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Mike’s Top Ten of 1978

A lot to like about 1978. Two of my all-time favorite movies came out this year. So I’ll always think back fondly on it. Plus, there are a couple of really iconic films, aside from those two. The superhero movie started this year. The comedy genre changed forever this year. The horror genre definitely changed forever this year. There’s not really an overarching cinematic change here so much as the 70s continue to churn out great movies.

If there’s one thing I can say about this year, it’s just… Magic. Go see Magic. It’s awesome.

Mike’s Top Ten of 1978

Animal House

Coming Home

Days of Heaven

The Deer Hunter

Grease

Halloween

Heaven Can Wait

Magic

Midnight Express

Superman

11-20: The Boys from Brazil, The Brink’s Job, California Suite, The Cheap Detective, Dawn of the Dead, The Driver, The End, The Last Waltz, Straight Time, An Unmarried Woman

Tier two: The Big Fix, The Buddy Holly Story, Comes a Horseman, Convoy, Death on the Nile, Every Which Way But Loose, F.I.S.T. Foul Play, House Calls, I Wanna Hold Your Hand, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, La Cage aux Folles, The Lord of the Rings, Movie Movie, Same Time Next Year, The Silent Partner, Thank God It’s Friday, Watership Down, The Wiz

– – – – – – – – – –

1. The Deer Hunter

“I don’t think about that much with one shot anymore, Mike.”
“You have to think about one shot. One shot is what it’s all about. A deer’s gotta be taken with one shot.”

If I were gonna pinpoint the movies that got me into film, this would be one of the first five, I’d say. I remember watching this at age like, 12, at a friend’s house one night. The benefit of friends who were two and three years older than you, you got to see things like this way earlier than most people. I remember watching the first half of this movie before I had to head home for the night, and being blown away by it. And I made sure to watch the rest of it as soon as I possibly could. And it just left an indelible mark on me and is one of the films most responsible for who I am now. So yeah, it’s my favorite film of 1978.

You also have to realize… Hollywood didn’t deal with Vietnam before this. There weren’t any films about it. They didn’t think the public wanted to see it. Aside from The Green Berets, which is more of a love letter to the military and just happens to be in Vietnam, no film really started tackling the war and its affects on the psyche of the men who fought in it until 1977-1978. And this and Coming Home sort of became the poster children for the Vietnam war film.

This, to me, is one of the greatest films of all time. Full stop. Not even bringing the war genre into it. Michael Cimino created a masterpiece that, to me, still holds up. It gives you what feels like a full hour of these guys, showing you their lives, before giving you all the war scenes. And then it gives you some of the most memorable war scenes ever put to film. And then you get the aftermath, which not a lot of films are willing to show you. This is one of those movies I can watch any time, all the way through. It just does it for me.

2. Grease

“Summer lovin’, had me a blast
Summer lovin’, happened so fast
Met a girl crazy for me
Met a boy cute as can be
Summer days drifting away
To, uh oh, those summer nights”

This is one of those movies that’s so ingrained in my memory from childhood, I couldn’t tell you when I saw it for the first time. It just kinda feels like it was a part of my DNA from birth. Few movies have that. It’s like, this, The Wizard of Oz and Willy Wonka. They were just, always there.

This is a perfect movie. I don’t know why or how it’s a perfect movie, but it is. Another one of those movies I could watch again and again and not get tired of. This would be my #1 in almost any other year. It just happened to come out opposite one of the most important films of my film life. Not that the rankings really matter anyway. I’d put them both in my top 40 or 50 favorite films of all time, which is all that matters.

This is one of those movies I love so much that I don’t even bother to take a step back and think about what’s actually going on. Because if I did, there’d be a whole bunch of crazy stuff I’d have to think about, from top to bottom. But instead, it ends up the way the film does, when they’re worried that after graduation they won’t see each other again and Travolta’s explanation as to why that won’t happen is “A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom.”

3. Magic

“Hey kid. I’m gonna ask you to do something. It’s a little something anybody oughta be able to do. Now if you can do it fine, we’ll forget this whole thing, but if you can’t we’ll think about getting you to see somebody fast. Is it a deal?”
“Name it!”
“Make Fats shut up for five minutes.”

