March 14th, 2015 edit: Looking back at this list, I’d switch out Local Hero for Star 80 at #10.
My second Top Ten By Year feature took significantly longer than the first. Why? Well between Halloween viewings, a short trip away, and 2013 films creeping up, the last months of the year are a very busy time for film enthusiasts! But here it is!
1983 was a more slippery slope than 1935. For one thing, there were more films to choose from; 20 first-time viewings, 7 re-watches, and 40 films total. The lingering powers of many of 1983’s releases also took me by surprise. I imagine these obvious factors are going to prove a Sophie’s Choice dilemma quite often in future endeavors. I guess what caught me off-guard is that while I wouldn’t think of calling any decade in film a weak one, comparatively I don’t find the 80’s as rich (at least on a scale of quantity) as many other decades.
A balance I always try and strike as a lover of film, especially important to a list I post, is staying loyal to my own taste whilst continuing to develop a keen understanding of what I respond to the most. And something you learn as you watch more and more films, that can’t be overstated, is how important long-term reaction is, even over initial reaction. I like to refer to it as how a film ‘sits with me’, like a heartily digested meal. More intelligent and analytically-minded bloggers/film writers would have this time be about expanding on a film’s purported success or failure. For me, it’s a much more instinctual and intuitive process.
For those unaware, I pick years that are weak for me re: quantity of films seen. I’m using listmaking as a motivation to see more films and revisit others. And I always make sure to point out that my lists are based on ‘favorites’ not any notion of an objective ‘best’. Before embarking on this list I had seen 16 films from 1983, many of which I was not too fond of. It had been a struggle to come up with ten films I felt positively towards. Of course now it’s a different story. The year saw directors making major stylistic and tonal breakthroughs (Scorsese, Reggio, Allen), late career and/or final films from masters (Bresson, Tarkovsky, Fosse), the beginnings and ends of franchises (the Vacation series, Star Wars, Project A, Sleepaway Camp), Stephen King adaptations (The Dead Zone, Christine) and David Bowie (Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, The Hunger)
I’d like to pay tribute to films that didn’t make the cut but have left a palpable impression on me. So here are some that more than earn a mention (many would be likely to show up on anyone else’s list and with good reason). Because as much as this is a ‘top ten’, I’d like to get a broader view of what I took from the collected viewings.
Star 80 (Fosse) in which Eric Roberts gives one of cinema’s great performances, a portrait of sociopathic self-hatred while Bob Fosse caps off his career by looking at the shady line between fame and the endless outskirts.
Sleepaway Camp (Hiltzik) in which the jolts come through in the final shock-moment, otherwise settling in for a campy brand of do-it-yourself non-scares which finds its horror in the impossible-to-navigate waters of puberty and adolescent cruelty. Desiree Gould wins the award for Greatest Bit-Part in a Film Ever.
À nos amours (Pialat), which memorably blends the tropes of the French coming-of-age sexual exploration film with the breakdown and slightly perverse criss-crossing desires of collapsing family dynamics. All anchored by the furrowed brow of ingenue-of-the-then-moment Sandrine Bonnaire.
Mr. Mom (Dragoti), a nostalgic favorite which I’ve seen countless times and still enjoy the hell out of, outdated gender politics aside. Michael Keaton is the most handsome father of all the fathers and manages to make his purely unsympathetic arc unbelievably entertaining. Woobie, Schooner Tuna, “South to drop off moron!”
Nostalghia (Tarkovsky) Often referred to as one of his more austere films, certainly not a place to start with Tarkovsky, but his controlled and painterly compositions of puddles and ruin, of hotel rooms and hallways, of an unresolvable purgatory between place and cultural identity, held me in its grip almost entirely. It is one of a couple of films that just as easily could have made this list.
Pauline at the Beach (Rohmer), my first joyous venture into Rohmer, where romantic bouts reveal a lack of self-awareness and an abundance of pontification in youth.
