Top Fifty Films of the 80s — Number One


#1 — Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese, 1980)
By his own account, Martin Scorsese thought Raging Bull could be his final film. His previous fiction feature, 1977’s New York, New York, was widely considered a disaster. A costly “film noir musical,” as Scorsese called it, the picture failed to connect with either critics or general audiences. Exhausting to pull together, the film engendered responses that were completely vitriolic, and Scorsese became disillusioned with the whole process of creating movies, a sense undoubtedly fueled further by the brewing hangover as the bacchanalia of nineteen-seventies American cinema began to collapse under its own weight. Scorsese entered the business at a time of unprecedented freedom for creative personnel and the self-destruction propagated by many of the surging, youthful wonders of the age combined with the fresh discovery of new avenues for making money–thanks primarily to the unexpected marketing prowess of George Lucas with his Star Wars films–meant that the clampdown was coming. So the skilled filmmaker had something to prove and a sense of valedictory urgency. As he put it, “I used Raging Bull as a kind of rehabilitation, thinking all the time that it was pretty much my last picture in L.A., or America.”

That must have weighed heavily on him, especially considering this was a guy who was creating storyboards for imagined epics before he’d even entered his teenage years. He’d grown up his whole life with movies as the transforming escape from every disappointment he faced, every personal inadequacy he suffered. Then he’d lived his dream, made great art, basked in acclaim, romanced the daughters of his favorite filmmakers and stood certain it was all going to slip away. He wasn’t yet forty-years-old. Operating as a man with nothing left to lose, Scorsese poured every bit of his roiling emotional stew into the story of boxer Jake LaMotta, a New York-born, Italian-American boxer in the nineteen-forties and fifties whose minor fame allowed him to publish a memoir in 1970. It was that book that Scorsese’s regular collaborator Robert De Niro brought to him, insisting there was a movie there.

Shot in black-and-white by the masterful cinematographer Michael Chapman, Raging Bull is a riveting saga of the soul, depicting the ways that ambition and confidence corrode into paranoia and wretched destructiveness as easy as ringing a bell. De Niro’s bravura performance as LaMotta was famed at the time for the drastic physical changes he underwent for the role, but that’s the least of his accomplishment. De Niro picks at LaMotta’s failings like a restless child working a scab. He examines the way that the professional brutishness of a man who punches and gets punched for a living creeps into every interaction he has. There is no moment–with his wife, with his brother, with the gangsters that surround like fight game like sharks around potential prey trailing blood–that doesn’t involve him instinctually erecting some level of defense. And that defense often involves throwing his own blistering hooks, even if the only strikes against him have been phantom blows. De Niro compellingly portrays a man incapable of resting, a man totally uneasy in his own spirit.

Scorsese is always a fiercely physical filmmaker, but there is perhaps no other work of his that is so visceral. Relying of the peerless craft of editor Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese makes the fight sequences into reeling mosaics of human punishment. The black-and-white turns the blood as dark as ink, making everything else into ashen remains. That sensation follows into the blaring New York streets and dumpy tenement apartments that the characters move through. It’s an existence built of unyielding stone and Scorsese makes it so forbidding and real that it seems that the screen would feel like the sandpaper roughness of the city sidewalk if fingertips were brushed against it. There is no retreat, no forgiveness. There is just the harsh truth of the now, when impulsive decisions swing a sledgehammer at promise.

Of course, this wasn’t Scorsese’s last film, not by a long shot. Though he remained a director without the easy means to draw audiences into theaters–with qualified exceptions, he wouldn’t start generating consistently respectable box office receipts until a couple of decades later–the film delivered its intended redemption. It received eight Oscar nominations, including the very first Best Director nod for Scorsese (amazingly, he was denied that honor when Taxi Driver was a Best Picture nominee four years earlier). He’d won his cinematic honor back, established himself as someone who needed to remain in the conversation when considering the great artists of his generation. The remainder of the eighties would be a mixed bag for him and a time when he toiled valiantly to get funding to support his ongoing vision of what movies could be, should be. It wouldn’t always be easy–hell, it would rarely be easy–but with Raging Bull he proved to everyone, maybe most importantly himself, that the struggle to keep creating would always be worth it.

Top Fifty Films of the 80s — Number Two

2 tootsie

#2 — Tootsie (Sydney Pollack, 1982)
Whenever I write about comedies–especially in the context of celebrating them as prime cinematic achievements–I always seem to get to the end of the piece and realize that I’ve almost completely ignored a key detail. In consideration of that, I’m going to lead with the point I often neglect. Tootsie is a very, very funny movie.