I love this movie so much. This is one that I discovered early because of my love of Anthony Hopkins. And I’ve been showing it to people ever since. It’s so great.

Hopkins plays a magician who can’t find success because he doesn’t have a gimmick. A year later, he comes back with a ventriloquist act. He goes on stage with a puppet named Fats, and their act is really successful. He’s on the verge of getting a TV deal, but on the eve of signing the deal, he runs away to upstate New York. He goes to an inn run by Ann-Margret, his high school crush, locked in a loveless marriage to Ed Lauter. While up there, Hopkins begins to woo her for real, all while starting to show signs of severe mental illness, where we slowly realize that Fats is almost another personality inside his head, one that he cannot control.

The highlights of the film for me are two scenes: one where Hopkins performs a magic trick for Ann-Margret, and the other where Meredith shows up and asks Hopkins to prove that he’s mentally well by not speaking as Fats for a full minute. It’s… Anthony Hopkins is so good in this movie. I cannot recommend this highly enough. I love this movie. It was also directed by Richard Attenborough. His followup to A Bridge Too Far and the film he made before Gandhi.

Go see this movie immediately. Trust me. It’s a masterpiece that not enough people know about.

4. Days of Heaven

Terrence Malick. Badlands, then this, and then he disappeared for 20 years. Bad first screenplays are written about people doing this exact same thing. Only that actually happened. Had Malick stopped making films after this, he’d have a career as mythic as James Dean’s. Because both this and Badlands are perfect movies.

This stars Richard Gere as a steel worker who accidentally kills his boss and skips town with his girlfriend and younger sister. They go out of state to work as seasonal workers on Sam Shepard’s farm. Gere pretends his girlfriend is his sister, and hatches a plot to have Shepard fall in love with her so that way when he dies (he’s sick), they’ll inherit all his money.

Really though, like with Badlands, the movie isn’t about the plot, it’s about the gorgeous cinematography and the way Malick shoots it. You can give this story to a hundred different directors and only Malick could make it as beautiful as this. Truly one of the greatest films ever made, and a masterpiece from top to bottom.

5. Halloween

“Death has come to your little town, Sheriff.”

In terms of modern horror, it started with Night of the Living Dead, hit a benchmark with The Exorcist, and then hit another one with this film. This film created the slasher genre. This is John Carpenter’s best film. He’s made a bunch of great films, but this is his finest achievement. Which is great, since the film was made for like $300,000.

Simple story — mental patient escapes and returns to his hometown on Halloween night, and begins killing some teenagers. Simple, straightforward. Carpenter shoots it brilliantly, starting with the terrifying POV opening, where you are literally put behind the eyes of the killer. He also knows the importance of mood and score, composing one of the most iconic themes of all time, making the film utterly terrifying with just the music.

Every time I watch this, I’m amazed at how simple the whole thing is. And yet… still holds up. Every single time. A true masterpiece.

6. Heaven Can Wait

“Haven’t you learned the rules of probability and outcome? Aren’t you aware that every question of life and death remains a probability until the outcome?”

I love this story. Every time they make it, I love it. First made as Here Comes Mr. Jordan, and later Down to Earth. Everyone should know this story, because it’s so pervasive within the culture that most people have come across it in some form. Man just about to hit his prime dies suddenly. He wakes up in Heaven and says his death was a mistake. Turns out, it was. But, they can’t put him back in his old body. So a compromise is made: he is given a loaner body for the time being until a permanent replacement is found. However, in the interim, the man finds love and makes real strides within the loaner body, all of which s going to be threatened once the time runs out. It’s a great story. The only difference between the versions are the actors and the specifics.

In this version, Warren Beatty stars as a football player about to play in the Super Bowl. Mr. Jordan is played by James Mason. Max Corkle, Beatty’s trainer, is played by Jack Warden. And the love interest is played by Julie Christie. Beatty directs the film with Buck Henry, and it’s just great. Nominated up and down for Oscars, and just an incredible movie. This is one of those stories that’s perfect for an update every 20-30 years, because the story is so strong. This is the 70s version.

