best film: Days of Heaven from Terrence Malick
Malick’s Days of Heaven is far and away the best film of 1978. It is simply one of the most beautiful movies ever made and basically invented the term “magic hour photography” for cinephiles. The score by Morricone is lyrical and evocative—as epic as the photography.
most underrated: The two choices here are tied together: Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata and Woody Allen’s Interiors. Allen could be accused of imitation of course- but that’s a slippery slope when talking about influences in cinema history (we can even talk about where one of Bergman’s most famous shot choices came from with Agnes Varda). Interiors and Autumn Sonata are both severe films, stories about relationships with mothers. Both feature masterful production designs- such beauty in the curation.
- Interiors is Woody Allen’s seventh feature (I don’t count What’s Up, Tiger Lily?) and a major change in tone for him at this point in his career. It is his first film to have a very solemn tenor (going further than Annie Hall) and first not to feature him as an actor.
- Always look to the film after a giant masterpiece for an underrated work for a great auteur- this is a prime example (again directly after Annie Hall), Nostalgia from Tarkovsky, Marie Antoinette from Sofia Coppola, One From the Heart is a good example as well after Apocalypse Now, certainly Ambersons, Juliet of the Spirits from Fellini—the initial reaction isn’t always a great barometer with such expectations. If Interiors had come before Annie Hall – my guess is it would easily be in the TSPDT top 1000.
- The dual meaning of the title– Geraldine Page’s Eve (really the central character of the film) is quite literally obsessed with interiors. She’s an obsessive-compulsive interior designer. Plus, the inner angst and turmoil (not only of Page’s Eve) but the entire family
- five Oscar nominations, 92 minutes
- Allen drew on Eugene O’Neill, Chekhov (three sisters- Hannah and Her Sisters is three sisters as well- 1986), and Ingmar Bergman—the biggest influences here- but the opening silent montage of empty rooms (stunning) is Ozu– Charlie Kaufman does something similar in 2020’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things
- Sublime costume (Joel Schumacher- yes, the eventual successful director- does the costume) and décor- the coffee mugs match Mary Beth Hurt’s character’s robe
- 2019’s Swallow has a similar mode. In terms of production design this may the high-water mark for Woody.
- Smartly shot on the New York beach in winter, the season is so important to the film, no score
- The color design is consistent—tans/yellows/creams/sand
- Discontented people, frayed relationships—it is Woody after all so it is intellectual, highly referential, discussion of art, theater, walls of books in the décor
- Allen’s pen has been sharper in other films—but there are still very well written scenes like the fight between the two sisters (played by Marty Beth Hurt and Diane Keaton) and father (E.G. Marshall—of course from Twelve Angry Men) about his upcoming marriage
- At 63-minutes the 2-minute tracking shot of Keaton and Kristin Griffith as Flyn from left to right with the sand and ocean (waves playing a metaphor for Allen) – Allen’s camera stays behind the fence
- Mary Beth Hurt at the 78-minute mark with the door ajar and Wills’ gorgeous lighting
- Ennui- there’s Antonioni in the self-serious characters
- at the funeral- Allen’s use of blocking
most overrated: TSPDT has it as the wrong year (1977)- but Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep is the most overrated film of 1978. It currently sits at #301- which is at the masterpiece level- and I don’t see the evidence in the film to support that ranking.
gems I want to spotlight: All three here are sort of modified genre films: Alan Parker’s Midnight Express, Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar or Walter Hill’s The Driver. They are all worth checking out but if you admire Refn’s Drive you may find yourself drawn to Hill’s film. Midnight Express is a film I’ve seen a dozen times and features the work of a young, gifted screenwriter named Oliver Stone. Keep an eye out for the film’s best performance coming in support from the amazing John Hurt. If you’re just getting into cinema seriously and haven’t watched anything as old as 1978—this is good one to give a shot to- it’ll blow your hair back.
trends and notables:
- By the TSPDT consensus ranking this is a pretty awful year- only seven films in the top 1000 (1975 has 21 for some comparison). I tend to agree with them. I really like Coming Home and Straight Time but in really good years- these films just don’t end up sniffing the actual top 10. They end up on closer to 15-20.
- Days of Heaven is both a towering achievement for Malick and a “goodbye” for 20 years as he goes on one of the oddest and longest mid-year hiatuses of any auteur in history (he wouldn’t resurface until The Thin Red Line in 1998). Baffling.
- The Vietnam experience is finally starting to become a big part of cinema in 1978 with both The Deer Hunter and Coming Home in the top 10—obviously that would continue going into 1979 with Apocalypse Now
- Clearly in 1978 horror is a major artistic genre with both Carpenter’s Halloween and Romero’s sequel (superior to the original in this case) ending up either in or flirting with the top five of the year on the year-end list.
