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.

Malick’s sublime nature photography– the waving wheat fields at dusk

a prime candidate for cinema’s greatest single frame – from Malick’s Days of Heaven

35-years old at the time of its release, Terrence Malick would make one of the best films of all-time, and then stop working for twenty years— making him sort of cinema’s J. D. Salinger.


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.

Bergman’s Autumn Sonata is as carefully designed, lit, and curated as either Cries & Whispers or Fanny and Alexander

Bergman’s visual design includes the reoccurring use of doorways to create a frame within the frame

a golden glow lighting design– unlike Malick’s use of this hue, this is artificial, but still mesmerizing

both Woody and Bergman have these meticulously designed interiors

  • 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 AmbersonsJuliet 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

Another one of Allen’s collaborations with DP Gordon Willis—they did phenomenal work together. They made eight films together between 1977-1985

I see Todd Haynes’ Safe here as well- carefully arranged interiors—disorder/sickness. “rigid” and similar terms used by the daughters, “ice palace”.

  • 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

Immaculate frames like the empty living room with only Page’s character in black before attempting suicide

  • 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

The final shot is a jaw-dropper—posing at the window. Keaton (also in Gordon Willis’ work in The Godfather of course) foreground left, Mary Beth Hurt middle right and Griffith in the background middle—great blocking. Gerwig would use this almost exact shot in 2019’s Little Women


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.

John Hurt in Midnight Express– his work in support was rewarded by the Academy with a nomination- which probably helped him secure a role in Ridley Scott’s Alien in 1979 and David Lynch’s The Elephant Man in 1980


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

MIchael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter— the steel mill shots of the town shot in Pennsylvania and Ohio

from Cimino’s The Deer Hunter – Vilmos Zsigmond as cinematographer

  • 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.

from the mesmerizing opening of Carpenter’s Halloween– POV camerawork and one of the most recognizable movie scores

long before the term of “elevated horror” was known by cinephiles – Romero’s horror re-ups Hawks’ Rio Bravo here in Dawn of the Dead 

  • 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.

the few moments of actual action in Cimino’s “war” film are made even more intense by the rest of the film being filled with somber, quiet, patient sequences


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.

Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullman- two of the ten greatest screen actresses of all-time duel it out in one of 1978’s best films

top 10

  1. Days of Heaven
  2. The Deer Hunter
  3. Autumn Sonata
  4. Interiors
  5. Halloween
  6. Dawn of the Dead
  7. The Tree of Wooden Clogs
  8. Midnight Express
  9. In a Year with 13 Moon
  10. Coming Home


it still astonishes me that as fast as he was working and shooting- Fassbinder could produce shots and sequences like this from In a Year with 13 Moons

from Ermanno Olmi’s The Tree of Wooden Clogs

a jaw-dropper from De Palma’s The Fury


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
Halloween- Carpenter MS
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