20. MIDNIGHT RUN
A truly pleasurable “buddy” movie that transcends cliché by focusing on lovingly crafted characters. Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin (who has never been better) make a terrific team, matched punch for punch by a smart, breezy script and direction (this was back when Martin Brest knew how to make a film that wasn’t plodding and laborious). De Niro was a revelation at the time of the film’s release, as this was his first full-fledged comedy.
Hysterically funny and genuinely warm, ‘Arthur’ is a rarity among romantic comedies: the humor reveals character. There’s an innocence to the concept of the film that felt politically incorrect just years later as the sequel made its debut while the dangers of alcoholism were front and center in the public consciousness as never before. But the innocence of the film is exactly what makes it work; it has an open hearted affection for a lead character who forces himself to grow up once he finds love.
18. THE VERDICT
In one of his most devastatingly effective performances, Paul Newman (in what was his favorite among his own work) plays a washed up alcoholic lawyer who suffers an attack of conscience and attempts resurrection via a medical malpractice suit. The transformation is slow building and incomplete – there’s a life you can imagine taking place beyond the length of the film. This is not a stand up and cheer courtroom drama, but the audience remains intensely invested because of their empathy with Newman’s character, and his attempts to combat setbacks, betrayals and – most of all – himself in his pursuit to do what’s right.
17. ORDINARY PEOPLE
There’s a beautiful palette of behavioral observations in Robert Redford’s directorial debut. The son who’s crippled with guilt over his role in his brother’s death, the mother who’s stunted and unapproachable in her grief, and the father who unwittingly enables these defects with his naïve need to remain optimistic for his family. The standout here is Mary Tyler Moore, who gives one of the great dramatic performances of the decade.
16. 9 1/2 WEEKS
An excellent examination of sexual obsession and awakening that’s a lot deeper than the surface would indicate. The style of the film is one of glossy titillation for the most part, and that’s appropriate. The audience is left asking the same questions as the characters by the end of the film. Does this relationship mean anything, or is it only built on a series of increasingly masochistic encounters? What was it in her that felt the need to be controlled, and what was it in him that felt the need to exert that power? No doubt, they needed one another on a mysterious, primal level at that point in time, but did that ever translate into love? Neither of them knows the answer – they’ve touched upon a part of themselves that is unexpected, and that they can’t yet interpret. You can imagine these lives continuing after the movie ends, and their approach to future relationships being forever informed by this affair.
15. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK
What can you say? There’s no mystery why this is one of our great action/adventure yarns. But there’s one that ranks higher on my list.
14. CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS
Woody Allen seamlessly melds his gift for sharply observed comedy with his love of all things Bergman with ‘Crimes and Misdemeanors’. Multiple intertwining stories elucidate issues of faith, murder, ego, jealousy and failure. Coupled with his Bela Lugosi in ‘Ed Wood’, this is Martin Landau’s shining performance, as a man guilt-ridden over having ordered the murder of his mistress. It’s no secret that Allen discounts the existence of God, but he often grapples with the concept of a higher power in his work. He knows that his purpose as an artist is to always question and search for meaning even if he ultimately may sense that none exists. The conclusion his characters reach at the conclusion of ‘Crimes and Misdemeanors’ is a daring one, and likely one that speaks to the sad but true nature of our species.
One of the great masterworks of the decade by one of the true giants of cinema: Akira Kurosawa. They say ‘King Lear’ is the final mountain our great actors feel compelled to climb at the end of their careers. Kurosawa must have sensed the same in the material – he first made plans to adapt ‘Lear’ as a samurai epic 10 years earlier. The wait was more than worth it. ‘Ran’ feels like a final summation of themes to which Kurosawa had long been attracted. It’s a richly detailed and dramatically potent spectacle that benefits from being made by a master filmmaker nearing the end of his life. It’s worth savoring simply as one of the last honest to goodness epics; the literal cast of thousands, the costumes, the eye-popping colors – this is what glorious filmmaking feels like.