- The box office champion in the US is Grease but not far behind is Superman– a super hero film long before they were common- but this was a big budget, well produced film—with perhaps the greatest John Williams score of them all.
- Sadly, 1978 is the last archiveable film for the great John Cazale who gave us five archiveable performances in just seven short years. He’d pass away from cancer (age of 42) before the premiere of The Deer Hunter in 1978. All five films would be masterpieces. That’s right—he’s in The Godfather, The Godfather: Part II, The Conversation, Dog Day Afternoon and here in 1978 The Deer Hunter and that’s literally it. This would top even James Dean and Daniel Day Lewis for per film average and it won’t happen again in 100 more years of cinema.
- It is a very light year for big first-timers in the archives—Kathy Bates is all I have for 1978 on the acting side with her work in Straight Time and Paul Schrader is here behind the camera with Blue Collar. Schrader was certainly the hottest young screenwriter at the time coming off Taxi Driver in 1976 and he parlayed that into an exceptional career as director as well.
best performance male: Yet another down year here in 1978. Earlier in the decade there were times when eight, ten, twelve slots didn’t seem like enough and here we simply have three. Robert De Niro continues his utter dominance over this category in 1978 with his work in The Deer Hunter. This is the fourth mention (Mean Streets, The Godfather: Part II, Taxi Driver– all masterpieces) in six years (1973-1978) for De Niro. Christopher Walken (also in The Deer Hunter) and Richard Gere (Days of Heaven) are very worthy runners up to De Niro. Walken, as I said before, doesn’t need a long apprenticeship as he takes the leap from a single hilarious scene in Annie Hall to a remarkable, fully fleshed character in The Deer Hunter. He and De Niro have the Russian roulette scenes together- but also the poetic, extended wedding scene. This is the career best performance to date still for Walken– and ditto for Gere.
best performance female: Meryl Streep gives the best female performance of the year in The Deer Hunter. Streep doesn’t have the intensity of the Russian roulette scenes like her male counterparts, but her character is well developed for sure and her intimate scenes with both Walken and De Niro are amongst the best in the film. Behind her we have the great Ingrid Bergman in Ingmar Bergman’s (that’s tough to say- the two Swedes) Autumn Sonata. Ingrid would pass away in 1982, but this is her swan song- and last archiveable film. It’s great to see Ingmar and Ingrid, two all-time greats, finally pair up and work together. Liv Ullmann is here as well for her work in the same film alongside the unrelated Bergmans and Geraldine Page is here for her work in Interiors. The last mention here is for the young Linda Manz for her work in Days of Heaven. It is her memorable voice-over of course on the audio.
- Days of Heaven
- The Deer Hunter
- Autumn Sonata
- Dawn of the Dead
- The Tree of Wooden Clogs
- Midnight Express
- In a Year with 13 Moon
- Coming Home
Archives, Directors, and Grades
|An Enemy of the People – Schaefer||R|
|An Unmarried Woman- Mazursky|
|Animal House – Landis||R|
|Autumn Sonata- Bergman||MS|
|Big Wednesday – Milius||R/HR|
|Blue Collar- Schrader||R|
|California Suite- Ross||R|
|Comes a Horseman – Pakula||R|
|Coming Home – Ashby||HR|
|Dawn of the Dead- Romero||MS|
|Days of Heaven- Malick||MP|
|Fedora – Wilder||R|
|Grease – Kleiser||R|
|Heaven Can Wait- Beatty|
|In a Year With 13 Moons- Fassbinder||HR|
|Interiors – Allen||MS|
|Invasion of Body Snatchers- P. Kaufman||R|
|Killer of Sheep – Burnett||R|
|La Cage aux Folles – Molinaro||R|
|Les rendez-vous d’Anna- Akerman||R|
|Midnight Express- Parker||HR|
|Piranha – Dante||R|
|Pretty Baby- Malle||R|
|Remember My Name – Rudolph||R/HR|
|Straight Time- Grosbard||HR|
|Superman: The Movie- Donner||R|
|The Boys From Brazil- Schaffner||R|
|The Buddy Holly Story- Rash||R|
|The Deer Hunter- Cimino||MP|
|The Driver-W. Hill||R|
|The Fury- De Palma||R|
|The Green Room- Truffaut|
|The Silent Partner – D. Duke||R|
|The Tree of Wooden Clogs – Olmi||HR|
|Watership Down – Rosen||R|
|Who’ll Stop the Rain- Reisz||R|
*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film
MS is Must-See- top 5-6 quality of the year film
HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film
R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives
Shooketh with Interiors with being a mere R. Haha. Thankfully, I checked the Allen page. What an incredible 20 year run he had. 1975- 1980 is just extra special though.
