Thursday, April 4, 2013

Top 10's of the decades - 1980's

10. Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989, directed by Woody Allen)
One of the classic stories of Woody Allen writing and re-writing and re-shooting a movie until he liked it, Crimes and Misdemeanors went through a lot of changes until we end up with essentially two different stories. There's the story of documentary filmmaker Cliff (Allen) making a positive doc about a man he hates (Alan Alda), and then there's the story of Judah (Martin Landau) who has an affair with a woman (Anjelica Huston) and ultimately turns to his ne'er-do-well brother (Jerry Orbach) to get her killed when she threatens to reveal their affair and upset his shining reputation in the community.

Allen essentially remade this second portion as his great 2005 movie Match Point, but here it's nicely contrasted against the humorous Allen pieces. Like his hero Bergman, Allen ultimately makes a point about the silence of God in our daily lives, but the movie is not a message movie against religion, but just a damn entertaining and thought provoking ride through the lighter and darker sides of Woody Allen. And like all his best work, it grows in the memory.

9. Do the Right Thing (1989, directed by Spike Lee)
Written, produced, directed by and starring Spike Lee, Do the Right Thing is one of the most life filled movies ever made. Evoking one of those unbearably hot summer days where everyone mostly just sits around bullshitting and complaining about the heat, Lee populates his Brooklyn neighborhood with all kinds of interesting characters, from pizziera owner Sal (Danny Aiello, nominated for an Oscar for the role) to Mother Sister (Ruby Dee), to Tina (Rosie Perez), Sal's son Pino (John Turturro), and local DJ Mr. Senor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson). Spike's character Mookie, Sal's delivery boy, is our guide through the neighborhood, as he bounces around delivering (and sometimes avoiding delivering) pizzas around the block. Tensions slowly rising throughout the blistering day, the plot meanders enough that I didn't think it would ultimately lead to anything more than tension. Oh, how wrong I was.

All that tension leads to anger, misunderstanding, and ultimately violence and rioting in one of the most emotionally devastating movies I've ever seen. One of the most famous scenes has become Spike's Mookie throwing a trash can through the window of Sal's, as the crowd cheers him on and joins in. People have asked over the years "Did Mookie do the right thing?" My feeling has always been a firm no. But, from the time Buggin' Out (Giancarlo Esposito) and Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) come into Sal's at the end, not a single person does the right thing. There's a point in the riot when Mother Sister comes up, and I thought she would act as the disappointed voice of reason, instead she eggs on the crowd, and I was completely floored at Lee's steely eyed intent on showing everyone succumbing to their worst herd behavior instincts. No one plays the voice of reason, no one stops themselves, no one does the right thing.

And then Lee ends the movie with conflicting quotes about violence from Dr. King and Malcolm X, showing Lee understands the duality of man and refuses to spoon feed any answers about anything to the audience. He refuses to be didactic, and in doing so made a movie of incredble depth and maturity. One of the best and most important movies of the decade.

8. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984, directed by Hayao Miyazaki)
While it has some flaws, notably the parts of Joe Hisaishi's score that echo Nintendo games, Nausicaa is Miyazaki's greatest achievement. Although it was one of his earlier works, the animation is still top notch and often poetically beautiful. The movie as a whole encompasses all of his trademarks beautifully, strong ecological message, obsession with flying, and a strong young female protagonist. And Nausicaa is the young heroine all the subsequent Miyazaki female heroes are measured against. She smart, fun, and bravely courageous in the face of adversity.

The tremendous climax of the movie is one of my favorite scenes in the entire Miyazaki catalog, in which massive destruction is caused by the "God Warrior" who's been bred by the villains. It's a frightening sequence as this giant being causes untold havoc but falls apart as it's been hatched too early. A terrific set up for not shying away from the action scenes Miyazaki is so good at, but also giving it some context and meaning so that it's not just mindless action (which it never is in his work). A terrifically animated epic that has topped my Miyazaki list since I first saw it. But honestly, after a recent re-watch, this spot could also be taken up by his low-key family classic My Neighbor Totoro, one of the most likable movies ever made.

7. Ran (1985, directed by Akira Kurosawa)
The master Kurosawa makes his final appearance on these lists, in what was really his swan song epic, and it's a doozy. If you ask me, he was the King of Epics (that's right, Lean, De Mille, Spielberg, nobody does epics better Kurosawa), and this one was his most epic. It's his version of Shakespeare's King Lear, but with the retiring king dividing his kingdom among sons not daughters. As the sons war and the old man ends up wandering the countryside with his fool, Kurosawa stages huge battles with large armies, big sets, and lots of blood splattering the ground (and the wall in one flawlessly filmed, and alarmingly sudden, execution scene).

