1981 in Movies

Movie reviews for movies released in 1981, the year I was born.

1. Raiders of the Lost Ark, directed by Steven Spielberg (10/10)

The best film Spielberg ever made. Dare I say it, the perfect adventure film.

2. Body Heat, directed by Lawrence Kasdan (10/10)

Though it lacks the social import of Chinatown, I would argue that this is the second greatest neo-noir of the American Renaissance. Few films manage to convey a sense of place like this does, while revisiting, honoring and improving upon the conventions of the original genre. A classic.

3. Lola, directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder (9/10)

I didn’t like the Blue Angel much but that doesn’t seem to matter. Fassbinder’s take is so much more interesting.

Aside from telling a compelling and humourous story, featuring fine acting, he does his usual thing where he finds interesting techniques to tell the story. Three things are particularly notable:

  1. First, there are the cuts from scene to scene, taken from noir or early German cinema and featuring dissolves paired with music… but the music cuts out before you can really figure out what it is.
  2. Then there is the lighting of the eyes, straight from noir and Hollywood melodrama.
  3. Finally, the crazy camera movements during the bureaucrat meetings have to be seen to be believed.

Only Fassbinder would have dared.

4. My Dinner with Andre, directed by Louis Malle (9/10)

It’s startling how captivating a conversation can be. Fortunately this conversation, like any good conversation, is about things far more important than what either person was doing for the last six years. It’s hard to believe that a film like this could be successful yet it is. Actually worth seeing despite it’s title, which is about as appetizing as Babette’s Feast.

5. An American Werewolf in London, directed by John Landis (9/10)

Up until this point, the greatest horror comedy that had ever been made.

6. Circle of Deceit aka Die Fälschung (9/10)

A mostly excellent “Western journalist goes to a war zone and is horrified” film. Read the review of Die Fälschung.

7. The Road Warrior: Mad Max II, directed by George Hill (8/10)

This is iconic but it gets less and less impressive as you grow up and realize that the production design is the most creative part of the whole thing.

8. Diva, directed by Jean-Jacques Beneix (8/10)

I seem to have lost my review for this but I remember enjoying it but sort of being mislead by the hype that said it was “Tarantino before Tarantino.”

9. The Evil Dead, directed by Sam Raimi (8*/10)

Seen too many times to judge objectively.

10. The Postman Always Rings Twice, directed by Bob Rafelson (8/10)

The 1980s remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice seems to have this reputation as a bomb. But I think that comes from conservative film critics who don’t like movies with a) sex that could, possibly, be construed as non-consensual (though it is consensual) b) not very likable characters and c) movies that are depressing in general. The original, I should say, is not a classic, though many people seem to regard it as one. There are far better ’40s noirs out there.

The thing is, what the re-makers tried to do (and I think successfully did) was rescue Cain’s book from what was a very Hollywood-ized version. This isn’t always the case with old film noirs, the best ones really are grimy and gritty or whatever (insert some other cliches if you so choose). But the original Postman is not really like them. Lana Turner is pimped out to look like a beauty queen throughout the whole movie. Yes, that happens in other noirs, but those femme fatales are rich. Turner is not. The male lead (don’t remember his name) is basically a ’40s noir stereotype and brings nothing to it. And, as one of the re-makers mentioned, Turner’s husband is basically an alcoholic Santa Claus, who is in no way threatening.

So along come Rafelson, Nicholson and Lange. They go back to the book. They make Lange look like she really works in the kitchen of some shitty gas and diner place in California (though she looks good, I’ve never really thought anything of Jessica Lange until I saw this movie), Nicholson is what you would think a drifter would be, he’s not that smart, he’s crude and he’s hot-tempered, he’s not a typical ’40s Hollywood smart-alec like in the first film. The husband is a jerk, he’s by no means terrible but he’s far less jolly than in the original.

The remake then, is one of the few remakes I’ve seen that is superior in almost every way to the original film. That’s not to say that the remake is fantastic, it isn’t. I personally find this particular story to be too twisty and turny for its own sake. Minor characters play too important roles and so forth. But I still think that rarely has Hollywood so clearly improved the second time around, only to be spit on for treading on a supposed “classic.”

11. Vernon, Florida, directed by Errol Morris (8/10)

This is sort of indescribable (in a less interesting way than Fast, Cheap and Out of Control).

It’s a portrait of a town I don’t particularly have any urge to go to now. It lacks narrative of any kind and so is a precursor to many fly-on-the-wall documentaries (though here they talk to the camera).

Unlike most of these types of documentaries, it is not too long.

It doesn’t really tell the story of Vernon but apparently there is a very good reason for that. (Morris’ life was threatened.)

