10 Best Movies From the Year 1971

Motion pictures from “The ‘Me’ Decade” every self-professed cinephile ought to know.

Willy Wonka original

The year 1971 proved to be a memorable one, seeing the release of Stairway to Heaven on Led Zeppelin IV, the ratification of the 26th Amendment, Apollo 14 landing on the moon, and Charles Manson initially given the death penalty. Of everything there is to discuss about ‘71, this follow-up piece is of course dedicated to our love of cinema and the year’s best movies.

 

1. Billy Jack

It’s the first sequel in what would become a quadrilogy centered around the titular character, played by Tom Laughlin. Tom directed, co-wrote, produced and even contributed to distributing it after a few studio-related issues.

Billy Jack is a war veteran who strives to protect the community, primarily from the Posner family. Despite his pacifist mentality, Billy is willing to do whatever it takes to stand up for the Freedom School filled with youths of different races.

Delores Taylor and Tom Laughlin wrote a script that undeniably takes on some deep, dark subject matter with racism, antiestablishmentarianism and social conflict, to name a few, at the forefront. What came out of it was a film overwhelmingly trying to balance entertainment and art while pragmatically displaying injustices and conflicts occurring at the time.

 

2. Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory

Based on Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory novel from 1964, this family musical showcases Gene Wilder’s talent and range to full effect. The set pieces are dizzyingly zany and creative, juxtaposing the first act’s gloomy, depressing look at the real world. The story of 5 kids winning the chance to tour a chocolate factory was not nearly as praised and beloved then as it is today, especially in the eyes of author (and original screenplay writer) Roald Dahl, who hated the rewrites, subplots and extra musical numbers David Seltzer and Mel Stuart added.

The casting of Gene Wilder didn’t go over well with Roald, either, which is why shortly after his passing in 1990, the Dahl Estate determinedly began working on an adaptation that stayed true to the novel. Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory isn’t the type of film you can stand to watch everyday, but it’s one of those movies you remember playing on television all the time during your formative years, adding to its overall appeal.

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3. The Last Picture Show

Set in 1951 and shot in black and white, this gem stars a young Cybill Shepherd, Timothy Bottoms and Jeff Bridges. It’s a magnificent coming-of-age story that focuses on characters Duane and Sonny and their efforts to figure out what they want to do once they graduate high school. Peter Bogdanovich’s directing is phenomenal as he manages to capture the atmosphere of living in a small town and adds to it with a Texas setting and placing it just two years before the armistice agreement of the Korean War was signed.

The entire cast give memorable performances . Cloris Leachman won an award for her role, Ben Johnson won for Best Supporting Actor and this was Randy Quaid’s first movie. It’s a shame that even the director’s cut has its edits and so you’re not able to view the film as the director may have initially intended. Scenes are shortened and cropped and yet, it manages to work just fine — especially if you’d never seen it before.

 

4. Wake in Fright

Although this wouldn’t hit US screens until 1972, it premiered at Cannes Film Festival in 1971, qualifying it for this list. A struggling school teacher named John becomes stranded in a small Australian town after having gambled his money away in an effort to pay off a financial bond. It is there where he meets all kinds of strange characters, one of whom is played by Donald Pleasence. It received mostly mixed reviews and stirred up a bit of controversy for a scene that involved hunting kangaroos.

The pacing of the film may not be impressive or steady for most modern audiences, but for cinephiles looking for something they may have not seen before, this story builds and builds and has actually found praise all these years later. It has since been deemed an important piece of the Australian New Wave that stemmed from early 1970s and lasted until the late 1980s. I probably should mention, although it’s not a horror film, it has been known to make people squirm, to say the least.

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5. A Clockwork Orange

By today’s standards, the violence isn’t particularly cringeworthy. Far worse has been shown to us, almost unflinchingly. What makes this such a disturbing and effective story is how it clashes violence with classical music, beautiful camera work with depictions of tragedy, evil and corruption.

Stanley Kubrick’s a brilliant director, as rigorous and specific as his direction is said to have been. Malcolm McDowell’s performance as Alex is awesome, especially if you know how stressful principal photography proved to be for him. Everything from his violent actions to the bizarre and intense treatment he undergoes puts his acting ability on display.

A Clockwork Orange is a thinking piece; more or less and virtually everyone who watches it seems to have their own opinion on what the psychology behind it is, a running commentary on behaviorism and morality being one of the more popular opinions. It’s easily one of the most talked about films even today and is arguably one of the better films to come out of the Kubrick canon.

 

6. Escape from the Planet of the Apes

The third film of the series and, dare I say, one of the more effect entries overall. It’s a tad sillier than the original, but something’s awfully absurd about the 1970 sequel. Even though there are a startling number of questions the film’s first 30 minutes raises, it’s just good fun. The apes manage to use Brent’s ship somehow to travel back in time to 1971. They’re experimented on and, in the progress, become popular among humans to the point where they’re given celebrity treatment. Shortly thereafter, things get out of control.

