Top 25 of 1982
22. The Last Unicorn
The Last Unicorn opens up in the most bizarre way possible for such a picture, with a unicorn getting told by a pop culture quoting butterfly that she is the last of her kind before a song that skirts the line between “Disney appropriate” and “funeral” dirge starts up over the opening credits. It immediately sticks us into the territory of a mad dream from the medieval era, but whoever came up with this was incredibly literate to the point of bordering on mad pretensions of living in another time, when another form of English was the norm and metafiction naturally dripped in. Still, this was the predecessor to Nausicaa, and the hunt for the murderer of the unicorns in the shape of the Red Bull takes us into a territory with some of the greatest animated voice acting in the history of the medium (with Secret of NIMH’s vicious, woodsy surrealism being far behind it in that department even though I ultimately prefer that). Mamma Fortuna’s screeching Angela Lansbury vocals are rendered all the more terrifying by her desire for the cheapest form of immortality imaginable in capturing the three breasted harpy that kills her upon release. Mia Farrow gets the meatiest stuff once she is transfigured into a human and starts to feel her mortality for the first time, anguished and playing it like it is a death scene, while Rene Auberjonois plays an alcoholic skeleton in a way that is both terrifying and hilarious. But best in show is ultimately no contest thanks to Tammy Grimes, who plays the middle aged Molly Grue to the hilt. Her monologue about wishing to see the beast when she was a young virgin, and now she is being mocked for only getting to see it as an old middle aged woman, only to have it taken away from her by the wizard Schmendrick in one final humiliation, is the sort of thing that all minor characters in animation should be made of, a gloriously adult arc. This works as a travel through a fantasy world on its own merits, even with an ending that I am not sure I am too fond of on the titular character’s end (the minor characters get the perfect endings), for the monsters of this universe are the kind of thing that I imagine would absolutely wallop a young child in how muddy and bleak it seems.
Favorite Moment: Death of Mommy Fortuna.
21. Ashes and Embers
Ashes and Embers does not make itself easy to watch. This is a movie that goes over the two hour mark in terms of running time, and a huge part of it can feel like it is comprised of insert shots. This is my first experience with Haile Gerima, but he does not strike me as a particularly easy director, even when there is an adorable Grandma character. John Anderson, in a performance that should have made him a star yet tragically turned out to be his only one, plays a black veteran of Vietnam who cannot even enjoy a night out with a friend before getting pulled over by cops and stuck in a tableau position with a gun to his head. It is arguable that all the events of the picture are some sort of PTSD flashback triggered by this moment, but we never get a clear perspective of time thanks to the crazy editing patterns, flashing between Vietnam, his character of Ned visiting his grandmother that is worried about losing the land that has belonged to her for ages, and dealing with his politically minded girlfriend that has protest groups at their apartment that he cannot relate to. (It’s stunning how strongly their rhetoric resembles the Black Lives Matter movement, a reminder that so little has changed on this front.) He drinks, he argues with people’s different methods of trying to help him (his vaguely condescending boss at his odd job is the worst in this regard), he finds nothing at all or gets more information than he is capable of handling. It is the worst kind of vicious cycle, and one that is book-ended by harsh, hot flashes of emotion thanks to the constant soundtrack whenever nobody is speaking. The things people put out there as tonics to the unending rage are no match for the mix of the muddy palette of day to day life and flashing heat of the episodes, which spin him around recklessly and leave him somewhere else in the timeline of this film, insofar as it has such a chronology. While I cannot claim that every anecdote it spins is necessary to the overall package, it is so gloriously messy in its goals that I cannot resist the madness it perpetually feels like it is going to trigger. Thank goodness Ava DuVernay got this recognized and onto Netflix, although I wish it was easier to see elsewhere too.
Favorite Moment: The fight between Ned and the protestor.
20. Fast Times at Ridgemont High
For a movie that only clocks in around 90 minutes of runtime and has both Cameron Crowe’s script and Amy Heckerling’s direction latching on to the aimless vibe so central to the school experience, Fast Times at Ridgemont High spares no quarter in character development even if the storyarcs for the entire cast of characters are pretty simple when you think about it, making the amount of details and jokes stuffed in all the more fun to appreciate. That shouldn’t take away from the clever writing and strong ensemble work, with everyone going for various shades of caricature, with Sean Penn’s stoner being like something out of Looney Tunes and his rival the teacher (a fantastic Ray Walston, easily best in show) being out of the uncanny valley. It’s not quite as high stakes for a teen movie as some of its defenders would claim but that just makes it more charming for me, with the characterization being so finely shaded that even a character like Jennifer Jason Leigh’s, who is essentially a Mary Sue, does not come across that way due to what an inarticulate mealymouth she plays her as, yet still retaining all the likability of a person who’s unsure of themselves in a nice way. I also like this film as a historical object, with Penn and Leigh getting fairly solid careers as they graduated from Ridgemont while Brian Backer inspires nothing more than a shrug when his name is mentioned. Fast Times at Ridgemont High may traffic in archetypes that were only a little more original then than they are now, but it sets a remarkable example for anyone who desires to visit their past and dissect it a bit, whether an aspiring writer or just someone in the mood for a laugh, even if the laughs curdle quick in the same vein as something like The Comeback, with cringe comedy that ranges from material that hits a little too close to home, to a slightly different brand of screenwriting that’s just as real but infinitely more vulgar. It’s the best kind of embarrassment if only for how even handed the more misanthropic moments play as, and it’s not like there’s a whole lot of that to go around. More high school students being like the ones in this movie would be nice even if the whole point of movies like this is to sanitize the experience a little for all of us.
