Tuesday, January 26, 2010

1980: The Top 55

Sandra Bullock? Best Actress?

Honestly. Bullock? Sandra? Actress? Good?

I don’t enjoy awarding Ampass credibility by following each year’s Oscar race, but it’s unfortunate that most of my favourite film blogs do. So I know a lot more about the current race than I would like (seriously! Sandra Bullock?!). In fact, I know more than enough to crave an urgent, far-away escape.

The 80s began – dear Lord! – a full 30 years ago. So by now, to me, they constitute a far-away escape.


Over the past few months I’ve been very geeky: I’ve scoured university libraries, DVD stores and bittorrent sites in search of every significant 1980 release I had somehow failed to catch earlier. All of this in an effort to deliver my definitive Top 10 list – then my definitive Top 20 – finally my definitive Top 55 of 1980.


The reason I’ve picked the 80s to revisit is because before this particular personal festival of geekdom, I had seen fewer films from the 1980s than I had from any other decade since the 20s. (In fact, I’d seen almost as many silent films as 80s films, and proportionally I certainly enjoyed the 20s much more.) Also, I despised 80s cinema. And I was wondering if maybe this had something to do with having somehow missed out on some classics.


Having investigated 1980 in great /excessive detail, my opinion of 80s cinema has hardly risen. But I’ve enjoyed the experience so much that I’m now halfway through a similar quest for gold amid the cinema of 1981 - an infinitely stronger year by the way, but more on that later.


For now, here is what I’ve come up with after months and months of resisting the much more promising titles that I always stumbled upon next to the likes of Fame, ‘Breaker’ Morant (the acclaim bewilders me), American Gigolo (ditto, and much much more so), Caddyshack etc. But there were treasures along the way too, including one that has changed the way I approach movies, writing, life – all sorts of things.



1. MON ONCLE D’AMERIQUE
*****

Resnais intersperses three interwoven ‘case studies’ with testimonies from eccentric behavioural theorist Henry Laborit, as well as wisdom, elegance and transcendental beauty. Few films this decade (or the following) would match it.


2. HEAVEN’S GATE
****½

From this vantage point it only looks revolting that critics gave Cimino’s turgid Vietnam polemic a free pass and then went on to savage this surpassingly beautiful, thoroughly absorbing, singular evocation/condemnation of what the Frontier spirit was really about.


3. RAGING BULL
****

Probably the most hosanna’ed of Scorsese's pictures, his biography of prizefighter Jake La Motta is an indictment of male values founded on aggression from a man who has made a career of gawking at such values with a schoolboy’s awe. A tension persists throughout the movie between the raw tragedy of La Motta's self-destruction and Scorsese's infatuation with the movie gangster – La Motta isn’t all that removed from the flawed, hyper-macho, glamourised gangsters he had de Niro play on [ultimately too] many occasions. It's that much more uncomfortable to witness the patently despicable acts that define La Motta's persona, filtered as they are through the cinematic codes of on-screen machismo which for decades have sneakily rendered such behaviour acceptable. (It doesn’t help that the women here have little to do other than nag, dress like high class whores and regularly sub for La Motta’s punching bag.) That said, the committed rawness of the performances and dialogue as well as the slow-mo extreme-close-up brutality of the violence play off the glamourising movie-ness of Scorsese's orchestration in an often hypnotic way, charging La Motta's tale of damage and devolution into the realm of the operatic.


4. BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ
****

Precisely what the magnum opus Fassbinder experience should be: 15½ hours of mind-numbing longeurs, compulsive digressions, hypnotic meditations and blistering dissections of the human condition, capped off with a galvanising, hallucinogenic-enhanced epilogue that out-Lynches Inland Empire’s existential-quandary-plagued bunny rabbits.


5. BAD TIMING
****

The titillating trainwreck aspects only add to the mesmeric pull. Roeg’s persistent, to an extent admirable efforts to emulate Resnais’ ‘subjective’ style of editing never quite paid off, but this is the closest he ever came to conveying a sense of meaning to his familiar orgies of cuts, textures and hysterical fits. Even if never cohesively developed and undermined by yet another blank faced pop star in the lead, the central relationship is always enthralling and Cold War Vienna never underwhelmed as a backdrop.


