For those unaware of my Top Ten By Year project:
The majority of my viewing habits have been dictated by this project since September 2013. Jumping to a different decade each time, I pick weak years for me re: quantity of films seen and/or quality of films seen in comparison to other years from said decade. I use list-making to see more films and revisit others in a structured and project-driven way. And I always make sure to point out that my lists are based on personal ‘favorites’ not any notion of an objective ‘best’. I’ve completed 1935, 1983, 1965, 1943, 1992, and now 1978. Next I’ll be doing 1925.
So, we’re finally at the end. 1978 contained my longest watchlist and the longest time spent on an individual year in the Top Ten By Year project. I was reminded just how much I love 70’s cinema. That it’s not just about New Hollywood and the force of macho film-school bred auteurists. 1978 catches us between two worlds in American cinema. On the one end is the reign of the thinking man’s picture, mid-scale character dramas, revisionist genre play, and expansive rule-breaking. On the other end, this is three years after Jaws and a mere year after surprise phenomenon Star Wars; studios are quickly realizing that youth is the most potentially profitable demographic. Superman is about to become the first film deliberately constructed blockbuster, with the now ubiquitous strategic ad campaign and excessive merchandising. Though we now recognize the overlap between the two, the modestly scaled and heavily auteur-driven genre play of the 70’s will soon give way to the big-scale classic pop genre play of the 80’s. With Vietnam three years in the past, filmmakers are beginning to investigate the country’s very messy recent history. And while we somewhat rightfully refer to the nostalgia drenched culture of today as a poisonous succubus that has only recently swallowed up pop culture, looking at some of the top films of 1978 such as Grease, Superman, National Lampoon’s Animal House and Heaven Can Wait, demonstrates this as an age-old custom.
All Top Ten By Year: 1978 posts:
Movie Poster Highlights
1978 Movie Music Mix
What I’ll Remember About the Films of 1978: A Love Letter (includes Suggested Double Features and Favorite Shots)
10 Honorable Mentions plus Grease
Same Time, Next Year
Empire of Passion
Five Deadly Venoms
Some Blind Spots:
Gates of Heaven, Perceval le Gallois, La Cage aux Folles, The Tree of Wooden Clogs, Who’ll Stop the Rain, The Boys from Brazil, Big Wednesday, The Green Room, Fingers, Graduate First (so sad I couldn’t find this), Lord of the Rings, Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, Every Which Way But Loose, The Big Fix, Convoy, My Way Home, Crippled Avengers, American Boy: A Profile of Stephen Prince, Don, Nighthawks, China 9, Liberty 37, The Buddy Holly Story, The Shooting Party, The Scenic Route
I had seen 16 films prior to this. I’ve now seen 64 films from 1978.
TOTAL LIST OF FILMS SEEN IN 1978: (bold indicates first-time viewings during research, italics indicates re-watches during research):
Alucarda, Always for Pleasure, Autumn Sonata, Avalanche, Blue Collar, Blue Sunshine, California Suite, Capricorn One, The Cheap Detective, Coma, Coming Home, Dawn of the Dead, Days of Heaven, Death on the Nile, The Deer Hunter, The Demon, Despair, Drunken Master, Empire of Passion, Du er ikke alene (You Are Not Alone), Eyes of Laura Mars, Fedora, Five Deadly Venoms, Foul Play, The Fury, Girlfriends, Grease, Halloween, Heaven Can Wait, Heroes of the East, Interiors, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, I Wanna Hold Your Hand, In a Year of 13 Moons, Jubilee, Killer of Sheep, Krabat (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice), The Last Waltz, Long Weekend, The Mafu Cage, Magic, The Metamorphosis of Mr. Samsa (short), Midnight Express, Mongoloid (short), National Lampoon’s Animal House, Panna a Netvor (Beauty and the Beast), Pretty Baby, Remember My Name, Les Rendez-vous d’Anna (The Meetings of Anna), Same Time Next Year, Satiemania (short), The Shout, The Silent Partner, Straight Time, Superman, Thank God It’s Friday, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, An Unmarried Woman, Up in Smoke, Violette Noziere, Watership Down, A Wedding, Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?, The Wiz
FTV = First-Time Viewing
RW = Re-watch
LTF = Long Time Favorite
10. The Mafu Cage (US, Arthur) (FTV)
Top Ten By Year: 1978 is bookended with films directed by women. I couldn’t really say whether The Mafu Cage is well-regarded or not because it’s not regarded, period. Hell, it doesn’t even have a wikipedia page. In one way this makes sense; the majority of people are likely to be turned off by this claustrophobic and perverse story. In another way, it makes no sense whatsoever; just where oh where is the cult following for The Mafu Cage??? Come out from behind those bushes, people! There are so few of us (thank you author Kier-La Janisse, whose essential book House of Psychotic Women brought the film’s existence to my attention)! It’s massively fucked up and pretty tasteless, but surprisingly stirring, very intimate, and so very very loaded. It’s also one of the more bizarre and discomfiting fictional realms I’ve ever been invited to participate in. This is really uncomfortable stuff, people (extended appropriation of African culture as characterization and monkeys that no doubt felt some level of trauma in real life from the filming of this); familial support gone horribly horribly wrong.
