Top Ten // FILMS OF 1978

40 years later, see how films like Halloween and Grease rank.



It was the year after Star Wars turned the tables on what an epic film could be, and a few years before The Empire Strikes Back would continue George Lucas' Hollywood takeover. It was also a couple of years in the shadow of Steven Spielberg's Jaws. Cinema was on the cusp of a major shift in possibilities and vision, with traditional effects being mastered just in time to switch to digital.


Hollywood, in general, found itself at a strange crossroads in the late 1970's with the outliers of Old Hollywood still getting work, even if it was few and far between, and a new crop of masters were getting their big breaks. From Meryl Streep's first Oscar-nominated performance in The Deer Hunter, the film that would go on to win Best Picture, deservedly so, to John Carpenter's genre-bending Halloween becoming one of horror's most influential releases of all time, 1978 was a heightened year of change.


The year may not have made marks on cinematic history with a long list of classics or box office triumphs, its reign on some of pop culture's favorite movies (like Grease, Animal House, and Superman) definitely takes notice.


Here are the Top Ten films from 1978. Is your favorite from that year missing? Let us know in the comments.


1. THE DEER HUNTER

Directed by Michael Cimino

Starring Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep

Academy Awards Won: Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor (Walken), Film Editing, Sound



Cimino's masterpiece is a dreary look at the lives of Vietnam soldiers and how the war has taken over their phyche, even after they come home. De Niro captures the grittiness of the Pennsylvania steelworkers whose lives were rocked by wartime peril, much like many other everyday American men. A pivotal scene involving Russian roulette stands as one of cinema's most captivating and dastardly. It's intense and the material led to Walken winning his first Academy Award. In the industry, The Deer Hunter's release strategy, which saw it open in limited release in New York and Los Angeles in order to qualify for the Oscars before releasing wide, set the stage for today's traditional prestige picture release. Despite its critical view of the Vietnam War, one of the first films to take this stance, the film received positive reviews. Its raw approach to showcasing the terrors of war no doubt inspired later films including Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, and Saving Private Ryan.


2. AUTUMN SONATA

Directed by Ingmar Bergman

Starring Ingrid Bergman, Liv Ullmann, Lena Nyman



This Norwegian drama is notable for its artistic scope and for being Bergman's final film before her death, even earning an Oscar nomination for her work as the matriarchal concert pianist whose daughter is hoping to make amends. Director Bergman carries the film with a dark paintbrush, a possible symbolism with the turmoil festering in his own life during the late 1970's. The director is one of cinema's greatest, having crafted such classics as Cries & Whispers, The Seventh Seal, and Persona. This is a minor note on his greater works, but a piece of cinema that is still important enough to show his grasp on beautiful, haunting, and masterful storytelling.


3. MIDNIGHT EXPRESS

Directed by Alan Parker

Starring Brad Davis, Randy Quaid, John Hurt

Academy Awards Won: Best Original Score, Adapted Screenplay



Oliver Stone adapted the true story of American student Billy Hayes' trials in a Turkish prison. It was famously controversial in its portrayal of Turkish inmates, but still garnered positive reviews upon its release. The negative sentiments were similar to those of Lawrence of Arabia, in that they made the Turks seem almost cartoon-like in their viciousness. Despite the bad press, the film would later be used as a sort-of propaganda to US navy-men before headed into Turk-led territories, to steer them from misbehaving. The aspects that stand out most in the film's cinematic legacy are the performances by Davis and Hurt, who received a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. The film's score, which won the Oscar, has also become one of cinema's most memorable.

4. HALLOWEEN

Directed by John Carpenter

Starring Donald Pleasance, Jamie Lee Curtis



Marking Curtis' film debut, the slasher flick is the birth film for horror titan Michael Myers and the long-gestating franchise that now includes 10 films. An 11th entry into the saga is set to release this October, with Curtis returning as Laurie Strode. The film's premise is somewhat simple: Myers, who escapes from a sanitarium after being in isolation for 15 years, wreaks havoc on the town of Haddonfield, IL, on Halloween night. Carpenter's low-budget project utilized many first-seen filming techniques, especially new to the horror genre. The effects he'd use, including innovative cinematography to drive the fear factor, would go on to shape modern day horror cinema. His score, which he created, has also become a standard example of the magic of music in furthering a film's terror. It is, perhaps, the most innovative slasher flick since Hitchcock's Psycho. Both films' directors use clever filmmaking tricks to incite the ultimate scares, as opposed to offering bloody gore as the main source of terror. Shot on a budget of only $300,000, the film garnered over $70 million at the international box office.


