When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences looked back at 1980, it gave its Best Picture award to Ordinary People, an after-school special with high production values. It isn't on my list. The most historically significant movie of the year was probably Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate, a longwinded western whose out-of-control budget and skimpy box office receipts brought the New Hollywood era to an end. Cimino's film has a terrible reputation, but I actually rather like it, flaws and all. But I didn't put it on my list either.
1. Mon Oncle d'Amerique Directed by Alain Resnais Written by Jean Gruault
Resnais lays out a deeply determinist vision, bordering on paranoia, in which human choices are little more than the involuntary responses of mice in mazes. Its storylines are fictional but the figure at the center of the movie -- the sociobiologist Henri Laborit -- is real, putting the picture at the little-traveled intersection where quasi-documentaries meet quasi-science fiction.
2. Melvin and Howard Directed by Jonathan Demme Written by Bo Goldman
Demme's early movies tended toward eccentric Americana. This one is the most eccentric and American of them all.
3. Raging Bull Directed by Martin Scorsese Written by Scorsese, Mardik Martin, Paul Schrader, and Robert De Niro, from a memoir by Jake LaMotta with Joseph Carter and Peter Savage
Along with Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, this is one of the high points of the Scorsese/De Niro partnership -- and while I don't think the film as a whole is quite on the same level as those other two pictures, it just might feature the best of De Niro's three performances.
4. UFOria Written and directed by John Binder
Surely the only flying saucer movie in which key plot points turn on the protagonist's physical resemblance to Waylon Jennings. Also featuring Harry Dean Stanton as a faith healer cum con artist; between this and Repo Man, Stanton has to be the most essential actor in '80s science fiction. Why the hell isn't this on DVD yet?
5. The Stunt Man Directed by Richard Rush Written by Rush and Lawrence B. Marcus, from a novel by Paul Brodeur
I was blown away by this movie when I saw it at age 18, and I renewed my affections for it by rewatching it every few years. Then I set it aside for awhile, pulled it out again in my thirties, and got the uncomfortable feeling that I'd outgrown it. Suddenly the lead character I'd identified with seemed like an asshole; his romance with the leading lady seemed implausible and contrived; the film-within-a-film seemed pretentious and inane. But I'll still put it here for old time's sake, and because Peter O'Toole and Allen Garfield are great in it, and because the picture is still entertaining even if it isn't all that profound. Besides, I'm starting to wonder how many of my newfound problems with the movie were really problems with the ways my younger self had been interpreting it, and if some of those flaws are actually deliberate ironies. Maybe I better watch it again.
6. Bronco Billy Directed by Clint Eastwood Written by Dennis Hackin
If Mon Oncle d'Amerique's determinist worldview was too depressing for you, let Bronco Billy be the antidote. It's a celebration of individual freedom, extolling America as a place where people can jettison their old identities and reinvent themselves. As clear a statement of Eastwood's libertarian values as you'll find this side of The Outlaw Josey Wales.
7. The Long Good Friday Directed by John Mackenzie Written by Barrie Keeffe
Bob Hoskins plays a gangster boss, and that really ought to be enough to get you to watch the movie right there.
8. Kagemusha Directed by Akira Kurosawa Written by Akira Kurosawa and Masato Ide
"When the original is gone, what will happen to the double?"
9. Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers Directed by Les Blank
An ode to the stinking rose.
10. Airplane! Written and directed by Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker
I speak Jive. What's our vector, Victor? Stop calling me Shirley. Jim never vomits at home. There's a sale at Penney's! It's a big building with patients, but that's not important right now. (I can go on like this all night.)
11. Atlantic City (Louis Malle) 12. The Last Metro (François Truffaut) 13. Breaker Morant (Bruce Beresford) 14. The Ninth Configuration (William Peter Blatty) 15. Bad Timing (Nicholas Roeg) 16. Carny (Robert Kaylor) 17. American Gigolo (Paul Schrader) 18. The Blues Brothers (John Landis) 19. Coal Miner's Daughter (Michael Apted) 20. History of the World in Three Minutes Flat (Michael Mills)
Of the films of 1980 that I haven't seen, I'm most interested in Pepi, Luci, Bom. And sometime I suppose I should scale the 15-hour peak that is Berlin Alexanderplatz.