In 1977, Jimmy Carter was inaugurated as President of the United States, Apple went into business, and punk rock became commercially widespread. It was a time of unpredictable change. Peter Finch, Joan Crawford, Groucho Marx, Bing Crosby, and Charlie Chaplin died. Jessica Chastain, Michael Fassbender, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Tom Hardy were born.
But as impressive as that may sound, I have no idea what compelled me to introduce this blog by covering this particular year. Though it produced its share of classics like any other, it’s not regarded as a particularly good year for movies, nor a particularly bad one. However, it was definitely worth covering. I began doing yearly retrospectives as much as an education for me as an outlet for my boredom, and I saw a bunch of great movies for the first time, as well as seeing some I already knew in a new light.
But let’s get down to the listicles:
Seven Movies I Should Have Reviewed
1. The Turning Point
Like most of the movies on this list, The Turning Point, directed by Goodbye Girl auteur Herbert Ross, was simply unavailable to watch in any format; not from any streaming services, not from Netflix DVD, not even from the library, and not through YouTube piracy. This is astonishing, as The Turning Point was nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture and two separate nominations for Best Actress (Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine), and notably introduced America to the legendary, recently-defected dancer, ballet choreographer, and actor Mikhail Baryshnikov. There are a lot of movies that have surprised me with their inaccessibility but this is the most shocking (except maybe Soldier of Orange).
2-3. Homage to Chagall/Who Are the DeBolts?
Five films were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary feature of 1977. Two of them, Union Maids and High Grass Circus, had theatrical releases in 1976, and two more are simply unavailable for public viewing. Harry Rasky’s Homage to Chagall: The Colors of Love was the only feature documentary produced about Chagall before his death in 1985, and I found frustratingly little information about it. The winner of the award, John Korty’s Who Are the DeBolts? And Where Did They Get Nineteen Kids? explored the lives of a couple of notable adoption activists. Both films received DVD releases at some point, but the hell if I could find them.
4. You Light Up My Life
You Light Up My Life was especially frustrating. Even without seeing it, there was a lot to talk about. From the 1970s-1990s, having a big, radio-friendly original song in your movie was a major way to make extra money and promote the film. Taking this to its logical extreme, writer/director/producer/songwriter/serial rapist Joseph Brooks created You Light Up My Life purely as a delivery vehicle for the song of the same name, which went on to win the Oscar for Best Original Song (one of a couple of dubious categories) and become the biggest single of the entire 1970s, which nobody born afterward has heard, and which anyone who was there at the time absolutely hates.
5. I Never Promised You a Rose Garden
1977 offers a surprising amount of Jewish-centric movies, as the Jewish-dominated Hollywood studio system has historically been uncomfortable about alienating their mostly gentile American audience. It’s telling then that most of the Jewish-themed movies of 1977 were foreign offerings, while I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, schlockmaster Roger Corman’s foray into prestige cinema, managed to adapt a book about antisemitism by removing all references to antisemitism. Accordingly, it lost a great deal of credibility with critics– you know, in addition to being Roger Corman’s foray into prestige cinema.
6. The Last Wave
Did you know Peter Weir made a movie in between Picnic at Hanging Rock and Gallipoli? Maybe you did. I didn’t.
7. Billy Jack Goes to Washington
Doing these reviews, I try to be comprehensive; that means checking out the best of the best and the worst of the worst. Into the latter category should go Billy Jack Goes to Washington. Largely forgotten today, Tom Laughlin’s Billy Jack films were blockbusters in their own times, coinciding nicely with the bizarre intersection of sensitive lefty activism and adolescent white-boy rage that defined the Nixon years. Like many angry white boys, Laughlin was convinced that every ill of society was part of an overarching problem, and so offered up a bizarre manifesto of world peace through Native American land rights, Montessori education, and Hapkido. With Watergate and Vietnam in the rear-view mirror, Billy Jack’s brand of self-indulgence was deeply unfashionable, and the final film, Billy Jack Goes to Washington, couldn’t find a distributor. Laughlin naturally claimed that the government, and particularly Senator Vance Hartke, quashed the movie, apparently unaware that Hartke was retired by this point. The movie has a rare 0% rating on RottenTomatoes.
Ten Worst Movies of 1977 (That I Saw)
10. Pumping Iron
The most popular documentary of 1977, Pumping Iron is a jarringly uncritical, almost hagiographic exploration of the world of bodybuilding that comes off even worse than a hatchet job.