Favorite Moment: Stacy meeting the 26 year old at the restaurant.
19. The Prefab People
From one of the more upbeat movies of this year to probably the most relentlessly grim, Prefab People doesn’t give us an inch when it comes to finding our two main characters (if you can call them that) rootable, starting with their lack of names and the absolutely merciless opening scene featuring the man walking out on his wife while their baby cries in the background in an unceasing fashion and the wife eventually joins in. It’s all shot in a long take within their hideously cramped apartment, too, for maximum suffocation. From there we see what led to this, are more inclined to look for the cracks within their marriage, and the movie starts to feel a little like Woman Under the Influence for the Hungarians, with that movie’s minor hints at the pressures of society being far more explicitly explored here. From a scene where the father totally fails at explaining why Communism is better to his child, to another that takes place at a dance hall that really pries at the division between our couple (the woman gives a never ending stare that feels like it could kill), Bela Tarr makes his thesis about Communism and the state of family life under it clear without ever going into explicit territory. We do ultimately sympathize more with the wife given the depths of her husband’s insensitivity (hairspray is given as a present at one point, and I think you can guess how helpful he is when it comes to infant care) but she’s no saint, frequently nagging at inopportune times. The ultimate strength of Prefab People lies in the superb lead performances in this two-hander. While Robert Koltai’s performance is completely lacking in vanity and his attempts at understanding politics evoke deep pity where there should be none, it’s Judit Pogany who’s best in show, plumbing the depths of a woman who is nothing but a husk as a result of the never ending daily demands. We’ve all seen plenty of dramas about marriages on the rocks but this goes beyond just a character study in how the two leads play their archetype roles so well and are used as a metaphor for the entire condition of Hungarian politics. You could take this film as a deconstruction of the genre but it’s so filled with sourness that it curdles the eyes and any thoughts beyond shock at how vicious this film gets.
Favorite Moment: The first long take with our couple.
18. The Secret of NIMH
Don Bluth has always been one of the more fascinating figures within animation, vacillating between flawed masterpieces like this and eye poppingly hideous unintentional camp (Thumbelina’s Marry the Mole song still echoes through my nightmares even if I absolutely love it). Thank god for strong source material, then, with one of the great children’s books serving as a firm blueprint for Bluth’s darker animation style that had a budget you could fit into a hole in the wall; even with memorably creepy characters like the owl and Nicodemus dominating over the newly renamed Mrs. Brisby in stature, with their awful glowing eyes that traumatized my entire elementary school class. The owl’s lair in particular is a marvel, and I’d be shocked if The Little Mermaid didn’t steal from here when Ursula’s cave was drawn up. The landscapes of The Secret of NIMH are suitably scaled to provide the point of view of a mouse for a more immersive experience, but the ultimate success in helping us get drawn in is Elizabeth Hartman’s voice performance, which goes through as clear an arc as you could hope for (basic survival instincts become a greater understanding of a bigger world thanks to her journey). Some of the changes to the novel are irksome, with most of Nicodemus’ portion of the plot within this work getting too much into magical territory for my liking, but the rest of it works very well in terms of making the book more streamlined and less heavy handed in its focus on animal testing. Also streamlined for the better is the animation quality, with even the most exaggerated gestures being soft and fluid, and the correct choices of angles for every scrap of action. The colors used may be gloomy, with only Mrs. Brisby’s medallion conjuring up the brighter spectrum of a Disney film or even that same year’s The Last Unicorn (a plenty grim movie in and of itself), but the lack of lighting ensures a stronger impression on the memories of impressionable youngsters, even if it may come in the form of traumatizing them a little by not being the standard sugary sweet stuff. Even the happy ending feels well earned, and while mice have very short lives, this movie endures for far longer even when it gets into very 80s lightshow moments. But I love fellow Don Bluth movie (of sorts) Xanadu so this is by no means an insult.
Favorite Moment: The animal testing flashbacks.
