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Monday, September 1, 2008

Flashback: The Best Movies of 1978 Part One

Our flashback series takes us to 30 years ago, 1978, and the best movies of the year part one.

1) The Deer Hunter
Three years after the fall of Saigon, Americans seemed finally ready to grapple with Vietnam head-on in several films. The Deer Hunter was the longest and arguably weightiest of these - an epic visual poem. Director Michael Cimino had three rising stars at his disposal - Robert DeNiro, Christopher Walken, and Meryl Streep - all of whom would get Oscar noms. There have been nitpicks over the years over the accuracy of what's onscreen - particularly the Russian roulette sequences - but this isn't meant to be a documentary. It's a tortured exploration of war, community, and friendship, and manhood.

2) Coming Home

The second big 'Nam film of the year starred Hanoi Jane herself as the wife of a Captain, played by Bruce Dern, who is on his way over to serve in 1968. She's unquestioning in her support of the war and her husband. His absence leads her to start to think for herself and take a job helping at the local VA hospital where she encounters hunky paraplegic Jon Voight. Fonda's dawning consciousness about the the war parallels her discovery of herself as a separate person from her husband and the stifling military society they live in. Fonda and Voight are terrific, with Voight giving one of his best performances as an angry, sensitive man trying to channel his rage into something constructive. The ending is truly haunting and director Hal Ashby, an oft-overlooked genius of 70s filmmaking, knows just when to cut and when to linger. The soundtrack is full of great 60s chestnuts including lots of hard-to-clear Beatles and Stones songs.

3) An Unmarried Woman
A more contemporary exploration of a woman finding herself came in this Jill Clayburgh film directed by Paul Mazursky. Clayburgh plays a woman who thought she had a perfect marriage until sucky yuppie hubby played by Michael Murphy ditches her for a younger lass. With the help of her therapist she discovers the joys of singledom and casual sex before meeting up with lusty but sensitive he-man artist Alan Bates. In the end she has to decide whether her burgeoning career and independence are more important to her than her love of Bates. While the "choice" may be a false one it certainly mirrored what many women were feeling as they moved through the professional ranks while often being expected to put their lives on hold for the men they loved.

4) Blue Collar
Paul Schrader, the man who wrote Taxi Driver, made his directorial debut with this, one of the best American films to directly address race and class. It's not polemical so much as it's deeply felt and imbued with the grit of the assembly lines in which it takes place. Richard Pryor was never better than he is here as Zeke, along with Yaphet Kotto and Harvey Keitel. As Union members who scheme to rob the fatcats of their own union the trio form a tight onscreen bond that unravels against greed, violence, and the American way of doing business.

5) Fingers
Another talented writer taking a turn behind the camera for the first time was James Toback, here directing Harvey Keitel as a man torn between the family business of organized crime and his innate talent for classical piano playing. It's a more abstract character portrait than you might think judging from the plat and even some of the Scorsese mannerisms of the camerawork but it's an engrossing piece of work. Remade as The Beat My Heart Skipped.

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