Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Year in Review: 1978

By 1978, Hollywood was finally ready to start dealing directly with the Vietnam War, which had ended three years before. The two films that dominated the Academy awards that year were both about the war – and they remain powerful movies. But there was more to 1978 then just Vietnam.

10. Straight Time (Ulu Grosbard)
This film seems to have been pretty much forgotten in the years since its release – but it remains a strong crime drama. Dustin Hoffman plays a thief just out of jail who tries hard to go straight. He gets a job and starts a relationship, but cannot seem to make a go of it. Humiliated by his parole officer (a wonderful M. Emmet Walsh), he decides to get even by humiliating him right back, and then plans a jewelry heist that seemingly goes well, until it all falls apart. Grosbard is a strong director, and along with Hoffman, they have created an excellent character study of a man who tries to break free of his past, but simply cannot do it. An uncredited Michael Mann helped with the screenplay, and used the same novel as an inspiration for the Robert DeNiro character in Heat. While this film is not as good as that one is, it remains a powerful study on crime and punishment.

9. Superman (Richard Donner)
Richard Donner’s Superman set the standard for all superhero origins stories to come – a standard I would argue was not bested until Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins in 2005. The movie tells the Superman’s story from the time when his father (a brilliantly strange Marlon Brando) puts him on a spaceship to earth, through his childhood as Clark Kent, to his days as the newspaper alongside Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) and his matchup with arch nemesis Lex Luthor (a wonderful Gene Hackman). Superman is blockbuster entertainment the way it was meant to be done – fast paced, exciting, with great special effects (for the time it was made anyway), but also intelligent and at times even moving.

8. Pretty Baby (Louis Malle)
It’s hard to talk about Louis Malle’s Pretty Baby and not sound like a dirty old man. It is a Lolita story to be sure, but one made with intelligence and restraint by a great director. Susan Sarandon plays a prostitute in New Orleans circa 1917 – the final days before the profession was outlawed there. She lives in a brothel with her 12 year old daughter, brilliantly played by Brooke Shields (no, that’s not a typo – Shields is excellent in this role). Throughout the course of the movie, Shields will have her virginity sold to the highest bidder, be abandoned by her mother, and be object of a fascination by photographer Keith Carradine, whose motives we have trouble completing believing. I do think it’s a shame that the DVD version of the film is censored – something that was not done when I originally saw the film on VHS all those years ago. But the nudity in question is not erotic, and is not child pornography in any sense whatsoever. It is a film that looks at its time period with its eyes wide open – with a tinge of sadness and outrage. If America in 1917 accepted things like what happens in this movie without batting an eye, shouldn’t we at least be able to watch a movie about it that says it was the outrage that it so clearly was?

7. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Philip Kaufman)
It says something about the power of the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers story that it can so easily be melded into any society and be made meaningful all over again. The original 1956 version addressed the fear of communism taking over. The 1994 version, which is shamefully overlooked, addresses concerns about AIDS. And this version brilliantly captures the paranoia in Post Watergate America. The story is basically the same as the original movie, but the film creates a powerful sense of paranoia and distrust throughout the film. The final image of the movie – and Donald Sutherland’s primal scream – are absolutely brilliant. Why can’t horror movies be this intelligent anymore?

6. Coming Home (Hal Ashby)
Coming Home is a powerful film about the effects of the Vietnam war on the soldiers, and the families they live behind. Jane Fonda won her second Oscar playing the wife of a soldier (Bruce Dern), who while he is away volunteers at the veterans hospital where she meets an old friend – Jon Voight, who also won an Oscar – who has come back from the war paralyzed from the waist down. Their friendship turns into something more. Hal Ashby is one of those filmmakers who flourished in the 1970s, but burnt out afterwards, and died too young. Equally at home with comedy and drama, here he has made a powerful film about the effects of war. The acting is strong throughout – Fonda giving another powerful performance as a sexually alive woman, and Voight brings tears to your eyes with his performance. This is a special film. (Note: That is an actual poster for this movie from Czechoslovakia - who along with Poland often had the strangest posters during the 1970s. What it has to do with the movie, I have no idea, but it sure is interesting).

5. Halloween (John Carpenter)
It would be easy to hate John Carpenter’s Halloween. After all, after his independent movie went onto make a ton a cash, it inspired countless uninspired sequels, and gave rise to the slasher genre of movies that dominated horror for the entire 1980s, with only a handful of films having any real worth. But Halloween was successful precisely because it was so well made, so tremendously creepy and scary. His story of Michael Myers, who murders his sister as a boy and is sent to an insane asylum, where he escapes years later and comes back to his sleepy home town to wreck havoc, is now iconic. The film is brilliantly directed by Carpenter – who is the real star of the show – who rarely resorts to the kind of cheap tricks his successors would use. Not until Rob Zombie brilliantly reimagined this movie earlier this decade did any movie baring the name Halloween have any sort of worth again. But strangely, it does not dim the impact of this film – a true masterwork in horror.

4. Autumn Sonata (Ingmar Bergman)
Autumn Sonata is a fitting name for this Ingmar Bergman film – although he would live for almost another 30 years, he made only a handful of films in that time, so this could well be called the Autumn of his filmmaking career. And yet, unlike many filmmakers who get worse as they aged, Bergman was still at the height of his filmmaking powers when he made this powerful film. The film is almost painful to watch at times, because the emotions in the film are so powerful. Ingrid Bergman gives her final big screen performance, and one of her best, as an aging concert pianist who has been cold towards her children for their entire lives, and hasn’t seen them in years. She decides to go see her eldest daughter, Liv Ullman, and is shocked to discover that her younger daughter – who is both physically and mentally handicapped and who she had institionalized, is living with Ullman. As the two talk, Ullman finally gets to say everything that she ever wanted to say to her mother. Bergman’s control over the medium is absolute, and the film is gorgeous to look at. But what makes this special is the performances by Bergman and Ullman – two of the best actresses in history, here at the top of their powers.

