by Chris Shortt
Who doesn’t love a good list?
This week, as part of our weekly feature Top Ten Tuesday, Chris Shortt continues his retrospective of the decades of modern cinema, with his Top 10 films from the 1970s.
The ‘70s are a peculiar decade. On the one hand, you have the continuation of the New Hollywood wave – a movement which began in the late-60s with a rebellious emphasis on the rough and the risqué.
Yet, with the swift chomp of a certain great white, this seemingly bourgeoning movement ultimately ended up a rather short-lived one – with the second half of this decade marking the birth of the modern blockbuster.
10. Jaws (1975)
“You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
A line as instantly recognisable as the beast itself, it’s also knowingly prophetic. Jaws, of course, went on to become the biggest film in history – and in doing so is largely responsible for the why films are produced the way they are nowadays.
Whether Spielberg’s first major contribution has been to the detriment of cinema or not (it probably has), Jaws itself remains one of those rare landmarks that is also rather brilliant on its own.
9. American Graffiti (1973)
Years before skyrocketing to the zenith of popular culture with Star Wars, director George Lucas took us on a nostalgic trip to the summer of ’62 with his American Graffiti.
Oozing with Americana and steeped in the post-war petrolhead culture of ‘cruising’, the film follows an eclectic group of rock-and-roll teens as they spend the last night in their home town – before entering the big wide world of adulthood (indeed, an appropriate parallel for Lucas’ subsequent career).
8. Bugsy Malone (1976)
The ’70s are, for the most part, a decade best typified by the proliferation of the gangster film. Kick-started in ’72 by The Godfather, everyone from Scorsese to Lumet offered their own take on the genre (but more on those later).
Sir Alan Parker had his own ideas, casting only child actors in this musical pastiche. It’s 93 minutes of pure entertainment – with Prohibition trademarks like the speakeasy and Tommy gun brilliantly lampooned by-way-of “Fat Sam’s Grand Slam” and the cream-firing ‘splurge guns’.
7. Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
In between his other archetypal ‘70s films in Serpico and Network, director Sidney Lumet again teamed up with Al Pacino for this sweltering crime drama. Inspired by a real-life bank robbery in Brooklyn, Dog Day Afternoon showcases both Pacino and the supporting John Cazale at their sparkling best.
It says a great deal about the actors’ working relationship that both were arguably only ever better in the two Godfather films that preceded this – effortlessly transposing their brotherly power dynamics from one to the other.
6. Taxi Driver (1976)
“Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets”
Martin Scorsese’s career-defining Taxi Driver is one of those films that really merits being watched in a certain state of mind. For years, I struggled to think much of it, and it took a 1am screening on Film4 for its mastery to finally click – but oh boy, when it clicks.
Superbly capturing Travis Bickle’s (Robert De Niro) slow descent into madness, the film is aided massively by Bernard Herrmann’s after-hours jazz score (worlds apart from his Hitchcock collaborations) which perfectly mirrors Bickle’s own nightmarish spiralling and induces a similar downbeat dream state for its viewer.
5. Apocalypse Now (1979)
A film as infamous for its behind-the-scenes trouble as it is the final product (see: an overweight Marlon Brando not learning his lines, destroyed sets in Vietnam and a Martin Sheen heart attack). It’s astonishing the film was brought back to Hollywood in one piece – let alone stitched into the masterpiece it then became.
Like Taxi Driver and our collective descent into insanity, Apocalypse Now has a similar effect of unhinging the viewer in tandem with the protagonist – as Sheen’s Captain Willard pursues Brando’s Colonel Kurtz right into the “heart of darkness”.
4. Star Wars (1977)
Making perennial fan favourites out of a 7-foot walking dog, golden tin man and a glorified wheelie bin, this unique space opera (incredibly) became the biggest film in the world. Surpassing Jaws in becoming an unrivalled stalwart of popular culture, the full extent of George Lucas’ reach is still being felt today.
It’s become difficult to view Star Wars solely by its own merits, given the myriad of multi-media forms that it spawned (not to mention the repeated mangling via Lucas’ umpteen reissues). But before reaching the heights of Empire and the nadir of Clones, this solo entry successfully fused everything from Kurosawa’s samurai epics to the pre-war Flash Gordon serials. The end product has lost none of its entertainment value in the 40 years that have followed – and indeed remains one of the most beloved films we’ll ever see.
3. The Godfather (1972)
Francis Ford Coppola’s crime epic has long been heralded as one of the best films in the medium’s history. A lot to live up to then, but the Corleone family are nothing if not assertive – and the film likewise seems to grapple you more with every rewatch.
Whether it’s Gordon Willis’ innovative low-light cinematography or Nino Rota’s immortal orchestral score, The Godfather doesn’t seem to fall short in any of its technical fields. Yet, rather oddly, it also appears to work solely on the strength of its acting – from Brando’s titular head honcho to a Pacino masterclass in restrained apprehension.
2. Alien (1979)
Despite Ridley Scott’s recent best efforts to explore the Alien universe’s seemingly infinite potential with two muddled prequels, it’s now become clearer than ever that the apex of this series will always remain in its first entry.
This seminal sci-fi struck that forever-winning sweet spot of introducing a world rich enough in lore and mystery to hook us in, but deploying its powers sparingly so as to not exhaust its impact. And while its sequel Aliens did largely succeed in turning up everything to 11 (as we’ll see next week), this original is living proof of that old adage: less is more.
1. Barry Lyndon (1975)
From A Clockwork Orange to The Shining, Full Metal Jacket to 2001, Stanley Kubrick’s staggering oeuvre often has one missing entry. His criminally overlooked masterpiece, I’ve come to realise, is actually Barry Lyndon – a sprawling epic set in the 18th century.
By way of some cunning (if cowardly) trickery amidst the Seven Years’ War, our titular lead (Ryan O’Neal) sees himself grow from a lowly Irishman to a landowning lord in the countrysides of England.
The entire film looks like the sort of oil painting you’d find in a Thomas Gainsborough exhibition – such is the sheer beauty of John Alcott’s cinematography. Kubrick’s fond tendency to employ classical music is, for once, compatible with its setting – with his usual Mozart accompanied by every great from Schubert to Handel.