Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Year in Review: 1980

In some ways, 1980 really did mark a turning point in American film, as the last gasp of those personal films by great filmmakers was this year, before they turned to making blockbusters. But what a last gasp it was!

10. The Great Santini (Lewis John Carlino)
The Great Santini is about a military man who runs his family in pretty much the same way he commands his troops. He expects to be called sir and to be listened to at all times. He is harsh man at times, and one that is difficult to really know because he keeps seemingly everyone at arms length. It isn’t that he doesn’t love his family, but he too competitive and too driven to show any sort of weakness – like telling them that he loves them. The movie is anchored by a great performance by Robert Duvall as the patriarch. Some have said that he is playing a similar character to his infamous role in Apocalypse Now – and perhaps he is, although this movie allows him more humanity than that one did. The film is essentially about Duvall’s relationship with his oldest son – Michael O’Keefe – who he is constantly challenging in front of everyone (in the films most painful scene, Duvall mocks O’Keefe by bouncing a basketball off his head repeatedly). O’Keefe is trying to find his own way in the world – apart from his family as everyone must do at some point. And Duvall keeps right on pushing him. I do think that perhaps the key performance in the movie is by Blythe Danner as Duvall’s wife though. At first glance, she seems like a standard military wife, but she understands Duvall, and loves him, in a much deeper way than we at first expect. Duvall and O’Keefe received well deserved Oscar nominations for their performances – and Danner should have. For some reason, director Lewis John Carlino only directed three films, and from the this film we can see that perhaps we were robbed of a great career.

9. Tess (Roman Polanski)
Roman Polanski’s Tess is the tragic story a young girl who is headstrong and intelligent, but also naïve, whose life will eventually be destroyed because the men in her life view her as little more than a possession, and when they find out she is a real person, don’t really want her anymore. Natasha Kinski gives a remarkable debut performance in the title role. She is poor farm girl, whose father discovers that they are actually descendents of nobility – and in a nearby town, their wealthy relatives still live. So Tess is sent to see them, and almost immediately she is seduced by her cousin, and becomes pregnant. She flees his home back to her parents – and soon the child is born and dies. Later, she will meet another well off young man, and actually marries him. But when she tells him of her past, he flees to South America, and Tess is thrown back into poverty. Things will climax later when both of these, neither of whom wanted her when it would have done her any good, decide they both want her. In lesser hands, Tess would be a soap opera, or a ultra grim movie. But Kinski breathes life into her character – and Polanski’s direction is wonderful. It is sensitive when it needs to be, and makes us truly understand Tess – her position in life, and how few options she really had. The film is beautiful to behold.

8. Melvin and Howard (Jonathan Demme)
Melvin and Howard focuses its story on Melvin Dummar. He is poor, but smart, always thinking about ways to make money, yet never quite managing to make it work out for the long term. One day, Dummar (Paul Le Mat) is driving his pickup truck out in the desert, and comes across a seemingly crazy old man on the side of the road. He picks up the old-timer and gives him a ride, and along the way the talk, and sing. It isn’t until much later that Melvin realizes that the man was Howard Hughes (played brilliantly in that one scene by Jason Robards). He only realizes this when apparently Hughes leaves him $156 million in his will. But the movie is not about Hughes, and is not even about the court battle that ensues over the alleged will. It is about Melvin and his life. Mary Steenburgen gives an excellent performance as Dummar’s wife Lynda, a sympathetic woman who puts up with Dummar’s schemes for as long as she possibly can, before having to leave him – for the second time. Demme’s direction here is wonderful – sensitive and realistic. Most movies about poor people either depict their lives as none stop depressing, or as saints. But Melvin and Howard clearly sees Dummar for who he is – a dreamer who is out for his piece of the American dream. This is a thoughtful, funny, perceptive movie.