17. Coup De Torchon
Coup de Torchon is unusually nasty even by noir standards, with the more modern setting of French colonialism in Africa and Lucien Cordier’s (Philippe Noiret, having a ton of fun in a wicked turn) wife initially providing enough bile with her incestuous affairs to make even the most deadly of femme fatales raise their perfectly plucked eyebrows. But she’s soon outclassed by Isabelle Huppert’s Rose, who’s basically Phyllis Dietrichson with vague delusions of saintdom due to her teacher occupation, and her aforementioned husband, a corrupt, inept buffoon turned dangerous homme fatale who never really hides his psychotic side after a certain point, to the degree of the viewer marveling at how he was never pegged as a madman by the admittedly oblivious residents of the colonial town. Nihilistic buffoonery abounds as the most by the numbers revenge narrative until Kill Bill came along spools out without much hesitation, with plenty a beautiful but bleak, dirty shot thrown in for the visual aspect of things. The original novel is apparently far more American in its stance, and while I’d love to see an adaptation that focuses on the American side of things that’s modernized for today’s political climate, Bertrand Tavernier has a clear understanding of how utterly gross police officers can be, with an extra scoop of the revolting nature of colonialism for good measure, and seizes onto it with wicked delight. The script has enough ambiguities in it to interpret Cordier as sinner or saint, avenger or everyman, genuinely racist or just playing along with it for his own benefit. The title means Blank Slate, but Coup de Torchon is covered with scribbling and doodles in the margins, the kind that practically defy interpretation because of how illegible they are. Lucien’s distorted view of the world rapidly becomes self righteous justification, and the film goes from the most pitch black of comedies to the lightest of tragedies. There’s a lot of alienation and hurt from dealing with the nastiness of everyone else in this wretched place under the skin of our protagonist, with his logic making sense after being refracted through an appropriately warped mirror. One defaults to someone like The Joker or the Comedian from Watchmen when examining this movie, laughing at the sick joke that is the world. A megalomaniac’s desire to wipe it all clean despite the constant African dust that gets everywhere suddenly becomes a lot more understandable.
Favorite Moment: The opening breakfast.
Some of Poltergeist’s effects are very 80s and are far more likely to inspire smirks than screams nowadays, in particular the gigantic floating skull. But it’s all so fun even when using the cheapest tricks in the playbook, for this is a film that became more than the sum of its individual parts that don’t initially seem to go together. It’s as good an example as any of how well-done pacing can really help elevate anything in quality. Spielberg wanted to make a horror picture that everyone could watch and the movie goes for base fears that are about equally unsettling for both a parent and a child, such as being attacked by a giant tree or getting sucked into a closet. Even the black comedy notes like the toys playing themselves can be appreciated by the most terrified young’un. Despite all this, it’s as cute and cuddly as Spielberg’s actual peak work for the whole family from 1982. Heather O’Rourke may have a quick smile and a lovely disposition even when her parents are letting her be dragged across the floor of their kitchen by demons, but she is still a deeply unnerving child, looking ghostly and possessed and having a voice that feels strangely airless. She’s clearly a talent gone too soon (the Poltergeist curse does not help leave this with a lighter legacy), but it’s Zelda Rubinstein’s medium Tabitha, despite the gimmickery of using a little person, that really leaves an impression, with a commanding screen presence and a voice that drips with plenty of experiences with idiotic suburban families and their house devouring ghosts. While Tobe Hooper may have had a huge part in the film, this movie is so clearly a Spielberg production that it shouldn’t even be up for debate. Poltergeist is a sensationalized version of the old ghost stories that were no doubt endemic to Spielberg’s childhood and all the flashing lights can’t take away from how this film was more or less built to last, with a focus on overall atmosphere rather than cheap jump scares. Sentiment and scares have been done better by both the directors of this project (well, maybe not sentiment for Hooper) but they were never quite combined so well. The dark side of suburbia is a commonly dissected theme but it’s never been taken to the most literal and nasty extreme of it like it has here.
Favorite Moment: Carol Ann goes into the closet.
An incredibly bold yet deeply personal tract, Missing comes out of the gates swinging with its threats of needing to protect the very film itself by changing names, and not even bothering to educate anyone unaware who’s in the audience on the Pinochet coup, and thank god for that. Even those without knowledge of South America’s leadership strife (an alarmingly large percentage of the population, based on some tourist encounters when I went to Argentina) can probably get a vague understanding of what’s happening from the sights of Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek constantly being subjected to curfews from armed men. Spacek gives one of her very strongest performances as a woman who is totally unprepared for a situation like this but still chafes under pressure from anyone who tries to suppress her freedoms, with that kind of steely resolve carrying over to finding out what happened to her boyfriend. She underplays almost everything as Beth and thus comes off as reserved due to the presence of Lemmon’s Ed. When Lemmon enters the picture, he matches her, with the sort of body language that just screams “conservative parent.” Resentments and anxieties about his son and the woman he loved are permanently carved into his face, but even when the two uneasy allies feud over their beliefs, a common desire to find out the truth is palpable, and they both anger their fair share of authorities along the way. Missing is juggling several balls at once-the grander Chilean political context, the Ed/Beth relationship, and the Ed/Charlie relationship. Costa-Gavras shows no mercy in tightening the screws, but he does so furiously. The film never outright states that it’s opposed to the coup but it’s pretty easy to detect it. It also doesn’t shy away from the political hypocrisies from the American side of things, with Charlie taking employment for both his supposed liberal causes and making cheap money with the Wall Street Journal. The film’s ending is basically an anticlimax, but a fascinating one. It doesn’t preach to the choir except unintentionally, for this movie is so convincing in its paranoid liberalism that once Chile reveals its cards, we’re ready to get vicious. In simplifying the morality of things a tad, the movie forces the audience to ask questions and learn something about politics, with our leads becoming their best selves as a result of the situation they’re forced into.
Favorite Moment: The argument at the hotel at the halfway point.