The screenplay–credited to a combination of Larry Gelbart, Murray Schisgal and Don McGuire, but featuring vital contributions from several additional writers, most notably Elaine May–sets up and then dispenses its laughs beautifully. There are clearly jokes peppered throughout the story of a male actor who has tremendous success masquerading as a woman to get a part on a major soap opera, but they always seem to emerge organically from the situations and the amazingly well-drawn characters. Even when the movie approaches pure farce in its third act as all of the various relationships come to a head and the main character takes crafty advantage of an unexpected live broadcast in an ingeniously uproarious scene, the movie is firmly grounded in its own meticulously crafted logic. Lot many of the best movies, Tootsie is a pure marvel of structure, both in the perfection of its construction and in the way its building blocks are virtually invisible as the story plays out. Nothing happens because it’s demanded by the rigors of the plot. Instead, every choice is exactly what the person onscreen would be reasonably expected to do in that moment.

A major component of the film’s success in that regard is the strength of the characterization in the writing and also in the performances. It’s no surprise that the leading role is filled in as well as it is, especially given the ways combative actor Michael Dorsey so joyfully trades in on the well-earned reputation star Dustin Hoffman had at the time. Hoffman was famously exacting in the depth of his commitment and that comes through in the ways in which he plays Michael, and, importantly, his female alter ego Dorothy Michaels, with attention to the the character’s (or perhaps the characters’) inner workings. Twenty years earlier, Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot could wring comic nectar from the mere sight of Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in ugly, shapeless dresses and smeared-on makeup, but Hoffman is going for something far deeper and more convincing in Tootsie. He’s picking at his own insecurities and pushing against the sexism layered invisibly into the various social interactions he encounters in both guises.

The supporting roles are equally well-formed, a pure astonishment given the number of moving parts in the complicated cast list. Jessica Lange, Teri Garr, Charles Durning, Bill Murray, George Gaynes, Dabney Coleman and Doris Belack all give performances that I could individually effuse over at length. Even Geena Davis registers nicely in a role that could be a mere little blip in the proceedings. Special praise is due for the tremendous job director Sydney Pollack does playing Michael’s agent. A former (and, as it turned out, future) actor convinced by Hoffman to reacquaint himself with the other side of the camera for the first time in almost twenty years, Pollack is utterly at ease and engaging, developing a splendid ping-pong banter with Hoffman that winningly recalls the great comedy teams from bygone days. By all accounts, Pollack and Hoffman scrapped continuously during the making of Tootsie and that shared weary, respectful exasperation gives their scenes together a nice added tang.

Pollack is also at his most inspired as a director. Always a genuine craftsman when it came to filmmaking, Pollack is slyly inventive throughout the entire film. The rhythms of the work are exactly right and Pollack is especially good at knowing when to let scenes play out with minimal editing, framing the shot to let the actors artfully play off one another. Working with cinematographer Owen Roizman and editors Frederic and William Steinkamp, the director makes sure the movie looks great and moves with the proper verve. The scene built around the live broadcast is a quiet marvel of movie mechanics. It doesn’t miss a single detail, from the lighting contrast between the television studio and the various homes where other characters are watching the stunning turn transpire to the buckshot blast of different reactions to television character Emily Kimberly’s unscripted announcement at the fictional party in her honor.

Tootsie may not make any profound statements about humanity of prove any shocking points–although Hoffman, who routinely tears up when he talks about this movie, will argue otherwise–but that doesn’t make it any less impressive of a feat. There’s so much going on in it, and there’s nary a misstep. In its frames is the admirable thoroughness of great filmmaking, when every detail contributes to the whole. I can go on and on with great enthusiasm (perhaps tiresomely so, I will concede) about how much much it tells you about Dabney Coleman’s character that he drops a cigarette in the hallway of someone’s apartment building the moment the door is answered. It’s a throwaway moment, not highlighted in the slightest, and yet it completely reinforces everything that’s been established about that character up to that point: his self-regard, his meager hedonism, his incidental callousness. I laugh a lot whenever I watch Tootsie, impressive enough given the number of times I’ve seen it, but I’m just as grateful for the pleasure that comes from admiring a film that’s made with such care, insight and unobtrusive precision.

Top Fifty Films of the 80s — Number Three


#3 — Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981)
Just for fun, consider where Steven Spielberg was professionally when Raiders of the Lost Ark was released in the summer of 1981. He had directed four previous feature films, the most recent of which, 1941, was a notorious bomb. He’d been credited as an executive producer exactly twice, for the first two films directed by his friend Robert Zemeckis. His name didn’t carry the weight of a proven filmmaking brand, not really. The promotional materials were just as likely, if not more likely, to emphasize the involvement of producer (and receiver of a “story by” credit) George Lucas, flush with notoriety and commensurate influence for the Star Wars films, which weren’t yet referred to as a “franchise” and had the recent success of The Empire Strikes Back (no episode number, please) to keep the luster high. This new film even starred Lucas’s Han Solo, Harrison Ford, his blaster traded for a bullwhip and a battered fedora.

