Some of the most legendary directors ever born in America were at their peak in the 1970s. This was the decade in which New Hollywood was defined as a film movement, and some of America’s greatest films of all time were put into production.
But for what it’s worth: these aren’t the best directors who simply lived throughout the 1970s. This list will comprise the directors whose works best defined the decade at hand, finding a balance between quality and quantity, or perhaps directing several movies and succeeding across the board. All that said, these are the twenty greatest American directors of the 1970s, ranked.
20 Alan Parker
Although Alan Parker holds great name value for a certain corner of film fans out there, he may not appear overly familiar in the grand scheme of American cinema throughout the 1970s. You’ll likely recognize the titles of two of his most seminal titles, though: Bugsy Malone (1976), for example, along with Midnight Express (1978). The former is a musical with child actors playing adult characters, including performers such as Jodie Foster and John Cassini.
On the other hand, Midnight Express is most aptly categorized as a prison drama. It received numerous nominations at the 51st Academy Awards, including Best Director and Best Picture. And although it came up short in those regards, Oliver Stone won for Best Adapted Screenplay and Giorgio Moroder won for Best Original Score. All of those elements and more were on masterful display in Midnight Express, as it remains among the best of Parker’s entire career. Both projects land him at the start of the list.
19 Michael Cimino
Just before he essentially ended the New Hollywood film movement with Heaven’s Gate (1980) in the following decade, Michael Cimino was at the top of his game. The Deer Hunter (1978) is among the most revered films of the decade, winning both Best Picture and Best Director at the 51st Academy Awards. But its cast is just as noteworthy as Cimino’s directorial work, with acting efforts from Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, and Meryl Streep.
They all performed brilliantly, each garnering a nomination for their respective acting categories at the aforementioned ceremony, with Walken even walking away with a win. But aside from that famous, epic war drama, also worth noting is Cimino’s directorial debut from a few years prior: Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974). A crime comedy, it stars Clint Eastwood in a forgettable role, but Jeff Bridges nailed it as one half of the titular duo in Lightfoot. He stood out from start to finish, but in terms of overall quality, The Deer Hunter is without a doubt the seminal Cimino stint.
18 George A. Romero
After bursting onto the scene of New Hollywood with Night of the Living Dead (1968), legendary horror director George A. Romero followed up with perhaps the biggest anomaly of his career: a romantic comedy called There’s Always Vanilla (1971). This particular director revolutionized the horror genre almost single-handedly with the aforementioned zombie flick, and There’s Always Vanilla was as far from frightening as a movie could get.
Romero soon returned to his roots just two years later — not with Season of the Witch (1973), but The Crazies (1973). There’s also The Amusement Park (1975) and Martin (1977), two lesser-known Romero flicks. But Dawn of the Dead (1978) brought him back to Hollywood prominence as he arguably topped the quality of his original zombie masterclass from the prior decade. And with six titles to his name throughout the seventies, however small a few of them may be, Romero undoubtedly deserves a spot among these all-time greats.
17 Sam Peckinpah
Some directors make this list on sheer volume alone, as is the case with Sam Peckinpah. Nine features in a singular decade is more than most of his contemporaries can boast, and plenty of them were of the absolute highest quality: take The Getaway (1972), for instance. A heist thriller starring Steve McQueen, it went down among the highest-grossing films of its year. And it was universally acclaimed, still considered today among the greatest entries of its subgenre.
That was undoubtedly his most prominent, followed by a neo-Western called Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974). The other seven features include titles like The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), Straw Dogs (1971), and Junior Bonner (1972). They were far less notable than The Getaway and Alfredo Garcia, though. In the end, those two titles helped land Sam Peckinpah here on the list, and the other seven surely didn’t hurt.
16 George Roy Hill
At the turn of the prior decade, George Roy Hill released Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) to widespread acclaim. One of the most famous westerns of all time, it stars Paul Newman and Robert Redford in the titular roles. That title nearly transcends the popularity of the medium itself, and Hill thus decided to capitalize on that success in the seventies by casting the same superstar actors.
