As I explored the cinema of 1978, one thing I couldn’t help but notice was the abundance of excellent martial arts movies released in that year. You may have noticed that there were several examples of the genre in my Top 10 of 1978 list, but one of the challenges of such a list is to ensure some sense of diversity. I wanted to make sure the genre’s prevalence was represented, but I couldn’t very well list all of the martial arts films I loved without crowding out other films worthy of inclusion. It’s a balancing act and I think I did well enough on the list proper, but I figured we could use a little appendix of 1978 martial arts movies, because they’re worth a deeper dive.
As mentioned above, I’ve already discussed a few of the most important entries in the genre in my top 10 list (and earlier). That said, it’s worth giving them an additional curtain call, because they’re great. If you’re looking to dip your toes into martial arts cinema, these are a great place to start.
Warriors Two – While my top 10 selections leaned heavily on Jackie Chan’s breakout flicks where he was finally allowed to embrace his comedic skills, there was another famed comedic martial artist breaking out at around the same time. Sammo Hung directed this excellent movie starring Casanova Wong (also known as the “Human Tornado”) to great effect.
Hung himself plays only a small role in the film, but would later emerge as a key player in the scene. While perhaps not as lauded or referenced as other examples of the genre, this one is absolutely worth seeking out. [Kaedrin Review]
The Avenging Eagle – This Shaw Brothers programmer doesn’t get a ton of love and it’s the sort of movie that I’d probably never have seen if it werent’f or an exercise like the 1978 project forcing me to find more obscure movies (or not – I’m sure there’s some martial arts movie expert reading this right now and shaking their head mournfully). As such, I was surprised by how much I loved this movie. As per usual, the story isn’t particularly distinguished, but the action is fabulous and the villain memorable. Well worth seeking out… [Kaedrin Review]
Flying Guillotine II: Palace Carnage – One of a long line of sequels (there are numerous official and unofficial entries in the series) that leverage the fanciful Flying Guillotine concept, a deadly weapon that can decapitate with the flick of the wrist. In case you can’t tell from my various writeups of martial arts movies, the story is rarely a selling point and this is not really any different, but I like how well they put the rather absurd concept of a Flying Guillotine through its paces here. Certainly one of the better sequels out there. [Kaedrin Review]
The Five Deadly Venoms – I watched this a few years ago because I had heard good things and found it slightly disappointing, but it’s reputation in my mind has only grown over time. Perhaps it’s because it takes a while for the action sequences to rev up, and perhaps it’s that the plot actually is a selling point here (one of the few examples of such things), but it’s a genuinely great movie. Plus, you can see its influence all over if you look for it, and not just in the obvious Tarantino homages in Kill Bill. [Kaedrin Review]
Crippled Avengers – Probably the more controversial entry on this list, this movie has quite a bonkers premise. This initially dissuaded me from the movie, but I’ve kinda turned a corner on this one, and it’s a memorable experience if nothing else. This one probably has the most qualified recommendation of any on this list, but if you’re up for it, it’s a fascinating little flick. [Kaedrin Review]
So there you have it. I probably watched about 10 other 1978 movies that could be considered martial arts flicks, which I think warrants this separate list. Almost done with the 1978 project, so stay tuned for some Closing Thoughts, coming soon…
After almost two years, we finally come to that hallowed tradition of a top 10 list for my favorite films of 1978. For the uninitiated, the 1978 Project is a deep dive into the cinema of the year of my birth. This sort of annual appraisal is normally reserved for current releases, but I’ve found the process of exploring the past quite enjoyable as well. I’ve been doing the current release thing for a while now though, so if you’d like to take a spin through the last fifteen years, feel free: [2020 | 2019 | 2018 | 2017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006]
At this point, I’d usually try to identify some overarching themes to represent the year in question, but I think I’ll be leaving that for a separate post. I’ll just note that the added perspective of time plays an interesting role here. In some cases, this can boil down to nostalgia, in others, a film’s influence my be the kicker. As of this writing, I’ve seen 87 films that would be considered a 1978 release. Probably more that most folks and I’d wager more than a lot of critics, but not necessarily comprehensive.
I suppose I should also mention that a lot of the above lists often feature a movie that originated in the previous year but did not become available until later (often times a film’s premiere happens at a film festival or is only available in one country, etc… before a true wide release). All of which is to say that there are probably some 1977 movies that could be considered for the below list (or some films below that might better fit a 1979 list), but I just went by the dates on IMDB and Letterboxd. Anywho, standard disclaimers apply, let’s get this party started…
Top Ten Movies of 1978
* In roughly reverse order
Heaven Can Wait – This Warren Beatty vehicle begins with a seemingly silly, screwball premise that is slowly transformed into something deeper and more sophisticated. Elaine May is co-credited as screenwriter, and I think her influence is apparent. The whole effort is bolstered by a strong supporting cast, including Charles Grodin, Julie Christie, and James Mason, amongst others. A heartfelt comedy that has seemingly disappeared these days.
Animal House – It’s a comedy rooted in its time and place, but I can’t help but see the entertainment and influence, and its dated nature kinda fits why this whole exercise is worthwhile. Comedies often get short shrift in lists like this, but not so here. Of course, it helps when you have someone like John Belushi just dominating the screen, not to mention bit players like John Vernon as the Platonic ideal of the crusty old dean.