The Dead Zone
Some Blind Spots (films I have not seen and were thus not considered):
The Fourth Man (one of the reasons I chose 1983 and turns out it’s nearly impossible to get ahold of), Entre Nous, The Store, Angst, El Norte, Educating Rita, Ballad of Narayama, House of the Long Shadows, Tender Mercies, Gorky Park, Bad Boys, Rumble Fish, Trading Places, Sugar Cane Alley, El Sur, Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain, Streamers
Full List of 1983 Films Seen:
A Nos Amours, Barefoot Gen, The Big Chill, The Boxer’s Omen, A Christmas Story, Christine, The Dead Zone, The Dresser, The Entity, Eureka, First Name: Carmen, The Hunger, The King of Comedy, Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance, L’Argent, Local Hero, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, Mr. Mom, National Lampoon’s Vacation, Nostalghia, One Deadly Summer, The Outsiders, Pauline at the Beach, Project A, The Right Stuff, Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, Sans Soliel, Scarface, Silkwood, Sleepaway Camp, Star 80, Terms of Endearment, Three Crowns of the Sailor, Valley Girl, Videodrome, WarGames, Wend Kunni, Zelig
Eureka (1983, Roeg)
There are many other films that should probably get the honorable mention; films I enjoyed more on the whole, that felt far more cohesive, successful and visionary. But when Nicolas Roeg aligns with my sensibilities, he does so in a revelatory way, filling me up with life, shock, and a sense of mysticism. Downhill career trajectory and all, and even with his ‘masterworks’ that didn’t gel for me, he is a favorite of mine. Eureka is bar-none one of the most inconsistent films I’ll ever see. It never comes together the way you want it to; leaden narrative strands topple the whole thing over, Joe Pesci sticks out like a sore thumb, and it’s undercooked for long stretches of time including a courtroom epilogue that refuses to end.
But, to blatantly reference the film, it strikes gold in the most provocative and staggering of places including the opening 20 minutes which ranks among the best that cinema has to offer, period. At its best it comes together as an atypical progression from Citizen Kane on its way towards the eventual existence of There Will Be Blood. Riches leave Gene Hackman a hollow hateful thing surrounded by self-made family dysfunction. It contains perhaps the most horrific onscreen death I’ve ever seen, and no I’m not even talking about the one in the opening sequence. This and a ten-minute bacchanal orgy that smacks of dark sexual chaos are not the easy shock value they may seem. Roeg uses his innovative way of throwing avant-garde sensibilities into narrative film through elliptical editing, creating thought-provoking patterns of imagery which support an nightmarish and off-kilter worldview.
10. Local Hero (UK, Forsyth)
When I first finished Local Hero, it’s placement here was a sure bet. But as time went on, a lot of what stayed with me were its arguably twee aspects, a kind of preciousness I tend not to take to. I had a similar after-stewing with Frances Ha recently. Despite that, Local Hero makes a memorable connection with its enchanted comforts. It is so odd and disarmingly charming. The village of Ferness is a slightly surreal place where anything feels possible but where said possibilities reveal themselves drolly and without announcement. There is a story, with goals to be achieved, but the film is so relaxed and so loose in the way it soaks in the village and its people that we spend the runtime taking a slow stroll along the beach to our destination. It’s so funny, often in ways that take you by surprise (in every way I’d describe Local Hero as a surprising film) but it’s also quite somber. This film is so many things. I fell for it hard (even though the women are just the perfect unattainable voids of male fantasy) and was glad to be spending my time in this world with these people. Peter Reigert plays the perfect existential rock. Perhaps most enjoyable is Peter Capaldi who, at the tender age of 25, could not be more adorable.
9. The Boxer’s Omen (Hong Kong, Kuei Chih-Hung)
Hong Kong black magic squish-fest ranks alongside Hausu and Freaked as the pedal-to-the-metal craziest and most demented films I’ve ever seen. Peculiarly, The Boxer’s Omen is extremely over-the-top and silly but gradually accumulates in a deeply unsettling way as it spotlights goo, slime, sludge, ooze and the like in relation to the body. There isn’t a ton of blood in the film (relatively speaking; I mean yes a crocodile gets cut open, its entrails taken out only to be replaced by a mummified woman which they then stitch into the carcass to reanimate it), but the constant fixation on the hard and soft bodily categories of gook and the skeletal gets under the skin after awhile. It recalls an article I once had to read (what it was and what it was for I don’t remember) which discussed these kinds of liquids in relation to the body, mortality, and decay; why these kinds of images get at something indescribable and irreconcilable. The film suffers from a rinse-and-repeat structure but The Boxer’s Omen gets at this notion through bizarre sliminess with its hokey anything-and-I-mean-anything goes credo. And it’s the midnight movie you’ve been looking for. Trust me.
