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.
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Written & Directed by Michael Mann
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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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Mommie Dearest (1981)
Written by Robert Getchell, Tracy Hotchner, Frank Perry, and Frank Yablans
Directed Frank Perry
Mommie Dearest is a film entangled in so many worlds & perspectives. On the surface, it’s an adaptation of Christina Crawford’s memoir of growing up as the daughter of actress Joan Crawford. It was seen as a “so bad it’s good” movie and won the Golden Razzie in its release year. The film has become a cult classic, particularly embraced by the drag community due to Faye Dunaway’s over-the-top performance. Even Paramount realized a couple months into the release that the picture was being seen as a comedy more than a serious biopic and began advertising it as a piece of camp. It’s a strange film to watch because it’s centered around a child’s emotional and physical abuse, yet it’s delivered so outlandishly you can’t help but crack up.
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Written by Michael Weller and Bo Goldman
Directed by Milos Forman
In 1905 the United States was in a period of change. This is known as The Gilded Age when rapid economic growth for some Americans experienced a significant increase in wages. This was due to the explosion of industrialization across the country and led to many European immigrants traveling across the Atlantic with the promise of a better life. Black Americans benefited as well and began to see some increase in their wealth yet were still subject to Jim Crow laws. White Americans, as always, took more than everyone else and were able to grow their middle class and create some of the first Captains of Industry, multi-millionaires whose wealth gave them immense power. This time was also known as Ragtime, named after the popular musical style which featured a syncopated rhythm. As with almost all popular music in America, it was originated by Black people before becoming popular nationwide.
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Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Written by Lawrence Kasdan
Directed by Steven Spielberg
It’s interesting watching these movies and seeing them juxtaposed, realizing the gap in quality between what Disney was putting out in 1981 and Paramount in the same year. Raider of the Lost Ark came on June 12, putting it up against Mel Brooks’s History of the World Part 1 and Clash of the Titans. Both of these are delightful films but compared to Raiders, I just don’t think they can hold a candle. The script here is tightly written with some of the best set pieces in an adventure-action movie to date. However, as I have revisited films during my flashback series, sometimes I discover a beloved classic has many more flaws than I remembered, and that can reshape how I feel about the movie.
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The Devil and Max Devlin (1981)
Written by Mary Rodgers
Directed by Steven Hilliard Stern
This Disney film began life in 1973 as a concept developed at Hammer Films. It was going to be called The Fairytale Prince and star Vincent Price as a dead actor who collects children’s souls for The Devil. Now that would have been a movie. Instead, we got this uneven, poorly written & directed embarrassment. By the 1980s, Disney was not in a good spot. Changes in leadership since the death of Walt led to a company that seemed to lack a clear identity. They produced live-action movies like Escape From Witch Mountain or Freaky Friday, which performed poorly at the box office. Their animated fare (The Rescuers, The Fox and The Hound) weren’t doing too well either. But even those look good compared to this one.
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Time Bandits (1981)
Written by Terry Gilliam & Michael Palin
Directed by Terry Gilliam
Over the last 20 odd years, I’ve held varying opinions on the work of Terry Gilliam and Monty Python. I can’t say I was ever a superfan of either, but I certainly have enjoyed pieces of their work. For a long time, I counted Brazil as one of my favorite films ever. The more I rewatched it, the more I cooled on that opinion, and I still regard it as one of the best movies to come out in the 1980s. I think the problem I have with Gilliam is the inconsistency of his work, especially within a single film. There will be moments of sheer brilliance followed by sloppy, amateurish content. I always feel like I am on the precipice of greatness watching his pictures, only to walk away with the sense that some vital component was missing. I first saw Time Bandits on television when I was a child, and it left an impression on me to the point that specific images were seared onto my brain after a single viewing. Revisiting the movie, I found it once again had great ideas but poor execution.
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