best film: Raging Bull from Martin Scorsese
The performance from Robert De Niro is what is discussed the most often and for good reason. This is truly one of the great performances (if not THE greatest- it would have my vote) in cinema history. But as much as I love good screen acting, this is also Scorsese’s best directed film and that is simply more important. The opening credits are beautiful enough to make you weep, the in-ring tracking shots (on roller skates by director of photography Michael Chapman), zooms, and manipulation of lighting (see above with the shot of Johnny Barnes the actor playing Sugar Ray) make for some of the best sequences in the history of the art form.
- From the onset of the film with the Cavalleria Rusticana Intermezzo from Mascagni with slow-motion photography and the fog behind the ring you know you’re witnessing a masterpiece
- The sequences in the ring have a strong case for being the greatest directed cinema in the art form’s history – Scorsese masterfully speeds up and slows down the photography. He uses flashbulbs for lighting, for psychological effect, and for those exquisite freeze-frames to accentuate the violence and brutality of the moment
- Plain documentary like black and white titles on the date and time – which grounds the film in realism but I agree with this take as well— Jeffrey M. Anderson from Combustible Celluloid “The boxing sequences have little to do with reality, but cinematically they explode.”
- I forget, even after seeing the film 8-10 times, we start with the older Jake LaMotta in 1964— sad, fat, and it’s jaw-dropping to see De Niro (our greatest actor in his and (our collective) greatest performance) with the transformation – Cole Smithey from Cole Smithey.com “Robert De Niro’s metamorphosis into boxing legend Jake La Motta (AKA the Bronx Bull) is one of the most impressive acting transformations on celluloid.”
- When we go back to 1941 we get the bell ringing and Scorsese’s trademark rolling tracking shot in on the boxing corner—magnificent
- I think the servicemen fighting in the stands, the chaos, is important to understanding the Scorsese worldview. This isn’t Norman Rockwell’s 1941—and the riots in Gangs of New York, the mob in Last Temptation– this is an edgier New York—an tenser world—very East coast NYC, Jersey, Philly, Boston
- There’s an odd nobility in this complex character “I ain’t going down for nobody” in him wanting to make it without the mob. It’s tragic when he cries (along with his trainer) and when he throws the fight, you feel it—despite his behavior towards everyone else (wife, brother). The boxing world is a metaphor for the world and it’s, again, a hard world—a rigged game. And he’s a sinful man (at best— he’s a monster as well).
- Both the film and LaMotta are relentless. It’s a difficult watch—unbearably uncomfortable at times like a von Trier film.
- Strong take from Camby at the NY Times- “Though Raging Bull has only three principal characters, it is a big film, its territory being the landscape of the soul.”
- It’s also a great pairing with Taxi Driver in so many ways including the characters of Travis Bickle. Cathy Moriarty’s “Vickie” (with her low Lauren-Bacall or Scar-Jo-like voice) is his Cybil but he has the clout as a boxer to land her as his wife. He’s clearly as toxic as Travis. Scorsese shoots their obsession (Ebert talks about the Madonna/Whore complex of LaMotta here and in Scorsese’s work) of these women with dazzling slow-motion photography. At first it’s infatuation and arguably love—then it becomes a very unhealthy possession and paranoia—from Ebert—“From LaMotta’s point of view, Vickie sometimes floats in slow motion toward another man. The technique fixes the moment in our minds; we share LaMotta’s exaggeration of an innocent event”
- The first fight with Sugar Ray is Michael Chapman (the cinematographer) and Scorsese on fully display—rolling around the ring on roller skates for smooth tracking shots. We speed up the photography, whip pan, slow down the photography, freeze, flashbulbs. It’s the full display of cinematic abilities and the scene previously mentioned in consideration for the greatest display of film style in a two-minute span. It’s loud— bravado– expressionism. In the second Sugar Ray fight there’s just fog/smoke pouring in.
- Another Copa scene and here it’s Pesci’s turn to carry the film. Pesci- what a revelation in 1980—to have the acting chops to spar with De Niro and not get blasted off the screen is almost unfathomable. In the Copa scene he carries large chunks without De Niro in it at all. He beats Frank Vincent here and it’s spellbinding.
