The film aesthetics of the 1970s were dominated by the New Hollywood, which, after the revolutionary film experiences of the 1960s – such as Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Graduate (1967), and Easy Rider (1969) – now blossomed into their full potential.
Directors such as Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, and George Lucas shaped the cinematic narratives of this period. They grew into the master directors we know today. In the roles of the 70s shone, acting greats such as Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Gene Hackman, Jack Nicholson, and Diane Keaton. But which films dominated the box office and the Oscars of the time?
1. The Godfather (1972)
1972 was the year of Francis Ford Coppola. With the masterpiece “The Godfather,” the filmmaker, previously known for independent horror and erotic films, rose to the ranks of master directors. Winner of three Oscars (Best Picture, Best Actor in a Leading Role, Best Adapted Screenplay), the archetype of the Mafiafilms in which such great actors as Al Pacino, Marlon Brando, James Caan, Diane Keaton, and Robert Duvall shone.
Even today, the seminal work usually appears on the lists of the best films of all time. Based on the novel of the same name (1969) by Mario Puzo, “The Godfather” traces the tragic fate of the Corleone Mafia family. The mafia epic was later expanded by Francis Ford Coppola’s films The Godfather – Part II (1974) and The Godfather III (1990)”.
2. Alien (1979)
In 1979, Ridley Scott’s “Alien” heralded a new generation of successful science fiction directors. The clever combination of horror and science fiction drew on Oscar-winning special effects and the surrealist horror aesthetic of artist HR Giger. The focus on a female action hero was also new, with Sigourney Weaver breaking the mold of the male-dominated action genre.
It tells the story of the spaceship Nostromo, which receives a distress call from an abandoned moon. Unprepared, the crew discovers eggs of a mysterious life form that confronts the crew of the Nostromo with a new, previously unknown horror.
“Alien” by Ridley Scott laid the foundation for an entire franchise of films, games, and merchandise – establishing Ridley Scott and later James Cameron as the cinematic sci-fi descendants of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.
3. Rocky (1976)
“Rocky” is still one of the unrivaled classics among sports and entertainment films, Boxing movies. Rocky Balboa, a working-class American boxer, gets a once-in-a-lifetime chance to fight for the coveted heavyweight championship belt. The sports drama tells the classic American story from rags to riches. The film by John G. Avildsen, Sylvester Stallone himself wrote the screenplay, was awarded three Oscars.
Despite a low budget of about one million dollars, the film grossed 225 million at the box office, a huge sum for 1976. The logical consequence of this film’s success was numerous Rocky sequels – including “Rocky II” (1979), “Rocky Balboa” (2006), and “Creed” (2015).
4. The Untouchables (1976)
In 1972, the Watergate affair shook political Washington permanently. The scandal, uncovered by then aspiring reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, was made public in 1976 in Alan J. Pakula’s “The Incorruptibles” (All the President’s Men) immortalized.
One of the best acting performances of their career was delivered by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, who contributed to the political thriller winning four Oscars. William Goldman’s screenplay, which attempts to retell the events of the scandal with sober meticulousness, won an Oscar. And even today, “The Untouchables” is considered the benchmark for the modern political and journalistic thriller.
5. Taxi Driver (1976)
Martin Scorsese already caused a sensation in 1973 with “Hexenkessel” (Mean Streets), but he topped this with “Taxi Driver,” which was nominated for four Oscars. Vietnam veteran Travis Bickle suffers from insomnia – so he decides to earn his money as a cab driver in New York at night. When he sees the injustice done to a young prostitute, he sees his hour has come.
“Taxi Driver,” an artful blend of drama and psychological thriller, is one of the most uncompromising films of the ’70s. Paul Schrader, who would later provide the script for Scorsese and De Niro’s Oscar-winning film, Like a Wild Bull (1980), was responsible for the screenplay.
6. The Sting (1973)
George Roy Hill, Robert Redford, and Paul Newman – this trio already worked together in 1969 in the revolutionary film “Two Bandits.” With “The Sting,” the three succeeded in creating another highly regarded cinematic work of the New Hollywood: Newman and Redford play two con men who try to land the coup of their lives. But opposing them is dangerous mob boss Doyle Lonnegan, whose long criminal arm poses a deadly threat.
The film won no fewer than seven Oscars, with a box-office haul of $160 million most successful film of the year 1974 is considered to be.
7. American Graffiti (1973)
It’s one of the fascinating anecdotes of 1970s cinema that before “Star Wars,” the epitome of the international blockbuster, George Lucas was responsible for straight-up independent films like “THX 1138” (1971) and “American Graffiti”(1973). Lucas wrote cinema history with “American Graffiti.” Despite an original budget of only 770.000 dollars, Lucas took in over 140 million at the box office with American Graffiti. Lucas also collaborated with producer Francis Ford Coppola for this masterpiece of early independent cinema, making “American Graffiti” one of the first films of his production company American Zoetrope – laying the groundwork for the later legendary collaborations of the Lucas, Coppola, and later Spielberg directorial trio.
