The Best Films of 1980 (a look back)

| January 31, 2020

Nineteen-Eighty was 40 years ago (can you believe it?!).  Alas, it was not a great year for American movies as the industry seemed to be moving away from what worked and more toward what was commercially pliable.  Yet, some lights still shine and so here are my personal choices for the best films of that year.

1. Kagamusha from director Akira Kurosawa, was an epic like no other, a large scale samurai picture that asks questions about the real nature of leaders and what they really mean in the grand scale of things.  It tells the story of a petty thief who is assigned to act as he double for the lord of a feared Japanese samurai clan when that leader is killed in battle.  The secret is known only to his inner circle, leaving the story part farce as the thief must convince the mistress and the lord’s children that he is the real thing. 

But more than that, Kurosawa raises the story even higher by infusing this poor thief with a feeling of power and spirituality that comes with the reverence of being in the shoes of a great man.  But at the same time, he sees that greatness comes with the price.  What are Shingen’s great armies willing to do for him?  They march into battle in perfectly hewn lines of soldiers lining the battlefield in beautiful precision, but ultimately, it is all for nothing for pageantry does not equal great strategy.  And, what is it all for?  Why are Shingen’s armies dying en mass for this man?  What is greatness?  What makes Shingen great?  How are the dead on the battlefield really honoring him by being dead?  Is a symbolic leader of any use to anyone when the chips are down?

2. Raging Bull from Martin Scorsese is the Jake LaMotta story but it’s a biography only in the clinical sense, it is absent of all the trappings of biopics, there are no cliches, no unnecessary flashbacks to help us understand where his temperament comes from. This is a movie about a professional boxer but it is not a boxing movie. It is simply an examination of a man caged by his own demons who uses his profession as a manner of venting violent tendencies and sexual repression. Of course, they leak at home too, especially in the direction of his brother Joey (Joe Peschi) and his long-suffering wife Vickie (Cathy Moriarty).

In some ways Jake La Motta reminds me of Travis Bickle, the subject of Scorsese’s earlier film Taxi Driver. Both are men who manage to succeed in doing something that makes them a celebrity. Jake demolishes his opponents in the ring while Bickle murders pimps and child molesters in a tenement building. Both are volatile men and both are doing something reprehensible, but somehow they managed to become pseudo-heroes in their pursuits.

Scorese never tried to give La Motta a heroic foothold. LaMotta is a hero in the ring because of his fearsome strength, but personally it affords him an outlet for pent up violent tendencies that won’t land him in jail. Just as Travis Bickle destroyed pimps and child molesters, so to does Jake destroy men in the ring as penance. In both cases, outsiders credit them as heroes.  This is a man whose most fearsome opponent was himself.

3. The Empire Strikes Back, directed by Irving Kirshner and produced by George Lucas is, of course, the sequel to Star Wars but it’s no carbon copy. It deepens the mythology of this saga and expands heavily on what has been introduced while paving the way for the third act.  This is the trilogy’s heart.  One of the great achievements here is the way in which Lucas deepens the Zen philosophy of The Force.  He allows us to understand the philosophical side.  The heart of the movie is Luke’s education at the hands of Yoda, whose agenda isn’t to teach Luke new powers but to get him to understand the power that he has.  It’s the lesson in all things: to overturn his mental comfort zones and find a new way of doing something.  I like that his lessons are juxtaposed with Darth Vader using his powers flippantly to dispatch anyone who displeases him, a grim alt-view of what Luke is in danger of becoming.

That expansion of the meaning of the force is indicative of this whole movie.  This is a bridge movie, a story that gets us from the introduction to the conclusion, but it is so much more than that.  It has to be more than that.  Again, it opens the universe and expands our view of it (obviously, a bigger budget helped).  This is one of the most aesthetically pleasing science fiction films that I have ever seen.  How many movies have a color palette like this: from the white and blue and grey of Hoth, to the pink and red of Cloud City to the black and dark blue of the inner sanctum where Luke meets Vader for the first time.  That adds to the structure of the film which seems to be reinventing itself with every scene.

