It’s a common cliché that they don’t make them like they used to but when it comes to 70s cinema, it’s really quite true.
Seen as the golden era for Hollywood, when mainstream movies would be imbued with an intelligence and riskiness that has since been somewhat watered down, in just 10 years, we’ve been given a whole library’s worth of rewatchable classics.
To celebrate everything that the 70s brought to movie history, we’ve assembled a list of the 25 definitive films of the era.
A Clockwork Orange
One of the most controversial films of the era, Stanley Kubrick’s magnum opus gave us an uncomfortable look at a dystopian future where gangs of youths engage in “ultra-violence”. Still pertinent now, the Oscar-nominated film was problematic on release due to the high levels of violence. Kubrick himself withdrew the film in the UK where it wasn’t seen until 2000, by which time its cult status had grown even larger.
The French Connection
The first R-rated film to win Best Picture at the Oscars helped to bring in a new era of gritty crime dramas that typified the edgy cinema of the 70s. Gene Hackman’s Oscar-winning turn as a take-no-prisoners cop showcased the breathtaking moral ambiguity that pervaded in films of the era. Unwilling to make the leads overly sympathetic or easy to like, William Friedkin’s film was a breath of fresh, or actually rather filthy, air.
Commenting on the noticeable cultural divide in America while also providing nail-biting suspense, Irish director John Boorman’s landmark thriller was a bit of a shock to the senses when it was initially released. Even now, the infamous “squeal like a pig” scene is still as harrowing as it was back then. It also turned Burt Reynolds into a star, giving him a breakout role as the macho leader of the group.
Based on Jim Thompson’s classic 50s novel, The Getaway was always destined for the big screen. Its relentless pace and suspenseful setpieces meant it was a natural fit for cinema and with Sam Peckinpah’s assured hand, the film was a massive success. The chemistry between Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw was given an added edge with the pair indulging in an affair off-screen while Peckinpah’s knack for directing while drunk worked out surprisingly well.
After The French Connection, director William Friedkin showcased his considerable versatility by moving onto the horror genre with this iconic masterpiece. Still perceived now as one of the scariest films ever made, The Exorcist became the first horror movie to ever get an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. Ignoring the lesser sequels and the prequel, its power to shock and haunt remains intact and it paved the way for the horror genre to be taken more seriously.
The first film to bring attention to the 31-year-old director Martin Scorsese, this gritty crime drama was a refreshingly realist alternative to the glamour of The Godfather. It was also the first time audiences truly became aware of both Robert De Niro and Harvey Kietel who played small-time gangsters trying to fit into the larger scene. Looking back now, it provides a raw blueprint for not only Scorsese’s future output but for most gangster films made since.
Re-teaming the unbeatable duo of Paul Newman and Robert Redford after the massive success of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was a bit of a no-brainer. Thankfully their next project lived up to the large expectations that were placed upon them. The 30s set crime caper was a runaway hit thanks to the effortless charm of the two leads and the smart, surprising script. It was deservedly showered in Oscars and still remains one of the finest con-artist movies ever made.
Another 70s offering that boasted a leading man with more depth and moral ambiguity than we ever get to see these days, Chinatown remains the most effective American crime film ever made. Despite strong turns in Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces, it was Jack Nicholson’s performance as private detective Jake Gittes that truly turned him into a star. It’s also one of the rare films that boasts a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Which means you’re literally not allowed to dislike it.
The Godfather Part II
Whenever the argument arises over the inferiority of sequels, Francis Ford Coppola’s first follow-up to The Godfather is commonly used as a classic example that bucks the trend. Along with Addams Family Values of course. Opening up the world of the original film and adding in some Oscar-winning De Niro brilliance, it’s pretty much the greatest gangster movie ever made. Sorry Goodfellas.
While Star Wars is often seen as the film which invented the summer blockbuster, it was actually Steven Spielberg’s terrifying tale of shark v man which changed how Hollywood viewed the warmer months. While the term might have been bastardised by countless examples of empty-headed action flicks, Jaws managed to combine seat-edge thrills with memorable performances and even bagged itself an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. It spawned many copycat thrillers but it still stands proudly as the original and the best. Take that, Deep Blue Sea.
One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest
This deservedly Oscar-sweeping drama caught Jack Nicholson at his very best as he played a reckless criminal who hoped to avoid his sentence by heading to a mental institution with unforgettably devastating consequences. It also gave us one of the decade’s most formidable villains in the passive-aggressive Nurse Ratched, played with chilling conviction by an Oscar-winning Louise Fletcher. Oh and random fact: it played in Swedish cinemas for 11 years straight.