Where does The Mafu Cage fit within female-driven horror? Is it horror? Absolutely, (although it’s equal parts psychological chamber drama), especially its incorporation of taboo subjects and the way narrative plays out in regards to Cissy’s victims. It could easily be a companion to Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and other psycho-biddy films. Just take out the aging camp legends and insert the apocalyptic Carol Kane.
I’ve always loved Carol Kane but this is a whole other can of worms; she is absolutely unapologetic here. What’s wrong with Cissy? Well, what isn’t wrong with her? She lives in self-imposed seclusion with her sister in a Los Angeles home that recreates the African jungle of her youth. She’s like a child, living off delusions and whims. She says “DUMBSHIT” when provoked, which is often. She screeches and yells a lot. She is possessive, entirely irrational, and in no way equipped to be functional within anything resembling reality. Capable of momentary self-reflection, it’s only a matter of time before she inverses self-awareness. Kane plays Cissy as someone trapped in her own patterns of behavior, which are unfortunately defined by the death of people and animals alike. She is a tantrum-led woman suffering from severe unchecked mental illness. Her sister Ellen (Lee Grant) means well but is ultimately an enabler, keeping a promise to their father to protect her, shielding her instead of getting her the help she so clearly needs.
Karen Arthur was the first woman to win an Emmy for Outstanding Directing in a Drama Series (for a 1985 episode of “Cagney and Lacey”). She was the second female member of the DGA. Arthur does a beautiful job with this material, and it’s a shame the film mostly exists at a video quality level. The film is filled with strangely bewitching images. She confronts Cissy even though we and those around her walk on eggshells in her presence. Montages cement her behavior as part of a cycle. The Mafu Cage played at Cannes, received a good reception and then a weak independent release only to disappear. I’m hoping at least a few people seek it out because of this post.
9. I Wanna Hold Your Hand (US, Zemeckis) (FTV)
From time to time Robert Zemeckis marries touchstone history to the lives of his characters. His success rate varies but his first film, I Wanna Hold Your Hand, is scaled to chaotic perfection. This isn’t Forrest Gump haplessly stumbling through hallmark events like a walking gimmick; this is a dogged unshakable group of fanatical girls who very much want to shove their way into a national moment; by gaining access to The Beatles on the day they’re set to perform on the Ed Sullivan show (February 9th, 1964).
In my Honorable Mentions post, in reference to Thank God It’s Friday, I mentioned my love for One Crazy Day/Night films (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Modern Girls, Adventures in Babysitting, After Hours, Magnolia, ParaNorman; the list goes on and on). I Wanna Hold Your Hand is a lesser known treasure of the subgenre. It starts at the eventual final destination, with Ed Sullivan’s rehearsal session, and quickly branches out to our core group, made up of obsessives and reluctant and/or opposed tagalongs. When our characters enter the abyss of countless fanatics on the same quest, they quickly find themselves splintering off, and soon the characters are having their own individual adventures.