As I've grown into more of an adult the epic battles have impressed me a bit less and I find myself more drawn to the Red Beard, Throne of Blood, High and Low, and Ikiru's of the master's resume, but Ran is too gorgeous of an achievement to let go too far down a favorites list. Certainly among the most visually impressive movies I've ever seen, Kurosawa even had to make a warm up movie (the undeservedly forgotten Kagemusha), which is good, but even Kurosawa said it was just to make sure he could make Ran, which he'd been preparing to do for at least 10 years before it hit the screen. His painters touch on the canvas of cinema will always be remembered by those cinephiles like me who can't get enough of his particular brand of greatness.

6. The Empire Strikes Back (1980, directed by Irvin Kershner)

So the Star Wars universe makes an appearance! This is one of those movies that I often forget just how really good it is. I know I like all the Star Wars movies (even the new ones) but until I watch them again I forget how well they work. Still firmly in the Saturday morning adventure serials crossed with the space opera setting, Empire is always pointed to as the best Star Wars movie, and there's a reason. The acting is better than any of the other movies, as the story gets a little darker and the actors have more to play with. There's also better humor, both in the banter between Leia and Han (and Luke) but I also tend to forget just how funny Yoda is.

Ah, Yoda, one of the biggest reasons for this movie's success. He's easily one of the best and most affecting non-human character in movies. When we meet him here, he's an eccentric and funny little guy, but he still conveys the old pains and history that we don't learn about until later. Wonderfully voiced by the great Frank Oz, who also puppeteered. It's his training with Luke that really elevates the story, as we watch Luke grow both inside and out. It's still a big fun summer blockbuster George Lucas type of movie, but it's the best he ever did, and has to go on my list of top 80's movies.

5. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982, directed by Steven Spielberg)

Spielberg is one of my favorite filmmakers, and all of his schmaltzy sentimentality has never been on more glorious display than in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Much like Yoda, the title character is flawlessly puppeted and engagingly voiced, effortlessly getting us to believe this character and get emotionally involved with it. And to have Henry Thomas as a partner doesn't hurt. Thomas gives one of the 2 or 3 best performances by a child actor I've seen, running the emotional gamut and giving us humor, pathos, and a great humanity to Eliott, the main character. The supporting actors are all just fine too, but for me it's always a two "man" show, with Elliot and E.T. It's a magical journey throughout, and a wonderful take on the concept of "first contact" that I've already written about my love for.

What saddens me is that just like he did with Close Encounters, and his friends George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola did, Spielberg went back and messed with the movie to make a "special edition" of it. I have very strong feelings about this, and I think it's because they're conflicting. I think the filmmakers should have the right to fuck up their movies by doing these types of things with them, but I hate it when they exercise that right. Scorsese once said that the reason he'd never done anything like this (or even re-cut a movie for a "director's cut") was because once the movie is released to the public it doesn't belong to him anymore, it belongs to the audience. Thankfully, Spielberg has said that he shouldn't have done the "digital enhancement" and when people ask him which version to watch he says to watch the original. I agree, it was one of the best films of its decade.

4. The Princess Bride (1987, directed by Rob Reiner)
There are probably only two movies as quotable as Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and this is one of them (the other is coming up in a bit). Based on the book by ace screenwriter William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President's Men), which he adapted to the screen himself, it's a movie that I can remember exactly where I was when I first saw it, and I was only 5 or 6 years old. It's been one of my most watched movies since then, and that's a very common story for the movie's many fans.

The casting is perfect, not a single character could've been played any better. Cary Elwes and Robin Wright make a wonderful idealic couple in Westley and Buttercup, but of course everyone knows this movie belongs to the supporting characters. Mandy Patankin has said that people still to this day come up to him on the street (multiple times a week) and say "Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die." and he never gets tired of it. Wallace Shawn is inconceivably good as Vizzini, and Billy Crystal and Carol Kane are hysterical in their brief time. Chris Sarandon is wonderful as Prince Humperdink, and his sidekick Count Rugen is played with surprising coldness by comedy genius Christopher Guest. The biggest surprised to me when I watch it, even after 20+ years of seeing it, is the wonderful performance from Andre the Giant as Fezzik. It's not like there are many giants in the world that could've acted the part, and reports are that he could do hardly any of the physical things the role required (he had large back pain to go with his large size), but his ability to imbue Fezzik with warmth, humor, and a certain way of reminding us he was still big, strong, and scary. And of course there's Fred Savage as the spoiled sick little brat, and Peter Falk as his grandpa reading him the story. Both perfect.

It's a storybook movie that actually feels like a storybook, and is a movie that I hold other such fantasy movies up to in comparison, whether they're comedies or not. Because The Princess Bride is so perfect, it's one of my "sick movies", where it's easy to watch because it makes me feel so good to see it again. To spend some more time with these characters and the terrific writing. And it's one of those rare movies that I loved as a kid, and go back and watch it as an adult and love even more.

