Fundamental Films of the 1970s

Since my motive in proposing this film canon is to counter the proliferation of popularity-driven lists, the logical response is, “How high the bar?” My answer is, “The higher the better.” Canons are by definition elitist enterprises. Film criticism, sunk in a bog of best-of polls (hundred-best movie lines, hundred best movie songs, hundred best villains and heroes) and awards beyond count or comprehension, beset by box-office gurus and per-screen averages, enthralled by explications of the obvious, treatises on trash, thumbs up, downwell, perhaps a little elitism is in order. Paul Schrader, Canon Fodder

There are countless ways to go about making up representative lists of movies. By genre, year, decade, and so on. Filmmaker Schrader (screenwriter of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, director of American Gigolo and The Canyons, among many other credits) was famously asked to put together a cinema “canon” that would resemble Harold Bloom’s much-debated reading list The Western Canon; that’s more along the lines of what we decided to aim for in this series, with Irv offering us his impressions of the films he estimates are the “fundamental” viewing choices from each decade.

We’ll start with one of the truly great decades of movies, the 1970s:



There you have it. Are these the five indispensable films of the ’70s? Have you got different choices that meet Irv’s criteria for inclusion…or do you have your own “rules” to offer in selecting the five fundamental films of this decade? Argue your case below!

  • david hartzog

    Pretty good post. I would agree with 1 thru 4, but Beyond the Valley of the Dolls? I think not. How about Ulzana’s Raid or Night Moves, as films that reinvigorated and redefined their genres.

  • rogerscorpion

    Chinatown is my all-time fave. I, also, would disagree with Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. A Clockwork Orange, maybe–or Sorcerer.

    • GeorgeDAllen

      “Sorcerer”! What a pick. Come back next week, I have something to say about that one.

  • Masterofoneinchpunch

    Paul Schrader’s Canon Fodder has the problem of being too small (without picking on the individual picks). For the burgeoning cinephile I think it is important to see much more than the amount listed there (even 100 is too limited though there are some interesting lists of this size like Jim Emerson’s 102 films You Must See.)

    Now for definitions I personally consider the term fundamental aside from personal favorites. I have favorites from the 70s where I don’t consider it a fundamental. I find, like others, that Beyond the Valley of the Dolls seems to not really fit in fundamentals especially when there are no non-English films on the list and plenty of movies that tend to fit the term fundamental (now of course there is no arguing with personal favorites though.)

    For Fundamentals I would probably pick the following ten: The Godfather, Taxi Driver, Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Jaws, Annie Hall, Star Wars, Chinatown, Nashville, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Solaris.

    Personal Favorites top 10:
    Being There (1979: Hal Ashby): One of Peter Sellers best performances; Ashby did such great work in the 70s.
    The Conversation (1974:Francis Ford Coppola): Harry Caul is one of those great tragic figures in cinema. Of course I love Godfather I & II also :D.
    Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972: Luis Buñuel): When can I eat?
    Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975: Terry Gilliam/Terry Jones): Turned me into a newt.
    Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972: Werner Herzog)
    The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976: Blake Edwards): Personally one of my favorite comedies of all time.
    Sleeper (1973: Woody Allen): yeah, yeah I should pick Annie Hall, but I have to go with my personal opinion.
    Taxi Driver (1976: Martin Scorsese): Clean just like my conscious.
    Young Frankenstein (1974: Mel Brooks): This or Blazing Saddles both are great.
    Drunken Master (1978: Yuen Woo-ping): The most important Kung Fu comedy in Hong Kong’s history. Also some great entertainment.

    Of course each time I do a list like this I think of more I could add (both fundamental and personal.)

    • GeorgeDAllen

      MOIIP, marvelous lists of course. One thing I am interested to have you clarify from your contribution here is the criteria you used in branding the 10 films you list as “fundamental.” (Why are they fundamental?) Just now I decided I’d try to match Irv’s five with my five, to see what I’d come up with and why; I kept my mind as loose about it as I could, picked the five that came most quickly to mind, and then looked to them to see if I could figure out “why” I would assign them in the “fundamental” category–to see if there was some unifying principle to my list. This is what I got– listed roughly in chronological order:

      1) Jaws
      2) One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
      3) Network
      4) Taxi Driver
      5) Annie Hall

      Mine wound up coming generally from the middle of the decade, I see. As Terry P points out above, selecting five only really forces you to abandon several “categories” of inclusion, there’s just no way around that. If you go with 10, why, you can certainly pick one from every year if you like; or try to include a wider selection of genres, or countries of origin, or…etc. etc.

