Only ten? Impossible.
1. Star Wars (1977)
Duh. The one that started it all, the reason Hollywood goes for the big “event movie” every summer. The story is not original, the acting is not exactly great, and the directing is simply okay. Then why will it always be a classic? Because it was the first fairy tale that belonged to the new generation. It wasn’t passed down to us. It was ours.
2. The Godfather, Part I (1972)
This very well might be the best American film ever. Francis Ford Coppola takes an overblown novel of an American dynasty and transforms it into a powerful meditation on family, honor and corruption. Yup, he hits all the classic themes.
3. Monty Python & the Holy Grail (1975)
How can you not bust a gut laughing at just about every scene in this movie? The duel with the Black Knight, the French soldiers in the castle, the narrator/historian who gets killed… the Python boys are sheer freaking geniuses!
4. Chinatown (1974)
Jack Nicholson reinvigorates the hard-boiled private eye genre with this, simply one of the best screenplays ever written. Roman Polanski’s atmospheric landscape of pre-WWII L.A. is gorgeous. The ending might seem a bit dated now, but at the time it was one of the most shocking and horrific things imaginable. Incest… icky!
5. The Godfather, Part II (1974)
The story, acting and directing didn’t slump with the second installment. It maintained the first’s superior quality in all forms. It might’ve even topped Part I in several scenes. Starting in the first installment and continuing through this one to Part III (1990), Al Pacino crafts what is probably the best character arc in American cinema history. Add that to De Niro’s appearance in this as young Vito Corleone and you have an instant classic.
6. The Exorcist (1973)
I still think The Shining (1980) might be scarier, but this movie sure gives you the chills. Linda Blair, as a possessed little girl, trips me out. But Ellen Burstyn as her suffering mother puts in a tremendous performance. It took her until Requiem For a Dream (2000) to be that good again.
7. Jaws (1975)
It’s the age-old Man vs. Nature theme. Except this time it’s done by Spielberg. Notable not only for its great “less is more” direction, but also for its all-time classic, chill-inducing theme. And the great “comparing scars” scene. And Roy Scheider. Well, and for everything else.
8. Alien (1979)
Aliens (1986) is a damn good action movie. But the original was most definitely horror/thriller with a science fiction twist. An entire deep-space crew of humans are sliced and diced by one little baby alien. By the time it is full-grown, only Sigourney Weaver is still alive to do anything about it. And does she. Panties and all.
9. Annie Hall (1977)
Woody Allen’s best work. In this, he manages to encapsulate everything wrong with being a single New Yorker. He’s a nebbishy commitment-phobe with an intense fear of rejection. Diane Keaton (in the performance of her career) considers herself an independent and a free spirit, and yet is desperately looking for someone to share her life with. Genius wit and dialogue coupled with great performances. Christopher Walken’s cameo as Keaton’s brother is hysterical.
10. Young Frankentstein (1974)
Mel Brooks’s hysterical take on the classic gothic horror tale. Peter Boyle as the monster and Gene Wilder as the mad doctor. By the time Madeline Kahn shows up as the Bride, you have to pause the movie to stop laughing.
11. All the President’s Men (1976)
True story of reporters Woodward & Bernstein and how their investigations opened up the Watergate scandal. Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman work very well together, but the real thrill is watching the tale of how two scrappy reporters brought down a corrupt presidency with nothing more than tenacity and a typewriter.
12. Nashville (1975)
Robert Altman’s masterpiece. Also, as far as I know, the first example in American cinema of sound dialogue being edited in a cross cut pattern similar to the visuals. The concept definitely worked, and is still ripped off to this day. Even more impressive, the majority of the story was improvised, showing Altman and his editing staff to be solid gold.
13. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
A simply beautiful fantasy about the possibility of alien life in our galaxy. Spielberg tells the tale of Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), an average man who has a “close encounter” that changes his life forever. Even if he has to abandon his wife and children to do it; how very 70’s.
14. The Deer Hunter (1978)
Extremely character-driven and features no stereotypical action sequences. De Niro and Walken, as two old friends from a tiny Pennsylvania town (remarkably similar to the Saigon village where they are held as POW’s) are brilliant together. And the Russian Roulette scene… a classic!
15. Taxi Driver (1976)
De Niro aiming a gun at his own image in a mirror asking “You talking to me? Are YOU talking to ME?” is certainly one of the best scenes of the seventies, if not the last several decades. Add to that the story of a lonely Vietnam veteran suffering from insomnia, which eventually leads to extreme paranoia, which eventually leads to complete, violent mental breakdown, and you’ve got Scorsese’s best film.
16. The French Connection (1971)
Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle is a drunken racist cop, a brilliant contrast to his nemesis, a dignified and gentlemanly French heroin smuggler. Their cat and mouse game culminates in one of the best car chases ever filmed. Also one of the best following sequences ever filmed.
17. Badlands (1973)
Based upon the true story of mass-murderer Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend in the 1950’s Midwest, Martin Sheen does a tremendously good understated job of portraying the main character. The film depicts his brutal acts along a chaotic road trip simply as is, there is no moral judgment. Terrence Malick directs with an artist’s sensibilities, the film is beautiful.
18. Enter the Dragon (1973)
Two words: Bruce fucking Lee. Plot? Who cares (even though there actually was one)! Acting abilities? Whatever (although he actually had them)! The minute the first fight scene starts and Lee emits that now famous high-pitched wail, you know you’re in for some fun.
19. The Conversation (1974)
Amazingly good with Gene Hackman as a lonesome, loathsome surveillance expert with a moral dilemma after realizing a couple he is ordered to tape will most likely be murdered. Should he warn them, thereby blowing his cover and exposing his superiors? A gripping (though slightly long) thriller from Coppola with a classic final shot.
20. American Graffiti (1973)
Though “cruising” was quite a few years before my time (my friends and I were more prone to hanging out in malls), this beautiful little film about four teens in the summer of 1962 is a joy to watch. Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Cindy Williams and Harrison Ford round out the great ensemble cast with fresh, poignant dialogue and very believable characters.
21. The Jerk (1979)
Steve Martin manages to make Navin Johnson the most impressively moronic character ever created (at the time). Adopted at birth by a black family in the south, upon adulthood Navin realizes he is different. “You mean I’m gonna STAY this color?” After that, it’s one heck of a road trip to riches.
22. Mean Streets (1973)
Harvey Keitel is the stereotypical kid from Little Italy who longs for a simple life. He collects for his uncle to make ends meet so he can save up to buy a local bar. But the woman he loves has a cousin, De Niro’s Johnny Boy, who has other plans for him. As the movie progresses, the claustrophobic “mean streets” of New York offer Charlie (Keitel) no more choices. Ultra-violent and impressive early work from Scorsese.
23. Shaft (1971)
Richard Roundtree, as Shaft, introduced “blaxpoitation” films to general (white) audiences nationwide. For once, a black actor is recognized as the hero figure. For that alone, it makes the list. Besides, how bad-ass is this guy? He’s Shaft for chrissakes!
24. Superman (1978)
The scene where Superman rescues Lois from a fall off the Daily Planet roof is still awesome: “You’ve got me… who’s got you?” Christopher Reeve brings an all-American dignity to the famous character. The only worthy sequel is Part II (1980), if only because General Zod is such a bad-ass limey bastard.
25. The Muppet Movie (1979)
How could I be a little kid when this came out and not put this on the list? It’s the freaking first Muppets movie! Besides, it has cameos from just about every well-known actor in the entirety of the seventies. And, whether you’re a kid or a grown-up, it’s still funny.