The most entertaining of these is the soon-to-be-married Pam (Nancy Allen) who at one point finds herself alone in The Beatles hotel room. I’ve grown so fond of Nancy Allen’s bright-eyed cherubic quality over the years, and seeing her lust over leftovers, instruments, and whatever else she can get her hands has become an instantly iconic movie moment for me.
Zemeckis’s debut doesn’t look down on or solely gawk at the devotion of fanaticism; it just hops on the insanity train. Regarding the tone it could have employed, I’m reminded of the recent snarky reactions from people, largely men, towards the collective mourning from One Direction’s largely female fan base over Zayn Malik’s recent departure. I Wanna Hold Your Hand playfully looks at Beatlemania as a phenomenon of ‘hell hath no fury’ fans, but also recognizes that fan bases are made up of individually felt emotional extremes, a very authentic loyalty, and sincere commitment.
8. The Shout (UK, Skolimowski) (FTV)
The only comparison I have for the cryptic and unknowable experience of The Shout are the films of director Nicolas Roeg and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The ‘unknown’ at the center of The Shout, made up of aboriginal mysticism and an unreliable narrative, makes for a disturbing nucleus that resides underneath consciousness. Even the credits are hazy and out of reach.
Like our next film, sound is central to The Shout, employing an innovative Dolby mix to disorient. Alan Bates, who disrupts the lives of a young couple in the countryside (John Hurt and Suzannah York), claims to have attained occult powers, specifically ‘The Shout’, which apparently has the power to kill anyone who hears it. John Hurt plays an experimental electronic musician, and several scenes take place in his home studio as he records various noises. To him, ‘The Shout’ becomes the holy grail of sounds; something he, at least initially, denounces as hogwash. And finally, the score by Tony Bates and Michael Rutherford of Genesis, is an ambient soundscape that further dislodges the viewer. But then, everything about The Shout dislodges the viewer.
This is a world where everything may be a lie, or worse, everything may be true. A world where people can be controlled as long as you have their belt buckle. The cricket game in the framing device carries a waiting room kind of menace, as if this world will end as soon as one team wins. Films like The Shout are the kind I wait and hope for. These mind-fuck movies that are legitimate and hypnotic, fueled by rhythms that defy standard logic and are populated by mysteries that defiantly refuse to be solved.
7. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (US, Kaufman) (RW)
Philip Kaufman spends the first half of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a remake of Don Siegel’s 1956 film, establishing a paranoid mood piece where the threat infiltrates safe spaces before we’ve even had time to settle into the picture. They may just look like plants, but fuck do they move fast. Everything is in plain sight right from the beginning, covering both the corners and foreground of the frame, and there is nothing anybody can do about it. Kaufman secretly plans to have it both ways by filling in the run-run-run second half with some startling practical effects sequences, allowing mutating slime and atmospheric smoke-screens to give way to each other.
I can’t think of a cooler ensemble than this; Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Veronica Cartwright, Jeff Goldblum and the recently departed Leonard Nimoy who uses his soothing demeanor to chilling effect. Donald Sutherland in particular is in peak form doing his baritone Chia Pet thing.
Layers and layers of heartbeats, electronic white noise and throbs, rain sticks, and clanging and banging push in on us; a contemporary comparison for the cumulative impact of Denny Zeitlin’s score is Brian Reitzell’s ingenious work on “Hannibal”.
My first time seeing Invasion, I was totally unprepared to discover it’s the kind of slick and smart artful mainstream horror that doesn’t come around too often. Full of applicable social commentary, a genuinely rattling air you desperately want to shimmy off, and filled with fodder to dissect every which way you turn.
6. The Fury (US, De Palma) (FTV)
Pauline Kael’s review of The Fury is one of her most famous because it’s an anomalous hyperbolic rave, a viewing experience that sounds like it amounted to something like an orgasm. Much of the review’s notoriety stems from the generally lackluster reaction people tend to have to Brian De Palma’s follow-up to Carrie. De Palma devotees drool over it, and most others either casually dismiss or actively deride the film. But I’m with you Pauline. I’m with you.
On its face The Fury has a lot in common with Carrie. It’s also based on a novel. It’s also about a girl with telekinesis. It also features Amy Irving. But this one has conspiracies, chases, a father trying to find his son, an Xavier Institute equivalent. It’s a strange brew of supernatural spy thriller! Sound overcrowded? It is; but I love the hell out of The Fury‘s bloated convolution.