5. DAYS OF HEAVEN

Directed by Terrence Malick

Starring Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shepard

Academy Awards Won: Best Cinematography



Director Malick has become a master at slow-burning, large scoped films that study humanity through tightly-woven dialogue and sweeping cinematography. He was still new on the circuit as a director, coming off the success of Badlands, and Days of Heaven gave the industry its first glimpse at the tedious nature of creating a Malick film. Production and post-production took almost 3 years before the film's release. It failed to make much of a mark at the box office, but its critical and artistic praise has elevated it as one of cinema's most beautifully-shot pictures. Malick's use of natural lighting, especially, was innovative for the time. Most of the film was shot during the 'golden hour.' As for accolades, this film marked composer Ennio Morricone's first Academy Award nomination.


6. THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL

Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner

Starring Gregory Peck, Laurence Olivier, James Mason



Based on the novel of the same name, this sci-fi thriller found two of acting's most well-known names, Peck and Olivier, sharing the screen, along with an ensemble of supporting players including a very young Steve Guttenberg, and actress/acting coach Uta Hagen. The plot was divisive, bringing about conversations around such topics as Nazism and cloning. But, even then, they were only seen as plot devices. The meat of the film's legacy is in Peck's and Olivier's performances, even at their 'old' age. Olivier, in fact, earned an Oscar nomination for his turn as an aging Nazi hunter. The film was received well, with mostly positive reviews. Peck's villain turn was surprisingly fun, giving him a bit that was somewhat off-character.


7. DAWN OF THE DEAD

Directed by George A. Romero

Starring David Emge, Ken Foree, Gaylen Ross



Romero had already made his mark on horror films with Night of the Living Dead, a terrifying zombie flick released 10 years earlier. This sequel, which opened the door for a franchise, toppled on Romero's vision of slow-moving terror with the added benefit of color film and bizarre makeup effects. The grey-hued zombies would become the norm for later zombie-centered flicks and television series. Setting the majority of the film's antics inside of a mall allowed for the film's closed-in, something-around-every-corner feel. The marketing for the film took a much-different approach than other horror films released that year, utilizing its gore as a scare tactic, enticing young fans to swarm theaters. Strong word-of-mouth also helped it become one of the year's biggest hits, grossing over $55 million. Zombies now serve as a profitable sub-genre of horror films. Their place in pop culture can completely be traced to Romero's vision.


8. HEAVEN CAN WAIT

Directed by Warren Beatty and Buck Henry

Starring Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, Jack Warden

Academy Awards Won: Best Art Direction



Based on the play with the same name, this comedy became a critical and commercial hit upon its release. Beatty co-directed and starred, his first time behind the camera. The film's premise was saccharine and the comedic chomps provided by Beatty and his co-stars provided one of the decade's most meandering and hilarious adventures. Set against the Los Angeles Rams football setting, the film featured many famous athletes at the time in small cameo roles. With the film sitting in that limbo between old and new Hollywood, many stories now exist about who Beatty had originally envisioned as being in the cast, including Cary Grant and Muhammad Ali. Charles Grodin and Dyan Cannon especially earned positive remarks for their screen-time, with Cannon earning an Oscar nomination. Comedies do not have the best track record when it comes to the Academy Awards, but Heaven Can Wait sits among the few who broke through, earning a Best Picture nod.


9. COMING HOME

Directed by Hal Ashby

Starring Jon Voight, Jane Fonda, Bruce Dern

Academy Awards Won: Best Actor (Voight), Actress (Fonda), Original Screenplay



Though The Deer Hunter would be the more-remembered Vietnam War film from 1978, Coming Home also put the war under a critical microscope. Fonda, an outspoken and controversial pop culture figure at the time, helped develop the film about a military wife struggling with her husband's recent deployment. She befriends a Vietnam veteran who'd been injured in battle and was now a paraplegic. Her vulnerable state and new, budding friendship, lead to a secret romance. There's plenty of drama and masterful acting, with Voight and Fonda giving near career-best performances. The film was a critical and commercial hit. Its legacy extends as a seminal piece of anti-war rhetoric disguised as a moving relationship drama, much like earlier films like The Best Years of Our Lives.


10. GREASE

Directed by Bronte Woodard

Starring John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John, Stockard Channing



The highest-grossing film of 1978, Grease was on the hit Broadway musical of the same name about a group of teenagers int he 50's, mustering the hardships of adolescence and love. Travolta was already a seminal box office star, with films like Saturday Night Fever under his belt. His role in the film no doubt helped its success. Though it may lack prestige artistic elements, its use of music and choreography interspersed throughout real locations has been mimicked in years since. Its tropes as a teenage love-fest have undoubtedly inspired plenty of teen comedies that have followed, whether musicals or not. Its commercial success at the box office allowed it to become one of film's most-loved pictures, continuing to draw audiences in re-releases.

© 2018 by Scottie Knollin.

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