In “American Graffiti,” audiences are transported to the world of the ’60s, where high school seniors take one last tour together through a cityscape at night. During the nearly two hours of nostalgic images, accompanied by a beautiful rock’n’roll soundtrack, “American Graffiti” reaches another milestone. Thus, Lucas’s machination is considered an early model for the modern high school film.
8. Serpico (1973)
In 1971, New York police officer Frank Serpico caused a stir as a whistleblower when he exposed corrupt practices within the police force. The 1973 film “Serpico,” directed by none other than Sidney Lumet (“The Twelve Juries,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Network”), is dedicated to this extraordinary biography. The unsparing look at this real-life grievance still makes Serpico one of the most uncompromising films of New Hollywood today.
It stars a brilliant Al Pacino, who was nominated for an Oscar for his role as Frank Serpico. The real Frank Serpico also joined in the praise for Pacino, declaring that Pacino had played the character, Serpico, better than “myself.
9. The Exorcist (1973)
As an absolute classic among the Horror films is still considered “The Exorcist” today. William Friedkin’s creepy spectacle captivated audiences to such an extent that queues formed in front of the cinemas. The film took in an incredible 441 million dollars at the box office for the time, and “The Exorcist” is still considered the most successful R-rated film of all time in the USA.
At first glance, the plot of The Exorcist sounds very simple: a child is seized by mysterious outbursts of rage, and the desperate mother sees two priests as her last hope. But Friedkin succeeds in making a masterful horror film that is still a must-see of the genre today.
10. Clockwork Orange (1971)
Right at the beginning of the new decade, the film director who had already won acclaim with “Dr. Strange, or How I Learned to Love the Bomb” (1964) and “2001 – Odyssey in Space” (1968), director Stanley Kubrick unleashed another masterpiece on film fans. “Clockwork Orange” is based on the novel of the same name by Anthony Burgess, which presents a bleak future in which free will is in question.
As usual with Kubrick films, “Clockwork Orange” lives from an extraordinary aesthetic and timeless images that set the first benchmark for the 70s. The film received four Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Editing) but came away empty-handed.
11. French Connection (1971)
With “French Connection – Brennpunkt Brooklyn,” William Friedkin delivered another highlight of the New Hollywood in 1971. Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle – played by Gene Hackman – is part of the New York Police Department and chases the notorious drug smuggler Alain Charnier. The story is told as a rough and merciless Action Thriller that thrilled the film critics of its time.
“French Connection” won five Oscars – awarded to Hackman as the best leading actor, Friedkin as the best director, Ernest Tidyman as the best screenwriter, and Gerald B. Greenberg as best editor. This early masterpiece of New Hollywood also won an Oscar for Best Picture.
12. Chinatown (1974)
Decades after the height of film noir, Roman Polanski delivered a neo-noir masterpiece with “Chinatown.” In the classic genre style, an undercover investigator sets out to uncover a web of criminal deceit. In the process, he himself gets into the line of fire of powerful adversaries.
Viewers can expect a top cast with Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston, and Burt Young. Today, screenwriters still regard Robert Towne’s Oscar-winning screenplay as an example of the perfect script. And although the narrative elements of classic noir are omnipresent in “Chinatown,” the uncompromising film is one of the central works of New Hollywood.
13. Jaws (1975)
With “Jaws,” Steven Spielberg rose overnight to the ranks of master directors. Praise even compared his work with Hitchcock’s, so it can be discovered in “Jaws” similar suspense arcs as in Hitchcock’s “The Birds” (1963). In Jaws, Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw are confronted on their boat with the titular elemental Force from the depths of the sea.
The action-horror film, which won three Oscars, took in at the international box office for four hundred seventy million dollars. For at least two years – until the release of “Star Wars” – the film held the record for the most successful movie. At the same time, Jaws ushered in the era of the modern summer blockbuster.
14. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
Just a year after “Chinatown,” an already successful Jack Nicholson shone with another groundbreaking performance: as Randle Patrick McMurphy in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Milos Forman’s film, which won a total of five Oscars, also earned the gifted actor the first of three acting Oscars.
The narrative of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is based on the novel of the same name by Ken Kesey and tells the story of an inmate who is transferred to a mental institution by feigning mental illness. After Frank Capra’s “It Happened One Night (1934), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is considered the second film to win all five of the central Oscars: Best Actor in a Leading Role, Best Actress in a Leading Role (Louise Fletcher), Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Picture.
15. Star Wars (1977)
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away – with these famous words, in 1977, a Science Fiction Film would change the film industry forever. Star Wars, still exceptionally popular, was penned by director George Lucas, best known for “American Graffiti.”
