Catch up with the idea behind this series here.
Hey, that “Star Wars” thing was nominated for Best Picture in 1977. The blockbuster game-changer was beaten by the romantic comedy game-changer “Annie Hall,” in what has to be one of my favorite Best Picture wins ever. It would be 21 years before another comedy won the top prize in “Shakespeare in Love,” which is another one of my favorite Best Picture wins. More good comedies please!
Sir Stevie Spielberg earned his first Oscar nomination for directing “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” but saw the film lose out on a Best Picture nod to “The Goodbye Girl.” That film earned Richard Dreyfuss the honor of becoming the youngest Best Actor winner until Adrien Brody, decades later.
“The Deer Hunter” bummed everyone out enough in 1978 to take home Best Picture and Director statues. The only real competition came from “Coming Home,” as anti-Vietnam films were suddenly back in vogue.
1977 was also Bob Hope’s last turn as Master of Ceremonies (his eighteenth). No more quips like this one, “Tonight we set aside petty differences, forget old feuds, and start new ones.” Luckily, 1978 was the first of many Johnny Carson hosting gigs with gems like, “I see a lot of new faces. Especially on the old faces.”
But here’s what had to watch from home.
1977 – “Killer of Sheep” (Charles Burnett)
“Killer of Sheep” never had a chance with the Oscars because it never had a theatrical release. Charles Burnett made it as his thesis work for UCLA at a cost of less than $10,000, over the course of three years. The finished product was good enough to screen at the Berlin and Toronto Film Festivals, but issues with the music rights kept it from getting a theatrical release until Steven Soderbergh shepherded a project to raise the necessary $150,000 and restore the prints. I, along with most people, finally got a chance to see the lost classic in theatres back in 2007.
A full nine years before Spike Lee’s, “She’s Gotta Have It,” Burnett’s film represents a time when virtually no African-American independent cinema was being made outside of blaxploitation pictures. His neo-realist style and focus on the day to day life of one poverty-stricken Los Angeles family serves as a fascinating historical document even outside of the terrific filmmaking. Part of the reason those music rights were so expensive is because Burnett insisted on the film being an aural history of African American popular music. The Dinah Washington song that plays during the slow dance picture above couldn’t have been cheap, but the effect of that scene is priceless.
Like many other films spotlighted here, the plot is thin and inconsequential. Our hero, Stan, goes about his daily routine as a husband, father, and slaughterhouse worker. Occasionally, we check in on other members of his family or community as Burnett has no problem letting seemingly fragmented moments slowly piece together the puzzle of his narrative. The languid pace is a hallmark of Burnett’s influences, and his film has gone on to inspire everyone from David Gordon Green (directly aping this visual in “George Washington”) to Mos Def (who used a still from the movie as his latest album’s cover art).
Burnett shot and edited the movie himself, showcasing a wide-ranging talent that has never quite matched the feats achieved here and unfortunately been relegated to mostly TV work these days. Perhaps in his case, the old adage that limitation breeds creativity was never more true. Regardless, “Killer of Sheep” stands up as a poetic, beautiful ode to a community otherwise completely overlooked in the medium.
1978 – “Halloween” (John Carpenter)
I don’t do horror movies. In strictly general terms, I don’t like to put terrifying images into my brain and rarely is the decision to do so justified by the exceptions. Sometime during my third or fourth year at film school, they played a print of this on Halloween night and the social event was too big to turn down. I may have covered my sensitive eyes a few times, but I watched the whole thing with a raucous crowd of film nerds. And I was scared shitless.
John Carpenter had already directed two feature films, despite being just shy of his 30th birthday, and each were deeply rooted genre affairs. Cutting his teeth with sci-fi on “Dark Star” and then executing action on a shoestring budget with “Assault on Precinct 13,” he turned his attention to horror and the concept of ‘pure evil’. I’m not sure Carpenter has anything to say about the idea other than it makes for a decidedly unstoppable villain, but it makes perfect sense in the film he’s crafted. A film that operates exclusively on minimalism from every angle. Stripped of nuance, it’s virginal good vs. unshakeable evil.
A sensationally conceived opening sequence sets the tone and the feeling of dread never lets up. Partly because of the milquetoast, suburban setting. Partly because of the voyeuristic, methodical camerawork. Partly because of the grainy, high contrast cinematography. But mostly because of that score. Each example is an exercise in rigid restraint that is all but lost on today’s horror filmmakers. It’s not hard to have a character looking around nervously, fade down the entire soundtrack for a moment, have a killer jump out accompanied by a cymbal crash and get a response from the audience. It will be momentary though. Have the killer consistently present in the shadows, occasionally revealing himself slowly in the background and the response will last the whole film.
Jamie Lee Curtis became a star after her portrayal as the victimized babysitter and it’s quite clear that she has star power to spare even though she’s not required to do much other than scream and run. Donald Pleasance takes the obligatory role of explaining things/adding gravitas, but he does it well so who can complain? Michael Myers actually is only billed as “The Shape” in the credits and was played by Nick Castle, future director of “Dennis the Menace” and “Major Payne” obviously. 99% of the time, I’m looking for more in a film than just a formal exercise in terror, but “Halloween” is the real deal.
Those are my picks. What do you guys think?