14. Eating Raoul
Eating Raoul doesn’t have a whole lot to say, exactly, with both counterculture and highbrow culture being mocked indiscriminately and without any real meaning behind it (although it fits the anarchic moods of the movie), but it’s too much fun to watch to penalize it for that. Even with the rather vague nature of the satiric writing, there’s definitely an argument to be made about the movie’s capitalist mockery as being a little ahead of its era in the methods of its political incorrectness, with the leads having to kill or be killed to get ahead in this world. It’s very dry despite being totally filthy, but it’s still about swingers, dominatrixes, and cannibalism, making it a delightful contradiction. Even jokes as silly as naming our titular couple Bland work because of how the movie likes to present everything in the most tongue in cheek, droll, matter of fact tone you could imagine for a black comedy. The ingredients that even the very title suggests are kind of disgusting but the meal is yummy, with the obvious comparison here being Hannibal Lecter’s liver with fava beans and Chianti. Most enjoyable is the movie’s deadpan take on swinger culture, treated with the sort of disdain by the Blands that you’d expect from a pair of upper class British marrieds who drop their monocles all the time. You’d think the only people who supposedly have morals in this sick sad world turning into murderers would be the subject of the satire, and it is, but the movie clearly thinks they are fairly rational. It’s the ultimate paradox of the film that the camp appeal of Eating Raoul comes from Paul Bartel not allowing any of it in-the sincerity of it all gets underplayed, and it becomes wackier when you process it as opposed to seeing it. The Blands discuss their decisions together, ranging from the mundane choices of changing the locks to things like hitting Nazi fetishists in the head with a frying pan to kill them. Wine snobs and exploitative locksmiths alike get ribbed and made into spare ribs. It vaults between sleaze and a higher intelligence than its, well, bland surface would initially indicate, and pockets our own money despite murdering any sense of innocence we may have had at one point. Your mileage may vary, but who wouldn’t want to see Doris the Dominatrix demand that her boots be licked?
Favorite Moment: The Nazi fantasy.
13. Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior
In a day and age of Fury Road revolutionizing what an action movie could be and proving that sometimes, franchise reboots from the 1970s and 80s are actually justified, The Road Warrior is a little like a throwback to a simpler time. The fourth film takes plenty of inspiration from the second, but with upgrades. Tom Hardy’s world is one where religion has finally gained control and post-apocalyptic Australia is even more hellish in its insanity than it was during the days of Mel Gibson hanging out at a hunting/gathering community. The people in George Miller’s universe circa 1982 have accomplished a whole lot less but they definitely have a better idea of how to handle things, and with the planet being even more on the verge of collapse than it was back then, this only deepens the locales of this film. It’s a perfect sequel, being entirely self-contained but adding lots to the three films that exist within the same place. Mad Max practically becomes an origin story while Beyond Thunderdome mostly shows how the world is progressing despite being filled with satire about environmentalism thrown in there that became even more urgent in Mad Max 4. The visuals and the production design may have dated a tad but it’s actually perfect, for the films have become increasingly less green and the oranges of the sand become more and more saturated, implying increasing degradation and rot. Our titular character has gone from a clean cut cop who was the one decent person in the first film to a cobbled together leather daddy, and from a hero to a total shell following the death of his wife and child. His substitute child, the Feral Kid, has a creatively nasty and suitably iconic weapon in the form of his deadly boomerang, and the pile up that is the details of the story when Max Rockatansky arrives at the refinery is a pleasure to keep track of, with the franchise’s characteristically coherent editing and visual storytelling setting the stage, with the heightened performances and little throwaways that reward an observant viewer like just how goddamn valuable resources like ammunition are fleshing everything out. This is a franchise that has earned its entry into the canon of great ones, with every film being a necessary blockbuster for that day and age, but only this and the latest entry make the case for great film status.
Favorite Moment: The Feral Kid’s boomerang murder.
12. The Verdict
Something that doesn’t go appreciated enough in The Verdict is the cinematography, which is done with inky blacks and rich browns. It’s a fitting color palette for a film that deals with material that starts off with a pregnant woman going into a coma and being represented by a severely alcoholic lawyer who refuses to settle even if it could keep him in booze for the remainder of his life and then grows increasingly grim. But it has Sidney Lumet’s sharp eye and pen guiding both the speedy writing and direction, and is thankfully humanized by an excellent ensemble. With all due respect to the limited players, who make strong impressions, the three leads (Paul Newman, James Mason, Charlotte Rampling) are by far the best in show as, respectively: an drunk lawyer slowly regaining his humanity even when there isn’t a whole lot of life left in him anyway, a prosecutor who knows very well that he’s in the wrong but vaults between not caring and letting a deeper conflict quietly bubble up, and a strange sort of femme fatale that gets blanker throughout until her last gasp for help right when we thought she couldn’t become less likable despite her understandable motivations. It’s a machine of a movie, and if it was made nowadays it’d be blatant Oscarbait, but it’s the good kind, unafraid to genuinely twist the knife at the end by allowing Frank Galvin to escape his demons even if it means Laura is abandoned. Newman’s vitality leaks out of him like a balloon before he gains a second wind, finally learning about how his alcoholism needs to end. The characters may be drawn a bit sketchily for the purposes of the movie’s tendency to just throw plot points at us until we’re buried, but thank god for the actors, who create full people with reactions that gain increasing detail as we see things like Mason’s prosecutor’s casual privilege that turns into an uneasy confusion as the testimonies related to the dying witness unfurl. The movie never aims for realism in its plot, but in terms of characterization this is unimpeachable stuff. The Verdict is deeply personal and has a clear vision of human desperation, ranging from Frank giving out his card at funerals to that final phone call, a last gasp that certainly stands out in that particular Best Picture lineup-hell, any lineup-as a grim note to end a movie that otherwise unambiguously believes in redemption.
