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The Best Movie Discoveries of 2019: The 1970s

I really became a movie fan in the 1970s and I can tell you it was a wonderful time. I was born in the ‘60s, but the ‘70s - and especially its movies - provided a big part of my coming-of-age. You could literally find me at my local movie theater every Friday night or Saturday afternoon (maybe both), watching whatever happened to be playing: horror, science fiction, drama, musicals, action-adventure, whatever. If it was playing, I was there.


The ‘70s was a time of great experimentation in movies, but I didn’t know it then. I did know that I saw several movies I didn’t understand, particularly the endings, with films like Electra Guide in Blue (1973), Night Moves (1975), and Network (1976). I didn’t yet understand satire, so movies like The Hospital (1971) left me wondering what the heck was going on. I knew these were different from the movies I saw on TV and I wanted to see more of them.

And I did. I saw a lot, but all these years later, there’s still a lot I haven’t seen from that decade. (And some of what I have seen, I’ve forgotten and need to see again.)

From last year’s 1970s list, half the films I saw were made in countries other than the U.S. Although I saw more ’70s films this year, only two were made abroad. There are still some mainstream U.S. films I haven’t seen, but I hope to expand my 2020 viewing from this decade to include more international films and obscure titles. But here’s what I saw and enjoyed this year from the glorious 1970s:

Juggernaut (1974) Richard Lester

The owner of a luxury cruise ship (Ian Holm) receives a phone call from a man calling himself Juggernaut who demands ransom money or he will explode bombs he’s placed on the ship. Of course, the ship is already on the high seas with a full load of passengers. Richard Harris and David Hemmings star experts hired to deactivate the bomb while police superintendent Anthony Hopkins (whose family is on the ship) searches for the location of the terrorist. I’d always heard that Juggernaut was a terrible movie, but after reading Dave Kehr’s review, I decided to give it a blind buy. Trust me, it’s terrific. Add it to your list.

The Drowning Pool (1975) Stuart Rosenberg

Be Careful What You Hear Part II: Like Juggernaut, I’d always heard mostly negative things about The Drowning Pool, the second film (after the 1966 movie Harper) featuring Paul Newman as private eye Lew Harper (based on the character Lew Archer in Ross MacDonald’s novels). I’m always suspicious of any sequel or series movie that’s released more than five years after the original (or previous film in the series), and nine years separate Harper and The Drowning Pool. In the latter, Harper takes a case from Iris Devereaux, the wife (Joanne Woodward, Newman’s wife) of a wealthy Louisiana oilman. It’s a blackmail case in Louisiana, so why is Harper interested? Well, he and Iris were an item way back when. Although I believe Harper is the better film, I prefer to watch The Drowning Pool, despite its convoluted story. It doesn’t hurt that it also stars Melanie Griffith, Murray Hamilton, Andy Robinson, Tony Franciosa, and Coral Brown (who had just married Vincent Price).

A New Leaf (1971) Elaine May

A true gem. (Thanks to my friends Dana and Patrick for loaning me a copy of this movie.) Henry Graham (Walter Matthau) is a privileged, arrogant, self-absorbed man who has squandered so much of his inheritance that he’s almost penniless. If he wants to continue his lavish lifestyle (and he certainly does), he’ll have to find someone he can swindle. Along comes the awkward academic heiress Henrietta Lowell (Elaine May). I won’t tell you anything else about the film, except that it’s a pure delight. I’ll be showing this one at the library in 2020, so if you’re in the area, stay tuned.

Wanda (1970) Barbara Loden

Wanda (Barbara Loden) is a hard-luck character who’s lost everything. She’s left her husband, lost custody of her kids, and has become a drifter, hanging out with one awful man after another, all of whom mistreat her, and one a criminal who entices her to help him with his next crime. Wanda is a pure ‘70s low-budget masterpiece. Loden wrote, directed, and starred in this, her only feature film. If you see it, you’ll never forget it.

The Conformist (1970) Bernardo Bertolucci

Jean-Louis Trintignant plays Marcello, who is part of the secret police in Fascist Italy. While in Paris with his new wife (Stafania Sandrelli), Marcello is also planning to assassinate his former professor and mentor (Enzo Tarascio). But a woman who is not his wife enters into the picture and may confuse him romantically and politically. I must see this one again soon.

Bone (1972) Larry Cohen

Rest in peace, Larry Cohen, and thank you for being such a bold and courageous filmmaker. Bone is a combination home invasion thriller/comedy/satire/social commentary with superb performances from all, but especially Yaphet Kotto as a stranger named Bone who wanders into the home of a Beverly Hills couple (Andrew Duggan and Joyce Van Patten) demanding money. All I’ll tell you is it doesn’t go where you think it’s going.

Symptoms (1974) José Ramón Larraz

Any description of this film would rob it of its power, but here’s the (very) basic plot: A recluse named Helen (Angela Pleasence) invites her writer friend Anne (Lorna Heilbron) to stay with her for the weekend at Helen’s family estate deep in a remote wooded area. This is a fine, atmospheric horror film that you must see. I took a chance on it, buying the BFI (region B) Blu-ray, which is usually on sale at a good price.

The MacKintosh Man (1973) John Huston

I’m convinced that The MacKintosh Man is a failure, but I’m still intrigued by it. British intelligence agent Joseph Reardon (Paul Newman) pretends to be a convicted jewel thief in order to infiltrate an organization of spies led by Sir George Wheeler (James Mason), a man who may be a traitor to England. In a film with this much talent (directed by John Huston, with a screenplay by Walter Hill and William Fairchild, cinematography by Oswald Morris, and a score by Maurice Jarre), The MacKintosh Man is certainly entertaining (and sometimes head-scratching), but should’ve been a superior Cold War thriller. If you’ve seen it, I welcome your thoughts.

The Muppet Movie (1979) James Frawley

If you don’t like The Muppet Movie, I can only conclude that you have no soul. Kermit the Frog, who dreams of a movie career, takes a cross-country odyssey to Hollywood, an adventure both hilarious and glorious.

Killer of Sheep (1978) Charles Burnett

I’m ashamed to say that earlier this year, I’d never heard of Charles Burnett. After watching the excellent To Sleep with Anger (1990), I knew I had to see Burnett’s other works. Killer of Sheep is Burnett’s first film, made while he was a student at the UCLA School of Film. Set in the Watts section of Los Angeles, Killer of Sheep is the story of Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), an African-American man trying to make an honest living working in a slaughterhouse. The film (in stark black-and-white) is more a series of vignettes than a traditional plot. It’s the accumulation of these moments (involving Stan’s family, his work, the local poverty, and the thugs who want to recruit him for their criminal activities) that give the film its power. Burnett also chose several songs for the soundtrack that bring even more impact to an already stunning film. Those songs would prove to be a blessing and a curse, as obtaining the music rights kept the film from wide distribution for many years. Thankfully the film is now available on DVD from Milestone. (I'll also be showing this one at the library in February.)

Scarecrow (1973) Jerry Schatzberg

The story may be familiar, but the performances are absolutely astounding. Gene Hackman and Al Pacino play an ex-con and an ex-seaman (respectively) who travel from California to Pittsburgh, their heads filled with dreams and ideas. It’s a crime that no one talks about this film anymore. Hopefully the recent Warner Archive Blu-ray release will help correct this.

Please share your '70s love by letting me know what movies from this decade you discovered this year.

Photos: IMDb, DVD Beaver, Nightmarish Conjurings, Letterboxd, All Horror, Noiseless Chatter, Free Kittens Movie Guide

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