The 70s are often regarded as the best decade of filmmaking. Cinema was in a rapid state of flux: the old studio system had died and Hollywood hadn’t quite figured out how to go on without it. A lot of riskier fare got made because for the moment the rulebook didn’t exist. All that would change by 1980, of course, and many blame the runaway success of Jaws and Star Wars for that. But the point stands: this was a great decade for movies. How the Academy chose winners at all is sometimes mind-boggling.
Just a reminder: I will comment on whether or not a film should have won in its given year, but whether or not it deserved to win cannot impact its ranking.
10. The Sting (1973)
The Sting is an exceptionally well-made heist movie with divine performances–and not just from leads Robert Redford and Paul Newman. Redford plays a con artist who teams up with Newman’s legendary huckster for the perfect swindle. It’s Ocean’s 11 with more charm and wit. If the scheme is overly convoluted in order to pull the wool over the viewer’s eyes, and if the reveal that they were actually in control the entire time feels like a cheat, Redford and Newman are so irresistible that you forgive the offense. That The Sting has no pretense at being anything other than entertainment is both part of its charm and its ultimate downfall. In a decade full of important movies, entertainment just isn’t enough.
Should have won in 1973: The Exorcist. It’s a movie that entertains you, scares you, and says something at the same time.
9. Rocky (1976)
Rocky‘s status in pop culture can only be rivaled by the Godfather movies on this list. It’s one of the most beloved movies of all time because it’s a classic underdog story. Rocky was an uneducated lug with a good heart and determination who came from nothing to work his way up to the fight of his life, and he never gave up. On the other hand, I’ve never seen the entire movie because I find it painful to watch. It’s earnest and means well, but I can’t stop rolling my eyes at how embarrassingly obvious it is. I would also argue that much of Rocky‘s legacy comes from the popular appeal of its sequels.
Should have won in 1976: Rocky has pop culture immortality but Network got shafted. Network‘s grim vision of the future of entertainment has only proven to be more and more prophetic, and it should have won.
8. The French Connection (1971)
Crime thrillers don’t get more bruise-black than The French Connection. In the 60s, France was the leading exporter of heroin into the U.S. Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider play cops who have spent years making busts without even denting the problem when they stumble on a lead: a big heroin deal is going down in a few days. If they stop it they can catch the connection responsible. The movie runs a fascinating parallel between its hero, the angry rule-busting alcoholic Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle, and its suave and collected bad guy, Alain Charnier. Gene Hackman, who won a Best Actor Oscar, makes you root for Doyle. Even so, when he shoots a suspect in the back you can’t help but wonder who it is you’re rooting for. The French Connection breakneck pace thrills, but leaves enough flaws to drown it out of the competition.
Should have won in 1971: The Last Picture Show. There can be no debate.
7. The Deer Hunter (1978)
Full disclosure: I do not like The Deer Hunter. I found it to be problematic and I thought it’s machismo-centric worldview was closed-minded to the full impact of war on society. I think Coming Home did a much better job getting the scale of war’s damage right by showing that it doesn’t just damage the people who fight in it. In contrast, the world of The Deer Hunter seems to only exist for the men at its heart. Which I suppose is fair in this case since the entire point of the movie is to show the Vietnam War’s horrific psychological and physical impact on them. To be fair to The Deer Hunter, it’s effective. Its brutality is shocking and it hammers its points in. It’s also flawed–sometimes deeply.
Should have won in 1978: in case you can’t tell, I’m more of a fan of Coming Home.
6. Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
In a decade full of heavy dramas, Kramer vs. Kramer is a quietly poignant story about a family splitting up. Divorce was still controversial in the 70s and Hollywood had toyed with the subject but Kramer was its first in-depth look. It’s about two people who allowed themselves to be defined by the roles society handed them finding that they need more. Does a woman have to give up her own identity to be a wife and mother? Does a man have to bury himself in work, so afraid of emotion that his own family becomes strangers? Kramer made you question the notion of a ‘traditional’ family. And instead of vilifying the wife and mother who leaves, then changes her mind, the movie invites you to understand what it is like to finally be able to decide for yourself what matters. Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep both won their first Oscars for this movie and deserved them.(
Should have won in 1979: I’m sure many would love it if Apocalypse Now had won, but I think the Academy got it right. It’s important to tackle politics and war in art, but it’s just as important to look closely at what’s going on at home. Sometimes the biggest revolutions happen quietly.
5. The Godfather Part II (1974)
I’m not a fan of The Godfather Part II. I find it long, boring, overly-complex, and too self-serious, but I concede that I am in the minority on this. I was, however, impressed to discover that Roger Ebert agreed with me perfectly on Part II when he gave it a three star review but included it in his list of “Great Movies” in 2008. Why? Because to him, you have to take Part II as an extension of Part I, and that’s how I see it. Part II has deep flaws, but it is so inextricably tied to The Godfather that you almost can’t separate them. What the movie gets right, it knocks out of the park. The performances are incredible. And for memorable moments, you can’t top poor, dumb Fredo. “You broke my heart.”