The First Great Train Robbery – Michael Crichton wrote and directed this underrated Victorian train heist flick. Sean Connery stars and is excellent, but it’s Donald Sutherland that steals the show as a knuckle-cracking pickpocket. It’s got everything you could want out of a heist film and it’s supremely entertaining.
I Wanna Hold Your Hand – Robert Zemeckis’ debut directorial effort is one of the better examples of the “one crazy night” sub-genre in which four young women attempt to sneak into seeing the The Beatles perform on The Ed Sullivan Show. Zemeckis captured the perfect tone to tell the story, which manages to personalize the teeming throngs of Beatle-mania and provides a cohesive core for the episodic story (something this sub-genre often lacks).
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin – A classic martial arts tale in its purest form, a pinnacle of the Shaw Brothers catalog, and a clear influence on future films (and, uh, music). Most of the movie is just an extended kung-fu training sequence, and yet this somehow manages to carve out its own distinct identity, even if it’s a common story and somewhat predictable.
Great choreography and expert use of the zoom (a shot not in favor these days, but it’s perfectly deployed here), just hugely entertaining stuff.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers – Philip Kaufman’s stylish remake of the 50s paranoid classic somehow holds its own. I’m usually hard on remakes, but this movie ably clears the high bar set by its predecessor. Another great performance from Donald Sutherland (rockin a bitchin porno stache) here, as well as supporting turns from Leonard Nimoy and a young Jeff Goldblum, all anchored by Kaufman’s canted angles and visual boldness.
Gates of Heaven – Errol Morris’ first documentary feature film is ostensibly about pet cemeteries, but that’s kinda like saying that Moby Dick is about a whale. Through a loosely connected series of interviews with people surrounding a particular pet cemetery, Morris subtly reflects upon philosophical concepts of human nature and death with pathos, compassion, and humor. It’s an unlikely trick he pulls off here, so much so that Werner Herzog famously ate his own shoes because he made a bet with Morris that he’d never make it work.
Blue Collar – Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel, and Yaphet Kotto are all phenomenal as the down-on-their-luck workers seeking a big score, only to find themselves ensconced in a convoluted machine that they can’t escape in Paul Schrader’s bleak directorial debut. It’s a difficult movie to recommend, but it’s quite good if you’ve got the stones for it.
Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow – The first of two 1978 collaborations between Yuen Woo-ping and Jackie Chan, I’m giving this one the slight edge for preceding Drunken Master, and also just because Chan’s character is more likable here. The intricate choreography is exceptional, of course, and Chan was finally allowed to incorporate his comedic persona into the martial arts form in ways that would have a lasting impact. The story isn’t particularly special, but everything else about this is great, not to mention featuring the greatest death scene of all time.
Halloween – The #1 slot just has to go to this movie. Of course, it’s expertly made in every facet, ranging from John Carpenter’s direction, Debra Hill’s writing, great acting from Jamie Lee Curtis and an unhinged Donald Pleasance, Carpenter’s score, and the list goes on.
But this really takes the top slot because it’s the movie that got me into horror as a youngin, and it’s the one movie on this list that I watch every year, without fail. Is it a nostalgic and personal pick? I guess, but it’s perfect and these lists would be boring without such influences.
Autumn Sonata – “The Meeting of the Bergmans”, Ingmar directs Ingrid in the waning chapters of both of their careers. It’s a talky, melodramatic film with great performances from Ingrid Bergman as a cold, distant mother and Liv Ullmann as the mousy but justifiably angry daughter. This sort of wallowing in emotional angst isn’t normally my thing, but I couldn’t help but fall into the rythms of the movie.
The Deer Hunter – It’s overlong, indulgent, ham-fisted, and a little obnoxious at times, but it’s filled with great performances and while some of this stuff is a stretch, it’s nonetheless incredibly effective at times. It’s got too many issues to really make it into the top 10, but it’s one of those movies you should watch at some point…
The Silent Partner – A rock solid 70s thriller about bank robbers playing a game of cat and mouse with a bank teller who gets in the way. Nice performances from Elliot Gould and Susannah York, a good villainous turn by Christopher Plummer, and plenty of twists and turns. Not the best example of this sort of thing, but definitely underrated and underseen.
The Inglorious Bastards – Italian revisionist World War II flick that is positively infused with chaotic 70s energy mixed with who-gives-a-shit grimy exploitation panache. It’s easy to see why Tarantino would take inspiration from something like this, and it’s certainly much less straightforward than most WWII flicks you’re likely to encounter. Stars Bo Svenson and Fred Williamson keep things lively, while director Enzo Castellari deploys plenty of Italian style. A solid, bombastic flick that’s well worth checking out.
The Medusa Touch – British thriller about a man cursed with “a gift for disaster”, this is a great, strange little slice of late 70s paranoia. Oddly, it’s one of two 1978 movies about comatose men using psychic powers to wreak havoc (the other being Richard Franklin’s stylish Patrick, which should probably also be on this list so I’m just mentioning it here). I discovered this just before beginning the 1978 project in earnest, and it unlocked some of Amazon’s algorithmic gremlins, recommending a bunch of strange, obscure thrillers that I quite enjoyed exploring.
Drunken Master – That other Jackie Chan vehicle directed by Yuen Woo-ping, and probably the more famous one, it’s basically the same cast and crew making another excellent martial arts movie, this time centered around the rather amusing concept of Drunken Boxing. It was followed by sequels and remakes, but this original is the best.
