Top Fifty Films of the 70s — An Introduction

And thus our recurring exercise in nostalgic evaluation takes a turn into especially tricky territory. In tracking through my picks for the best films of the the first ten years of the 2000s, then the nineteen-nineties and the nineteen-eighties, I was always considering time frames with which I had at least some level of personal connection concurrent with their actual occurrence. Sure, I was awfully young when the eighties began, but those were hugely formative years as I matured with the movies, for good or ill, as one of my primary influences. If I’d conceived of a top fifty in the waning days of 1989, there would have been a respectable amount of overlap with the list I just finished counting down. Had I tried the same exercise on New Year’s Eve of 1979, the list would have included markedly different fare indeed. Hell, let’s be real: I probably hadn’t seen fifty different films by that point, even though our household status as fairly early adopters of HBO meant my cinematic interest was already being stoked mightily.

While I admittedly had plenty of gaps in my movie consumption in the previously surveyed ten-year spans, when I look to the seventies, nearly everything on the list was seen retrospectively and, for many years, on the basis of what I could actually get my hands on. There may have been a home video revolution during the eighties, but that didn’t mean that rental outlets in Stoughton, Wisconsin were scrambling to make sure their shelves were well-stocked with the complete works of Luis Buñuel and Éric Rohmer. Similarly, while I’m regularly amazed at how far back the premium channels now reach for their daily fare (a necessary side effect of developing a slew of branded companion channels, no doubt), the programmers in the eighties tended to discard films once they were four or five years old. There was apparently no reason to revisit the finer films of the prior decade when Eddie and the Cruisers was there for the airing.

Compounding my worry is the reputation that the nineteen-seventies holds, overblown or not, as the boldest, most daring stretch of American film in the history of the form. The content restrictions imposed in decades past had been lifted and it took no time whatsoever for filmmakers to throw incredibly raw material onscreen. Compare the riskiest fare of, say, 1972 with that of ten years earlier and it’s like comparing stone tools to the internal combustion engine. Plus, independent cinema was flourishing as never before and films from masterful directors in other countries continued to flood in. Wrapping my head around everything I could have (and arguably should have) watched before compiling my list with any level of assured authority was daunting enough. Carving out a couple hours at a time to do it was a practical impossibility.

Therefore, I concede on the front end that what will follow in roughly weekly doses over the dozens of weeks to come is a highly subjective list, even more so than any personal survey of best mass media invariably must be. I may position it as plainly a “Top Fifty Films of the 70s” list, but it is truly as much as a reflection of who I am, which films and filmmakers intrigued me enough to actively seek out their work and, to a far lesser degree, which films resonated most deeply for me when the decade was still a fresh memory. Paradoxically, I think that makes it simultaneously the most conventional and the most idiosyncratic list yet. Yes, much of what’s included here is deeply ensconced in the canon, given that those are the films I was most likely to find my way to over the years. But there are also hugely significant titles that aren’t included, in part because my prevailing disinterest in revisiting certain films that inspire only lukewarm personal memories from initial viewings (when I was, admittedly, quite young) I eventually took to be signal enough about whether or not they should be included.

So as this ongoing projects slips back further in time, I’m finding that it strangely becomes even more of a case of abstracted autobiography. If the list of the eighties could be said to be a unique reflection of how I became who I became, then this tally culled from earlier years is who I am. My feelings and passions about film are here in these fifty, largely uncolored by nostalgia. These are the images that happily whirl in my head, that I reflexively use as a long yellow band of measuring tape against every new film I see.

As per usual, I start at number fifty with a bit of a cheat, a film that probably isn’t truly superior to several titles I sadly left off, but also a film that I love in enough of a special way that I can’t bear to omit it. Somewhat refuting the observations above, it’s a film that I may very well have included had I tried this foolishness roughly thirty years ago. It’s not pure nostalgia, though. It’s a movie I’ve returned to many, many times over the years and it’s never disappointed me.

Anyway, that’s tomorrow.

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