7. Animal House

“Here are your grade point avarages. Mr. Kroger: two C’s, two D’s and an F. That’s a 1.2. Congratulations, Kroger. You’re at the top of the Delta pledge class. Mr. Dorfman?”
“Hello!”
“0.2… Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son. Mr. Hoover, president of Delta house? 1.6; four C’s and an F. A fine example you set! Daniel Simpson Day… HAS no grade point average. All courses incomplete. Mr. Blu…Mr. Blutarsky… zero… point… zero.”

It’s Animal House. You know what it is.

This is one of the seminal comedies of all time. Hugely influential on just about every level. It’s hilarious. You can quote this movie from start to finish. The amount of iconic moments in it are endless.

This movie is perfect for a lot of reasons, but also namely because it does something we all want to do on a near-daily basis:

8. Midnight Express

“The best thing to do is to get your ass out of here. Best way that you can.”
“Yeah, but how?”
“Catch the midnight express.”
“But what’s that?”
“Well it’s not a train. It’s a prison word for escape. But it doesn’t stop around here.”

Have you ever been in a Turkish prison?

I’m incapable of not saying that every time I talk about this movie.

Directed by Alan Parker, written by Oliver Stone… this movie was nominated for Best Picture this year. Which is nuts. It’s about a guy traveling through Turkey who tries to smuggle hash, gets caught, and gets an insane prison sentence. And the film is about his time in prison. Which, as you can guess… is not fun.

It’s an incredible movie. Not the easiest watch, and definitely not something I watch often, but man, is it an experience. One of the more visceral times you’ll have at the movies.

9. Coming Home

“I have killed for my country, or whatever, and I don’t feel good about it. Coz there’s not enough reason, man, to feel a person die in your hands, or to see your best buddy get blown away.”

There’s our fourth Best Picture nominee. This feels like the culmination of Hal Ashby’s decade. After great movies like Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo and Bound for Glory, he came out with this, which, along with Deer Hunter, is one of the seminal Vietnam films.

Unlike Deer Hunter, which shows the protagonists before, during and after, this film focuses mostly on the after. Jon Voight is a man who returns home without his legs, and Jane Fonda is a volunteer nurse at the VA hospital who is married to Bruce Dern. He goes off to fight in the war and she strikes up a relationship with Voight. And when Dern returns, he is not the same man she married.

It’s a movie about Vietnam and what it did to the men fighting in it. Some lost their legs, some have PTSD, some are so fucked up they kill themselves. That’s what it’s about. (This is reductive, but you could boil down the theme of this movie to the speech Forrest Gump gives when they pull the microphone cords out: “Sometimes when people go to Vietnam, they go home to their mommas without any legs. Sometimes they don’t go home at all. That’s a bad thing. That’s all I have to say about that.”)

Voight and Fonda won Oscars for their performances, while Bruce Dern and Penelope Milford were both nominated. It’s a terrific film.

10. Superman

“Easy, miss. I’ve got you.”
“You’ve got me? Who’s got you?”

I didn’t expect this to make my Top Ten, but here we are. It is a great movie. Revolutionary for the time. The first real superhero film that wasn’t campy as shit. I wonder how much John Williams’ score has to do with it. I feel like that helps you take the whole thing seriously. But I digress.

It’s Superman. Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Gene Hackman, Ned Beatty… Marlon Brando getting paid an obscene amount of money for like, ten minutes of screen time and reading his lines off the diaper of a baby. It’s awesome. And it still holds up. It’s a pure, fun movie.

– – – – – – – – – –

11-20:

The Boys from Brazil — Great thriller. A bunch of Nazis escaped to South America and, led by Josef Mengele (Gregory Peck), they’re embarking on a secret plan, which Nazi hunter Ezra Lieberman (Laurence Olivier) has to foil. It’s really good, and the plot is just amazing. It’s been parodied in things (if you’re an Archer fan, you know all about it), but it’s still so good.