Big Wednesday – John Milius is more famous for bombastic fare like Conan the Barbarian and Red Dawn, but he also made this small-scale episodic drama about a trio of surfers living through the 60s and 70s. Not my usual thing, but I’m glad I caught up with it for sure.
Dawn of the Dead – I don’t get nearly as much out of this as your typical horror fanatic, but even as someone who’s not a particularly big fan of zombie flicks, I have to admit that this is wildly effective and entertaining to watch. I think people make way too much out of its thematic power, but it does have plenty to chew on if you go below the surface.
The Fury – Brian De Palma’s follow up to Carrie also concerns a psychic teenager, this time a boy. It’s interesting, if a bit derivative, but it has some of De Palma’s trademark bravura visuals and an eye-opening ending that’s really something else.
Magic – It’s a ventriloquist vs killer dummy tale directed by Richard Attenborough, written by William Goldman, and starring Anthony Hopkins, so it’s much better than the premise would imply. This was a big surprise to me during a Six Weeks of Halloween marathon a few years ago, one of the better underrated flicks from 1978.
Superman – Richard Donner (RIP) directed this movie that basically set the stage for the current superhero boom. The first hour or so of this movie is absolutely perfect, and Christopher Reeve gives a great performance. It’s also nice to see an earnest take on Superman; one that is not steeped in cynicism or embarrassed by optimism. There’s no ironic winking and it all just works.
The Last Waltz – Martin Scorsese directed this concert documentary about The Band’s final show, featuring a cavalcade of amazing musical guests including Bob Dylan, Neil Diamond, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Ringo Starr, and plenty of others. Concert films are always a bit of a drag for me – it’s great that there’s a document of a show like this… but it’s clearly a document and you can’t truly capture the experience of being there. That said, this one kinda got to me, so if you’re into this sort of thing, it doesn’t get much better.
Grease – I’m not a big fan of musicals, but I can definitely see why this has such a devoted following. It rides the wave of 50s nostalgia that ran through the 70s and features two starmaking performances by John Travolta and Olivia Newton John. Not really my thing, but it’s pure, enjoyable fluff.
The Driver – Walter Hill’s entertaining flick about the best getaway driver in the business has never had a great release and it would be great if one of those little boutique physical media companies (i.e. Shout, Arrow, Vinegar Syndrome, Twilight Time, etc…) would pick this up and give it proper treatment.
Anyway, great cops and robbers stuff here, and excellent car chases.
Midnight Express – Look, don’t try and smuggle drugs out of Turkey. Just don’t. If you do, you might end up living in a jail with hellish conditions and a legal system that continually dangles freedom in front of you, only to snatch it away at the last second. Harrowing stuff, and a well executed take on the story that served as the basis for the movie…
As an example of the book’s insights, here’s Goldman on the two kinds of movies:
There are really two kinds of flicks – what we now call generic Hollywood movies, and what we now call Independent films.
Hollywood films – and this is crucial to screenwriters – all have in common this: they want to tell us truths we already know or a falsehood we want to believe in.
Hollywood films reinforce, reassure.
Independent films, which used to be called “art” films, have a different agenda. They want to tell us things we don’t want to know.
Independent films unsettle.
A little reductive, to be sure, and we could quibble about the details all day if we want, but it’s at least an interesting dichotomy he’s suggesting, and the way he spins it out contains one of the better explanations for why Independent Films tend to do poorly with audiences:
Famous cartoon from fifty years back. A couple are at the original run of Death of a Salesman. The man turns to the woman, here’s what he says: “I’ll get you for this!”
The point is that most of us work all day, often at something we don’t much love anymore but we do it till we drop. At the end of our average days, we want peace, we want relaxation, maybe a bite of food, a few kind words.
We do not want to watch Willy Loman’s suicide.
What we are really dealing with when we talk of the two Hollywoods is audience size.
… Most people want to be told nice things. I cannot repeat that too often to anyone who wants to screenwrite for a living. You can be Bergman if you have the talent, you can tell sad human stories – but do not expect Mr. Time Warner to give you $100 million to make your movie.
Again, plenty to quibble with here. I’d argue that there are lots of crossover flicks, whether it be what Goldman calls a “Hollywood” flick that manages to tell us something we don’t want to know or an “Independent” movie that tells us something we want to believe in, that somehow manage to find a huge audience. Goldman would later touch on this topic again in a famous essay called “Who killed Hollywood?”
I’m not talking here about the difference between entertainment and art. Hollywood films can be, and often are, art. And many, if not most, independent films are boring.
I suspect many would like to upgrade their “quibbles” to something stronger at this point, but I can appreciate this point of view. Goldman’s books are highly recommended and would be number one on my list of great books about movies. I can save the full list for another post, but I should probably get to finishing off the 1978 Project, shouldn’t I?
Last time on Weird Movie of the Week, we watched the Citizen Kane of Astrology movies. This time, we’ve got a tale of forbidden love between people named Obama and Osama. Ultimately, it’s a tale of two internet-based movie databases.
