Despite the much-vaunted excellence of Seventies U.S. cinema, a quick look through the offerings of 1976 proves it wasn’t all gold, despite the strong offerings of a few of that era’s leaders (Scorsese had Taxi Driver, Hal Ashby did Bound for Glory, and DePalma had a good year, with the perhaps overrated Carrie and the perhaps underrated Obsession). But Bogdanovich and Altman had down years, Coppola and Friedkin were missing in action, Spielberg and Lucas were off building starships, and Peckinpah had run out his streak of luck.
The best American film of the year was the still-remarkable All the President’s Men, Alan Pakula’s wisely stripped-down journalistic equivalent of a policier. My #1 slot came down to a battle between the clean classical virtues of that title and the sprawling, noodling glories of Wim Wenders’ Kings of the Road, a three-hour road movie and hang-loose ode to cinema. Im Lauf der Zeit - in the course of time, as its German title has it - is not quite like any other movie, and it’s one of those long-form things that cast such a mysterious spell you don’t actually realize how much time they are taking.
The only other up-there contender is The Marquise of O..., part of Eric Rohmer’s mid-career break from his usual survey of contemporary relationships. The ten best movies of 1976:
1. Kings of the Road (Wim Wenders)
2. All the President’s Men (Alan J. Pakula)
3. The Marquise of O… (Eric Rohmer)
4. Robin and Marian (Richard Lester)
5. Assault on Precinct 13 (John Carpenter)
6. Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese)
7. The Devil’s Playground (Fred Schepisi)
8. The Man Who Fell to Earth (Nicolas Roeg)
9. Carrie (Brian De Palma)
10. Small Change (Francois Truffaut)
Close calls for The Tenant (Polanski) and The Outlaw Josey Wales (Eastwood), and Fassbinder made a couple of movies that are aggressively minor, although when you watch them again you can see how wickedly well-crafted they are: Satan’s Brew and Chinese Roulette. Some older directors came up (and in some cases bowed out) with unusual titles, the best of which is probably The Shootist, Don Siegel’s John Wayne tribute; also Family Plot, Hitchcock’s final picture; The Last Tycoon, Kazan’s last movie; The Innocent, Visconti’s lush swan song; and Mr. Klein, an interesting late Losey film.
Alongside the bloat of Bertolucci’s 1900, the virtues of something like The Bad News Bears begin to look pretty good. But none of this really matters all that much, because the Oscar went to Rocky, which – while very far from the worst example of an undeserving film winning Best Picture – put the writing on the wall.