prison. He returns to his hometown to become a frightening serial killer, stalking high school kids who don’t know what is happening until it is too late.
This is the slasher film that started them all. The horror genre kind of died out in the 60’s but it came roaring back in the 70’s with the efforts of a new era of filmmakers who took the genre to a darker, more violent, and more thrilling place. This film is the best example of that trend.
20. The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
A Russian secret agent joins James Bond in an attempt to thwart the intentions of a powerful villain who wants to destroy civilization in order to start a new one underneath the ocean.
The Roger Moore era of James Bond was, well, unique and fitting to the 1970’s. This film was the best of that era and accurately captured the tone and adventure of the decade. Majestic, charming, and full of memorable adventurous moments, The Spy Who Loved Me has since become one of the most loved films from the franchise.
19. Blazing Saddles (1974)
A doomed town destined to be demolished to make way for a railroad is shocked to learn that their new sheriff is black. That sheriff defies expectations, helping the town fight corruption and the local outlaws.
The most famous Mel Brooks film, this one made fun of Westerns, which were still a popular genre at the time of its release. Its pointed and often outrageous comedy hits hard and makes a lasting impression. The chemistry of the actors makes all the pieces fit together brilliantly.
18. National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978)
Two incoming freshmen join the Delta House fraternity, which is made up of rejects and underachievers who just want to have a good time. Meanwhile the dean of the college wants to get the fraternity expelled and while he succeeds, Delta House gets the last laugh.
The best frat house comedy and one of the first that revelled in vulgar gross out tactics, this one established John Belushi as comedic gold and its focus on sex really pushed the boundaries of acceptable mainstream entertainment. Irreverent, raucous, and absurd, this movie is a hilarious gem.
17. Alien (1979)
A deep space freighter crew lands on a mysterious moon to examine a strange signal. What they find a creature from their worst nightmares.
The 1970’s saw the rebirth of science fiction in film, and Alien took it one step further by blending that trend with horror. Many sequels and rip-offs later, the film still stands as one of the most innovative and thrilling science fiction films ever made. Amazing low-budget special effects make it artistic as much as it is crude, and the fact that it had a female protagonist challenged mainstream movie trends.
16. Deliverance (1972)
A group of friends decide to travel down a back-country river before it is destroyed by the construction of a dam. What they end up with is a harrowing struggle for survival against not only nature herself but the nightmarish locals as well.
Blending elements of horror and adventure, this film is like nothing else. It tells its story in layers, first shocking its audience, and then revealing more subtle emotions that are what ultimately makes the most impact. In addition to the ugly violence that it depicts, it is strangely beautiful, which is a difficult trick to pull off.
15. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
King Arthur is on a journey to assembly a team of knights to help him on his quest for the Holy Grail. Along the way, he faces many unique challenges, some more dangerous than others.
Swallows and shrubberies have never been so hilarious. This absurd movie could very well be the funniest ever made, and even even all these years later the fact that it is still funny says a lot. Monty Python and the Holy Grail established once and for all that the British are the masters of comedy.
14. Annie Hall (1977)
The story of a neurotic comedian and his relationship with a nightclub singer is examined from the comedian’s perspective amongst the backdrop of New York City.
Annie Hall is a rare romantic comedy that transcended the often simple roots of the genre to become a timeless classic. This one showed off Woody Allen’s talents as a comedian but also as a filmmaker. In a decade of cold, dark films, this one was a sweet, bright spot.
13. Jaws (1975)
A New England tourist town refuses to close its beaches after a fatal shark attack claims the life of a young woman. Fearing for the well being of the citizens, the police chief takes matters into his own hands as he attempts to hunt down the beast.
The birth of the blockbuster. Jaws was a huge hit, but it is more than just a movie that made a ton of money. It established Steven Spielberg as an important director, showcased many techniques to create excitement that we take for granted today, and was a refreshingly thrilling experience in a time when film tended to focus more on drama.
12. The Exorcist (1973)
When a young girl starts behaving strangely, her mother is unsure of what to do. A priest believes he can help and a specialist is sent to perform an exorcism.
A rare serious horror film that relies more on excellently building suspense rather than violence and gore to creep you out. One of the best horror films ever made, this one re-awoke audience’s excitement in the close-to-dead HItchcock-dominated genre.
11. A Clockwork Orange (1971)
A violent young man is imprisoned for the murder of a woman. There he volunteers for an experimental reconditioning program in the hope of being able to be released back into mainstream society.
