Monday, October 19, 2009

The Best Movies of the 1980s

Another decade poll, this one on the 25 best movies of the 1980s, has concluded at Wonders in the Dark, and the results have been announced. This was for me the most difficult of the four decade polls I've taken part in. In previous decade polls—I didn't begin participating until the poll on the 1950s—my greatest problem was narrowing down a list of 40-50 possibilities—all taken from my list of **** movies, my highest personal rating—to 25 finalists. This time the problem was the opposite: I didn't have 25 to begin with, so I had to expand my preliminary list to come up with 25 finalists. This meant that for the first time a few of the titles on my final list, while very good films, didn't quite make my highest rating. One of the reasons for this was that for these lists I include only one movie per director. This practice originally began because I didn't want my lists dominated by a handful of individuals who are my own favorites at the expense of other directors. Even though this time such a limitation wasn't strictly necessary, I decided for the sake of consistency to continue observing it.

Because the WitD poll now permits television productions to be included in the poll, I could have filled out the list with the best TV mini-series of the decade. (See my list at the end.) For me the 1980s were the zenith of the TV mini-series, particularly in the UK. But as with the 1970s poll, I balked at including television productions because I don't really consider them the same thing as theatrical movies. I watch them differently, and I have different expectations of them. I expect theatrical movies to be more concentrated. I also expect to be able to watch them in one sitting, and for me that means a running time of at most around three hours, give or take a little.

One of the most interesting things I did in preparing for the poll was to watch the TV version of Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander. The theatrical film runs a little over three hours, and the TV version about five hours. I watched the TV version's four episodes over four nights, as it was intended, and then compared the two versions. The TV version contains several sequences, some brief and a couple fairly long, that do not appear in the theatrical version. Some of these add to the story, but some of them seem like digressions that aren't absolutely necessary and in some cases actually sidetrack the main narrative.

One short sequence that isn't in the theatrical version occurs when Alexander is locked in the attic for making up a story that his stepfather murdered his first wife and their two daughters. The two daughters appear to Alexander as ghosts and tell him what really happened—that they were victims of a tragic accident in the river that runs outside their house. This fairly brief sequence seems to hearken back to the dreaminess of Bergman's earlier films, a style he had largely abandoned by the time of Fanny and Alexander. Curiously, in a way it actually de-emphasizes Alexander's eidetic imagination, making the movie more a literalized ghost story than a portrait of the artist as a young man haunted by his own metaphorical ghosts rooted in his childhood experiences (the loss of this father and abuse by his stepfather).

A long sequence that also weakens the longer version occurs when their grandmother's friend Isak tells Fanny and Alexander a complicated and rather tedious story that is a parable of the human search for the locus of pure imagination and a lost state of grace. It elaborates on a point that is already obvious and doesn't tell us anything we don't already know about either Isak or Alexander. The whole extended sequence seems to exist only for a brief, although admittedly vivid, glimpse at Alexander's visualization of one event in the story. A similar sequence that appears only in the long version occurs after the Christmas feast when Alexander's father calms the restive children in the nursery by telling them a lengthy tale about a Chinese princess and her magic chair. The story is in itself not very interesting, a digression that slows the film down without contributing anything significant.

On the other hand, some things included in the longer version strengthen the movie. A couple of scenes that last only a few seconds are inexplicably missing in the short version. At the very beginning, Alexander imagines he sees a statue come to life. In the long version he also has a brief glimpse of Death as the Grim Reaper, and these few moments of counterpoint between beauty and death, with their echoes of The Seventh Seal, are so potent that I am surprised they were eliminated in the short version. Likewise, in the long version after the christening banquet, there is a brief shot of the guests all assembled, which then transmutes into a black-and-white photo, which becomes one of a pile of photos Alexander's grandmother is trying to sort out and paste into a scrapbook. This is one of the most haunting images in the movie, and again I am surprised that, lasting at most a few seconds and intensifying the movie's preoccupation with memory and time, it was eliminated in the shortened version.

A longer sequence with Alexander's uncles trying to get the two children away from their stepfather, who is holding them prisoner after their mother has left him, struck me as pertinent to the story despite its length, helping to flesh out the uncles and the way they differ in personality. This sequence was eliminated altogether from the theatrical version. And in the TV version the farewell of Alexander's mother to the actors when she announces she is closing the theater is, I feel, more poignant than the abbreviated sequence in the short version.

However, one example of trimming the movie improves the theatrical version considerably. This is the very first long sequence of the Christmas festivities at the theater and at the Ekdahls' house. The shorter version, which I described at length in a previous post, is wonderfully concentrated. I wrote that "Bergman seems to have rolled all of life into this one meal." But in the TV version, this sequence, running nearly twice as long, is bogged down in unnecessary exposition and digression, its power considerably diluted. After comparing the two versions, I decided that the ideal would probably have been something between the two, running about four hours.

