1977 wasn’t the best of years, and continued the downward trend in widespread innovation that had made the first half of the decade so impressive. But as always there were movie makers still willing to rise to the challenge of creating something different, or pushing previously accepted boundaries. 1978 was a year that showed that there was a definite audience for mainstream, so-called summer tentpole movies, as the shdaow of Jaws (1975) continued to influence the studios in their choice of releases and their marketing strategies. The movies below reflect both the mainstream and the more traditional, independently produced movies that had been so prevalent just a few years before. 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 watching them in another forty years’ time.
1) The Deer Hunter – Michael Cimino’s epic tale of three friends caught up in the insanity of the Vietnam War is a visceral, thought-provoking drama that, at the time of its release, caused controversy because of its Russian Roulette scene, and its depiction of the Vietnamese as unnecessarily cruel and sadistic. But with powerful performances from Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and John Savage as the three friends, as well as a tremendous sense of America going through a seismic period of social and political change, the movie has much to say about the nature of working class friendships, and how extreme pressure can warp the minds of even the strongest of individuals. A one of a kind movie, it’s impact can still be felt in war movies depicting the Vietnam era even now, and as such, its inclusion in 1996 in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as a “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” movie seems all too appropriate.
2) Days of Heaven – It’s hard to believe now but on its release, Days of Heaven wasn’t a commercial success, and there were many critics who felt that its cinematography (by Néstor Almendros and Haskell Wexler) was its only saving grace. True, it was a problematical production, with director Terrence Malick and editor Billy Weber spending two years assembling the final cut, but beyond the magisterial photography, it’s a movie that reflects on a love triangle as seen through the eyes of a teenage girl. It’s a bold, lyrical piece, structurally complex, but with deliberately muted passions on display throughout, a choice that relates specifically to the viewpoint of the teenage girl (beautifully played by Linda Manz). It’s enigmatic, certainly, but in such a fashion that the viewer can interpret matters in their own way, and take as much or as little as they want from the material. And like The Deer Hunter, it too has been included in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.
3) Big Wednesday – A personal project for its writer/director (and surfer), John Milius, Big Wednesday recalls something of a bygone age, a simpler time that catches its characters on the verge of adulthood and responsibility (the shadow of Vietnam looms large over the narrative). Though the sub-culture Milius was exploring – and which he himself had been a part of – was tellingly presented, critics at the time chose to be disparaging of his efforts, but viewed now the movie can be recognised as a sincere and affectionate tribute to friendships made through a shared connection, and the bonds that develop as a result. Some of the performances are a little rough around the edges, but the movie has a simple charm that more than compensates for any perceived deficiencies, and as expected, the surfing sequences – shot in a variety of locations including Sunset Beach in Pupukea in Hawaii – are beautiful and breathtaking, and thrilling to watch.
4) The Marriage of Maria Braun – A movie that’s as fascinating for what went on behind the scenes of its production as it is for the finished product, The Marriage of Maria Braun came along at a time in its director, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s career when he was trying to get Berlin Alexanderplatz made (he would shoot this by day and write Berlin‘s script by night). That he was able to make such a commanding and distinctive movie under such circumstances – and with the help of large quantities of cocaine – shows just how good a director he was. The tale of a woman whose marriage goes unfulfilled thanks to her husband’s post-war imprisonment, and who adapts to post-war life by becoming a wealthy industrialist’s mistress, it features a mesmerising performance from Hanna Schygulla as Maria, and works as a metaphor for Germany’s post-war renaissance. A critical and commerical success on its first release, it remains one of Fassbinder’s finest movies, and is compelling from start to finish.
5) Superman – The advertising boldly stated, “You will believe a man can fly” – and we did. Famously shot in tandem with its proposed sequel, Superman II (1980), the movie broke new ground in special effects and fantasy movie making, and this despite an inconsistent tone that veered between high camp and more serious, straightforward drama. It made an overnight star of Christopher Reeve, proved that superhero movies could be successful (it was the second highest grossing movie of the year), and ushered in an era of fantasy movie making that continues today. That it turned out as well as it did is a tribute to its director, Richard Donner, and the persistence of its producers, Ilya and Alexander Salkind and Pierre Spengler, who took a huge risk in making it. Full of iconic moments, and indelible performances, Superman remains hugely enjoyable to this day, and as a template for all the superhero fantasy movies that have followed in its wake, it deserves our thanks for getting so much right, and with such confidence. And it’s in the National Film Registry as well.
