10 Essential Movies From the 1970s


Julia Tran

“Alien” pulls no punches. It’s two hours of pure nightmare-fueled adrenaline.

Luke Thompson, Assistant Editor

Now, at last, the finale; the 1970s are the final decade of film that I will be covering for The Falconer. It’s been 50 years since then, but these movies have set a benchmark that all films should hope to live up to.

There is a sort of maturity and clarity of vision that movies from the 70s possess that sets them apart for me. It was an era when movies were starting to break away from the restrictive film codes and rigid cultural stigmas that had stifled filmmaking in the prior decades, and filmmakers were flexing their creative muscles and breaking new ground at every turn.

I praised the 1990s for housing some amazing pieces of cinema. I even went so far as to claim that the 1980s have some of the best films ever made. I still believe that. But for every popcorn flick, every 90s rom-com, and cheesy blockbuster from the 80s, there’s a spy thriller or suspenseful brain-twister from the 1970s that makes them all pale in comparison.

So think back half a century, to a time when America was losing a war in Southeast Asia, to a time when a president got in trouble for breaking and entering, a time when M*A*S*H was on the air, a time when her majesty, Queen, ruled rock and roll, and a time when the movie industry began to explore what was truly possible in the medium of film.

(Quick PSA: PG in the 1970s basically means nothing. “All the President’s Men” has 11 F-bombs, and people literally get torn apart by a shark in “Jaws.” Fair warning.)

Jaws (1975) – PG 

“Jaws” is the first true summer blockbuster, and the ruiner of uncountable beach vacations. The box office haul of $470 million pretty much cinches its blockbuster status, as a modern dollar is only worth 21% of a dollar from 1970. 

The premise isn’t complicated. Amity Island, a small island town in New England that is popular with tourists, is stalked by a killer Great White shark during the Fourth of July weekend, and it’s up to the sheriff, a big city marine biologist, and a grizzled sailor to hunt down the monster before it strikes again.

The chemistry between the main characters is impeccable; you could rename this movie to “Three Men on a Boat” and it would still be amazing. 

The movie’s genius isn’t in the visual effects. The animatronic shark quite infamously refused to work most of the time, and when it does make an appearance, it’s not particularly convincing. The real terror comes from the filmmaking. Steven Spielberg makes you fear open water. The film leaves much up to the imagination, which can generate the fear needed to give the shark its mythos. 

The movie also holds lessons that Spielberg couldn’t have foreseen. Take the character of Amity’s mayor, for example. He is a person in a position of political authority who is unable and unwilling to acknowledge the threat of an uncontrollable force of nature, let alone address that threat, as doing so would have severe economic consequences, and his inaction leads to unnecessary deaths. 

It seems oddly relevant.

Star Wars (1977) – PG

In my last article, I mentioned how I only consider two movies from the Star Wars franchise to be masterpieces. This is the other one.

I remember the first time I saw this movie. I was on vacation with my family in Sunriver, Oregon. There’s a picture of me, my brother, and my cousins sitting on the couch, staring at the screen in mesmerized joy. I think I was holding a toy lightsaber.

There’s a magic present in this film that just ensnared me, drawing me into a world that is almost as wonderful and diverse as our own. No matter how many bad movies, good movies, and amazing TV shows set in that world are made, everything comes down to this movie.

It’s a simple story. A farm boy from a poor planet joins forces with a wizard, a drug dealer, the drug dealer’s hairy friend, and two odd-couple robots to save a princess and blow up a fascist government. It’s amazing.

Everything is as close to perfect as you can imagine: the cast, soundtrack, visual effects, pacing, and world-building. Even if you don’t like “Star Wars,” its cultural significance is undeniable.

The unfortunate thing about the Original Trilogy of “Star Wars” is that the theatrical releases are impossible to watch through official avenues. The movies available on Disney+ are the “digitally enhanced” editions of the films that were released in 2012. These versions add unnecessary and half-baked CGI that in my opinion discredit the brilliant effect work done in 1977. In the case of this particular movie, the changes resulted in the infamous “Han Shot first” controversy. 