Why am I writing in such detail about this one movie? One reason is that this decade poll and the previous one highlighted the proliferation of alternate versions of films under consideration—TV versions, restorations, reconstructions, director's cuts. Another reason is that I chose Fanny and Alexander as the #1 movie of the decade, as did the participants in the 1980s poll at WitD. This is the fourth decade in a row that I placed a film by Bergman at or near the top of the movies of the decade: Wild Strawberries at #2 for the 1950s, Persona at #1 for the 1960s, Cries and Whispers at #3 for the 1970s, and now Fanny and Alexander at #1 for the 1980s.

With the usual caveat, that this a personal list limited by my own viewing experiences and cinematic preferences—and acknowledging that on reflection it strikes me as a fairly conservative list, heavy on period movies and movies about children—here are my top films of the 1980s:

  1. Fanny and Alexander, Bergman (1983)
  2. Blue Velvet, Lynch (1986)
  3. The Night of the Shooting Stars, Taviani & Taviani (1982)
  4. A Sunday in the Country, Tavernier (1984)
  5. The Dead, Huston (1987)
  6. Kagemusha, Kurosawa (1980)
  7. Tootsie, Pollack (1982)
  8. Hannah and Her Sisters, Allen (1986)
  9. Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Almodóvar (1988)
  10. The Last Emperor (Director's Cut), Bertolucci (1987)
  11. Au Revoir, les Enfants, Malle (1987)
  12. Hope and Glory, Boorman (1987)
  13. Pixote, Babenco (1981)
  14. Pelle the Conqueror, August (1988)
  15. Babette's Feast, Axel (1987)
  16. A Room with a View, Ivory (1986)
  17. Dangerous Liaisons, Frears (1988)
  18. Raging Bull, Scorsese (1980)
  19. Brazil, Gilliam (1985)
  20. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Spielberg (1982)
  21. Terms of Endearment, Brooks (1983)
  22. La Traviata, Zeffirelli (1982)
  23. Jean de Florette, Berri (1986)
  24. Paris, Texas, Wenders (1984)
  25. The Home and the World, Ray (1984)
HONORABLE MENTION: The Elephant Man, Ran, The Big Red One: The Reconstruction, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Manon of the Springs, Radio Days, Crimes and Misdemeanors

BEST TV PRODUCTIONS: The Singing Detective, Brideshead Revisited, The Jewel in the Crown, Paradise Postponed

If I were to single out one film director for especially good work during the 1980s, it would be Woody Allen, for the films I mentioned plus Zelig (for the boldness of its concept and its meticulous execution).

This will likely be the last decade poll I'll be participating in. The 1980s lie at the outside edge of my knowledge of cinema, and my interest in movies produced after this decade begins to wane seriously. I find fewer and fewer movies of the last 20 years that appeal to me enough to go out of my way to seek them out, and when I do, I too often find they don't live up to my hopes. I'll continue to follow Allan Fish's concise and knowledgeable reviews at Wonders in the Dark, and the stimulating comments and discussions that his sometimes surprising choices evoke. And I'll be trawling the site for titles to add to my watch-list to help update my film knowledge. It's been a pleasure discovering and rediscovering the best movies of the 1950s-1980s, and I thank Allan and Sam Juliano of WitD for inspiring those of us who regularly visit the site to do this.


hal0000 said...

I generally have a marginal interest in the 80s too.

Have you seen any of Kieslowski's output? The Decalogue is probably his most famous from that decade, although there are many exceptional pictures from his oeuvre, namely Camera Buff, Blind Chance, A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love. Those last two are expansions (surprise!) of two Decalogue episodes. He's one of my favorite filmmakers and I'd have a tough time choosing among these for the 80s, but my favorite from him is The Double Life of Veronique by a mile.

Haven't seen enough Allen from this decade (only Zelig and The Purple Rose of Cairo), but I suppose my favorite from the 80s would be Cronenberg's output. Videodrome is in the same vein as Naked Lunch in terms of hallucinatory reality, but what makes it worth watching (more than once) is how it suggests technology as an evolutionary extension of our bodies/minds.

Kim said...

I was born in the 80's and yet I have probably seen the fewest films from that decade. I do love Au Revoir Les Enfants though so I am glad to see that on your list.

Btw although you missed the earlier polls I would still love to see lists of your favorite films from the earlier decades.

R. D. Finch said...

Hal, believe it or not, I've not yet seen anything by Kieslowski, although I've heard many good things about him, especially the "Trois Couleurs" films. I suppose I'm daunted by the fact that I'd want to see all three of them. The others sound interesting too, and I do take your recommendations seriously. I haven't seen an awful lot by Cronenberg, but what I have seem was impressive enough to make me conclude he's one of the best current directors. I thought "Dead Ringers" was excellent (with Jeremy Irons giving one of the best twin performances ever--incredible he didn't get an Oscar nomination, one of the most egregious oversights ever--and Bujold wonderful as usual) and "Naked Lunch" was incredible (it helps that Judy Davis--in another dual performance--and Ian Holm are two of my favorites), my favorite thing I've seen by him. "Dead Zone" was also excellent, along with "Carrie" the best Stephen King adaptation I've seen, again buoyed by Walken's amazing performance, probably his best. As you know, I was quite impressed by "Eastern Promises." A couple of others made less of an impression on me, but I'll have to catch "Videodrome" and "A History of Violence."

