Retropolis: My 80s in Film: My Favorite Movies of 1981

by Jim Dietz

To say 1981 was a great year for movies would be the ultimate understatement. I almost broke my own rules and did two lists of 8 for this year as it’s an embarrassment of riches. The Honorable Mention section would be a top 8 list for any other year.In fact, if you refer to our ongoing Top 20 Favorite Movie project , four of my top 20 are in this list of eight. Lets get on with it shall we? The policeman’s ball here in Retropolis is tonight and I don’t want to miss the submarine races after either if y’know what i mean…

Honorable mentions Holy crud.

History of the World Part 1 isn’t my favorite Mel Brooks movie (that’s got to go to Young Frankenstein) but Mel Brooks movies are light years ahead of any other comedies and this movie is no exception. I have a special place in my heart for Peter Hyams’ High-Noon-in-Space Outland with Sean Connery and Peter Boyle squaring off in a future mining colony with set and production design that could almost place it in the Alien universe, that very “lived-in” grungy future look. One of my favorite horror films, David Cronenberg’s underrated Scanners was so very close to making this list, and speaking of criminally underrated: Brian DePalma’s Blow-Out and Herbert Ross’s Pennies From Heaven were also almost in the top eight. Penelope Spheeris’s The Decline of Western Civilization Part 1 almost made the top eight because of my deep and abiding love (which has since fermented like cheese into nostalgia) for that early 80s American punk rock that I grew up with. Finally, the harrowing Das Boot is one of my favorite Wolfgang Petersen films and was a claustrophobic tour de force I will never forget.

Raiders of the Lost Ark– I remember distinctly the item on the news page of Starlog magazine, about three or four paragraphs long, stating that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were collaborating on a film called  “Raiders of the Lost Ark” with screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan that was going to be a tribute to the adventure pulps of the 30s and 40s in much the same way Star Wars began as a tribute to Flash Gordon serials. And that was about it. Until the trailer came out all of us Star Wars geeks were both intensely curious as to what raiders would be and also concerned it would distract Lucas from getting his trilogy done.

There was no way I could’ve been prepared for what I saw when the movie finally did hit theaters that summer. This was Spielberg before ET and, at this point, still stinging a bit from his flop 1941, not quite yet the legendary figure he grew to become, so I really had no idea what to expect. I guess I don’t have to go into too great a detail on how it turned out.

It’s interesting to me how the “scoundrel-ness” of both Han Solo and Indiana Jones kind of gets toned down as their respective trilogies go on. In Raiders, Jones is one of the good guys to be sure (and cast in sharp relief by his foil Belloq) but he is no saint. The first thing Marion Ravenwood does when she reunites with Indy? Punches him as hard as she can in the face.

I know there is a heavy contingent of people who feel Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is the best of the series but I would have to side with Raiders. I was lucky enough last summer to see the newly restored version of this movie on the big screen and not only does it hold up incredibly well, it looks amazing to boot. A well-deserved reputation as a classic.

The Road Warrior – In the days before CGI and entire universes being cut from whole cloth in a greenscreen studio it is truly amazing that this movie was made at all. The original Mad Max was a revenge flick with anarchic flourishes but this sequel (titled Mad Max 2 prerelease but then retitled simply The Road Warrior)  was full-on chaos. The style and general premise of this film inspired dozens of post-apocalyptic knockoffs but quite a bit sets this original off from its imitators.

First off this movie has some of the best action sequences ever put to film, Ever. Watch it again and see if you don’t agree. The action is even more intense when you realize that these sequences were all done with real cars and real people and with practical effects. While George Miller does occasionally speed up the film to up the tension, the sequences in The Road Warrior are still an astonishment. Second, it’s a simple story but well told both visually and through its characters. Mel Gibson’s performance in this movie is a study in how to say things without saying anything, and the movie is full of great smaller performances, like Vernon Wells as the crazed enforcer Wez or Bruce Spence as the Gyro Captain.It’s also one of those movies that only could’ve been made in the 80s. No focus group would approve this grim tale of a gruff loner facing off against a vicious gang, and speaking of magnificent segues…

Escape From New York – Another gruff loner facing off against a vicious gang. Former war hero/wanted criminal Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) goes on a one man suicide mission to save the President (Donald Pleasance) from the island of Manhattan, which in the far-flung future year of 1997 has been walled off and turned into a prison colony. I have always been a huge fan of John Carpenter for many reasons (how many directors compose and perform their own soundtrack music?) and this is my favorite of his films.

So much works in this movie, even now rewatching it 30 years later. From Russell’s ashy-Eastwood like voice and delivery to the glider sequence (Vector computer graphics will always be cool. Always.) to the look of penal colony New York; the vaudeville sequence, the arena and headquarters of the Duke of New York, played so pimptastically by Isaac Hayes that the man had chandeliers on his Cadillac. It’s just one of my favorite action movies of all time for so many reasons and I will gladly defend its quality as such to any who would contest it.