6) Halloween – Looking at Halloween forty years after its release (and just ahead of an official sequel that ignores all the other movies made in the years since), it’s worth pointing out that Michael Myers’ reign of terror is a surprisingly bloodless affair; it’s all about the atmosphere. Using first person point-of-view shots to put viewers in Myers’ shoes, effortlessly fluid camerawork thanks to the use of a Steadicam, introducing the trope of the “final girl”, and employing a soundtrack – and that piano motif – that instantly instills a sense of dread, John Carpenter’s hugely influential horror movie is a chilling exercise in how to build tension, then build it some more, and then a bit more before delivering some of the best jump scares ever committed to celluloid – the murder of Bob, anyone? In the years since, the movie has gained a well deserved reputation as the progenitor of the slasher movie (though there were plenty before it), but none of them has managed to replicate the sense of sheer terror that Carpenter creates here. (And yes, it’s in the National Film Registry.)
7) La Cage aux Folles – If you only know of La Cage aux Folles‘ existence through its US remake, The Birdcage (1996), then shame on you. Easily one of the best comedies of 1978, this adaptation of the play by Jean Poiret has a mischievous sense of humour and features pitch perfect performances from Ugo Tognazzi and Michel Serrault as the warring gay couple, Renato and Albin. It’s a riotous affair, and though you could argue that Renato and Albin teeter precariously on the edge of being gay stereotypes, there’s a poignant sincerity to their relationship that offsets such criticism, and the notion that they could be just as worried as parents as a heterosexual couple is made without recourse to heavy-handed proselytising or hyperbole. Director Édouard Molinaro directs with a simple flair and consideration for the inner lives of the characters that supports the material, and there’s a freshness that two sequels, a Hollywood remake, and a gay porn version (that bizarrely exploits an elderly Greta Garbo) haven’t been able to improve on.
8) The Tree of Wooden Clogs – A three hour-plus movie about the lives of four peasant families working on farms in the Lombardy region of Italy in 1898 may not seem like the basis for a compelling drama – and especially when you realise that it features a cast entirely made up of non-professionals – but Ermanno Olmi’s The Tree of Wooden Clogs is nothing short of a masterpiece. It’s a poetic, beautifully photographed movie about the hardships of everyday rural life that is given a tangible reality by Olmi’s attention to period detail and what appears to be a detached approach to both the characters and their situations, but which proves to be hugely compassionate instead. An immersive experience that is refreshingly free of guile or artifice, Olmi’s perceptive screenplay brings in elements of social revolution and self-determination that reflect working class aspirations of the period, but it’s the focus on the families’ day-to-day efforts to survive that bring the most rewards, as Olmi paints a stark yet strikingly beautiful portrait of persistent adversity and the small triumphs that make it more bearable.
9) Heaven Can Wait – During the late Sixties and on into the Seventies, Warren Beatty could do no wrong. By the time he came to make Heaven Can Wait he was an A-list star who could get a movie made just by announcing his interest in a project. Such was the case here, and in adapting Harry Segall’s original play for the second time – after Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) – Beatty knew well enough to retain the screwball feel of the previous movie but also to update it for modern audiences. The result is a cracking example of a mainstream comedy, with sleek production values that serve the material instead of overwhelming it, and a very talented cast that know exactly what they’re doing (Charles Grodin is a particular standout). With an earnest quality to its romantic angle, and characters that are pleasantly two-dimensional, the movie is a frothy confection that’s ably directed by Beatty and Buck Henry, and which is entertaining on several levels. Beatty followed this up with Reds (1981), and while that movie has its own merits, Beatty playing comedy is something to be even more thankful for.
10) The Last Waltz – Widely regarded as the greatest rock concert movie ever made, The Last Waltz occupies a lofty place in music documentary history. A record of the last concert ever to be played by the original line-up of The Band, and interspersed with interviews with the group carried out by the movie’s director, Martin Scorsese, along with studio-based versions of certain songs, this is an astonishing visual and aural feast for anyone with even a halfway serious appreciation for rock music and its attendant concert experience. With a host of guest musicians ranging from Bob Dylan to Neil Young (who had to have a smudge of cocaine removed in post-production) to Muddy Waters to Joni Mitchell, the movie benefits from the decision to shoot in 35mm and to use seven cameras in capturing it all (among the cinematographers: Vilmos Zsigmond, László Kovács, and Michael Chapman). There are tremendous renditions of classic songs and equally tremendous performances as well, all in service to a movie that celebrates a band whose contribution to the history of rock music remains as indelible now as it did forty years ago.