The 140 Essential 1970s Movies

Welcome to the days of disco and dirty deeds as we plunge into a new wave of movies: raw and renewed, unfiltered, while laying the groundwork for blockbuster era to come. Welcome to the 140 essential movies of the ’70s.

The two moods we aimed to capture in this countdown: The wilting of ’60s flower power optimism under the harsh light of urban reality and decay; meanwhile the destruction of the musty Hays Code — a musty ruleset that dictated what could be depicted on-screen for decades — suddenly allowing directors to pursue more personal expressions in film, often violent and sexual. You’ll find stories of lone men (Taxi Driver, Dog Day Afternoon) and women (Wanda, Norma Rae) against the system, and paranoid political thrillers (All the President’s Men, Three Days of the Condor). There are the horror hallmarks (Alien, Halloween) including international (Suspiria, Deep Red), and box office game changers (Star Wars, Jaws). Low-budget exploitation (The Last House on the Left, Mad Max), and a few things a willing warped mind can get off on (The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Holy Mountain). All movies considered for this list needed to have a Tomatometer (after 5 reviews) and have been made during the decade, even if it didn’t get a major release until later, e.g. Hausu or Killer of Sheep.

Now, let’s strut them mean streets, let’s do the time warp again, let’s have ourselves a close encounter with 140 essential 70s movies!


More Essential Movies By Decade
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#140
#140
Adjusted Score: 66.481%
Critics Consensus: Its visceral brutality is more repulsive than engrossing, but The Last House on the Left nevertheless introduces director Wes Craven as a distinctive voice in horror.
Synopsis: Based on Bergman's The Virgin Spring, Wes Craven's cult classic is an account of a group of sadistic killers who... [More]
Directed By: Wes Craven

#139
#139
Adjusted Score: 73.054%
Critics Consensus: Although it is not consistently engaging enough to fully justify its towering runtime, The Towering Inferno is a blustery spectacle that executes its disaster premise with flair.
Synopsis: On the day of its grand opening, the world's tallest building becomes victim to an electrical mishap and a subsequent... [More]

#138

The Tenant (1976)
88%

#138
Adjusted Score: 90.916%
Critics Consensus: A rough-edged thriller that lacks the precision of Polanski's best work, but makes up for it with its skillful mounting of paranoia, dread, and dark themes.
Synopsis: Director Roman Polanski casts himself in the lead of the psychological thriller The Tenant. Trelkovsky (Polanski) rents an apartment in... [More]
Directed By: Roman Polanski

#137

Sholay (1975)
92%

#137
Adjusted Score: 92.436%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: In this Indian action/adventure, Thakur (Sanjeev Kumar) has hired two small-time criminals to do some dirty work for him that... [More]
Directed By: Ramesh Sippy

#136

Watership Down (1978)
82%

#136
Adjusted Score: 85.071%
Critics Consensus: Aimed at adults perhaps more than children, this is a respectful, beautifully animated adaptation of Richard Adams' beloved book.
Synopsis: Unique in the annals of animated films, Watership Down is a serious, even grim tale that many will find relentless... [More]
Directed By: Martin Rosen

#135

Grey Gardens (1975)
94%

#135
Adjusted Score: 96.948%
Critics Consensus: Edith and Edie Beale are eccentric subjects who offer a generous amount of themselves in Grey Gardens, an inquisitive and nonjudgmental exploration of the isolated socialites' lifestyle.
Synopsis: The unbelievable but true story of Mrs. Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edie, the aunt and first cousin of... [More]

#134
Adjusted Score: 73.855%
Critics Consensus: Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom will strike some viewers as irredeemably depraved, but its unflinching view of human cruelty makes it impossible to ignore.
Synopsis: The final work of notorious Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini, this film updates the Marquis de Sade's most extreme novel... [More]
Directed By: Pier Paolo Pasolini

#133

Pink Flamingos (1972)
81%

#133
Adjusted Score: 85.902%
Critics Consensus: Uproarious and appalling, Pink Flamingos is transgressive camp that proves as entertaining as it does shocking.
Synopsis: Renegade filmmaker and noted aficionado of expressive bad taste John Waters exploded into international infamy with this darkly comic, no-budget... [More]
Directed By: John Waters

#132
Adjusted Score: 85.827%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: This Italian shockerama was originally released as Twitch of the Death Nerve in 1971. When distributed to the US, it... [More]
Directed By: Mario Bava

#131

Soylent Green (1973)
71%

#131
Adjusted Score: 74.353%
Critics Consensus: While admittedly melodramatic and uneven in spots, Soylent Green ultimately succeeds with its dark, plausible vision of a dystopian future.
Synopsis: This 1973 film, based on the novel by Harry Harrison, won a Nebula Award for "Best Science Fiction Film" and... [More]
Directed By: Richard Fleischer

#130
#130
Adjusted Score: 95.655%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: The surface story is a quixotic cross country road race between dapper sociopath playboy Warren Oates driving a showroom GTO... [More]
Directed By: Monte Hellman