7. The Big Red One (Samuel Fuller)
Samuel Fuller waited almost his entire career to make The Big Red One. He could have made it earlier, but the studio wanted him to cast John Wayne in the lead – and Fuller decided he’d rather not make it if he couldn’t have his choice – Lee Marvin. Fuller was right to wait. Wayne was a fine actor in his range, but casting him in a war movie would have made the character instantly heroic. With Marvin, you do not get those heroics – just a portrait of a lifer in the army who leads his men into battle again and again. The Big Red One is an episodic movie – with scenes ranging for North Africa to Italy to Belgium, to D-Day to Germany. It centers on five men – Marvin is their leader, and although a host of kids come and go throughout the movie – usually because they are killed and need to be replaced. But these five men see everything. The Big Red One is different for a war movie. It is not about heroics and bravery, there is no line between good and evil. It is a movie where death hangs above these men in practically every scene. We learn nothing of Marvin’s background in the movie, but we don’t need to. Everything we need to know about him is in the movie. Fuller made a lot of films in his career – some even greater than this one – but this was his most personal film. He lived through the war and was tired of war movies he thought got everything wrong, and decided to set the record straight.

6. Ordinary People (Robert Redford)
Robert Redford’s Ordinary People’s impact has somewhat dimmed in the past 30 years – not because the film itself isn’t as strong as it once was, but because of how often is has been copied – both in films around the world, and in television. Yet if you watch the film today, it is still a strong piece of work – anchored by great performances from its cast, and the honesty in which it deals with the situation. Timothy Hutton gives a great performance as a teenager struggling with guilt after an accident that left his beloved older brother dead, but that he survived. His parents – Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore – have effectively shut themselves down. The movie is about this family in crisis – a family who cannot talk to each other. All three of them love each other, but cannot communicate that. Sutherland is too shy, too inarticulate to say what he really thinks until too late in the movie. Hutton believes that Moore doesn’t really love him; she just loved the older son – which is at least partially true. Both parents seemingly lost the ability to communicate with her surviving son who feels like he is drowning (an apt metaphor since the other son actually did drown. Hutton has already tried to kill himself, and failed, and is now reaching for something to hold onto. All the performances in the movie are great – I haven’t even mentioned Judd Hirsch as a kindly shrink – but of them all, I think Moore is the best. She hides behind pleasantries and a perfect suburban façade of happiness – but she is really cold underneath, unable to give anyone else what they need. Ordinary People reminds me of another Best Picture winner from years later – American Beauty. But I think Redford’s film is even better. It doesn’t rely on snarky cleverness, and it doesn’t reassure us that everything actually is okay. This family is broken – and probably always will be.

5. The Long Good Friday (John Mackenzie)
The Long Good Friday is essentially a character study of an amoral man who has become the head of the London underworld. Played by Bob Hoskins, he is a brutal, cruel, violent man who wields a lot of power, and has garnered a lot of money and even some respect. He is proud of his criminal empire, proud that he has essentially held the peace in a place where it is nearly impossible to do so. But then everything seemingly starts to fall apart all around him. His car is blown up, and so his bar and another bomb is found in a casino he runs, but it doesn’t go off. Hoskins doesn’t understand what is happening, and who is behind all these bombings. He has no idea why anyone would want to kill him, and it is happening at precisely the wrong time. This was Hoskins big breakout role, and it perhaps remains his best performance (it is roughly equal to his work in Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa). The film is dark, violent and uncompromising – but also darkly funny at times. We eventually do find out what happened and why – but that really isn’t the point of the movie. This film is alive with energy and anchored by one hell of a performance by Hoskins.

4. Kagemusha (Akira Kurosawa)
Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha is epic in its scope, yet intimate in its details. The film is about a man chosen to double for the powerful head of a samurai clan. When the real leader is killed, his top advisers persuade the double to stand in for him – for years on end. Their clan is at war, and they need their strong leader, even if it is only a fantasy. There are epic battle scenes involving thousands of warring people in this film, with impresses us with its depth and focus. There are also scenes where the double has to talk to the leader’s son, his mistresses and everyone else and convince them that he is who he says he is. Almost no one knows the truth. There is an irony in the scenes where people bow to the double because they think he is their leader – because we know the truth, and no one else does. As himself, he is nothing, as the leader, he can command thousands of men to their deaths, and they will go willingly. Kurosawa wanted to make Kagemusha for years, but couldn’t find the funding. He even tried to commit suicide in the decade leading up to this film – but he bounced back and felt he had to make this film. It is a film about the power of our delusions – whether real or imaginary people in war need to believe in their leader, and if they don’t all is lost. Kagemusha is a complex, thought provoking and absolutely beautiful film.

