Sam Juliano and Allan Fish—Allan writing the reviews and counting down the films and Sam acting as compère—have just finished another of their best of the decade series at Wonders in the Dark, this one on the best movies of the 1970s, the third I've participated in. I've submitted my own list and as I've done in the past would like to comment on my impressions of that decade in film.
This was a difficult decade for me in terms of film viewing, especially for foreign language movies. In the early seventies I moved from San Francisco, where I had access to most of the latest foreign movies released in the US, to a small town in rural Northern California. The local theater catered to a clientele that preferred American movies of the John Wayne-Clint Eastwood ilk. I was lucky in that not too long after I moved here, a young couple from Madison, Wisconsin, bought the theater and successfully devised a formula that kept the theater in business for many years.
On weekends they showed the latest American movies and on weeknights some of the latest foreign language movies as well as some classics. (I was fortunate enough to see Gone With the Wind, Rear Window, and Singin' in the Rain among others for the first time on the big screen there.) So even if the selection of foreign films wasn't as extensive as in San Francisco, I still got to see the most widely distributed foreign language movies of the 1970s as well as the major American movies and even some of the more obscure ones. And the occasional trip to San Francisco always included a visit to one of that city's several art theaters.
Still, I had a lot of catching up to do to participate meaningfully in the WitD best of the 70s poll. For the most part I managed to do this to my satisfaction, even though I did not manage to see many of the more obscure films that Allan covered. My two biggest regrets are not being able to see the French films Céline and Julie Go Boating and The Mother and the Whore, neither of which I was able to locate on Region 1 DVD before the poll closed.
Now for my impressions of the decade. I would say that overall this was a very strong decade for movies. In my roundup of the 1960s a few weeks ago, I observed that while American movies of the late 1960s promised much in terms of a clear break with the past, I didn't feel that the new freedoms in subject, attitude, and technique were successfully developed by the most lionized American movies of the time. In retrospect many of the movies that seemed at the time to promise so much don't seem to have stood the test of time. Their promise was just that—potential waiting for future exploitation. For me it was the American movies of the early 1970s that really took the new cinematic freedoms of the 60s and successfully applied them. The years between 1970 and 1976 were incredibly rich ones for the American cinema, and my decade list reflects this belief, with the inclusion of more American movies than on the lists of the previous two decades. Nearly half of my top 25 of the 1970s were either made in the US or directed by an American, including my top two choices of the decade.
Many of the greatest contemporary American directors first came to prominence during the 1970s, including Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen, and Terrence Malick. But perhaps the most important of them all, in terms of his influence on other directors, was Robert Altman. His deft juggling of simultaneous multiple story lines, original takes on well-worn genres like the war movie and the Western (not always successful: consider his disastrous attempt to update the P.I. genre with The Long Goodbye), and heightened sense of realism, particularly in the use of sound and dialogue—so unique at the time—today are so fully integrated into filmmaking technique that few give such things a second thought. I don't think Altman receives nearly the credit he deserves for showing other directors how to achieve this and still keep things interesting and intelligible.
Two other things that American movies of the late 1960s tentatively introduced found their fullest expression in the 1970s. One of these was the alienated, anti-authoritarian attitude of movies like Easy Rider. Even if that movie has dated badly, it made it possible for movies like M*A*S*H, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, All the President's Men, Network, Apocalypse Now, and Being There to embrace a cynical and almost paranoiac mistrust of authority and power—a level of mistrust unseen in American films since the early 1930s—that also found critical and popular approval.
The other element of late 60s cinema that found its way into the American movies of the 1970s is what I would call an increased Europeanization of style. I see this in movies like Rafelson's Five Easy Pieces (particularly the second half, which seems almost like a Bergman movie), Scorsese's Mean Streets, Malick's Badlands (with its New Wavish/Godard-like sensibility), Coppola's The Conversation, or Interiors, Woody Allen's outright hommage to Bergman. All in all, I find the 1970s probably the most exciting time in the post-studio American cinema.
