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20 Movies That Defined America in the ‘70s

20 Movies That Defined America in the ‘70s

In the 1970s, America went through one of its most important periods. Vietnam was still going on, and this modeled the social uproar that flowed into the hippie movement. Capitalism vs. communism was still a thing, and the political context was stained due to Nixon’s adventures in breaking the law. All this heavily affected the population, and as expected, artistic expression used the country’s situation for storytelling purposes. Even franchises, and very important ones, were born in the ’70s.



America in the ’70s was a transition so interesting that it’s still being used as a setting for modern movies. Not only does this decade include key events that defined America, but it also has a solid enough style to add a powerful backdrop that makes “movies set in the ’70s” genuine and very interesting. However, not all movies do great in this department, and some fail to sharply hit the correct target in the portrayal of ’70s America. Let’s take a look at some movies that defined America in the 1970s.

20 Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)

Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, is the story of Rick Dalton, an actor who has seen better times. Always riding alongside his only friend and stunt double, Cliff Booth, Dalton tries to navigate the shifting territory of ’70s Hollywood, but the pair will face an upcoming threat that hides between the crevices of the hippie movement. The Manson family lurks, but this doesn’t distract Dalton from trying to find stardom again.

Tarantino Once Again Changes History

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio in one of his finest roles, the film is a great portrayal of Hollywood’s pristine values being shattered not only by a lunatic’s ideas but also by the film industry’s dynamics. In this version of Hollywood in the ’70s, dreams were real, and they could amount to something, but they were still short passages witnessed by those lucky enough to get a shot.

Tarantino changes history once again (the first? Inglourious Basterds, of course), and he corrects the course of Hollywood by giving a fading actor the opportunity to save the world. Stream on Hulu.

19 Almost Famous (2000)

Almost Famous, a semi-autobiographical film by Cameron Crowe, tells the story of the young teenager William Miller as he aspires to be a rock journalist. His sister, his biggest influence, convinces him he can try and leave their small town, just like she did. After writing a short article about a Black Sabbath concert, Miller is hired to write one about a new band called Stillwater. For this, he will have to go on the road with them, against his mother’s wishes. The young boy discovers that in rock, not everything is ideal.

The Loss of Innocence

This musical journey by Crowe is a beautiful coming-of-age drama that shows the beauty and ugliness of the spotlight in a period where everyone thought themselves untouchable and the facts of life weren’t really a priority. William’s mother is an extreme figure, and she represents the conservative side of America, but in the end, she was right about the world William was heading to.

Through a set of compelling characters and an extraordinary script, we enter a fully realized model of ’70s America, with all the perks and glitches included. The film reflects an ideal way to see life, broken by a universal feeling of loneliness, all seen through the eyes of a young boy who turns into a man on the most important road trip of his life. Stream on Paramount+.

18 The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the horror gem by Tobe Hooper from 1974, is the story of a group of young people passing through a rural area in Texas. First, they pick up a hitchhiker who turns out to be a madman, and then they’re forced to make a stop where they shouldn’t. In this isolated territory, a very special family resides—one that’s keen on cannibalism. When a chainsaw-wielding monster rises, the bodies start dropping one by one, until one survivor is lucky enough to meet the strangest family there is.

A Country Is Shaken

The original film turned into a franchise, and to this day, not much of the original remains. But in 1974, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre changed the Hollywood landscape. Not only that, it shook an entire country with Hooper’s commentary about domestic safety and the paranoia set in by a fading war. It’s extremely violent, but not excessive.

It doesn’t step into exploitation territory, but it throws a jab at the traditional values of the hippie movement. When The Exorcist made religious settings vulnerable, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre touched on a more organic nerve that made everyone cancel their road trip. This is easily the most important independent horror movie of the ’70s. Stream on Shudder.

Related: 10 Best Gritty American Crime Thrillers from the 1980s

17 Jaws (1975)



Release Date
June 18, 1975


Steven Spielberg’s groundbreaking horror film, Jaws, is the story of the residents of Amity Island as they face a monstrous threat. Chief Brody leads the town in figuring out exactly what has turned to visit the beaches and has claimed the lives of a handful of people. He forms a team with a shark hunter by the name of Quint, and an oceanographer called Matt Hooper, as they enter the deep sea and try to hunt down the great white that’s terrorizing the town.

