The story goes that 1976 was a pivotal year in culture. In rock music, the debut singles by the Ramones and the Sex Pistols announced punk to the world. In a flash, the kind of bloated soft rock and prog that dominated the airwaves suddenly looked very outmoded.
In film, you might say the opposite happened. The New Hollywood movement that had so reinvigorated American cinema in the past decade had some of its last hurrahs in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and Sidney Lumet’s Network. These were both disruptive, angry films; attuned to their times. But the times were a-changin’. Jaws (1975) had reminded the studio execs what real money looked like, and the move towards more commercial cinema was cemented in 1977 with the phenomenal success of Star Wars – cinema’s own soft-rock moment.
Of course, just as rockist history forgets that 1976 was also the annus mirabilis of dub reggae, a far richer picture emerges when you throw the net wider than just the famous American films. In addition to those films listed below, you should make a beeline for Nagisa Oshima’s sensational (and hugely controversial) In the Realm of the Senses, Horace Ové’s electric Pressure (the first feature directed by a black filmmaker in Britain), John Cassavetes’ independently-made The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Luchino Visconti’s L’innocente and Werner Herzog’s hallucinatory Heart of Glass (which gave Blondie a song title).
All the President’s Men (1976)
Director Alan J. Pakula
The final part of Alan J. Pakula’s paranoia trilogy moves on from fictional conspiracies to address the political scandal of the 1970s. Though All the President’s Men isn’t strictly a political piece, per se: the film begins with the infamous break-in at the Watergate Hotel and ends with a president resigned in disgrace, but sandwiched in between is simply an account of two reporters working a story.
Pakula’s film, written so as to be airtight by William Goldman, isn’t concerned with why the Nixon administration flouted the rules, but how, with its Washington Post heroes Woodward and Bernstein (Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, in a riveting dramatic double act) pulling threads that uncover an unprecedented level of collusion. All the President’s Men’s respect for exacting journalism is reflected in its vérité style, with details painstakingly replicated and Pakula opting for such unfiltered truth he even includes his actors’ mistakes in the final cut. There are better movies about the fall of the house of Nixon, but this may be the best one ever made about the journalistic process.
The Ascent (1976)
Director Larisa Shepitko
Bearing comparison with mentor Alexander Dovzhenko’s Arsenal (1929), Larisa Shepitko’s fourth and final feature was adapted from a novel by Vasil Bykau, who also inspired Sergei Loznitsa’s The Fog (2012) with another story set in Byelorussia in 1942. Blending religious allegory with reflections on duty, loyalty and conscience, the story of two partisans captured by the collaborationist militia turns on the struggle to remain human in inhuman circumstances. The wounded Boris Plotnikov withstands quisling Anatoli Solonitsyn’s interrogation, letting out a silent scream as he is branded. But the seemingly heroic Vladmir Gostyukhin fails to rise to the challenge of a machine-gun hallucination and has to endure the humiliation of twin encounters with a noose.
With Vladimir Chukhnov’s monochrome photography and Alfred Schnittke’s symphonic score reinforcing the forbidding atmosphere of the freezing winter setting, this Golden Bear-winning study of physical adversity and moral courage also subtly questions whether the Soviet regime was always worthy of such noble sacrifices.
Director Brian De Palma
Few horror moments remain as perfectly executed or masterfully shot as the prom scene climax in Carrie. As Sissy Spacek’s bullied, telekinetic teenage girl has her brief moment of glory on stage, Brian De Palma’s camera whirls around the school gymnasium frantically. The sparkling prom queen is about to be upstaged by a bucket of pig’s blood – and De Palma’s frenzied use of cross-cutting and split-screen expertly ratchet up the suspense.
The slow-burn sadism of Carrie’s public ordeal morphs her from beaming young teen to blood-soaked witch. Spacek’s features twist as she seems to transform before our eyes; it’s disturbingly chameleonic. De Palma’s Stephen King adaptation is a colourfully singular entry into the 70s horror genre – rife with Catholic imagery, both obsessed and terrified by female puberty, and bordering on the hysterical. When Carrie wreaks fiery old-testament vengeance on her school tormentors, it can’t help but to be cathartic.
Cría cuervos (1976)
Director Carlos Saura
Remember seven-year-old Ana Torrent’s indelible debut as the young Castilian girl obsessed with Frankenstein in Víctor Erice’s masterpiece The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)? Well, here she is three years later, a little older but lending the same extraordinary intensity to the middle-eldest of three sisters growing up in the aftermath of their mother’s death.
One of the masterpieces of Spanish cinema, Cría cuervos disorientingly interlaces fantasy and reality to simulate the perception of the young Ana, who often imagines her mother (Geraldine Chaplin) still living with them in their sombre Madrid townhouse. There are elements of a Turn of the Screw-type ghost story here, as well as an allegory of the repressions of the Franco era. Yet, what lingers most in the mind afterwards is Carlos Saura’s frank depiction of children and the ways in which they use play and imagination to try to make sense of the mysteries of the adult world. It’s a dark, sad and very complex film, but it also benefits from one of the all-time great dance sequences, as Ana and her sisters shimmy around the room to an insanely catchy pop song called ‘Porque te vas’. The track became a huge European hit on the back of this film.
Harlan County U.S.A. (1976)
Director Barbara Kopple
“It’s time for us to get just as violent as they are,” suggests one of the striking miners in Barbara Kopple’s gripping vérité documentary, Harlan County U.S.A. Accompanied by a medley of sombre and soulful bluegrass songs, it’s both a taut narrative account of the strikes that took place between 1972-73 and an absorbing and incredibly intimate portrait of a community struggling for survival and justice.
