Top Ten Movies: 1981

Cutter's Way

Not a memorable year for moviemaking. Other than Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981 seems forgotten, tucked away in a decade that would help reinstate the overblown studio mechanism of the blockbuster as grand ruler supreme at the box office, a variation of the epic from twenty years before and one that would stay with us ’til this very day. Which is all the more reason for me to champion my number one pick. Cutter’s Way has got mythology in the making. Quietly released under the title Cutter and Bone – a more appropriate and superior choice – it was pulled, renamed, re-released, hailed by whatever group of small critics that actually got a chance to watch the damn thing, and vanished, awaiting some sort of “discovery” ever since. Well, it hasn’t gotten there yet, but I myself am living proof of word of mouth. Like the lingering echoes of the death nail that was Heaven’s Gate, Cutter’s Way is all the more devastating because it refuses to be forgotten, paralleling the near discarded mystery that gnaws away at the edges of its three leads, outcasts spited by something more than just life. Seriously, Jeff Bridges, John Heard, and particularly Lisa Eichhorn have hardly been any better, personifying a certain kind of American disenchantment that’s dulled them to the bone. Watch it and see for yourself. It’s a masterpiece. As for the rest, very good movies in a very off year.

1. Cutter’s Way (Ivan Passer)
2. Blow Out (Brian De Palma)
3. Lola (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
4. Reds (Warren Beatty)

5. The Road Warrior (George Miller)
6. Possession (Andrzej Żuławski)
7. Coup de Torchon (Bertrand Tavernier)
8. Thief (Michael Mann)
9. Gregory’s Girl (Bill Forsyth)
10. Blind Chance (Krzysztof Kieślowski)

Brian De Palma has always been a kind of savant of imperfection, which is no knock off at all, believe me. But with Blow Out, the planets must have aligned because he sure delivered a thriller on par with its flawless inspiration. Then there’s Lola, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s sinister continuation of his BRD trilogy and a gorgeous film to look at. Seriously, it’s my pick for favorite lighting in any film I’ve ever watched. Quite the hyperbolic overstatement but I’m sticking to it. Reds is possibly the best thing Warren Beatty ever touched, the thinking man’s Doctor Zhivago, and Possession is horror trash (my kind of genre) elevated to higher depths because of its raw take on jealousy, not to mention performances by its two leads that throw caution to the wind and so much more. So so much more. And have you watched Gregory’s Girl? Because you should watch Gregory’s Girl. A tiny quirk of a film that Bill Forsyth conducted with utter perfection.

The Road Warrior squanders the idea that sequels are distillations of their original source, and Thief builds up the tropes of the crime genre only to scrap them as a “I could give you what you want but I won’t” at the end. Then there’s Bertrand Tavernier’s Coup de Torchon, that does something quite remarkable by adapting a source material and throwing it in a whole other setting. I’m talking 180 degrees here. And it works!

A lot of stuff that could have easily made the list, and some had at certain points. But Blind Chance shares the spot alone for its pick your own adventure premise and making an inspired political drama out of it. I mean it’s Kieślowski! Has that guy ever made anything bad? But just to satiate, I guess that’s the word I’m using, your curiosity, the final slot could have gone to Jean-Jacques Beinex’s Diva, with a killer score to match its introduction to cinéma du look. Francois Truffaut was handling Hitchcock again with The Woman Next Door, introducing the film world to the wonder that is Fanny Ardant. And for that matter Lawrence Kasdan was doing just the same in America with Kathleen Turner in Body Heat, the best of the noir remake bunch that became a thing around that time (i.e. Sharky’s MachineThe Postman Always Rings Twice, Against All Odds). Then there’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, of course, which I like a lot but not enough apparently. And the list keeps going: The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Das Boot, Prince of the City, They All Laughed, S.O.B., Escape from New York, The Aviator’s Wife, Scanners, My Dinner with Andre, Modern Romance, Gallipoli, Mephisto. And finally the horror genre, particularly The Evil Dead and An American Werewolf in LondonThe others, while good, can’t match the fun of those two.

Next Month: 1944. I’m gonna start humming The Trolley Song, I know it.

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