Because streaming services are terrible at curation and discoverability, I peruse a number of other websites and tools to see what’s new and interesting. Because I’m a weirdo, it’s often the more obscure selections that catch my eye, like this one that I discovered on JustWatch (new on Amazon Prime, because of course it’s Prime material):
The subject of the film is exceptionally intriguing. It revolves around a man named Barrack Obama and a man named Osama bin Laden. To win the hand of the middle aged man, the hero, bin Laden needs to cross a few obstacles on his way as he is a Muslim and the man of his dreams is a Christian. The movie “When Obama loved Osama” and remember: Osama bin Stylin on all yall n*gs
Apologies for some minor censorship at the end there (honestly not sure what to make of that), but what the fuck is going on with this movie description? Was it written by a six-year-old who doesn’t quite speak English and was only told the title of the movie? As it turns out, the description on Amazon Prime itself isn’t nearly as weird (or as tantalizing, sadly):
Two youngsters, Maggi Obama and Aman Osama, who come from different communal backgrounds are in love with each other. Will their love overcome the religious differences and will they be united?
I mean, that sounds outright boring compared to the bananapants movie described by the six-year-old. What’s going on here? It turns out that there are two major internet movie databases. Everyone knows IMDB (Internet Movie Database), which is also owned by Amazon and unsurprisingly powers Amazon Prime (and thus it has the more prosaic description). But there’s also TMDB (The Movie Database), which has the more insane description and powers lots of websites, including JustWatch and Letterboxd.
Anyway, I didn’t end up watching the movie. It turns out that this is probably not actually a weird movie of the week, but I figured I’d capture the process of figuring out that it’s not. For posterity. Or something.
The 1978 Project edition of the Kaedrin Movie Awards were finished off last week. The idea is to recognize aspects of films that aren’t reflected in more traditional awards or other praise like a Top 10 list. However, any awards system will fail to capture all the nuances and complexity available; hence the Arbitrary Awards, an opportunity to commend movies that are weird or flawed in ways that don’t conform to normal standards. A few of these “awards” have become an annual tradition, but most are just, well, arbitrary. If you’re curious as to how this has played out over more recent years, you can see more Arbitrary Awards here: [2020 | 2019 | 2018 | 2017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006]
The “You know what happens when a toad gets struck by lightning? The same thing that happens to everything else” Award for Worst Dialogue:Attack of the Killer Tomatoes! This is one of those things where the whole package is so bad that it almost boomerangs back around to being good. Still the dialogue is silly at best. “Hey, can somebody please pass the ketchup?” Oof. Sadly, there are tons of 1978 movies that could compete for this award, but let’s not dwell on it, ok?
The Proximity to Jason Vorhees Award for Heroic Stupidity:The Redeemer: Son of Satan! What’s that? You’ve never heard of this movie? That’s probably for the best. There actually are some interesting bits about the movie, but the characters are pretty dumb and it’s the sort of thing that I only caught up with because it was easily available on streaming…
Best Badass/Villain (non-Human Edition): Zombies in Dawn of the Dead. I don’t love this movie nearly as much as most horror fanatics, but it is a good movie and it’s impossible to deny the influence of the Romero zombie sequence, this movie chief among them.
The “Weiner” Award for Unparalleled Access to Documentary Subjects: Koko: A Talking Gorilla. While not quite the coup that the category’s namesake implies, it’s great that someone was able to get so much footage of Koko while we could…
Most Weirdly Impressive Pedigree Applied to a Silly Premise: Magic. Directed by Richard Attenborough, written by William Goldman, starring Anthony Hopkins, Ann-Margret, Burgess Meredith, and Ed Lauter, none of whom are particularly well known for horror movies (except for Hopkins’ turn as Hannibal Lecter over a decade later). All in service of a ventriloquist vs killer dummy tale! And it works, too… They play it completely straight and the movie is legit pretty great. Also of note for this category: Piranha. Total Jaws ripoff, but it’s directed by Joe Dante and written by John Sayles.
Best Meme Derived from a 1978 Movie:Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Of course, it’s a bit of a spoiler, but that shot of Donald Sutherland at the end is an all time classic meme base.
Best Exploding Head:Dawn of the Dead. Tom Savini is clearly a champion of the category, and this is probably his earliest example of that sort of thing. However, worth noting some strong competition from The Fury, which actually might be better because you know the character whose head is exploding and thus it has more of an impact… Anyway, two top tier exploding heads means this is a pretty great year for horror movies, no?
Best Motion Picture Score:Superman by John Williams. I suppose that whole late-70s early-80s corridor is dominated by Williams, but there’s a reason for that. Strong competition from John Carpenter’s quickie Halloween score; simple but memorable and extremely effective. Giorgio Moroder’s score for Midnight Express won the Oscar and is certainly in the conversation as well…
Weirdest Plot Device with a Surprisingly Historical Precedent:Death Force. Our hero washes up on a Pacific island and encounters two Japanese soldiers who did not believe that WWII had ended (the movie is set towards the end of Vietnam). This was a real thing, though not quite widespread. “Hiroo Onoda remained in the jungle on Lubang Island near Luzon, in the Philippines, until 1974 because he did not believe that the war had ended.” Good for him, I guess. Anyway, Death Force is an absurd movie for more than just this historical note, but it’s worth calling out.
The Mumblecore Precursor Award:Girlfriends. Greta Gerwig owes a lot to Girlfriends. I guess perhaps not technically mumblecore, but still.
Most Harrowing Gameplay: The Russian roulette scene in The Deer Hunter. I have my issues with the movie, but that sequence is just expertly constructed and basically makes the whole exercise worthwhile.