The Brink’s Job — A William Friedkin-directed crime movie about a real Brink’s robbery. It stars Peter Falk, Peter Boyle, Allen Garfield, Warren Oates, Gena Rowlands and Paul Sorvino. It’s a lot of fun. A nice little hidden gem.

California Suite — Based on a Neil Simon play (his stuff is littered throughout the 70s. He was huge at the time). It’s a story about a hotel suite in Los Angeles, and the different guests who stay there. The four stories include Jane Fonda and Alan Alda as a divorced couple who have to decide which one their daughter should live with, Walter Matthau as a doctor who wakes up to find a prostitute passed out in his bed and his family showing up to visit, Maggie Smith as an actress in town with her closeted husband (Michael Caine) for the Oscars, and Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor as two dentists on vacation with their families who get really competitive and antagonistic toward one another. It’s a fun movie. Maggie Smith actually won an Oscar for her performance in this. It’s got enough different segments that even if you don’t like one you’ll enjoy most of the others.

The Cheap Detective — This is a spiritual sequel to Murder by Death, only a parody of the Sam Spade/Bogart movies. Very Maltese Falcon, Big Sleep and Casablanca. Peter Falk stars again as the Bogart character, and it also has Madeline Kahn, Dom DeLuise, Louise Fletcher, Ann-Margret, Eileen Brennan, Stockard Channing, Sid Caesar, Marsha Mason, John Houseman, Vic Tayback, Abe Vigoda, James Coco, Fernando Lamas, James Cromwell, Scatman Crothers and Paul Williams. Loaded with cameos and famous faces. It’s a lot of fun. No masterpiece, but a damn good time.

Dawn of the Dead — George Romero’s zombie follow-up to Night of the Living Dead. That movie was hugely influential on the horror genre, and this one acts as sort of the Desperado to the first one’s El Mariachi. Similar, but on a much higher budget and influential in different ways. This one takes place in a mall, and is a statement on consumerism. It’s great. It’s one of the classics of the genre.

The Driver — Great film. Huge influence on Drive and Baby Driver. Walter Hill directs and Ryan O’Neal stars as a getaway driver for robberies who is being obsessively hunted by Bruce Dern, a cop. That’s it. That’s all you need. Great car chases and a great film. No character is even given real names, that’s how cool this movie is.

The End — This is one of darker and more fucked up movies of the 70s. Burt Reynolds even directed this! He stars as a guy who finds out he’s terminally ill and decides he’d rather end it all than die a slow, painful death. Though when he tries to kill himself (his situation is unbeknownst to his family and friends), it fails and he ends up in an asylum… where he continues to try to end his life, in various unsuccessful and comedic ways. I’m telling you, it’s dark. But it’s funny. Dom DeLuise plays a fellow mental patient who tries to help Burt kill himself. It also stars Sally Field, Strother Martin, Joanne Woodward, Carl Reiner and Myrna Loy. I’ve always really liked this movie.

The Last Waltz — One of the classic concert films of all time. Martin Scorsese directs it, and it was shot on Thanksgiving Day, during The Band’s final concert. It’s amazing. The amount of people who join them on stage… Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Ringo, Ronnie Wood, Muddy Waters, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell… it’s incredible. If you’re listing the top five concert films of all time, this one is in the top three, if not top two. It’s this and Stop Making Sense. Those are the ones.

Straight Time — A great 70s crime movie based on a novel by Eddie Bunker (who everyone seems to remember as Mr. Blue from Reservoir Dogs). It stars Dustin Hoffman as a thief, just out of prison who tries to go straight, but of course, as an ex-con, the deck is stacked against him. It also stars Harry Dean Stanton, Gary Busey, Kathy Bates and M. Emmet Walsh. It’s really good. One of those gems of the 70s like The Friends of Eddie Coyle that people like when they get around to seeing it.

An Unmarried Woman — A great gem of the 70s that more people ought to go back to. Jill Clayburgh gives an Oscar-worthy performance in this. It’s a Paul Mazursky film about a woman who seemingly has the perfect life… until her husband asks for a divorce out of nowhere. So now she has to put her life together and deal with this new reality. It’s really good. This was nominated for Best Picture this year, that’s how strong it is. I highly, highly recommend this movie.