Miners’ wives take vociferously to the picket line – one woman leads a rendition of a song from the bloodier strikes of the 30s: “Whose side are you on?” For Kopple the answer is clear: she is not interested in bipartisan balance. The film shows her early adoption of the emerging technique of combining direct testimony with archival materials for emotional resonance, and she employs editing juxtaposition to make her point forcefully. And as gunshots ring out in tense pre-dawn darkness she stands, obstinate, with her camera.
Kings of the Road (1976)
Director Wim Wenders
A moustachioed man with hair like Shaggy from Scooby-Doo is driving a truck across a sun-drenched landscape. A slide guitar plays on the soundtrack. Is this Middle America? Nope, this is West Germany in 1976 as filtered through the lens of Wim Wenders. His protagonist is a cinema projection repairman who zooms from one dusty old cinema to the next. On the way he picks up a suicidal passenger and off they drive, wordlessly into the sun. Will they share wild adventures like Thelma & Louise? Not exactly.
Film lovers will toast to the romance of 35mm in Kings of the Road, to the creaky cinemas and the art of fine-tuning rusty projectors. But, for me, Wenders’ monochrome road movie is more about the joys of rolling across tarmac, of singing ‘Just like Eddie’ while slamming your fist on the dashboard, or using your wind mirror to shave in the morning light. In short, it’s a reminder to cinephiles to peel themselves from the cinema seats and hit the road IRL once in a while.
The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)
Director Nicolas Roeg
“Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,” wrote W.H. Auden enshrining Brueghel’s hubristic Icarus in his 1938 poem ‘Musée de Beaux Arts’. Via Walter Tevis’s 1963 sci-fi novel, Icarus in Nicolas Roeg’s adaptation is the time-travelling, clairvoyant alien and electronics entrepreneur Thomas Jerome Newton, who descends to America to develop means to deliver his family and other survivors from their nuclear war-stricken planet – perhaps arid future Earth.
Roeg’s kaleidoscopic metaphysical mindbender is something amazing, too. David Bowie’s Newton combines Alice, Ziggy Stardust, the Book of Enoch’s fallen angels, and William Blake’s satirical ‘Sir Isaac Newton’ and his Christ-like prophet Los. Betrayed and corrupted by earthlings (actors Buck Henry, Rip Torn, Candy Clark), the fragile visitor is destroyed spiritually by government probes and humanisation. So iconoclastic did Roeg’s fatalistic parable seem in 1976 that the weirded-out US distributor butchered it, though it has since been fully restored.
The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)
Director Clint Eastwood
Though High Plains Drifter (1973) has its supporters, The Outlaw Josey Wales is Clint Eastwood’s first great western as a director. It’s the film that rewrote the rules of the genre in the 1970s; an amazing feat that he would repeat with Pale Rider in the 1980s and Unforgiven in the 1990s. Set during the American civil war, it stars Eastwood himself as a Missouri farmer on the run from the soldiers who killed his family. Philip Kaufman was initially set to direct, but was sacked mid-shoot at Eastwood’s instigation, leading the Directors’ Guild to implement ‘The Eastwood Rule’, which prohibits an actor or producer from firing a director to direct the film themselves.
It’s a brilliant, visceral picture that projects contemporary American anxieties concerning the Vietnam war onto the Old West. The picture’s political ambiguity helped propagate a lazy myth of Eastwood as a reactionary, one that would follow him for decades, manifesting itself most recently in the hysteria surrounding the extraordinary American Sniper (2014). But Eastwood sees the shades of grey which underlie so many of the American myths, and his cinema – from The Outlaw Josey Wales to Jersey Boys (2014) – is at its best when it occupies this morally ambivalent territory.
Taxi Driver (1976)
Director Martin Scorsese
Forty years ago, a real rain came on the streets of American movie-making. The heroic gunslinging myths of old had been twisted into a new solipsistic fantasy, embodied in Travis Bickle, the film’s wired, enraged protagonist. He’s Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man, a walking contradiction, haunted and possessed by the everyday inferno of 70s New York – and its self-avowed saviour.
Taxi Driver is the scorched-earth vision of four American artists – writer Paul Schrader, director Martin Scorsese, actor Robert De Niro and composer Bernard Herrmann. The convergence of their distinct talents – from Schrader’s own mania to Herrmann’s heaven-and-hell score – results in a heady mix, with Scorsese orchestrating the elements to create one technically virtuosic and violently disturbing piece. While history will continue to debate the film’s troubling vigilante ideology and queasily redemptive ending, it continues to exert a uniquely powerful grip on our imagination. By so relentlessly isolating us with Travis’s barbed perspective, Taxi Driver takes us on one of the most fascinating trips in cinema.
The Tenant (1976)
Director Roman Polanski
An astonishing exercise in alienation, loss of identity and psychological disintegration, The Tenant is at face value an anthology of Roman Polanski’s key oppressive themes. Here, the director casts himself in the central role as Trelkovsky, a timid, Polish-born French citizen who moves into a Paris apartment whose previous tenant, a young woman, attempted suicide. Over the course of the film, Trelkovsky succumbs to extreme paranoia and soon comes to suspect that the other residents of his building are trying to drive him to the same fate.
Throughout, Polanski’s use of the apartment as a space of isolation and claustrophobia is integral to the unsettling mood of the film. As in Repulsion (1965) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968), architectural unease coincides with strangely intrusive neighbours, where walls cannot be relied upon to defend borders. Dark, funny and unapologetically nihilistic, The Tenant may be the most Kafkaesque of all his feature films.