Should have won in 1974: This year’s also-rans include Chinatown and The Conversation, just in case you’d forgotten how much quality cinema was created in the 70s. It’s a tough call, but I can’t forget the big fight between Michael and Kay. Or how we said goodbye to Fredo.
4. Patton (1970)
If it seems odd to find Patton, a biopic about a larger-than-life WWII General, on the same list as The Deer Hunter, consider that it probably felt like a movie out of time even in 1970. Public sentiment was already against the war in Vietnam, yet here was a biopic about one of the biggest war-loving Generals in history. How does that work? Perhaps because Patton himself was a man ‘unstuck in time.’ Patton could only be happy on the battlefield. But the glory and honor of the battlefield was evolving into something else. And the truth is, he was too outsized a man even for army life. His clashes with authority endangered his career time and again. In one of the greatest bits of casting synergy ever, George C. Scott possessed many of the same qualities and used them to bring Patton to life. He makes Patton biting, ruthless, and difficult, but he also shows him to be sentimental, romantic, and artistic.
Should have won in 1970: Patton went up against Five Easy Pieces and a great Vietnam war movie that later became a classic TV show in Mash. Patton deserved it.
3. Annie Hall (1977)
Annie Hall is Woody Allen’s classic love story about the one that got away. Allen plays a neurotic New Yorker (a cliché now, but still fresh in 1977). He falls for and loses the equally neurotic Annie Hall (played to divine perfection by Diane Keaton). It’s by far the talkiest movie on this list but the dialogue is smart and funny. It isn’t afraid to be weird. And most important of all: it isn’t afraid to be bleak. Things don’t always work out. Sometimes you screw up and you can’t make it right–and that’s okay, or at least you have to learn to be okay with it. Audiences usually demand happy endings, because as Allen points out in character: it’s tempting to make things come out perfectly in art because you can. It’s difficult in real life. Somehow, Annie Hall manages to be honest and get it just right.
Should have won in 1977: Star Wars fans would argue that it deserved the win. Others say Star Wars killed quality cinema by creating a blockbuster culture that spurns the verve that made 70s cinema great. I don’t think it’s fair to lay all that on Star Wars, but I do think the Academy got it right by going for Annie Hall.
2. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a literary classic that should be unadaptable. How do you solve that? Hire Milos Forman, who saw within the framework of the novel an allegory about escape and freedom he could relate to having grown up in the Soviet-occupied Czech Republic. He focused on the parable at its center: Randall Patrick McMurphy, a freewheeling anarchist facing off against the system (embodied by Nurse Ratched) in an asylum. He inspires the inmates to stand up for themselves, then tragically falls victim to that very system. The true genius of Cuckoo’s Nest is that it shows that his recklessness is in some ways just as incapable of helping his fellow patients as Ratched’s dehumanizing rigidity. Political allegory disguised as a tragic tale about the triumph of the human spirit. Now that’s subversive.
Should have won in 1975: The same arguments for and against Star Wars in 1977 could be repeated for Jaws here. Meanwhile, Dog Day Afternoon is wonderful, but the Oscar belongs to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
1. The Godfather (1972)
Many regard The Godfather as a perfect movie and I won’t do anything to refute that claim. It’s a story about America, it’s a story about Italy. It’s a story about honoring family, it’s a story about creating new family. It’s a story about loyalty, it’s a story about betrayal. It’s a story about crime, it’s a story about business. So many of the core qualities The Godfather appears to celebrate are deeply problematic, and somehow even that manages to be part of the discussion about how brilliant it is just because it gets the conversation going. The screenplay is perfect, the acting is perfect, the cinematography, lighting, and music are perfect. It’s a landmark of cinema.
Should have won in 1972: Interestingly, The Godfather only won three Oscars: Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Cabaret, a musical about life in Germany just as the Nazis took over (which would have easily won Best Picture any other year), stole Godfather‘s thunder in a lot of categories–including Best Director. My personal preference is Cabaret, which really is a genius movie that got shafted by being the same year as The Godfather. But the legacy The Godfather has is well-earned. I say let it stand the way it was, with Cabaret getting Director and Godfather getting Picture.
Now let’s see how the list would look if the movies that should have won took Oscar home instead. This is an incredibly strong group:
10. Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
9. Coming Home (1978)
8. The Godfather Part II (1974)
7. Patton (1970)
6. The Last Picture Show (1971)
5. Annie Hall (1977)
4. Network (1976)
3. The Exorcist (1973)
2. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
1. The Godfather (1972)