Suddenly, Summer Wasn’t That Appealing

Jaws was and still is the ultimate summer movie. It’s thrilling, exciting, and horrifying, and it has a great ending that will satisfy moviegoers seeking justice and provide an entertaining experience. However, it was also a traumatizing experience for America and the entire world in the ’70s.

Its depiction of an immaculate beach town is nothing but flawless, but so is the portrayal of a horrific attack by an unforeseen enemy that goes against belief. The American summer experience would never be the same after Spielberg’s unique adventure film. Rent on AppleTV.

16 The Exorcist (1973)

the exorcist

The Exorcist

Release Date
December 26, 1973

2hr 2min

William Friedkin’s The Exorcist is the story of Chris and Regan MacNeil, a mother and a daughter suffering from a divorce and custody battle, who move to Georgetown because Chris is finishing her latest film. Regan gets a bit playful with a Ouija board and invites over a demon to the MacNeil household. She starts showing strange and violent behavior, and the doctors are dumbfounded. When they suggest calling a priest, Chris reaches out to Father Karras, who skeptically goes and visits the child. His reaction is to call the world’s expert on possession to try and save Regan.

Faith is Defeated

The scariest film of all time, The Exorcist, was a brutal attack on the senses of audiences in 1973, and the decency of more conservative moviegoers who felt the film went too far. Regardless, it’s a great reflection of the balance of the era. Religion was omnipresent, but Chris believes it’s blasphemy to put a crucifix under Regan’s pillow.

This was not the version of America everyone was used to, and Chris would seek out the help of that which she didn’t believe in. The film’s commentary on faith shook audiences beyond the shock factor that its graphic images helped with, and it’s still regarded as the most important horror film of all time. Rent on AppleTV.

15 Easy Rider (1969)

Dennis Hopper’s feature film debut as a director, Easy Rider, is a brutally honest drama about Wyatt and Billy, two bikers who make their living smuggling drugs from Mexico to California. Their latest sale forces them to travel across the country, with New Orleans being their final destination. On the road, the two friends meet George Hanson, a seemingly naive attorney who helps them get out of prison and presents the challenge of recognizing normalcy in the society that was America in the late ’60s and 1970s.

Showing the True Nature of America’s Counter-Culture Movements

Starring Dennis Hopper in his best performance ever, but also Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson, Easy Rider is the perfect counter-culture film. It introduced American audiences to a social layer that most wouldn’t recognize for years. The hippie movement is only a part of this.

Young people were constantly looked down upon, and drug use was condemned from a fundamental perspective. Easy Rider took this part of America and displayed it in the form of a fascinating story that was impossible to discard because it showed a darker side of the country. It’s still considered one of the best American films ever made. Rent on Apple TV.

14 Dazed and Confused (1993)

Richard Linklater’s 1993 drama Dazed and Confused takes viewers to Austin, Texas, in 1976. It’s the last day of school for students at Lee High School, and they all have a different ritual that will inevitably connect them with each other as the night progresses and a party ensues. Contrary to what people believe, Dazed and Confused is not a stoner film, but it sure did launch the careers of familiar faces like Matthew McConaughey, Rory Cochrane, Renée Zellweger, Jason London, Ben Affleck, Cole Hauser, Parker Posey, Milla Jovovich, Adam Goldberg, and Joey Lauren Adams.

A Fine Reflection of the Era

The film is an interesting and compelling look at 1970s culture without making a single attempt at judgment. Linklater just puts the camera where it belongs and entices a bunch of good actors to give it their best and improvise based on what they know.

The result is an extremely entertaining film that manages to capture the spirit of school life in the 1970s and counter-culture values that some people questioned a bit too much. Linklater went for realism, and that he got with a journey that focused on what it felt like to grow up overnight in 1976. Rent on Apple TV.

13 Taxi Driver (1976)

Taxi Driver

Taxi Driver

Release Date
February 9, 1976

Martin Scorsese


Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver tells the story of Travis Bickle, a cab driver in New York City who’s suffering from PTSD after having served in Vietnam. Bickle is a lonely man who evidences a deteriorated city that’s always in turmoil and moral decay. Eventually, Bickle decides enough is enough and plans a violent act that will perhaps bring some kind of balance to the twisted version of the city. Taxi Driver is still regarded as one of the finest American films ever made.

A Society in Turmoil

There’s no question that Travis Bickle was mentally unstable. His decision is premeditated and anything but inevitable. But it’s still being discussed if he’s a victim of a society that reacted to the wrong things and left matters unresolved after the Vietnam War.