6. THE ELEPHANT MAN
****
Perhaps Lynch's most mainstream and accessible production, it still makes for a thoroughly odd and oddly affecting drama with a striking performance at its centre. John Hurt always makes acting look like giving birth to a carnivorous alien, but under an elephant-load of makeup his tensed affectations take on a kind of plaintive urgency.


7. ORDINARY PEOPLE
****

Every year Ampass commits at least four more blatant injustices than awarding its main prize to a moving, sober exploration of a repressed, grief-struck family's dynamics.


8. SEEMS LIKE OLD TIMES
****

This is the kind of champagne farce that Hollywood in the 30s and 40s made look easy. Even here an uncharacteristically relaxed Neil Simon makes it look easy. You only need to take in any of the year’s other comic offerings to note that it is in fact anything but.


9. ATLANTIC CITY
****

The script about small time crooks and their women intermingling in the titular town walks a fine line between strained and nuttily inspired. It's Malle's unparalleled eye for detail that really elevates the film.


10. FROM THE LIFE OF THE MARIONETTES
****

The people who shriek that 1978’s sublime Autumn Sonata was Bergman on auto-pilot would most likely bail half-way through this concise treatise on man’s vile shortcomings. But between the piercing monologues, the spellbinding compositions and the impeccable actors, I couldn’t look away.


11. RETURN OF THE SECAUCUS 7
****
John Sayle’s talky, rough-hewn debut doesn’t exactly boast rhythmic editing or a half-credible performance. But when covering the same ground with 20 times the budget and star wattage, The Big Chill didn’t muster up half this amount of warmth or insight.


12. ALTERED STATES
****

As far as I’m aware, Ken Russell never made good movies, but he managed to bring out some trashy watchable ones, and this just might be his most exultantly enjoyable bit of trash. All the soul-searching is so constipated that you wonder how so much of it survived the first script draft much less the final cut. But the rabid-monster-let-loose stuff – that’s gold.


13. COAL MINER’S DAUGHTER
****

A biopic by numbers, but an exemplary one: engrossing and astonishingly well acted. The early Kentucky mountain passages are vivid and artful in a distinctly un-biopic-y way.


14. THE SHINING
***½
Stephen King's manipulative commercialism and Kubrick's meticulous stylising make for an expectedly but engagingly uneasy combination. The end result is overtly flawed, not least for giving into Nicholson's worst tendencies, but also tense, compulsively watchable and, as lensed by the great, the superhuman John Alcott, visually staggering.


15. LOULOU
***½

That Maurice Pialat’s shaggy, unwieldy character study never quite goes anywhere isn’t so much the problem as the fact that as the credits roll, you’re not left with an all that tangible sense of its characters. But that you want to spend more time with them is testament to how much Pialat does in fact achieve, and a lot of it is to do with his uncanny feel for mood and environment. And in the titular role, Gerard Depardieu mixes carefully studied psychological layers and animal magnetism so effortlessly that you want to weep for the rest of his career.


16. THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY
***½

Roughly two decades before the quirky, lovably foul-mouthed mobster destroyed British cinema, Bob Hoskins gives us an incarnation to make all the others redundant in this dingy, minor key, half-comic thriller with a very clever ending.


17. GOD’S ANGRY MAN
***½
Herzog explores a quintessential Herzog-movie-nutjob: a 7-days-a-week televangelist with morbid anger issues. Behold.


18. THE LAST METRO
***½
I have little memory of this late-career Truffaut. Thinking back, all I can conjure up is a lush, entertaining, never quite surprising backstage, faceless-Nazi-villains soap opera. It swept the year’s Césars: incontrovertible evidence that the French Academy is as much of an ass as Ampass.


19. THE FOG
***½
Efficient, exultant, elegantly lensed, terminally cheesy horror.


20. GLORIA
***½
Cassavetes hits new levels of sketchy, implausible and erratic. But that’s not always a bad thing. And what joy to watch Gena Rowlands take on the New York mob.


21. SUPERMAN II
***½

Pretty much Superman I – minus the stilted backstory – with everything else times three. It’s tighter, jokier and punchier, but also been-there-done-that-ier.


22. SAUVE QUI PEUT (LA VIE)
***

Jean-Luc Godard’s return to celluloid and purported return to form. It helps that this time around some of the comedy is intentional and that the pompous empty longeurs are shorter. But they’re still there.