8. The Right Stuff (USA, Kaufman)
A film that has grown even more in my estimation since watching it weeks ago. There’s a mysterious quality to The Right Stuff; it floats around time, characters, and innovators with the same sense of legend and heroism it wants to examine without ever oversimplifying. Philip Kaufman seemingly packages the film in the conventional model of the rah-rah USA historical film, but it’s really not that at all. It astutely starts in at the roots with the test pilots and with Yeager, who is portrayed as the incomparable forefather of everything that follows.
The Right Stuff looks at the the mythmaking hero by contrasting the idealized and unrecognized sage cowboy with the manufactured boyish build-up and media frenzy (the press are portrayed as a pack of fiendish animals complete with snake hissing and rattling on the soundtrack) of the Mercury Seven (miraculously without actually denigrating the men or their accomplishments). I often found myself amazed by the way it takes on different sections of story, not worrying so much how it relates to the rest but concentrating all energy on making said section seem front-and-center. I think of, for example, how much time is spent on the testing for Mercury Seven candidates. The sequence is treated as its own entity, seemingly without the before or after in sight (of course it is), so you get distinctly wrapped up in each portion on its own terms. So during the testing section, while there a concentration on the ongoing theme of the childish one-uppmanship between comrades, there is also a vignette-like dynamic between Dennis Quaid and the cold nurse in charge of testing. It bears no storytelling drive to anything but itself, and for those ten minutes it becomes the entirety of content within the film. And this is a wonderful thing.
I’ve come to realize that nobody does vulnerability better than Dennis Quaid in his heyday. Or at least what I pick up on as vulnerability. His hotdog hotshot persona and endless face-covering smile, whether in roles squeaky-clean or rough around the edges, belies an open heart I often find myself extremely moved by. I’ve come to think this is because in a weird way I see him as a completely transformed and idealized version of my father, so it really all ties back into this loaded personal connection. See also; Breaking Away. Those last moments with Quaid are majestically earned.
7. A Christmas Story (1983, Clark)
I am one of those who have had A Christmas Story in my life for the whole of time. Someone who has seen it in numbers that likely approach the 300’s and could probably replay the entire film in my head with moderate accuracy. Someone whose family consumes it with either complacent loyalty or never-gets-old fervor. I’m firmly in the complacent loyalty camp. There are some films that are early favorites which you move on from and some you never ever will. A Christmas Story is somewhere in the middle and its yearly endless consumption makes it a unique case. It offers no new pleasures but its old pleasures are a comfort even in their mild staleness, a staleness which, to be fair, would come with most films viewed this many times. It’s about wistfully recounting childhood from the perspective of adulthood. But what makes it special is that Ralphie rarely narrates the film with an all-knowing removed perspective. He recounts it in-the-moment, as if it is something that, hilariously florid looking-back prose aside, he is experiencing all over again. What makes it such a relatable tale of childhood nostalgia is that it’s growing and overexposed status in pop-culture means that Ralphie’s childhood, in essence, became part of ours in the long-run. And that is something I’ll cherish forever.
6. Barefoot Gen (Japan, Mori Masaki)
In a simplistic effort to express just how crushingly agonizing the experience of Barefoot Gen is, I say that it makes the much more oft-cited WWII-from-a-child’s-perspective anime Grave of the Fireflies look like a relaxing stroll through the park. I’m only half kidding. I remember watching this for an Anime class I took and being bowled over by the sweep of decimation and its hot-and-cold depiction of the bombing of Hiroshima. Based on a manga series, it’s a film that deserves to be much more widely known than it is. And what’s more, the source material is based off author Keiji Nakasawa’s actual experience as a child who went through Hiroshima, losing almost all of his family and left to pick up the pieces in the aftermath of atrocity.