      When I look at my list, as much as I left out sooooo very many of my favorite movies from the ’70s, I can make a case for these movies embodying how I think the ’70s in film can be well described — as a kind of artistic war between cynicism and sincerity.
      That’s maybe how I’d approach designing a canon like this; figuring out if there’s some way I would interpret the arc of the given decade in movies, and picking five films that represented that abstract definition–making all other considerations of “balance” and “inclusion” secondary (but not forgotten entirely).

      Five IS awfully limiting. We settled on that to make it a little tougher on ourselves (or easier, depending on how you look at it).

  • Terry Powell

    I think it’s too limited. I’d hate to narrow a decade down to five. Especially the seventies. From socially conscious films like Coming Home and The China Syndrome, through blaxploitation like Shaft, vigilante fare like Billy Jack, Walking Tall, and Death Wish, horror films such as The Exorcist and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and crowd pleasures like The towering Inferno, Jaws and Star Wars. And that’s just a sampling, I haven’t even mentioned comedies(Masterofoneinchpunch, also a big fan of …Strikes Again), action or Vietnam films. But I do agree with the Chinatown and The Godfather, though I’d switch them as favorites.

  • OZ ROB

    Having been my teen years I have used personal nostalgia as my criteria for choosing 5 Fundamental films of the 79s. Films that captured the mood of the era, cultural time capsules to revisit, films that take me back to those halcyon days.
    1, Two Lane Black Top, 1971.
    2, Super Fly, 1972.
    3, The Harder They Come, 1972
    4, Morning Of The Earth, 1972.
    5,The Man Who Fell To Earth, 1976.

    • GeorgeDAllen

      Love the originality of this list. Glad to see “Super Fly”! And wow—I had known nothing about “Morning of the Earth”; I wish some enterprising distributor would snatch that up for proper release here in the US. I guess I will have to content myself with looking at it online for now, where you can find it in not-so-great resolution. (Looks like it may have been available in some DVD/book form from a company called XTreme Video….)

      The soundtrack looks amazing.

  • llsee

    In general, I hate these “Best of…” lists, or in this case “Fundamental” lists. How can you reduce a great movie decade like the 70’s to 5 films? But since you started this, I find 2 egregious errors in your list. ‘Beyond the Valley of the Dolls’ may have been a parody, but it has not aged well. I find it much better in memory, than actually watching it again. A much more biting and funny satire is Michael Ritchie’s ‘Bad News Bears’ with great performances by Walter Matthau, Vic Morrow and Tatum O’Neal. The other error is your Robert Altman entry. While I admire all of Altman’s films, his best film just barely makes this category. released in March 1970, ‘M*A*S*H’ is my pick.

    But, where do I put ‘Three Days of the Condor’? Sydney Pollack’s best collaboration with Robert Redford. Or… ‘Last Picture show’? See, there are just too many films.

  • Kenneth Morgan

    I’m surprised no one has mentioned “Star Wars” yet. In its own way, it typified the risk-taking attitude of the 70’s just as much as any other movie. It was made by a studio in serious trouble, set in a genre that wasn’t currently in vogue, starred a largely little-known cast, was made by a director with only two other major film credits, had a throwback point of view that was largely dismissed by others in the industry, and received little advance praise or notice. But it worked and worked well, building on the “summer blockbuster” concept that “Jaws” started. Plus, it’s just a really fun movie.

    • GeorgeDAllen

      If for some reason I was made to remove “Jaws” from my own list of 5 (see below), I’d probably replace it with SW because to me it serves the same “fundamental” function in my list. I stick w/”Jaws” (for the purposes of this exercise) because I’m always more eager to revisit it. You could certainly make the case, though, that the Lucasfilm has been more influential.

  • JUSTIN CASE

    CHINATOWN!!!!!