If you want to watch this movie, I would highly recommend getting your hands on the original theatrical release, and watching it as if you’d never heard the name “Star Wars.”

You’ll be blown away.

All The President’s Men (1976) – PG 

In 1972, two reporters for The Washington Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, uncovered the biggest U.S. Government scandal in modern history. President Richard Nixon had ordered a group of thugs to break into the Democratic Party’s offices at the Watergate Complex to steal information. When the crime failed, the White House undertook a massive cover-up.

Four years later, Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman portrayed Woodward and Bernstein in “All The President’s Men,” a movie based on the book written by the reporters about their investigation. It details the meticulous research and lead-chasing done by the two men as they began to realize just how far up the political totem pole the conspiracy went.

The movie is a mental gymnastics course, but the story has a greater significance; The Washington Post’s coverage of the Watergate Scandal highlights the fundamental importance of a free press in America. Nixon resigned in disgrace, and though Lyndon Johnson would immediately pardon him, his legacy is that of corruption due to the diligence of two journalists. 

Another movie from much more recently that hits the same beats as this one is “Spotlight,” the story of how The Boston Globe’s investigative team uncovered the Catholic Church’s sexual assault scandal in 2002. Both of these movies are absolutely worth your time.

What’s Up, Doc? (1972) – G

“What’s Up, Doc?” is a movie that is deserving of multiple rewatches. Every frame has some sort of gag. Almost every joke has another joke hidden behind it. This is perhaps one of, if not the single greatest farcical comedy ever made. 

Summarizing the plot of this movie is hard, as the writer fit so many subplots and characters into one movie that he made a summary very difficult for me. The movie includes a government conspiracy, a jewel heist, a love story, a musicologist convention, a car chase, a case of identity theft, a man trying to put out a fire with champagne, a gunfight, and Barbara Streisand clinging to the edge of a hotel balcony in a bath towel. 

I didn’t even mention the four identical carry-on cases.

The deadpan humor is further accentuated by the characters, who take themselves completely seriously despite the utter ridiculousness of the situations they’re trapped in. 

I almost feel bad for listing the events of the film, as I believe it’s best seen with very little prior context. Please watch it; it’s on my list of favorites for a good reason.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) – PG

Steven Spielberg was a busy man in the 70s and 80s. After the overwhelming success of “Jaws,” the director wasn’t done.

Oh, no. He had grander ambitions.

“Close Encounters” is awe-inspiring. It tells the story of Roy, a family man from the suburbs who witnesses a UFO, and who spends the rest of his time on Earth desperately hunting for answers. 

The movie captures the wonder and terror elicited by the stories of Roswell and the Battle of Los Angeles, the obsessive pursuit of the truth behind unexplained phenomena, and the inherent curiosity that mankind feels when it looks up at night.

Unlike “Jaws,” “Close Encounters” is a showcase of breathtaking visual effects. There will be shots where you’ll sit there in shock, only able to wonder, “how did they do that?” It’s a feast for the eyes and a treat for the brain, and this conspiracy theory-inspiring film is a must-watch.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) – PG

The underdog story of this movie’s production makes its comedic legend all the more heartwarming. Monty Python made this movie on a shoestring budget, with chainmail made of cloth and friends and family cast as extras. But the result was worth it all.

“Monty Python and the Holy Grail” is a comedic masterpiece, from the subtitles in the opening credits to the absurd fourth-wall breaks to the screwball comedy that lands with me every time. 

This movie includes an incompetent King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table — made up of Sir Bedevere, Sir Lancelot the Brave, Sir Galahad the Pure, Sir Robin the Not-Quite-So-Brave-As-Sir Lancelot, and the aptly-named Sir Not-Appearing-In-This-Film — search across the length and breadth of Merry England for the Holy Grail on a mission from God.

On their journey, they encounter Tim the Sorcerer, a castle full of trash-talking Frenchmen, a killer bunny, the Knights Who Say Nih, Progressive Peasants, an illiterate witch hunt, and a love-starved convent. I’m not going to spoil the rest.

