1981 Ten Best Movies

The danger of pointing things out: Bridges and Heard

A mixed-up year, for sure: a dreadful kind of non-movie in abundance, but also a few grand things – even the Oscars couldn’t decide, handing the surprise win to Chariots of Fire, which, as compromise choices go, isn’t bad at all. And the best film of the year suffered the indignity of being yanked after a tiny release, then found itself re-titled to make a minor cult/arthouse splash. That film is Cutter’s Way, originally released as Cutter and Bone, a much better title that has somehow never been re-asserted. This amazing film, a sensory experience as well as a seductive mystery, calls forth the best from an excellent group of collaborators: the Czech emigre director Ivan Passer, screenwriter Jeffrey Alan Fiskin (look at his IMDb credits and wonder, Who is this guy?), novelist Newton Thornburg, composer Jack Nitzsche, et al. The lead trio of actors is especially, almost painfully, committed; with all due respect to Jeff Bridges’ career-crowning work in Crazy Heart, he may never have been better than he was in Cutter’s Way; and John Heard and Lisa Eichhorn certainly weren’t.

I go on more about Cutter’s Way as part of Jim Emerson’s “Opening Shots” project at Scanners. That’s here. Elsewhere in a weird year, Warren Beatty’s dream project, Reds, turned out to be an intelligent epic, Eric Rohmer launched another cycle of devastatingly observant films, and The Road Warrior definitively rebuked the idea that sequels must be pale copies of their originals. The ten best movies of 1981:

1. Cutter’s Way (Ivan Passer)

2. Reds (Warren Beatty)

3. The Road Warrior (George Miller)

4. Atlantic City (Louis Malle)

5. Lola (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)

6. The Aviator’s Wife (Eric Rohmer)

7. Coup de Torchon (Bertrand Tavernier)

8. Thief (Michael Mann)

9. Das Boot (Wolfgang Peterson)

10. Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg)

Those last two were going to be a tie (large-yet-lean entertainments set during World War II), but other things fell off the list, mostly because I’ve not seen them since 1981 or so: S.O.B., Pixote, Prince of the City, Man of Iron, Chariots of Fire, Excalibur, They All Laughed, and Francois Truffaut’s downbeat The Woman Next Door.  My Dinner with Andre meant something to me at the time, and Rich and Famous was a better exit from movies for George Cukor than one might have expected. Body Heat inspired a Halloween costume for me, and Arthur is a completely hilarious vehicle for Dudley Moore (in truly glorious form). Some of the genre offerings survive well: Cronenberg did Scanners, which holds up nicely, and it was a famously big year for werewolves (I write about Joe Dante’s The Howling here). And with 3D now officially entrenched as part of the multiplex experience, we must recall the brief early-80s revival of interest in 3D that took the form of Comin’ at Ya!, a title that sums up the technology. Or maybe we don’t have to recall it.

3 Responses

  1. Mr. Horton, I agree that 1981 was a mostly forgettable year in cinema. But I’d like to commend you for highlighting several of this year’s films which happen to be among my all-time favorites: EXCALIBUR, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, THE ROAD WARRIOR, THEY ALL LAUGHED, THIEF.

    And at the top of my list, like yours is CUTTER AND BONE, a film I consider to be criminally underappreciated (except for the esteemed Jonathan Rosenbaum and now, you, I never seem to find any writing on it).

    Thank you.

    • I have shown CUTTER AND BONE to a couple of classes over the years and a) nobody’s ever heard of it, and b) it invariably blows people away. It still could be re-discovered (or officially discovered, I guess).
      Also, confession about RAIDERS: for me it plays second fiddle to I.J. AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM, a much wilder and more cinematically adventurous movie.

      • Funny you should say that. I have long admired Spielberg’s decision to fashion a far different type of adventure with TEMPLE OF DOOM rather than stick to RAIDERS’ template. Unfortunately, its relative failure to live up to the first film’s box office sent Spielberg and Lucas back to the RAIDERS trough, to the series’ detriment in my opinion.

        Don’t know if you are an IJ fan but you should definitely seek out some of Lucas’ YOUNG INDIANA JONES TV episodes. The series was uneven in quality, but there were a great deal of off-pattern adventures starring up-and-comers like Daniel Craig, Isaach De Bankolé, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Jeffrey Wright, and directed by folks like Deepa Mehta, Mike Newell, and Nicolas Roeg.

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