Monday, June 14, 2010

Year in Review: 1981

I was born in 1981, so I will always feel a certain affection for the films made then. Even saying though, I have to admit that it was not the strongest year for movies of the 1980s. I do love the films on this list – they are all deserving on high praise – and yet I would guess that if I were to make up a top 10 list for the decade, none of them would be on it. Still though, the films on this list are all great, so I shouldn’t complain too much.

10. Gallipoli (Peter Weir)
Peter Weir’s Gallipoli is one of the great WWI films, and one of the best Australian films of all time. The film stars Mark Lee as an innocent Australian soldier, and Mel Gibson as his more cynical friend, who join the Australian army during WWI. They are eventually sent to Turkey, and take part in a massive, yet futile assault. But that’s really only the final part of the film. Told in three parts, the first takes place in Australian when the two young meet and become friends and competitors – both are sprinters, and eventually they will come to see war much like their races – as a game to be won. Eventually they head off to Egypt for training, and are bored and spend more time haggling with merchants and visiting brothels than anything else. It’s only in the last third of the movie – the part set in Turkey – when the reality of the situation sets in, and the young men lose their innocence at the horrors of war. As with all Weir films, Gallipoli is brilliant well made and constructed – I could have done without the final shot which is a little too on the nose for me – but other than that Gallipoli is a wonderful film about these two young men who thought they knew a hell of a lot more than they actually do.

9. Prince of the City (Sidney Lumet)
Perhaps because Sidney Lumet’s Prince of the City stars Treat Williams, and not Al Pacino, it has never quite gotten to recognition of his Serpico – although it is a film that is easily as good as that one. In this film Williams plays a cop who knows a lot of things about how corrupt other cops are. He knows how narcotics cops use the system to their advantage, and make lots of money by selling the very drugs that they take off the street. He will talk to the investigators about everyone involved – but not his partners, the guys in his own unit, who he will not rat on. He has a code and will not break it. Until, of course, he does. Williams gives the performance of his lifetime as the cop who is under constant stress to talk, to rat on his friends. Like Serpico, he is tired of the corruption he sees all around him, but unlike him, he was involved in that very corruption at a certain time as well. Prince of the City is an engrossing police movie about corruption – but it is also deeper than that. It is a movie about ethics, and how hard it can be to maintain them when you live in a world where no one else has any.

8. Blow Out (Brian DePalma)
Brian DePalma has always excelled at taking the movies by other people and coming up with a different take on them. Most of his career, he has seemed to be inspired by Hitchcock obsession with sex and death, and blondes. In Blow Out, he takes a situation similar to Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up, and creates a thriller that at the same time recalls that master’s work, as well as real life crimes, but seems completely new and different. John Travolta is working as a sound man on a sleazy, low budget movie when he witnesses a car crashing into the water off the bridge. He dives in and saves the girl in the car, but cannot save the man. It turns out the man is a Presidential candidate. Travolta, like everyone else, assumes it was an accident, but then when he is reviewing the audio he recorded that night he becomes convinced he heard a gunshot before the crash. He cannot leave it alone, and gradually he peels layer after layer from around the mystery. Blow Out is better than most of DePalma’s films because the characters here seem more believable than they have in the past. Travolta is great in the lead role – but it is really the supporting players – Nancy Allen, Dennis Franz and especially John Lithgow that give the movies its edge. DePalma is still playing with Hitchcock themes and images here, but he is doing so wonderfully – and has made a film that at least deserves comparison to the masters.

7. Coup de Torchon (Bertrand Tavernier)
Bertrand Tavernier’s Coup de Torchon takes Jim Thompson’s Southern noir book Pop. 1280 and transfers it to Africa just as the second world war is about to break out. He keeps its white trash characters, but instead makes them lazy French colonialists. He shot on location, and this gives the movie its completely authentic look and feel – it gets the smallest details right. The movie’s central character is played by Philippe Noiret – the town’s ineffectual police chief. He has lost his self respect, and is openly mocked by the pimps and scum in the town. So he decides to start killing them one by one. He spreads lies and rumors about what happened, feels no remorse and continues to do it. The brilliant thing about the movie is how it begins, then its slow progression into violence and madness. At first, we laugh alongside everyone at Noiret’s bumbling fool of a police chief, even as we feel sympathy for him. As the movie progresses and he becomes more and more violent, we become horrified that we ever identified with him in the first place. The supporting performances – particularly that of a young Isabelle Huppert – are mesmerizing. The film is darkly humorous, but is also something more than a mere genre exercise. It gets under your skin.