3. Raging Bull (1980, directed by Martin Scorsese)
Scorsese's black-and-white classic adaptation of Jake LaMotta's memoir is one of the hardest and easiest movies to watch I've ever seen. It's easy to watch because Scorsese was at a particular artistic peak when making it. The shot composition, the storytelling, the performances he got from his cast, everything is at the absolute highest technical peak it could've been. It's a hard movie to watch because Jake LaMotta is one of the most self destructive, violent, hateable main characters in major movie history, and he'd agree with that assessment.

We follow Jake (Robert De Niro) through and out of one unhappy marriage, into another with teenage beauty Vickie (Cathy Moriarty) that is fraught with paranoia, violence, and altogether unhappiness. Not much different is the relationship with his brother Joey (Joe Pesci), whom he abuses almost as much as he does his wife (though no one is blameless, making for a general unpleasantness to the characters). But Jake is a great boxer, able to take a lot of punishment from his opponents (namely Sugar Ray Robinson) in what becomes almost a masochistic streak for Jake and occasionally an arena for him to get out a certain amount of his inner frustration as he mercilessly beats the face of another boxer his wife had described as pretty, leading one ring side viewer to utter the famous line "He ain't pretty no more."

De Niro is spellbinding as Jake. All 3 main actors were deservedly nominated for Oscars for their work, with De Niro winning his only Best Actor award. But the layers De Niro gives to Jake allows us to not be able to look away from him even while he's in a jail cell pounding his head against the wall in a painfully emotional explosion of self hatred. Not an easy movie to watch, but a fascinating one, beautifully made and acted, and one whose reputation only grows. A few years ago it was named by the AFI as the 4th best American movie ever made. While I don't place it that high, it's definitely one of the best movies of the 80's.

2. This is Spinal Tap (1984, directed by Rob Reiner)
The other movie that can compete with Monty Python and the Holy Grail in quotability, and strangely also directed by Rob Reiner, is this birth of the mockumentary, This is Spinal Tap. So perfect were the English accents by the American actors playing the band (Harry Shearer, Michael McKean, and Christopher Guest), so spot on the satire that many people (even musicians like Eddie Van Halen, Ozzy Osbourne, and Steven Tyler, among others) didn't know it was all a joke. Pitched just this side of full on parody, the movie satirizes the self importance and bloated nature of the rock lifestyle, especially that which had gotten so popular in the late 70's and early 80's.

The natural sounding mostly improvised dialog and hand held documentary like shooting was not at all common at the time, leading some people to tell Rob Reiner that they'd enjoyed his movie but that he should've picked a more famous band to do the documentary on, as they'd never heard of Spinal Tap before. Although on first viewing I found it kinda slow moving and didn't particularly care for the manager character, I still liked it. But this movie is like an old friend that you love more every time you see it and your affection for only grows. I could spend a whole review just quoting the movie but will instead point out that it is the only movie on the Internet Movie Database that is rated out of 11.

1. Fanny and Alexander (1982, directed by Ingmar Bergman)
And my best movie of the 80's is actually a 5-hour-long miniseries made for Swedish TV by the great Ingmar Bergman, but whatever. There is actually a version that was edited down to 3 hours and released around the country in a similar way that his great miniseries Scenes From a Marriage was in the 1970's. Even in its truncated version, Fanny and Alexander is the novelic story of the title siblings who are thrown for a loop as their beloved father dies of a stroke and their mother remarries the authoritarian local bishop. As the mother both becomes pregnant and realizes that this home won't be filled with the joy of the previous one, she works to make sure she and her children are safe. Though mostly seen from Alexander's perspective, Bergman effortlessly balances all characters so that everyone is developed and gets their moments in the sun, even the hateable bishop.

While with a strong note of magical realism, the movie also has an obvious influence from the work of Charles Dickens. I'd actually venture to say that this is more Dickensian than any Dickens adaptation we've seen. It's a large movie with reportedly over 60 speaking parts, which adds to the feeling of a novel. And though his movies tend to be smaller rather than this big, it doesn't lose any intimacy and is imbued with more love and nostalgia than any other Bergman movie. It's almost as if it came from a different filmmaker than the one who gave us Persona and The Seventh Seal.

Intended to be his final theatrical movie (though he'd release Saraband in 2003, 4 years before his death), it was also intended to star his favorite actors Liv Ullmann and Max von Sydow, as well as Ingrid Bergman, though none ended up in the final movie for various reasons. Instead, we don't recognize most of the actors, excepting a few Bergman regulars like Erland Josephson, which only further allows us to fall under the novelic spell of this masterpiece of movies. Deservedly winning 4 Oscars, for Costume Design, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Cinematography, and Foreign Language Film, in addition to Director and Screenplay nominations for Bergman himself, the greatness of this movie has to be seen and experienced and lived in. It's the best movie of the 1980's for a reason.

1 comment:

kathy said...

DeNiro was haunting in Raging Bull. I have seen all but 3 of these films. Great list!