All The President's Men
While the horror genre suffered from overly trashy elements in the 80s, the 70s showed that movies could be scary and have a soul. Brian De Palma’s landmark adaptation of Stephen King’s bestseller is a perfect example of this. Combining the requisite levels of gore and terror with a powerful tale of the dangers of both religion and bullying, the film surprised critics and even scored itself some Oscar nominations. The less said about the sequel the better.
While we definitely applaud the bravely downbeat tone of 70s cinema, no decade is complete without a few feel-good films. Sylvester Stallone’s breakout turn as the down-on-his-luck debt collector turned boxer was a massive crowd-pleaser,turning the drama into a surprise sleeper hit and a success at the Oscars. It’s a series that’s still going, as well - Creed 2 is currently filming.
Following up an Oscar-winning role in The Godfather Part II was never going to be easy. But 33-year-old Robert De Niro continued his golden run with Martin Scorsese’s blistering thriller about a marine turned taxi driver who is slowly losing his mind. It gave De Niro another Oscar nomination and catapulted Travis Bickle, and his immortal line “You talkin’ to me?”, into pop culture history books. Rumours of a sequel and a remake have thankfully quietened down. Stay away, yeah?
A bittersweet romantic comedy that showed perceptiveness beyond what audiences were used to seeing within the genre - and more than what we’ve seen since. Rom-coms are often trested disparagingly and dismissed as fluffy and daft, but this shows the emotional depths the genre can plumb. Funny and incredibly sad, it’s a must-see for anyone who’s ever had their heart broken.
Close Encounters Of The Third Kind
After his ground-breaking blockbuster Jaws, Spielberg wisely turned down offers to direct Jaws 2, King Kong and Superman to focus on an original science fiction script that he’d written, re-teaming with Richard Dreyfuss to bring it to the screen. It was a huge success, both commercially and critically and perfectly encapsulated the sheer scale that Spielberg wanted to work with in his career. Opening in the same year as his close friend George Lucas’s Star Wars, it was a banner year for science fiction.
After Jaws showcased just what mainstream audiences were looking for in the 70s, George Lucas took the idea of a blockbuster one step further. He decided to create a franchise. In the original, and arguably best, of his ground-breaking space operas, Lucas perfectly sets up a thrilling and totally unique universe that was like nothing cinemagoers had ever seen up until that point. He also made science fiction hip and marketable again. So for that, we can almost forgive Jar Jar Binks. Almost.
The Deer Hunter
One of the first films to examine the effects of the Vietnam war on soldiers when they return home, Michael Cimino’s powerful drama elicited another iconic performance from Robert De Niro who received yet another Oscar nomination for his work. It’s a tough, uncompromising film, culminating in a horrifying game of Russian Roulette which will stay with you long after the closing credits.
This micro-budget horror film should have been a throwaway B-movie at best but at the hands of John Carpenter, it became the film which has been credited as starting the slasher movie genre (although strictly speaking it was Black Christmas). With the unstoppable villain Michael Myers, Carpenter also created a bad guy who has haunted popular culture ever since and the spare, unshowy suspense of the film means that it’s aged horribly well.
Proving that 70s cinema wasn’t all doom and gloom, this frat house comedy heralded in a new era of gross-out movies, which might be seen as a blessing and a curse. But before the subgenre became overrun with fart jokes, John Landis’s late 70s classic was a refreshing change of pace. It also turned Saturday Night Live comedian John Belushi into a fully-fledged movie star, and the legacy of the film can be seen from Porky’s right through to American Pie.
One of the last films of the decade was also one of the most important. Blending sci-fi and horror in a way that hadn’t been done before (at least not quite as successfully), Ridley Scott’s terrifying thriller kicked off a franchise that’s still going today - a sequel to 2017’s Alien: Covenant is currently in the works. Subverting audience expectations by placing a woman in the lead role, Alien created a feminist icon in Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley. Oh and it included the best dinner scene ever.
Helping to usher out what was a rather remarkable decade for Francis Ford Coppola, this seminal masterpiece meant that he’s been in charge of not only the finest gangster film of the 70s but also the greatest war movie as well. Involving philosophy and existentialism within the framework of a war movie helped create a dedicated cult following who have been discussing and dissecting the film ever since.
Kramer Vs. Kramer
As one of the first movies to truly tackle the thorny issue of divorce, Kramer Vs. Kramer dared to subvert traditional expectations of what parenthood really means to most of us. As notions of motherhood and fatherhood started to shift throughout the era, we saw a film which showed that a father could be a single parent while it’s perfectly possible for a mother to have no interest in raising a child. Oscar-winning performances from Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep also helped to make this one of the most affecting dramas of the decade.