The 10 Greatest Directors of The New Hollywood Era

5. Terrence Malick

Most essential New Hollywood movie: Badland (1973)

It would be unusual to give such high praise to a director who during this era, made just two films before taking an eighteen year hiatus from filmmaking, unless that director in question was Terrence Malick.

His 1973 debut Badlands was a richly textured film that can draw some comparisons with Bonnie and Clyde, a pair of young lovers commit a crime spree across the Midwest, blending comedy with violence in a contrasting and sometimes ironically juxtaposed ways. But there are key differences in how Malick embraced the grandeur of his script, examining the big picture of human life rather than intimate drama of individuals.

Badlands also substitutes the speed and intensity of Penn’s crime film for a frostier and remorseless tone. Most of this genius was attributed to Malick, with good reason. After his script for Deadhead Miles was deemed un-releasable by Paramount Pictures Malick made the decision to direct his own scripts, and in his own way without any interference from producers or studios, without fear or consideration for potential commercialisation. Malick perfectly encapsulates one of New Hollywood’s defining characteristics, the director is the artist of the portrait of film.

His second film, Days of Heaven was met with a less enthusiastic critical response upon its release. It would go on the be re-evaluated as a work of brilliance  and a pioneering achievement in cinema. Like every movie he has made, Days of Heaven is visually stunning and deeply thought provoking. So with this respect and praise from Hollywood’s finest, what was Malcik’s next move? To not direct another film until 1999 of course.


4. Sam Peckinpah

Most essential New Hollywood movie: The Wild Bunch (1969)

Another key aspect of the movement was to put a revolutionist spin on existing genres. The genre that personified classic Hollywood more than any other may have been the western, films that usually consisted of morally straightforward, bloodless and simplistic conflicts (not always, but often). Sam Peckinpah brought forward one of the most violent, sadistic and human views of the west in cinema history with The Wild Bunch.

Peckinpah was best known for his for his visually innovative and explicit view of bloodshed and action, as he examined the conflict between ideals and values as well as the corruption of human society concerning violence. The Wild Bunch came at the perfect time to resonate so strongly with audiences dissatisfied with films that failed to show the consequences of violence following the Vietnam War.

Peckinpah continued that style with many of his subsequent films, crafting intelligent and controversial stories of suffering that remain provocative today. Straw Dogs in 1971 was a direct confrontation of savagery and prejudice that lay within humanity, then teamed up with Steve McQueen to make two more endearing and intense films Junior Bonner and The Getaway, both of which were successful and further advanced the crime-thriller genre as well as maintaining the themes that had established Peckinpah as such a unique voice of film.


3. Robert Altman

Most essential New Hollywood movies: MASH (1970), McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971), The Long Goodbye (1973), Nashville (1975)

You would be hard pressed to find a director with more variety and diversity within their body of work than Robert Altman. In the 1970s alone his films ranged from satire to western to musicals and all were deeply subversive, utterly compelling and completely magnificent.

MASH was a tumultuous production, especially for Altman with lead actors Elliot Gould and Donal Sutherland asking to have the director fired. The end result was a film that drew a clear parallel between its comedy and violence, portrayed soldiers as human beings in a way few had before and commendably bold in its criticism of the military.

Altman’s next film was a revisionist western McCabe and Mrs Miller. However that description may be improper as Altman himself has referred to the film as an ‘anti-western’ as it ignores and discards many classic tropes of the genre in favour of a plot driven by emotion and character as well as its brutal depiction of the American frontier. Altman wielded his camera in a fluid and unobstructed manner to capture the flowing nature of his actors and dialogue, clearly emphasising how this was a film of life and personality, not simple shootouts.

The 1970s also saw Altman direct The Long Goodbye, Thieves Like Us, but perhaps most importantly, Nashville. Like all of Altman’s movies it was a genre bender, it could be described as a musical but in broader terms it is an epic, a comedy, an utterly human drama.

It characterises the relationships and lives of two dozen people within the American folk music scene, and provides an almost complete summary of the 1970s, viewing those who loose and win, those who live and breathe within the world and without ever having to slow down the story for those unwilling to pay attention, Altman used his genius as a storyteller to capture a series of emotions that few have since been able to.


2. Francis Ford Coppola

Most essential New Hollywood movies: The Godfather (1972), The Godfather Part II (1974), The Conversation (1974), Apocalypse Now (1979)

Coppola won two Oscars in two years with his screenplays for The Rain People and Patton, what he directed next was The Godfather. That alone would cement any director’s place in cinema history, a work of absolute mastery. Coppola’s nuanced handling of the characters, in which they were portrayed as complex and humane individuals was an innovation at the time and used their struggle as a response to a corrupt society.

The sequel came in 1974, and elevated the saga to a Shakespearean level of tragedy as commentary of crime, corruption, the American dream and the struggle for power became a story of epic proportions, each one serving as a superb companion to the other, or stunning individuals.

The same year as Godfather Part 2, Coppola also released the widely acclaimed thriller The Conversation. The film was a bold statement of modern society perhaps more than any other Coppola film, and one that only gains more relevance as time passes. It examines the place of technology within society and its paranoia concerning information and intelligence.

Though the film was produced before a certain decade defining event in politics and therefore was not associated with it in its conception, audiences obviously reacted strongly to the film as it poignancy was heightened by being released just a few months before the Watergate scandal.

But with the decade drawing to a close and the New Hollywood movement nearing the end of its run, Coppola had one more masterpiece to make. Apocalypse Now, perhaps the greatest war movie ever made. Coppola used his twisted characters and environment to fully capture the madness and chaos of the Vietnam War. The film was about witnessing both the war itself and the effect it had on the participants, reaching into the darkest parts of the human soul as it becomes primal, selfish and arbitrary.

It was a descent into hell and insanity, with such a troubled production some question if the film permanently effected Coppola’s own mentality as a filmmaker. Regardless though, the end result was beyond words and essentially marked the end of the New Hollywood era, one of the most radical, innovative and experimental ages in film history.


1. Martin Scorsese

Most essential New Hollywood movies: Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980)

If there is any director’s name that has permeated the last five decades of cinema to such an extent, it is Martin Scorsese, from his early hits of the New Hollywood era, to Raging Bull, Goodfellas, The Departed and The Wolf of Wall Street, every decade since the 1970s has had a truly great Scorsese movie. His themes span from identity and isolation to conflict and redemption.

His first major success was 1973’s Mean Streets that encapsulated everything that the New Hollywood movement would be later praised for. It was personal, bold, gritty and realistic and was completely innovative in terms of its acting and direction. The rapid pace of its editing matched the unrestrained power of the movie and was just one of the factors that made it utterly enthralling.

What followed was Taxi Driver, one of the most unflinching, brutal and humane examinations of a character in film history. It established Scorsese as a giant in the directing world through its complex camera movements and cinematography. Like Mean Streets, it was also deeply personal as the film lives and dies through the perspective of Travis, we view New York through his ideologies and his isolation from the rest of its inhabitants. The fact that Travis is a veteran of Vietnam only made his psychological analysis more relevant.

Not only did Taxi Driver create a story of intimacy and relevance, it used the few moments it had to make a statement on society in general, its moral depravity and corruption, the injustice and social turmoil of the era. It is all through the eyes of one man’s struggle to cope with this society, his failure to simply incorporate himself with the current world and forget the horrors of his past. The psychosis of Travis represented the psychosis of an entire nation, and spoke directly to them.

Author Bio: Joshua Price considers himself more of a fan that happens to write near insane ramblings on movies and directors like Scorsese, Spielberg, Fellini, Kubrick and Lumet rather than an actual critic and other insane ramblings can be found at