3. Gates of Heaven (Errol Morris)
How does one describe this strange, wonderful documentary by Errol Morris – the first of his career? Simply put, the movie is about a Pet Cemetery and the people who both run it, and the ones who bury their beloved pets there. But is that really the best description one can come up with for this film? It doesn’t do the film any justice. The film uses its seemingly simple setup to explore such far reaching topics as death and the afterlife. The people he interviews are bizarre, yet somewhat lovable. It is one of those films that prove that documentaries can be as good as feature films. The people you meet in this movie stick with you forever after viewing it. This is a one of kind movie. (Sidenote: Legendary crazy German director Werner Herzog vowed that if Morris completed this film, and got it shown in a public theater, then he would eat his shoe. When Morris accomplished what Herzog thought was undoable, he really did eat his shoe – and made a short documentary about it – fitting called Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe).

2. Days of Heaven (Terence Malick)
Days of Heaven was only Terence Malick’s second film – and his final one before a 20 year hiatus from filmmaking. It is an epic tone poem, not as concerned with plot or dialogue as most movies, but one that is visually powerful nevertheless. When Richard Gere accidentally kills his boss in Chicago, he flees with his girlfriend, Brooke Adams, and younger sister to Texas. They hire on at Sam Shepherd’s ranch, and learn that Shepherd is rich, but also dying. When Shepherd falls in love with Adams, Gere pushes her to marry him to get his money when he dies. The story, while slight, is not really the point of the movie anyway. The visuals of the movie are remarkable and stunning, and sweep you up in their remarkable breadth and scope. Yes, the story of the film is simple – but the film is anything but.

1. The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino)
Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter is an epic Vietnam war movie that details the lives of three friends before, during and after their journeys in the army. The movie opens with a long wedding sequence, where John Savage marries his girlfriend despite the fact that she is pregnant with another man’s child. Christopher Walken, in an Oscar winning performance, is wonderful as a seemingly shy and laid back man. And Robert DeNiro is the no-nonsense leader of the three, who plans on getting them all back from Vietnam alive and in one piece. The film has two abrupt changes of pace – where after the wedding, the film moves directly into the war scenes of the film, that are harsh and unrelenting, and feature an extended sequence of the three of them being held prisoner and being forced to play Russian Roulette, and then just as rapidly cutting back to DeNiro’s homecoming, where he is embarrassed by the attention he gets, and feels guilty as he doesn’t know what happened to his two friends. The controversy around the film has long since faded (it was criticized for being racist, a fact that Jane Fonda endorsed even though she didn’t see the movie), but the power of the movie remains. It is Cimino’s claim to fame – a war film that was infused with melodrama, and yet remains powerful to this day.

Just Missed The Top 10: American Boy (Martin Scorsese), Blue Collar (Paul Schrader), The Last Waltz (Martin Scorsese), Midnight Express (Alan Parker), Interiors (Woody Allen)

Notable Films Missed: Jubilee(Derek Jarman), The Tree of Wooden Clogs (Elamno Olmi), In a Year with 13 Moons (Rainer Werner Fassbinder), The Marriage of Maria Braun (Rainer Werner Fassbinder), Animal House (John Landis), An Unmarried Woman (Paul Mazursky)

Oscar Winner – Best Picture & Director: The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino)
This is one of those happy years when my favorite film is the one that actually won the Oscar. I have to say that it surprises me somewhat however that it did win the Best Picture Oscar (Best Director, not so much). I mean Coming Home won Actor AND Actress, and was a much more Academy friendly film – almost no violence, and get an emotional gut wrencher of a film, which The Deer Hunter is as well, but it was also much more violent and controversial. But this is one of those happy accidents where the Academy actually made the right call, and I’m happy they did.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Jon Voight, Coming Home
Personally, I think Robert DeNiro gave a better performance than Voight – and did not concentrate on big speeches to do it (tears, yes, but that’s not why I love DeNiro’s performance, which for most of the running time is subtle beyond belief – the way he looks at Streep and we know he loves her, but won’t do anything is brilliant). Having said that, Voight IS amazing in Coming Home, and it is the exact type of performance we know they love, so I have no problems with him winning.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Jane Fonda, Coming Home
It’s funny – I think Ingrid Bergman won three Oscars for performances that didn’t merit the award, but lost or wasn’t even nominated for at least that many. Her performance in Autumn Sonata is the one I think she knew she had to give to Ingmar Bergman – the greatest director her country ever produced at some point, and she should have won for that one. Fonda is great in Coming Home – I’m not arguing that – but considering how good she was in her other Oscar winning performance – Klute – this is a notch below her best work.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: Christopher Walken, The Deer Hunter
The year after Walken was beat out for the Han Solo role in Star Wars, he became a star anyway because of his brilliant performance in this movie. How could he not win here? An amazing performance, and he deserved it for that sequence with DeNiro at the end alone – where he doesn’t say a word.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Maggie Smith, California Suite
Maggie Smith is a great actress, and her and Michael Caine’s segment of the Neil Simon omnibus California Suite is the best part of the movie. Ironically, she plays an actress who loses at the Oscars. It’s a fine performance. Not as good as Streep’s big break in The Deer Hunter, but fine nonetheless.

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