Then Raiders was released and Spielberg’s permanent fame came rumbling down on him like a large, spherical boulder through a cavern perfectly sized to accommodate its unstoppable path. Arguably even more so than the following year’s record-breaking E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, the riveting, thrilling adventure of archeologist Dr. Indiana Jones racing against evil Nazis to find a biblical artifact of untold power cemented Spielberg’s reputation as a master showman and a director who commanded the grammar of narrative filmmaking like no one else being given regular access to studio equipment at the time. After this, he never again had to worry about whether or not someone wanted to bankroll his projects, whether or not he could find a studio that wanted to be in the “Steven Spielberg business.” He may have made other films that were more groundbreaking, more profound, more deep or more daring, but, in my estimation, Raiders is shot-for-shot his very best work.

I choose the term “shot-for-shot” very deliberately. Whenever I watch Raiders, I’m freshly struck by the impression that there’s not a single ill-chosen shot, no awkward edits, no failings in the pace or tone. Anyone teaching a “Film 101” class could (and probably should) dip into the filmography of Spielberg to find sequences that perfectly illustrate how to use the central techniques of cinematic storytelling. Whether by careful study or merely an especially productive osmosis, Spielberg knows how to build his films. He doesn’t call on specific filmmakers and sequences the way that, say, Martin Scorsese does, but his every move, in his best films anyway, is informed by the time he spent engrossed by the handiwork of masters like John Ford, Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock. He builds his movies the way a skilled carpenter builds a house, a level of craftsmanship that has inspired some of the director’s naysayers, many of who can’t quite come to grips with the fact that he doesn’t imbue his work with the appropriate levels of angst. Many of Spielberg’s contemporaries fill the cracks in their films’ foundations with distracting gloom; Spielberg’s construction is too tight to need that. Besides, he’s ultimately trying to achieve something different with many of his works, specifically capturing the thrill he once felt when movies transported him away from his own youthful loneliness. Other directors share their pain; at the height of his box office powers, Spielberg shared the dreams that chased his pain away.

Beyond Spielberg’s evident and perfectly employed talent, it’s worth noting that Harrison Ford is a mighty contributor to the success of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Importantly, given the nearly impossible feats his character pulls off in scene after scene, Ford emphasizes the weary humanity of Indiana Jones. He’s not some braying action hero waiting for the moment he can bray a triumphant one-liner as an adversary falls. Quite the contrary, he’s a guy who often looks like he’s exhausted by the excitement he faces, like he’d much rather be lecturing students, lovelorn and otherwise, back in his classroom. The key scene was a famous on-set accident, brought about by Ford’s illness-motivated need to skip out on the filming of a major fight sequence: Indy’s dispatch of a sword-wielding menace in a dusty square with a simple, almost distracted tug on his pistol’s trigger. There’s also the way he slumps off an airplane’s wing when a hulking goon is ready for a fistfight. With perfect body language, Ford conveys that he’s resigned to the moment rather than driven by noble heroism to engage this brute. In further installment of the Indiana Jones saga, the good doctor became more and more superhuman (even Spielberg now mocks the nuked fridge moment of the misbegotten Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull). In Raiders, he’s as human as can be, and that alone makes the action more exciting.

Maybe it’s easy to dismiss Raiders of the Lost Ark as lighter entry in Spielberg’s career, lacking the heft of his later examinations of the terrible way humanity turns on itself. The Nazis here are paste-in villains rather than terrible figures from history, something the director admitted to regretting somewhat after he made Schindler’s List. The view this as pure entertainment, though, is to ignore the transformational authority of cinema that’s able to transport rather than necessarily challenge or educate. Message movies have their place, but when you get right down to it, who wouldn’t rather watch Bringing Up Baby than Gandhi? I respect and admire the more mature works Spielberg has made, but there was something truly special about his ability to channel his youthful clamor for the moments when a movie made your mouth drop open with pure joy and amazement.

Top Fifty Films of the 80s — Number Four


#4 — Hannah and Her Sisters (Woody Allen, 1986)
It’s perhaps foolhardy to make any sort of definitive statements about a favorite film in a directorial career as lengthy, prolific and studded with great works as that of Woody Allen. If anything, the relative consistency of his voice throughout the years, in philosophy if not always in genre or worthiness, only makes it more difficult to pinpoint one peak with an elevation above the others. Still, readily as I’ll tout the excellence of any number of other Allen films, none of them fills with pure elation in the ingratiating artistry of filmmaking in quite the same way as Hannah and Her Sisters.