Anthony Burgess’ novel is translated to the big screen by Stanley Kubrick with wit and precision second to none. The controversial film full of ultra violence, Beethoven, and a misbehaving anti-hero as the central character. It makes for an entertaining and meaningful experience. Even today, films rarely impact you as much as this one does.
10. Rocky (1976)
The story of an unlikely boxer who gets the chance of a lifetime to fight in a heavyweight championship.
Rocky established the formula for modern sports movies by making it feel good to cheer for the protagonist. Gritty and full of energy, this film showcased Sylvester Stallone’s best performance as an actor. More importantly, it championed hard work and perseverance in a time when things were pretty gloomy.
9. The Deer Hunter (1978)
Before leaving for war, a group of friends gather for one last hunting trip. This trip is then used to contrast their experiences both during and after their time as soldiers.
Monumental performances by an excellent cast and director lead a controversial yet powerful film with a pointed and controversial perspective. It has since transcended its original purpose to become an important film about not only the Vietnam conflict, but war and its tolls in general.
8. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
A man pretends to be crazy in order to avoid prison. He is sent to a mental asylum where he meets other fakers and clashes with the nurse in charge.
Jack Nicholson’s tour-de-force performance makes this one a must see all by itself, quite possibly his best. Add in Forman’s excellent direction, and an emotional anti-establishment story with clever allegories and you have an engaging and powerful film.
7. The French Connection (1971)
A New York City detective and his partner stumble upon a massive international drug ring poised to bring a major shipment into the US. They chase down suspects and scour the dangerous streets for the clues that will lead them to the culprits.
The king of all thrillers features the king of all car chases. This well-produced movie is a hallmark of 70’s filmmaking. Gene Hackman puts on a memorable performance and the well-paced plot is equal parts smart and exciting. They don’t make em’ like this anymore.
6. All The Presidents Men (1976)
A film adaptation of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s account of the Watergate scandal that they investigated and then eventually revealed.
Similar to today’s post-9/11 subgenre, All The Presidents Men retold the story of important events that defined the era. That alone is an interesting reason to watch this film, but it is so much more than just a glorified Robert Redford fueled history lesson. It discusses a topic that is as important today as it was back then. and the film presents its story in an engaging and thrilling manner.
5. Taxi Driver (1976)
A lonely ex-marine works the night shift as a cabbie, experiencing the darker side of New York City. In his desperation for human connection, he prepares himself for a mission to act on his rage and frustration.
This film established Martin Scorsese as an important director in the New Hollywood movement while also solidifying the career of Robert De Niro. De Niro’s performance in particular is full of energy, emotion, and passion. Scorsese’s work on this film makes it a masterpiece.
4. Chinatown (1974)
An LA private eye is hired by a woman to find out what her husband is up to. When he finds out that the woman who hired him was not actually the wife of the man he was following, a crime unfolds which reveals even bigger secrets.
A late-noir masterpiece, Chinatown accurately captures the tone of the 1970’s despite taking place in another time period. Gritty, artistic, and intelligent, the film is also very engaging thanks to Jack Nicholson’s wonderful performance. A simply unforgettable must-see experience.
3. Apocalypse Now (1979)
An army captain is assigned a mission to head up a river into a jungle to track down an AWOL Colonel. Along the way, the captain and his men experience a journey unlike anything else imaginable.
An epic saga that explores internal conflict more than external conflict, Apocalypse Now is quite the experience. An adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness applied to the Vietnam War, this film is one of the best war movies ever made. It is shocking, soothing, logical, and absurd all at the same time. It features some of the finest performances in front of and behind the screen ever seen.
2. Star Wars (1977)
The story of an unlikely young man who joins forces with a Jedi Knight to rescue a captured princess and foil the plans of the evil Galactic Empire and their planet-destroying space station.
A must-see movie list without Star Wars would be a travesty, so here it is. A ground-breaking achievement, this one forever changed the way movies would be made. Not only did it make science fiction really cool, but it completely blew audiences away. Magnificent special effects, a timeless story, and characters that no one could forget makes this one of the most important and most entertaining movies to ever grace the big screen.
1. The Godfather (1972)
When the youngest son of a powerful crime family joins the business, he experiences the violence and cruelty firsthand while struggling to maintain a normalcy in his domestic life.
Many people consider it the greatest film ever made. The cast is second to none, and the drama is handled so well that all these decades later we still can’t stop talking about this film. The Godfather redefined the crime-drama genre for a new generation, and showed us that focusing on the types of characters who were traditionally “bad guys” was more engaging and interesting than we could have imagined. The Godfather is the film that most accurately represents the state of film in the 1970’s, and as a near-flawless specimen, it is definitely a film that everyone should see.