Favorite Moment: The final shots.
I’ll start by saying that Diner single-handedly missed the Top 10 off the back of that penis in the popcorn gag, which admittedly makes me laugh but is also fairly disgusting. Still, movies where young men are characterized idiotically and thus accurately are sorely lacking nowadays, and ones where they’re still deserving of our sympathies are even rarer. The boys who hang out at the diner cling together in packs to avoid adulthood even when one of them is married and another is about to tie the knot if his fiancee can pass a quiz about a football team (a great piece of cringe comedy on the nature of arrested development, simply because it’s not intended to be painful-it feels like the sort of thing Amy Elliott-Dunne’s Cool Girl monologue was written for but thankfully the movie doesn’t sympathize much with it although it never outright indicts). Fittingly, best in show goes to a woman in Ellen Barkin, whose inability to break into the circle that her husband has constructed that doesn’t include her causes a slow unraveling. It’s the most grimly accurate part of a movie that prides itself on accuracy and naturalism, for the strength of the encapsulation of the nature of men and their hobbies which frequently turn into exclusionary obsessions if the woman in their lives don’t adapt to their exact personalities. But the guys in the diner gang are all strong themselves, with Rourke’s magnetic charisma being the most rewarding of the bunch, and the script (or improvisation, whichever) paying great dividends in how it both turns a keen eye onto the various character flaws of these guys while also having fun just listening to their camaraderie and appreciating them as humans. The various styles of the improv give weight to the different personalities, and it also results in a great rhythm within the dialogue, a give and take between the men as they collectively resist the pressures of adulthood. That the movie grabs the vibe of the 1950s perfectly is icing on the cake, ranging from the music to the taste in movies of the general population of the town. The tagline of the film is “Suddenly, life was more than French fries, gravy, and girls,” but it’s all that and many more things too, an encapsulation of life with all the detours that don’t really go anywhere. It’s a shaggy dog but an endearing one.
Favorite Moment: The fight over the records.
10. Victor Victoria
Victor Victoria’s first half is the stuff that musical dreams are made of, with minor jokes and subplots like Julie Andrews’ screams over the phony roach in the restaurant being a delightfully fun little set of detours on our way to the bulk of the story, featuring several layers of gender bending that you don’t see in anything nowadays let alone something made in the Reagan era. Far more importantly, the wonderful musical numbers! Le Jazz Hot’s sliding scale at the end is the sort of thing that I could listen to forever (with Lesley Ann Warren’s schadenfreude filled delivery of “YAY!” once Andrews takes off her headpiece being the sort of line reading I’d like to copy in my real life much more often) but The Shady Dame from Seville is pretty hard to resist as the most draggy of all 1980s drag queen numbers, especially when the movie’s ending featuring the song makes the female impersonation more traditional. The second half is where the movie starts to hit the rougher patches (relatively speaking), with Victoria’s affection for a man who’s basically a bigot and never gets called out on his behavior being incomprehensible, and the two ending up together at the end will never fail to disappoint me a little. Singlehood suited Victoria better. Still, the movie’s entire premise is that we look like idiots if we take sex and gender too seriously, so why not just enjoy the sparkling farcical performances from three of the leads that all earned richly deserved Oscar nominations? Andrews is more or less playing herself with a slightly sharper edge than a character like, say, Mary Poppins, but she does it so well that it’s impossible to feel anything bad towards her. Robert Preston is the perfect supporting best friend, warm, wise, and getting all the best lines. But best in show is probably Warren, whose vocal acrobatics during the Chicago Illinois number are unequivocally the highlight of the film’s second half and is a loving homage to Jean Hagen’s Lina Lamont. Victor Victoria may not have the highest of aims but it’s a great comfort food movie that has a little more on its mind than most, and while “be yourself” is not an original message it’s nice to see something that does what it says and actually is itself while laughing at itself too, warts and bizarre glam and all.
Favorite Moment: Le Jazz Hot.
9. Das Boot
Claustrophobia is one of the most interesting and underused feelings that can be evoked in a movie, simply because it’s fun to realize that we are feeling cramped and on the verge of dying from suffocation just by looking at a moving picture of some very exhausted looking navy members during World War II. It’s a study in empathy if there ever was one. Das Boot’s submarine is a real doozy, a long skinny hallway with control panels that take up more room than living quarters. While Das Boot does care about claustrophobic emotions and tensions rising, it’s more focused on the excruciating task of managing a German U-Boat, and while some films that are situated entirely in one location are invested in a very exact set of shots, sometimes to their benefit (Raise the Red Lantern comes to mind), this film is made stronger from a camera that functions however it damn pleases, for it is an unofficial crew member that has to run from place to place in order to maintain the submarine. It’s one of the most unpleasant jobs on the planet. These men aren’t Nazis, either, with Jurgen Prochnow (best in show if only for having the only meaty role) grimly playing middleman between his comrades and his bosses, who he clearly loathes but must make nice with at one of the most awkward dinners ever filmed, a shiny contrast between the crudeness of the soldiers and the sophistication of the higher-ups that seems utterly inane after all we’ve been put through. The war scenes culminate with some horrifying underwater chases, where there’s no escape from the muffled thuds of explosions and the vague meaning of the sonar pings, and when we finally surface and see the sailors on fire leaping from the torpedoed boat to their deaths by drowning and burns, we know that we are well and truly out of Hollywood, with the boat’s slow reversal to avoid saving them being enough to remind us that these men are doing the worst jobs in the world, and this is how it truly was, with merciless decisions made on a regular basis. It’s a very impersonal piece of work, but that’s a necessary evil in a movie like this that calmly chokes the life out of its audience while unblinkingly staring back at us. We’re forced to digest every second of terror-it’s a trial by water.