23. THE FALLS
***
Delicate, tantalising, hypnotic, poetic for about a half-hour. But then it keeps going for another three-and-a-half. Still more bearable than most of Peter Greenaway’s output.


24. SPETTERS
***

Familiar small-town adolescent horniness-and-ennui, only – since the town is Dutch and Paul Verhoeven is at the helm – with added brutal honesty and full frontal nudity.


25. ‘BREAKER’ MORANT
***

A reasonably stirring, literate antiwar courtroom drama. Like much of the decade’s (and 90’s and 00’s) Australian cinema though, in aesthetic terms, it’s an abortion.


26. THE CHANGELING
***


27. KAGEMUSHA
***

Akira Kurosawa later came to consider this samurai epic as pretty much a dress rehearsal for his great "Ran" (1985). There isn't the amount of warfare and blood-letting you'd expect. This time out, Kurosawa is almost exclusively interested in pondering the Samurai code and what it stands for, but his philosophising is muted. He seems eager to expose the pomp and pageantry of war as hollow at the same time as glorifying it with sweeping panorama shots of impeccably arranged armaments. He doesn't necessarily come up with any observations striking enough to support the ponderous pace. But the majestic vistas and the vibrant lensing make the picture that much more endurable.


28. PEPI, LUCI, BOM
***

Pedro Almodóvar's first feature serves no purpose other than to shock - and in this sense it still succeeds. With a half-assed half-plot about the bizarre sex lives of three women in Madrid as basis, Almodóvar's main premise is to depict as many different kinks as he can squeeze into 80 minutes. Along these lines, he brings up and sexualises just about every type of human waste you could imagine, as well as several that wouldn't necessarily cross your mind. Your options are to laugh or be offended. It's easier to laugh, especially during a commercial for an extraordinarily practical brand of women's underpants.


29. MELVIN AND HOWARD
***

Today aggressively quirky sitcoms about well-meaning but uneducated losers of a lower economical bracket are abundant – redundant really. But back at the beginning of the 80s, this must not have been the case. So this awkwardly paced, ostensibly observational farce about a real-life none-too-bright blue-collar mid-Westerner who may or may not have ended up on Howard Hughes’ will was embraced by critics as something fresh and real. It’s well-acted and loose and relaxed on the surface, but beneath the dusty, folksy, gawky veneer, it’s crude, contrived and all too desperate to be loved.


30. DRESSED TO KILL
***
De Palma delivers a typically ludicrous mix of gruesome bloodletting, psychological disorders, soft-core porn and Hitchock homage that affords a few tense setpieces.


31. THE NINTH CONFIGURATION
***
An ambitious, beautifully visualised introspective sci-fi that gives into two unfortunate trends: pseudo-modernist hysteria (long outdated in Europe); and solemn post-Vietnam psycho-posturing.


32. DEMON LOVER DIARY
***


33. STARDUST MEMORIES
***
Woody often brings up masturbation in his movies but the only time he made a movie entirely structured around it was this self-assured variation on Fellini's . He lifts from Fellini the aggressively autobiographical, self-aggrandising slant, the stark monochrome, the dream-like fluidity and the army of funny-faced extras. And he contributes nothing of his own. It's an empty, polished pastiche of a movie, filled with lovely visuals and lovely tunes, none of which resonate.


34. THE STUNT MAN
***

About four separate premises in search of a plotline.


35. THE LONG RIDERS
***

Some see this elegant, efficient, revisionist-but-not-too-much Western as a healthy alternative to the sprawling, murky Heaven’s Gate kind. Me, I like the sprawling and the murkiness.


36. THE BIG RED ONE
***

An episodic, deeply personal, in fact autobiographical rehash of WWII battles, as experienced by wide-eyed sacrificial-lamb marines serving under crusty old Lee Marvin. It’s rougher, greyer, less glorifying than most others, but there is nothing here that builds on forty years of solemn, burnt-out yet stridently manly WWII big-screen non-explorations and certainly not enough to justify a 2½-hour-plus running time.


37. 9 TO 5
***

Jane Fonda tries too hard, Dolly Parton not enough (just watch her cute blank face as she waits for her co-star to finish her lines so she can get hers out of the way), but Lily Tomlin is a pro.