Kim, that's an interesting suggestion about the earlier decades, one I've thought about and might yet do. In the meantime, you might check out my **** movies, which is the list I would draw the films from if I did do anything on the 30s and 40s.

Thanks to both of you for your comments and suggestions.

Sam Juliano said...

Thanks very much R.D. for the glowing acknowledgement as always and for your banner participation through all these polls. I did notice that you were a major promoter of Bergman's work and for that as well as your top placement of FANNY AND ALEXANDER I salute you.
I don't agree that the 90's and 00's suffer from a dearth of great films, but these are decades where I have visited the cinema regularly. Kieslowski is a master, and the Three Colors Trilogy and THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VGERONIQUE are essential.

Keep in mind that after the 90's poll we will be commencing on the "Silent Poll" which will include films from 1910 to 1929. Allan plans on a countdown of 100 for that one. You may well be interested there.

As always your qualifications are astute and tasteful, and your latest list is a veritable plethora of riches.

R. D. Finch said...

Sam, thanks for your comments and for all the great work you do at WitD. I didn't exactly say that the 90s and 00s suffer from a dearth of great movies--I'm not qualified to make such an assertion since I'm still catching up on films from those decades--only that the movies from those decades that I have seen are less to my taste than those of previous decades. As I say in the sidebar in ABOUT ME, "My favorite films are the classics." I don't know what the reason is, but I tend to like older movies more than recent ones, in particular the films of the 1930s-1970s. When I think and write about movies, it's mostly older ones I think of first. Thanks for your recommendation of Kieslowski. I'll be watching "Veronique" in a week or so and the "Trois Couleurs" trilogy after that. And as I wrote, I'll be checking WitD for ideas about movies from the 90s and 00s to watch, and checking your reviews of current offerings as well.

John said...


Knowing of your love for Bergman (and Sam J’s too) I ma not surprised to see this top your list. With such glowing reports from you and WitD I really need to see this film. I have only seen a handful (a small handful) of Bergman’s work and definitely have to be in the right frame of mind, though not too long ago I reluctantly watched “Hour of the Wolf” and found myself drawn in the Bergman’s world. What I found most stunning was the photography.
My biggest surprise was your high placement of “Tootsie” and the relatively low placement of “Raging Bull.” I recently finishing reading Larry Gelbart’s memoir “Laughing Matters” and he writes about his experience with “Tootsie.” It was not a happy one. It was a project he was brought into for rewrites and then other writers came in and rewrote what he did. Hoffman brought in his friend Murray Schisgal, the playwright (Luv) because he was unhappy with the script. There were other writers involved too including Elaine May. Academy Award aside he had little affection for the film. Despite all that, it’s a great film.
Glad to see Woody Allen represented so well with “Hannah and Her Sisters” and three in the runner up category!
I am no fan of “Terms of Endearment.” I just remember being too depressed after watching it.
I still need to catch “The Home and The World”, Brazil”, “The Night of the Shooting Stars”, “Au Revoir les Enfants” (Dave over at Goodfella’s picked this for his best film of ’87 in his year by year countdown) and “A Sunday in the Sunday.”
A well thought out list!

R. D. Finch said...

John, thanks for your comments. "Tootsie" got such a high place because it and "Women on the Verge" were just about the only two films of the decade that actually made me laugh out loud. Woody Allen is a great maker of comic films, but I wouldn't call his style of humor "laugh out loud," although I'm sure some would. "Raging Bull" didn't place higher because, despite its masterful direction (and I was already convinced of what Scorsese is capable of), so much of it hinges on the lead character, and I found him too one-dimensional to be really compelling, again in spite of de Niro's brilliance at capturing that dimension. The character was fully defined at the beginning of the movie, so throwing him into situations and showing him behave in an entirely predictable way didn't challenge me as a viewer. It was a bit like watching an organism under a microscope. I'll be watching "Goodfellas" soon for the first time and have high hopes for it.

As for Bergman, he made more films that I consider masterpieces than any other director I can think of. But I know a lot of people who don't like his movies, who find them too portentous. And even for me not all of his movies achieve greatness. "Wolf" is one of these--visually brilliant and highly imaginative but a bit too solipsistic to be completely effective. For me the same applies to his earlier "The Magician"--a little too much dreaminess and reality-and-illusion puzzle. I prefer his straight dramatic films or the ones that only occasionally and with good reason veer into this area. My favorite Bergman film is "Wild Strawberries." Thanks for dropping in, and see you soon at Twenty Four Frames!

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading your list and will hope to see more of the films you've chosen - several, such as 'Dangerous Liaisons' and 'Hannah and Her Sisters', are favourites of mine too. I often tend to be more drawn by older films too, though. Judy