Monday, June 26, 2017

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Picture 1978

The Contenders:

Coming Home
The Deer Hunter (winner)
Heaven Can Wait
Midnight Express
An Unmarried Woman

What’s Missing

Lots of good movies were released in 1978, although many of them aren’t the sort that are typically considered Oscar films. These include movies like Superman, Animal House, Dawn of the Dead, Halloween, and the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It also includes my absolute favorite martial arts movie, Five Deadly Venoms. More on the edge of that category are Grease, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, and the animated Watership Down. For movies that really could be considered for Best Picture, the sort that normally run in those circles, there are four worth considering. The Buddy Holly Story is better than it’s been remembered. Autumn Sonata may have been a little too slow, but it certainly seems like the sort of movie that belongs in contention. The two surprising misses are Days of Heaven and Interiors, both of which seem designed to get a Best Picture nod and both of which were good enough to get one.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. I understand why An Unmarried Woman was nominated for Best Picture, something I can’t say about at least one other film on this list. So why is it last? Because it’s hateful in a lot of ways. This is supposed to be something like a female empowerment movie, which I have no problem with. Where I have a problem is that the film creates this sense of female empowerment specifically by making virtually all of the men hateful and terrible. There are better ways to do this, and An Unmarried Woman is ugly in its soul.

4. I like Heaven Can Wait more than I liked An Unmarried Woman, but this is a movie that should never have gotten hint of a nomination for Best Picture. The story is good, if a little twee, but the way the story actually unfolds borders on the ridiculous. I wanted to like this a lot more than I did, and everything I have a problem with comes specifically from the way the plot unfolds and the decisions the characters make. It’s not a bad movie; it’s just kind of a dumb one, and there’s no reason it should be on this list, considering what was left off.

3. I think everyone in the world likes The Deer Hunter more than I do. I don’t hate the film, but I don’t really love it, either. It certainly has one of the most iconic moments of its decade, but that really isn’t enough to make this the best film of its year. When you add in the fact that the opening wedding sequence goes on forever, a lot of this comes across as being done in service to Michael Cimino’s ego rather than the story. I know people like, or even love it, and I can even kind of see why. I’m just not there myself.

2. I like Coming Home quite a bit. It feels to me like the natural bridge between The Best Years of Our Lives and Born on the Fourth of July, containing a touch of the sweetness of the former and a handful of the anger of the latter. The most impressive thing about it is that it manages to tell its story without dropping into the melodrama that absolutely lurks underneath the characters. That it edges there in the first place doesn’t work in its favor, though. I like the nomination and a lot about it, but not enough for the top position.

1. By process of elimination, that puts Midnight Express in the top position, and it’s an unusual pick, both for me and for Oscar. I love that it was nominated, and I understand also why it didn’t win. It’s such a dark movie in so many ways, brutal and ugly, but also tremendously acted and produced. There’s a lot to recommend it, and with the choices I’ve been given, it’s far and away the pick. But, of course, this blog doesn’t limit itself to the choices that are given, and I think the snubs are strong enough to take the top spot multiple times.

My Choice

Days of Heaven and Interiors are, I think, objectively the best two movies of 1978. I might put Autumn Sonata in that company as well, even though it’s not a movie I like as much as the first two I mentioned. I do think that these three movies are all better than all five of the actual nominations, though, so they are were I’d put the statue.

Final Analysis


  1. I'm with you on The Deer Hunter. That movie is ridiculous. To be sure, the Vietnam scenes are intense and brilliant, but the rest is a slog. And I can't for the life of me figure out why nobody called bullshit on Cimino using the Colorado Rocky Mountains as a stand-in for the Pennsylvania Appalachians for the hunting scenes. That really and truly bothered me.

    I would rank the two nominees I've seen from this year. Your Top 2. The same, and I would likewise agree that both Interiors and Days of Heaven are better than both. Great post!

    1. "Slog" is a good word for it. It's one of those movies I don't want to watch again because I know just how long it's going to take to actually get anywhere. It seems like it starts and starts and starts and never really does anything for the first hour or so.

  2. How great were "Superman," "Animal House," "Halloween," and "Grease?" They are/were great enough that they are mainstays in my family with multiple viewings over the following decades, and I think I might just pull out "Superman" and "Superman II" tonight to share with members of our youngest generation out on their summer vacation. Honestly, I doubt many young people will ever watch those films the out-of-touch Oscar voters nominated, but I know I'll never forget "Midnight Express" or certain scenes from "The Deer Hunter."

    1. I think of all of these, Midnight Express, in addition to being my pick from the nominees, is also the one that is probably the most relevant to a modern audience. But those you mentioned are all still completely vital. In fact, my 14-year-old's favorite movie is Grease.

  3. Of the five nominated films the one I enjoyed the most is Heaven Can Wait, which I found a charming fantasy with lovely performances but....charming and nomination worthy are two completely different things and I'd never ever nominate it for an Oscar.

    I didn't care much for An Unmarried Woman outside of Jill Clayburgh's performance, I tried to rewatch it a few years ago and never even made it to the part where Alan Bates enters the film.

    You are not alone in your indifference to The Deer Hunter. I left it to watch as long as I could when I was completing seeing all the Best Picture winners (it was the final one) and I thought parts were fine, all of it well-acted and parts terribly dull and meandering. At the end I didn't understand its win.

    So my top two of these five would be the same and I'm not sure which I'd put on top, neither would make a bad winner, Midnight Express is the most intense but Coming Home is perhaps more entertaining. I'd nominate both but if I had to pick among all the films of the year I'd award neither.

    I didn't care much for Interiors, brilliant acting but I found it dry as dust and trying to hard to be Bergman. Speaking of Ingmar Bergman Autumn Sonata has two genius performances at it core, Ingrid should have won the actual award, but I can't see it as a nominee for Picture.

    Usually I struggle with Malick but Days of Heaven is one time when I didn't and it would have made a great inclusion.

    But my heart goes with Superman, the superhero movie that got it right-balancing the thrills with actual character development and an all-star cast that really deliver in their roles. It's a definite precursor to Raiders of the Lost Ark. Perhaps not the greatest movie ever made but when you compare its buoyant heart and desire to entertain with the interchangeable CGI junk which has no real interest with connecting to its audience churned out now it looks more like a masterpiece than ever.

    1. I don't know that Superman would really be a bad pick. It holds up well in the almost 40 years since its release, and does something amazing--it makes the whole concept of the character at least cinematically believable.

      I'm aware that you're not a fan of Interiors, and I think that's a movie that you either like or really don't. It's one that I think is objectively well made, though, and it's one I'd want here. Autumn Sonata trades on those two performances, and that's enough to put it into possible contention in my world.

      Still, this is one of those years where the movies that have proven to be influential and memorable are of the sort that Oscar tends to shun.

  4. I too will jump on the "you're not alone about 'The Deer Hunter'" bandwagon: the performances are fantastic but it's an incredibly indulgent film. So much of "Heaven's Gate" makes a lot more sense to me after seeing "The Deer Hunter."

    1. "Indulgent" is a nice way to put it. It is, frankly, the reason I haven't ever attempted Heaven's Gate.

  5. I did think 78 was thin on Oscar material, but only when I read your post did I realize how thin. My favourite in 78 is Halloween, hands down, and it would never win Best Picture