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.
* In an order I dare you to discern
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…
Just Missed the Cut
But still worthwhile, in their own way. Presented without comment and in no particular order:
- Death on the Nile
- Watership Down
- I Spit on Your Grave
- Eyes of Laura Mars
- The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting
- Koko: A Talking Gorilla
Should Have Seen
- An Unmarried Woman
- Killer of Sheep
- In a Year with 13 Moons
- La Cage aux Folles
- Beauty and the Beast
- The Mafu Cage
- The Green Room
Normally this would be the end of an annual recap, but there’s at least two more posts to go before we wrap up the 1978 Project, so stay tuned!