My Favorite Movies of 1981

Raiders of the Lost Ark (directed by Stephen Spielberg)
From my full review
Raiders certainly holds up as a great adventure movie. The writing is sharp, and the characters are fully realized so that everyone has a personality without becoming an obnoxious exaggeration. Belloq could easily have moved into a farce of a French snob, but he is grounded and feels like a more realistic person. The same is said for the Nazi antagonists alongside him. They are both character types from genre films but also not grotesque cartoons. In modern cinema, we often get more exposition around villains to explain motivation and layout a master plan. While Belloq does have his own designs on the Ark, I don’t think there was ever a scene that felt like awkward exposition. His goals are clearly stated, and then the story moves on.

The Road Warrior (directed by George Miller)
There are few movies even now that contain the explosive energy of a George Miller film. The Road Warrior is the first “real” Mad Max movie in that the first film in the series is stylistically different. Mad Max is set on the edge of an apocalypse, and by the time The Road Warrior happens, it feels like it’s decades later. By the time you get to Fury Road, you’ll really be questioning the timeline of this series. Continuity aside, The Road Warrior is a fantastic action film. Mel Gibson, who has since revealed himself to be a despicable human being, does his best by not talking for most of the film. I think he should have made that a regular part of his personal life. As a kid, I was always wrapped up in the world-building Miller does in these movies. As an adult, I can see how small in geographic scope this story is, but Miller imbues it with a mythic sense. This is essentially a Western, a local dispute between the townsfolk and the bandits in the hills. However, through cinematography and music, the audience is hurtled through a high-speed adventure. Even as an adult, I am still terrified of people like The Great Humongous, such a brutal person who has come to power purely because of their inhumanity. 

Modern Romance (directed by Albert Brooks)
From my full review
After watching Modern Romance, I was reflecting on the tone of mainstream comedic movies today, and they all seem to have common elements, mainly leaning into improvised passages that are encouraged to be explosions of reactionary dialogue. Everything from the latest Will Ferrell picture to Paul Feig’s Ghostbuster has eschewed plot or character for loose “jokey” moments, which are, in my opinion, to the detriment of the overall film. I love improv comedy, but it works best only when with the most skilled creators and when used in the proper context. Modern Romance does employ improv but with a very intended purpose and in specific scenes, not as padding to stretch out the runtime.

My Dinner with Andre (directed by Louis Malle)
From my full review
The film’s overarching theme is the question, “Should people live in spontaneity all the time, taking life as it comes?” Andre says yes to this as he details the wild & fascinating theater exercise he’s taken part in and how they affected him in the years that followed. For example, he describes a Halloween performance on Long Island that ended with members of the cast being mock buried alive by other cast members. You can see the conviction on his face that he went through a psychological death doing this and came out on the other end, having his thinking altered. There are also questions about the purpose of theater, and Andre believes that theater has a deadening effect […]. Wallace argues that theater should reflect society and illuminate new thinking in the audience’s minds. Andre fires back that by showing people how terrible the world is, you confirm what they already subconsciously know, and as a defense mechanism, they bury their heads further.

From my full review
Cronenberg’s use of place reflects the psychology of his characters. They are experiencing an evolutionary change on a psychological and physical level. This means they are disoriented, unable to feel safe anywhere. Threats no longer need to be in your physical presence to harm you. Scanners can control other people from a distance and kill you. In Videodrome, your very television can invade your mind and place you in a dangerous situation. Ultimately, Cronenberg shows us this is a freeing experience. Because the laws of physics don’t apply to these new beings, they are free to explore the world in the ways they choose. Vale ultimately transcends his new body and gains the ability to take other forms.

Shock Treatment (directed by Jim Sharman)
The Rocky Horror Picture Show has become queen among the classic cult midnight movies. However, since I first saw this movie in the early 2000s, it’s always had a particular spot for me. This is a sequel of sorts in that it stars Brad and Janet, this time played by Cliff DeYoung and Jessica Harper. They are a few years into their marriage, and things are not going well. Their hometown of Denton has been bought out by the fast-food chain Farley Flavors and transformed the place into a television studio with ongoing programs. The citizens sit in the audience being coerced to consume products and participate in garish game shows. Brad and Janet are called on stage for a game show, Marriage Maze, where they are tricked into splitting up. Brad is imprisoned in Dentonville, a soap opera about a mental hospital run by Doctors Cosmo and Nation (Richard O’Brien & Patricia Quinn). I like the music here more than Rocky and think this has been a criminally overlooked movie ahead of its time when analyzing people’s lives intertwining with the media.

Blow-Out (directed Brian De Palma)
From my full review
One of the best parts of the film is that De Palma keeps it simple. When dealing with political conspiracy, it could be effortless for the story to spiral out of control as more twists and sinister figures are added. Instead, we never really get the specifics of why this potential candidate was killed; we just keep focused on Jack and Sally and really only know as much as they do about what is going on. The cast is relatively small, and it’s only Jack that we learn any real background about. The mysterious hired killer played by John Lithgow is given all the character development we need. His precision and adherence to duty hint at his past as a military man or a CIA member, but we never need that spelled out to us. There’s no great speech at the end where everything is spelled out to make sure the audience gets it. Instead, de Palma seems to trust our intelligence that we picked up on what he was saying.

Possession (directed by Andrzej Żuławski)
My full review
Possession is most certainly a horror movie, but which genre has been up for debate since it was released in an edited form nearly forty years ago. There are definite body horror elements, causing critics to evoke David Cronenberg’s The Brood, another film about women and motherhood. The confusion about how to classify Possession lies in how Żuławski shifts the type of narrative while never changing his tone. The picture begins with intense violent relationship drama, becomes a philosophical & psychological breakdown, then veers into grotesque body horror before finally acting as a metanarrative that breaks down all forms of reality we were previously presented with. In those final moments, it truly feels like you are watching a nightmare that has been filmed.

Thief (directed Michael Mann)
My full review
I always have a great appreciation for the technical elements of Mann’s work, and his world is so clearly his own when you see it on the screen. Lighting, often cold blues, and shadow are used to evoke a sense of danger. Most scenes are shot at night because that’s when his characters are most active. That time of day is also what makes his lighting stand out best. Mann had initially wanted to score the film with blues music but found the eerie Tangerine Dream electronic score to work better. It became a hallmark in his movie from here that you’d get musical scores that were just a little bit ahead of their time, using electronic instruments to evoke a sense of looming danger […] I think he delivers both style & substance. He manages to take very procedural stories where cops investigate crimes and criminals go through the tedious steps of breaking into a building or safe and make them captivating to watch.

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