  • nicolas

    Interesting that no one has foreign films on the list, but in many ways that was the 60’s, while the 70’s was a really dominating American period. I might have to revise this list as I go, but I guess I would have to start with 1970 MASH, then 71 FRENCH CONNECTION, which really changed I think the way that the Academy looked at a BEST PICTURE. 72 of course GODFATHER, i won’t include Godfather two, even though I think it is a better picture. 73, have not really seen it in it’s entirety, but THE EXORCIST has to be there. 75 has to be the year of JAWS I believe. Was it 76 or 77, the year that both STAR WARS and ANNIE HALL came out. that is seven films. Other’s in such as fundamentals which I think are rather more films that changed cinema during that period are Dirty HARRY, (a film that really was a backlash to what would be perceived as left wing films, but that that did not make the viewer feel supporting at that time ‘an old timer’ like John Wayne. Finally two films, really not all that great but are I think important to the future of film in America, If I am correct, I’ll come back if I am wrong, but Melvin Van Peebles SWEET SWEATBACK, a film by a black director starting him, which showed that films directed at the time to black audiences could make money with low budgets, and ENER THE DRAGON, not the first King Fu movie released, but really showed that people would be excited by action packed fight scenes, and has been a precursor of things to come.

    • GeorgeDAllen

      “masterofoneinchpunch” (see below) did include “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” on his Fundamentals list (of 10), and he also worked “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” and “Drunken Master” in his list of “favorite” fundamental films (I will never argue with including Herzog or Jackie Chan). Props to you for bringing “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” into the conversation. Not an easily accessible film to “enjoy” on repeated viewings, maybe, but certainly one of the most daring films of the ’70s. A Blu-ray of “Sweet Sweetback” is long overdue.

    • OZ ROB

      Thanks for the opportunity to mention Foreign films of the 70s.. my list was nostalgia which excluded some of my favorite films of this era. I actually have more foreign language films from the 70s on my shelves than American many of these are all time favorites some that I would consider Fundamental to the 70s are….
      !, Man Of Marble 1976, Polish
      2, Red Psalm 1972, Hungarian .Best Director Cannes 72..
      3, Celine & Julie Go Boating, 1974, French.
      4, Ucho (The Ear) 1970, Czech
      5, The Ascent,1977 Russian.

  • laustcawz

    Whether “fundamental” or “iconic” for the ’70s, or just in general from that time frame, my favorite films of the decade (no way I could limit it to just 5, but maybe 20 will do) would have to include (in chronological order by year, including 1980, which, technically speaking, was the final year of the 1970s) “They Might Be Giants”, “Necromancy”, “Sleeper”, “Young Frankenstein”, “The Taking Of Pelham 123″, “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”, “Tommy”, “Dog Day Afternoon”, “Network”, “Burnt Offerings”, “Murder By Death”, “Taxi Driver”, “Heroes”, “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”, “Invasion Of The Body Snatchers”, “Time After Time”, “Escape From Alcatraz”, “Ordinary People”, “Hero At Large” & “The Elephant Man”.

  • Tom

    I have to say three of Irv’s five would be upt here for me, too, although I might have included “The Last Picture Show,” and even “Saturday Night Fever.”

  • Tom

    Oooops! AND – I apologize for forgetting – Paper Moon!

  • Roy

    Ill throw A couple different ones out there. The mechanic, Dog day afternoon,Halloween, The Black Hole and Grease which got me to like musicals.

  • rapalmi

    Great choices, Irv. The 70s is my favorite decade too. My top 3 films of all time, which have not changed over the past quarter century, hail from that decade. They are: 1) PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID, 2) BARRY LYNDON, and 3) THE DEVILS. I’ve seen each of these at least a dozen times, and they never grow old.

    • rogerscorpion

      Peckinpah, Kubrick & Ken ‘Wretched Excess’ Russell? Great choices, but I’d take ‘A Clockwork Orange’ over ‘Barry Lyndon’.

  • Butch Knouse

    How about the Drive-In specials that probably saw few indoor screens.
    Damnation Alley
    The Farmer (who do I have to kill for a DVD?)
    Vanishing Point
    Death Race 2000
    The Wrestler (starring Ed Asner)

  • Cara

    I agree with you on Nashville and Chinatown, but I’d put Network above Beyond the Valley of the Dolls any day. And if you want a seminal spoof, ahead of its time, then I’ll take Blazing Saddles. I have many, many problems with Woody Allan’s movies. I find them dull and neurotic. And I can’t enjoy gangster films no matter how quotable they are. So everybody else can quote and praise The Godfather, I’ll just enjoy watching Star Wars again and again.