12. BLUE VELVET
You could take the set-up of ‘Blue Velvet’ and imagine another carbon copy of the film we’ve all seen many times before – the small-town murder mystery. But David Lynch is renowned for taking his source inspirations and contorting them into unexpectedly dark, strange and twisty forms. He’s at his best when he focuses on the contrasts between darkness and light, between innocence and perversion. It’s there in the world of ‘Twin Peaks’, in the tale of love in the midst of chaos in ‘Wild at Heart’, and it’s articulated here in the opening frames. Under the comforting exterior of small-town America lies a savage underworld. Dennis Hopper delivers an iconic performance for the ages, and the cinematography is a lush evocation of dreams and nightmares.
11. THE NAKED GUN
Nothing makes me laugh like ‘The Naked Gun’ series, not even ‘Airplane’. They never fail to make me roll over in hysterics, no matter how many times I’ve seen them.
10. THE FLY
Who would have thought that a 1950’s camp classic would be the basis for such a potent love story three decades later? Beyond the horrific elements and gross out effects, David Cronenberg’s ‘The Fly’ works because it has a beating heart at its center. That central love story gives resonance to everything that surrounds it. More than a horror film (though it definitely delivers the goods in that department), it becomes something closer to a romantic tragedy.
9. BROADCAST NEWS
Richly drawn characters populate many of the works of James L. Brooks, but never more so than here, particularly Holly Hunter’s furiously driven news producer who sacrifices any semblance of a personal life for her profession. One of the few great, smartly written adult romantic comedies of the era, capped off by a wealth of unexpected character nuances and an ending that’s anything but pat.
8. CLEAN AND SOBER
Michael Keaton, in his first full-fledged dramatic role, stars as Daryl Poynter, a cocaine addict who checks himself into a drug treatment facility in order to remain hidden from the police during a death investigation in which he is implicated. The film takes Keaton’s hyperactive agitation and gives it new expression; his sarcastic weaponry now reveals a character who is drowning, in denial and can only confront the truth about himself or die. This film’s anti-drug stance is not preachy; it’s remarkably observant about the addictive personality (which extends to the addict’s destructive sense of dependency in their personal relationships), and the somber, stirring process of rehabilitation. Keaton is strongly supported by a cast that includes Morgan Freeman, Kathy Baker and a strikingly effective M. Emmet Walsh. But it’s Keaton’s show, and he gives one of the most underrated performances of this or any other decade.
7. EMPIRE OF THE SUN
For my money, Christian Bale gives the finest child performance on film in ‘Empire of the Sun’. This is a defining centerpiece in Spielberg’s career as it combines the childhood innocence and wonder of his earlier films with the sweeping dramatics that would characterize his latter works. And it’s the transformation from pampered child to world weary young adult that makes the film so powerful for me. It contains the single emotional image I’ve ever experienced on the big screen (as pictured below), and the final moments – depicting the reunion of Jim with the parents who no longer recognize him – stand as one of the most moving conclusions to any film from this period.
6. INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM
I know I’m in the minority here (Spielberg even mildly denounces this film), but this is definitely my favorite installment of the ‘Indiana Jones’ series, and my favorite action/adventure film period. The action here is relentless and exhilarating – it makes you giddy – and Spielberg’s inventive staging is in peak form. When I think of films that epitomize a sense of pure fun, this is the first title that comes to mind.
Spielberg was on fire for most of this decade, and this was his most powerful work. Years ago, I read a quote from an esteemed filmmaker (I believe it was Richard Attenborough) who said he believed Spielberg deserved the Nobel Peace Prize for this film. And it is that kind of movie – it united the world. It also captures the feeling of childhood more viscerally than any film I’ve ever seen.
