Why 1977 was the best year in movie history

All week long our writers will debate: Which was the greatest film year of the past half century. Click here for a complete list of our essays.

1977 is the greatest year in film history. I'm positive. Why? It's the year that made you believe giant blockbusters could bring you state-of-the-art science fiction, modern (and enduring) takes on romance, compelling heroes, and a shrewd understanding of real people. It's the year that put us in touch with our most superheroic and most sentimental qualities, and that range alone is worth honoring.

'77 is the year that gave us “Star Wars.” I could go on about why that's a great movie, or we could just understand that every sci-fi blockbuster since “Star Wars” has had to deal with belittling comparisons to the greatness of “Star Wars.” Sure, there've been other blockbusters with grandeur and special effects galore, but did they have C3PO's charisma? Han Solo's droll one-liners? Princess Leia's distinct cool? It's not enough to say that “Star Wars” is the template for great sci-fi; it's a distinct and humanized spectacle we're still chasing.

'77 is the year that gave us “Annie Hall.” I could go on about why that's a good movie, or we could just understand that every romcom since “Annie Hall” has had to deal with belittling comparisons to the greatness of “Annie Hall.” We've had fine romcoms since Alvy and Annie engaged in their neurotic badinage, but we've never had a movie that moved so deftly between observational humor, heartbreak, and romance. We've also never had a romcom that successfully incorporated so many touching and strange character vignettes either. Note Christopher Walken's appearance, and Carol Kane's.

Well before “ET” mined a similar perspective in the form of a child's optimism, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” combined — as Roger Ebert once put it — “everyday American life with the wild flight of the imagination.” It was with “Close Encounters” that Steven Spielberg first invited us to revisit our purest hopes and desires within his electric moviemaking. Here he creates what amounts to a religious cinematic experience, a relatable yet unreal pseudoworld where we feel awed, yet seen. And if Richard Dreyfuss' performance didn't inspire you enough here, you had his other '77 gem, “The Goodbye Girl,” to glean his quizzical genius. “The Goodbye Girl” is Neil Simon's most timeless story and, like other films of '77 including the Jane Fonda-toplined “Julia” and the Shirley MacLaine/Anne Bancroft melodrama “The Turning Point” — offered a voice to a biting, harried, refreshingly real heroine. Marsha Mason's performance as a downtrodden mom in “The Goodbye Girl” is not only as authentic as Ellen Burstyn's in “Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore” or Dee Wallace's in “ET,” it manages to be funny too — and therefore more touching than both.

“Saturday Night Fever” took the grit so associated with great '70s filmmaking and investigated a real subculture with all its sexy, strange, and dark-as-hell corners. And if you're looking for influential classics, look no further than two of the most unprecedented genre films ever — “Eraserhead” and “Kentucky Fried Movie.” Where would surreal, chilling horror be without David Lynch's “Eraserhead”? Where would the industry of irreverent spoofs be without “Kentucky Fried Movie”? You can claim that Mel Brooks' earlier films set that bar, but those were merely star vehicles for talented comics. “Kentucky Fried Movie” is a more proper forebear to our current crop of whizzbang satires because it put its zaniness and mocking tone first.

Whether your favorite film thrill is expensive whimsy, unpretentious comedy, biting melodrama, or pure science fiction, 1977 mastered (and innovated) the cinematic standards you cherish most. It was the first year to combine the dark grandeur of '70s film with the blithe romantic spark we'd come to know better in the '80s. 

Other pieces in this series:

1973 by Brian Formo

1974 by Daniel Fienberg

1977 by Louis Virtel

1980 by Richard Rushfield

1982 by Alan Sepinwall

1988 by Drew McWeeny

1995 by Jane Hu

1998 by Michael Oates Palmer

1999 by Kris Tapley

2001 by Chris Eggertsen

2012 by Zara Lisbon