When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences looked at 1981, it gave its Best Picture award to Chariots of Fire, the film that appears in the dictionary next to the phrase "Oscar bait." Here are some better movies:
1. Coup de Torchon Directed by Bertrand Tavernier Written by Tavernier and Jean Aurenche, from a novel by Jim Thompson
Apparently a Jim Thompson story still works when you transport it to colonial Africa.
2. The Decline...of Western Civilization Directed by Penelope Spheeris
If this isn't the best rock doc ever made, it's certainly the funniest.
3. Blow Out Written and directed by Brian De Palma
Imagine Blow Up crossed with a '70s conspiracy thriller.
4. Lola Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder Written by Fassbinder, Pea Fröhlich, and Peter Märthesheimer
"I'm corrupt." "You most certainly are not." "I adapt. Same thing."
5. Mephisto Directed by István Szabó Written by Szabó and Péter Dobai, from a novel by Klaus Mann
In 2006 it emerged that Szabó had been an informant in the aftermath of Hungary's failed 1956 revolution. He claimed at first that he'd done it to save a friend's life, then admitted that this was a self-serving lie. I relate these unpleasant details not to criticize this absorbing film, but to suggest that its textured portrait of an opportunist adjusting to life under totalitarian rule might have a touch of self-lacerating autobiography to it.
6. Gallipoli Directed by Peter Weir Written by David Williamson, from a story by Weir
One of the great antiwar movies. Shame about the soundtrack.
7. Time Bandits Directed by Terry Gilliam Written by Gilliam and Michael Palin
"Why does there have to be evil?" "I think it has something to do with free will."
8. Polyester Written and directed by John Waters
Not many motion pictures are this cruel to a protagonist. Even fewer manage to be this funny in the process.
9. Modern Romance Written and directed by Albert Brooks
10. Ms.45 Directed by Abel Ferrara Written by N.G. St. John
If Death Wish had starred Valerie Solanas...
11. Vernon, Florida (Errol Morris) 12. America is Waiting (Bruce Conner) 13. Pixote (Hector Babenco) 14. Das Boot (Wolfgang Petersen) 15. Pennies from Heaven (Herbert Ross) 16. Tango (Zbigniew Rybczynski) 17. Junkopia (Chris Marker, John Chapman) 18. Crac (Frédéric Back) 19. Gregory's Girl (Bill Forsyth) 20. Smothering Dreams (Daniel Reeves)
Of the films of 1981 that I haven't seen, I'm most interested in The Aviator's Wife.