This wasn’t exactly what America wanted to look like in 1976, but Scorsese draws a picture of inevitability around Bickle’s naive view of the world. If you want to know how New York was in the past before progress turned it into a tourist hub, take a look at Taxi Driver. You can stream Taxi Driver on The Roku Channel.

12 Rocky (1976)



Release Date
November 21, 1976


John G. Avildsen’s Rocky, based on a script by Sylvester Stallone, is the story of a very poor debt collector in Philadelphia who realizes he may have the potential to become a boxer. The heavyweight boxing champion Apollo Creed picks Rocky Balboa as a contender as his opponent drops out of the match, and there’s no one else that can fit in. This is how his journey to become a professional boxer begins, alongside his new coach, Mickey Goldmill, and his best friend Paulie.

Sports Drama for the Ages

The Academy Award-winning film Rocky started a whole sports drama franchise and was responsible for launching Stallone’s career as an actor. And even though the story has been readapted several times in other films, this is the one that started it all.

Rocky portrayed the values of the American Dream, as seen from the eyes of an Italian-American athlete who doesn’t believe in himself but has enough drive to give it a try. Do you like uplifting, rags-to-riches stories that don’t feel manipulative? Rocky may be your fit. You can stream Rocky on Max.

Related: 10 Gritty Horror Movies That Perfectly Encompass 1970s Aesthetic

11 The Conversation (1974)

Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation is an underrated thriller that tells the story of Harry Caul, an expert in wiretapping who comes across the most important job of his life. The Director hires Caul to record a couple. He completes the job but grows paranoid after being ridden with guilt. When he hears the recording, he realizes there may be a murder conspiracy taking place and tries to do something about it, with dire consequences. It’s safe to say Coppola didn’t win an Oscar for The Conversation that year because he was already winning one for The Godfather Part II.

Paranoia Was Now Justified

The Conversation is a brilliant mystery film led by Gene Hackman, who portrays a very interesting character in a world where Watergate was yet to be confirmed as a worldwide scandal. It’s all about morals in Caul’s dilemma. His religious values are tampered with, but his humanity drives him to do desperate things.

The film is a great depiction of paranoia in ’70s America, when everything was supposed to be OK, but the risks of technology and the political context made you look behind your back constantly and aroused you to distrust your own shadow. Stream on Netflix.

10 Halloween (1978)

Halloween, by master of horror John Carpenter, takes viewers to Haddonfield, Illinois, where a small boy has brutally killed his sister for no apparent reason. Michael Myers never spoke a word again and became catatonic. 15 years later, he comes back and continues his rampage against the babysitters who are supposed to take care of children during Halloween, but instead go off to misbehave. But clever teenager Laurie Strode decides to fight back.

The Boogeyman Comes Home

An indie masterpiece turned into a franchise with no reason but to cash in. Carpenter’s film is the ideal pebble in the shoe for ’70s horror, as it presented an elegant approach to the genre and delved into basic fears. Haddonfield is a picture-perfect town that gets a piece of real horror during Halloween, and after the film, nothing in America during the holiday was the same.

Carpenter’s rendering of an attack on conservative and extremely white picket fence values would go on to have a legacy that, as bad as the sequels were, they actually managed to faithfully depict the fallout in America’s suburbs. Stream on Shudder.

9 Boogie Nights (1997)

Paul Thomas Anderson’s modern epic drama Boogie Nights took audiences to 1970s California, the place where your dreams could come true. At least, that’s what young teenager Eddie Adams believes when he meets Jack Horner, an adult film director. Believing Adams has what others don’t, he introduces the naive young man to the adult film industry and turns him into Dirk Diggler, the most popular star of the Golden Age of Porn in the 1970s.

The One that Dared to Touch Forbidden Territory

The film is a brilliant collection of performances, all framed by Anderson’s ability to give form to chaos. Boogie Nights is a faithful and eerily realistic depiction of the shady side of Los Angeles in the 1970s, where sex, crime, and drugs all moved in the same layer and were all acceptable in the eyes of the almighty: cash.

The rise and fall of Diggler and his ultimate acceptance of what he can be are beautifully designed by a director who had already made his first approach to the story with a mockumentary short called The Dirk Diggler Story. When it comes to ’70s-era reenactments, it’s hard to do better than Boogie Nights. Rent on AppleTV.