Even through its slower section The Fury is blisteringly alive. I can’t explain why, especially because John Ferris’s script (adapting his novel) is kind of a hacky mess, but it all felt like it mattered. Being thrown into the preposterous story, you either submit to it or scoff through it. Sure, the Kirk Douglas material is initially less interesting, but come on, who doesn’t want to see Kirk Douglas vs. John Cassavetes? How can one deny watching the star in his sixties, running around shirtless with a machine gun, and disguising himself to make him look, wait for it, old! And besides, this slowly but surely becomes Gillian’s (Irving) film. There’s also weird pockets of humor. De Palma often opens scenes by zeroing in on peripheral characters, whether it’s the cop who just got a brand new car, the little old lady who delights in helping out a trespasser, or the two security guards who like to trade Hershey bars for coffee.
It’s trademark De Palma to toy around with the nature of cinema, and The Fury is constantly interacting with itself. Gillian’s telekinetic link to the missing Robin (Andrew Stevens who is terrible, but I love sociopathic brat characters like this) is depicted visually, so the intimate and exclusive link between them also includes us. Since Gillian’s visions strike through sight (what else?), she acquires information by watching scenes play out in front of her eyes. She learns, and we learn through her. Gillian becomes, in her way, an audience member. This is cinema as the ultimate form of communication and information (surveillance is a recurring theme here too), something that can transcend the confines of the screen. At one point, Robin is even shown the first five minutes of the film! De Palma’s stylized techniques drive it all home; editing and rear-screen projection are used to emphasize and encompass, and characters are brought together by overlapping spaces and sounds. The camera often tracks conversations by moving around characters, covering all bases.
There’s a bravura four minute slow-motion sequence that turns the notion of the escape scene on its head. It isn’t until the end when we realize the slow-motion is in fact stretching out a character’s final moments. And you’d be hard-pressed to find a better send-off to any movie; I’m serious. It cannot be beat. Don’t even try to tell me it can. It’s the money shot to end all money shots, but shown from every possible angle. But it’s not just showstopper sequences like these that I fell in love with; it’s the whole damn film.
(There is a scene in which a horrified Gillian sees Robin, her face directed straight at the camera, horrified. This is exactly what Stanley Kubrick would do with Danny Torrance in The Shining a mere two years later.)
5. Coming Home (US, Ashby) (FTV)
Three years after the Fall of Saigon there were two Best Picture nominees that directly dealt with Vietnam. One was the wholly masculine collapse-of-camaraderie film The Deer Hunter. The other was the far more liberal-minded Coming Home, about tormented veterans and a woman who comes into her own politically and sexually following her husband’s departure for Vietnam. People tend to knock Coming Home for being a war film that ‘descends’ into something as ‘cliche’ as a love triangle. Is there any easier way to dismiss a film for daring to be about the female experience of wartime? These are three people (Jon Voight and Bruce Dern are the paraplegic lover and husband respectively) whose lives become inextricably linked through their traumas, their evolution, their bodies, and their love.
The film materialized through Jane Fonda’s tenacity, and her outspoken anti-Vietnam activism prohibits us from buying into the place her traditional sheltered wife character begins. But that doesn’t last for long. Everyone involved, not just Fonda, from Jon Voight to Hal Ashby to producer Jerome Hellman, were heavily concerned with post-war realities. Coming Home is a best case scenario message picture in the guise of an achingly human love story.
This was not a film I expected to have this kind of response to. Perhaps most of all, I had an all-in investment in the pairing of Jane Fonda and Jon Voight. Their relationship, which begins with, of all things, a broken pissbag, makes Coming Home one of the most erotic films I’ve ever seen. The two actors share a vitality that is not only palpable, but supports the core of the film; the basic necessity for people to connect with each other in times of strife, immeasurable hardship, and an unknown future.