12. The Beyond, directed by Lucio Fulci (7/10)

It’s bugging me that I have lost the review for this. I feel like it was fairly astute.

13. Prince of the City, directed by Sidney Lumet (7/10)

This movie could have been a classic. However, some of the directorial choices (surprising, considering the director) are a little odd or unnecessary. Also, some of the acting is either a) over the top (Williams at the beginning of the movie) or b) wooden (many of the supporting players but not usually the ones you’ll recognize, and there are lots). Otherwise, it might have been a great movie. It refuses to have a clear moral, which I love. But the execution is lacking.

14. Ragtime, directed by Milos Forman (7*/10)

Seen as a teen. Still haven’t read that damn novel…

15. Reds, directed by Warren Beatty (7/10)

Reds is an interesting film. The combination of real witnesses (because most Americans wouldn’t believe it) and Dr. Zhivago is interesting. But personally, it is hard for me get engrossed in the ideals of a man when I know they are totally wrong. And I dislike how he never really seems to completely give them up.

16. Blow Out, directed by Brian De Palma (7/10)

The American remake of Blowup has none of the original’s bravado or metaness, but it is at least a different approach to the subject matter, which makes it better than it would have otherwise been.

17. Time Bandits, directed by Terry Gilliam (7*/10)

Seen multiple times as a child and tween.

18. Excalibur, directed by John Boorman (7*/10)

Seen as a teen.

19. Chariots of Fire, directed by Hugh Hudson (7*/10)

Seen as a tween.

20. Thief, directed by Michael Mann (7*/10)

Seen as a teen.

21. Scanners, directed by David Cronenberg (6/10)

A part of me definitely feels like by this point he was making the same movie over and over again.

22. Stripes, directed by Ivan Reitman (6*/10)

Seen multiple times as a teen.

23. Galipoli, directed by Peter Weir (6*/10)

Seen as a teen.

24. Friday the 13th Part II, directed by Steve Miner (6*/10)

Finally, Jason rears his head.

25. Cannonball Run, directed by Hal Needham (6*/10)

Seen too many times as a tween / young teen.

26. The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981, Karel Reisz) (5*/10)

Saw in high school. Didn’t like it then. Didn’t like the novel either. Need to re-watch (and re-read).

27. Halloween II, directed by Rick Rosenthal (5*/10)

Seen in my early twenties.

28. Escape From New York, directed by John Carpenter (5/10)

Unlike many, I am not an admirer of this movie. It does nothing for me. It is iconic, however.

29. History of the World Part I, directed by Mel Brooks (5/10*)

Seen as a teen.

30. Cannibal Ferox, directed by (5/10)

I guess I lost my review…

31. For Your Eyes Only, directed by John Glen (5*/10)

Only ever seen as a teen or younger.

32. The Burning, directed by TomMaylam (5/10)

Some extremely creative death scenes, anyway.

33. Quest for Fire, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud (5*/10)

Seen as a teen.

34. My Bloody Valentine, directed by George Mihalka (4/10)

Not as bloody as they thought at the time. And hilariously Canadian. Read the review of My Bloody Valentine.

35. The Prowler, directed by Joseph Zito (3/10)

This is one nonsensical film.

Yes, most if not all slashers have at least the odd implausible moment – like the scene in seemingly half of them where the girl runs further into the house instead of out the front door – but this one has moment after moment after moment of flat out ridiculousness.

Take, for example, the lighting in the Major’s house, which they enter twice for no apparent reason. First a light is on in the room in which they are in, and no lights are on in the next room, and then when they are leaving that room, the lights are now on where they were off and off where they were on, just so it looks creepy. What person searching a house for a prowler is worried about electricity?

We spent the entire film ripping into these little inconsistencies as if we were the cast of MST3000. The only really good part was when the drunk guy asked Pam why she was walking backwards. If the rest of this implausible film had been played for laughs like that scene, there might have been something to this.

36. Modern Problems, directed by Ken Shaprio (3*/10)

Watched late at night, in my early twenties. I don’t remember it being funny at all.

36. The Hand, directed by Oliver Stone (3*/10)

Though I guess this is an accomplishment in terms of camera tricks, it is not in the least bit scary.

38. Ms. .45, directed by Abel Ferrara (3/10)

I swear that instrument on the soundtrack at the climax is really a sax, even though the guy is playing a trumpet. Is it possible to put sax valves on a trumpet in order to make it sound more like a sax? More than likely, they just didn’t worry about who would notice. I mention this because this is the kind of thing I was doing during this movie. I mean, it was so horrible, I sat around worrying about the sounds on the soundtrack. Just because it’s faux-artsy doesn’t make it better than the other sexploitation films. The lead is not expressive enough to play a mute. That is only one of the many problems with this piece of garbage.

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