1976 was a slightly odd year for movies. There were enough instant classics to help compile this list, but it wasn’t a banner year, and it passed by without too much yelling from the rooftops about this movie or that movie. After the excellent year that was 1975 (itself following on from an even more impressive 1974), 1976 was a year where the movies that were released seemed a little below par. It was almost as if movie makers around the globe – with the exception of those mentioned below – were off their game, or that there weren’t enough original ideas going around for anyone to get a hold of and make something of them. But the ten movies listed here were successful, and fully deserving of all the accolades and critical acclaim (if not the box office success that some missed out on) that came their way. It’s a tribute to the movies themselves, and to their makers, that we’re still talking about them today.
1) Rocky – It was the movie that made Sylvester Stallone a star, and introduced us to a character who has endured several sequels, and in 2015, enjoyed something of a renaissance. Rocky Balboa is a terrific creation, and Stallone understood him completely, bringing a degree of gravitas to the role that is still effective when viewed forty years on. Future incarnations may have tarnished Stallone’s original interpretation, but the movie itself is a wonderful tribute to the idea that even the most average of people can achieve greatness if they work hard enough and believe in themselves.
2) Taxi Driver – Known more for its “You talkin’ to me?” moment than anything else these days, Martin Scorsese’s harsh, uncompromising look at one man’s mental deterioration in the face of overwhelming moral and political corruption is one of the most jarring and breathtaking movies ever made. There’s a crude energy to the movie that makes De Niro’s incredible performance all the more uncompromising, but while he’s the movie’s central focus, let’s not forget the superb supporting performances from the likes of Cybill Shepherd, Jodie Foster, and Albert Brooks, and .
3) In the Realm of the Senses – More controversy, as Japanese director Nagisa Ôshima explores the true story of Sada Abe, whose affair with her master became all-consuming, and which led to a terrible act of violence. The controversy here was the explicit sex performed by actors Tatsuya Fuji (the master) and Eiko Matsuda (Abe), but this isn’t an erotic movie by any standards, thanks to an exemplary script by Ôshima that focuses on the couple’s relationship and the overwhelming emotions that developed as a result of their affair. That said, the movie does have its lurid moments, but these are offset by Ôshima’s refusal to judge either character, and thanks to two very committed performances by Fuji and Matsuda.
4) Network – The movie that saw Peter Finch win a posthumous Oscar for his portrayal of a newsreader who famously declares that he’s “mad as hell, and [he’s] not going to take this anymore”, Network is much more than a glimpse into one man’s mental unravelling, but a stinging satire on the nature of news gathering and the lengths some organisations will go to in exploiting their staff for financial gain. Packed with enough cynicism to stop a herd of charging elephants, Paddy Chayefsky’s script (also an Oscar winner) is one of the most intelligent, gripping and perceptive ever written, and Sidney Lumet’s direction teases out every nuance.
5) All the President’s Men – William Goldman is the scribe responsible for the saying, “In Hollywood, nobody knows anything”. But in adapting Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s riveting account of Richard Nixon’s fall from grace through the Watergate affair, Goldman shows he knows exactly what he’s doing, and the result is a political thriller that grabs its audience from the beginning and doesn’t let go for the next two and a quarter hours. Even though we all know the outcome, and from this point in time the depth of Nixon’s involvement, it’s still an incredible journey that the movie takes us on. The only question that remains unanswered is why Bernstein has a bicycle wheel at the side of his desk all the time.
6) 1900 – Bernardo Bertolucci’s epic, five hours plus look at the social and political upheaval in early 20th century Italy that saw fascism give way to communism, and as seen through the eyes of two friends – Gérard Depardieu, Robert De Niro – from opposite sides of the class divide. Beautifully shot by Vittorio Storraro and spanning over forty years, Bertolucci’s confidence in the material and his cast provides the viewer with some of the most breathtaking moments in world cinema (or just cinema as a whole). Unfairly mistreated since its release – several edited versions have been more available than the original cut – this is richly rewarding and a movie that never fails to excite, stimulate and inspire.
7) Robin and Marian – A somewhat dour but compelling addition to the Robin Hood myth sees Sean Connery’s older, wiser Robin returning from the Crusades to woo Audrey Hepburn’s Maid Marian one last time. It’s a bittersweet affair, a jaded yet moving romance set against the backdrop of Robin’s desire to retire the legend that’s built up around him, but which no one wants to see come to an end. It’s another movie that’s been beautifully shot, this time by David Watkin, and features an eloquent score by John Barry that is actually one of his very best, and for those patient enough to wait for it, features one of the best sword fights ever committed to the big screen.
8) The Killing of a Chinese Bookie – The kind of indie crime drama that no one makes anymore, John Cassavetes’ superb examination of an inveterate gambler’s addiction getting him into serious trouble with the Mob is a masterclass in dramatic tension. As the gambler in question, Ben Gazzara gives a career best performance, but this is Cassavetes’ movie through and through, as he explores notions of masculinity and pride through the actions of one of life’s continual losers, and structures the movie in such a way that you’re never sure if everything is happening for real or in some fever dream that Gazzara’s character is having.
9) Fellini’s Casanova – Only Fellini could have made a movie about the world’s most famous seducer of women and made it equally about the era that defined him, a time of opulence and unfettered greed. Against this backdrop, Fellini paints a compelling portrait of a Renaissance man who doesn’t fit in unless he’s bedding women as a way of warding off his own lack of self-confidence, and to maintain his “reputation”. Fellini directs in a fantastical, scattershot, self-aggrandising manner that reflects the material, and as the grand seducer, Donald Sutherland gives one of his best performances. Unfairly dismissed by US critics on release, this is now regarded as one of the best of Fellini’s later works, and deserves to be more widely available as well.
10) Kings of the Road – With standout performances from Rüdiger Vogler and Hanns Zischler as the two men who decide to travel together around Germany, Wim Wenders’ melancholic musings on loneliness and acceptance, combined with a visual austerity to match their emotional obduracy, is one of the finest German made movies of the Seventies. A road trip that also acts as an exploration of a country still coming to terms with the Second World War, this is a movie that has a surprising amount of heart beneath its drab exterior, and despite its length (nearly three hours) compels the viewer to see how it all works out.