Friday, August 16, 2013

My Favorite Movies, the Anniversary Edition

A Facebook game, wherein one is assigned a specific year and then chooses one's "favorite" -- as opposed to the best or most artistic or most virtuous -- movies from those released that year, has been making the rounds. I was assigned 1979 when the game came to me, and I chose Manhattan and The Return of the Secaucus Seven at the top of my own personal list. Today, in honor of my 33rd wedding anniversary, I decided to pick a Best of 80 list, not because my husband and I necessarily went to the movies a lot when we were planning our wedding, but because, well, the films we saw and the culture that was happening around us helped define who we were. And mulling over a list like this takes you right back to where you were then. It's uncanny.

I don't think I saw all of these in 1980, mind you. Some I picked up later and some didn't resonate till I was a bit older. And, as with my 79 list, I tend not to go for the big blockbusters, the action thrillers, the horror or the gross-out pics. You are free to pick your own lists, but here's mine for 1980, the year we got married.

1. Melvin and Howard (dir: Jonathan Demme). This sweet and funny take on Melvin Dummar, played by Paul LeMat, the real-life nobody who claimed that he'd given a ride to Howard Hughes once and the oddball billionaire left him $156 million dollars in his will, put Jonathan Demme and Mary Steenburgen, who won as Oscar for her role as a flaky stripper, on the map. You don't hear a lot about Melvin and Howard anymore. More's the pity. It's pretty much the perfect movie of its time, when cynicism, sentiment and wry humor were fueling our creative imaginations, before "greed is good" and excess in all things became the national mantra and the bywords of the 80s.

2. The Stunt Man (dir: Richard Rush). The Stunt Man was clearly Richard Rush's major moment in the sun -- he even did a documentary about making The Stunt Man 20 years later -- as well as a tour de force for Peter O'Toole as a Machiavellian, mysteriously sinister director who pulled a conflicted Viet Nam vet, played by Steve Railsback, into a crazy world where the line between movies and reality blurred, overlapped and crisscrossed. There are all kinds of tricks and turns in The Stunt Man, a movie that still fascinates me.

3. Stardust Memories (dir: Woody Allen). This is the one where people (and even aliens from outer space) tell Sandy Bates (the Woody Allen character) they prefer his earlier, funnier movies, as he attends a career retrospective and muses on his life and film choices. Along with the usual bevvy of beauties (Marie-Christine Barrault, Jessica Harper, Charlotte Rampling) provided as romantic options for Allen's character, Stardust Memories offers an introspective, darkly comic tone, Gordon Willis's beautiful and beautifully sharp black-and-white cinematography, and a fabulous soundtrack, including "Easy to Love," "Just One of Those Things," "Moonlight Serenade," and, of course, "Stardust." Say what you will about Woody, but he certainly knows what music to pick to create a mood.

4. Used Cars (dir: Robert Zemeckis). Used Cars is probably one movie too early for Zemeckis fans. He became a big thing with Romancing the Stone in 1984 and Back to the Future in 1985. But Used Cars and its scruffy charm put him on the right road, that's for sure. Kurt Russell was the only star, but both Squiggy (David L. Lander) and Lenny (Michael McKean) are in the background, and the kids who pretty much served as Zemeckis's rep company -- Wendie Jo Sperber and Marc McClure -- are there, too. Used Cars doesn't try to be art. It's just unassuming, clever and fun.

5. Kagemusha (dir: Akira Kurosawa). Kurosawa was 70 when he made Kagemusha, a sort of Prince and the Pauper story that cuts deeply into what it means to be a warrior, a thief, a leader, or an honorable man. The kagemusha, or double of the warlord Shingen, never even gets a name. He looks exactly like Shingen, who is dying, and so he stands in to ward off rivals to Shingen's throne. And it is that impersonation that suddenly makes him worthy of attention, power and loyalty. He changes on the outside to be what he needs to be to hold the mantle of power. But what about on the inside? Kagemusha pairs sweeping, epic battles with very small, intimate scenes inside the castle, displaying all of Kurosawa's power as a filmmaker as it poses its difficult questions of class and birth and belonging.