Best Tarantino Referenced Movie:The Inglorious Bastards is the obvious choice for an obvious reason, but a more obscure option would be Five Deadly Venoms (aka The Five Venoms), which Tarantino lifted some sound effects from for the Kill Bill movies. I’m sure there are dozens of other references and tidbits that Tarantino has culled from 1978 movies, but those were the two that jumped out at me…
So there you have it, the 1978 Arbitrary Awards are in the books. Stay tuned for a Top 10 list (along with the requisite Honorable Mentions) and perhaps some additional 1978 Project thoughts in the coming weeks.
The nominations for the 1978 Project edition of the Kaedrin Movie Awards were announced last week, to much fanfare. After a week of rampant speculation and record-setting bets in Vegas sportsbooks, it’s time to announce the winners. Next week, I’ll announce the winners of some more goofy, freeform categories that we call the Arbitrary Awards, and not long after that, I’ll post my top 10 of 1978. And now, the KMA goes to:
Best Villain/Badass: Michael Myers, played by Nick Castle in Halloween. And it’s not even close. As mentioned in the noms, this wasn’t a standout year for villainy.
For crying out loud, two whole nominees (from Patrick and The Medusa Touch) spent the majority of their respective runtimes in a goddamn coma. Which, I’ll grant, is the point of those particular movies and they’re good examples of that sort of thing, but still. Another is only really there because of the comeuppance he receives in the end (Cassavetes in The Fury). Other nominees are fine… as nominees. But none can even approach The Shape.
Best Hero/Badass: Superman / Clark Kent, played by Christopher Reeve in Superman. I mean, I guess you wouldn’t call Supes much of a “badass”, but he’s pretty clearly an archetypal hero. Much more to choose from in the nominations and this decision was much closer than for villain.
Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween was certainly in the running, and that one speaks to the notion of balanced heroism/villainy. A good villain requires a good hero. A large proportion of nominees were driven by the seemingly endless supply of martial arts flicks in 1978, some of which genuinely do stand out from the crowd. Still, I couldn’t pass on Supes.
Best Comedic Performance: John Belushi in National Lampoon’s Animal House. A bit of a cheat in that Belushi is clearly just the standout performance in an ensemble, but then, as I said, he is the standout. And he’s fabulously funny in a way that many are inspired by but few can actually imitate. Jackie Chan is always fun to watch, and Charles Grodin does a lot with a little. Chevy Chase and Goldie Hawn did their best with a movie that never quite gelled. I Wanna Hold Your Hand is another ensemble piece that’s notable because of its mostly female cast, and it’s great. Cheech & Chong have never really been my thing, but I guess you have to recognize them. But Belushi’s short career means that some of these performances can only burn a bit brighter.
Breakthrough Performance: Jackie Chan in Drunken Master and Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow. Sure, he’d been around for a while and even had minor roles in movies like Enter the Dragon, but he wasn’t really allowed to be his goofy self until these two movies. His particular brand of slapstick comedy and underdog sensibilities really emerged here and would catapult him into stardom. Both Kevin Bacon and Jamie Lee Curtis are strong runners up and would go on to have big careers. If I were writing this in 1978 (or, more likely, 1979), the other nominees would probably have presented stronger because their performances were genuinely great.
Most Visually Stunning: Days of Heaven. Terrence Malick’s insane scheme to film most of the movie during the “magic hour” truly results in amazing pastoral photography, even if the story didn’t do a whole lot for me.
The runner up would probably Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which has a bunch of memorable shots and visual wizardry. Dawn of the Dead is less visually stunning than it is “best practical effects” or some such (hmm, I feel an arbitrary award brewing here). The other nominees are no slouches, though they’re mostly there for a handful of memorable shots rather than sustained visual prowess.
Best Sci-Fi or Horror Film: Halloween. It’s one of my favorite movies of all time, let alone 1978, and indeed, I watch it every year. The same can’t be said for many movies, and certainly not the other nominees. Which are a fine bunch, to be sure! Lots of great movies on the list and even the bad movies are memorably bad (ah, the The Manitou!) Of note here is the relative dearth of Science Fiction amongst the nominees. Even the ones that are there are arguably good demonstrations of the Intersection of Horror and SF. Anyway, I don’t know how I could even begin to justify something other than Halloween for this one.
Best Sequel/Reboot/Remake: Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I’m often very hard on sequels and remakes, so my first viewing of Philip Kaufman’s stylish remake of the classic was quite a surprise. I really love both versions of the film and would recommend both (as for the other two remakes in subsequent decades… not so much). Actually, the nominees are a pretty sharp bunch. I don’t love Dawn of the Dead nearly as much as a lot of horror folks, but I have a lot of respect for the way it follows up on the original. Death on the Nile and Flying Guillotine II are both solid extensions of their respective first films and worth checking out. The other nominees might not be quite as successful, but I have fond memories of both…
Biggest Disappointment: Foul Play. I don’t hate the movie by any stretch, it’s just that it had so much potential and I wanted to love it, to find that diamond in the rough, the neglected, underrated gem that simply got overshadowed by the stars’ later successes. Or something like that. It didn’t help that it took me a while to get my hands on a copy of the thing, so my anticipation kept building. As such, it scores poorly on Joe Posnanski’s Plus-Minus Scale. None of which is to say that the other nominees weren’t worthy, just that I’d always heard that The Lord of the Rings was a bit of a mess, and thus I didn’t expect it to be great. I watched Dracula’s Dog years ago on a whim because I thought it might be fun trash, but it turned out to be just trash. Long Weekend has a pretty good reputation amongst film geeks, but while I wanted to love it (as I do with everything I watch), I could tell that it might be pressing buttons that don’t really work for me. And so on.
