Arguing about the best era in film history is a little like arguing about the nicest color—it’s impossible for anyone to win, and few people will have the same perspective. But for me, the single best era in film history will always be the New Hollywood movement of the 1970s. Here’s the simplified version of how that singular decade came about: There was a short period in American film history just after the general public got sick of the mundane, cloying dramas and comedies of the ‘60s, but before the studios discovered the lucrative benefits of franchises like Jaws and Star Wars that could pile sequel upon sequel, rake in merchandise proceeds, and guarantee a steady stream of big money regardless of artistic merit. In that odd little interval, studio executives had no better idea than simply throwing money at talented directors and hoping to get lucky.
The result of this brief loosening of the studio chains was a decade of profound filmmaking that, at least for me, surpasses anything that came before and everything that’s followed. The honesty of the work, whether it dealt with sex or violence or drugs or love or manhood or the state of morality in America, is still the most remarkable signpost left standing from a wild decade that’s hard to even imagine today. It was only 40 years ago, but seeing those films feels like spying on the life of a different planet.
There are enough excellent ‘70s films on Netflix Instant to sate the average viewer, but there are also tons of classics you won’t find streaming. In case you become obsessed like me, I’ve suggested some related gems after each film in the countdown that might take a little more legwork to track down.
Director: Brian De Palma
Forget this year’s flat remake, please. The original, starring Sissy Spacek as a lonely girl with a fanatical mother (Piper Laurie), is still one of the most disturbing horror films ever made, and has an unsettling rawness that has stood the test of time. Revealing too many details will spoil the plot, but it’s enough to say that Carrie has telekinetic powers that lead to what we can safely call the worst prom ever.
Not On Netflix, Also Great: The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, A Clockwork Orange, 2001: A Space Odyssey
9. The Panic in Needle Park
Director: Jerry Schatzberg
Want to know what it was like for Lou Reed to score drugs in New York? Then this is your film. Al Pacino stars as a junkie who drags his girlfriend (Kitty Winn) into the life. It sounds like a downer, and it definitely can be, but Pacino’s energy keeps the film buoyant and interesting. New York in the late ‘60s and ‘70s represents a paradox in American history; it was a hotbed of revolutionary art, but also a stunning symbols of American desperation and decline. Few films capture what it was like to be young and rudderless in New York like Panic.
Not On Netflix, Also Great: Scarecrow, Midnight Cowboy, Dog Day Afternoon, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
8. Breaking Away
Director: Peter Yates
I hesitated to put two sports movies on the list (see one spot below), but the truth is that Breaking Away is less about cycling than it is about a 19-year-old boy (Dennis Christopher) wanting to break away from his small town, but not knowing what to do with himself now that high school has finished. He and his friends are the poor kids that live in the world of the working-class stonecutters, and their inferiority complex around the nearby Indiana University students drives the film. None of them are in college, and they look on the entitled kids across at the school with envy and resentment. The annual Little 500 bike race (a real event, held in Bloomington, IN) becomes a symbol for them, a chance to prove something against the darkness shrouding the rest of their lives.
Not On Netflix, Also Great: Chariots of Fire, The Longest Yard, The Bad News Bears, Kramer vs. Kramer
7. Slap Shot
Director: George Roy Hill
Believe it or not, there was a time before sports movies were required to be bland monoliths preaching banal virtues and imparting a moral lesson. Slap Shot, starring Paul Newman as a washed-up player-coach on a minor league hockey team, makes no effort to be anything but gritty and funny. The Charlestown Chiefs stink, and they’re in a depressed town where a closing mill is about to put 10,000 people out of work. When the Hanson Brothers arrive, Reggie Dunlop (Newman) discovers that he can win games, sell tickets, and unite the town by embracing a thug mentality that puts violence above sportsmanship. This is the opposite of the cliched, feel-good story we’re used to from sports movies, and it never stops being hilarious.
