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.
Escape from New York (1981) Written by John Carpenter and Nick Castle Directed by John Carpenter
Our flashback to 1981 has come to a close with this film. Be on the lookout for a list of my favorite movies of 1981 tomorrow. For now, we bring things to a close with Escape from New York. Over the last year, I have expanded my viewings of John Carpenter movies quite a bit. I rewatched The Thing, a film I already love a lot. I also gave Halloween another chance and walked away, liking it a lot. Seeing it in the context as a slasher before that became such a dominant and overdone horror genre helped. I watched The Fog & They Live! for the first time and liked both of them. This was also my first viewing of Escape from New York, and…well, I think this is at the bottom of the list compared to the other movies personally.
Excalibur (1981) Written by John Boorman and Rospo Pallenberg Directed by John Boorman
The story of King Arthur has been endlessly adapted into all forms of media, and it can be assumed that it will continue for as long as humans make art. This particular adaptation is a theatrical version of Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. If you’ve seen The Sword in the Stone or anything where Merlin takes an important role, it’s most likely derived from Mallory’s writings on Camelot. Director John Boorman was initially interested in doing a three-hour film centered on the famous wizard of British lore, but the studios thought it was too costly and without broad appeal. Boorman then turned his attention to a live-action adaptation of Lord of the Rings, which fell through, but there was interest in a film about King Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable.
On Golden Pond (1981) Written by Ernest Thompson Directed by Mark Rydell
I can remember instances of comedians parodying On Golden Pond in my youth, especially Katherine Hepburn’s particular affectations throughout. As I got older, I learned more about the actors involved, especially the rift between Henry Fonda and his daughter Jane. The film started after Jane saw the play and purchased the rights so she could cast her dad in the lead role. Pairing Henry Fonda with Katherine Hepburn was also a way to appeal to classic movie lovers by featuring these legends. It would turn out to be Henry Fonda’s final film but certainly not one of his best. Sadly, the final product on the screen feels incredibly cheap and trite.
In 1981, you might think the juggernaut of Star Wars had crushed any desire by Hollywood to make intelligent, more adult science fiction. Yet here comes Outland, a film set on a mining colony with a complete absence of aliens or space battles. Instead, writer-director Peter Hyams translates a plot commonly found in Westerns and places in outer space. The result is seamless, showing how timeless and transcendent certain narratives are. Hyams admitted he wanted to make a Western only, but the success and boom of the science fiction genre caused him to rethink the setting of his idea. He reasoned that the types of stories being told in the 1970s and early 80s were the same you found in Western just repurposed. Thus we get Outland which is High Noon on the moon of Io.
The Howling (1981) Written by John Sayles and Terence H. Winkless Directed by Joe Dante
1981 might have been the year of the werewolf between this film and An American Werewolf in London and lesser-known Wolfen. Special effects, both makeup and puppets, had improved to the point that movies could showcase spectacular transformation scenes, something older werewolf movies had always made a highlight of their runtime. Seeing the werewolf transform falls into that same category as Bruce Banner switching to the Hulk. There’s something oddly cathartic about watching a person’s body transform into an agent of chaos. Those werewolf transformations are on full display here, with the film reveling in their visceral detail. It’s also a fun, campy horror flick, just the type of thing Joe Dante has always been a master at making.
Michael Mann has made a name for himself for producing some of the best American crime films of the last 40 years. Beyond Thief, he has directed Manhunter, Heat, and Collateral. Outside of the crime genre, Mann directed The Last of the Mohicans and the political drama The Insider. Along the way, he co-created Miami Vice and adapted it to the big screen in 2006. It started with Thief, his feature film debut, exploring the life of a talented safecracker in Chicago. From the start, we can see the atmospheric lighting and the attention to detail that would become a hallmark of Mann’s best work.
Body Heat (1981) Written & Directed by Lawrence Kasdan
I don’t think I’ll ever consider Lawrence Kasdan as one of my favorite writers or directors. However, I do believe he has made some excellent movies. He wrote The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark, which makes him miles above much of his competition. I am not a fan of Return of the Jedi, which I see as one of the worst Star Wars films, but I don’t necessarily blame Kasdan for that. I have been able to tell that he has a deep love of film, including all genres. I’ve found it interesting that he didn’t achieve the level of public acclaim as George Lucas and Steven Spielberg when Kasdan is arguably as responsible for their successes in the 1980s as they are. Having penned such iconic films makes him deserving of a much closer look and appreciation of his work.
My Dinner with Andre (1981) Written by Andre Gregory & Wallace Shawn Directed by Louis Malle
Growing up, I heard about My Dinner with Andre in the context of making fun of it. As a young person with limited knowledge of film & art, it did sound like a silly idea for a movie. Two people at dinner talking in real-time. My expectation of film was that you would have the standard five-act structure with conflicts and character arcs. These seemed like a super boring and dumb idea. It became a movie that kept coming up on lists and in internet discourse, so that I developed some respect for it from a distance, still having not watched it. Now I can say it’s one of the best films I’ve watched this year and is a challenging but also easily accessible watch. We’ve all had dinner with people we maybe weren’t elated to see and had to converse with them. In that way, My Dinner with Andre is about a universal experience.
Scanners (1981) Written & Directed by David Cronenberg
Over the last year, I have begun to go deeper with David Cronenberg’s work with Videodrome and The Fly. In previous years I’d seen films like Dead Ringers and Existenz. I’d also viewed some of his more recent movies like A History of Violence, Eastern Promises, and Maps to the Stars. Cronenberg is one hell of a complex director to pin down. His early work is undoubtedly of the science fiction/horror genres, particularly pioneering body horror on film. More recently, he’s focused much more on the psychological elements of his stories forgoing the visceral & gory bits. Scanners is very much of that early period in his filmmaking days, interested in the evolution of humanity in the face of a more uncertain modern world where technology was digging in its talons.