3. The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner)
For my money, the best of the Star Wars films will always be The Empire Strikes Back. It is the most mature, darkest of all six Star Wars films – and also the most exciting, well acted and well directed of the series. This is the film that makes the Star Wars saga the great series that it was. The original film was made on a smaller budget (not small, but small for what it wanted to do), but with Empire, they had everything that they could have wanted – and the result is one of the most visually stunning and inventive space operas ever made. The film contains a number of memorable environments – the snow planet, the cloud city, Yoda’s junky little planet. There are also any number of other sights to wonder at – the colossal, staggering Imperial Walkers are among the most memorable vehicles the series ever created. This is also the chapter that introduced us to perhaps the greatest of all Star Wars characters – Yoda. The film also has the best light saber battle of the series – between Luke and Darth Vader, where Luke finally learns his dark secret. This battle is the best not only because it is the most exciting, but also because the battle is about more than just clashing swords. The Star Wars film will never go away – as long as people watch movies, they will watch these movies and The Empire Strikes Back is far and away the best of the series.

2. The Shining (Stanley Kubrick)
Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is one of the most disturbing films about madness I have ever seen. It is a horror movie and perhaps a ghost story as well, but what it is really about is a family who goes to look after an isolated hotel over the winter, and all of them go made in their own ways. Jack Nicholson’s performance as the husband/father is one of his best – he is in practically every scene, and although he famously go crazy during the course of the movie, he never quite goes over the top. His performance is filled with a deep unease as he slips farther and farther down his own rabbit hole, and starts seeing the ghosts everywhere. His son Danny also sees ghosts – different ones, but ones all the same – on his journeys through the vast halls of the Overlook on his big wheel. He also may have physic powers. The wife, Shelley Duvall, also goes a little crazy, but it is much less pronounced. Kubrick’s attention to detail in the film is the stuff of legend – making the actors do each take upwards of 100 times – but the result is well worth it. The film is disturbing from beginning to end – from the false cheer Nicholson displays in the job interview, all the way through to the final, haunting shot – which calls into question everything we think we know about what happened in the movie – without explaining it in the least. Kubrick is playing with the audience here, and doing so brilliantly. The Shining is a masterpiece.

1. Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese)
Roger Ebert has compared Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull to Othello – and the comparison is apt. Scorsese’s movie is perhaps the best film ever made about jealously. Robert DeNiro gives an amazing performance as Jake LaMotta, a middle weight boxer in the 1940s and 50s, who jealously and paranoia will drive everyone around him away. When we first meet him, he is already married, but that marriage will end in divorce when he meets and falls in lust with the young, beautiful Cathy Moriaty. Soon they are married, but LaMotta can never quite understand why she is with him. He figures that if she’ll let him touch her, then she will probably let anyone touch her. Joe Pesci is also brilliant as LaMotta’s brother who tries hard to stand by him, protect him and reassure him, but eventually Jake will drive even him away. In one of the greatest scenes in all of cinema history, Jake accuses Joey of sleeping with his wife, bluntly saying “You fuck my wife”, and Joey denies it, calls him crazy but Jake keeps persisting. Scorsese decided to shoot the film in black and white, and that was the right choice for this material. The fight scenes are easily the bloodiest, the most brutal of any boxing scenes ever filmed, but the real action in the film happens outside the ring. Raging Bull has gone onto to be considered the best film of the 1980s – and with good reason. It is quite simply stunning.

Just Missed the Top 10: American Gigolo (Paul Schrader), Bad Timing (Nicolas Roeg), Coal Miner’s Daughter (Michael Apted), Scanners (David Cronenberg), Stardust Memories (Woody Allen), The Stunt Man (Richard Rush),The Ninth Configuration (William Peter Blatty), Spetters (Paul Verhoeven).

