best film:  Blow Out from Brian De Palma edges out Raiders of the Lost Ark here in 1981 as the best film of the year. It is De Palma’s finest work. The stunning firework finale is what everyone remembers, and righty so, but De Palma’s split diopter deep focus work has never been better and the dedication to the red and blue color palette throughout the film is certainly inspired.

most De Palma films have flashes of genius, but 1981’s Blow Out is the most meticulously designed– the level of detail on display with the red, white and blue motif is frankly jaw-dropping

the great payoff, and perhaps 1981’s greatest sequence is the finale fireworks sequence

De Palma is the poster child for the split diopter shot, and Blow Out is his greatest achievement of that stylistic flourish

…resulting in many, masterfully arranged  shots that show off two layers of depth

Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark is another 1981 masterpiece — a Welles’ Citizen Kane-like warehouse that goes on forever ending—phenomenal

This is a spectacle—plays with and borrows from James Bond (heavy iconography) and Gunga Din—like Bond this starts in medias res—and since it borrows from Bond it also borrows from North by Northwest and certainly it has that sort of narrative momentum and set piece focus

most underrated:  1981 is a very underrated year in general. The TSPDT consensus top 1000 has only has 9 films from 1981—I’ve yet to complete my own top 1000 but I cannot see less than fifteen (15) films from 1981 making the cut. I have films like Fassbinder’s Lola in my top 500 and it isn’t anywhere to be found on the TSPDT consensus list. Body Heat should be there, too. Malle’s My Dinner with Andre is nowhere to be found either. The entire film is a discussion at dinner between two friends and it’s some of the best writing in cinema in the 1980s. 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. Ultimately though, Francis Ford Coppola’s One from the Heart is the choice here for this category.

for Fassbinder here in Lola it isn’t enough anymore just to make a gorgeous frame within a frame with the doorways– he has to color them. This is clearly the auteur behind Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974)

Fassbinder has successfully met and perhaps even surpassed one of his heroes, Douglas Sirk

Lola is just one of the many films from 1981 underrated by the critical consensus

  • One from the Heart a very simple story (fatally so for many critics) told in pure style- it is extremely experimental visually
  • First off, there is a ton of parallel editing as the film is really a matching of two lovers who break up and come back together.
  • Clearly influenced by Stanley Donen’s 1950’s era films and the Demy musicals of the 60’s- in that vein, it has much in common with La La Land coming much later from Chazelle in 2016.
  • Tom Waits wrote the songs, does the vocals and did a wonderful job with the music in general- I wish there was more of it
  • A very inspired credit sequence with detailed miniatures of Las Vegas
  • One scene is split by foreground and background action but shot almost like a split screen. I’m not sure I’ve seen it before- it plays almost like one long beautiful dissolve
  • Now for the problems and there are a few. The film stars Frederick Forrest and Teri Garr– unfortunately they’re not up to the challenge. The writing isn’t the best and I could definitely do without the one out of place comic foil towards the end when Forrest electrocutes himself.

Coppola’s work is It is a marvel of artificial lighting (set on the strip in Vegas) and soundstage work—some great Venetian blinds scenes—it reminds me of the theater scenes in Mishima and some of the neon light work we’d see in Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover in 1989

The whole movie seems to float like few films since or before it (perhaps Birdman, Gravity, and a few before like The Rules of the Game).

Shot by Vittorio Storaro (The Conformist, Apocalypse Now)- one of the masters— talk about sight and sound with Tom Waits and Storaro as collaborators

The entire film is long takes and expressionistic lighting


most overrated:   An American Werewolf in London from John Landis has jumped into the TSPDT top 1000 in recent years (currently at #730). This makes it #6 out of the 1981 — there are at least 15 superior films- maybe 20- from 1981.

gems 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 in the TSPDT top 1000 and isn’t. This dystopian classic is both sci-fi and a sort of Western. It is an absolutely star-maker for Kurt Russell channeling Clint Eastwood (western!). Arthur (with that wonderful title song by Christopher Cross) is a great comedy, and Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort is a strong effort that many haven’t seen (or even heard of).