Barefoot Gen employs a cold fact-based narration from the skies where everything looks removed and small, only to cut in as deep as deep goes. Only the art of animation and illustration can create the kind of expressionistic horror needed to convey such unspeakable events. And unflinching only begins to cover the melting zombie world of decay, darkness, emaciation and loss that Barefoot Gen conveys. It starts out as a touching drama of a struggling family with characters who are able to find moments of joy and wonder with each other as they scrape by. Once the bomb drops, the film, as well as the characters, work their way to sustained survival through unity under impossible circumstances. Each little victory comes at a further price, and it ends on a heartbreaking note that pays respects to those lost while looking towards a persevering future. The film is a singular one; it leaves me shaken and mortified, overwhelmed and moved in a way few films have done.
5. Terms of Endearment (USA, Brooks)
To me, Terms of Endearment represents the ideal American middlebrow film. I remember when I first saw it, back in high school days during a “Tearjerker Marathon” I was having with my best friend, and how struck I was by its entirety. It may get the ‘tearjerker’ label, but those developments only appear in the last 45 minutes. I was unprepared for its uncommon liveliness, its well-observed humor, and the fact that it passes briskly thorough life with such ease that its third act never feels worked toward. Like in life, Winger’s diagnosis comes out of nowhere, like the film itself is completely caught off-guard by it.
Before that, it’s about a mother and daughter going separate ways, falling into the same old traps of life, and some new ones too. James L. Brooks’ adaptation of Larry McMurty’s novel never shows constrains of story; it feels like we are watching life itself. A lot of this goes to the tone which shifts from wry comedy to just-enough sentiment to brushes of melodrama with ease. And a lot of this goes to the performances which all feel beautifully lived-in. The developing relationship between Shirley MacLaine and Jack Nicholson is a favorite; his prime-past astronaut Lothario is the perfect foil for Aurora Greenway; I can’t even think of them without smiling. Speaking of perfect, that final moment, which in a lesser film would have been hitched up another fatal notch, epitomizes the unexpected ways people can come through for you the times one needs it most. Last but not least, it lives up to that tearjerker status as far as a tear count is concerned; I’ve seen it twice and I was in a puddle of my own sobs by the time it was over.
4. Christine (USA, Carpenter)
Without a doubt the biggest surprise of 1983, one of the biggest surprises of the entirety of my 2013 viewing (as its placement reflects). Christine is not a film I ever had much of an interest in seeing outside of the fact that John Carpenter was at the helm. A killer car movie? No thanks. Color me shocked; I fucking love Christine. It isn’t one of John Carpenter’s most acclaimed works and yet it seems to have become my personal favorite from him.
Christine accomplishes the seemingly impossible in that it plays its ridiculous concept relatively straight. Carpenter seems to think he took the film lightly, but I don’t see it that way at all. Apparently in the book, the spirit of the car’s previous owner is attached to it, explaining its power. Screenwriter Bill Phillips audaciously gets rid of that entire notion, suggesting in the first scene that the car was born evil. This abstraction is not only far more interesting, but it allows for Carpenter and Keith Gordon to push the presence of a sexual connection between Artie and the car, an idea that is pushed just enough and is anything but laughable; it’s completely fucked up and goddamn entrancing. In that way it also bears a similarity to the next film on my list. That moment (and music cue) when Artie says “Show me” leaves me speechless.
Christine is a horror film based in its characters. It’s about friendship, feeling out of place, change, the more frightening aspects of adolescence, and the wedges that can be driven between friends. And the performances are spot-on. Keith Gordon plays up his initial nerdiness making his transformation that much more jarring. I immediately became enamored of John Stockwell’s endearing Dennis. Their friendship grounds the film, a pair cemented in a loyalty and unlikeliness that it smartly never comments on.
Carpenter’s use of Panavision is full of expert touches and his music cues are consistently effective. His camera is touchingly lyrical, roaming at the perfect moments. Dennis seeing Artie and Leigh at the football game is a favorite (plus again with that music cue placement! That entire scene is moviemaking kismet). And the use of 50’s and 60’s rock n’ roll is creepily trance-like. You guys; I love pretty much everything about this, clearly to the point of unbridled gushing.
