There are people out there who will claim that the 70s was a golden age of cinema. generally these people are filmmakers who produced their most successful work in that decade, or critics who began their careers then, or just people who were in their twenties and listened to a lot of Grand Funk Railroad and/or ABBA.
I was born in 1976, and I’ve seen fewer films from 1970-79 than any decade since the thirties. There are some great films here, of course, and I have quite a few films from the decade I want to see, but there’s nothing Golden about the 70s. That’s a self-serving baby boomer myth.
Anyway, as with the 50s and 60s, I’m ranking each year of each film decade, by both the quality of the year’s best films (peak) and the volume of good to great films the year has (depth). I am, as always, limited by what I’ve actually managed to see.
1970 – The weakest peak of the decade, and nearly the shallowest as well. There are five very good films (Patton, MASH, Woodstock, The Wild Child, The Conformist), a few interesting movies (Catch-22, Dodes’ka-den, Five Easy Pieces) that seem to be missing something and the Roger Ebert-written classic Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls. Best: Patton. Most Underrated: Patton. Most Overrated: Five Easy Pieces.
1977 – The shallowest year of the decade, only manages to avoid the bottom spot by virtue of its hosting two of my all-time favorite movies: Annie Hall and Star Wars. There are also the very good New York, New York, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and A Bridge Too Far. Otherwise, this year is essentially empty. Best: Annie Hall. Most Underrated: New York, New York. Most Overrated: Saturday Night Fever
1971 – Only a slight improvement in the depth area, there are a few more pretty good films this year, led by Monte Hellman’s masterpiece Two-Lane Blacktop and Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller. There’s also Stanley Kubrick’s arguably anti-human A Clockwork Orange, and some good comedies (Bananas, Harold & Maude, Willy Wonka, Shaft). Best: Two-Lane Blacktop. Most Underrated: Two-Lane Blacktop. Most Overrated: The French Connection.
1976 – Another year with a decent peak and mediocre depth. Clint Eastwood’s first great western The Outlaw Josey Wales and Martin Scorsese’s justly famous Taxi Driver top the list, but there’s also a pair of solid William Goldman-written films starring Dustin Hoffman (Marathon Man, All The President’s Men) and one of the greatest sports movies of all-time (The Bad News Bears). Hell, even Brian DePalma managed to make a good film this year (Carrie). Best: Taxi Driver. Most Underrated: The Outlaw Josey Wales. Most Overrated: Network.
1979 – Things are starting to pick up here. ’79 has a great peaks with three of my favorites: Woody Allen’s Manhattan, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Monty Python’s The Life Of Brian. There’s also Ridley Scott’s best movie (Alien), Werner Herzog’s Murnau homage Nosferatu, The Vampyre, John Woo’s first great film (Last Hurrah For Chivalry) and a beautiful gem from my childhood in Carroll Ballard’s The Black Stallion. This year even boasts what is arguably the worst James Bond film ever made: Moonraker. Best: Manhattan. Most Underrated: The Black Stallion. Most Overrated: Kramer Vs. Kramer.
1978 – One of those rare years without a film I’ve seen that I’d consider “bad”. Terrence Malick’s Days Of Heaven and Lau Kar-leung’s The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin constitute a solid peak, with Animal House, The Last Waltz and The Deer Hunter rounding out the Top 5. There’s some good genre film fun as well, with Superman, Dawn Of The Dead, Halloween, The Five Deadly Venoms, Grease and Woody Allen’s Interiors. Not bad at all (for the 70s). Best: Days Of Heaven. Most Underrated: The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin. Most Overrated: Coming Home.
1975 – Finally a year that can compete with the worst of the 50s and 60s. There are five great films at the top, led by Steven Spielberg’s best film (Jaws), one of the best films of Jack Nicholson’s remarkable early 70s run (The Passenger), Monty Python’s The Holy Grail, Robert Altman’s great epic Nashville and Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, a film that might be a masterpiece (having seen it twice, I’m still undecided). There’s good depth too: Love And Death, one of Woody Allen’s funniest comedies, Peter Weir’s creepy Picnic At Hanging Rock, Akira Kursawa’s quite pretty Dersu Uzala, Milos Forman’s solid One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon, featuring one of Al Pacino’s best performances and Hal Ashby’s Shampoo, a film I’d really like to see again.
1973 – I don’t know why, but the films encompassing Richard Nixon’s second term are head and shoulders the best of this decade. I suspect it has something to do with Watergate and Vietnam and disco. Anyway, ’73 is led by what is still my favorite Scorsese film (Mean Streets) along with Terrence Malick’s first movie (Badlands), arguably Woody Allen’s best comedy (Sleeper) and great films from Robert Altman (The Long Goodbye) and George Lucas (American Graffiti) and solid efforts from Sam Peckinpah, Clint Eastwood, François Truffaut, Bruce Lee and Hal Ashby. This year also features the best ever Bond theme song, “Live And Let Die” by Wings. Best: Mean Streets. Most Underrated: Mean Streets. Most Overrated: The Exorcist.
1972 – Four masterpieces top this year, led by Coppola’s The Godfather, Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath Of God, Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris. There still isn’t the great depth we saw in the best years of previous decades, but there’s at least a dozen good films from this year, ranging from Five Fingers Of Death to Cries And Whispers to Cabaret to Tout va bien. Best: The Godfather. Most Underrated: Play It Again, Sam. Most Overrated: The Godfather.
1974 – Far and away the best year of the decade, with four masterpieces, nine really great films and thirteen pretty good ones. Coppola’s The Godfather Part II heads the list, like it’s other half, it manages to be both overrated and great at the same time. There’s also Jacques Rivette’s magical Celine And Julie Go Boating, Roman Polanski’s noir-reviving Chinatown and Orson Welles’s last great film (F For Fake). In the “great” category we have Coppola, again, with The Conversation, Robert Bresson’s Arthurian epic (!) Lancelot du lac, Herzog’s Every Man For Himself And God Against All, Tobe Hooper’s genre-defining Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Sam Peckinpah’s nihilist (and decade-defining?) classic Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia. Best: The Godfather Part II. Most Underrated: F For Fake. Most Overrated: Lenny?
Martin Scorsese: 5
Woody Allen: 5
Francis Ford Coppola: 4
Robert Altman: 4
Werner Herzog: 3
Lau Kar-leung: 2
Wolfgang Reitherman: 2
Terry Jones: 2
Steven Spielberg: 2
Clint Eastwood: 2
Robert Clouse: 2
Sam Peckinpah: 2
George Lucas: 2
Terrence Malick: 2
Herbert Ross: 2
Peter Bogdanovich: 2
Hal Ashby: 2
Stanley Kubrick: 2
Akira Kurosawa: 2
François Truffaut: 2