7 Best Under-the-Radar '70s Movies You Need to Watch

You've seen The Godfather and Jaws, but this decade has more film excellence to offer.

The '70s is widely regarded as the greatest decade in American film history—10 years that saw Hollywood shake off the dust of the Production Code and the studio system and chart a bold new course. Directors like Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Francis Ford Coppola, who'd grown up studying filmmaking, were empowered to create their masterpieces, including mega-hits like Jaws and Star Wars, which birthed the modern blockbuster.

While you've probably seen the movies that defined the decade, from the mob epic The Godfather to the gritty, Oscar-winning police drama The French Connection to the star-making comedy caper The Sting, the '70s produced countless lesser-known but no less captivating films that are worth tracking down. Here are seven of the best '70s movies you probably haven't seen—and definitely should.

RELATED: 8 Classic Movies That You Can't Watch Anywhere.

1
A New Leaf (1971)

Elaine May and Walter Matthau in A New Leaf
Paramount Pictures

Walter Matthau rose to fame opposite Jack Lemmon as one half of The Odd Couple in 1968, but a few years after that comedy hit, he took a much darker comedic turn in A New Leaf, from director (and Mike Nichols writing partner) Elaine May, one of only a handful of women to helm a major studio film during the '70s.

Matthau plays a broke playboy who aims to find a rich bride, bump her off, and inherit her money, and May herself plays his clueless bride—an eccentric, plant-obsessed heiress in search of a novel variety of fern. Though critically acclaimed, the film flopped at the box office and remains largely overlooked today. May went on to make the infamous bomb Ishtar with Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, but that film's critical and commercial drubbing should in no way deter you from seeking out this rare specimen, which is available to rent online.

2
Coffy (1973)

Pam Grier in Coffy
American International Pictures

Shaft may be the most famous blaxploitation film of the '70s, but it's missing one element that makes Jack Hill's Coffy at least as essential: Pam Grier in the leading role. The actor would come to be known as the premiere femme fatale of the era, and—at least according to director Quentin Tarantino—the first female action hero. It all started with her breakout turn as the titular Coffy, a tough young woman who turns vigilante and hunts down the drug dealer who got her sister addicted to heroin. Tarantino would later credit the film as one of his favorites (and "one of the coolest movies ever made"), and attempt to rekindle Grier's career by casting her in the 1997 crime thriller Jackie BrownCoffy is streaming now on Paramount+.

RELATED: 27 Movies With Shocking Twist Endings You Won't Recover From.

3
The Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

William Finley in The Phantom of the Paradise
20th Century Fox

Like a punk rock version of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, writer/director Brian De Palma's The Phantom of the Paradise brings The Phantom of the Opera into the glam rock age. Songwriter Winslow Leach (William Finly) is betrayed, beaten, and left for dead by an unscrupulous record producer (Paul Williams) who wants to steal his music for the opening of his club, the Paradise of the title. Clad in a mask to cover his mangled face, Leach winds up menacing the music hall and racking up a significant body count as he seeks to turn his muse, singer Phoenix (Jessica Harper), into a star in his stead. Though the music earned an Oscar nomination, the contemporary reviews were largely negative and it was a box office failure—yet De Palma's enduring career (he went on to helm the blockbuster Stephen King adaptation Carrie in 1976) helped propel it to cult classic status. You can rent it digitally now.

4
Zardoz (1974)

Sean Connery in Zardoz
20th Century Fox

Two years after exiting the role of James Bond for the second time, Sean Connery signed up for the most bizarre project of his storied career: Zardoz, a twisted sci-fi mind trip written and directed by John Boorman, who cashed in all the credit he'd earned from turning 1972's Deliverance into a unlikely critical hit and a massive box office success. Unfortunately, the filmmaker's psychedelic passion project—a bizarre future fable in which Connery plays a sort of outlaw (clad in a loincloth and suspenders and little else) navigating a post-apocalyptic world overseen by the cult of a stone god—proved a tough pill to swallow for contemporary audiences. Yet in the decades since, it has attracted a cult following of loyalists who swear they find meaning it its pretentious, pontificating script. Whether you're a believer or not, it demands to be seen, if only to witness Her Majesty's greatest super-spy in an orange mankini. You can find it on The Criterion Channel.

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5
The Lord of the Rings (1978)

Still from the 1978 animated film of The Lord of the Rings
United Artists

Peter Jackson's three films based on J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings books grossed billions at the box office, but they were a few decades late to the adaptation game. More than 20 years earlier, underground animation icon Ralph Bakshi (Fritz the Cat, Wizards) directed his own flawed but ambitious take using both traditional and rotoscoped animation, in which drawings are traced over live-action film. The results are visually surreal, but the film did audiences no additional favors by adapting only half of the trilogy. Though the first film was a financial success, the planned follow-up never materialized. Still, as a trippy vision of a fantasy classic, it's essential viewing and available for digital rental.

6
Stay Hungry (1976)

Arnold Schwarzenegger in Stay Hungry
United Artists

Eight years before The Terminator would turn Arnold Schwarzenegger into an international superstar, the bodybuilder and budding actor landed a key role in this comedic drama directed by Bob Rafelson (Five Easy Pieces). The rambling plot of Stay Hungry follows a salesman (Jeff Bridges) who buys a bodybuilding gym as part of a shady real estate scheme, woos the gym's receptionist (Sally Field), and finds himself drawn to an easygoing, muscular Austrian (Schwarzenegger) training for the Mr. Universe competition. The future action hero earned a Golden Globe for Best Acting Debut for his charismatic supporting turn, and the film itself is just as likable and offbeat. Fortunately, it's streaming for free on Tubi.

RELATED: Arnold Schwarzenegger Reveals How Maria Shriver First Confronted Him About His Affair.

7
Sorcerer (1977)

Roy Schneider in Sorcerer
Universal Pictures/Paramount Pictures

William Friedkin won an Oscar for directing The French Connection and helmed an indisputable classic of the horror genre in The Exorcist, but his 1977 suspense thriller Sorcerer is every bit the achievement as those two films—though it was poorly reviewed at the time and flopped at the box office. That it was released around the time Star Wars was becoming a cultural phenomenon did the nerve-wracking story of a group of criminals and outcasts hired to drive a load of delicate dynamite across hostile mountain terrain in South America did it no favors. A spiritual cousin to the 1953 French film The Wages of Fear, this stripped down, adrenaline-fueled character drama has over time become regarded as one of the unsung masterpieces of the '70s, and it's available as a digital rental.

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller is a pop culture writer living in New York. Read more
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