Struck by a personal fate, young Luke Skywalker vows revenge against the Empire, which controls the galaxy with the sinister claws of its reign of terror. But Skywalker depends on allies – and the mysterious workings of the Force.
The sci-fi masterpiece broke almost all the financial records of the 1970s and was rewarded with a box office of 775 million dollars. The film, which won six Oscars, and the franchise it spawned made George Lucas a billionaire – and revolutionized modern science fiction film.
16. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
In the shadow of Star Wars, another milestone of the science fiction genre appeared in 1977: Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”. The life of electrician Roy Neary is turned upside down when he thinks he sees a UFO. But Close Encounters of the Third Kind is not a space opera like Star Wars; instead, the story is devoted to surreal yet comparably realistic events on Earth.
Like Spielberg’s Jaws, the sci-fi film starring Richard Dreyfuss, Teri Garr, and François Truffaut was extraordinarily successful: financed with a budget of 20 million, Close Encounters of the Third Kind brought in over 300 million dollars. One of the fascinating anecdotes of the film is that, as with “Star Wars,” John Williams contributed to the soundtrack.
17. The Urban Neurotic (1977)
Woody Allen enjoyed early box-office success with his slapstick comedies “Do It Again, Sam” (1972) and “What They Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask” (1972), but it was “The Urban Neurotic” (1977) that carried Allen into the realms of the Oscars.
Four of the coveted Hollywood trophies were awarded to the romantic comedy, in which Allen presented more mature and worldly humor than in his previous works. The film highlights the complicated love affair between New York comedian Alvy Singer and the eponymous (in English, the film is called Annie Hall) Annie Hall. The film’s smug, intellectual humor is complemented by a realistic look at modern big-city romance that is atypical of Hollywood – and thus exerted an influence on a modern romantic comedy that cannot be understated.
18. Grease (1978)
Probably the most famous musical of the 70s is called “Grease.” The film, extraordinarily popular at the time, catapults viewers to late ’50s California and is about the love of two teenagers, Danny Zuko and Sandy Olsson. The film meant a big leap in fame for John Travolta and singer Olivia Newton-John. The film adaptation by Randal Kleiser (“The Blue Lagoon”; “Honey, Now We Have a Giant Baby”) is based on the 1971 musical of the same name, composed by Warren Casey and Jim Jacobs.
“Grease” proved to be one of the central blockbusters of the 1970s – and thus extremely successful: the budget of 6 million compared to box-office earnings of almost 400 million dollars.
19. Apocalypse Now (1979)
With Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola proved that the 1970s marked his creative peak once and for all. Today, the film, loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” is considered a highlight of the Anti-war film and a central work of the New Hollywood.
The epic, whose difficult and financially ruinous genesis was retraced in the documentary “Hearts of Darkness,” was able to collect the Palme d’Or at Cannes, three Golden Globes, and two Oscars.
Available today in several edited versions, this film tells of the fatal Vietnam adventures of Captain Benjamin L. Willard (Martin Sheen) and his crew. Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper, and the still-young Harrison Ford and Laurence Fishbourne round out the cast of this extraordinary antiwar film.
20. Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
A deeply disillusioned and realistic look at modern family life was delivered by Robert Benton (also known for his screenplays for Bonnie and Clyde and Superman) in 1979 with “Kramer vs. Kramer.”
Married couple Ted and Joanna Kramer get into a tumultuous divorce. Left alone with his son Billy, career man Ted finds himself forced to devote more time and attention to him – which seems to change the way he looks at his life so far. This almost prophetic film about modern family life and capitalist careerism won five Oscars – including one for Best Picture. The two brilliant leading actors, Dustin Hoffman, and Meryl Streep, were also justified in winning an Oscar. Avery Corman’s novel Kramer vs. Kramer (1977) provided the basis for the narrative.
21. The Godfather – Part II (1974)
22. Going Through Hell (1978)
23. Dirty Harry (1971)
24. The Knights of the Coconut (1975)
25. Network (1976)
26. Exit the dragon (1974)
27. In Dying, Everyone Is First (1972)
28. Superman (1978)
29. The Wild Wild West (1974)
30. Mad Max (1979)
31. Carrie (1976)
32. The Texan (1976)
33. Saturday Night Fever (1977)
34. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
35. Westworld (1973)
The cinema of the 1970s is considered the high point of the revolutionary New Hollywood, which broke away from the established studio system of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Masterpieces like “The Godfather,” “Star Wars,” “Rocky,” “The Urban Neurotic,” and “Apocalypse Now” are still today the cinematic benchmark of their respective genres, worth watching. If you want to immerse yourself in the cinema of the 70s, then the films mentioned above are among the absolute recommendations of the 1970s.