– – – – – – – – – –

Tier two:

  • The Big Fix
  • The Buddy Holly Story
  • Comes a Horseman
  • Convoy
  • Death on the Nile
  • Every Which Way But Loose
  • F.I.S.T.
  • Foul Play
  • House Calls
  • I Wanna Hold Your Hand
  • Invasion of the Body Snatchers
  • La Cage aux Folles
  • The Lord of the Rings
  • Movie Movie
  • Pretty Baby
  • Same Time, Next Year
  • The Silent Partner
  • Thank God It’s Friday
  • Watership Down
  • The Wiz

Movie Movie is something that appeals only to someone like me. It’s a complete throwback, totally out of place in 1978. One of Stanley Donen’s final films. It’s a double bill of films that they just did not make anymore even then. The first half is a boxing drama, about a man with dreams who becomes a boxer to raise the money for his blind sister to have an operation to fix her sight. Naturally, he gets changed by success and hooks up with the wrong people. You know the story. The second half (followed by a fake trailer for a WWI movie, which makes it even cooler) is a backstage musical, reminiscent of the Broadway Melody/Gold Diggers films. It’s about a producer who finds out he’s dying, so he starts one final show in order to gain enough money to support his daughter (who he’s never met). Naturally there’s the genius songwriter and the ingenue who has to “go out there and become a star.” I love it. Not for most people, but I thought this was such a great idea for them to try to pull off.

The Wiz is the great 70s musical version of The Wizard of Oz. Diana Ross as Dorothy, Michael Jackson as Scarecrow, Nipsey Russell as Tin Man, Ted Ross as Cowardly Lion, Lena Horne as Glinda, Mabel King as The Wicked Witch and Richard Pryor as The Wiz. It’s fun. What I find most fascinating about this is the level of notable directors who worked on it. Sidney Lumet directed this, Joel Schumacher wrote it, and it was produced by Rob Cohen. Also shot by master cinematographer Oswald Morris and edited by Dede Allen. This movie was prestige. Strangely it doesn’t hold up as well as you’d think, but I love it. I love the down-and-dirty New York 70s feel. House Calls is a fun romance with Walter Matthau and Glenda Jackson. He’s a widowed doctor trying to find love again and she’s a woman who is initially a patient, who he starts falling for. It’s solid.

The Silent Partner is an interesting little thriller that no one remembers. Canadian film. Stars Elliott Gould, Christopher Plummer and Susannah York. Gould is a bank teller who spots Plummer casing the place. Knowing he’s gonna try to rob it, Gould sneakily steals the money himself before Plummer comes in, giving Plummer a bag that’s mostly empty. So now everyone thinks Plummer stole the money and Gould gets away scot-free… until Plummer realizes what happened and starts blackmailing Gould. It’s quite good. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a 70s remake of the original film. It stars Donald Sutherland, Veronica Cartwright, Brooke Adams, Jeff Goldblum and Leonard Nimoy. This one’s famous for that final scene, which is truly terrifying. Foul Play is a fun comedy/mystery with Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase. She’s a librarian, he’s a cop, and a zany mystery ensues. Also famous for being the film the song for which “Ready to Take a Chance Again” was written.

Every Which Way But Loose is a movie starring Clint Eastwood and an orangutan. What more do you need? The Big Fix is kinda like Inherent Vice made during the time when Inherent Vice took place. It’s a murder mystery with some comedy, starring Richard Dreyfuss. He’s a former activist who is now a detective trying to find an ex-girlfriend, still a radical, who has gone missing. I like these 70s Dreyfuss movies. He has great taste in projects, yet so many of them have fallen by the wayside, historically. But every time I go back and watch one, I’m fascinated by how interesting they are. One of the more underrated filmographies out there, his. F.I.S.T. is a union movie. Based around Jimmy Hoffa and directed by Norman Jewison, Sylvester Stallone stars as the Hoffa stand-in. It also stars Rod Steiger, Peter Boyle and Melinda Dillon. It’s decent. It’s better than you might think, even if it’s no classic.