8 Annie Hall (1977)

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall tells the story of Alvy Singer, a comedian in New York City who hasn’t let go of his last relationship. With Annie, everything seemed to be OK, and Alvy felt he was on the right track. The problem is that it’s not meant to be, and their relationship doesn’t last long.

Alvy spends the entirety of the movie questioning himself about what made it all go wrong. Annie Hall is probably the most important romantic comedy of all time, and it won several Academy Awards. Allen’s dismissal as Best Actor didn’t let the movie win the Big Five that night in 1977.

The Romantic Comedy that Set the Standards

In the best style of Allen’s early work, Annie Hall presents a blueprint for the atypical romantic comedy that doesn’t follow the usual storylines. Allen isn’t afraid to be truthful, even if this means making fun of himself. But it’s the film’s natural warmth that makes it more special than others of its genre.

Also, the great adaptation of New York City’s social dynamics is proof of the fresh representation of ’70s America, a period that finally allowed women like Annie to speak up and simply submit their opinion on a relationship that wasn’t meant to be. Stream for free on Tubi.

7 A Clockwork Orange (1971)

In Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, Alex DeLarge leads a gang of “droogs,” young and fine delinquents who seize every opportunity they have to indulge in violence against the innocent in this future version of Great Britain. But Alex takes things too far, and he’s caught and subjected to rehabilitation using experimental science. This forces Alex to look inside, but when he finally appears to have changed, the question lingers. Though it failed to win many awards and was heavily criticized upon release, the film’s legacy speaks for itself.

A Universal State of Mind

The controversy surrounding the film also speaks for itself. It’s undeniably graphic, and it riskily moves between an artistic expression of an idea and the celebration of violence themes. While it stays on Britain throughout its depiction, one can’t help but imagine it was also a satirical view of American values and how fragile they seemed to be in America during the Vietnam War.

Protests and peace calls were frequent, but films like A Clockwork Orange dared to show something more universal and, unfortunately, relevant to some social classes in America. Stream on Max.

6 Saturday Night Fever (1977)

Saturday Night Fever, the John Badham classic inspired by a music article in New York Magazine, takes viewers to Brooklyn, where Tony Manero is trying to make a living by working in a paint store with not so many customers. Tony’s aspirations don’t exactly aim high, except for when he goes out at night. Every night, he attends 2001 Odyssey, a local disco where Tony is the master of dance moves that are out of this world. However, this escapism isn’t enough for the son of Italian-American immigrants who can’t see beyond the lights shining on him at the clubs.

Dance Drama with Enough Agency

Starring John Travolta in one of his most prominent roles, Saturday Night Fever is a modern classic that many people mistake for a disco music extravaganza that has no agency or value. However, Badham’s superb direction and the inclusion of social themes from the 1970s are essential to making it a more compelling film than everyone thinks.

There’s a certain level of realism that’s key to reliving the American dance scene of the 1970s, all seen through the eyes of a working-class teenager whose dreams are absolutely authentic. You can stream Saturday Night Fever on Showtime.

5 Casino (1995)



Release Date
November 22, 1995


In the 1995 crime epic Casino, Martin Scorsese takes a jab at organized crime once again. This time he goes for a more glamorous side of crime and focuses on the life of Sam “Ace” Rothstein (based on the real-life businessman and crime icon, Frank Rosenthal), a gambling expert and mob associate who gets assigned to the Tangiers Casino in Las Vegas to oversee operations.

Rothstein becomes a mighty and powerful man who becomes a witness to his own downfall as gambling evolves, and he’s no longer able to sustain the illegal operation. His friendship with Nicky Santoro and marriage to Ginger McKenna are reasons enough for the debacle that comes right after.

A Fine Conclusion to Scorsese’s Epic Crime Journey

Scorsese’s ability to make crime films speaks for itself. With Casino, he goes full circle and accomplishes a spiritual sequel to Goodfellas. The film is an often realistic, but also manipulated version of the events. Scorsese and co-writer Nicholas Pileggi don’t aim at realism, but at defining a solid arc that can reflect the moral ambiguity of Rothstein’s character.

This fits very well with an impressive production design and cinematography that sharply portray the Las Vegas lifestyle and how different it is from today’s. All of this, of course, takes place during the early ’70s, when the Chicago Outfit reigned over the gambling business in America. Rent on Apple TV.

