While all the cool kids know that the ’80s is the best decade for movies, it would be remiss of us to not throw some love at the ’70s. Sure, it was the worst decade. Full of prog and glam rock, racist TV sitcoms, shamed radio DJs and it was the decade where we lost Jimi Hendrix and Bruce Lee. But that said, it was an era where film making started to change.
There was still enough of the traditions of classic Hollywood. Films had proper actors in them. Grizzled character actors who got the role based on acting chops not their looks and films still had proper sets and a sense of wonder about them rather than being green screen aberrations.
However, we also had this new wave of experimental film makers who were ready to try a few new things out, experimenting with practical effects, camera trickery and testing the boundaries of what was acceptable and what wasn’t. Sure, this meant we got a load of exploitative trash movies but we also got some true gems. So here is our list of the best films of the ’70s (in alphabetical order because we just can’t decide which ones are better than others).
Alien is an unbelievably bold film when you think about it. Running at just under two hours, the film doesn’t even really get going until half way through. Prior to that we just get glimpses at the relationships, a little tour of the Nostromo, a hint at how much the characters are at the mercy of the Weyland-Yutani company and most of the drama comes from a very sketchy landing on the ominous rock that would come to be known as LV-426.
A cast of solid character actors, some wonderful sets and of course the incredible vision of Ridley Scott all combine to set up some enthralling world building but it’s not until that famous dinner scene that we actually get to see the titular alien.
From then on Alien is the best slasher horror film ever. With a sense of terror, claustrophobia and just abject helplessness that we wouldn’t see again until the original Terminator. The pace ramps up (but not too much) and so do the scares all the way to the film’s breathless conclusion.
There are so many great moments and characters in Alien but perhaps its most enduring achievement is that no creature feature has come close to beating its monster. Others have tried but the original Xenomorph remains the greatest non-human villain to ever grace a horror film.
Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
This early John Carpenter joint was an indication of the sort of tension and drama that the masterly horror director could produce out of any scenario. I mean, it’s not a horror film by any means and indeed was a retooling of an idea he had for a western but you could easily mistake this for a zombie movie in some ways. Except this is good.
It revolves around a group of cops holed up in a closed down police station while a vicious local gang made up of members of all ethnicities attempts to gain access. Outnumbered and outgunned, the police allow a couple of criminals to assist and soon you don’t know who to root for.
It’s all great though and a few standout scenes (the ice cream one!) and Carpenter’s mesmerising soundtrack really elevate this dark thriller, making it one of his very best films.
Notable for being the debut feature of legendary director Steven Spielberg, Duel was released as a TV movie before getting a theatrical release when everyone realised it was amazing. It tells the tale of David Mann, a businessman who is driving through the Mojave Desert.
Along the way he starts getting harassed by the unseen driver of a truck who attempts to make Mann crash. This leads to a nerve-shredding game of cat and mouse in which Mann has to make up for the fact that his car is entirely vulnerable to this truck-driving bastard by hiding and trying to outwit him.
Essentially, this is the driest version of Jaws ever and a true ’70s standout if you like edge-of-the-seat thrillers.
Enter The Dragon (1973)
Like most people, we love Bruce Lee but can take or leave some of his earlier films. Or at least fast forward through the bad acting and just get to the fights and nunchuka scenes. But Enter The Dragon‘s mix of perfectly choreographed fights, human drama and Bond-esque thrills made this his essential film.
I personally saw this when I was 9 (when it was shown uncut on ITV before nunchucks became illegal to even think about for a decade or two) and must have watched it at least five times a week for the rest of the year. It got to the point where my brother and I quoted it so much that we made a rule to STFU whenever we watch it.
Bruce’s talent shines the brightest in Enter The Dragon but memorable performances from Ahna Capri, Jim Kelly and the amazing John Saxon round out what is basically a perfect film (aside from a little bit of dodgy editing). A film we will never ever get tired of seeing and still the best fight flick of all time.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
Monty Python’s Flying Circus was a hit and miss affair with plenty of gags not really landing but also plenty of all-time classics. Their films were largely similar and while you could make a case for Life of Brian being on this list, we always felt that one tailed off a bit in the second half.