The Empire Strikes Back is grand, fast paced and unexpected.  It has moments of great action, but also introspection.  Yoda’s monologue about the meaning of the force is one of the greatest moments in cinema history.  Luke’s education is not simply about powers, it’s about relearning what the force is and how to connect with it.  The movie twists and turns the values of what has been established into something deeper, more mythical, more magical.  It has a lot to get done in service to the trilogy but still it charts its own course.  Its journey lies along a different path.  It is exactly what is should be, and more; an epic adventure with a force all its own.

4. Ordinary People
was the first directorial effort by actor Robert Redford who proves himself to be a born filmmaker lifting Judith Guest’s soap opera novel to the kind of internal drama that Eugene O’Neal might have conceived. Like last year’s like Kramer vs. Kramer, it is another story of a deteriorating family, this time over the weight of unresolved grief.  Yet, unlike the gimmicky drama of Kramer, Robert Redford’s adaptation was far more grounded, not to mention far more satisfying.

The story examines the Jarret family; father Calvin (Donald Sutherland), mother Beth (Mary Tyler Moore) and son Conrad (Supporting Actor winner Timothy Hutton) who are unable to pick up the emotional pieces after the untimely death of the eldest child Buck in a boating accident the previous year.  Much of the emotional ice in the family is coming from Beth, who is unwilling to open her heart to anyone.  This has serious repercussions, not only on her marriage to Calvin, but on Conrad whose inability to deal with the situation has bred a suicide attempt.

What strikes me about Ordinary People is how well it deals with the family, pulling up their personalities and their inadequacies not from the machinations of the script but from the core of the characters.  This is a deeply felt movie and Alvin Sargent’s script seems to move with the organic nature of life rather than gimmicks.

5. American Giglio directed by Paul Schrader, may be one of those films that centuries from now may inform future generations of the value systems present at the time – and given the subject matter, that’s kind of disturbing.  It stars Richard Gere as a narcesistic stud for hire who charges women top dollar for sex but then meets a wealthy women and falls in love, therefore letting his emotions get in the way of his lifestyle.

6. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, directed by Fred Schepisi is a great Australian period drama that place itself in the early 20th century not only with regard to its time period but to its racial ethics.  It’s about a half-Aborigine man who goes on a killing spree against the whites who have mistreated and exploited his people for centuries.  What is fascinating is that the movie is not a David and Goliath story, but places us within the ethical codes that would have been present at the time, taking us out of our comfortable moral codes of the times we are living in now.  This is very much a movie about time and place, about crossing boundaries and about intermingled cultures dealing uneasily with one another after centuries of exploitation.

7. The Blues Brothers
by John Landis is the Sherman Tank of movie musicals, and I mean that as a compliment.  This is a massive movie, containing at least two dozen characters, a dozen musical numbers and several massive car chases, and yet it turns out to be one of the funniest movies that I have ever seen.

I have puzzled over what makes it work.  What single element here is sailing it through material that should result in a gigantic mess?  This is a movie that contains not only divine intervention but a jilted lover, vengeful Nazis, Snipers, Rocket launchers, AK-47s, blow torches, and also gospel music as well as jazz music, rock, pop, gospel and a lotta blues.  It also features appearances by Aretha Franklin, Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, John Lee Hooker, Carrie Fisher, Steven Spielberg, John Candy, Frank Oz, James Brown, Shaka Khan, Paul Reubens, Henry Gibson, Steve Lawrence and, for no reason, Twiggy.  This is a great comedy, it’s funny, it energetic, it’s smart and it creates a world for its characters to play in.  This is a movie that builds and builds and accumulates its comedy in ways that simply should not work.

8. Resurrection
by Daniel Petrie was the year’s most unfairly maligned film, a movie that Universal Pictures tried and failed twice to help find an audience.  That’s too bad because this is a tender, moving drama about a woman (Ellen Burstyn) given a special ability – yes supernatural – but who then has to decided what to do with it.  She has the power to heal through touch, and given the temptations to exploit such a gift, we’re surprised at the decisions that she makes.  This is a very human film about very human values.

Ellen Burstyn plays Edna McCauley, a housewife who lives in California with her husband Joe (Jeffrey DeMunn). They have a good relationship but it comes to a tragic end when she buys him a car for his birthday and, on it’s first road test, crashes through a guard rail and down a cliff. Joe dies while Edna has a near-death experience and wakes up in the hospital paralyzed from the knees down.  Yet, she refuses to credit the power to God and initally refuses to give herself over to science.