He teamed up with Newman and Redford once again to create The Sting (1973), a heist film that follows their two professional grifters as they execute a con on a mob boss played by Robert Shaw. It’s a brilliant stint, and it garnered the filmmaker at hand Best Director and Best Picture both at the 46th Academy Awards on top of five other wins and ten total nominations. And that isn’t all that Roy Hill offered throughout the seventies: Slaughterhouse Five (1972), The Great Waldo Pepper (1975), and Slap Shot (1977) are all impressive in their own respects. They land Roy Hill here at sixteen.
15 William Friedkin
Among the lesser-known names on the list, William Friedkin nonetheless directed some of the decade’s most popular and critically acclaimed projects: take The French Connection (1971), for example. With Gene Hackman in the starring role, that neo-noir action thriller goes down among the most honored films of the decade, as it won five out of eight nominations at the Oscars — including victories for both Best Director and Best Picture. Plus, it’s since been selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry. Pretty impressive stats.
And The Exorcist (1973) surpasses French Connection, at least in name value. Also by Friedkin, that famous horror stint follows a pair of Catholic priests who attempt to exorcise a young girl who’s been possessed by a demon. And, as you may have guessed, Friedkin had a couple of other releases on top of those two seminal titles: The Boys in the Band (1970), Sorcerer (1977), and The Brink’s Job (1978). That resume is undeniable.
14 Mel Brooks
The most comedically inclined director on the list, Mel Brooks released two of his most hilarious and seminal spoofs not just during the decade at hand, but in the same year — starting with Blazing Saddles (1974). A western comedy, it features his most famous collaborator Gene Wilder alongside Cleavon Little, and it was among the most respected comedies of the decade. It was even nominated for a few Oscars, and it’s since been preserved by the Library of Congress.
But both of those feats — Oscar nominations, preservation in the NFR — were also achieved by Young Frankenstein (1974). It arguably surpasses Blazing Saddles in overall quality, and perhaps remains the greatest film of the director’s career. It’s worth noting that Brooks writes the screenplays for all of his films, going down as an auteur in that respect. Putting out two films as both the author and director in one year is impressive. But claiming the highest honors the industry can offer twice in one year is feat few people can claim, and lands Brooks at number fourteen.
13 John Carpenter
With perhaps the single most important horror movie of the decade under his directorial belt in Halloween (1978), John Carpenter without a doubt deserves a spot on the list. That one release nearly transcends the medium entirely with the mask of Michael Myers and the iconic score from Carpenter forcing their way into every corner of popular culture across the world.
But Halloween is far from the only Carpenter release worth noting from throughout the 1970s. Dark Star (1974) and Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) — the former a science fiction comedy, the latter an action-thriller — are two of the lesser-known titles of Carpenter’s critically acclaimed career. But they stand out as high-quality projects, nonetheless, working alongside Halloween to create fantastic genre variety and ultimately land Carpenter a spot on this list.
12 Franklin J. Schaffner
Thanks to his efforts on Patton (1970), the filmmaker at hand walked away with a golden statue for Best Director at the 43rd Academy Awards ceremony. It features George C. Scott in the titular role, with Karl Malden portraying General Omar Bradley. Another noteworthy element of that particular project would be its script, which was also a winner at the aforementioned ceremony with the recipient being someone who appears much later on in the list. But more on him in a bit.
On top of Patton, other Franklin J. Schaffner classics from the seventies include Nicholas and Alexandre (1971), Papillon (1973), Islands in the Stream (1976), and The Boys From Brazil (1978). Those are all noteworthy in their own respects, with two wins out of eleven nominations in total. But in the end, Patton was among the biggest movies of its decade from a perspective of critical acclaim, and for that project most notably Schaffner lands at number twelve.
11 Robert Altman
To start the 1970s, Robert Altman released perhaps the most seminal film of his entire career with M*A*S*H* (1970) at the turn of the decade. A comedy war film, it garnered Altman a Best Director nomination at the Academy Awards. He’d then replicate that success and then some with Nashville (1975) a few years down the line, as that satirical musical comedy wasn’t just nominated for Best Director, but also Best Picture at the aforementioned ceremony.
