This is the fourth entry in this series, where every Academy Award for Best Picture winner gets ranked. This is the greatest decade in the history of the Academy. While the most recent years have had great results in winners (the Academy has swung back around from the lowest levels of Oscar Bait territory in the ‘80s, ‘90s and early ‘00s), the ‘70s had the dream line up of classics that lead classics.
Even the lowest entry here is far from the worst film, and the rest of the lower tier of films will seem like an unfair ranking; in the grand scheme of things, most of these films would be much higher than the majority of the other Best Picture winners.
Why was this era so successful? At this point, the filmmakers that ventured outside of conventional filmmaking were experimenting with 1) different styles of world cinema, 2) the ability to tell stories with either as much or little as possible, and 3) the endless directions American filmmaking could now go. This is an exciting list, so it is time to get to it. Here are the ten Best Picture winners of the ‘70s ranked from worst to best.
10. Rocky (1976)
How in the hell did Rocky win Best Picture? It beat Taxi Driver, Network, All The President’s Men, and Bound for Glory, when it is easily the weakest film of the five. It is also a sports film staple that has been bogged down by sequel after sequel, spoof after spoof.
Time has been cruel to Rocky not because it has been forgotten, but because it is almost remembered too well. The main question to ask is if that last statement is actually true, because the film is often membered for specific scenes (the famous montage, the final fight), but it may not be as well recalled as we think.
The film barely features any actual boxing. It feels a bit more like the edgier, more artistic films of the ‘60s and ‘70s, if anything. We see Rocky Balboa as a simple citizen who is cast away by society, and his love for another misfit (Adrian). We see Balboa’s noble efforts at being a gentleman, an athlete and a hardworking member of society. He is an imperfect man with a giant heart, and that is exactly what the movie is as well.
The editing and shooting are far from polished, and the film is actually a tad sloppy at times. It is a bum like its main character that just wants to do good. While it still did not deserve to beat the other four films, there’s something a bit heartwarming about the underdog winning.
9. Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
Often lauded as the start of Meryl Streep’s illustrious career and yet another fine turn from Dustin Hoffman, Kramer vs. Kramer, while not exclusively so, is primarily an acting film where the performances boost the content beyond great heights.
Deep down, Kramer vs. Kramer is mostly a bonding piece between Hoffman’s character and his son (played by Justin Henry) once the boy’s mother (Streep) leaves. Once Streep reappears and wishes to take sole custody of the son, you will feel your heart get ripped out of you.
Kramer vs. Kramer is also highly considered one of the great courtroom dramas, but it is also so much more than that as well. It is an evaluation on the characters in this family, and their responsibilities and how they are dealt.
The unscripted final moments between Hoffman and Streep are as real as it gets between a couple where love once existed. There is a lot more than anger and revenge, here: there is hurt. Kramer vs. Kramer is a fine display of performances, screenwriting and all around tension, within and outside of the court room and the Kramer household.
8. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
The first of Miloš Forman’s wins is this beloved film that takes place in a mental institution. It famously stars Jack Nicholson in his first Oscar win of three, and it features a wide cast of greats in early roles (Louis Fletcher, Brad Dourif, Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, and more).
You never fully know if McMurphy is sane or suffering from a mental sickness due to Nicholson’s off beat performance. With the majority of extras played by actual patients, there is a certain reality to this comedy that never makes fun of disorders but instead finds the light amidst the darkness.
This film came out during an important time, when mental illnesses were slowly being taken seriously by society. We have come a long way and still have a ways to go, but Cuckoo’s Nest works as a pin point moment as to when cinema stopped using disorders primarily as comedic relief or as plot devices.
There are many twists and turns for better and for worse, and you won’t know where you stand until the very end. Cuckoo’s Nest became a rare film to win the big five awards at the Oscars (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay) along with It Happened One Night and Silence of the Lambs, and it deserves that platinum distinction.
7. Patton (1970)
You start the film to see the George S. Patton speech be reformed by the great George C. Scott (those similar names aren’t just a coincidence), and you are graced with that classic piece of cinema as soon as the three hour film starts.
What proceeds this acclaimed film speech? Well, you will face a lot of development with an already highly-ranked Patton amidst the American II Corps. Where can a legendary General go from here? Only down, unfortunately. Patton doesn’t sacrifice himself for anyone, though, so his downfall is only yet another battle he is willing to win.
The war scenes in Patton are some of the greatest film choreography of all time. These are the kinds of action scenes that will remind you of what going to the movies as a little kid would feel like (in terms of amazement and not content, hopefully).
The clever script by Edmund H. North and a young Francis Ford Coppola is stuffed with witty lines and powerful speeches, and it remains one of the great war screenplays to this day. The greatest reward this film has to offer is that it paints Patton as neither a clear cut hero or a tyrannical villain; the decision is ultimately yours to make.
6. The French Connection (1971)
William Friedkin is no stranger to testing the waters and stepping on some toes along the way (The Exorcist, anyone?). The French Connection, like Slumdog Millionaire, is an excellent test at how well two cinematic styles can merge as one, as its title is a literal project.
In this detective thriller, how well does the French New Wave movement connect with the newly shaped Hollywood (of which was no longer strangled by its production codes)? The mixture works extremely well, as The French Connection places more emphasis on letting the film create sensations as a visual novel than the twists in the story alone.
Gene Hackman played the hideously-awful Popeye Doyle so well that you forget how bad of a person he is through memory alone; it’s only with additional viewings that you will remember his ugliness. The film is also very gaudy by nature; it is sloppy, awkwardly edited and it finishes on a highly unorthodox climax that will feel like a slap to the face.
These are the tropes of French New Wave being converted into an American film, and it is the kind of experiment that was so courageous for its time that the next recent success of this attempt was Pulp Fiction in the ‘90s. The French Connection is a different film, and even if you come away hating it, you can agree that you haven’t seen anything like it.