4. BLOW OUT
The last great paranoid political thriller of the 70’s just so happened to be released in 1981. The mindset is reminiscent of ‘All the President’s Men’, ‘The Parallax View’, ‘Three Days of the Condor’, etc, but in ‘Blow Out’ they reflect an emerging political landscape where dissention was devolving into surrender. Buried under all the noise that criticizes De Palma as a misogynistic Hitchcock clone, he’s never been given his due credit as one of the most politically-charged directors of our time. ‘Blow Out’ takes cues from the Zapruder film and the Kennedy assassination, Watergate, and Chappaquiddick, and shows how our quest to unravel ugly truths and speak truth to power have buckled under the persuasions of comforting images manufactured to placate us. By film’s end, John Travolta’s haunted sound man has given up, and the piercing screams of murder he recorded now service a grade-Z slasher film. Beyond the political implications, ‘Blow Out’ is also a masterful dissertation on the power of sound and image, and celebrates the magic of the medium itself. If you want to delve deeper into this wonderful film, I highly recommend you check out the writings of critic John Kenneth Muir at http://reflectionsonfilmandtelevision.blogspot.com/search/label/Blow%20Out.
3. THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST
My favorite performance of the 1980’s belongs to William Hurt in ‘The Accidental Tourist’, in a role that parallels nicely with the one given by Mary Tyler Moore in ‘Ordinary People’. Hurt’s Macon Leary refuses to let the emotion of life experience break through following the devastating murder of his son. He’s a travel guide writer whose emblem is an armchair with wings – the suggestion being that you can travel the world without ever feeling you’ve left the security of home. It’s a very specific challenge to play such a detached character, and clue an audience in to the war of emotions that remain hidden inside. Hurt achieves this in such a subtle, muted way; it’s all in the seconds that pass before he reacts to the sentiments expressed by those around him, and in the awkward uncertainty of his body language. Macon is functioning in the most primitive sense, but he isn’t letting anything in. What sets this film apart is the delicacy of its tone. There’s much of his eccentric, and similarly muted family within Macon, but we know he is capable of much more vitality, or at least he once was. When we’re introduced to that family, it’s to the film’s credit that they’re never portrayed in a ridiculing fashion. ‘The Accidental Tourist’ examines all of its characters with an always compassionate, and oftentimes lovingly amused gaze.
2. BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY
Oliver Stone’s most visceral and humanistic work remains the single most emotional experience I’ve ever had at a movie theatre. I’ll never forget the impact the film had on me, and others around me that opening night. Seated behind me, I could hear the whimpers of an older man (no doubt a Vietnam veteran) who was audibly shaken by the emotional power of the imagery, and the female companion who kept consoling him throughout. But you knew there was a need in him to see the film, and to experience the catharsis of the journey it dramatizes. You see a full, and fully realized life unveil itself before your eyes in “Born on the Fourth of July’ as Tom Cruise’s Ron Kovic goes from idealist to disillusioned warrior to political activist. The tone is urgent and operatic, but always emotionally true. Stone uses Cruise’s all American image of the time to his advantage in a very special way. And the John Williams score is one of his best – articulating a sweeping sense of Americana, patriotism, remorse, anger and rebirth within the same theme.
1. THE SHINING
Two years ago, this wouldn’t even be in my top 20 of the decade. But after a period of intense study, ‘The Shining’ now rests at the top of my list; it’s probably the most intriguing, multi-layered and challenging film I’ve ever seen. It’s also deceptively cryptic, as it can simply be appreciated as a straight-forward horror film about a man driven to kill his wife and child by the evil spirits who populate a resort hotel. But upon further inspection, the true preoccupations of the film begin to reveal themselves, and open doors to a world of relentless ambiguity and unanswerable questions. Stanley Kubrick took the source material provided by Stephen King as a framework in which to explore the most horrifying potentials of humanity – racism, genocide, child abuse, sexism, oppression, colonialism; even the continuity errors are likely intentional, and further revelations on these themes. I’m particularly fascinated by the plethora of theories that have attempted to define the true meaning of the film over the years. As outlandish as some of these are, there’s no arguing that each of these theorists find all the justification they need within each frame of the film on which to hang their metaphor of choice. Once you look beyond its surface, ‘The Shining’ becomes a film you bring all of yourself to, and what you find in it reveals as much about you as it does the film.