Kurt Russell here in 1981 channeling Clint Eastwood in John Carpenter’s Escape From New York

  • There is much to praise here in Walter Hill’s 1981 thriller and between this and 1978’s The Driver I probably need to take a deeper dive into Hill’s filmography.
  • Shot on location in the swamps of Louisiana near East Texas—an indelible character in the film – impossible to duplicate—gorgeous Spanish moss—Hill makes the smart decision to film the soldiers in long shot or medium long shot to capture the swamp— Hill isn’t quite on this level but it reminded me of Mikhail Kalatozov’s Letter Never Sent
  • A war film? Sort of- a thriller for sure maybe closer to Deliverance (a conscious comparison the marketers at least made with the poster)—but also an allegory—every critic talks about this being Vietnam, the Cajun natives (often peaceful here until attacked and we see a village without technology) but Hill denies that intention. It doesn’t matter really. It could easily be a Native American allegory as well and work well. They do steal their canoe and that’s what starts the wheels of the narrative in motion. The helicopters here are Vietnam. But it has a backwoods authentic feel for sure- never pandering to the native Cajuns.
  • It predates it but Jim Jarmusch would use the swamps here in the third leg of Down By Law (1986) for the prison escapes.
  • Ry Cooder’s score is as much a character as the swamp—minimalist. Impressive. This is three years before his work with Wenders on Paris Texas and that sublime score
  • Story of the Louisiana national guard- but again about the arrogance of the soldiers—they fire blanks at the Cajuns after stealing their Canoe.
  • Like Deliverance works a horror film as well as they are haunted by a killer/killers in the woods—Predator works the same way.

A gorgeous dissolve at 22 minutes blending the swamp backdrop. It’s clear Walter Hill has seen Apocalypse Now a few times.

  • Slow-motion shootout—Hill isn’t quite Peckinpah but who is?
  • At 82 minutes a great shot of a face in the front left foreground of the frame and Keith Carradine and Powers Boothe in the background right- depth of field
  • A very good cast. The intensity of Boothe stands out—Fred Ward is good as always as part of the ensemble
  • The ritual dance finale with the slaughtering of two pigs interwoven- absolutely Coppola and Apocalypse Now


trends and notables:

  • 1981 doesn’t have films like Apocalypse Now, Stalker (both 1979), Raging Bull, The Shining (both 1980), but we have a couple masterpieces here- and the depth that actually exceeds either 1979 or 1980. Films like Michael Mann’s Thief, Das Boot, Excalibur, Pennies From Heaven just pouring out of the top of the top 10.

one of the very few exterior shots (and a hell of a painting here) in Das Boot

blocking and frame arrangement captures the claustrophobic nature of the submarine

any doubt this from shot Excalibur is from John Boorman? It is modified (and stunning) update on the final shot of 1972’s Deliverance

masterful foreground/background shot in Excalibur

to find this tree is one feat (location scouting), but to properly obstruct the and design the frame this way takes it to another level

Michael Mann would get his start in 1981 with Thief— and become one of the most important auteurs over the next twenty years


Pennies From Heaven here– gorgeously recreating the legendary Edward Hopper painting “Nighthawks”

another from Pennies From Heaven— most years do not have films of this quality spilling out of the top 10 of the year

more from Herbert Ross’ Pennies From Heaven– shot by the great Gordon Willis

  • The Movie Brats continue to carry us into the 1980s. Spielberg, De Palma and Coppola make three of the best four films of 1981. This is a bounce back/revenge film for Spielberg after the failure of 1979’s film 1941. De Palma is not on the level of Hitchcock—full stop—but he is a brilliant stylist and one of cinema’s great technicians. For Coppola, 1981’s One from the Heart is proof yet again that you need to seek out the film directly following a masterpiece. No, this isn’t Apocalypse Now, but rumors of Coppola’s steep drop-off or decline in the early 1980s are a myth. Even if it doesn’t all land- this is one of the most ambitious films of 1981.
  • 1981 marks first archiveable film from the great Michael Mann here with Thief. Abel Ferrara gave us 45 as his first entry into the archives as well.

Mann’ s often works in the urban crime genre, but his aesthetics have never been anything but wildly ambitious

  • 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 1990s (Neeson with Schindler’s List and Jackson with Pulp Fiction) as two of the biggest stars of 1990s. William Hurt would have a much bigger role in his first archiveable film, Body Heat, and would become a star much sooner here as his peak would come in the mid to late 80’s (and he’d have faded by the time Neeson and Samuel L. are household names). Jeremy Irons, another great actor, would emerge in 1981 and have his first archiveable entry in French Lieutenant’s Woman- playing opposite (playing second…rather third fiddle to) Meryl Streep and her accent.