Best Action Sequence: Drunken Master and Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow. I know, I know, I’m cheating, but seriously: these two movies share the same director/fight choreographer, most of the same cast and crew, and were probably made back to back in two weeks or something silly like that. And the action is just glorious. Something about Woo-Ping Yuen’s intricate style is just infinitely appealing (if you’re not familiar with his legendary Hong Kong work, I’m betting you are familiar with The Matrix, which he also worked on). And given the throngs of great Hong Kong martial arts flicks in 1978, I really needed to reward them here. The other nominees are certainly also worthy, though I struggled to find non-martial arts movies to compete. I think the two I managed to scrounge up are great though, and well worth checking out, but can’t really compete with the likes of Jackie Chan and Woo-Ping Yuen.
Best Plot Twist/Surprise: The Great Train Robbery. Michael Crichton’s underseen Victorian heist flick is a really fun, twisty thriller. I very nearly gave this to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but that movie already got an award and we like to spread things around at least a little, when we can. And I do think that The Great Train Robbery is an underrated gem that more people should check out. The other nominees are no slouches on this front, but we’re almost spoiling all this stuff just by talking about the fact that they have twists in the first place, so let’s just keep it at that…
Best High Concept Film: Heaven Can Wait. Its got a bit of a wacky premise, but Warren Beatty and Elaine May (adapting a play by Harry Segall) put it through its paces and end up in deeper water than you’d expect. The idea of this category is notoriously nebulous, so some of the nominees probably don’t fit much, and I feel like we see a lot more of this sort of thing these days than we did back in the day, but here we are.
Congrats to all the 1978 Kaedrin Movie Awards winners! Stay tuned for the Arbitrary Awards, coming next week…
Welcome to the 1978 Project edition of the Kaedrin Movie Awards! The idea is to recognize films for various achievements that don’t always reflect well on top 10 lists or traditional awards. There are lots of formal award categories and nominees listed below, but once those are announced, we’ll also leave some room for Arbitrary Awards that are more goofy and freeform. Finally, we’ll post a traditional top 10 list. Because this is the 1978 Project, I’ll probably also have some other roundups/commentary about the year in film. But first up is the awards! [Other Movie Award Installments here: 2006 | 2007 | 2008 | 2009 | 2010 | 2011 | 2012 | 2013 | 2014 | 2015 | 2016 | 2017 | 2018 | 2019 | 2020]
Standard disclaimers apply: Nominees must be a 1978 movie. I usually include a caveat for movies that came out the previous year but weren’t available until the next year (in this case, 1977 movies not released until 1978), but since we’re doing this a few decades after the fact, that’s not really necessary. For the record, I mostly based this list off of Letterboxd, so if there’s some discrepancy between their date and some other website, I guess that’s too bad.
As of this writing, I’ve seen 87 movies released in 1978. I’m guessing this is a lot more than most folks, but it’s about par for the course for my usual annual roundups (maybe a hint less than recent years). Obviously this is a personal exercise that is entirely subjective in nature, but the world would be a boring place indeed if we all loved the same things for the same reasons, right? Right. Let’s get this party started:
Best Villain/Badass A strange year for villainy here. On one hand, the pickings are a little slim. On the other hand, there’s a clear and obvious winner that would be competitive in almost any year. It’s funny, but despite one example in 1978, I suspect this category is often padded out by superhero movies. In theory, I could leverage the throngs of martial arts movies to pad out this category, but they’re not as memorable as their heroes and again, none will defeat the ultimate winner (which I hope you can pick out). In accordance with tradition, my picks in this category are limited to individuals, not groups (i.e. no vampires or zombies as a general menace, etc…) or ideas.
Ben Childress, played by John Cassavetes in The Fury
Best Hero/Badass Also strange on the heroism front. Certainly more options to choose from, but no obvious standout (though I suspect I know who will win this one). Again limited to individuals and not groups.
Best Comedic Performance Always a tricky award due to the prevalence of ensemble casts in comedies, and I cheated a bit by including a couple of duos in the nominees, but there’s a pretty clear winner here (even if he’ll end up representing a larger ensemble).
Breakthrough Performance A difficult category to judge right now because it’s hard to to ignore the rest of someone’s career, so the whole predictive “I can’t wait to see what this person does next” aspect is lost. Also, while there’s lots of larval performances from famous folks, it’s often not their first big role, so it’s hard to tell if it really represents a “breakthrough”. That said, I think this is a pretty solid list!
Most Visually Stunning Sometimes even bad movies can look really great… Weird to judge this category, since a lot of more modern nominees are driven by effects spectacles, but the good ol’ amazing photography will probably be pulling it out this year.
Best Sci-Fi or Horror Film A pretty great year for horror films. SF was dominated by low quality Star Wars clones, but at least a couple interesting efforts made the list. That said, there’s an obvious choice in my book…
Biggest Disappointment Always an awkward category to populate. I should note at this point that sometimes I actually enjoy these movies… but my expectations were just too high when I saw them. Related reading: Joe Posnanski’s Plus-Minus Scale (these movies scored especially poor on that scale).