38. WHO’S THAT SINGING OVER THERE?
**½

A misguided Yugoslav Film Academy in 1996 overlooked Du
šan Makavejev's entire oeuvre and voted this slight if likable surrealist-tinged farce the best Yugoslav film of all time. It concerns a disparate bunch of rural eccentrics aboard a creaky bus to Belgrade on the eve of Nazi invasion. The lunacy takes on a bittersweet flavour in the lead-up to the grim finale. An irrepressible Gypsy with an accordion and a pubescent support vocal pops up regularly to present variations on a very catchy folk tune.


39. THE GODS MUST BE CRAZY
**½
An unlikely blockbuster, which pretty much wastes a fantastic concept onto mildly diverting slapstick. There's an obvious curiosity value to it though.


40. AIRPLANE!
**½

The AFI would have me believe this is the tenth funniest film ever made, but the jokes have dated so badly it's hard to believe they were ever funny. Most of my laughter was of the nervous kind.


41. THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK
**½

Admittedly it is darker, more visually majestic and less wide-eyed moronic than its predecessor. But also more boring.


42. DEATHWATCH
**½

Overconceived, undernourished sci-fi where a bloodless (though still preternaturally beautiful) Romy Schneider is forced to turn her dying days into reality television. Harvey Keitel (who else?) has a camera implanted into his eye to follow her. Harry Dean Stanton is his fickle producer with a fetish for tone-deaf monologues. Scotland is the dour, suitably improbable backdrop. In his first English-language drama, Bertrand Tavernier inverts Truffaut’s rule: every minute he wastes four ideas.


43. PRIVATE BENJAMIN
**½

Despite her best efforts, this Goldie Hawn vehicle is about as forced as the majority of them (the above-mentioned "Seems Like Old Times" being an obvious exception).


44. FRIDAY THE 13TH
**½


45. OUT OF THE BLUE
**½


46. THE LIFE AND TIMES OF ROSIE THE RIVETER
**½


47. FAME
**½

With a two-hour-plus runtime and a small army of singing protagonists, Alan Parker still doesn’t come up with a single coherent number or developed throughline. It’s like a perpetually interrupted, recurring TV pilot, with characters jumping from naive stardom lust to hysterical dream crushing to toothy diva pop belting with no buildup, visible impact or indeed any clear reason as to how or why they’re feeling whatever they say they are feeling.


48. CADDYSHACK
**½


49. MANILA BY NIGHT
**

A cocky multi-narrative marathon of exploitation with pretensions to grit. Highly regarded on home turf, it digs into Manila’s seamy underside to uncover such grotesque things as drug abuse, prostitution and homosexuality. It wraps up with a moralistic what-happened-after coda, wherein the tale’s key homo joins the church and renounces “the sins of the flesh”.


50. AMERICAN GIGOLO
**

There is soft-core porno with more psychological depth and eroticism than this tacky, turgid thing. Also, with better acting and chemistry, not to mention basic narrative logic.


51. SHOGUN ASSASSIN
**
With an eye on the American market, a man named Robert Houston spliced the first two parts of the Lone Wolf and Cub series into a single, simplified feature narrated by a monotone [American] toddler who comes up with adorable things like “I have to count how many people daddy beheads so I know how many souls to pray for. This makes 348.” Even on DVD, it reeks of cheap VHS, but people in the know rank it among the genre’s cornerstones.


52. POPEYE

Within the realm of American cinema, Robert Altman is unquestionably one of the great men. And this initiation ceremony for Altman apologists bears all the hallmarks of a great man’s miserable failure: a singular mind conjuring up something joyously grotesque and idiosyncratic within a Hollywood mechanism, unconcerned whether an audience will find any joy in it themselves. Robin Williams is probably the closest you could ever come to a flesh-and-blood (and-dodgy-prosthetics) incarnation of the rubber-faced, perennially muttering cartoon sailor, and still he’s unwatchable. And then there’s the “songs”… Oh, those songs…


53. INFERNO


54. THE GREAT ROCK’N’ROLL SWINDLE


55. THE BLUES BROTHERS

An odd, smug, dragged out mix of variable numbers, embarrassed celebrity cameos, expensive car chases and pileups seemingly on loop. Something is always happening, never to any real purpose, always for too long and too many times in a row.