Mickey Rourke’s start is in 1980 with Heaven’s Gate (he steals every scene he’s in here in Body Heat) on the left, William Hurt here on the right in a simple, but beautiful frame design here from Lawrence Kasdan.

Kasdan had a big 1981– writing and directing Body Heat (here capturing the heat of both Florida and the chemistry between Hurt and Kathleen Turner), and writing Raiders of the Lost Ark

  • 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 (obviously a generation younger) Jane Fonda. After such a great start to her career form the mid-60’s to early 80’s, she’d taper off.


best performance male:  Action leads are dominant here taking up two of the three slots—Harrison Ford takes top honors for his greatest career achievement in Raiders of the Lost Ark. He did what Sean Connery did for James Bond but only if Connery were directed by an all-time great director (Spielberg) and had made a film great enough to land as a masterpiece- as much as I like his work as the 007—that never happened for Connery.  Behind Ford we have really strong work from both Mel Gibson (The Road Warrior – or Mad Max 2).  William Hurt, in a stunning archiveable debut, takes my third slot in the neo-noir Body Heat.  These are three of the more dominant actors of the 1980s.

Ford is a revelation in the lead- it’s his best work and he’s been very good before (Star War, The Empire Strikes Back) and after (Witness, The Fugitive, Blade Runner: 2049)

William Hurt is not as big a household name as Mel Gibson or Harrison Ford– but in the early to 1980s– he was in the same class

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 in Raiders of the Lost Ark is a completely firecracker a much-needed type-A aggressive female role that is sorely lacking in so much of film history. Behind the top two, there is room for Barbara Sukowa for her work in the color-soaked Lola from R.W. Fassbinder as well as Diane Keaton for her work in Reds directed by Warren Beatty. This is one of the best single performances from Keaton. The blowup fight between Beatty’s Reed and Keaton’s Bryant at the 40-minute mark is worth the price of a ticket alone. This is the “taken seriously” fight.


Barbara Sukowa for her work in color-soaked Lola from R.W. Fassbinder.


top 10

  1. Blow Out
  2. Raiders of the Lost Ark
  3. The Road Warrior
  4. One from the Heart
  5. Lola
  6. My Dinner with Andre
  7. Escape From New York
  8. Body Heat
  9. Reds
  10. Chariots of Fire


even detractors of Chariots of Fire have to awed by the slow-motion opening sequence and Vangelis musical score

one of 1981’s most celebrated films was Warren Beatty’s Reds– highly ambitious in narrative reach, formal structure, and visual style

Vittorio Storaro is one of the headlines from 1981- shooting both Reds and One From the Heart

David Cronenberg’s Scanners is 1981– at this time he is still building up skillset-but he is amassing a strong body of work and his trademark style while he does it.

from George Miller’s The Road Warrior (or Mad Max 2)– for decades we all thought this was going to be the strongest entry in the Mad Max universe

one of the 10-20 greatest freeze frame endings in cinema- Peter Weir’s Gallipoli


Archives, Directors, and Grades

Absence of Malice- Pollack R
Arthur- S. Gordon R/HR
Blind Chance – Kieslowski R
Blow Out- De Palma MP
Body Heat- Kasdan
Buddy, Buddy- Wilder
Chariots of Fire- Hudson HR
Circle of Deceit- Schlöndorff
Clash of the Titans – Desmond Davis R
Cutter’s Way- Passer R
Das Boot- Petersen
Documenteur – Varda R
Eijanaika – Imamura R/HR
Escape From New York- Carpenter HR/MS
Excalibur- Boorman
Gallipoli- Weir R/HR
Lola- Fassbinder MS
Man of Iron- Wajda
Modern Romance- A. Brooks R
Ms. 45- Ferrara R
My Dinner With Andre- Malle HR/MS
National Heritage – Berlanga R
Nighthawks – Malmuth R
On Golden Pond- Rydell R
One from the Heart – F. Coppola MS
Pennies From Heaven- H. Ross HR
Pixote – Babenco
Prince of the City- Lumet HR
Quartet – Ivory R
Ragtime- Forman R
Raiders of the Lost Ark – Spielberg MP
Reds- W. Beatty HR/MS
Scanners- Cronenberg R
Southern Comfort – W. Hill R/HR
Taps- Becker R
The French Lieutenant’s Woman- Reisz R
The Howling- Dante R
The Road Warrior- G.Miller MS
The Woman Next Door- Truffaut R
Thief- M. Mann HR
Three Brothers – Rosi R
Time Bandits– Gilliam 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