Best Books and Movies of 1971

By Chris Breitenbach

1971 is my birth year. That would be, let's see...well, it's several decades ago now. I've been thinking a lot about that year, 1971. Richard Nixon was president, the war in Vietnam was still raging, Starbucks opened its first store, and both Missy Elliot and Winona Ryder were born, so I'm in good company. What follows is a smattering of some of the books and films first published or released in that tumultuous year, some 50 years ago.

  • Harold and Maude


    The ultimate cult classic? People don’t just like Harold and Maude, they love it. Director Hal Ashby had a near-perfect run of films throughout the 1970s, and this one is best for good reason. A love affair between a wealthy, troubled young man and a wonderfully eccentric septuagenarian, it’s got a lovely, ramshackle vitality to it that’s undeniably of its time and yet transcends it.

    Get this item
  • A New Leaf


    The writing and directing debut of the great comedian Elaine May is a screwball classic that came and went in 1971 with decent critical reviews but no audience. Viewers discovered it over the years and it’s now gone on to become a screwball cult classic. Of course, the film is also notorious for stripping May of the final director’s cut, so one can only imagine what she truly envisioned.

    Get this item
  • Shaft


    Following hot on the heels of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Shaft helped launch an influential run of 70s blaxploitation films that were often accompanied by impeccable soundtracks. Issac Hayes’ "Theme from Shaft" went on to win Best Original Song at the 1972 Oscars, and the song itself is still part of pop-culture consciousness, reminding us that John Shaft is “a complicated man" with amazing sideburns.

    Get this item
  • A Touch of Zen: Xia Nü


    This magical martial arts film by the great writer/director King Hu was his dream project, an elaborate, visually stunning, and immensely entertaining wuxia tale. And like the best wuxia films (and let’s be clear, this is one of the best), there's amazing swordplay, weightless leaps (Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon drew heavily from Hu), and awesome displays of “palm power.” The whole thing is ridiculously, breathtakingly awesome.

    Get this item
  • McCabe & Mrs. Miller


    The great critic Pauline Kael wrote that McCabe & Mrs. Miller was “a beautiful pipe dream of a movie--a fleeting, almost diaphanous vision of what frontier life might have been.” Which, you know, it really is. It helps, of course, that its director, Robert Altman, was a distinct, visionary director not afraid to bend the rules of filmmaking--his use of multitrack sound, for example. It helps, too, that he was working with Warren Beatty and Julie Christie, who are both beautiful and terrific in this.

    Get this item
  • The Exorcist

    2011 by Blatty, William Peter

    The Exorcist came out in June 1971 and everybody wanted to read it. Readers were ready for tween demonic possession and pulpy theological horror and the book was one of the years top-10 bestsellers. Two years later, it was made into a blockbuster movie where poor Linda Blair, among other demonic flights of fancy, projectile vomits (it was pea soup) onto the face of a priest.

    Get this item
  • Then Again, Maybe I Won't

    2012 by Blume, Judy

    Like many, I devoured Blume’s books because, for a while at least, there was nobody else like her. She was my gateway to books. Books that went down easy. Books that felt like they knew me. And one of Blume’s specialties was puberty. Periods, wet-dreams, bras, erections, pubic hair--all those weirdly taboo, freaky transformations we were going through written with humor, narrative skill, and great empathy. A legend.

    Get this item
  • Be Here Now


    Along with Timothy Leary, Ram Dass was one of the most important figures of '60s lysergic culture. By the early '70s, Dass had returned from a pilgrimage to India transformed and published his mystical masterpiece, Be Here Now. It sold more than two million copies and helped plant the seeds of the Western New Age movement.

    Get this item
  • Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago

    1988 by Royko, Mike

    Outside of Richard Cramer’s What It Takes, Mike Royko’s Boss is one of the best books about American politics I’ve ever read. It’s a trenchant, caustic look at the then-reigning Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago and the brand of well-oiled Machine politics that lingers to this day. Royko’s understanding and love for the city was completely homegrown, and his muckraking journalism still shines like a beacon.

    Get this item
  • Angle of Repose

    2014 by Stegner, Wallace

    One day in 1997, when I was working as a bright-eyed intern, a coworker brought in a cardboard box of paperbacks they were giving away. I knew vaguely of Stegner, so I remember happily claiming Angle of Repose. It was in great shape. Had they even cracked this one open? I mean, it's a big sprawl of a book (more than 500 pages), always welcoming, and a wonderful introduction to Stegner’s deep love of an American West stripped of its preening myths.

    Get this item
  • The Lathe of Heaven

    2003 by Le Guin, Ursula K.

    I first encountered Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven via a terribly cheesy but hugely popular 1980 PBS adaptation of the book. I wanted it to be Star Wars, though its bargain-bin special effects were glaring. But its premise, that one man’s dreams can change reality in unexpected ways, stuck with me. And like any dream, the results seem very real even while they're going terribly astray.

    Get this item
  • Go Ask Alice


    In my middle school years, somewhere in the early '80s, Go Ask Alice still loomed large. The supposedly “real diary” of an anonymous teenage addict, it was a cautionary tale. When I read it, its initial shock value had been diluted into something cheesy and hyperbolic, though I should note it was still showing up on top-10 banned books lists as late as 2003, some 20 years after its initial publication. At age 13, I secretly read it in a single gulp one lazy summer day, and it left virtually no aftertaste.

    Get this item