Notable Films Missed: The Blues Brothers (John Landis), Gregory’s Girl (Alan Forstyh), Heaven’s Gate (Michael Cimino), La Vie (Jean Luc Godard), Mon Oncle d’Amerique (Alain Resnais).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture & Director: Ordinary People (Robert Redford).
Ordinary People, much like Dances with Wolves 10 years later, has become unfairly maligned in some circles as a bad Oscar winner – not because of the movie itself, but because of the film it beat. For Dances with Wolves, it was GoodFellas, and with Ordinary People with was Raging Bull – a film that has gone onto the become considered the greatest film of the 1980s. But the fact that Ordinary People won is not its fault – it’s the Academy’s. Ordinary People is still a wonderful movie about a very dysfunctional family. No, it is not as good as Raging Bull – but if that were the criteria for every movie to beat, than practically every film ever made would be considered a failure.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Robert DeNiro, Raging Bull
Robert DeNiro’s performance in Raging Bull has to rank among the best of all time. He is blunt, brutal and profane – often times he really does seem to be some sort of wild animal, all id, and no control over himself. The weight gain probably helped him win the Oscar – the Academy always loves physical transformations – but there is more to this performance than just the fact that he became a huge, whale type creature. His Jake LaMotta is the perfect personification of Scorsese’s continued fascination with the male ego, sexual obsession, guilt and jealously. This year had a lot of great performances by lead actors – Nicholson, Hoskins, Duvall, O’Toole, Marvin – but none of them come close to matching DeNiro in this film. He really is that good.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Sissy Spacek, Coal Miner’s Daughter.
Sissy Spacek is excellent in Michael Apted’s country music biopic of Loretta Lynn. She does her own singing – and sounds great. The film is a rather standard issue showbiz biopic – humble beginnings, a bad marriage, overnight stardom, leading to drug use and finally the comeback story. Think of Coal Miner’s Daughter as its generation’s Ray or Walk the Line, and you have a pretty good idea of what the movie is like. What makes the film special though is Spacek’s performance. I never felt like she was simply going through the motions here – hitting the standard notes – but that she took her character seriously, and found Lynn’s humanity, and made her into a real person. By this point in her career she was already well established with great performances in Badlands, Carrie and Three Women to name just three of her films, so it was time for the Academy to give her an Oscar. Since I would have given her two by this point already, my choice would have been Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People – a breathtaking performance by the comedienne as a woman who just simply cannot give anything to anyone else. But while we’re here, why didn’t the Academy nominate Natasha Kinski for Tess? Her innocent face reveals her character perfectly. Spacek was an honorable choice, but I don’t think she would have been mine.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: Timothy Hutton, Ordinary People
It seems to be a rule for the Academy that young people are always thrust into the supporting category no matter how big their role is. I think Hutton probably has more screen time than anyone else in Ordinary People, and the film really is more his journey than anyone else’s (another example is fellow nominee this year Michael O’Keefe in The Great Santini, who is really the focus of the movie, not Duvall). Having said that, it is hard to argue that Hutton deserved an Oscar for his honest, realistic work as a teenager struggling with survivor’s guilt, and parents he cannot talk to. It is a great performance. Personally, I think Joe Pesci deserved this hands down for his work in Raging Bull – and I have always loved Jason Robards’ wacky Howard Hughes cameo in Melvin and Howard, but Hutton was a good choice just the same.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Mary Steenburgen, Melvin & Howard.
Mary Steenburgen is tremendously sympathetic in Melvin and Howard. She is the type of woman who tells you what she is thinking, and then thoughtfully listens when you respond – not just waiting for her chance to speak. She agrees to all of her husband’s schemes – including humiliating herself on a TV show, but eventually cannot take it anymore. Most of the time, the ex-wife of the movies hero is portrayed as a bitch – but Melvin and Howard sidesteps that trap, and it is because of Steenburgen’s wonderful work. True, I would have voted for Cathy Moriaty in Raging Bull instead of Steenburgen, but this was still a fine choice.

1 comment:

  1. Renard said:

    You know, there's an interesting thing about Stanley Kubrick's "THE SHINING". That it was nominated for RAZZIES in 1980. Yes, you heard right. RAZZIES. The group actually nominated it for Worst Film AND Worst Director. Its funny how it was splitting critics then but today, critics have reconsidered their negativity.