There was no surprise to the film. It had been nearly a full decade since Allen had established himself as a formidable cinematic creator with Annie Hall and it was an especially fruitful span for him, with film after film standing, at the very least, as something meriting deep consideration and evaluation. Perhaps the only real addition to Allen’s style was a certain novelistic quality to the work, which was accentuated by the series of title cards that introduced individual segments like chapter headings (“The anxiety of the man in the booth,” “Lucky I ran into you”). There was a different sort of sprawl to the work, as Allen tried to wrap all of the anxieties, conflicts, loves, suspicions, resentments, pains and pleasures of an extended cast of characters into a single work. He didn’t always work about tying threads together, but there was a sense of cohesion nonetheless, a feeling that these stories belonged together because of some deeper spiritual bond. All people are always questing–for meaning, for passion, for togetherness, for acceptance–and it is the persistent nomadic need that unites everyone.

Allen himself often dismisses Hannah and Her Sisters as a missed opportunity because he feels he caved in by allowing the characters some version of a shared happy ending, albeit one with a characteristic glumness of reestablished complacency in some quarters. I think the glimpse of hopefulness that the film allows is actually one of its strengths, liberating the piece from Allen’s notoriously pessimistic worldview in a way that allows for the true levels of emotional complexity that shape the world and the unique equilibrium achieved across lives that are simultaneously terrifically long and tragically short. The heart wants what the heart wants, the man once said, but it also adapts and moves on with surprising ease. Obsessions soften and evolve until they’re as inscrutable as a bad haircut in an old photograph. Today’s fixation is tomorrow’s forgotten notion.

Hannah and Her Sisters was one of the first films that demonstrated Allen’s capability to assemble a top-flight cast and it may be the instance when he worked with the full scope of his actors most effectively. Besides the thoroughly deserving Oscar winners Michael Caine and Dianne Wiest, Allen gets extraordinary work from Barbara Hershey, Max von Sydow, his then love Mia Farrow, Lloyd Nolan and Maureen O’Sullivan. It’s also one of Allen’s best performances, playing a perfectly conceived version of his regular onscreen avatar, spinning the sort of hypochondria that had previously (and would subsequently) be the fodder for jokes into a storyline about a genuine medical scare that stops his patented nervous stammer in its tracks as he deals with mortality in a deeper, more thoughtful manner. I should note that it coheres nicely with my own personal philosophies in that the character Allen plays discovers the joy and purpose of living through watching a screening of Duck Soup.

The film is also Allen at his smartest and funniest, snapping off a bursting bundle of brilliant lines of dialogue, with even the perfectly crafted jokes always grounded in character and delivered with natural aplomb. Allen may be the only writer in the history of film who could fit both Nietzsche and the Ice Capades into the same gag. In so many ways, the films Allen made from Annie Hall up to Hannah and Her Sisters were different stabs at being funny and truthful without always being comedic. If that’s the case, Hannah is the final thesis, the proper culmination of a true artist’s give and take as he refines his voice. The film coneys the richness of life by acknowledging it and, on some level, conceding that it is beyond our understanding. God, it’s beautiful.

Top Fifty Films of the 80s — Number Five


#5 — Ran (Akira Kurosawa, 1985)
Sadly, it will happen no more, but everyone should have an Akira Kurosawa masterwork show up new in theaters at precisely the time when they’re crossing over from seeing movies as entertainment to viewing them as art. Like many of the revered Japanese directors previous cinematic achievements, Ran dazzles with its piercing emotions, thick storytelling and pinpoint command of all the many mechanics of filmmaking. Individual shots aren’t just beautiful and compelling; they provide decisive lessons in the enduring grammar of film narrative. There’s a reason some of the figures who emerged as masters of the form in the nineteen-seventies–Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg chief among them–routinely cited Kurosawa as a central figure in their respective self-education in how to frame a shot or edit a sequence, how to take a hefty pile of celluloid scraps and assemble them into a cogent, moving work. Kurosawa renders his films with such clarity of purpose, such certainty, such insight and care that it sometimes seems as though his craftsmanship could be captured through osmosis. Watching a Kurosawa film like Ran is like tasting haute cuisine after a lifetime of Snapple and Pringles. The other stuff may be good, but this–this–is something wondrous. As my friend Jon once observed about his own experience with the film, “Movies looked a little different to me after this.”

Inspired by Shakespeare’s King Lear as well as some 16th century Japanese legends, Ran tells the story of a warlord who steps down from his rule in order to cede power to his three sons. Naturally, things don’t proceed harmoniously and the most base of human sins begin to operate in ugly unison to upend the dynamics of this family of men who, after all, have been raised to crave and respect power above all else. Kurosawa, working with fellow credited screenwriters Hideo Oguni and Masato Ide, shows the way morality can shift underfoot like the loosest of soil, and particularly hones in on the way the barest slights and simplest inklings of ire can escalate into storms that tear whole worlds apart. All of society, it seems, exists upon a treacherous fault line. There’s a shared capability among all people to shift into the darkest of places and arrows pierce skin with terrible ease.