#129

Dersu Uzala (1975)
73%

#129
Adjusted Score: 73.795%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: This film is the near-poetic story of an elderly guide and gold hunter (Maxim Munzuk). At the turn of the... [More]
Directed By: Akira Kurosawa

#128
#128
Adjusted Score: 89.405%
Critics Consensus: Sexual taboos are broken and boundaries crossed In the Realm of the Senses, a fearlessly provocative psychosexual tale.
Synopsis: Based upon a true incident in 1930s Japan, Nagisa Oshima's controversial film effectively skirts the borderline between pornography and art... [More]
Directed By: Nagisa Oshima

#127
Adjusted Score: 97.745%
Critics Consensus: Told through precise body language and sunny wit, Claire's Knee makes an unusual love story feel universal.
Synopsis: The fifth of Eric Rohmer's "Six Moral Tales," Claire's Knee is a deliciously Rohmeresque story of sexual obsession. French diplomat... [More]
Directed By: Eric Rohmer

#126

A Touch of Zen (1969)
96%

#126
Adjusted Score: 98.414%
Critics Consensus: A brilliantly directed feast for the eyes with an epic story to match, A Touch of Zen marks a groundbreaking achievement in the wuxia genre.
Synopsis: According to this drama, set in 14th-century China, a state-run secret police organization made life a living hell for anyone... [More]
Directed By: King Hu

#125

Breaking Away (1979)
95%

#125
Adjusted Score: 98.159%
Critics Consensus: At once a touching, funny coming-of-age story and a compelling sports film, Breaking Away is a delightful treat.
Synopsis: This charming, Academy Award winner (1979, Screenplay) cycles high on comedy as four friends come to terms with life after... [More]
Directed By: Peter Yates

#124
#124
Adjusted Score: 102.384%
Critics Consensus: Lean, taut and compellingly gritty, John Carpenter's loose update of Rio Bravo ranks as a cult action classic and one of the filmmaker's best.
Synopsis: Cops, secretaries, and prisoners stuck in a soon-to-be-shuttered L.A. police station fight off a horde of murderous gang members in... [More]
Directed By: John Carpenter

#123

The Muppet Movie (1979)
88%

#123
Adjusted Score: 92.072%
Critics Consensus: The Muppet Movie, the big-screen debut of Jim Henson's plush creations, is smart, lighthearted, and fun for all ages.
Synopsis: Kermit the Frog is persuaded by agent Dom DeLuise to pursue a career in Hollywood. Along the way, Kermit picks... [More]

#122

The Goodbye Girl (1977)
84%

#122
Adjusted Score: 85.13%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: Marsha Mason is known as "The Goodbye Girl" because of all the live-in boyfriends who have said ta-ta to her... [More]
Directed By: Herbert Ross

#121

The Devils (1971)
67%

#121
Adjusted Score: 69.58%
Critics Consensus: Grimly stylish, Ken Russell's baroque opus is both provocative and persuasive in its contention that the greatest blasphemy is the leveraging of faith for power.
Synopsis: The Devils was the Ken Russell film version of the controversial play by John Whiting. The story, based on Aldous... [More]
Directed By: Ken Russell

#120
Adjusted Score: 93.735%
Critics Consensus: El Espíritu de la Colmena uses a classic horror story's legacy as the thread for a singularly absorbing childhood fable woven with uncommon grace.
Synopsis: Eight-year-old Ana lives in a close-knit Castillian village with her daydreamer mother Teresa, older sister Isabel and father Fernando, who... [More]
Directed By: Victor Erice, Victor Erice

#119

Fantastic Planet (1973)
91%

#119
Adjusted Score: 93.665%
Critics Consensus: Fantastic Planet is an animated epic that is by turns surreal and lovely, fantastic and graceful.
Synopsis: This futuristic story takes place on a faraway planet where giants rule, and oppressed humanoids rebel against the machine-like leaders.... [More]
Directed By: René Laloux

#118
Adjusted Score: 80.179%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: A woman seeks the revenge that was her birthright in this action thriller from Japan. A gang of ruthless thieves... [More]
Directed By: Toshiya Fujita

#117
Adjusted Score: 96.029%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: Wolf is a clever thief with a knack for getting into trouble. This animated Japanese feature chronicles his adventures in... [More]
Directed By: Hayao Miyazaki

#116
Adjusted Score: 93.536%
Critics Consensus: Hanna Schygulla is a knockout in The Marriage of Maria Braun, an intimate epic that reaffirms Rainer Werner Fassbinder's mastery of examining multifaceted people and a complicated nation.
Synopsis: The film that elevated German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder from domestic approbation to international acclaim, The Marriage of Maria Braun... [More]

#115

The In-Laws (1979)
88%

#115
Adjusted Score: 89.434%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: Dentist Sheldon Kornpett (Alan Arkin) is a respectable man. He has a daughter who is about to marry the son... [More]
Directed By: Arthur Hiller