If you’re not familiar with the original franchise or the novels and all you know are the films that have come out in the last decade, or maybe you believe the 2001 Mark Wahlberg film is the first, then you probably won’t think much of these. They’re melodramatic and quirky and starred actors and actresses (Kim Hunter, Roddy McDowall) in costumes. There’s no computer generated effects and there wasn’t color grading used to make the audience feel a certain way. I still recommend giving this a watch. You could probably go from the first, which is a masterpiece and then skip right to this one, because again, the opening of Escape doesn’t answer many questions and Beneath the Planet of the Apes was a poor attempt at finishing the story when the studio pretty much knew they wanted a franchise.

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7. Play Misty for Me

Of the three Clint Eastwood movies released in 1971, we’re choosing his directorial debut. It’s a suspense film in which he also stars alongside Donna Mills, Jessica Walter and John Larch. Clint plays a radio D.J. named Dave, who has a stalker named Evelyn. She loves his show and finds him at his favorite bar on his downtime. From there, the two start dating but she becomes more clingy and abrasive.

It’s a well acted flick and Clint’s directing debut showcased a promising behind-the-scenes addition to his career. Since its release, there’s been a lot of psychological thrillers aimed at stalking and relationships like Fatal Attraction, Single White Female and The Boy Next Door. In all seriousness though, compared to the aforementioned titles, this film isn’t remotely glossy or eerily sensual. It feels comparatively more realistic and, because of that, is why this should be seen as the golden standard for this kind of psychological thriller.

 

8. Summer of ‘42

This dramedy is based on the life of Herman Raucher, the writer of the screenplay and the novel that came before it. It’s about a young man named Hermie, who becomes infatuated with an older woman whose husband is fighting in World War 2.

Hermie spends most of his summer with Oscy and Benji, his friends who are very different from each other. Over the summer, Hermie manages to befriend Dorothy, the older woman, and volunteers to help with chores. It’s a coming-of-age story that isn’t quite as raunchy as some of the ones that have come out in recent years.

The film was a big success upon release and was nominated for several awards, only winning two — both of which were for the score by Michel Legrand. Robert Mulligan, known for 1962’s To Kill a Mockingbird, did a fantastic job directing the film. It stars Gary Grimes, Jennifer O’Neill, Jerry Houser and Oliver Conant. A sequel was made in 1973 with the three boys reprising their roles, but it wasn’t nearly as well-received as this.

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9. Straw Dogs

Certainly not for the faint of heart, this disturbing movie stars Dustin Hoffman and Susan George as David and Amy Summer. They’re a youngish married couple who decide to move to a much smaller, rural area.

Without giving too much away, it stirred up quite a bit of controversy with its gritty, art-house feel and exploitative nature. The last thirty minutes is strong and mostly without music, relying greatly on the actors and their performances.

Surely to some, there’s been worse depictions of what’s played out here, but nothing about it looks or feels stylized like a lot of the morally ambiguous home invasion movies that have come since. Even the remake fails in comparison. This proved to be one of director Sam Peckinpah’s most contentious efforts and rightfully so.

 

10. Godzilla vs. Hedorah

Who doesn’t love a little light-hearted monster fun? This is one of the lighter, practically comedic entries in the franchise during what’s been dubbed the “Shōwa period”, lasting until 1975. It is the 11th installment in the franchise and the first to feature the smog monster, primarily known as Hedorah. Most of the Godzilla films are arguably allegorical and this isn’t an exception. Hedorah was designed to personify a concern over public pollution, but the quirkiness of the film — even when it’s trying to be serious — buries the filmmaker’s intentions.

Even though it’s not one of Godzilla’s finest moments, it’s plenty of fun and, even better, it doesn’t matter what age you are to enjoy it. What also makes it great with this list of the best movies of 1971 is it’s one of the more light-hearted films to make it. The acting isn’t totally bad, it’s just what you’d expect for this kind of movie and yet, it manages to outdo some of the acting turns in several of the Hammer films being released around the time.

I realize a lot of the films selected are adult-oriented and, even for that specific demographic, incredibly disturbing. The truth is, the very few family movies that were released in 1971 don’t hold up and have absolutely no redeeming factors 48 years later. I very well can’t put a TV special like Here Comes Peter Cottontail on the list, notwithstanding the fond memories.

Besides that, George Hamilton as the titular character in Evel Knievel and Steve McQueen in Le Mans probably cannot hold much of anyone’s interest anymore; unless you’re a fan of stunts or race cars. Some of the films I’ve listed you’ll surely know (and, likely, you’ve watched them) but for the ones you may not, they’re certainly worthy of a view or two. If you’re open-minded enough, you just might find a new favorite film to share with others. Which looks most appealing to you?

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