“Holy Grail” is good fun; it doesn’t overstay its welcome, it doesn’t waste any time, and if you don’t like a joke, don’t worry because the next one is right around the corner. It’s a true classic.

Alien (1979) – R

If “Close Encounters” is the wonder of the stars, then Ridley Scott’s claustrophobic horror icon is the inky blackness lurking between them. “Alien” pulls no punches. It doesn’t hold your hand or treat you like an idiot. It’s two hours of pure nightmare-fueled adrenaline.

No matter how many less-than-stellar sequels and spin-offs have been regurgitated since the film’s release, nothing will ever beat the sheer horror of the Xenomorph when you first see it. And nothing will prepare you for the chestburster scene. 

Literally nothing can prepare you.

The unfortunate thing about Alien is that its formula has been appropriated so often in the years since 1979 that many of the tropes and set pieces of the film might seem a little basic, but you should really see the movie that did them first and, in my opinion, did them best.

The sequel, “Aliens,” which is a creation of the 80s, is also incredible. Just a little movie marathon idea.

Rocky (1976) – PG

There are half-baked motivational videos on YouTube, and then there’s “Rocky.” If you want a snapshot of perseverance and victory in the face of overwhelming odds, this movie will give it to you.

Rocky Balboa, a character perfectly portrayed by Sylvester Stallone, is a cinematic legend, the personification of the will to succeed, while remaining down-to-earth and wise in his own way. 

Rocky, a deadbeat boxer from Philly, is chosen to fight the heavyweight world champion Apollo Creed after Creed’s scheduled opponent is unable to fight. Everyone, including Rocky himself, believes that the fight will be a blowout and there is no point in trying to win.

But the people in Rocky’s life refuse to give up on him, and refuse to let him give up on himself. In the face of skepticism from the press and mocking from his competitor, Rocky brings himself up to a level that no one expected of him. I won’t spoil the ending, but the movie’s climax is a showcase of how the journey to success is just as important as the success itself.

This may be one of the best inspirational movies out there.

Three Days of the Condor (1975) – R

Joe Turner, a mild-mannered CIA codebreaker who returns from his lunch break to find that his entire office has been gunned down, and that he is now being hunted by the mysterious and powerful perpetrators, who always know what move Joe will make before he even does. It’s a living nightmare.

And somehow, you won’t be able to look away. Robert Redford’s performance of the panicked protagonist sells you the terror that he feels as every alleyway becomes a potential trap, every passing care might contain a gunman, and every person on the street might be watching him. 

In many ways, this movie is the antithesis of “All the President’s Men.” In that movie, the truth is attainable, tangible; an invaluable commodity. But in this movie, the truth is deadly, and any attempts to reveal the truth will end badly; the only asset that Joe has is continually warped and turned against him, keeping him always on the run. 

“Three Days of the Condor” is a story of hope and persistence in the midst of desperation, and as far as 70s thrillers go, this one is one of the best. 

You won’t regret it.

The Godfather (1972) – R

Here, at last, is Francis Ford Coppola’s magnum opus, a film that many have said is one of the greatest ever made.

Without once even uttering the word “mafia,” this movie cements itself as the pinnacle of crime storytelling, outdoing its predecessors and inspiring those that would follow it. The members of the Corleone crime family are believably torn between the allure of life outside the business and the power they would hold by remaining in its clutches. 

“The Godfather” set a benchmark for American cinema, truly capitalizing on the power that was given to filmmaking during the 1970s. It, and Ford Coppola’s other masterpiece of the decade, “Apocalypse Now,” showed audiences all over the world that the medium of film has a mystique and a strength to it. 

Modern filmmakers would do well to remember that art can still be made, even in the pursuit of profitability. There does not need to be a line between the two worlds; filmmaking is not organized crime.

But only so long as we remember the art.

Thank you so much for reading. If you want to converse, debate, or otherwise call my opinions incorrect, you are free to do so in the comments section. 

Stay healthy, take it easy, and find the thing that gives you joy. I know I’ve found mine.