This is a film about a woman given an extraordinary gift that she refuses to exploit.  How many purely good, unselfish people do we meet the movies?  How many would make the decisions that Edna makes?  The movie has a beautiful, unexpected ending that will bring tears to your eyes.  It’s worth seeking out.

9. Coal Miner’s Daughter
is the bio-pic of country music legend Loretta Lynn but was never-the-less directed by an Englishman, Michael Apted.  Yet, geography is not a handicap.  He has a sure hand with this story.  Yes, we see the rise of Loretta Lynn out of dire poverty in Butcher Hollow, Kentucky to becoming The First Lady of Country Music but we understand the difficult journey that she has taken.

By the end, I felt that I had been on a journey.  I had been right there with Loretta Lynn every step of the way.  When we see her mansion at the end of the film, we know the price that has been paid for it.  We understand the pitfalls of success and we know what she’s been through.  Does it seem Biblical?  Maybe that’s why we worship celebrities.  Something to think about.

10. My Brilliant Career
from director Gillian Armstrong is a movie that I bonded with,   I felt very much for the plight of Sybylla Melvyn, a young free-spirited woman living under the yolk of expectation in Australia of the late 19th century.  The expectation is that she will marry the man that her aunt chooses for her and she will do her duties as a wife and as a woman of good social standing.  I felt that, but then my empathy went to another place when I realized that her story is not limited to the times.

So common is Sybylla’s story, and so current, that it made me sad.  Not in a way of hating the film, but in a manner of identifying with it.  100 years later women still live under similar conditions, still unable to rise to the greater heights that they aspire to, still unable to forge their own destinies.  In that way Sybylla is a heroic figure.  She lives on a farm with her working-class parents and has a dream of becoming a writer – her brilliant career.  Outside the world closes in on her with expectations and requirements.  Inside she wants to measure the world with her feet.

The Runner’s Up (listed alphabetically):

Airplane! was exactly the right movie for the right time, a broad-lined parody of all of those disaster movies from Irwin Allen.

The Day After Trinity was a fascinating and disturbing documentary about the men involved in The Manhattan Project, the secret government project that was put in place to research and create the world’s first atomic bomb.  It’s not just a history lesson but detailed look at the people involved, the politics involved and the ever-present moral questions always on everyone’s mind.

Fame was an intriguing documentary-style look at kids from various backgrounds all converging on the New York High School for the Performing Arts.  Alan Parker makes no attempt to get close to the kids but rather lets us see them from afar, the way that a documentary might.  That approach is surprisingly effective.

Foxes was not the scuzzy teenage exploitation picture that the advertisers wanted to sell you.  Ads made this look like a series of peek-a-boo scenes involving underaged girls, but instead it turned out to be quite an intelligent portrait of four girls from different homes, all directionless, all moving dangerously into drugs and sex.  This was a little film, but a good one.

Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears from Russia won the Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film.  Like Foxes, was quite an effective little film dealing with three young women, their lives, their dreams and the dangers present in their environment.

Nine to Five was one of the year’s best comedies in a year when great comedy was in short supply.  Even though it was dismissed by critics as being vapid and dumb, this was quite an effective throwback to the screwball comedies of the 1930s dealing with three put-upon secretaries who get revenge on their rock-headed boss.  Yes, it was a broad comedy but it had a lot to say about how women are treated in the workplace and what they can do with the corporate structure when left to run it.

Popeye was the year’s most unfairly derided comedy, but it is a mystery as to why.  Robert Altman’s film creates and entire word that comes off the comic page and wonderfully to life.  Altman uses the same loose narrative structure that he did in MASH and Nashville to allow the characters to move within the frame rather than tell a boring story.  This was lively and fan.

Private Benjamin featured Goldie Hawn in one of the best performances of the year as Judy Benjamin, a pampered bride-to-be who is widowed on her wedding night and in her grief ends up joining the army.  The Army is not only a clash of personality but changes her entire outlook.

The Shining from Stanley Kubrick almost almost made my ten-best list.  Like Popeye it establishes its characters and its function and then uses a loose narrative to let the characters be free to move around.  This one very loosely based on the bestseller by Stephen King deals with a meek alcoholic who takes a job as a winter caretaker as a remote ski hotel that is closed for the off-season.  There with this family, he goes insane.  Is it the hotel that is haunted or the people inhabiting it?

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
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