3. Videodrome (1983, Cronenberg)
There’s a prescience at play in Videodrome and its concerns with TV, media, and the trafficking of images that is completely rooted in of-the-moment 80’s technology. David Cronenberg is one of my favorite directors and this is my second favorite film from him (behind Dead Ringers, a veritable masterpiece). It stays true to the director’s fixation on practical effects for visual metaphor and a decidedly 80’s brand of genre storytelling. It’s all about sex and hardware and the perversities of each; it reminds me of Crash in that way. It has a funky little combination of being plot-driven but making little sense; it reminds me a bit of The Big Sleep in that way. When does video influence, with its beaming streams of image, penetrate in a literal way? Hallucination and reality become one. Flesh and hardware become one. It all becomes interchangeable.
In Videodrome, influence and possibly subliminal power reach a peak when combining sex and violence. This is TV as catharsis, ultimate power, communicator, and mirror. Max Renn becomes an assassin for both sides, losing control of his body. A VHS tape and gun get put inside of a vaginal opening on Renn’s stomach. The TV throbs and has the ability to respond with sensuality. Videodrome combines body horror in a new and inventive way by having transformation, interactive brainwashing, and sex run both ways, meeting in an uncertain messy middle. This is something that really resonated with me. What is our ultimate relationship with images in a box, in this case a sexual and sentient box with fleshy insides? 2 years before David Cronenberg pushed body horror as far as it could go on both a physical and emotional level with The Fly, he uses Rick Baker’s unforgettable work to envision a frightening upside-down world where TVs and tapes are made flesh and where people are drones – transmitted beings with a purpose and cause undecided by themselves.
2. The King of Comedy (USA, Scorsese)
This had been a major blind spot for quite some time and I couldn’t be happier now that I’ve finally seen it. 80’s Scorsese is without a doubt my favorite Scorsese era. Anything dealing with celebrity/fame obsession tends to read as more perceptive today no matter when it was made and the same goes for The King of Comedy. A satire shot with a decidedly restrained camera for the filmmaker, all the more emphasizing its dark tone. Nothing should distract from making us feel De Niro’s performance as Rupert Pupkin, a beaming open wound unwilling and/or incapable of touching ground for even a second. Similar to some other De Niro performances in its extremity, but fueled for entirely new purposes, he is relentless here, making sure the audience feels as uncomfortable as possible. Scorsese glues reality and fantasy together with a matter-of-fact fluidity, making that final scene all the more ambiguous.
Sandra Bernhard is to die for. Her scenes with Pupkin were particularly enjoyable as they play two delusional fanatics sparring with each other in the streets of NYC. There are so many quotable moments, so many unsettling undercurrents. It’s a mix of unease, sorrow, truth, and desperation. These sort of anomalies within Scorsese’s filmography are the ones I find myself most attracted to as years go buy. And this is a new favorite.
1. Sans Soleil (France, Marker)
Like 1935, there was never any doubt what my #1 would be; in this case, the indescribable Sans Soleil. I lack the capabilities to describe this film so I’ll resort to a short spout of hyperbole supported by urging anyone who hasn’t seen it to seek it out immediately. It’s one of the few films I’ve seen that feels life-altering in some vague sense, in that it gives you the tools to momentarily see the world around us differently, with unique voice and insight. It’s not a documentary and it’s not a narrative. It’s rather a new blended form of filmic essay and of intimate observational prose, combining Marker’s (at least the majority of footage) otherworldly travelogue under the guise of a ‘fictional’ narrator with philosophical musings.
As we switch back-and-forth mainly between Japan and Guinea-Bissau with side-trips to other locations, we are asked to think about memory, experience, the imprints of time, cultural tradition and ritual from a poetic perspective. Like Videodrome, it fixates on the effect of the TV image in both content and consumption; but it’s also seen as another world where image becomes stripped synthesized abstraction. Sans Soleil is unlike anything else, at once grounded in cultural ritual but drawn to technical innovation, all wrapped up in a singular package that feels real and surreal and contemplative in the richest and most spellbinding of ways.