That’s that. So I still haven’t seen Nikita Mikhalkov’s Oblomov, Krzysztof Zanussi’s Contract, Kaylor’s Carny, Eastwood’s Bronco Billy, Glauber Rochar’s The Age of the Earth, Goran Paskaljevic’s Special Treatment, Paul Mazursky’s Willie and Phil, Zemeckis’ Used Cars or Altman’s H.E.A.L.T.H. But I don’t expect either of them would threaten my current Top 10.



The Oscars were actually far less foolish this year than most others. People will always bitch about Ordinary People beating Raging Bull, and technically it didn’t deserve to, but I don’t think the difference in quality between them - as well as fellow nominees Elephant Man and Coal Miner’s Daughter for that matter - is all that drastic. And the lead acting prizes certainly went to deserving performances.



Here is my own awards ballot in any case.



Director:
1. Alain Resnais (Mon oncle d’Amerique)
2. Martin Scorsese (Raging Bull)
3. Michael Cimino (Heaven’s Gate)
4. Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Berlin Alexanderplatz)
5. David Lynch (The Elephant Man)


That’s an all star-ballot, right there.



Performance:
1. Gerard Depardieu (Loulou)

2. Robert de Niro (Raging Bull)
3. Sissy Spacek (Coal Miner’s Daughter)
4. John Hurt (The Elephant Man)
5. Günter Lamprecht (Berlin Alexanderplatz)


A remarkable year for actors, but a weak one for actresses. For what it’s worth, Nicole Garcia (Mon oncle d’Amerique), Barbara Sukowa (Berlin Alexanderplatz), Gena Rowlands (Gloria) and Theresa Russell (Bad Timing) are all solid runner-ups. As is Timothy Hutton (Ordinary People), for that matter.


Ensemble:
1. Loulou
2. Berlin Alexanderplatz
3. Raging Bull
4. Ordinary People
5. Mon oncle d’Amerique


Supp. Performance:
1. Joe Pesci (Raging Bull)
2. Hanna Schygulla (Berlin Alexanderplatz)
3. Martin Benrath (From the Life of the Marionettes)
4. Franz Buchrieser (Berlin Alexanderplatz)
5. Elisabeth Trissenaar (Berlin Alexanderplatz)


Script:
1. Mon oncle d’Amerique
2. Bad Timing
3. Seems Like Old Times
4. From the Life of the Marionettes
5. Ordinary People

Cinematography:
1. Heaven’s Gate
2. Raging Bull
3. The Shining
4. From the Life of the Marionettes
5. The Elephant Man

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4 Comments:

At 4:10 AM , Blogger Paul Martin said...

Wow, that's dedication, compulsion, passion or something...

I was a bit bored by Heaven's Gate, but loved Raging Bull, The Elephant Man (perhaps not as mainstream as The Straight Story or Dune) and The Shining.

I thought Almodóvar's Pepi, Luci, Bom was aesthetically pretty crap but significant culturally in the wake of Franco's death. Despite my criticisms of his films, I don't think I'd give any of them less than the score you've given this one.

 
At 4:14 AM , Blogger Paul Martin said...

And, in case you're not aware, my dedication to Almodóvar extends to owning and watching DVDs of every film he's made (except his latest and one of his earliest films which isn't available - it might be Pepi, Luci, Bom, or the one after).

 
At 10:03 PM , Blogger Y Kant Goran Rite said...

Paul, you and Almodovar have the strangest relationship..

As for Lynch - despite the lack of entrails and industrial noises I think The Straight Story would be a bit too slow and arty for a DVD night in the outer suburbs. The Elephant Man is also obviously pretty arty, but it's got the freakshow appeal, a compulsive plotline and the 'based on an outrageous true story' angle to cater to a wider audience.

Dune totally slipped my mind - you may have a point there. I still haven't seen it, but despite the Hollywood tag it looks to me more like a culty thing. And wider audiences have certainly always resisted it. I will watch it one day though - I think I owe Lynch that much.

 
At 9:29 PM , Blogger Paul Martin said...

Re: moi and Almodóvar, I agree.

Dune is definitely worth seeing as a part of Lynch's body of work, though it's my least favourite and apparently the one he has the most issue with, vowing never to work again where he doesn't have final artistic control.

 

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