10 classic films to watch from 1971
#10 – Duel
Directed by Steven Spielberg. Starring Dennis Weaver, Jacqueline Scott & Carey Loftin.
Spielberg fans, rejoice! 1971 marks the full-length debut of arguably cinema’s greatest ever director.
Duel is a thriller with a very simple premise: a rather excessive case of road rage. David Mann (Dennis Weaver), a businessman commuting from California, overtakes a truck only to find himself being chased down by the psychopathic driver. Never has a movie been so simple and yet so entertaining over the course of 90 minutes.
It’s become somewhat of a cult classic, and it definitely serves as a prelude to what would become Spielberg’s more recognisable classics later in the decade, most notably Jaws. Only Spielberg could make a faceless truck such an intimidating and seemingly personified villain.
It was featured as the “ABC Movie of the Week” in November 1971, which launched Spielberg into stardom, as he went on to helm The Sugarland Express in 1974 and “Jaws” in 1975.
#9 – Straw Dogs
Directed by Sam Peckinpah. Starring Dustin Hoffman, Susan George & Peter Vaughan.
Nothing impresses me more than when a film’s cinematography is incredibly ahead of its time.
You only need to take a look at this trailer to see that this film is meticulously put together, and the sound design and camerawork is second-to-none. Add a stellar Dustin Hoffman performance and a gritty psychological thriller, and you’ve got a film worth watching over and over again.
Heed this warning, though: this film is not for the faint of heart. It was one of the films at the forefront of the debate surrounding the depiction of violence in films in the early 1970s. It was subject to censorship in numerous countries and sparked an awful lot of controversy.
However, if you can stomach the grit, Straw Dogs is considered one of Sam Peckinpah’s best ever films, and it’s certainly a thrilling ride. It’ll scare you, it’ll disgust you, and it’ll challenge you, and it’s exhilarating from start to finish.
#8 – Dirty Harry
Directed by Don Siegel. Starring Clint Eastwood, Andy Robinson & Harry Guardino.
Do ya feel lucky, punk? Well, do ya?
Clint Eastwood’s scowl is iconic, and it’s never been more famous and commonly quoted than in this absolute classic. In fact, this is arguably the film that set the mould for crime films over the next five decades. This is one of those landmark films that will always remain an essential part of Hollywood history.
Drawing on the famous tale of the Zodiac Killer, this is a gritty crime thriller that casts Eastwood as an Inspector chasing down a psychopathic serial killer. It’s Eastwood at his absolute finest, with the arguable exception of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. He’s a Smith & Wesson-toting, squinting badass, and he utters those words that have basically defined the Hollywood icon’s career.
If they were going to wipe every Clint Eastwood film off the face of the Earth except for one, there would be no contest. This is the ultimate.
#7 – The Last Picture Show
Directed by Peter Bogdanovich. Starring Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges & Ellen Burstyn.
It’s as American as apple pie. And it’s certainly no wonder that critics rank it as one of the best American films of all time.
The Last Picture Show is just one of those coming of age stories that sticks with you forever. It’s a beautiful and poignant story shot in black-and-white, following a group of high school seniors in a small town in northern Texas. There’s love, there’s betrayal, there’s sex and there’s heartbreak. And if that doesn’t quite sell you, it still holds 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, 49 years after its release.
I can’t recommend this film enough. We’ve all grown up with a coming-of-age film, some better than others. From The Breakfast Club to Stand By Me, it’s a genre that just always works. And this one also happens to be a film that is so beautifully crafted, it’s also commended by critics and film buffs everywhere. What’s not to love?
Imagine Archie for adults with a complicated outlook on life and the struggles of becoming a young adult. That’s The Last Picture Show.
#6 – Fiddler on the Roof
Directed by Norman Jewison. Starring Topol, Norma Crane & Leonard Frey.
In the early 70s, Hollywood had moved on from the trend of original musicals, and started adapting some of the iconic Broadway stage masterpieces for the silver screen.
Fiddler on the Roof is arguably one of the most famous and well-made examples. Following Tevye (Topol), a Jewish man and father of five daughters who tries to preserve his cultural traditions against a plethora of outside influences, this musical is regarded as one of the greatest of both screen and stage.
As for the music, well, it’s award-winning. The film won three Academy Awards, including one for the score composed by a name you might recognise: a certain John Williams. It features such iconic songs as “If I Were A Rich Man,” which you might recognise as the inspiration for a more recent hit by Gwen Stefani.
Take a journey back to the days when musicals frequented the Oscars and enjoy this absolute great.