Here’s the thing, though: on top of those two projects, Robert Altman released a whopping eleven other features throughout the seventies. Among the more prominent of those releases would be McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), 3 Women (1977), and A Wedding (1978). And although several of his titles from this period hold unimpressive name value today, Altman without a doubt deserves this spot if not for sheer volume alone.
10 Richard Donner
Throughout the 1970s, Richard Donner released two absolute staples of American cinema: first was The Omen (1976), followed by Superman (1978). Aside from their quality, the first thing worth noting is that Donner was working within two completely disparate genres — horror for The Omen, superhero for Superman.
The former was among the highest-grossing films of 1976, following a married couple whose child dies soon after birth, with the father then replacing the baby with a new one from the hospital. Little did he know, the child is the antichrist. An absurd premise, sure, but it’s a famous film for a reason, as it’s executed to perfection. But perhaps the most prominent release of Donner’s career was Superman, as it was preserved in the National Film Registry and remains forever influential for its visual effects. The director of these classics could on any day land even higher on the list.
9 Clint Eastwood
Aside from Brooks and Carpenter, this may be the most recognizable name up to this point in the list, as Clint Eastwood still puts out award-winning projects to this day. He of course got put on the international map for his work in Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy throughout the sixties. But his stint as a director didn’t begin until the decade at hand, with his debut in that regard being a psychological thriller called Play Misty For Me (1971).
It was fairly popular upon release, accruing $10 million on a budget just under a million and garnering great reviews across the critical board. Eastwood then continued with High Plains Drifter (1973), followed by Breezy (1973) in the same year and The Eiger Sanction (1975) just down the line. But throughout the seventies, the most notable film from Eastwood as a director was without a doubt The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976). This filmmaker’s name is now commonly associated with the western genre, and Josey Wales is one of his definitive titles. The Gauntlet (1977) deviates from that trend to a decent degree, finishing out Eastwood’s run in the seventies. That’s a lot of content for a rookie.
8 Bob Fosse
When it comes to honors at the Academy Awards, director Bob Fosse is among the most accomplished names on the entire list. His success at the ceremony began with Cabaret (1972), a musical that actually garnered him a win for Best Director, with seven other wins for the film out of ten total nominations. Pretty impressive numbers. Fosse continued that success with Lenny (1974), followed by All That Jazz (1979) at the end of the seventies.
Those also garnered Best Director nominations at the aforementioned ceremony. And although Fosse came up short for both, they only add to the caliber of his run throughout the 1970s. Almost on Cabaret alone, Fosse deserves a spot on this list. Let alone the other two.
7 Stanley Kubrick
Sure, Stanley Kubrick is perhaps the single most acclaimed filmmaker on the list, with Dr. Strangelove (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and The Shining (1980) going down as absolute staples of their respective genres, among the most respected projects ever made regardless of region or director. But obviously, none of those titles were released in the decade at hand.
However, A Clockwork Orange (1971) received widespread acclaim as it follows Alex Delarge (played by Malcolm McDowell) who leads a gang of thugs as they go on a terrifying crime spree in the film’s dystopian society. It boasts a spot in the NFR, and garnered four nominations at the Oscars. But Kubrick’s other release in the seventies in Barry Lyndon (1975) actually picked up four wins at the Academy Awards, with three other nominations to boot. As one of the best to ever do it, Kubrick is a clear-cut choice for this spot in the top ten.
6 Sidney Lumet
Although he doesn’t hold the name value of guys like Kubrick or, frankly, everyone in the top five, Sidney Lumet nonetheless provided film fans with some of the most seminal releases of the seventies. After bursting onto the scene with his debut 12 Angry Man (1957) two decades prior, Lumet experienced a bit of a nadir in his career throughout the sixties. And at the beginning of the decade at hand with titles like The Last of Mobile Hot Shots (1970), The Anderson Tapes (1971), and Child’s Play (1972), it seemed Lumet peaked with that famous courtroom drama of a debut from the fifties.