Kurosawa doesn’t skimp on the fraught conversations between people playing games with fate, but what’s most stunning and memorable about Ran is its grand, epic scope. It was the most expensive Japanese film made up until that time and every last yen is up onscreen. This was before the epic could be created in pixels and contained in a hard drive. To have an army onscreen, a director actually had to assemble an army, and that’s exactly what Kurosawa did. By some estimates, Kurosawa used 1400 extras in the film, all of whom needed to be properly garbed for the films a period setting, an exhausting task that fell to costume designer Emi Wada, who won an Academy Award for her efforts. Overall, the film is a jaw-dropping demonstration of how a practiced, devoted filmmaker can make an entirely different time period emerge convincingly before the camera lens. Kurosawa’s film is so immersed in its proper details that it becomes mesmerizing, especially as the landscape is torn apart by the wars that have been stirred up. The whole world that was built can be ravaged to splinters, a lesson that applies as well to the outside reality as it does to the sets constructed for Kurosawa’s fiction.

I’ve seen Ran at multiple times in multiple ways over the years, and it hits me harder and deeper each time, like a drum that resonates more with each new strike of the baton. And now it seems like a truly bygone piece of art, the looming disappearance of cinematic world-building done with hammers and nails rather than strokes of keys mirroring the scattering of an empire up on the screen. I’m glad I can think back and personally remember the film as something that was once current and vital, instead as some distant, dusty example of how things used to be done. Let modern filmmakers gloat about the digitized hash they make to simulate grandness. I’ll remember how Kurosawa did it, with the rising clouds of dirt and smoke leaving stains on his own clothes, close enough to the roiling action to feel the heat it raised.

Top Fifty Films of the 80s — Number Six

#6 — Broadcast News (James L. Brooks, 1987)
By the time I was in a college film class in the early nineties, the textbook was already citing the James L. Brooks screenplay for Broadcast News as a ideal example of how writing for film should work. Specifically, the author spent several pages marveling over the efficiency of Brooks’s dialogue in developing character. That’s for good reason: scene after scene, the conversations that happen between characters are natural, funny and engaging, but always have a deeper purpose. Brooks doesn’t build foreshadowing puzzles into the dialogue nor rigidly constructed plot point delivery. Instead, the people onscreen simply reveal themselves, bit by bit, as they articulate their thoughts and feelings. They aren’t charged with carrying the plot forward; the plot is formed by their loves, passions, fears, dedication, compromises, and, eventually, little progression towards healing. While the film is beautifully made, its most artful aspect is the way it sweeps along as if there were no one behind the camera tugging at strings. Entertaining and wise as it is, the film has the feel of something that’s just happening within the frame, and that’s without leaning on vérité technique. It’s polished as can be and yet splendidly real.

The film is set in a network newsroom as a small phalanx of challenges are besetting the sort of integrity-driven journalism that used to be the pride of national broadcasters. The desire to report hard news is imperiled by a creeping infiltration of fluffy nonsense into the nightly newscast, a trend producer Jane Craig illustrates to an audience of disinterested students by noting that all of the networks bypassed major international stories in favor of airing footage of elaborate arrays of dominoes falling at a silly competition. Jane is played by Holly Hunter in a crafty, vibrant, detailed performance that immediately elevated her from minor Hollywood curiosity to a major actress, the sort whose work demanded attention. For her, the struggle between serious reporting and comforting frivolity is embodied by the two men pursuing her romantically. Aaron Altman, played to perfection by Albert Brooks, is the anxious reporter who has a bad habit of repelling people with his daunting knowledge, and Tom Grunick, played by William Hurt in his last real opportunity to play a lusted-after hunk of beef, is the other side, a genial, lunkish burgeoning anchor who is style’s triumph over substance all by himself.

Brooks plays out the different dynamics between his primary three characters with expert care, while never losing sight of the importance of remaining sharply true to the surroundings they move through. The various side characters have their own distinct personalities and shades of personal stories. That’s clearly true of relatively major figures such as Joan Cusack’s harried production assistant and Peter Hackes’ steady News Division President (the latter probably aided in developing verisimilitude by his own Emmy-winning career in broadcast journalism), but I’m very partial to the editor played by Christian Clemenson. He only has a couple scenes, but Brooks works with the actor who provides a genuine sense of who the character is and, importantly, what his work life is like. His beaming gratitude when Tom praises his work is one of the film’s sweetest, most telling moments.