- Before the title fight there’s the stunning tracking shot “oner”- that would be repeated by Creed with Ryan Coogler showing off his abundance of talent as a young auteur.
- I see it as a companion to Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and New York New York as we get to see the crazy talents of De Niro as an improvisational artist. In each film he has a jousting partner—here it’s largely Pesci and they’re sublime together. This is the first of their five collaborations (this, one short scene in Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, Goodfellas, Casino and The Irishman).
- Laughable take from David Kehr of the Chicago Reader– “I can’t pan it, but this 1980 fantasy biography of fighter Jake LaMotta seems unquestionably Martin Scorsese’s weakest work, at least to that point in his career.”
- it’s Thelma Schoonmaker’s greatest moment as an editor (she won the Academy Award for her work here)- one of the greatest displays of editing in cinema
- The acting is such a tour-de-force—brash—big. He’s evil, complex, tortured and the physical transformation level of method inspired generations of actors
most underrated: This spot used to be reserved for Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate but the reputation for that film (probably because of the advent of bluray) has grown over the last decade. Because of that (and it is phenomenal to see a film’s reputation get right-sided like it has for Cimino’s work), there’s nothing egregiously underrated in 1980. If forced to pick one, I’ll go with Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill which should be somewhere near the bottom of the TSPDT top 1000 but isn’t. De Palma didn’t have chops as a writer, and frankly, didn’t have a ton of new story ideas (this one borrows from Hitchcock so much it’s tough not to call it a remake), but he has such technical prowess and pure cinema style that you just have to sit back and admire. Stardust Memories from Woody should be on the TSPDT and isn’t- same for Schrader’s American Gigolo. Schrader somehow doesn’t have one single film on the TSPDT top 1000…silliness.
most overrated: There are a few easy choices here. Godard’s Every Man For Himself sits at #771 on the TSPDT consensus list. It’s a fine film, but the three films in bold above this here in the underrated section are superior. We’re twenty years removed from Breathless here in 1980 and it is painfully clear that the 1960’s Godard isn’t coming back. I think they are both funny films- but there are far too many artistically rendered films (yes, including comedies) to include Airplane! or The Blues Brothers on any top 1000 list. Right now, they sit at #771 and #801 respectively on the TSPDT list.
gems I want to spotlight: The Long Good Friday just misses my top 10 of the year below and features a terrific bulldog of a performance by Bob Hoskins and a plot that has basically has his entire world slowly collapse on him. Ebert has high praise for the film and Hoskins saying, “I have rarely seen a movie character so completely alive. Shand is an evil, cruel, sadistic man. But he’s a mass of contradictions, and there are times when we understand him so completely we almost feel affectionate.” Also, if you’re a horror enthusiast—both The Fog and The Changeling are films from 1980 to seek out.
trends and notables:
- 1980 is a fabulous year with two top 100 films (including one top 10) and perhaps as many as five masterpieces (I’m not convinced Heaven’s Gate isn’t one). So, if the great era of cinema (American cinema specifically- as five of the top six are American) is coming to an end- there’s no sign of it yet in terms of the output in 1980.
- Heaven’s Gate is often pointed to as the film that ruined everything with the New Hollywood movement. Cimino, coming off The Deer Hunter in 1978, was given a massive budget, creative control, a talented ensemble cast, and it just went on and on—he shot miles and miles of film. All of this may be true- (I always try to soak up details on the production as I find it fascinating)- but the evidence on screen indicates that Cimino is simply a genius.
- Look at the big year and trend towards black and white films in 1980. Raging Bull, Stardust Memories (Allen’s second after Manhattan the previous year), The Elephant Man.
- At the box office Lucas and The Empire Strikes Back dominates—it doubles the next biggest film domestically. And 1981’s champion is a 1980 film as well- Superman II– John Williams— take a bow.
- It’s been since 1975 (Barry Lyndon) since we had a Kubrick year so that is exciting. Kubrick seems to operate outside of time with how his films feel–when I look at trends and movements he’s really on his own. Enjoy this- it’ll be a while before we see Kubrick again in 1987 with Full Metal Jacket.
- Jonathan Demme gave us his first archiveable film with Melvin and Howard and Jim Jarmusch arrives with his first, Permanent Vacation.