Not On Netflix, Also Great: Raging Bull, Rocky, Rocky II, Fat City, The Hustler
6. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Director: George Roy Hill
In some ways, this is the ultimate buddy-western, but just as Slap Shot inverted the framework of the traditional sports movie, Sundance stays away from the frontier morality that dominates the genre. Paul Newman and Robert Redford are the outlaws, robbing trains and banks with swagger and easy humor, ignoring the hard reality that’s coming for them. The film is set in in the 1890s, but the adventures of Butch and Sundance in the face of the diminishing wilderness are a strong metaphor for the sunset of a certain strain of idealism felt across the country (not irrelevant: Richard Nixon first took office in 1969). The movie might follow the bad guys, but it’s hard not to see them as heroes making a last stand against the faceless system. Then again, feel free to forget metaphors, because Sundance is just plain fun.
Not On Netflix, Also Great: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Deliverance, The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Easy Riders, Straw Dogs
5. Days of Heaven
Director: Terrence Malick
Malick is unlike any other director in the way he creates poetic landscapes with the camera. He’s never in a rush to speed the plot along or sacrifice his unique language to the narrative, and if you can surrender to his pacing, there aren’t many richer film experiences to be had. Some may read this as a coded way to say it’s “boring,” but that’s not the case. The story of young lovers (a very young Richard Gere, Brook Adams) who work as hired hands in Texas, and then decide to make a play for money by setting up a false marriage with a dying farmer, is riveting on its own. Malick took three years to edit the film, and the results of his painstaking effort is pure cinematic beauty. If it’s slightly less fun than Malick’s 1973 debut Badlands, it reaches a far deeper place.
Not On Netflix, Also Great: Badlands, Coming Home, The Last Detail, Five Easy Pieces, The King of Marvin Gardens
Director: Sidney Lumet
You could have a great debate about who had the best acting decade between Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, Gene Hackman, Jon Voight, and Dustin Hoffman, and while my vote goes to Nicholson (with Hoffman a close second), Pacino has a terrific argument. In Serpico, he plays the complicated figure of a detective who went undercover to rat out corrupt cops. His decision to turn against his own is as fraught as you might imagine, and he faces death at every turn from cops who’d love to shut him up. It’s an exciting street drama with the decrepit-yet-energetic look of urban ‘70s films.
Not On Netflix, Also Great: Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, The French Connection, Chinatown, The Friends of Eddie Coyle
3. The Conversation —1974
Director: Francis Ford CoppolaThe really incredible fact about this film is that Coppola made it as a side project between Godfather movies (which I’ve left off purposefully despite their greatness). Starring Gene Hackman, it’s the story of a surveillance technician coming face to face with the implications of his job, and the paranoia of being watched at every moment. It was nominated for Best Picture in 1974, an award that went to The Godfather, Part II. It’s one of the rare times in film history when a director has lost to himself.
Not On Netflix, Also Great: Godfather, Godfather II, Network
Director: Woody Allen
I like to go back at least once every couple years to watch Manhattan and Annie Hall, if only to remind myself that there was a brief time after Woody Allen stopped making comedies when he was a genuinely brilliant dramatic director. His current films, to me, are unbearably pretentious with their European settings and obsessive fixation on the rich, but in the late ‘70s, he was still tied to something more earthy, more essential. Manhattan is a heartbreaking romantic comedy shot in black and white, and contains the famous montage of Manhattan set to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Without spoiling the love triangles that crisscross the film, I’ll just say that like Annie Hall, it’s a smart and utterly devastating story that will lay you low with memory if you’ve ever been heartbroken.
Not On Netflix, Also Great: Annie Hall, The Graduate, Harold & Maude, Being There, The Last Picture Show, Lenny
1. The Long Goodbye
Director: Robert Altman
To me, Altman was the best director of the 1970s, and while it’s a small tragedy that none of his other films from that decade are available on Netflix Instant, we can at least be grateful that The Long Goodbye made the cut. Starring Elliott Gould as a private eye, it showcases the actor as something other than the soft, whiny old man viewers of our generation know from shows like Friends and Ray Donovan. Under Altman’s care, here and in M*A*S*H, he’s nothing less than a badass with a cynical edge. You won’t recognize him, but you will wonder why he failed to become a leading man of the Nicholson/Pacino/Hackman variety. The story, adapted from a Raymond Chandler novel, is dark, intriguing, and ultimately just a little amoral. Like the rest of the great ‘70s film, The Long Goodbye had little use for virtue.
Not on Netflix, Also Great: Nashville, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, M*A*S*H, Thieves Like Us, Bonnie & Clyde, The Sting