Thursday, April 8, 2010

Year in Review: 1983

Many of the best films of 1983 were not recognized as such at the time of their release. In fact, my favorite film of the year was deemed one of the biggest failures – both financially and critically – of the year when it was released. But time has told a different story.

10. Terms of Endearment (James L. Brooks)
Terms of Endearment is the chick flick at its absolute best. There is no reason why films that appeal to women – unapologetic tearjerkers like this one – have to be so bad, but for reason almost all of them are. But James L. Brooks has made an intelligent, honest film out of material that would normally result in an insufferable movie. Mother Shirley Maclaine and daughter Debra Winger have a strange love-hate relationship – constantly arguing but unable to leave each other alone. The men in their lives are irresponsible or cheats, but then they are not saints themselves. The performances are pretty much perfection – Maclaine as the overbearing mother, Winger as the woman searching for herself, Jack Nicholson as the charming astronaut Maclaine falls for, Jeff Daniels as Winger’s cheating husband and John Lithgow as her lover. Yes, the movie’s ending is calculated to win tears from the audience – but unlike so many movies, it actually earns those tears. Looking at the film today, audiences may think that it another retread, as so many movies have tried to copy the formula – but Terms of Endearment stands up on its own terms.

9. Return of the Jedi (Richard Marquand)
While Return of the Jedi is easily the least of the three original Star Wars movies, it is still a fun, rollicking space adventure film with many excellent moments. I know some people think that the Ewoks were too cutesy, but I cannot help but love them (probably because I remember them so well from my childhood – not only for the movie, but also their television series, whose theme song I now have stuck in my head). The race through the forest is action filmmaking at its finest, and the film ends with an emotionally powerful fight between Luke and the Emperor, when Vader finally steps in. The movie, because it is the end of the trilogy, needs to have an uplifting feel good ending for it to work as Hollywood escapism, and while that means I like it less than the much darker Empire Strikes Back, I cannot deny that this is an excellent action film, and one that I continue to revisit. Now if only George Lucas would stop changing the damn thing!

8. Risky Business (Paul Brickman)
What the hell ever happened to Paul Brickman, who with Risky Business made one of the great teen comedies of all time (certainly better than anything John Hughes ever made – yeah I said it, deal with it!). Tom Cruise gives an excellent performance as Joel, a mild mannered teenager whose idea of letting loose when his parents are away includes dancing around in his underwear. But things all change when he calls up a prostitute (Rebecca DeMornay), and ends up angering her pimp. Things are only beginning for Joel. Risky Business is funny, smart and sexy – three things that most teen movies can only pretend to be. Cruise carries the movie on his charm, and DeMornay is stunning as a blonde. The sex scene on the bus is one of the sexiest in any movie of the 1980s. This is one of the best teen films ever made.

7. Star 80 (Bob Fosse)
Bob Fosse will always be remembered by his musicals, but in Star 80 he made a brilliant movie about the dark side of fame. Dorothy Stratton (Muriel Hemingway) was blessed with an innocent beauty that made her perfect for Playboy. Paul Snider (Eric Roberts) recognizes in this beauty his chance for money and fame, and latches onto her early in her life, and rides her to the top. But once Stratton gets there, Snider’s darker side really comes out – he is demanding and controlling, and Stratton wants out from his influence – a decision that will cost her life. Hemingway is wonderful as Stratton – a na├»ve girl who falls for a man she shouldn’t. But it is Roberts who gives a truly great performance as Snider – terrifyingly intense and real, the best work Roberts ever did. This was Fosse’s last film, and it ranks among his best – a long neglected film that deserves rediscovery.

6. The Dead Zone (David Cronenberg)
David Cronenberg’s Dead Zone is one of the best movie adaptations of a Stephen King novel. Christopher Walken gives a haunted, and haunting, performance as a man who goes into a coma after a car accident, and when he wakes up he can see into a person’s past, present and future secrets. He is left alone, as the coma lasted five years, and everyone he knew has moved on with their lives long ago. When he shakes the hand of a US Senator (Martin Sheen), he sees that in the future, he will become President, and set off a nuclear war, and feels he must stop it. To a certain extent, The Dead Zone was Cronenberg trying to gain some more clout in the American film industry after years being a provocateur at home in Canada. But The Dead Zone never feels like simply a director for hire effort for Cronenberg, who imbues the film with his own style and fixations. The film is a nice blend of the distinctive voices of King and Cronenberg – a wonderful, tense thriller that has intelligence to spare.

5. Videodrome (David Cronenberg)
Making his second appearance on this list, David Cronenberg’s Videodrome is one of the director’s best films – a futuristic, dystopian mind fuck of a film featuring a great performance by James Woods. Woods plays the sleazy head of a TV station that specializes in playing soft core porn – but he is bored with the programming, and wants something hard that will breakthrough to a wider audience. That is when he discovers Videodrome – a plot less TV show apparently from Malaysia which features nameless victims being tortured to death in a strange chamber. Thinking it is all simulated, Woods immediately starts broadcasting the show – with dire results. The film is then a spiral downwards for Woods, who begins to realize that Videodrome is not what he thinks it is. The film is a continuation of Cronenberg’s “body horror” films, where the horror is not something exterior, but something inside the people in the movie. The film is bloody, provocative and brilliantly twisted – everything you want from Cronenberg.

4. The Right Stuff (Philip Kaufman)
Out of all the realistic movies about Astronauts (read not science fiction), The Right Stuff is probably the best of the lot. Philip Kaufman’s brilliant film look at the beginnings of the space program, contrasting the lives of the men selected to be part of the program in its infancy, to the life of Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard, in the best role of his acting career), a test pilot who many thought had more talent than the people who were selected. The film spans 16 years – from 1947 to 1963 – and is about test pilots who labor to break the sound barrier and altitude records, and finally the founding of NASA and the first solo launches into space. The film is brilliantly crafted and acted by its expert cast. This is thrilling Hollywood movie making at its absolute finest.

