Friday, December 19, 2008

The best films of the 1980s

The fine folks at the Criterion Forum have an ongoing "lists project" intended to compile a series of best-of lists for each decade in cinematic history. These lists are invariably interesting and educational, with a much more varied and well-rounded view of film than most critics' organizations tend to produce when asked to gather lists of this sort. The project is currently polling the forum members to list the best films of the 1980s, and I've decided to contribute. I'm coming into this at the last minute — the lists are due on January 15 — so I haven't watched or re-watched any films specifically for this purpose, something I might've liked to do if I'd prepared for this earlier. Instead, since I probably won't be watching very many films at all until the new year, I put this list together now based only on films I'd already seen. There were still more than enough great choices from this supposedly sub-par decade for cinema, and the list below has been culled down from an initial selection of nearly double the size. I also limited myself to a maximum of three films per director, or else Woody Allen, Jean-Luc Godard, and Eric Rohmer each might have had several more films on the list: this was an especially strong decade for those three favorites of mine.

Here is my list:

1. Sans soleil (Chris Marker)
2. King Lear (Jean-Luc Godard)
3. Fanny & Alexander (Ingmar Bergman)
4. The Aviator's Wife (Eric Rohmer)
5. First Name: Carmen (Jean-Luc Godard)
6. A nos amours (Maurice Pialat)
7. Down By Law (Jim Jarmusch)
8. Three Crowns of a Sailor (Raoul Ruiz)
9. Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (Todd Haynes)
10. Lola (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
11. Hannah and Her Sisters (Woody Allen)
12. Coup de torchon (Bertrand Tavernier)
13. Blue Velvet (David Lynch)
14. Veronika Voss (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
15. Dead Ringers (David Cronenberg)
16. Damned If You Don't (Su Friedrich)
17. The Angelic Conversation (Derek Jarman)
18. The Dante Quartet (Stan Brakhage)
19. After Hours (Martin Scorsese)
20. Quando l'occhio trema (Paolo Gioli)
21. The Falls (Peter Greenaway)
22. My Girlfriend's Boyfriend (Eric Rohmer)
23. Hail Mary (Jean-Luc Godard)
24. Broadway Danny Rose (Woody Allen)
25. Fitzcarraldo (Werner Herzog)
26. Tango (Zbigniew Rybcznski)
27. The Shining (Stanley Kubrick)
28. Secret Honor (Robert Altman)
29. Le Pont du Nord (Jacques Rivette)
30. Pauline at the Beach (Eric Rohmer)
31. Grass Labyrinth (Shuji Terayama)
32. Videodrome (David Cronenberg)
33. RoboCop (Paul Verhoeven)
34. Elephant (Alan Clarke)
35. Chocolat (Claire Denis)
36. Berlin Alexanderplatz (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
37. Mystery Train (Jim Jarmusch)
38. The Thing (John Carpenter)
39. The Thin Blue Line (Errol Morris)
40. Mala Noche (Gus Van Sant)
41. Brazil (Terry Gilliam)
42. The Last of England (Derek Jarman)
43. Crimes and Misdemeanors (Woody Allen)
44. Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (Les Blank)
45. Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee)
46. Loulou (Maurice Pialat)
47. Dimensions of Dialogue (Jan Svankmajer)
48. The Ties That Bind (Su Friedrich)
49. Street of Crocodiles (Quay brothers)
50. The King of Comedy (Martin Scorsese)


Patricia Perry said...

Ed - Great list. I'm impressed that you've seen Godard's "Lear" - I've been under the impression that one is not easy to find.

Joel Bocko said...

I've only seen 17 of these films. Looks like I have to get to work.

Great call on Street of Crocodiles, though. (Nice to see The Falls on there too.)

Tony Dayoub said...

Though I think a lot of your list is impressive, I'm taken aback by the absence of some notable films from the eighties: Blade Runner, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, Cutter's Way, Diva, The Elephant Man, Manhunter, Once Upon a Time in America, Raging Bull, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Right Stuff, The Road Warrior, Thief, and The Vanishing (1988).

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the comments guys. Pat, Godard's Lear is definitely hard to find, I've only seen it on a lousy VHS rip that I downloaded. It is far from the optimal way to see any film, but even in this degraded form it was very obvious how beautiful the film is, and what a masterpiece. I hope to see it in a much better form eventually.