Interiors 3rd best of 1978?. Days of Heaven is different dimension, but it’s close between The Deer Hunter and Interiors.
Days of heaven is by far the best movie of 1978, i just saw it today and it is most beautiful, poetry in motion, so majestic, what do you mean by “magic hour”?
When you call a film beautiful, do you mean the mise en scene or cinematography or a mix of both?
Maybe he has not explained me well, I mean I also have the Tree of Life as the best movie of the decade, but my favorite is Mad Max Fury Road, Drake says that best and favorite are aligned, what about you Azman? What is your favorite movie of the decade (not better)?
Great observation on Rio Bravo. I noticed it while watching the movie but forgot about it completely while writing on this page , until I read your comment and I remembered- haha . Did you notice any other films Dawn of the Dead could have been influenced by? The shot of the raiders lining up on their bikes reminded me a bit about Mad Max 2-haha. Are there any movies that could have been inspired by this one ?(the obvious movie that was inspired by Dawn of the Dead, was Shaun of the dead). Maybe even the Alien chestbuster shot came from this movie.
What does “photography” mean from a film perspective? Also what does cinematography and mise en scene mean. They all sound like pretty similar things. Could you please tell me the differences?
I may not be 100% right but photography means individual pictures (individual shots), beauty of individual shots etc. Like Lawrence of Arabia and every Malick film.
Cinematography is more about multiple of those shots. It’s camera movement, playing tricks with camera and lighting like repulsion, raging bull, Birdman.
Mise en scene is basically framing. Like production design and setting up a frame, placement of objects.
Like blade Runner, cold War etc.
You’re misusing the word framing here. Framing does not mean designing and arranging the elements of an image; that would be called composition (though framing is an element of composition). Framing is the use of objects that look like a frame, such as doorways and windows, to direct the eyes to what is inside.
I apologize. I meant the arrangements of objects and people within a frame.
I love how you write “these quiet, patient sequences,” under a shot of Walken holding a gun up to his head. Haha.
@Zane- haha — probably should remove “these”
Excited to revisit the Deer Hunter (1978) tonight – John Cazale’s last film unfortunately due to cancer. Looking at his Wiki Page he was only in 5 full length films: The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather 2, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Deer Hunter. My God!!! That is absolutely ridiculous, every single one of those is a straight up masterpiece. I thought he was especially great in GF2 in the “I was passed over” scene
Days of Heaven has elevated to my favorite Malick film as much as I love Badlands, The Thin Red Line, and Tree of Life. All his films are ridiculously beautiful but the images in Days of Heaven are my favorite, particularly the shot you have labeled above as possibly the greatest frame in Cinema history. While acting may not be the most important aspect of Malick films I love Richard Gere’s performance; he’s a complex character as he functions both as somewhat of a grifter but also there is a vulnerability to his character who is trying to escape poverty with the woman he loves. I have no complaints about the film whatsoever, it really is perfect.
I’m pleased that you added a mention in the female performances section for Linda Manz in Days of Heaven (I’m not sure whether she was listed before the update or not – regardless I am happy about her inclusion). It was in fact her debut role, and in my mind she gives one of the best child performances in cinema. In terms of the greatest voiceovers, Apocalypse Now, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, and The Shawshank Redemption are always named, but I think Manz’s work here deserves to be mentioned among them. It is a fairly random voiceover, partially improvised, and not always directly related to the story, but contains a myriad of evocative, powerful imagery. Subtle notes of her performance indicate the character’s deep melancholy and perhaps that she has grown up a bit too quickly, but other moments show her childishness. Days of Heaven is a film where the acting is not of primary importance and quite honestly not of secondary or even tertiary importance either when the direction, cinematography, and score are considered, but Manz (as well as Gere, Shepard, and Adams) does a great job.
@Graham- very good description here- random and improvised. My problem here is that this “family” is from Chicago in the film and Linda Manz is so clearly a New Yorker. It is a tiny, tiny flaw but I wish Malick had written in one line about how they came to Chicago from New York, haha.
I’ve actually seen that complaint before as well. However, keep in mind that your statement is coming from someone who considers Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road one of the best performances of the 2010s, despite the fact that she makes no attempt at all to use an Australian accent. I’ve never seen you criticize that before. I agree with you on Manz in Days of Heaven, but I find the issue so insignificant compared to the visual beauty that it’s worth little more than a footnote.
*I mean the visual beauty of the film, not of her if that was unclear
Graham… we know what you meant…
I was guessing you guys understood but some newcomer to the site could get confused.
