1976 wasn’t exactly a great year for the movies, and 1977 seemed content to follow in its footsteps. Aside from the movies listed below (and a certain movie set in a galaxy far, far away), 1977 was a year that disappointed more than it rewarded, and the massive forward strides that had been made in the first half of the decade in terms of storytelling, directing, and acting, were beginning to seem like a distant memory. What all the movies listed below have in common is a director at the helm with a clear vision of what the movie is about, and how that message is best relayed/imparted to the audience. Across a wide range of themes and subject matters, these movies have stood the test of time over the last forty years, and like all truly impressive movies, we’ll still be talking about them in another forty years’ time.
1) Eraserhead – A movie that could qualify as the dictionary definition of bizarre (and which Variety described as “a sickening bad-taste exercise”), Eraserhead is an unsettling, disturbing surrealist masterpiece. Deftly examining contrary notions of sexual disgust and longing, Lynch’s debut feature is visually arresting, but is more notable for its sound design, an aural landscape that permeates the movie and provides an unnerving backdrop for the events occurring on screen. For many, this is the highpoint of Lynch’s career, but if one thing about it is true, it’s that it’s a movie that’s never been replicated; nor is it ever likely to be.
2) That Obscure Object of Desire – Luis Buñuel’s last movie is a romantic drama set against the backdrop of a terrorist insurgency, and is famous for his use of two actresses – Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina – in the same role. It also contains Buñuel’s trademark surrealist humour, explorations of sexual frustration, a healthy dose of cynicism, and one of Fernando Rey’s most enjoyable performances. Regarded as a masterpiece by contemporary critics, That Obscure Object of Desire sees Buñuel having fun, and rewarding his fans with possibly the most relaxed and accessible movie of his entire career.
3) Close Encounters of the Third Kind – Justly famous for its stunning Devil’s Tower-set climax, Steven Spielberg’s ode to (peaceful) alien contact is big on awe and wonder, and forty years on, still retains an emotional wallop. Richard Dreyfus is a great choice for the movie’s everyman central character, and though the movie has been re-edited twice since its original release, it’s arguable that the 1977 version is still the best cut available. With that musical motif still oddly effective after all this time, and Spielberg managing to keep everything grounded, it’s an exciting, hugely entertaining slice of science fiction and a classic of the genre.
4) Annie Hall – It was nearly called Anhedonia (the inability to experience pleasure), and could have been known as either It Had to Be Jew or Me and My Goy, but in the end, Woody Allen settled for the much simpler Annie Hall, and an Best Film Oscar winner was born. The movie that first saw Allen move away from making out and out comedies, and address more dramatic issues, it sees Allen’s Alvy “Max” Singer break the fourth wall on various occasions, and make a fashion icon (albeit briefly) out of Diane Keaton. Much like David Lynch and Eraserhead, there are those who feel that Annie Hall is Allen’s best movie… and you know what? It’s difficult to argue with them.
5) Julia – When Fred Zinnemann’s Nazi-era drama first appeared on our screens, its depiction of writer Lillian Hellman’s own pre-War experiences was quickly challenged by critics and those in the know. But though Hellman’s credibility may have been in question, what isn’t is the quality of the movie itself, from its star performances (Vanessa Redgrave, Jane Fonda) to its impressive period settings, and its fascinating storyline (even if it is largely apocryphal). A movie that’s still ripe for discussion, the controversy that surrounds it makes it all the more intriguing to watch, and it sees Zinnemann on fine form, orchestrating the material with his usual aplomb.
6) 3 Women – Robert Altman was a mercurial director, with a tremendous faith in his own abilities, but even he may have been surprised that he got 3 Women made as easily as he did. Based on a dream Altman had and which he intended to make without a formal script, the movie’s psychological examination of the titular characters and the relationships they develop was greenlit on the back of Altman’s previous work. It’s a movie that can be described in many ways: absorbing, meticulous, grandiose, ambitious, funny, and more still, making it a movie that contains a number of wonderful surprises and is as fresh now as it was in 1977.
7) The American Friend – Wim Wenders’ atmospheric neo-noir thriller, adapted from the novel Ripley’s Game by Patricia Highsmith, is at first glance, a movie that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but if you stick with it (or better still, see it a second time) then the cleverness of Wenders’ approach, along with Dennis Hopper’s accomplished performance as Tom Ripley, becomes immediately apparent. A tragic tale that is by turns gripping, stylish, and unapologetic in its nihilism, The American Friend coasts through the seedy underbelly of European criminal life with a dispassionate eye for its crueller details, and Wenders turns famous directors such as Samuel Fuller into on screen gangsters.
8) Opening Night – A movie that suffered at the hands of critics on its release, John Cassavetes’ excoriating look at a self-destructive actress (played convincingly by Gena Rowlands) is difficult, intense, emotionally exhausting, powerful, and an undeniable triumph. A movie that makes its audience think about what’s happening, and which doesn’t provide any easy answers, Opening Night sees Cassavetes at the height of his writing and directing powers.
9) Desperate Living – Welcome to Mortville, home of criminals, nudists and sexual deviants, and the evil Queen Carlotta (who else but Edith Massey?). Just from that sentence alone you’d know it was a John Waters movie, and even though there’s no Divine to increase the level of audacious trashiness (is that a phrase? It is now), this is still a terrific example of how wickedly inventive Waters could be on a tiny budget. And let’s be honest, who else could get the critics from Good Housekeeping to walk out after ten minutes?
10) The Last Wave – Amazingly, The Last Wave was never picked up for distribution in the US back in ’77, an oversight that seems absurd given the movie’s reputation since then. But Peter Weir’s elliptical, thought-provoking clash of cultures and belief systems does feature one of Richard Chamberlain’s finest performances (if not the finest), some startling imagery courtesy of DoP Russell Boyd, and a final image that can be taken either literally or figuratively – something which is left entirely to the viewer.