Tony, some of those I do like but don't consider list material (like Raiders, which is fun but hardly any great masterpiece), a few I haven't seen yet (that Greenaway is on my to-see list, for sure), and others I respect but don't have much personal love for them, like Blade Runner and Raging Bull; the former's an effects showcase and the latter is anchored by an amazing central performance, but neither quite does it for me as a whole. As for The Elephant Man, that was pretty much #51.

Tony Dayoub said...

"...Raiders, which is fun but hardly any great masterpiece..."

I'm curious as to your reasons for thinking it is not a great masterpiece. Sure, it is a Hollywood blockbuster, but it is hardly a trifle in film history. It is a significant homage to an often neglected genre, the Saturday morning serial. It is near flawless in its execution as an action-adventure film. As a suspense thriller, though it may be forgotten after repeated viewings, it rivals the work of Hitchcock (especially in the how-did-he-film-that department). And it doesn't fall prey to the trite dialogue, or wooden characterizations routinely found even in the original Star Wars trilogy.

Blade Runner must also be examined beyond its glossy "effects showcase" to get to its roots in film noir. And Raging Bull is a significant cinematographic achievement in addition to being "anchored by an amazing central performance". Each fight is shot in a way that is both visually and aurally different from each other, yet fit perfectly in the context of the film. I just can't see After Hours, an interesting cult film to be sure, as being "better" than Bull in the grander context of both Scorsese's career and cinema as a whole.

I'm sure we have to end up agreeing to disagree, and these lists are simply interesting because of the discussions they launch. But I hope a film's popularity wasn't used as a negating factor in your selections.

M. Leary said...

Prenom: Carmen is an excellent choice. I am more partial to Sauve qui peut from this period, but either way, what screams 80's more than Godard? Nice catch on Chocolat as well.

Ed Howard said...

Tony, Raiders is undoubtedly a great action-adventure flick. To me, though, the Hitchcock comparison is more revelatory for the differences than the similarities. Hitch was a sublime craftsman with an unrivaled technical mastery, but this formal acumen was rarely used only in service to the suspense or the action. There is invariably something deeper, something of substance, going on in Hitch's best films, whether it's the depth of the characterization, the thematic and psychological subtexts, or, as in Psycho and North By Northwest, a certain playfulness with the formal conventions of genres. As good as Hitchcock was at entertaining, I think he was always conscious of making his films interesting beneath the surface as well. Raiders is all surface. I enjoy it, and I'm certainly not judging it negatively for its popularity, but there's just nothing there beyond a fun adventure. To the extent that the Indiana Jones films have any substance at all, it's in the form of a regressive Orientalism that shows through much more clearly in Temple of Doom but is present in the first film as well.

As for Raging Bull, it's a fine film in many ways, but it's always struck me as kind of bloated and self-conscious. I think Scorsese is much more comfortable with smaller genre fare and character studies, like After Hours or King of Comedy or Mean Streets or Taxi Driver or his contribution to New York Stories. Those to me are his best movies; despite his tendencies in other films towards sweeping epics and operatic filmmaking, he really does it for me when he pares down his focus to this gritty street-level milieu. I'm not making any objective judgment of Raging Bull here, it's just not a personal favorite for me, especially in comparison to other Scorsese films.

Anyway, thanks for the lively debate, I always appreciate discussions like this.

Marilyn said...

For your consideration, I would also include Vagabond (Varda), Platoon (Stone), Atlantic City (Malle), Kiss of the Spider Woman (Babenco), Gorky Park (Apted), The Times of Harvey Milk (Epstein), Hotel Terminus (Ophuls), Man of Iron (Wadja), La Traviata (Zeffirelli), Das Boot (Vacano), Tron (Lisberger), Carmen (Saura), The Natural (Levinson), 'Round Midnight (Tavernier), My Beautiful Laundrette (Frears), The Dead (Huston), Au Revoir les Enfants (Malle), Babette's Feast (Axel), Little Dorrit (Edzard), The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Kaufman), Who Framed Roger Rabbit (Zemeckis), Henry V (Branagh), Jesus of Montreal (Arcand), Bird (Eastwood)