By the end of the Broadcast News, it truly seems as if the land these characters have planted their feet on is rapidly eroding away, a direct reflection of the things Brooks witnessed while researching the film at CBS News. Monetary concerns have gutted the news staff–a fate that may have been different if the network had figured out how to program Wednesday nights, according to the legendary anchorman played in a smart cameo by Jack Nicholson–and each of the three principals has been somehow wounded by their uncertain dances with one another. The affection Brooks has for his characters in fully evident in the great care he takes in bringing them to the screen. That affection doesn’t prevent him from exposing them to the melancholy truths of life. He doesn’t punish them, but nor does he push them towards a tidy ending that could feel fake. He stays true to them, right up to the lovely, noncommittal end.

Top Fifty Films of the 80s — Number Seven

#7 — The Big Chill (Lawrence Kasdan, 1983)
All through this process, I’ve deliberately avoided treating the countdown too much like a countdown. What I mean by that is that I didn’t want to go too hung up on where the films ranked, particularly in consideration of where I probably would have placed the individuals titles had I gone through this process, say, over the course of 1990 when my opinions hadn’t yet gone through a couple decades or marination and adjustment. The progression of any list of this nature is going to be fairly arbitrary, anyway, so why get too hung up on noting why certain films ranks above others or the minor degrees to which they may have risen or dropped in my estimation? That noted, I absolutely can’t write about The Big Chill without addressing this point: had I undertaken this process in 1990–and at any other point for many, many years after that–The Big Chill would have been my choice for the number one spot.

I’m not entirely sure why I related to it so much when I first saw it. I was fourteen years old at the time, nowhere near the age of the baby boomers in the movie who were fretting about the rushing onset of middle age and considering all the compromises they’d made, and continued to make, as they edged further and further away from their idealistic youth. In its depiction of college compatriots reuniting for the first time in many years–a reunion inspired by the tragic suicide of one of their number, a situation that inspires new thoughts of how former feelings of grave invincibility have given way to worries over mortality and personal legacy–writer-director Lawrence Kasdan was seemingly trying to tap into universal feelings held by his generation at that point in time, simply by honing in on a group of well-drawn characters moving through a handful of days that, in the spirit of rekindled camaraderie, allowed them to truly, honestly, painfully be themselves again. I hadn’t personally experienced anything like that, nor had I gone through any of the travails I saw onscreen. Yet it spoke to me somehow. Kasdan’s script, written with Barbara Benedek, was maybe what I thought adulthood was supposed to be, what I thought I was charged with moving towards as I matured.

Beyond that, I thought The Big Chill was funny and astute, moving and buoyant. This was one of those movies that I watched so often and with such attention that the lines of dialogue came as readily to me as my own thoughts. I could quote entire dinner scenes or the battering banter when the assembled friends were watching a college football game (“Don’t heckle Bo, he’s got enough pressure”) or the opening credits to J.T. Lancer, the TV drama in the style of Magnum P.I. or Matt Houston that one of them stars in (“Does the suit come with the machete?”). When the radio played one of the oldies that peppered the soundtrack, I could immediately see the precise way the accompanying film scene played out. To this day, I can’t hear “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” without seeing Kevin Kline’s Harold kick his leg in the air in a rejuvenated joy in the music that once helped define him. I can see him gratefully kiss the album jacket too. Hell, there was probably a time when I could have drawn a serviceable architectural sketch of the house where most of the film takes place.

I’ll admit that there’s a nostalgic part of me that’s a little sad that I can no longer justify putting this film atop the list, even though that single digit in the graphic up there testifies to the fact that I still maintain it’s a damn fine film. The film hasn’t really diminished in my eyes. Rather, I prefer to think that, as the years have passed a sort of equilibrium with the film has set in, a tempering of passion to allow for a more level-headed appraisal of its merits. Fittingly, I even experience my own little yearly Big Chill sort of college reunion every year, albeit with a larger crew and less eventful impetus (hell, I’m now older that the characters in the film), which provides its own adjustment of perspective. Like the people onscreen, I’ve grown and changed and reassessed and compromised. I’m not the same person I was, which is bittersweet but also, in an unexpected way, liberating and inspiring. I can look at the past differently and be all right with fresh conclusions about my old theories and judgments. Yeah, seven seems about right.

Top Fifty Films of the 80s — Number Eight

8 sex

#8 — sex, lies, and videotape (Steven Soderbergh, 1989)
The characters in Steven Soderbergh’s feature directorial debut are so well-drawn and deeply considered that the filmmaker was able to defer the task of titling the work to one of them. When Soderbergh was having a tough time come up with a name for the film, he asked himself what the main character, a somewhat directionless man with a fairly odd secret habit, would call it. Graham, as played by James Spader, was a character given to blunt understatement, which led Soderbergh to settle on a straightforward declaration of the key components driving the film’s drama: sex, lies, and videotape.