Best Action Sequence This award isn’t for individual action sequences, but rather an overall estimation of each film, and this year is a bit unfair because Hong Kong was in a martial arts boom at the time. There’s, like, 10 other Hong Kong martial arts flicks that could be on this list, but these were the standouts. I struggled to find non-Hong-Kong entries. Hollywood would get much better in the coming years…
Normally at this point, I would do a category that’s something like “1978’s 1977 movie of the year” because I’m often catching up with movies from the previous year while watching the current year. In this case, there’s only one real nominee for this award, which is Rolling Thunder. I guess you could say that it wins by default, but it kicks major ass and is totally worth seeking out.
Anywho, there you have it. Winners to be announced soon! Halloween leads the way with 5 nominations, but more surprising is the runner up, Invasion of the Body Snatchers with four noms (a whole slew of movies garnered 3 noms, too).
Q: Jazz critic Ted Gioia recently lodged a complaint that “music criticism has degenerated into lifestyle reporting” because most most critics lack a musical background and theoretical tools. Do movie critics need filmmaking experience or an understanding of film theory to do their jobs?
Gioia’s piece, which was published at The Daily Beast, was the op-ed equivalent of a nun rapping inattentive students’ knuckles with a ruler. It’s mostly an argument in favor of music critics knowing a little bit about the actual process of writing and performing music, and finding a way to work that knowledge into their reviews. “Imagine, for a moment, football commentators who refuse to explain formations and plays. Or a TV cooking show that never mentions the ingredients,” he writes, “or an expert on cars who refuses to look under the hood of an automobile. These examples may sound implausible, perhaps ridiculous. But something comparable is happening in the field of music journalism. One can read through a stack of music magazines and never find any in-depth discussion of music. Technical knowledge of the art form has disappeared from its discourse. In short, music criticism has turned into lifestyle reporting.”
It’s a good piece worth revisiting because the last four years have probably only exacerbated the issue. It’s funny, because I feel like one of the trends we saw in these last few years is a bunch of critics wanting to write about nothing but politics, while political reporters wanted to escape the partisan tribalism by writing about art, movies, tv, whatever. In any case, it’s definitely worth keeping in mind.
Twisted: Urban Legend or Insane True Story? – Remember that time when a drive-in movie theater got hit by a twister while showing the movie Twister? Or was it just an urban legend? This documentary short breaks it down in an unexpected way.
Andy Weir first rose to prominence with his self-published novel of an astronaut stranded on Mars, The Martian. It caught on with readers, eventually got picked up by a big publisher and even adapted into a pretty great Ridley Scott movie. He followed that book up with the moon-based Artemis, a novel that clearly didn’t hang together as well as The Martian, but had its moments I guess. Still, the Sophomore Slump felt real. Now we come to Project Hail Mary, Weir’s third book and I’m happy to report that it represents something of a return to form.
Earth’s sun is dimming and the cause is traced back to a microscopic life form (dubbed the Astrophage) that lives on the sun and uses its energy to migrate to Venus. The dimming effect is accelerating and will eventually cause catastrophic changes on earth and potentially wipe out humanity. What’s more, most of our neighboring stars are also dimming… except for Tau Ceti, a star that’s twelve light-years from earth. Project Hail Mary is quickly assembled to visit Tau Ceti, devise a solution to the Astrophage, and save all humankind. We learn all of this in flashback, as Ryland Grace, a middle-school science teacher wakes up with a nasty case of amnesia. He quickly deduces that he’s on a spaceship and his memories start to come back. Will Grace be able to find a solution in time to save Earth?
Some minor spoilers up there, I guess, but there’s lots more to this story that I will try not to spoil too much. As with The Martian this is a novel about a lone astronaut sciencing the shit out of things to save himself and in this case, humanity. The science is handled well and in detail. It’s not diamond hard science fiction that’s difficult to understand, it’s actually quite accessible and while sometimes tedious for the characters, mostly not for us readers. I suppose it could wear you down though, especially when you get towards the end of the story and you know where it’s going, but Weir puts Grace through the paces as he attempts to find a needle in a haystack. Still, it’s well drawn and clearly explained. All of which serves to keep the story grounded, even when Grace does some crazy stuff to, for example, snag a sample of a potential Astrophage solution.
The technology is mostly present-day stuff. Since Project Hail Mary is humanity’s last hope, the plan relies on old, well-established technology that’s pretty much guaranteed not to fail. Except, of course, for the new spin drive propulsion system that can help the ship traverse interstellar distances. But here Weir finds a clever solution.
Indeed, one of the impressive things about the book is that Weir takes one counterfactual, the Astrophage, and once established, he puts it through a whole battery of extrapolations that have far and wide implications. There’s lots of things in this book that are surprising, but at their core, they are explained by a relatively simple microorganism. It speaks to one of Science Fiction’s broad strengths. Establish something simple and relatively innocuous, then tease out the implications until things start to get weird. Weir also manages to weave this sort of thing into the plot too, which shows some storytelling chops.
It’s hard to get into the rest of the story without getting into spoiler territory, so I’ll leave it at that. Fans of The Martian will certainly enjoy this, though it may come off a bit samey. Weir is great at presenting complicated science in an accessible manner, but he’s not exactly a prose stylist. Characterization isn’t a strong suit either. Ryland Grace is your typical competent man SF hero (much like Mark Watney from The Martian). Weir does attempt to flesh him out a bit, especially with a late revelation that didn’t quite sit right with me, but he’s still a pretty familiar SF archetype. As with a lot of older SF, the ideas at the core of the story are the real hero. It does a great job evoking that vaunted sense of wonder that’s at the core of SF. That’s what makes a book like this work, and it’s the sort of thing that’s missing from a lot of modern SF.