#5 – Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
Directed by Mel Stuart. Starring Gene Wilder, Jack Albertson & Peter Ostrum.
Let’s forget about the Johnny Depp adaptation for a little while and blast back to a real Willy Wonka film!
Few performances have become as ingrained in popular culture as Gene Wilder’s depiction of the whimsical chocolate factory owner. His enigmatic performance captured the whimsical essence of Roald Dahl’s story perfectly and was accompanied by a fun family musical that still holds up today.
From Oompa-Loompas and Augustus Gloop to Violet turning into a blueberry, this film has been a part of childhoods for the last 49 years, and rightfully so. Even meme culture is still capitalising on still-frames from the film.
Honestly, I don’t need to say that much more about it. If you haven’t seen it already, you need to be switching on the DVD player right now!
#4 – Walkabout
Directed by Nicolas Roeg. Starring Jenny Agutter, Lucien John & David Gumpilil.
I think it’s about time we injected some Aussie classics into these lists. And Walkabout is a worthy first contender.
Marking the start of the Australian New Wave of cinema, this is still regarded as one of Australia’s greatest ever critical successes, despite being a failure at the box office. It’s a gritty survival film following a young British schoolgirl and her little brother who are lost and abandoned in the middle of the outback until they are discovered by an Aboriginal boy.
Many renowned Australian artists have reflected upon this film and its fascinating themes, including its interpretation and presentation of Indigenous culture and its allegorical tale about a loss of innocence. It has a definite influence on Australian cinema and theatre and it’s worth checking out for that fact alone.
It’s pretty rare that we get to say an Australian film is included in the Criterion Collection, so get your hands on a copy!
#3 – Klute
Directed by Alan J. Pakula. Starring Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland & Charles Cioffi.
Jane Fonda is an actress who deserves to be saluted by the public more than she is.
Klute was Fonda’s first Academy Award win for Best Actress and it’s clear to see why. She is the shining star in this engaging thriller that has become one of the sleeper-classics of the 20th century. You’ve probably seen that breathing-through-the-telephone scene parodied a million times and possibly never known where it’s from.
Klute is the neo-noir brainchild of Alan J. Pakula, who went on to direct All the President’s Men and Sophie’s Choice. It tells the story of a high-priced prostitute who assists a detective in solving a missing persons case. It’s masterful in the way that it manages to keep you stuck firmly to the edge of your seat.
Thrillers seem to be dominating 1971’s list, but there’s no question that Klute deserves its spot firmly in the top three.
#2 – The French Connection
Directed by William Friedkin. Starring Gene Hackman, Fernando Rey & Roy Scheider.
When I went through my shortlist of films from 1971, two of them stood out above the rest.
The French Connection cleaned up at the Academy Awards, and rightfully so. It stands as one of the greatest action-thrillers of all time, following Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy ‘Cloudy’ Russo (Roy Scheider), two undercover New York Police Department detectives on the trail of a wealthy French heroin smuggler.
It’s often cited as having one of the greatest car chase sequences in history and it’s a rare standout amongst crime films. Even Scorsese would have been proud of this one. Both visually and in terms of the strengths of its stellar cast, this is a pleasure to watch.
And, hey, who doesn’t love that Santa sequence? It’s just so ridiculous. It’s rumoured that Scheider turns away at the end because he can’t contain his laughter at Hackman’s incredible performance.
#1 – A Clockwork Orange
Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Starring Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee & Adrienne Corri.
I told you the top two were good. God, where do I start? The classical-cross-electronic score? The psychedelic aesthetic? The ingenious cinematography?
Stanley Kubrick’s renowned adaptation of the Anthony Burgess novel is considered universally to be one of cinema’s all-time greats. Set in a futuristic dystopian Britain, it follows Alex (Malcolm McDowell) and his band of ‘droogs’, who commit acts of ‘ultra-violence’ in a horrific crime spree, and attempts to rehabilitate them through an experimental technique called the Ludovico Technique.
From start to finish, A Clockwork Orange is brutal, dark and horrifying, but it’s all very thought-provoking. What does it mean to be good? Who decides what is good and bad? And is it right to try to psychologically condition people to be good? These are all questions that the film addresses in a way that will challenge your most fundamental beliefs about how society works.
It’s hard to say without betraying a favourite what Kubrick’s greatest film is, but this is certainly a contender: a masterful score, a brilliantly-devised plot, staggering performances and the kind of visual masterpiece we expect every time Kubrick is behind the camera. Don’t go without seeing A Clockwork Orange at least once. It’ll blow you away.