4 Dirty Harry (1971)

dirty harry

Dirty Harry

Release Date
July 14, 1971

Don Siegel

Clint Eastwood , Harry Guardino , Reni Santoni , John Vernon , Andrew Robinson , John Larch


Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry is a groundbreaking action thriller that features Harry Callahan, aka “Dirty Harry,” making the rounds at the San Francisco Police Department. In the first film of what ultimately became a very successful franchise, Callahan must use his wit and explosive nature as well to try and catch a serial killer by the name of Scorpio, who’s terrorizing the city. If you think the name sounds kind of familiar, you may be right. The film was inspired by the real-life case of the Zodiac.

Defining an Entire Genre

Not only did Dirty Harry popularize the Smith & Wesson Model 29 revolver, also known as Magnum, but the film was also key to establishing one of Clint Eastwood’s most important characters. Dirty Harry was also one of the most important crime procedural films of its time, with many citing it as the primary influence on the genre.

In the 1970s, police and law enforcement organizations had everything but identity, and Dirty Harry is a great example of this side of the law acquiring personality and, best of all, being real in the face of dire circumstances. Police in the 1970s? It may be a controversial take (adding the word “dirty” to a cop’s name isn’t exactly helpful), but Dirty Harry is the way to go. Rent on AppleTV.

Related: 20 Most Beloved Hollywood Movie Villains of the 20th Century

3 All the President’s Men (1976)

All the President’s Men by Alan J. Pakula is an outstanding thriller that’s still as relevant as it was back then. The film stars Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford as Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, respectively, and it tells the story of the two journalists who dared to go deeper when investigating Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate scandal. They weren’t detectives, but their curiosity was responsible for bringing down the presidency of the infamous man who indulged in wiretapping for political reasons.

The Essential Political Thriller

When it comes to political thrillers and, in general, films about politics, there’s not one better than All the President’s Men. Its depiction of real-life events in 1970s America is very realistic, and it doesn’t step out of its boundaries to provide excitement or thrills.

This one is all about its story, carefully written by playwright William Goldman, who took Woodward and Bernstein’s book and made a cinematic version that people at the time digested as the absolute truth. In 1976, there couldn’t have been a more important film than All the President’s Men. Rent on AppleTV.

2 Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon is a brilliant crime drama that puts viewers in the middle of a heist at First Brooklyn Savings Bank in 1972. Sonny, Sal, and Stevie break in and attempt to rob a whole lot of cash, but Stevie runs before they take the money. Only Sonny and Sal remain, and the loot is over a thousand dollars. Everything goes wrong with the robbery, and it all becomes more dramatic when Sonny reveals his original plan: he wants the money so he can pay for his partner’s sex reassignment surgery.

A Near-Perfect Crime Drama that Mattered

Based on the spectacular true story of John Wojtowicz and Salvatore Naturile, the robbers who broke in and participated in the very bizarre series of events, Dog Day Afternoon was a frantic example of crime dramas that were much more than action films with good characters.

The movie progresses from its simple premise to a very emotional film about desperate measures and how this resulted in chaotic situations in the 1970s in America, with its conservative values cemented in the psyche of society. Al Pacino’s Sonny is one of his best characters ever, and the film won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Rent on AppleTV.

1 Zodiac (2007)



Release Date
March 2, 2007


David Fincher’s Zodiac is an adaptation of Robert Graysmith’s series of books about the serial killer who has never been found. It all starts in 1969, when a masked man viciously attacks a couple and leaves one of them alive. Then the heads at the San Francisco Chronicle start receiving strange letters with code written in them. Eventually, they’re able to decode the message, and they realize they’re the work of a man known as The Zodiac Killer, who starts making strange demands while more bodies drop. The film is told from the perspective of Graysmith, reporter Paul Avery, and a skeptical inspector by the name of Dave Toschi.

A Perfect Portrait of ’70s Grit

Easily Fincher’s most underappreciated film, Zodiac takes audiences on a journey through a very faithful version of 1970s San Francisco, a city on the rise that saw its own fall when a maniac terrorized every layer of society and roamed free until what we can suppose is his death. We still don’t know.

Fincher does a great job at establishing an environment of pure paranoia that heavily reflects the public’s transition from “trusting law enforcement” to “being afraid of their own shadow.” Films about serial killers in the 1970s? There’s nothing better and more realistic than Fincher’s odyssey of a film. Stream on AppleTV+.

The ’70s were also a key period for Western cinema, so here’s a video about the best Westerns of the 1970s:

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