When the Motion Picture Academy looked back at 1978, it gave its Best Picture award to The Deer Hunter. It's in my list too, but not at the top spot:
1. Gates of Heaven
Directed by Errol Morris
"Death is for the living and not for the dead."
2. Dawn of the Dead
Written and directed by George Romero
Everyone knows that these zombies are a Metaphor for Mindless Consumption, but the script is far too sly to stop there. When our heroes hole up in the abandoned Monroeville Mall, consumerism doesn't seem like such a bad thing; if anything, the place feels like a utopian playground. At least until we see the zombie hordes outside trying to push their way in. Then yet another layer of meaning presents itself, one where most of the world is locked out of the wealth that a lucky few get to enjoy. At that point you might be tempted to sympathize with the zombies.
3. Blue Collar
Directed by Paul Schrader
Written by Schrader and Leonard Schrader
"They pit the lifers against the new boys, the old against the young, the black against the white—anything to keep us in our place."
4. The Deer Hunter
Directed by Michael Cimino
Written by Deric Washburn, from a story by Cimino, Washburn, Louis Garfinkle, and Quinn K. Redeker
The scenes in America offer a closely observed realism, and the scenes in Asia are a paranoid fever dream. You can criticize that politically, and a lot of people have done just that. But that contrast does give the film a dizzy power.
5. Pennies from Heaven
Written by Dennis Potter
Directed by Piers Haggard
I like the American remake with Steve Martin too. But if you watch just one version, you've got to go with Bob Hoskins.
6. Days of Heaven
Written and directed by Terrence Malick
The plot is the stuff of a hard-boiled crime story, yet the movie is more like a pastoral mood piece.
7. A Walk Through H: The Reincarnation of an Ornithologist
Written and directed by Peter Greenaway
The Tibetan Book of the Dead meets The Field Guide to Birds.
Directed by Claudia Weill
Written by Vicki Polon, from a story by Weill and Polon
"You know, I'm gonna be old before I get to do what I want. Then I'll have forgotten what it was."
9. Always for Pleasure
Directed by Les Blank
"This is one of the only cities in the world that you can do what you're doing here: drink beer out on the street, throw the cans on the sidewalk. It's one of the greatest places in the world."
10. The Cramps: Live at Napa State Mental Hospital
Directed by Joe Rees
The title tells you what you're getting: A punk band plays a concert at a psychiatric institution. But that doesn't get across the ecstatic weirdness of a show where the audience wanders freely onstage and it's not entirely clear which people are the patients and which are the band's usual hangers-on. I want to believe the guy who takes the microphone about 13 and a half minutes in is a patient.
11. Make Me Psychic (Sally Cruikshank)
12. The Driver (Walter Hill)
13. Mongoloid (Bruce Conner)
14. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Philip Kaufman)
15. The Marriage of Maria Braun (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
16. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (Fred Schepisi)
17. ...Forever and Always... (George Kuchar)
18. Afterlife (Ishu Patel)
19. Special Delivery (John Weldon, Eunice Macaulay)
20. Phase Transitions in Liquid Crystals (Jean Painlevé)
And finally, a shoutout to The Last Waltz. I don't like this one as much as I used to: The older I get, the more absurd it seems to be so valedictory about a bunch of guys in their thirties. But it's still one hell of a concert.
Of the films of 1978 that I haven't seen, I'm most interested in Big Wednesday, The Suspended Vocation, and Future Boy Conan.