9. The Sentinel
A bizarre, derivative follow-up to several New Hollywood horror classics, The Sentinel misses the humanity in what its ripping off, and presents a convoluted, unthreatening menace.
8. Airport ’77
Following the lead of the movies the original Airport inspired, Airport ’77 is sluggish beyond words and struggles to find a core story.
7. Damnation Alley
Badly written, badly directed, badly acted, and gifted with extraordinarily bad special effects, Damnation Alley was meant to be the big summer sci-fi hit of 1977, but misses the mark so completely that one has to wonder what the studio saw in it to begin with.
6. Looking for Mr. Goodbar
Totally convinced of its own self-importance, the sexploitation-morality tale Looking for Mr. Goodbar is endlessly meandering, confusing, and just plain gross.
A movie about a whale hunting people out of vengeance. Do I need to say any more?
4. Exorcist II: The Heretic
John Boorman’s spite-sequel to the excellent The Exorcist throws out the original’s style and emotional substance for an incomprehensible exploration of mirrors, locusts, and stupid demon names.
3. The Other Side of Midnight
Like Damnation Alley, The Other Side of Midnight was highly anticipated as a massive summer blockbuster. Like Damnation Alley, it is borderline unwatchable in every way. But at least Damnation Alley doesn’t bring poor, beleaguered history into the mix.
A complete waste of a movie. A waste of a fine cast, a waste of 35mm film, a waste of the Italian government’s money; Tentacles is unequivocally the worst of all the Jaws ripoffs.
1. Empire of the Ants
Same as above, but with ants instead of an octopus.
Ten Best Movies of 1977
10. Saturday Night Fever
Unfairly maligned for decades, Saturday Night Fever is an incredibly stylish but also uncompromisingly dark movie that makes for an unforgettable whole.
9. Smokey and the Bandit
What you might expect to be a low-down good ‘ole boy movie is actually a taut, heartfelt, and funny action-comedy in all the right ways.
8. The Gauntlet
Clint Eastwood’s talents behind the camera have never been clearer than in The Gauntlet, a thrilling chase movie that took action-comedy tropes to a dizzying new level.
7. A Special Day
Ettore Scola’s haunting recollection of life under Mussolini hones in on a single day for two of fascism’s biggest and least visible outcasts.
6. Soldier of Orange
Paul Verhoeven’s gripping, lived-in account of the travails of the Dutch Resistance in World War II unapologetically demonstrates the importance of justice and loyalty over youthful friendship, and offers a startling recommendation for those who may have to choose between one and the other.
Maligned as an overindulgent mega-flop, William Friedkin’s Sorcerer is a gorgeous, endlessly intense picture that deserves nothing less than a popular revival.
4. A Bridge Too Far
The most expensive movie of 1977, Richard Attenborough’s star-studded, no-holds-barred portrait of the Allied failure to invade the Netherlands in World War II is a spectacle for every sense.
3. Annie Hall
Often regarded as his best movie, Woody Allen’s scatterbrained relationship comedy is an uproarious achievement in the melding of humor and the unique qualities of film as a medium.
2. Star Wars
An energizing throwback to a time when heroes were allowed to defeat villains, Star Wars was a massive leap that would come to redefine science fiction, the family film, and the movie business.
1. Close Encounters of the Third Kind
The most passionate of Steven Spielberg’s passion projects, the only film which he alone conceived, wrote, and directed, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a pure cinematic experience, a heretofore unknown fusion of sci-fi extravaganza, creative allegory, and biblical epic that must be seen by anyone with a budding interest in filmmaking.
I have no idea what compelled me to do a review series on 1977. Despite the achievements especially of Star Wars, 1977 did not mark a turning point in movies as either an art form or (especially) as a business.
hat would come in 1978. Less than a month into the new year, actor-director Robert Redford inaugurated the first annual Utah/US Film Festival in Park City Utah. Renamed the Sundance Film Festival in 1991, it was intended to showcase filmmakers that would otherwise have been overlooked by the Hollywood studio system. Though no one would be able to tell for decades, this plan would work all too well, as the major studios would begin producing fewer of their own movies from the mid-90s onward and rely on independent films to make up for the loss. At the end of that same year, the producers of Michael Cimino’s Vietnam War epic The Deer Hunter attempted to circumvent public squeamishness about the movie’s subject matter by releasing the film in such a way as to meet the minimum requirements for an Academy Award nomination, get a nomination, and use the awards buzz as a marketing tool, and Oscar Bait was born.
But that’s a story for another day. Next time, I’m going to get more recent, and review the single greatest year in film history…