Modern SF has a tendency towards extreme cynicism, dysfunction, angst, and oppression, and fans of that will likely see this book, with its optimism in the face of disaster, competence, and happy ending, as jejune and unsophisticated. I found it to be a breath of fresh air and ultimately loved the book, flaws and all. It’s a throwback SF vision that we could probably use more of these days.
We’re finally in the endgame of the 1978 Project. For the past year and a half or so, I’ve been watching as many 1978 movies as possible. Because I felt like it, that’s why! When I started this project, I had seen about 30 movies made in that year. As of this moment, I’ve seen 87 movies made in 1978. It’s possible that I’ll catch up with something after this, but at this point, I’m going to start prepping the typical “year end” festivities like the movie awards and a top 10. Anywho, let’s take a look at the most recent 1978 project flicks that I’ve watched.
Straight Time – A career burglar is released from prison, tries and fails to go straight. It’s Recidivism: The Movie. To its credit, it spends a lot of time depicting the difficulties of reintegrating with a society that isn’t cutting you any slack. It’s also a tremendous acting showcase, particularly for Dustin Hoffman as the lead, but it’s got a strong roster of supporting actors, ranging from a seedy M. Emmet Walsh as the parole officer, the rare restrained Gary Busey performance as another former-con, the always great Harry Dean Stanton as a fellow burglar, young Kathy Bates, and Theresa Russell as the love interest (who isn’t given much to do, but is somehow still memorable thanks to her performance).
Unfortunately, this sort of character study and acting showcase often doesn’t strike a chord with me, and while this is a pretty good example of the style, it’s not enough to overcome my distaste for this sort of thing. I know we’re not supposed to strictly like Dustin Hoffman’s character, but the movie attempts to make him somewhat sympathetic when really, he’s just a scumbag. And not even a particularly competent scumbag. This is certainly a me problem – I can’t stand incompetent criminals. It’s not impossible to do a character study about an incompetent thief that I’ll like, it’s just a bar this movie couldn’t clear.
Indeed, a big part of my issues with this is that I kept thinking of better movies while watching it. In particular, the Coen brothers have a more farcical take on a similar story with Raising Arizona, and that movie just has so much more going for it than this one, both visually and thematically. It’s also hard to watch a movie about the criminal underworld of heists and not think about Michael Mann’s epics of the genre, like Thief or Heat. It’s still a solid movie and totally in line with that dark 70s aesthetic that so many people love. That said, it’s not something that did a lot for me. **1/2
The Meetings of Anna – Speaking of plotless character studies and performance showcases, this movie is about a lonely woman who travels through Western Europe and meets a bunch of people who, for some reason, just unload their emotional problems on her. It appears to be a semi-autobiographical work from writer/director Chantal Akerman, and to be sure, the film is visually beautiful and she pulls great performances out of the actors. That said, as mentioned above, this is pretty emphatically not my sort of thing. It’s over two hours of just wallowing in angst and ennui, and while it’s a well done example of that sort of thing, there’s not much actual story to grasp onto here. Like most episodic stories, some of the segments are better and more affecting than others, but they don’t really add up to a whole lot. There’s absolutely an audience for movies like this, I’m just not part of it. That said, I’m glad that stuff like the 1978 project forces my hand in watching things like this. **
The Biggest Battle – Italian WWII epic with a pretty great cast that is nonetheless mostly dismissed… probably for good reason. The cast is pretty great, though. Stacy Keach, Henry Fonda, John Huston, Helmut Berger, Samantha Eggar, Giuliano Gemma, Ray Lovelock, and Edwige Fenech? Narration by Orson Welles? Sign me up. Unfortunately the whole thing is deeply mediocre and almost completely unmemorable. Director Umberto Lenzi has made some great, high-energy horror and poliziotteschi flicks, but falls a bit flat here. Clocking in at 104 minutes, it moves pretty quickly and there’s some decent action I guess, but there’s a lot of plot threads that never really get enough time to connect, resulting in a movie filled with underwhelming war vignettes that will probably remind you of better movies. Indeed, we covered a much better Italian WWII flick earlier in the 1978 Project with The Inglorious Bastards. It’s not bad enough to laugh at, but neither is it good enough to recommend. *
Long Weekend – Australian horror flick about a couple who go camping on a remote beach, only to find that nature isn’t in an accommodating mood. What seems like it might be a schlocky “animals run amok” story reveals itself to be more of a slow descent into madness in a world that’s out of balance. There’s a deep environmental concern here, as our bickering couple engage in all sorts of disrespectful behavior. They spray pesticides, shoot at animals, litter, and so on, and nature kinda fights back. It’s all a bit ham-fisted and of course the two characters at the center of the film are deeply unlikable, even to each other. It’s a hard movie to like, but I guess the math adds up, it’s got a sort of odd energy that’s interesting, and I suspect that a lot of modern audiences would get a lot out of it. Personally, I tend to prefer something a little more subtle or, I don’t know, Herzogian. This never quite reaches the heights I think it was going for and it didn’t especially work for me, but it’s got some interesting stuff going on. **
Oof, I’m not usually this grumpy when it comes to this sort of thing, so maybe I’ve come to the end of my 1978 project explorations here. Stay tuned for the traditional (and more fun!) Movie Awards, Arbitrary Awards, and Top 10 for 1978, coming soon!