Long tagged as the film that marked the demarcation point in the shift of the Sundance Film Festival from a nice way for Hollywood figures to write off a ski vacation as a business trip to a vital predictor of the next wave of cinematic talent, Soderbergh’s film is perhaps more remarkable for the ways in which it doesn’t fit into the mold it formed. While most of the films that have emerged from Sundance buoyed by buzz over the years have been notable for a level of storytelling busyness that verges on emotional chaos, sex, lies, and videotape is quiet, introspective, measured and assured. It belongs more to the independent film culture that preceded it than the one it fostered. Even if the title signals the deceptions that help stir the narrative, the film is more notable for its commitment to painful, penetrating truths. And unlike the movie norm, the hardest moments don’t come with brash histrionics, but with people who stare each other down as they quietly gauge how much of their spirit has been planed away by each new betrayal.

Graham is an old friend of John, played by Peter Gallagher with the confident ease of a man who’s grown overly accustomed to getting away with whatever he wants. Graham comes to visit and settle down in town, sharing his unique philosophy of social detachment, best exemplified by his aversion to committing to things like car ownership or having a job because of the corresponding exponential increase in the number of keys in his possession. His cryptic qualities make him especially intriguing to John’s wife Ann, played with astonishing reservoirs of feeling by Andie MacDowell, and, eventually, her sister Cynthia, practically billowing sexual authority thanks to the purred ingenuity of Laura San Giacomo. Like a good dramatist, Soderbergh keeps drawing his characters together in different combinations, certain that the resulting friction will wear them down to the inner selves. Soderbergh knows when to get out of the way as a director, letting the actors shape the material and scenes play out with generous stretches of awkwardness and silence. But he also knows when to press in, when only a camera moving sharply in, even to the point of discomfort, will break a scene in stark, gratifying fashion.

Soderbergh’s work is so carefully calibrated that it requires performances that reflect that delicacy. That’s true across the board, but no one is as riveting as Spader. By now, the actor has spun so long on the merry-go-round of weirdness that self-parody is one of the only options he has left, but at the time sex, lies, and videotape was released, he was still best known (arguably solely known) as the sort of pretty boy villain blatantly inserted into films to give pliable audiences someone to soundly root against. With Graham, he found a vivid soulfulness, tenderly conveying all of the subtle ways the character was lost with a few hopeful glimmers of the remaining survival instincts that gave him a chance to find a route back to himself. By the end, as he finally begins to take unafraid notice of the world around him, unwittingly securing naming rights for the film he’s in has become the least of the character’s accomplishments.

Top Fifty Films of the 80s — Number Nine


#9 — Amadeus (Milos Forman, 1984)
Based on the available evidence, it’s mightily difficult to portray the creation of great art on film, especially those pinnacles of expression that can be defined as “fine art.” The process of turning inspiration into moving manifestations of such usually winds up seeming wan and empty. Even when there’s actual, canonical works to draw from, drawing the line from a dramatization of intellectual toil to a finished piece is often burdened by a veneer of phoniness. Even when the art of filmmaking is addressed, a topic that is theoretically near to the heart of creators speaking at a pace of twenty-four frames per second, it’s usually better served by cynical take-downs than warm-hearted celebrations. Among the many accomplishments of Milos Forman’s Amadeus, perhaps the most striking is the way it makes the great art it depicts comes fully, vibrantly to life.

Adapted from Peter Shaffer from his own stage play, Amadeus posits a fractious relationship between eighteenth century composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his comparatively overlooked contemporary Antonio Salieri. According to most classical music scholars, the details presented by Shaffer go beyond conjecture to be pure fiction, but this is a marvelous, atypical case of the potential damage of that sort of docudrama sleight of hand becoming utterly insignificant in the face of more universal truths that the storytelling reveals. The film is ultimately about the savage broil of human emotion and all of the contradictions that are twined through a life. Tom Hulce is charged with playing Mozart as simultaneously a fool and a genius, a paradox he pulls off with aplomb, essentially serving as the wildly spinning compass for the whole film. Greatness doesn’t need to be couched in a sedate, serious form. It can emanate from a loose, terrifically playful spirit.

It’s that seeming paradox that fuels the rage and jealously of Salieri, played with astonishing care by F. Murray Abraham in a performance that justifiably earned him a Best Actor Oscar. It is through his acting that the film illuminates the ways in which immense talent in others often inspires a tumultuous mix of envy and admiration, which can, in turn, evolve into a sense of personal betrayal. Salieri approaches his art with rigor and seriousness, and can’t come to terms with its summary dismissal when compared against the efforts of the cackling wunderkind who seemingly crafts shattering, unconventional masterworks as easily as he runs a finger through the heaped frosting on a decadent cake.