3. Scarface (Brian DePalma)
As much as I love Howard Hawks’ original film (and I do love it a lot), Brian DePalma’s quasi-remake is a much better film. Al Pacino gives one of his best performances – going brilliantly over the top as Cuban gangster Tony Montana, who comes to Miami with nothing and builds up a massive cocaine empire. Written by Oliver Stone, the film is an epic gangster film full of sex (a young Michelle Pfeiffer plays Montana’s smoking hot girlfriend), and brutal violence – the chainsaw sequence is justly infamous. The closing scenes, involving a gang invading Montana’s house and the massive shootout is one of the best scenes of its kind ever filmed. Yes, the film has been parodied to death over the years, but Scarface remains a powerful, and brilliant, movie.

2. Fanny and Alexander (Ingmar Bergman)
Fanny and Alexander was supposed to be Ingmar Bergman’s swan song to the cinema – although he ended up directed a few more films in the decades before his death. Nevertheless, Fanny and Alexander remains one of Bergman’s greatest, most stunning achievements. Brilliantly shot by Bergman’s longtime master cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, the film is awash in bright colors. The film tells the story centers on the children of a happy couple, who lives are turned upside when the father dies suddenly of a stroke, and the mother remarries the strict, authoritative bishop, and moves them into his vast house. Unlike many of Bergman’s films, this one ends on a mainly happy note, although the haunting ending leaves that open to interpretation. The film is a masterpiece of film construction, and the acting is universally excellent. Bergman was a master director, and this was his crowning achievement to a career full of masterworks.

1. The King of Comedy (Martin Scorsese)
As time passes, The King of Comedy looks more and more like a Scorsese masterpiece – a film that can easily rank alongside Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and GoodFellas as one of the very best films by cinema’s greatest director. Mired in depression when he made the film, which he has described as a miserable experience, The King of Comedy is one of those films that looks better when you look back at it – pretty much everything it said has come to pass. Rupert Pupkin is played in a stunning performance by Robert DeNiro. Pupkin is an aspiring stand-up comedian, still living at home with his mother, and cannot understand why he isn’t famous. He has a rich fantasy life where he is good friends with the King of Late Night (Jerry Lewis, excellent in a rare dramatic role). But everywhere Pupkin goes he gets rejected. The difference between Pupkin and Travis Bickle, the “hero” from Taxi Driver, is while Bickle perceives the slights and rejection, and it fuels his anger, Pupkin doesn’t realize he’s being rejected at all. The King of Comedy refuses to allow the audience any catharsis, as other Scorsese movies so brilliantly have done, keeping its characters bottled up. Scorsese may have been miserable while making The King of Comedy, but he made a masterpiece – one of the very best films of his career.

Just Missed The Top 10: Zelig (Woody Allen), Monty Pyhton's The Meaning of Life (Terry Jones), Trading Places (John Landis), The Evil Dead (Sam Raimi), The Fourth Man (Paul Verhoeven), L’Argent (Robert Bresson), The Year of Living Dangerously (Peter Weir), Tender Mercies (Bruce Beresford).

Notable Films Missed: The Dresser (Peter Yates), Sans Soleil (Chris Marker), Nostalghia (Andrei Tarkovsky), Local Hero (Bill Forstyh), Sugar Cane Alley (Euzhan Palcy), The Ballad of Narayama (Shohei Immamura), El Sur (Victor Erice), Koyaanisqatsi (Godfrey Reggio), Betrayal (David Jones), Silkwood (Mike Nichols).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture & Director: Terms of Endearment (James L. Brooks)
Obviously, I think there were better films than Terms of Endearment released this year as it only sits at number 10 on my list. However, considering most of the films above it were violent or foreign or about teenagers, you had to expect that none of them would actually win. And Terms of Endearment is rare for a Best Picture winner – as it actually centers on female characters. Out of the nominees, I found have voted for The Right Stuff for Picture, and Bergman for director, but Terms of Endearment is a worthy winner.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Robert Duvall, Tender Mercies
Tender Mercies is a fine film, and Duvall’s tender performance as a washed up Country music singer is also quite good. Having said that, it does represent anything close to Duvall’s best work. It’s a fine performance, and I can’t think of too much wrong to say with it – but considering this is the year that gave us Rupert Pupkin, Tony Montana and Paul Snider, I can’t say he deserved the award either.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Shirley Maclaine, Terms of Endearment
Like Duvall, Maclaine won this award in part because she had a long, substantial career to this point, and had never won the Oscar. And yet, her performance in the movie is great in its own right, and probably would have received my vote as well. Her performance in this tearjerker is tough as nails, and is a big reason why the film doesn’t devolve into something more melodramatic. So, yeah, Maclaine was right when she accepted her Oscar by saying “I deserve this”.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: Jack Nicholson, Terms of Endearment
Nicholson’s second Oscar win was for this Jacked out performance as a charming retired astronaut, who normally goes for much younger women – so, yeah, to a certain extent Nicholson is playing himself, or at least the screen persona he built for himself. But it is a fine performance nonetheless, and probably would have gotten my vote (it was, I think a weak year for this category), so no complaints here.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Linda Hunt, The Year of Living Dangerously
Linda Hunt’s win here is best remembered because it represents an answer to a trivia question – Hunt is the only woman in history to win an Oscar for playing a man. And her performance in Peter Weir’s film is excellent, but one wonders if the gimmick didn’t contribute to her winning the award just a little bit. But out of the nominees, who else were they going to give it to? Sandra Bernhard deserves this award for her wacked out performance in The King of Comedy, but the Academy didn’t deem it worthy of a nomination.

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