Then, he released Serpico (1973). With Al Pacino in the titular role as officer in New York City, the two juggernauts of the industry proved to be quite the dynamic pairing. Thus, they teamed up again to a more notable degree, somehow, with Dog Day Afternoon (1975). A heist film co-starring John Cazale, it remains among the finest films its subgenre has ever seen. Network (1976) continued his run of critical darlings, and that isn’t even touching on movies like Murder on the Orient Express (1974). In the end, this was one of the highest-quality runs of the decade, with Lumet just missing the top five.
5 Woody Allen
This entry marks a relatively noticeable step up in name value. Sure, several entries thus far have had massive impact on the industry, with a couple arguably surpassing Woody Allen in terms of overall popularity. But this was the decade in which Allen released the best film of his career: Annie Hall (1977). That satirical rom com is among the most recognizable titles covered on the entire list thanks to Allen’s writing, direction, and starring performance alongside Diane Keaton. All of those filmmaking facets and then some were nominated at the Academy Awards.
And several materialized into wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Original Screenplay. Allen’s spot in the top five is warranted from Annie Hall alone, not to mention other projects like Interiors (1978) and Manhattan (1979). Whether you agree with his style of storytelling, there’s no denying his prominence.
4 Martin Scorsese
Much like Allen, the next pick, and even the one after that, Martin Scorsese has an obvious, stand-out project from the seventies: Taxi Driver (1976). Featuring Robert De Niro as the main character Travis Bickle, it follows his descent into madness working the late-night shifts in New York City. Of course, his famous one-liner nearly transcends film itself, as “You talkin’ to me?” stands as one of the most meaningful and iconic movie quotes of all time.
But just like Allen, the next pick, and again the one after that, Scorsese released other titles throughout the decade at hand that of course helped land him within the list’s top five. Boxcar Bertha (1972), Mean Streets (1973), and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) all released before the aforementioned classic, while New York, New York (1977) brought up the rear. And although Taxi Driver is undoubtedly the most prominent, Scorsese had several other releases under his belt in the seventies.
3 George Lucas
Without beating around any bushes: Star Wars (1977) by George Lucas essentially changed the film industry as audiences still know it today. It feels almost redundant to analyze its success, as with Star Wars the filmmaker at hand helped the following pick on the list popularize the industry phenomenon known as summer blockbusters. But more on Spielberg in a moment.
These picks could go either way, with Lucas releasing another seminal project of his throughout this decade in American Graffiti (1973). It was massive upon release, but almost gets thrown by the modern wayside in a lot of respects. In reality, it had a huge hand in landing Lucas at number three.
2 Steven Spielberg
Of course, Jaws (1975) is the aforementioned project from Steven Spielberg that aided Lucas in creating the trend of summer blockbusters. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) helped in that regard, with both films garnering massive numbers at the worldwide box office on top of their widespread acclaim from the minds of critics and audiences alike.
Jaws is one of the most intense films you’ll ever see, with innovative tactics of props and set design propelling the project to new heights. “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” is another one of those quotes that seems pointless to touch on, as it’s commonly cited among the medium’s most well-known. But Jaws itself holds massive name value, with Close Encounters only bolstering Spielberg’s case.
1 Francis Ford Coppola
Without a doubt the king of Hollywood in the 1970s was Francis Ford Coppola, who changed the industry forever with his release of The Godfather (1972). In all honesty, he has a good case for this number one spot off that film alone, even if Spielberg and Lucas accrued far greater numbers regarding ticket sales from theaters. The Godfather is commonly cited among the greatest projects the silver screen has ever seen, with its sequel The Godfather: Part II (1974) arguably surpassing its quality.
But The Conversation (1974) from the same year as Part II rarely gets talked about today, even though it’s one of the most witty and intense thrillers of the decade. Of course, Apocalypse Now (1979) is another one of the most renowned films ever made, often being cited as perhaps the single greatest war movie of all time. With very good reason. Ultimately, there’s no argument against Coppola: all four of those releases have been preserved in the National Film Registry, accrued numerous Oscars, and ultimately defined American cinema throughout the 1970s.