Continuing from yesterday’s post . . .
16. Reds. Warren Beatty’s magnum opus (at least so far) is one of the unlikeliest studio releases of all time—an epic romance about an American who left the U.S. to write about the Russian Revolution, eventually becoming such a proud champion of the U.S.S.R. that he was buried in the Kremlin. Interspersed with documentary-style interviews featuring real-life radicals and other “witnesses” of Reed’s era, Beatty’s sprawling movie focuses, in part, on a romantic triangle comprising Reed, playwright Eugene O’Neill (Jack Nicholson), and American radical Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton). Reds is such a big, challenging film that it netted Beatty an Oscar as Best Director. For those who lamented that Beatty spent too much of the ’70s making lightweight escapism, Reds was a validation of his artistic and political bona fides.
17. The Road Warrior. Elevating Mel Gibson from promising young actor to full-fledged movie star, George Miller’s relentless sequel to his own Mad Max (1979) paired terrifying stunt work with wicked camera moves and wild art direction to create a thrill ride for the ages. Watching Gibson’s loner hero battle his way across a postapocalyptic landscape in which cars are both instruments of death and instruments of salvation, viewers were pulled into a fully imagined fantasy realm. With all due respect to the acclaimed 2015 installment Mad Max: Fury Road, every episode in this series must bow down before the stylish savagery of The Road Warrior.
18. Sharky’s Machine. Yet another of my all-time faves, again purely because of attitude and style. Oh, and Rachel Ward, too. Atoning for the sins of his other 1981 movies, Burt Reynolds directs and stars in this exciting, funny, gritty crime saga about a cop who falls in love with a prostitute while trying to take down a crime lord. The setup is full of clichés, but William A. Fraker’s alternately glossy and shadowy cinematography sets the ideal stage for vivid acting by Bernie Casey, Charles Durning, John Fiedler, Vittorio Gassman, Earl Holliman, Brian Keith, Richard Libertini, Hari Rhodes, and Henry Silva. Backstory: After Clint Eastwood started making rowdy comedies, Eastwood’s buddy Reynolds said he’d get revenge for the invasion of his cinematic turf by making “Dirty Harry in Atlanta.” Reynolds is wonderfully emotional and tough throughout Sharky’s Machine, even during the wobbly love scenes, and leading lady Ward, in her big-budget Hollywood debut, is ravishing.
19. S.O.B. Taking a break from Pink Panther movies and sex comedies, Blake Edwards crafted a vicious satire about Hollywood, assembling a polished cast headed by William Holden and Edwards’ wife, Julie Andrews. Supporting players, all wonderful, include Larry Hagman, Richard Mulligan, Robert Preston, Robert Vaughn, Robert Webber (so many Roberts!), and others. Mulligan plays an auteur director who goes insane while making a super-expensive musical about sexual themes—shades of One from the Heart—while Andrews, spoofing her own image, plays a goody-two-shoes actress who does a topless scene in order to change her public perception. (Cover your eyes if the prospect of seeing a disrobed Mary Poppins sounds traumatizing.) Although S.O.B. is crude and sometimes stupid, it captures something depressing and timeless about the avarice at the heart of the film industry.
20. Southern Comfort. Is it damning with faint praise to call Walter Hill’s swampy thriller the best Deliverance ripoff ever made? So be it. The stories share the same DNA but move in different directions, and Southern Comfort doubles as a Vietnam allegory. National Guardsmen doing exercises in the Bayou get into more trouble than they can handle when they enter a remote area and imprudently provoke the locals. Bloodshed ensues. Hill was at the height of his stylistic powers here, employing great taste in actors (Powers Boothe, Keith Carradine, Peter Coyote, Fred Ward) and collaborators (Ry Cooder’s score sets the mood perfectly). Even though the story relies upon way too many dubious contrivances, Southern Comfort revels in its own B-movie pulpiness.
21. Superman II. Technically a 1980 movie, Superman II didn’t reach U.S. screens until 1981 because of an oddly protracted release pattern. Funny, romantic, spectacular, and thrilling, the movie went through a famously torturous development process. Initially, director Richard Donner shot scenes for Superman II while making Superman (1978). When a ballooning budget compelled the producers to ditch their two-movies-at-once scheme, the sequel was left unfinished. By the time production resumed, Donner was replaced with Richard Lester, a specialist at manufacturing lighthearted escapism. Behind-the-scenes labor pains notwithstanding, Christopher Reeve excels as both bumbling Clark Kent and stalwart Superman, while Margot Kidder evokes ’30s screwball heroines as Lois Lane, and Terence Stamp makes an inedible impression as a certain Kryptonian supervillain. Kneel before Zod!
22. Taps. Like The Dogs of War, this elegantly made drama is thematically closer to the hand-wringing military stories of the ’70s than it is to the shoot-first/ask-questions-later muck of the Norris/Schwarzenegger/Stallone era. Timothy Hutton plays a cadet who leads his fellow students in an armed takeover of their military academy after the institution is threatened with closure. Tom Cruise and Sean Penn give powerhouse performances as his cohorts, and George C. Scott—subtly riffing on his iconic performance as Patton (1970)—plays their influential commandant. Raising profound questions about America’s war machine while spiraling inevitably toward tragedy, Taps was a crucial proving ground for three of the best young actors in ’80s Hollywood.
23. Tattoo. While Tattoo is not Bruce Dern’s best movie by a long shot, it may well be the ultimate “Dernsie,” a term of endearment coined by Jack Nicholson to describe the eccentric flourishes that Dern adds to his roles. In Tattoo, the singular actor plays a deranged man who becomes obsessed with a beautiful woman and then, in what he perceives as an act of love, kidnaps her, sedates her, and tattoos nearly her entire body, transforming her into a living work of art. Proving how deeply this movie is a holdover of ’70s cinematic extremes, the woman eventually learns to appreciate her captor’s twisted affection—sort of. Suffice to say it doesn’t end well. Tattoo never achieves believability, but Dern’s performance is colorful, fearless, and strangely moving.
24. Thief. The third of my all-time favorite movies released in 1981, Michael Mann’s first theatrical feature is a stylish hybrid. Part Walter Hill-esque minimalistic actioner and part Cassavetes-ish character study, the picture stars James Caan as a professional robber who unwisely accepts the too-good-to-be-true offer of pulling one last job before retiring with his new lady, played with believable grit by Tuesday Weld. The long-lens images of methodical criminal activity are hypnotic when matched with Tangerine Dream’s pulsating score, and the supporting turns by Willie Nelson and Robert Prosky are perfect. Idiosyncratic, sensitive, and tough, Thief continues Mann’s lifelong study of the criminal mind, a body of work stretching from the humane TV movie The Jericho Mile (1979) to the jaw-dropping epic Heat (1995) and beyond.
25. Time Bandits. Who knew a genuine auteur was lurking inside the revered UK comedy troupe Monty Python? And who knew he was American? After codirecting the amazing Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) and helming the iffy Jabberwocky (1977) by himself, animator-turned-filmmaker Terry Gilliam came into his own with this brilliantly imaginative story about diminutive scamps who steal a map containing the locations of holes in time, putting them in the middle of a battle between figures representing God and the devil. Filled with eye-popping images, splendid actors, and wild humor, Time Bandits achieves a singular mixture of cerebral and lowbrow elements.
“A Glimpse at 1981” concludes tomorrow . . .