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Best Picture Oscar Winners - 1970s

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While the New Hollywood era started in the late-1960s, the Second Golden Age came into full bloom in the 1970s and delivered some of cinema's greatest films. Arising out of the ashes of the old studio system, the era introduced a new generation of filmmakers - many of whom idolized directors from the classical era - and with them a renaissance of American filmmaking that saw more experimentation with tone, form and subject matter.

Of course, with experimentation comes excess and by the early 1980s, the post-classical 1970s gave way to corporatized blockbusters that dominate the market even today. But for a brief period of about 15 years, studios took creative chances on films that have since become New Classics.

1. 1970 Best Picture – ‘Patton’

20th Century Fox
One of the greatest decades in cinema history started with an extraordinary biopic featuring a powerful Oscar-winning performance by George C. Scott. Scott portrayed iconoclastic general George S. Patton, an authoritative leader who himself bucks authority at every turn. His flamboyant disregard for protocol prevents him from participating in the most significant invasion of World War II and once again loses his command after insulting a Russian officer following the war’s end. A monumental achievement, Patton has remained one of the best movies about war ever made and rightly won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture over the massive box office hit Airport, Bob Rafelson’s off-key drama Five Easy Pieces, the ten-tissue tearjerker Love Story and Robert Altman’s satirical war comedy M*A*S*H.
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2. 1971 Best Picture – ‘The French Connection’

20th Century Fox
A gritty, high-octane crime thriller, William Friedkin’s The French Connection was the first R-rated film to win Best Picture since the MPAA replaced the ineffectual Hays Code in 1968. Featuring a standout performance by Gene Hackman as New York detective Popeye Doyle, who stops at nothing to track down a big heroin shipment entering the city from Europe, the film was based on true-life events and featured one of the greatest car chases in cinema history. It was another great year in film as The French Connection faced stiff competition with Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, Norman Jewison’s iconic musical Fiddler on the Roof, Peter Bogdanovich’s ode to cinema past The Last Picture Show, and the historical biopic Nicholas and Alexandra.
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3. 1972 Best Picture – ‘The Godfather’

Paramount Pictures
Often near the top of the list of greatest films ever made, Francis Ford Coppola’s epic crime saga forever redefined the gangster film forever and was easily 1972’s Best Picture. Adapted from Mario Puzo’s best-selling novel, The Godfather depicted several generations of Italian-American mobsters whose criminal ambitions are complicated by family loyalty. Starring a who’s-who of rising stars in 1970s film – Al Pacino, James Caan, Talia Shire, Diane Keaton – The Godfather’s most iconic performance belonged to Marlon Brando as family patriarch Don Vito Corleone. It won Best Picture over Bob Fosse’s dark musical Cabaret, John Boorman’s disturbing thriller Deliverance, the Swedish-made historical drama The Emigrants and Martin Ritt’s underappreciated Sounder.
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4. 1973 Best Picture – ‘The Sting’

Universal Studios
One of the biggest box office hits of the decade, George Roy Hill’s comic caper The Sting reunited stars Paul Newman and Robert Redford for the first time since their triumph with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Here Newman and Redford played two Depression era grifters who hatch an elaborate plan to ensnare a ruthless Irish crime boss (Robert Shaw) in a heist in order to exact revenge for the murder of a friend. Full of twists and turns, The Sting was a cleverly plotted comedy that meticulously recreated period detail and kept audiences both guessing and entertained right until the end. There’s no question it was Best Picture in 1973 and won the Oscar over George Lucas’ 1950s coming-of-age drama American Graffiti, Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, William Friedkin’s horror classic The Exorcist and A Touch of Class, which earned Glenda Jackson her second Oscar of the decade.
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5. 1974 Best Picture – ‘The Godfather Part II’

Paramount Pictures
Rarely has there been a sequel better than its predecessor, but in the case of The Godfather II an argument for just that can actually be made. A sprawling epic that showed both the Corleone family’s entry into crime at the turn of the century and Michael’s quest for legitimacy in the 1950s, Francis Ford Coppola’s second of three career masterpieces was more allegorical than its predecessor in showcasing Vito’s rise to prominence and Michael’s spiritual fall. A grand epic that deepened rather than merely continue the Coreleone saga, The Godfather Part II dominated the Oscars by winning six awards, including Best Picture over Roman Polanski’s excellent Chinatown, Coppola’s paranoid thriller The Conversation, Bob Fosse’s Lenny Bruce biopic Lenny and the all-star disaster film The Towering Inferno.
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6. 1975 Best Picture – ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’