While Forman revels in the visual splendor afforded him by making a period piece that is, by its very nature, set in some of the most splendorous locales of the era, he never makes the intensely personal stories at the heart of the film secondary to the set dressing and costume design. Additionally, he makes the film feel contemporary without inserting incongruous modern elements or sensibilities (such as trying to hard to impose twentieth century psychological theories upon the characters or finding prescient theories about life within their interactions). The film suffers from none of the stiffness that often makes period films feel like dusty museum pieces instead of fully alive works. Forman has an intrinsic understanding that the language and garments may have changed over time, but the basic human drives unify the drastically different time frames. These aren’t distant historical figures, but are instead living, feeling people trying to overcome the challenges life lays before them.

Naturally, one of the key components of the film, the thing that undergirds all of its intricacies, is the music of Mozart, so vital that it practically becomes another character. Freshly performed for the film by the Academy of St Martin in the Fields under the baton of Sir Neville Marriner, the pieces become the coursing blood of the movie, informing and subtly reshaping everything happening onscreen. And there may be no greater moments than those that depict the original creation of that music, especially when Salieri becomes the unlikely assistant to a weakened Mozart. Forman, Shaffer, Hulce and Abraham come together in a splendid dramaturgical symphony, creating great art out of the depiction of the creation of great art.

Top Fifty Films of the 80s — Number Ten

#10 — Bull Durham (Ron Shelton, 1988)
I believe in the church of baseball. There’s something magical that happens between those white lines under summer skies. It’s a sport in which two full teams face each other other, but the most decisive match-up, the one that dominates the game, is between two people–the pitcher and the batter–trying to outguess one another over and over again. In its patience, persistence, camaraderie, individualism and surge from relative sedateness to a field full of controlled chaos, it genuinely gets at something inadvertently revealing about the quintessential American spirit. As romantic as it can be, it’s also tinged with humor, led by the spectacle of seeing men play a boys’ game. It’s a long season, somewhat akin to a robust life, and the difference between grand success and abject failure is twenty-five hits. Just one dying quail a week.

Part of the brilliance of Ron Shelton’s directorial debut, Bull Durham, is that it’s unashamedly about baseball, every last bit of it. Yes, it’s the poetry of a Walt Whitman testimonial or the beauty of a well-struck ball sailing high into the night, but it’s also the grind of indistinguishable days, the frustration of an unshakable slump and the days when distractions simply take over. Candlesticks do always make a nice gift. Shelton doesn’t feel need to dumb down the material, drawn from his own experience as a minor league baseball player, and, in doing so, he not only made a movie that took the sport more seriously than any prior film treatment, he fundamentally transformed the general understanding of a game so entrenched in the culture that it’s called “America’s Pastime.” When journeyman catcher Crash Davis refers to the Major Leagues as “The Show” in Bull Durham, it introduced new terminology into the vernacular. This fall, the phrase is used in Moneyball as casually and comfortably as a character in a romantic comedy proclaims their undying affection for another after a series of misadventures. Shelton demythologized the sport that exploits mythology like no other, paradoxically making it seem more special and wondrous than ever before.

But Bull Durham is not just a movie about baseball. While the scenes centered solely on the action on the field are all engaging and terrifically funny, the movie is as much about the people as the playing. Crash Davis, played by Kevin Costner in the peak of his down-to-earth charm, is brought in to tutor a hotshot pitching prospect, playing with doofus bravado by Tim Robbins. Their already fragile, contentious relationship is complicated by the different levels of affection (or lust, perhaps) the two players feel for Annie Savoy, played by Susan Sarandon in the single most inventive, striking performance in a career that has no shortage of nominees for such a designation. Annie is a ballpark groupie who enters into sexual relationships with a new player each year, offering her own prodigious knowledge of all aspects of the world, including baseball, to her season-long paramour.

Just as Shelton rejects oversimplification of the sport at the film’s center, he is adverse to any shortcuts in the inner and outer lives of his main characters. The interpersonal relationships are deeply complex and portrayed accordingly. It’s not quite a zero sum game, but every triumph for someone has a decidedly different impact on others. Mixes feelings abound, and there’s often no easy methodology for sorting through them. Both Crash and Annie offer their own distinctly different forms of mentoring to the upstart kid, but, in many ways, the film is about the ways all three of these characters need to suffer the indignity and challenge of growing up, of measuring the gap between who they’ve been and who they will be. With an absolute absence of pretension, Bull Durham charts that growth and the accumulation of knowledge and belief that shapes it. There are times when the travail of living requires intense self-reflection and then there are times when all it takes is a simple truism, like, “Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains.” Discerning between the two…well, that’s where wisdom lies.