I Wanna Hold Your Hand is Robert Zemeckis’ debut, and it’s about Beatlemania. A bunch of teens try to get tickets to the Beatles’ appearance on the Ed Sullivan show, and as they do that, zany hijinks ensue. It’s a lot of fun. The Buddy Holly Story is exactly what it sounds like. Only Buddy Holly… is played by Gary Busey. And I know that means a certain thing today, but this is pre-accident Gary Busey. He was nominated for Best Actor for this. Opposite De Niro, Jon Voight, Laurence Olivier and Warren Beatty. This isn’t here for ironic reasons. It’s a really solid musical biopic.

Death on the Nile is the follow up to Murder on the Orient Express. This time, Peter Ustinov plays Poirot, and the cast includes Bette Davis, Mia Farrow, Olivia Hussey, George Kennedy, Angela Lansbury, David Niven, Maggie Smith and Jack Warden. It’s about, as you can suspect, a murder on a cruise down the Nile. Same kind of set up, same kind of execution. Poirot figuring out whodunit. You know what it is. It’s no Murder on the Orient Express, but it’s good. Convoy is a Sam Peckinpah-directed movie that’s part of the ‘trucker’ genre that was popular in the 70s. It’s similar to things like Smokey and the Bandit. Kris Kristofferson is a trucker and Ernest Borgnine is his sheriff nemesis. Ali MacGraw is the girlfriend. He and his trucker friends join together to fight against Borgnine. It’s fun. Not Peckinpah’s best, but it’s solid.

Pretty Baby is a Louis Malle film starring Brooke Shields as a twelve-year-old prostitute (she was 12 at the time). So it’s a bit icky, since she was 12 and there are nude scenes, but on the other hand, it’s a good film with frank depictions of what was certainly the case at the time… young girls became prostitutes because it was the only life they knew and the only way they could make it in the world. If you can get over the weirdness of the underage thing (which, admittedly, not everyone can), it’s a good movie. Comes a Horseman is a western, directed by Alan Pakula and starring Jane Fonda, James Caan, Jason Robards and Richard Farnsworth. Robards is a land baron, buying up all the surrounding land, and Fonda is the one holdout to his plan. So she teams up with Caan and Farnsworth to make her ranch profitable so they can afford to keep it and not have to sell to Robards. It’s like Places in the Heart. One of those ‘save the ranch’ movies. It’s interesting because of the genre and because of the cast.

The Lord of the Rings is the Ralph Bakshi-directed adaptation of Tolkien. They really only get through Two Towers here, which makes it a weird hybrid trilogy, along with the Rankin and Bass version of Return of the King. The interesting thing about this movie is that they rotoscoped a lot of it. It’s a very interesting film, especially once you’ve seen the Peter Jackson trilogy. Same Time, Next Year is a solid little movie. Based on a play, and very stagey, it stars Ellen Burstyn and Alan Alda as two married people who meet at an inn and have an affair. They agree to meet back at that same inn once a year. So we check in on them as they meet up every year and their relationship develops. There are really only about five or six main meetings, each a couple years apart, but you get the idea. It’s well done, and both actors are quite good.

Watership Down is the famous animated movie that a lot of people will point to as having destroyed them as children. It’s often listed as one of the great tearjerkers. It’s about a bunch of rabbits looking for a new home. It’s great. It’s one of the essential animated movies. Everyone needs to see it. La Cage aux Folles is the original version of The Birdcage. A gay couple owns a nightclub and finds out their son is getting married. Only his fiancées parents are super conservative, and they need to meet them too. It’s hilarious. A genius play. Most people prefer The Birdcage, but this version is just as good and just as funny. Thank God It’s Friday is the disco movie of the 70s. It produced the song “Last Dance,” which you have heard at every wedding and family party with a DJ you’ve gone to in your life. It’s an ensemble movie with a bunch of people interacting at at the new hot disco club in town. It’s very much a time machine for the era, but it’s fun. I love movies like this.

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One response

  1. Great selections. Love all the films listed (my list is very similar). :)

    May 10, 2018 at 1:36 pm

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