Favorite Moment: The men on fire leaping from the boat.
The most critically acclaimed Filipino film ever made, Himala doesn’t exactly have anything to say about religion that hasn’t been said plenty of times before. Blind faith is an obvious evil and there’s not much subtlety to be found in how it’s approached, complete with literal apostles for our leading lady. But for a movie made in the 1980s, this is incredibly progressive even today, and the little details embedded throughout add grim layers, ranging from Elsa’s so called faith healing not actually being shown to be doing anything, to just how severe the poverty in the town is and how alarming it all becomes when despite a complete lack of any benefits to Elsa’s work, the village still desperately relies on her during a cholera outbreak for both income and faith-based salvation. Most remarkably, Himala doesn’t take any cheap swipes at institutions like the Catholic Church which probably do deserve criticism but aren’t central to this universe. Despite having a tremendous amount of empathy for the poverty stricken villagers, Ishmael Bernal is still angry with how they are so willing to throw away anything they have going for them just for the sake of remaining devout, except for the few opportunists. In some ways, however, it makes all the sense in the world they’d be drawn to Elsa just for Nora Aunor’s performance. She is a blank enigma, filled with quiet radiance, and while her motivations are never really made clear, we can see them rattling around in her head with every inquisition she receives. Everyone else is so restrained as to appear flat, but this is a smart choice that pays off with a climax that recalls a certain movie I wrote an essay on, except rather than a twisted regaining of control like in Nashville, the madness continues while the Virgin Mary that started all this lurks in the background. It’s a depressing ending, as nihilistic and misanthropic as anything I can remember, and the political situation in the Philippines (a deeply religious country) is as clear and blatant a “fuck you” as anything I can think of. Yet even when Bernal is rightfully condemning the all reaching nature of religion and tossing the rest of the crowd to the inferno, Aunor is shot with unironic reverence, a beacon of light in an austere place that was cursed for its sins long ago and will never recover.
Favorite Moment: Final speech and everything that comes after.
7. Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean
Despite its unwieldy title, Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean Jimmy Dean is Altman at his most appreciative of his actresses, with these woman and their hopes and aspirations, however unrealistic, treated with the utmost respect and sincerity. It’s a weird film, but in that very human way that’s so characteristic of his work, and the ensemble is excellent as usual. Cher is the best one in the pack, both sexy and insecure about it, filled with exhaustion over how goddamn tedious life can get. Sandy Dennis’ “off with the fairies” brand of out there behavior gets a full workout as the town visionary who thinks she had a child with the titular star when he filmed Giant, while Karen Black’s entrance results in a truly inspired evocation of merciless embarrassment. But as the ladies suffer through the hottest day of the year in a squalid five and dime store, we get flashbacks to the summer nights back when they were coming into their own and dealing with their lives growing apart thanks to their own growth as people. The revelations on display here can’t exactly be called groundbreaking, but I value the predictability, for it allows us to more clearly see how the cast embody their characters both twenty years in the past and nowadays. James Dean may have consumed these women’s lives but they’re all handling it differently, whether by treating it as a fun lark or something they cannot let go of. While this movie definitely feels like a play adaptation, it’s one with a lot more pathos than you’d initially guess from a script reading. Memories are jam packed into the remarkable set, with the two way mirror being an inspired touch and everything feeling bleached by the relentless light of the sun. The man these women believed in may not have known they ever existed but their devotion to him remains a touching look at the nature of fandom even today. It’s the gentlest of all rebukes for blind hero worship, with Altman not really meaning it even when he mocks. I’ve only seen this film once but I already want to come back to this five and dime, perhaps in another 20 years to meet the disciples again. Really, when you consider the reveal about Black’s character, this is just a love letter to LGBT cinephiles with big dreams. It’s practically made for me.
Favorite Moment: Mona’s left ear monologue.