6. The Blues Brothers (dir: John Landis). For awhile there in the summer of 1980, we were going to see The Blues Brothers every Friday night. I don't honestly remember why. It was just our movie and our Friday night thing to do. I don't think it holds up all that well as a piece of filmmaking, but it so captures where we were in 1980 that I had to include it. Oh, and it was filmed in and around Chicago, including a gas station on Route 59 that I used to drive by all the time. I guess that made it special. We still refer to how much we hate Illinois Nazis, the mission from God, fried chicken and dry white toast, both kinds of music (country and Western) and Orange Whip. All the time. I guess that means The Blues Brothers stuck with us.

7. Popeye (dir: Robert Altman). The source material -- Popeye the Sailor Man, the squinty spinach-eater from cartoons -- paired with Robin Williams and Robert Altman sounds decidedly odd, and this movie was not a hit when it came out. It's not a hit now, either, as far as I know. But its unrelentingly quirky tone, Williams' ability to lose himself in the role of Popeye, the eye-popping production design by Wolf Kroeger, and the three-dimensional portraits of characters like Olive Oyl (Shelley Duvall) and Wimpy (Paul Dooley) make it a really fine piece of work, if you ask me.

8. Atlantic City (dir: Louis Malle). It's weird for a French director to make a film that feels as American as Atlantic City, but there you are. Starring Burt Lancaster, a star from Hollywood's Golden Age, and a luminous Susan Sarandon, just starting to break out, Atlantic City is about age, decay, disappointment and dreams. There are gangsters and casinos here, but it's really the American dream on display. Like the other directors on this list, Malle creates a complete world for his movie. Malle's Atlantic City doesn't necessarily make a pretty world, but a complete one.

9. The Long Good Friday (dir: John Mackenzie). I don't generally go for gangster movies, but The Long Good Friday is more of a character study. The English mobster with a whole lot of trouble on his hands is played by Bob Hoskins, a wonderful actor who always makes his material seem like more than it is, and his mistress is played by Helen Mirren. Bam. Hoskins and Mirren. Nobody better than that. Make no mistake, there is violence, fear and some very bad business threaded throughout The Long Good Friday, things that normally send me the other direction. But not when Bob Hoskins is in the middle of it.

10. The Last Metro (dir: Francois Truffaut). There's so much going on under the surface of The Last Metro that it's hard to describe. The plot is fairly simple: A French theatrical troupe attempts to go on during the Nazi occupation of World War II with their Jewish artistic director hiding in the basement. His wife, who is not Jewish, goes on with the show on the stage above his head, and the events of the play comment on what's happening in their marriage as she and her co-star begin to feel an attraction. Marion, played by the breathtaking Catherine Deneuve, isn't political, she tells us. Neither is her egotistical leading man, played by Gerard Depardieu. But everything is political when you are trying to create theatre in an occupied country, when the Nazis are breathing down your neck and questioning every move you make, on stage and off.

Honorable Mention: American Gigolo, Fame, Somewhere in Time.


  1. Great list, Julie! Seeing it made me smile because it brought back that year for me too; halfway through it I moved from Bloomington IN to Arlington Heights.

    And two of these titles you first saw with me! Popeye (Scott was there too, we met in Schaumberg), which I'm glad to see you'll still speak up for, as I will too (it seems to be downgraded even among Altman fans, and yes the songs aren't great, but it still has a lot going for it). And Used Cars, which we met to see in Des Plaines -- the DVD is fun because Kurt Russell (in the commentary) clearly hasn't seen it since it came out and is hugely entertained by it. It has all of Zemeckis's flair for a perfectly constructed farce story where all the story elements click into place.

    As for The Long Good Friday, I would have expected you to mention Pierce Brosnan's movie debut in a tiny role!

  2. Clearly I saw The Long Good Friday before Pierce Brosnan entered my consciousness. Helen Mirren, too, as it turns out. I was surprised to find that was her opposite Bob Hoskins. I still think his acting in that movie is one of the deepest characterizations on film ever. (Take that, Robert De Niro in Raging Bull!)

    I remembered seeing Popeye with you, and I knew you were a big fan of Used Cars, but I didn't remember seeing that one together. Those were my film fan years, though, before I started to concentrate on theatre so much.

  3. We were both entertained by the credit for "Miss Wendie Jo Sperber."

  4. I loved Used Cars, too!

    But "Somewhere in Time" deserves to be dragged up from the basement and set aside the others on the A List. I would think that, as a newlywed, you would have swooned at the thought of lovers from a past life meeting again.