The cast is equally great. In addition to those I have already mentioned are Ernest Borgnine as Cabbie, Harry Dean Stanton stealing every scene he is in as the Duke of New York’s “tech guy” Brain, Lee Van Cleef, Adrienne Barbeau, Tuesday Weld, Pittsburgh character acting legend Tom Atkins. It’s a full stable of capable actors, and while the dialogue may not always be the greatest they sell it well, but its Russell’s performance as Snake Plissken that is not only the lynchpin of this movie but what makes it, in my opinion, so iconic. The character continues to resonate even to people who have never seen the movie as Hideo Kojima’s inspiration for the Solid Snake character in the Metal Gear Solid video game series. Not bad for somebody who everyone thought was dead…

Time Bandits – The best subversive fairy tale movie up until Terry Gilliam outdid himself in this same micro-genre with The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Kevin is a suburban boy with an imagination bigger than the electric appliance dreams of his parents, and one night he is swept along for an adventure with 6 rogues who have stolen a map from the Supreme Being (Ralph Richardson) showing all the holes in space and time. and are plundering history in the most bungling way possible. Along the way they encounter Robin Hood (John Cleese), Napoleon (Ian Holm), Agamemnon (Sean Connery) and are relentlessly pursued not only by the Supreme Being trying to get his map back but also the attention of the personification of pure evil played brilliantly by David Warner.

The script is smart without being heartless, although the ending seems unnecessarily dark, and the fantastical situations and places the band of would-be bandits find themselves in are both visually arresting and fun. One of my favorite Gilliam films and in my opinion very underrated.

Thief – There are few directors who left their stylistic mark on our visual memory of the 1980s the way Michael Mann did, both with his TV show Miami Vice and in his films. Thief stars James Caan as a professional safecracker who gets in over his head, trying to piece together some facsimile of a normal life and this movie shows why James Caan was a leading man in the 70s and 80s. Caan is by turns intense, endearing, both hard-boiled yet incredibly vulnerable on some level, as ephemeral at times as the collage his character carries that symbolizes the good life he so desperately wants to achieve yet always projecting an undercurrent of chaotic menace.

The rest of the cast is equally as strong: Robert Prosky as Caan’s employer/betrayer, Willie Nelson as his mentor encouraging his work from behind bars, and Tuesday Weld, an “opportunist” just as jaded and damaged as Caan’s thief. Michael Mann might have better known films in his catalog but he made few that were better than this one.

Excalibur – John Boorman’s Excalibur is bombastic, heavy-handed, overly serious and drenched in expensive costumes and production design. It’s also a brilliant retelling of the Arthur legend, hitting all the salient plot points along the way like a Cliff’s Notes version of the source, and full of great actors that would go on to be much better known, including Patrick Stewart, Liam Neeson and, in a scene-stealing turn as Morgana Le Fey, Helen Mirren. Nicol Williamson’s portrayal of Merlin is worth the price of admission alone. My second favorite King Arthur movie after Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

An American Werewolf in London – 1981 was a werewolf-heavy year, with Tobe Hooper’s The Howling, Michael Wadleigh’s Wolfen and this movie, from John Landis. Where the other two werewolf movies of 1981 took themselves very seriously (especially egregious in light of the goofy Wiley Coyote-style lycanthropes of The Howling), American Werewolf in London did not. Landis for the most part plays it straight but his comedic directing DNA imbues this movie with a lightness that otherwise would have made it just another heavy-handed self-important horror movie. A pair of American students (David McNaughton and Griffin Dunne) traveling the British countryside are attacked by a werewolf, leaving one of them infected with lycanthropy and the other dead, but constantly returning in greater and greater states of decay to warn his friend about his moonlit fate. I especially have to call out the amazing werewolf transformation effects by special effects legend Rick Baker. My favorite werewolf movie up until Ginger Snaps was released.

Evil Dead –   Okay, for the long version on my feelings about this movie and how horror movies of this time kickstarted a whole new independent aesthetic that carried over into home video, check out this commentary track I did for Evil Dead (we did one for Evil Dead II as well) with the erudite Aaron Neuwirth and the inimitable Brandon Peters here.  

The short version: Evil Dead, made on less than a shoestring by Sam Raimi over a few weeks, is the quintessential low-budget 80s horror film. The cabin in the woods featured in the movie The Cabin in the Woods is a carbon copy of the cabin in Evil Dead. It walked a fine line between intense scares and over-the-top goofiness that few movies dared to walk before and few have successfully travelled since. Add to this the debut of genre staple/one man franchise Bruce Campbell and you have what it takes to be on this list.

Time to put this baby to bed. Next time: 1982!

1980

Blues Brothers

Empire Strikes Back

The Shining

The Fog

Popeye

Empire Strikes Back

Where the Buffalo Roam

Friday the 13th

The Apple

Jim Dietz of the Nothing's On Podcast
Jim Dietz of the Nothing’s On Podcast

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