The European cinema of the 1970s seemed a time of endings and new beginnings. Many of the established great European directors made their last, or their last major, films during the decade. François Truffaut made two masterpieces—The Wild Child (1970) and The Story of Adèle H. (1975)—and two near-masterpieces—Day for Night (1973) and Small Change (1976). Truffaut died in 1984, and his last major film, The Last Métro, was released in 1980. In 1970 the great French comic director Jacques Tati released his fifth and final full-length film, Trafic, an enjoyable but rather haphazard work that unfortunately was not up to his best. Luis Buñuel, who died in 1983, directed his last four films, all of major importance in his canon, in this decade. In the 1970s Vittorio de Sica, who died in 1974, directed his last movies, including the masterful Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1970). The last film of another of the original Italian neo-realists, Luchino Visconti, was released in 1976, the year of his death—The Innocent, a movie memorable for its pictorial elegance and (for Visconti) restrained romanticism. The great Federico Fellini continued to direct until 1990, but he produced what is widely considered his last masterpiece in 1973, the charming autobiographical film Amarcord.
After his great work of the 1960s, Ingmar Bergman continued at the peak of his art for most of the 1970s yet by the end of the decade had pretty much shifted his attention to works made for television. He made three masterpieces—Cries and Whispers (1972), Scenes from a Marriage (1973), and his version of Mozart's opera The Magic Flute (1975)—and two near-masterpieces—Face to Face (1976) and Autumn Sonata (1978). The Magic Flute was made for television before being shown theatrically, while Scenes from a Marriage and Face to Face were originally made for television and edited down by Bergman for theatrical distribution. Autumn Sonata was made in Norway during Bergman's temporary self-imposed exile there after his traumatic problems with the Swedish tax authorities and, even though he directed a dozen or so more features and documentaries for television, it was his next-to-last film made specifically to be shown in theaters.
The big news in 1970s European cinema came from Germany. Rainer Maria Fassbinder, who died in 1982, directed more than 30 theatrical and television movies in the 1970s. I've seen very few of these, but they are by most accounts of an incredibly consistent quality. Other major German directors who first gained attention in this decade were Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, and Volker Schlöndorff, all of whom continue to work to this day. Barbet Schroeder, of Swiss-German and German parentage, has directed films in the US, Germany, and France and produced several films by Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette.
One change that WitD made with the 70s poll was to allow certain television movies to be eligible for inclusion. (The guidelines about which are permitted and which are not are rather convoluted.) Because I watch TV movies and theatrical movies differently and with different expectations, and because the distinction between the two isn't always that clear, I decided to consider only films that to my knowledge were shown in movie theaters in the US, even though I may have watched them on the small screen myself. This probably didn't make much difference with this poll but no doubt will present dilemmas in future polls when works like Berlin Alexanderplatz, Brideshead Revisited, and The Singing Detective become eligible.
As with my previous decade lists, the films were chosen from my own list of **** movies. My best of the 1970s list is a personal one limited by my viewing experience and reflects my own likes and preferences. I restricted myself to one film for any director. Here is my final list of the top 25 movies of the 1970s, to my mind one of the top decades in film history:
THE BEST MOVIES OF THE 1970s
- Chinatown, Polanski (1974)
- The Godfather & The Godfather Part II, Coppola (1972/1974)
- Cries and Whispers, Bergman (1972)
- Amarcord, Fellini (1973)
- The Tree of Wooden Clogs, Olmi (1978)
- The Last Picture Show, Bogdanovich (1971)
- Lacombe, Lucien, Malle (1974)
- The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Bunuel (1972)
- Dersu Uzala, Kurosawa (1975)
- The Wild Child, Truffaut (1970)
- The Conformist, Bertolucci (1970)
- M*A*S*H, Altman (1970)
- Taxi Driver, Scorsese (1976)
- Fox and His Friends, Fassbinder (1975)
- The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Herzog (1974)
- Barry Lyndon, Stanley Kubrick (1975)
- Days of Heaven, Malick (1978)
- The Tin Drum, Schlöndorff (1979)
- The Mirror, Tarkovsky (1974)
- Manhattan, Allen (1979)
- Cabaret, Fosse (1972)
- Sunday Bloody Sunday, Schlesinger (1971)
- The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, de Sica (1970)
- Five Easy Pieces, Rafelson (1970)
- One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Forman (1975)
American and British: McCabe and Mrs. Miller, American Graffiti, Mean Streets, The Conversation, Thieves Like Us, Nashville, All the President's Men, Star Wars, Interiors, Kramer vs. Kramer, Tess, The Life of Brian
Foreign Language: Chloë in the Afternoon, Scenes from a Marriage, The Magic Flute, Aguirre: the Wrath of God, The Story of Adèle H., The Innocent, The Marriage of Maria Braun
Results of the Wonders in the Dark best movies of the 1970s poll are in. Click here for link.