The Holy Grail however is pretty consistent throughout and just full of memorable scenes and quotes that will remain ingrained it the minds of viewers forever. It’s hard to pick out a favourite scene when so many of them are great and Terry Gilliam does a great job of making the film seem like an cinematic epic despite the fact that the budget was clearly a bit lacking.
It’s hard to explain the lasting appeal of the movie, especially when it is just so ridiculous, but Graham Chapman’s performance as King Arthur holds the film together perfectly and with the rest of the team at the top of their respective games, this is definitely one of the best comedies of the decade.
Pumping Iron (1977)
Set during the 1975 Mr. Olympia contest, this documentary follows Arnold Schwarzenegger as he attempted to win the trophy for an unprecedented fifth time. The film took a couple of years to get released due to a lack of funds but it was the film that made Arnold a household name and with good reason.
Arnie is in great form here with his charisma and off-kilter sense of humour shining through. You don’t need to be even vaguely interested in bodybuilding to enjoy it either. There’s enough drama, competition, comradeship and heart here for anyone to get something out of Pumping Iron.
And while Arnie will always be the king of the zingers and one-liners, we’ve always found Pumping Iron to be his most quotable film. Add to that some great characters such as the sadly-missed Franco Columbu, Mike Kats and the devious Ken Waller and you’ve got one of the best documentaries of all time.
Silver Streak (1976)
The first pairing of Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, Silver Streak is a high-energy action comedy that sees the pair finding their way on and off of the titular train as they try to help solve a murder by Patrick McGoohan (the most murderous actor of the ’70s if episodes of Columbo are anything to go by).
The combination of the starring pair was of course absolutely magic and led to them collaborating three more times, most notably on Stir Crazy. The comedy, drama and thrills all combine to make such a well-rounded film. At times it is as silly as any comedy of the decade and other times it feels like Die Hard on a train.
Either way, it’s a great way to spend a couple of hours and we can never get enough of Gene Wilder anyway, so we’re definitely due a rewatch.
While CW are busy pissing all over the Superman franchise with their piss poor TV show Lois, Her Rat Children and Their Worthless Lives*, and the fact that Superman existed in media way before Richard Donner’s 1978 film, this is seen as the original and best telling of the Superman story.
There’s too much to love here. From Christopher Reeve’s perfect portrayal of Clark Kent, Margot Kidder’s fussy but lovable Lois Lane and a fantastic antagonist in Gene Hackman’s Lex Luther this was a brilliantly casted movie. But it also had all of the big budget special effects and ambition you’d want from a blockbuster.
The sequel edges it out for us (but that was released in 1980) and is indeed the best superhero movie of all time but as an origin story, Superman is superpowered perfection.
*Shout out, Koops.
The Car (1977)
We love The Car so much that we broke our ’80s remit for it all the way back in 2014 just so that we could bang on about it. Taking its cues from Dueli, this film also is about sketchy goings on in the backroads of America.
However, the titular car in this flick isn’t being driven by some anonymous redneck asshole. Nope, it’s driving itself because it’s a super scary evil car. It’s basically Christine‘s evil brother. All the killing but none of the human attachment.
It can’t be easy making a car the villain in a film but The Car manages it and is another brilliant example of what happens when you let a cast of brilliant character actors do the heavy lifting so that the main horror elements can shine. It’s a fantastic film and one that we find ourselves going back to time and time again.
The Exorcist (1973)
William Friedkin’s masterful supernatural horror film broke the minds and bodies of cinema-goers so much back in 1973 that ambulances had to be parked near cinemas. If that sounds ridiculous, well it is. But that doesn’t mean that The Exorcist wasn’t a truly terrifying film in its own right.
A tale of possession and essentially a battle between a demonic force that has taken over a young girl and two members of the clergy, this shocking film pulled out all manner of tricks to unsettle viewers from subliminal shots inserted between frames, amazing practical effects and some truly chilling voice acting from the incredible Mercedes McCambridge.
Indeed, her uncredited appearance is an amazing story in its own right but just another reason why The Exorcist is regarded so highly by horror film fans.