There's a loose consensus that the 1970s was the best decade of American cinema. It's the kind of theory one can't really dispute, but it does hold water when you think about the range of films that played on movie screens during that decade: action-packed blockbusters (Jaws, Star Wars); stirring epics (The Godfather, The Deer Hunter); trendsetting exploitation pictures (Shaft, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). The fractured schools of international cinema—French new wave, Italian neo-realism—gelled with elements from traditional American genres (gun-slinging westerns, war melodramas) to form a synthesis that's still casting a shadow over today's filmmakers.

The Northwest Film Center is hosting a month-long program of some of the best American movies from the decade. Though they've supposedly selected "smaller" movies from the '70s—ones that focused on character and interior drama—I'm going to ignore this distinction, and simply take advantage of some damn good movies.

There's Mean Streets, one of Martin Scorsese's first, and possibly still his best, combining street violence with religious undercurrents in a way that Scorsese's been trying to duplicate ever since. There's Five Easy Pieces, the best movie Jack Nicholson has ever been in. And there are a bunch of other movies you should have seen by now, like All the President's Men, A Woman under the Influence, Badlands, and Network.

Appropriately, the series kicks off with The Last Picture Show, Peter Bogdanovich's 1971 black-and-white adaptation of Larry McMurtry's novel, starring a young Jeff Bridges and Cybill Shepherd. The heart of the movie, though, belongs to Ben Johnson's old-timer, who watches the film's small Texas town change from cowboy outpost into a casualty of oil-drilling big business. One could say a similar thing happened to Hollywood in the 1970s—but not before some excellent, one-of-a-kind movies were made.