Finishing off my 1982 Obsession trilogy that takes up the eighth through sixth slots on this countdown, we go to the one that operates on the grandest and most batshit of scales in Fitzcarraldo. No discussion of this film is quite complete without acknowledging that Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski were both madmen who brought out both the worst and best in each other, and the pain they inflicted upon the film’s crew is enough fascinating supplementary material to assure this celluloid slice of insanity has a high reputation as is. It’s one of the most grim fables about cultural exploitation ever penned, with the casual abuse of every person of color in the movie while Caruso’s opera wails out into the jungles hitting just as hard as our titular character’s lower status in the upper class homes of the rubber traders of Ecuador. We know from the opening scene of Fitzcarraldo paddling for days just to see an opera that he’s insane, but even without that being our introductory note, just looking at Kinski’s eyes and his completely inappropriate white suit is an unsettling effect. The eye motif becomes even more pervasive once we get scenes of the Indians trying to understand how this foul little man operates when he forces them to drag an enormous boat across the land, uphill, risking all of their lives. Herzog, meanwhile, goes for the most precise capturing of some of the most bizarre images ever recorded and nearly kills several crew members in the process. The boat is nothing more than a little particle trying to make its way through the never ending landscape that is the Amazon, a place that is essentially characterized as God’s rough draft that no man could ever conquer, and no amount of highbrow masterpiece music that is shot through the giant record player can make it easier to deal with this fact for any reasonable person, which Fitzcarraldo is not. This movie is arguably a documentary in which no one plays themselves in the process, a found footage film from the making of a found footage film. All manmade wonders, ranging from this movie to the opera house, are created with those on the top crushing those on the bottom in a pile of bodies. Fitz gets to be on top for a change but it costs him his soul and sanity. It’s worth it for the viewer.
Favorite Moment: Fitz crashing the party to play opera.
5. Pink Floyd-The Wall
With Roger Waters’ hypnotic siren songs bellowing from the depths of his brain as a band of the damned rattles away, Pink Floyd – The Wall could function perfectly well on its own terms as what it was originally-that is to say, as an album. I’m probably underselling a classic that has influenced countless artists but it has plenty of personality on its own and has a certain timelessness due to the straightforward acknowledgement of some universally known awful truths. Having said that, a great album needs some great music videos, and this is a movie where the quality of the audio is arguably far more important than the visuals, but let’s not take away from the animation, which is a mad experiment and some of the greatest psychedelia in the history of the medium. It’s also surrounded by gorgeously evocative live action footage, with Bob Geldof throwing everything on the line and baring his soul and body of any hairs. The extent to which he depicts his character’s struggles with the nuclear age in his descent (notice how we never actually see Pink perform in concert) is plenty alarming on its own, but watching the screaming bricks in the wall and the sexual flowers while the soundtrack blares away is nothing short of perfect in its synchronization. And the Nazi hammers! Such a sick take on a tool, so effective it might have inspired an honest to god real life white supremacist group. All of this is like the best sequences from Fantasia with grown up and totally miserabilist sensibilities. This is a rock opera filled with so much self indulgence it can barely carry itself through the episodic nature of the scenes, with grotesqueness on permanent display in the form of proudly unsubtle symbolism about schools producing mindless drones and heaven knows what in terms of Waters’ issues with women, drugs, the military, the world. It also works just like the most iconic of classic albums, creating a lushly coherent soundscape. That the visuals match it, dragging Waters to hell for our own twisted entertainment and morphing from gun to syringe to guitar to car within seconds to capture the stages of his development, is all the better. Ride the musical spear as it jabs at you, giving pleasure before it splinters, assaulting the senses and shredding the nerves. It is the agony and the ecstasy of creative vision all at once.
Favorite Moment: The flowers.
While I do love a certain other cross dressing comedy that happens to be in my Top 10 for this year, it pales entirely in comparison to Tootsie, which has one of the funniest screenplays ever written independent of the cast-it’s practically bad actor proof. (Something about identity leads to great comedy.) But what an ensemble this movie happens to have, with Dustin Hoffman’s Dorothy being convincing…but not too much so and filled with duality when he’s playing Michael, Jessica Lange and Teri Garr take on polar opposites in neurosis hilariously but with a bit of darkness behind their smiles, and Charles Durning giving a far better, surprisingly melancholy performance than the one that actually got him nominated in Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Not a single character except perhaps the pervy actor who plays the leading doctor on the hospital show is treated as a joke even when they get to make plenty of them. The script was recently voted the best ever in some place or another, and while I’m not sure I would personally go that far, it’s still just so damn warranted anyway because of how we get countless jabs about sexism, gender identity, and emotional maturity that all stick, and hopefully a film like this will encourage others to respect women for the same reasons drag queens do-it’s fucking difficult to do every day. Getting to see Dorothy take on a life of her own separate from Michael is a lovely arc that doesn’t hit us over the head and a great character study (learning to appreciate one’s new knowledge even when we don’t want to learn via the school of hard knocks is a pretty under-explored topic) but the far more immediate pleasure is watching every comic beat get perfectly nailed. The spoonful of sugar truly does help the medicine go down, except Tootsie is more like candy that happens to be good for you. Whenever one of the people in Michael’s life appear, they aren’t just there to make quips, they’re very carefully controlling the film’s pace. But when there’s this many gags, and in all shapes and sizes, the running time of 116 minutes just flies by. Tootsie may be a movie that projects, but it does so with a clear confident voice that blurs the line between the sexes admirably and is still seductive enough to invite anyone with taste in.
Favorite Moment: Dorothy hailing a taxi.
