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.

Top Ten Movies: 1987

1987 The Dead 2

His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” James Joyce’s The Dead is a beautifully rendered evocation of time forgotten and love unrequited in early 20th century Dublin. What’s even more astounding about this seemingly “unfilmable” story is that it did just that, become an actual movie in 1987. But it wasn’t made into a haphazard adaptation, diluting its content as it went through the stages of pre-production, shooting schedules, etc. No, it became a boni-fied masterpiece all its own! John Huston’s final directing effort trims and rearranges certain aspects of Joyce’s original novella, but the substance is still there, lull and temperate until The Lass of Aughrim croons its way through a parlor door so as to hit Gretta Conroy like a distant ray of light upon her shoulders. The fact that John Huston would die not too long after filming wrapped also adds to the movie’s poignant sense of lament, a coping of the past and death similar to the cinematic bookends Huston provided Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe twenty years before. And so The Dead stands at the top of my list in a surprisingly good year for film. The rest of the decade… maybe not so much.  

1. The Dead (John Huston)
2. Where Is the Friend’s Home? (Abbas Kiarostami)
3. Wings of Desire (Wim Wenders)
4. Au revoir les enfants (Louis Malle)
5. Boyfriends and Girlfriends (Éric Rohmer)
6. Withnail and I (Bruce Robinson)
7. Full Metal Jacket (Stanley Kubrick)
8. Hope and Glory (John Boorman) and Empire of the Sun (Steven Spielberg)
9. Yeelen (Souleymane Cissé)
10. Prick Up Your Ears (Stephen Frears)

Where Is the Friend’s Home? and Au revoir les enfants are both magnificent in the way they allow children to play adult roles without having the films compromise their wonder. Add the war themed Hope and Glory and Empire of the Sun and one could even argue that 1987 was the year for kid actors. Wings of Desire and Boyfriends and Girlfriends make for the art-house anchors, while Britain delivers two scathing drama/comedies in Withnail and I and Prick Up Your Ears. Then there’s Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, which, while not being one of Kubrick’s best, still is Kubrick.

A couple of close contenders fishing for the bottom slots include Gillian Armstrong’s “teeteringly” sentimental but still acerbic enough family drama High Tide. Kathryn Bigelow outdid all “hipster vampire” movies twenty years before they became the popular thing with Near Dark, and Todd Haynes bursted onto the scene with his barbie doll biopic – if that’s how to describe it – Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. Oh, and Bill Forsyth had Housekeeping, which is this week’s painful omission from my top ten list.

Two impeccably photographed period pieces, The Last Emperor and Red Sorghum, took on Chinese culture. Then there’s Ishtar and its not wanting to focus on much of that – culture, that is – for Morocco, at least not compared to its other more commercially oriented goals. But Elaine May’s infamous flop is still fascinating the same way that Heaven’s Gate is fascinating, that and it’s… hell, it’s even one heck of a funny movie! A couple of well-known titles: The Princess Bride, Broadcast News, Robocop, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, Mooonstruck, provided good pleasures. And Evil Dead II… provided good pleasures as well… I guess?

Below those you’ll find Alex Cox’s Walker, Pedro Almodóvar’s Law of Desire, Lindsay Anderson’s Whales of August, and Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables. All flawed but in a very likable fashion. Finish it off with Jean-Luc Godard’s King Lear and Kazuo Hara’s The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On – movies I have yet to watch – and that’s just a sliver of the films produced for 1987 (seriously, it was a busy year: House of Games, Predator, Barfly, Radio Days, Babette’s Feast, Maurice, Wall Street, Fatal Attraction, Space Balls, freakin’ Space Balls!, Some Kind of Wonderful, Overboard, etc…).

I’ll be taking a hiatus for the next couple of weeks but will be back at it soon with 1935. A great year for a studio synonymous with horror.