6. Pennies from Heaven (Herbert Ross)
Pennies from Heaven is a movie that I think many people have forgotten about. It is a musical, set to the swinging songs of the 1930s, but its story is relentlessly downbeat from beginning to end. That is the point I think. The 1930s were the darkness days that American ever saw – the depression left millions out of work and poor, and yet the music of the time is so cheerful and sunny. Pennies from Heaven is a movie that tells the story of a cruel man – played by the smiling Steve Martin which gives it all the more bite – who thinks he is really a nice guy. He isn’t. He is cruel to his wife (Jessica Harper), making her feel inadequate because she won’t give in constantly to his sexual desire, or give him the money her father left her to start to his own business because she knows it will fail. As a travelling salesman he meets Bernadette Peters, who plays an innocent school teacher, who is happy in her life. He gives her a sob story, seduces her and leaves her pregnant and doesn’t come back. When he does come back, he is even less help, and soon she too is out of a job, has had an abortion, and has started to turn tricks. Eventually, a blind girl is murdered, and even if Steve Martin is not guilty, we don’t feel bad for him. All throughout the film, the grim story is offset against the sunny, happy musical numbers – we hear the real voices, although the actors are doing their own dancing. The songs, with their beautiful melodies, have never sounded sadder. In a strange way, Pennies from Heaven was Dancer in the Dark nearly 20 years before Lars von Trier’s film reportedly broke boundaries. It is time for people to rediscover Pennies from Heaven.

5. My Dinner with Andre (Louis Malle)
My Dinner with Andre is unlike any movie that I have seen either before or since. It is nothing more complicated than the great Wallace Shawn sitting down across the table for Andre Gregory and the two of them talking for the entire running time. The movie, which has the flow of real conversation, is actually tightly scripted by Shawn, and directed with precision by Louis Malle. Mainly Gregory talks about his recent trips – he has gone all over the world, and been influenced by New Age ideas and talks seemingly endlessly about them, while Shawn simply sits back and listens for much of the time – although he grows increasingly frustrated with Gregory. He wants him to wake up and live in the real world, and in a way, Gregory wants Shawn to do the same thing. There is a tension between these two men that is brilliantly played by the two actors, and directed by Malle, who catches the smallest details and facial tics pretty much perfectly. How can a movie about two men talking over a meal be cinematic? Watch the movie and discover the answer for yourself.

4. Atlantic City (Louis Malle)
Louis Malle’s Atlantic City is about an aging gangster who wants to relive his glory days – even though we have a suspicion that those days never really existed. Burt Lancaster gives a remarkable performance as Lou, who is a senior citizen and still running numbers for barely any money. He lives at a boarding house along with Anne Reid, a once beautiful woman, now overweight, who depends on Lou to do everything for her, and rewards him for services rendered. He spies on a local waitress, Susan Sarandon, also at the boarding house during her return with lemons to get the fish smell off of her every night. Things get out of control when Sarandon’s sister returns with her ex-husband and drugs – setting off a chain of events that allows Lou to be the man he always wanted to be. The moment he kills a man, he seems positively giddy with excitement. Louis Malle’s Atlantic City is a masterpiece about people who dream big, but have nothing to show for it – who have lived their entire lives in their head. Lou at least gets to act out his dreams by the end of the movie, but I wonder if anyone else in the film ever will. Lancaster is great the role – it ranks among the very best of his career – but Sarandon and Reid match him with their portrayals of the two very different women in his life. Atlantic City is a movie about drugs and crime, but Malle doesn’t seem as interested in them as he in the characters – and that’s why Atlantic City is as good as it is.

