best film: I think Steven Spielberg’s raiders of the lost ark is his best film, one of the greatest action films of all-time, and a top 100 overall film. The set pieces are wall to wall excellence from the opening massive ball rolling to the finale with the ark. Much of spielberg’s cinema is editing and manipulation of space and time for deadline purposes and he has some of the best here as well. To add to this you have well-earned filmic iconography, a top tier john Williams score, and Harrison Ford’s greatest achievement as an actor.
most underrated: When you add it all up with all of the films that I think should be in normal year’s top 5 (7-8 here) and all of the films that should be in a year’s top 10 (13 at minimum) I think 1981 is a tremendously underrated year. I have films like one from the heart, lola, my dinner with andre and body heat as top 5 films of the year quality, which make them roughly top 500 of all-time and none of them can find a spot in the top 1000 on TSPDT. Since I’m forced here to pick one I’ll go with Malle’s my dinner with Andre. The entire film is a discussion at dinner between two friends and it’s some of the best writing I’ve ever seen on film. Malle, wallace shawn and andre gregory deserve all the credit here so if you’ve never seen it you should sign up for the most fascinating dinner conversation of your life. It’s not quite to the level of linklater’s before sunset but it’s in that vein and I’m blown away it’s nowhere to be found on the consensus top 1000 list. Shame.
most overrated I’ve only seen truffaut’s the woman next door once but after that one viewing I can’t find a spot for it in my yearly top 10 or all-time top 1000 so I’ve got it here as overrated since the TSPDT consensus have it at #671. What I want to dwell on here though is the brilliance of Truffaut. I love Truffaut and his premature death here (this was his last archiveable film) was a blow to cinema and I think, stopped him from cracking at the all-time top 10 auteur list. In just over 20 years Truffaut gave us 19 archiveable films so if he had lived another 20 or 30 it’s totally possible he would pass Hitchcock and Woody Allen on the all-time list for most archiveable films of all time.
gem I want to spotlight: John Carpenter’s escape from new york is another one that belongs in my paragraph on the underrated films of 1981. It should be on the top 1000 and isn’t. This dystopian classic is both sci-fi, a throwback (like assault on prescient 13 which was influenced by rio bravo there are real western roots here) and an absolutely star-maker for Kurt Russell channeling clint eastwood (western!). In a year of unbelievably entertaining cinema (hello raiders, road warrior, blow-out, body heat, Arthur) this one might top them all (ok maybe second to raiders as raiders may be the best narrative and visual set piece action ride of all-time).
trends and notables: 1981 is an underrated year filled with great action films (raiders, road warrior, escape from new york) that make up a big chunk of the top 10. 1981 only has one flat out masterpiece but there are a ton of top 5 quality films and at least 13 top 10 quality films. We have the first archiveable film from the great Michael Mann here with thief. Abel Ferrera gave us ms. 45 as his first entry into the archives as well. For actors we have a ton of great firsts here in 1981. Sean Penn and Tom Cruise would breakthrough in TAPS and go on to be two of the greatest actors of their generation. It isn’t a large role for either but we have the first archiveable film for Samuel L. Jackson in ragtime and for Liam Neeson in Excalibur. These two would take a while but go on to emerge in the 1990’s (neeson with schindler’s list and Jackson with pulp fiction) as two of the biggest stars of 1990’s. William Hurt would have a much bigger role in his first archiveable film, body heat, and would become a start much sooner here as his peak would come in the mid to late 80’s. Jeremy Irons, another great actor, would emerge and have his first archiveable entry with the French lieutenant’s woman opposite meryl streep. His breakthrough was two years prior but 1981 would be a big year for Mel Gibson with road warrior (mad max 2) and Gallipoli and, surprisingly, a big year for supporting actor Oscar winner and noted thespian John Gielgud who is in both Arthur and chariots of fire. Lastly, on golden pond is notable for being both the last archiveable film for both Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda. Both Hepburn and Fonda are all-time greats who had long careers. Sadly, this would be the second to last archiveable (to date) film for the much younger Jane Fonda. After such a great start to her career form the mid-60’s to early 80’s she’d tapper off.
best performance male: Action leads are dominant here taking up 3 of the 5 slots and it’s not surprising at all that all 3 were overlooked by the Oscars. Harrison Ford takes top honors for his greatest career achievement. He did what Sean Connery did for James Bond but only if Connery were directed by an all-time great director and had made a film great enough for land in the all-time top 100—never happened for Connery. Behind Ford we have really strong work from both Mel Gibson (road warrior) and Kurt Russell (escape from new york). These would be the roles to define these actors for me and they are a major force because a top 10 film of the year working with auteurs like carpenter and George miller. William Hurt, in a stunning archiveable debut, takes my 4th slot in the neo-noir body heat. My last slot goes to Warren Beatty who directed himself in reds. Some of the juicier dialogue actually goes to other actors but Beatty’s biopic is unique, understated, and quite brilliantly portrayed.
best performance female: I have a virtual tie here for my best performance. If forced to pick, I’m going with Kathleen Turner’s work in body heat. She’s absolutely dynamic on screen. Karen Allen’s Marion is a completely firecracker a much needed type-A aggressive female role that is sorely lacking in so much of film history. Behind my top two I have stalwarts Diane Keaton (reds) and Meryl Streep (French lieutenant’s woman). For streep this is the 3rd mention in 4 years and for Keaton I believe it’s the 5th in 10. That’s very strong. My last slot goes Melinda Dillion who has only a small role in absence of malice but she’s pure frailty on screen and it’s such a vital character to make that wonderful film work.
- Raiders of the Lost Ark
- The Road Warrior
- One From the Heart
- My Dinner With Andre
- Escape From New York
- Body Heat
- Chariots of Fire
Archives, Directors, and Grades
|Absence of Malice- Pollack||R|
|Blow-Out- De Palma||MS|
|Buddy, Buddy- Wilder|
|Chariots of Fire||HR|
|Circle of Deceit|
|Escape From New York- Carpenter||HR|
|Man of Iron- Wadja|
|Modern Romance- A. Brooks||R|
|Ms. 45- Ferrera||R|
|My Dinner With Andre- Malle||MS|
|On Golden Pond||R|
|One from the Heart- F. Coppola||MS|
|Pennies From Heaven-Ross||HR|
|Prince of the City- Lumet||HR|
|Raiders of the Lost Ark- Spielberg||MP|
|Reds- W. Beatty||MS/HR|
|Taps- G. C. Scott||R|
|The French Lieutenant’s Woman- Reisz||R|
|The Road Warrior- Miller||MS|
|The Woman Next Door- Truffaut,||R|
|Thief- Mann, Caan||HR|
|Time Bandits- Gillliam||R|
*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film
MS is Must-see- top 5-6 quality of the year film
HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film
R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film