- As for actors, Isabelle Huppert would be wonderful in her archiveable debut in Cimino’s massive ensemble Heaven’s Gate (she’s really the only female I can remember in the film). She’s also in Godard’s film. Joe Pesci would give us a stunning archiveable debut with his work in Raging Bull. If you blink you’ll miss him but John Turturro’s first film that lands in the archives is Raging Bull as well. Turturro is remembered for his work with The Coen Brothers and Spike Lee- and rightly so- but certainly the start here and the little role in Scorsese’s The Color of Money (1986) couldn’t hurt his career.
- Lastly, and sadly, 1980 would be the last archiveable film for Steve McQueen who would pass away entirely too soon (age 50). Tom Horn is far from his best work but it is worthy of the archives an marks two years since he really became a massive star in The Magnificent Seven. He did really quality work and his low-key stoic style was influential and can be seen today in the work of say Ryan Gosling.
best performance male: There’s nothing to debate here—it’s simply time to praise Robert De Niro’s work as Jake La Motta in Raging Bull. I’ve read an interview (somewhere at some point) with Paul Schrader, who wrote this screenplay, and he said this was De Niro’s film. He means it was De Niro’s passion project (Schrader says of their three collaborations that his was Taxi Driver and Scorsese’s was The Last Temptation of Christ). Method acting, weight gain and dedication to a role, not to mention just screen acting in general, may have found its apex with De Niro’s work here. I’m pretty sure it’s the greatest of all-time. De Niro’s collaborator on Raging Bull, Joe Pesci, gives the second best performance of the year. Behind those two we have Jack Nicholson who is superb in The Shining. Jack gives the perfect, over-the-top, animated performance Kubrick called for. Gerard Depardieu has the best of the three big parts of Resnais’ Mon oncle d’Amérique. The great French actor was also in Truffaut’s The Last Metro in 1980—not bad doing work with Resnais and Truffaut in one year. The last mention for this category in 1980 is John Hurt for The Elephant Man. It is sort of a combination credit for Hurt for his work here in 1980 and his work just a few years prior in Midnight Express– neither may have quite been worthy on their own.
best performance female: Cathy Moriarty isn’t a household name and didn’t have an overly remarkable career like a Diane Keaton or Isabelle Huppert but her performance in Raging Bull is otherworldly and is my (rather easy) choice for performance of the year here. Behind her I think Hanna Schygulla is a force in Berlin Alexanderplatz. The third and final mention here is for Shelley Duvall in The Shining. Duvall’s performance is peculiar, and I have some problems with it, but in the end, I had to save a spot for her here even if she isn’t as effective as Jack. The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that she’s the right actress for the role. I’m not sure this works with Keaton or Meryl.
- Raging Bull
- The Shining
- The Empire Strikes Back
- Mon oncle d’Amérique
- Heaven’s Gate
- The Elephant Man
- Berlin Alexanderplatz
- Stardust Memories
- Bad Timing
- Dressed To Kill
Archives, Directors, and Grades
|American Gigolo- Schrader||HR|
|Atlantic City- Malle||R|
|Bad Timing- Roeg||HR|
|Berlin Alexanderplatz- Fassbinder||MS|
|Dressed To Kill- De Palma||HR|
|Every Man for Himself – Godard||R/HR|
|Heaven’s Gate- Cimino||MS|
|Kagemusha – Kurosawa||R/HR|
|Melvin and Howard- Demme||HR|
|Mon Oncle d’Amérique – Resnais||MS/MP|
|Ordinary People- Redford||R|
|Out of the Blue- Hopper||R|
|Permanent Vacation – Jarmusch||R|
|Raging Bull – Scorsese||MP|
|Stardust Memories- Allen||MS|
|Superman II- Lester||HR|
|The Big Red One – Fuller||R/HR|
|The Blues Brothers- Landis||R|
|The Changeling- Medak||R|
|The Coal Miner’s Daughter- Apted||R|
|The Elephant Man- Lynch||MS|
|The Empire Strikes Back- Kershner||MP|
|The Fog- Carpenter||R|
|The Last Metro- Truffaut||R|
|The Long Good Friday- Mackenzie||HR|
|The Shining- Kubrick||MP|
|The Stunt Man- Rush||R|
|Tom Horn- Wiard||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 but still in the archives