#114
Adjusted Score: 73.203%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: Italian filmmaker Lina Wertmuller directs the black comedy Pasqualino Settebellezze (Seven Beauties). During WWII, Pasqualino Frafuso (Giancarlo Giannini) ends up... [More]
Directed By: Lina Wertmüller

#113

What's Up, Doc? (1972)
89%

#113
Adjusted Score: 94.183%
Critics Consensus: Barbra Streisand was never more likable than in this energetic, often hilarious screwball farce from director Peter Bogdanovich.
Synopsis: With Howard Hawks's Bringing Up Baby (1938) as his blueprint, Peter Bogdanovich resurrected and payed homage to 1930s screwball comedy... [More]
Directed By: Peter Bogdanovich

#112

Klute (1971)
93%

#112
Adjusted Score: 97.132%
Critics Consensus: Donald Sutherland is coolly commanding and Jane Fonda a force of nature in Klute, a cuttingly intelligent thriller that generates its most agonizing tension from its stars' repartee.
Synopsis: The first part of his "paranoia trilogy," Alan J. Pakula's 1971 thriller details the troubled life of a Manhattan prostitute... [More]
Directed By: Alan J. Pakula

#111
#111
Adjusted Score: 99.916%
Critics Consensus: The Bad News Bears is rude, profane, and cynical, but shot through with honest, unforced humor, and held together by a deft, understated performance from Walter Matthau.
Synopsis: The success this underdog comedy from director Michael Ritchie almost single-handedly spawned the kids' sports film boom of the 1980s... [More]
Directed By: Michael Ritchie

#110

The Wicker Man (1973)
89%

#110
Adjusted Score: 94.3%
Critics Consensus: This intelligent horror film is subtle in its thrills and chills, with an ending that is both shocking and truly memorable.
Synopsis: A righteous police officer investigating the disappearance of a young girl comes into conflict with the unusual residents of a... [More]
Directed By: Robin Hardy

#109
#109
Adjusted Score: 87.621%
Critics Consensus: Naturalistic but evocative, Last Tango in Paris is a vivid exploration of pain, love, and sex featuring a typically towering Marlon Brando performance.
Synopsis: In Bernardo Bertolucci's art-house classic, Marlon Brando delivers one of his characteristically idiosyncratic performances as Paul, a middle-aged American in... [More]
Directed By: Bernardo Bertolucci

#108

The Getaway (1972)
86%

#108
Adjusted Score: 87.951%
Critics Consensus: The Getaway sees Sam Peckinpah and Steve McQueen, the kings of violence and cool, working at full throttle.
Synopsis: In Sam Peckinpah's version of Walter Hill's script, from Jim Thompson's novel, an ex-con and his wife go on the... [More]
Directed By: Sam Peckinpah

#107

Vanishing Point (1971)
79%

#107
Adjusted Score: 80.268%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: In this film, amphetamine-popping Kowalski (Barry Newman) attempts to drive a race car from Denver to San Francisco in order... [More]
Directed By: Richard C. Sarafian

#106

A New Leaf (1971)
100%

#106
Adjusted Score: 103.297%
Critics Consensus: Elaine May is a comedic dynamo both behind and in front of the camera in this viciously funny screwball farce, with able support provided by Walter Matthau.
Synopsis: Elaine May wrote and directed (credits May attempted to have removed after the studio made extensive cuts in the film)... [More]
Directed By: Elaine May

#105
#105
Adjusted Score: 82.363%
Critics Consensus: Not much in the head but plenty beneath the hood, Smokey and the Bandit is infectious fun with plenty of car wrecks to keep your eyes glued.
Synopsis: "Smokey," aka Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason), is the prospective father-in-law of unwilling bride Carrie (Sally Field). The Bandit... [More]
Directed By: Hal Needham

#104
Adjusted Score: 86.604%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: Two youngsters attempt to escape what they perceive to be the poverty and backwardness of their native Senegal. In this... [More]
Directed By: Djibril Diop Mambéty

#103
Adjusted Score: 82.975%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: In this surreal psychological fantasy, young Valerie lives with her grandmother. She feels the first stirring of sexual awareness when... [More]
Directed By: Jaromil Jires

#102

Killer of Sheep (2007)
98%

#102
Adjusted Score: 100.07%
Critics Consensus: By turns funny, sad, and profound, Killer of Sheep offers a sympathetic and humane glimpse into inner-city life.
Synopsis: Set in the Watts area of Los Angeles, a slaughterhouse worker must suspend his emotions to continue working at a... [More]
Directed By: Charles Burnett

#101
Adjusted Score: 104.159%
Critics Consensus: Breezy, thrilling, and quite funny, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three sees Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw pitted against each other in effortlessly high form.
Synopsis: Lead by a former subway operator, a team of criminals takes the occupants of a subway train hostage, demanding a... [More]
Directed By: Joseph Sargent

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