@Graham- we’re certainly on the same page about its effect on Days of Heaven– if I were to compare this to Theron in Fury Road I’d just say that one is a futuristic dystopia– and Malick’s is a period piece, grounded in the opening with still frame photographs.
Do you believe that Richard Gere in days of heaven is the best performance in a Malick film?
@M*A*S*H- I’m going to refrain for a few weeks since I’m in the middle of a Malick study. I’m thru Badlands and Days of Heaven and I don’t think Gere’s work is any stronger than Spacek or Sheen. The elements that make Days of Heaven superior to Badlands has nothing to do with the performances. What do you think?
I’d have to agree. I watched Days of Heaven again very recently myself actually and I don’t think the acting is as strong as it is in Badlands. Sheen probably gives in my opinion the best performance in any single Malick film but another viewing of The New World or The Tree of Life could make me change my mind to Kilcher or Pitt in those films.
I agree. Badlands is the best acted Malick movie. It’s also his most narrative and character driven film.
By the law the best performance should be Pitt because it’s an excellent performance in his best film but tree of life is his least character driven and most visual and concept driven film.
Clearly Malick is not an actor’s director. If you are a great actor and find you yourself a good role in his film, you can give a good performance on your own but he is not going to extract it from you.
I’m gonna settle with a tie between kilcher and spacek.
@Zane Interesting. I agree with you that Sheen (and Spacek actually) gives a better performance than anybody in Days of Heaven. But I think that the crown for the best performance in Malick movies should go to either Nolte or Caviezel in Thin Red Line.
I’m with you Mad Mike. Nolte and Caviezel in The Thin Red Line, or Brad Pitt in Tree of Life would be my selections. I’m overdue for a revisit of The New World Though. I have a vague recollection of being blown away by Q’orianka Kilcher, but I’d need to return to it to be certain.
@Matt Harris – What do you think about Coteas in the same film? I’ve seen him praised quite a lot between film buffs, but Nolte for me has this quiet desperation in him that I cannot shake. And Caviezel just looks so otherworldly and connected to some hidden truth. Coteas is quite good ( I love a tiny moment when he swears in Greek) but I’ll take Penn and even maybe Harrelson before him.
Kilcher is a good one. I was very impressed by her. I would put Pitt just a bit behind Nolte and Caviezel in TRL. When I watched that movie for the first time Chastain held my attention more ( I think it was the first time I’ve seen here) but on the second watch I appreciated Brad work a lot more. I think what a like about his performance, that he feels more like a specific person than Chastain (who is also quite good). And I loved subtle details in his performance. Like even when he hugs he’s son it looks a bit violent. Like his somewhat uncomfortable.
Actually, when I think about it Malick has several really strong performances while not having a reputation as a strong actors director. And as we know he shoots a lot of material, so he has a big hand in shaping a performance( or leaving it in the movie at all – hah). Also, I haven’t seen a lot of movies with Caviezel or Kilcher, but they were a lot less interesting in other roles, in my humble opinion.
@Mad Mike – Great call on The Thin Red Line. I was impressed by Caviezel but not certain I would put him up there where Sheen is (he is on an extremely high level of fantastic in Badlands), though I’d be willing to after a revisit, but I had forgotten about Nolte’s performance. I remember thinking he probably gave the single best performance in the film and the only one capable of holding up to Sheen in Badlands or Spacek.
Damn, TRL is just filled to the brim with acting talent. I think Koteas, Penn, Caviezel, Ben Chaplin and John Cusack are great as well. Koteas has to be one of the most underrated actors of modern cinema. Really been one I’ve been itching to rewatch actually and this conversation brings me closer to it.
I’m gonna say my picks for the best performances in Malick’s films are Sheen and Spacek in Badlands, all 4 leads in DoH, Nolte and Caviezel in TRL, Kilcher in TNW, Pitt and Chastain in ToL and Diehl in AHL. I’d say the best of all of them is Sheen but I could say Nolte, Kilcher, or Pitt in the future.
I’ve seen Kilcher in Hostiles (she has a bit part) and found that one to be excruciatingly unbearable, but that was about 2 years ago now so I’m not sure what I’d say about it now. I can’t recall anything else I’ve seen with Caviezel, I haven’t seen The Passion.
@Matt Harris – I’d love to see what you have to write about The New World if you were to rewatch. It’s always great to see you back here.
Hey what’s your verdict on An unmarried woman. I thought it’s an excellent film.
@M*A*S*H- I haven’t seen it in 15-20 years– which is why there is no grade here. I’ll try to get to it soon.
Oh nice. I believe that it’s closer to when harry met sally in quality. Some of the interior shots are extraordinary. What do you think?