4. Days of Heaven (US, Malick) (RW)
Already with his sophomore feature, Terrence Malick brings his storytelling into the ether, the outer zones. The characters and their drama are contained in something bigger than themselves; the cornfields and the magic hour, and the narration of a child (Linda Manz), mumbling and halting. Her perception is omniscient if not all-knowing. It begins as a romanticized snapshot, not of Depression-era workers, but of what surrounds them. It gradually transforms into something else altogether, a kind of melodrama hiding in plain sight. The central house is like a mirage, and Days of Heaven is triangular, made up of people, land, and machinery, each interacting and needing the other. Like Badlands, there is a honeymoon period for these characters, the makeshift family, isolated but not wanting for anything. “I think the devil was on the farm” is just one of many Biblical allusions. Days of Heaven is as immense as the universe and as microscopic as a single house in the middle of a wheat field.
3. Satiemania (short) (Yugoslavia, Gašparović) (FTV)
Visualizing the music of Eric Satie, Satiemania alternates between the mocking hustle-bustle of city life, where outsized caricatures fill the streets, and the melancholy hours where women drink and undress, their bodies of various shapes and sizes, eternally longing for something more. Not only do I love Satie’s “Gnossienne” pieces, but Gašparović’s animation style is exactly the kind of aesthetic I tend to respond to; messy and sketchy, action shown through ever-morphing dissolves as if the nights are forever slipping away; moments are lost even as they happen. The illustrations are exclusively about people, whether singled out in a crowd, pushed together in a bar, or by themselves in their most private moments.
2. Blue Collar (US, Schrader) (FTV)
Blue Collar is probably the best working mans drama I’ve ever seen. Systematically shattering, from the bowels of an incensed and very hungry monster. These are people at their wit’s end, backed into a corner by corrupt unions, with no exit strategy. Blue Collar is frighteningly relevant in its portrayal of corruption as a trap that sees working class solidarity as just another thing to be exploited, suppressed and dismantled. Paul Schrader, in his debut film, is on the front line with them, never taking the easy way out. It’s direct and didactic and illuminating.
There is the scene where our three characters, played by Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto, strategize about the stolen ledger. They talk about their options and each guy has a different idea. Three options are presented, yet it feels like they have none. These men aren’t stupid. They see through it all and make a concerted effort to exploit the exploiters. And it backfires. Big time.
The three main actors apparently all hated each other in real life, and it’s one of those things that results in a live-wire chemistry and onscreen camaraderie that authentically sings to the tune of empathetic disgruntlement. We become so attached to them and what they are to each other, whether together in the thick of it or blowing off steam. I sat at the edge of my seat sensing the trajectory of the film and wishing so badly to be proven wrong. Richard Pryor in particular is electric, by turns exhausted and exhausting. So earnest is he in his desire for change, a naive hope that he can make the system better if only he comes at it from the right angle.
1. Girlfriends (US, Weill) (FTV)
Let’s be honest, Frances Ha is an uncanny reworking of Girlfriends; narratively, structurally, thematically. Except this is way better (sorry ’bout it). There are hardly any films about women made by women from this era. Nowadays the fumbling twenty-something trying to figure it all out in NYC is an indie cliche. But in 1978?
This is a film to be cherished by everyone who sees it. No lie, my life can now be split into Before Girlfriends and After Girlfriends. Claudia Weill and screenwriter Vicki Polon have created something truly disarming here; an open and honest work about female friendships rightfully treated as life-defining, where change equals tailspin, resentment, and adjustment. It is equally about being comfortable with living alone, being comfortable with not living alone, and trying to build a creative career in a tough racket. The film is unstudied and charmingly choppy, primarily homegrown in its form. And at the same time, it’s entirely assured; the film and Susan (Melanie Mayron) are uniformly comfortable in their own skin, even when on the surface they doubt and fret. There is a painfully sincere and recognizable quintessential harmony at work with no affectation in sight.
The film admires Susan, loves Susan, but isn’t bewitched by her in that familiar way (you know what I’m talking about) where we shake our heads and coo ‘oh you’ at her. The film would be great regardless, but Melanie Mayron as Susan Weinblatt cements this as an all-time top 100 film of mine. I cannot even begin to do her justice. Drowning in hair with second grade glasses and a goofy and frumpy demeanor, she is completely laid-back in her neurosis, and somehow not awkward despite all this. A genuine character, and a special performance in a truly special film.