HBO Home Video
Only the second movie to win Oscar’s five major categories – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Screenplay – Milos Foreman’s adaptation of Ken Kesey’s anti-establishment novel stood out as one of the best of many great films in the decade. It starred Jack Nicholson as R.P. McMurphy, a free-spirited convict who’s sent to a mental institution for evaluation and shakes up the rest of the inmates with his wild antics while clashing with the cold and heartless Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher). With McMurphy playing stand-in for the counterculture, Nurse Ratched as the establishment and the institution as society itself, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was a brilliant allegory of one man’s triumph of the spirit over oppressive authority and beat out four great films in Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon, Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, Steven Spielberg’s classic Jaws and Robert Altman’s Nashville.
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7. 1976 Best Picture – ‘Rocky’

MGM Home Entertainment
While certainly inspirational and incredibly successful, can anyone truly argue Rocky deserved Best Picture over Sidney Lumet’s brilliant satire Network or Martin Scorsese’s unprecedented Taxi Driver? It’s a rhetorical question, because both latter films were two of the best films made in the decade, while Rocky was a rousing crowd pleaser that spawned a series of increasingly ridiculous, but commercially successful sequels. That’s not to take anything away from it, because Rocky is quality entertainment that possess a great deal of heart. Which is why the Academy bestowed Oscar on it rather than its much darker competition, which also included Alan J. Pakula’s third and final paranoid thriller All the President’s Men and Hal Ashby’s Woody Guthrie biopic Bound for Glory.
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8. 1977 Best Picture – ‘Annie Hall’

MGM Home Entertainment
Some fanboys might cry foul over Star Wars losing out on Best Picture, but Woody Allen’s sophisticated romantic comedy about a neurotic comedian (Allen) wooing the uptight Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) was certainly deserving of the award. A perfect blend of slapstick comedy, bittersweet comedy and honest romance, Annie Hall remains the director’s best film and the standard bearer of a genre that’s full of failed attempts to recreate Allen’s gift for witty insight. Earning widespread critical acclaim, Annie Hall won four Academy Awards including Best Picture over Star Wars, Herbert Ross’ The Goodbye Girl, Fred Zinnemman’s last hurrah Julia and the 0-for-11 ballet drama The Turning Point.
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9. 1978 Best Picture – ‘The Deer Hunter’

Universal Pictures
Highly controversial because of its scenes depicting soldiers playing Russian roulette, Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter was a dark examination of the Vietnam War and its devastating effect on the lives of four blue collar friends. Coming in at a massive three hours, the sprawling antiwar epic was initially despised by Universal Pictures, which already was upset with Cimino going drastically over budget with endless takes. But critics lavished praise upon its release and the film became a box office hit much to Universal’s relief, but most importantly won the Oscar over the more optimistic Vietnam War drama Coming Home, Warren Beatty’s Heaven Can Wait, Alan Parker’s controversial Midnight Express and Paul Mazursky’s wonderfully acted drama An Unmarried Woman.
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10. 1979 Best Picture – ‘Kramer vs. Kramer’

Sony Pictures
Another year where Oscar got it wrong, the Academy bestowed Best Picture honors on the well-intentioned, but uneven divorce drama Kramer vs. Kramer instead of Francis Ford Coppola’s hypnotic Vietnam War masterpiece Apocalypse Now. The film starred Dustin Hoffman as a workaholic advertising executive who learns how to be a nurturing father to his son (Justin Henry) after his homemaker wife (Meryl Streep) decides to leave in order to find himself. Thoroughly affecting and certainly one of the first films to tackle divorce and fatherhood in any meaningful way, Kramer vs. Kramer really had no business beating Coppola’s masterful reimaging of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Also losing out were Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz, Peter Yates’ coming-of-age drama Breaking Away and Martin Ritt’s union drama Norma Rae.
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