3. Reds (Warren Beatty)
Warren Beatty’s Reds seems like a movie from a different era than the 1980s – and it isn’t because it is set during the late 1910s in various Communist circles. It is the type of grand, romantic, historical epic that went out of style with the collapse of the studio era in the 1960s. It’s like David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago if that film were more politically aware. As a director, Beatty was never better than he was here, navigating the complex backgrounds of the socialist movement in America, as his hero, John Reed, tries to organize groups that seemingly hate each other. The film is also a love story between Beatty’s Reed and Diane Keaton, Louise Bryant, a somewhat naïve young woman who falls in love with him, and stays by him through everything. There are other key performances – notably by Jack Nicholson as Reed’s longtime friend, the playwright Eugene O’Neal, also in love with Bryant, and Maureen Stapleton, an old school American communist. Growing disillusioned with the American movement, Reed heads to Russia to try and help out, and ends up in the same sort of fights he had back home. Reds is a remarkable movie because it is three hours long, has virtually no action sequences, and yet remains engrossing from beginning to end. The film does romanticize the era somewhat, but it doesn’t pull its punches either – it sees Reed for all his faults, and sees the movement in both good and bad terms. This is the type of epic that Hollywood has either forgotten how to make, or else no long has the guts to even try.

2. Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg)
Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of the greatest movies of its kind ever made. It is an action film that doesn’t let up for its entire running time. It is a film that adds humor in with its intense sequences. It is a film that has one of the greatest screen heroes ever seen in Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones. The action sequences – the numerous chases, including a wonderful car chase, are all handled well. Spielberg also knows enough to provide us with a suitable villain – and the Nazis make a great villain (I know someone who said that this was really Spielberg’s anti-Nazi film, not Schindler’s List, because in this one they don’t just get hanged, they get their face melted off). What perhaps amazes me most about this film is that although Spielberg was making what was essentially merely an homage to the old fashioned movie serials of the 1940s, he ended up making something that was far greater than anything of its ilk that era produced. It isn’t just that technology had progressed to the point where things seemed more real and exciting, but because the story was better, deeper and more entertaining and the acting was more believable. Raiders of the Lost Ark is an example of what Spielberg can do better than anyone else on the planet right now – entertain and audience.

1. Body Heat (Lawrence Kasdan)
Body Heat is that rarest of movies – a remake of a classic film that is just as good, if not a little better, than the original. Lawrence Kasdan takes the plot of Billy Wilder’s great noir Double Indemnity, and moves it into the present. The key to the movie is the performances. Kathleen Turner makes her remarkable debut in the femme fatale role – a gorgeous woman, with angry eyes, a deep, sexy voice and long, beautiful hair. She is able to ensnare William Hurt’s lawyer in her trap fairly easily. Hurt is just as good as Turner – lazy, yet smart, but not too smart. He thinks that he is the initiator in the murder plot to kill her husband. He is smart enough to come up with the plan, but not smart enough to see that she is really pulling the strings playing him with her sexuality. The supporting work by Mickey Rourke, Richard Crenna, Ted Danson and J.A. Preston is also good – they create the kind of standard noir supporting characters just as well as the leads do their job. But this is more than an actor’s showcase. Kasdan does a remarkable job at capturing the heat of the movie – this is a movie that will make you sweat just watching it – and is also a master class in storytelling as the noose slowly tightens around Hurt’s neck. It is one of the best examples of film noir that did not get made in the 1940s or 50s. Kasdan has made other wonderful films in his career – but none can match this, his debut feature. He got it right the first time, and made a wonderful, sexy, hot noir for the ages.

Just Missed The Top 10: Absence of Malice (Sydney Pollack), Arthur (Steve Gordon), Escape from New York (John Carpetner), The Fox and the Hound (Art Stevens & Ted Berman & Richard Rich), On Golden Pond (Mark Rydell), Ragtime (Milos Forman), Southern Comfort (Walter Hill), Superman II (Richard Lester), TAPS (Harold Becker), True Confessions (Ulu Grosbard).