3. The Thing
For a film that has a dozen characters but barely develops about ten of them and leaves them to get killed by a shapeshifting monster, The Thing is actually as superb a study a claustrophobia as the aforementioned Das Boot, with that film’s narrow hallways surrounded by water having frozen into absolutely stunning looking (albeit totally bleak, loaded with negative space, and lit like an Italian horror film) snow and ice. It’s pretty simple stakes: you can stay and die, or you can run and be turned into something so awful you’ll wish you were dead, for the twisted faces of the transformed men make me believe they’re still alive under there, rotting away. It’s the kind of movie that truly deepens in retrospect, with earlier scenes where we wonder initially wondered what exactly was happening, turning into the sort of thing that inspires a panic in the realm of “GET AWAY FROM THAT PERSON!” when you know exactly what they’ve been turned into. But it’s the dynamics of the group that really get twisted around by John Carpenter, with the knowledge that SOME of the men are now killers and some are merely just acting suspicious, and all the paranoia and power struggles that erupt as a result of this dynamic that gets played with to magnificent effect. It’s also unimpeachable as a body horror, with some of the most horrifying practical effects ever used to create a body horror that only someone like David Cronenberg could ever rival. Most nightmarish of all is what an extraordinary predictor this movie was of the AIDS crisis, although the brilliantly done jump scare related to the blood test never fails to get me a little bit every time, for the editing in this film is masterful in misleading us and Ennio Morricone’s thudding beats are a true guarantee of something ominous coming in our direction. We’re consistently given a rough outline of how the next few minutes are going to go within this movie’s episodic structure, but our expectations are upended on numerous occasions right when we’re most inclined to let our guard down. The only exception is the ending, which was so inevitable that when it finally hits us, the doom is only more pronounced. Might as well enjoy these last few moments while they last, though, for the alternative is exactly what has been waved in our face over the film’s runtime.
Favorite Moment: The blood testing.
2. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
As wonderful as we could ask for from any movie that’s aimed at children, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial gains most of its inspiration for being just as emotional as we could ask for (that John Williams score is the most crassly manipulative thing he’s ever written and has a lot of Raiders within it but by god does it work well) while also having a tiny little sliver of darkness at its core. For all the jokes about Steven Spielberg’s father issues and sentimentality, this is the film that laid the groundwork for it because it was done so well, with Elliot’s missing father and initially unbearable siblings being packed with genuine emotion thanks to the most natural child performances in quite a while (and they have to portray childhood as a fairly awful thing when you’re lonely to boot) and very small stakes in the early minutes of the runtime, with Henry Thomas sadly not being able to translate this into bigger and better things. Even the director of that year’s (boring) Best Picture winner felt it was the rightful choice to win. While E.T. himself is a remarkable creation, he’s also living proof that we can find ourselves drawn to the most surprising things when we watch cinema, especially since he’s not remotely cute and more than a little terrifying, especially when we see his near colorless body at the makeshift lab when he appears dead. But the movie isn’t science fiction, it’s magical, and fantasy has always had a warmer heart than the cold and clinical world of sci-fi (although I obviously like iciness since my #1 for this year should be pretty obvious). This is the perfect kind of art to introduce a child to the magic of movies, with Melissa Mathison treating children with respect and incredible directorial craft on display (notice how whenever the film leaves Elliot’s perspective, it’s either focused on E.T. himself or something bad happens to the pair). This is the Hollywood machine working at its very best, not shying away from how hard the world can be but filled with plenty of hope. It contains enough little ambiguities scattered around that anyone old enough to talk can probably examine and appreciate. It soars like the famous bicycle scene, and earns some of the most heart tugging melodrama in all of the history of movies because of how well crafted it is.
Favorite Moment: The ending.
1. Blade Runner
Reducing Ridley Scott’s masterpiece in Blade Runner to just its production design while rattling off complaints about the script is absolutely unwarranted, for any work that has created such a thorough universe with not a single light out of place deserves all the acclaim it receives, complete with a soundtrack that feels like the pop soundtrack within this version of Los Angeles, 2019. It’s details for the sake of having them but that is something deserving of congratulations, and they are exactly what we need from a film that is rain-soaked and polluted. There’s never been a techno-noir this stylish, even with countless imitators since its release. “Style over substance” is one of the most ridiculous insults for a movie like this, for the film relies far more on visual exposition than almost anything else I’ve seen and that is something that warrants the worship. While there’s a thin plot of Harrison Ford’s Deckard needing to hunt down four escaped replicants and kill them, while dealing with a fifth in the shape of the uber glamorous Rachael, the story is ultimately about the leader of said replicants in Roy Batty, a magnificent Rutger Hauer who is the most godly man ever made but his time on the mortal coil is destined to end far too quickly. He’s the only one who really gets to act, although Ford does strong work too, with the rest of the cast standing out due to clever line readings and strange character designs rather than anything that could be called development. It’s a batch of meat puppets but they’re all there to be shot in slow motion while we question whether or not Deckard himself is a replicant. Even the slightly more hammy moments like the palm stigmata and the dove flying away are carried off so damn well because of how unafraid all of it is to get emotional in wild outbursts thanks to Hauer’s performance going from confident to terrified in the blink of an eye. While the extensive number of cuts is probably unfortunate since it does make clear that you can change the order of some scenes with very little effect on the storyline and pacing, I’ve only seen the one version, and it’s so sensuous that even when the movie casually throws an interesting idea out there before promptly ignoring it for a bit, it’s wrestled with all the way out the theater for days. I want to live in Blade Runner even with how utterly foul the planet has become, but thanks to it, I’ve seen things that no one could possibly believe.
Favorite Moment: “Tears in the rain,” complete with the cheesy dove shot.