Notable Films Missed: Cutter's Way (Ivan Passer), Mephisto (Istvan Szabo), Pixote (Hector Babenco), Too Early, Too Late (Jean-Marie Straub & Danièle Huillet), The Woman Next Door (Francois Truffaut).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture: Chariots of Fire
Chariots of Fire is one of those little movies that come out of nowhere to capture the hearts of audiences around the world. Other than Vangelis, which has become perhaps the most over used score in history, it is hard for me to see why people loved this thing so much. It such a clichéd story, even if it is true, about two men competing in the Olympics in 1924 – a devout Christian who runs for God, and a Jew who runs to overcome prejudice. And that’s about all there is to the movie. There are few sports I find less observer friendly than running. Nothing really happens. And watching them train for running, even when their coach is the entertaining Ian Holm, isn’t much more exciting. I found this film to be excruciatingly dull and boring from beginning to end, and it is one of my least favorite best picture winners ever. And while we’re on the subject of Oscar wins, does anyone want to explain to me how this film won the Costume Design Oscar? After all, aren’t most of the costume in this film white T-shirts and shorts? Give me five minutes at Wal Mart, and I could do the same thing.

Oscar Winner – Best Director: Warren Beatty, Reds
It’s hard to argue with Warren Beatty’s directing Oscar for Reds. Far and away, Reds was the most ambitious movie of the year – a three hour romantic epic about communists while the Cold War was still going on, Beatty set himself up for an epic failure – not unlike Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate the same year – but miraculously pulled it off brilliantly. He was always among the most ambitious movie stars in history, and even if he never did win an acting Oscar, he should be proud of his win for this one. Yeah, I prefer Spielberg of the nominees, but he won two later on, so I have no problem with this win.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Henry Fonda, On Golden Pond
Henry Fonda’s win for On Golden Pond is a prime example as to why the Academy should not give so called “make up” Oscars to actors who they snubbed in the past. It isn’t so much that his performance in On Golden Pond is bad – it is actually quite good for what it is – it’s just that you know the Academy was giving this award to Henry Fonda, one of the great actors of the studio era – because they stiffed him in the past – particularly for The Grapes of Wrath in 1940, when they gave the award to Jimmy Stewart for The Philadelphia Story, which itself was a makeup award for not giving it to him the year before for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, because they gave it to Robert Donat for Goodbye Mr. Chips, to make up for stiffing him for The Citadel the previous year. It was an ugly cycle and because of it, Fonda had to wait until he was practically dead to win the Oscar he should have had 40 years earlier.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Katherine Hepburn, On Golden Pond
I can understand why the Academy felt the need to give Fonda an Oscar for this agreeable old people movie, but what the hell were they thinking in giving the Oscar to Hepburn? Yeah, she is enjoyable as the loyal old broad who sticks by Fonda’s emotionally distant husband and father, calling him an old poop, but seriously, an Oscar for this? Hepburn is one of the greatest actresses in history, and if someone deserves four acting Oscars at home, Hepburn certainly could be considered that person. It’s just too bad that they kept giving her awards for all the wrong roles!

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: John Gielgud, Arthur
The great John Gielgud is the reason to watch Arthur. Personally, I find Dudley Moore’s drunken playboy to be merely okay, and I have never been a fan of Liza Minnelli. But whenever Gielgud’s acid tongued butler is onscreen, it is impossible not to have fun and laugh out loud. He is the personification of British wit and sophistication, never seemingly impolite even as he delivers another of his pitch perfect one liners (“Usually one has to go to a bowling alley to meet a woman of your caliber”).

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Maureen Stapleton, Reds
Maureen Stapleton had a long career on stage and television both before and after her win for Reds. As well, she was a well regarded actress in the movies – with Reds representing her third and final Oscar nomination, and the one that finally brought her an Oscar. Her performance as the Lithuanian anarchist Emma Goldman is a highlight of the movie – she is who she is, and she makes absolutely no apologies for it. While I think that Stapleton is a worthy winner, I do have to say that this was a weak category this year.

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