When the Motion Picture Academy 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 ways to spend your time:
1. The Decline...of Western Civilization
Directed by Penelope Spheeris
If this isn't the best rock doc ever made, it's certainly the funniest.
2. 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 transpose it to colonial Africa.
3. Blow Out
Written and directed by Brian De Palma
Like Blow Up crossed with a '70s conspiracy thriller.
Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Written by Fassbinder, Pea Fröhlich, and Peter Märthesheimer
Another conspiracy movie, sort of. One where everyone in town but one is in on the conspiracy.
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 had done this 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.
Directed by Peter Weir
Written by David Williamson, from a story by Weir
One of the great antiwar movies. Such a 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."
Written and directed by John Waters
Few motion pictures are this cruel to a protagonist. Even fewer manage to be this funny in the process.
9. Stations of the Elevated
Directed by Manfred Kirchheimer
For anyone who ever suspected that a city's true public art is its billboards and graffiti.
10. The Aviator's Wife
Written and directed by Éric Rohmer
This starts with the sort of misunderstanding that has fueled a thousand sitcoms, then takes the story in a messier, more emotionally authentic direction.
11. Modern Romance (Albert Brooks)
12. Songs for Swinging Larvae (Graeme Whifler)
13. Ms.45 (Abel Ferrara)
14. Vernon, Florida (Errol Morris)
15. America is Waiting (Bruce Conner)
16. God's Angry Man (Werner Herzog)
17. Once in a Lifetime (Toni Basil, David Byrne)
18. Pixote (Hector Babenco)
19. Hôtel des Amériques (André Téchiné)
20. Das Boot (Wolfgang Petersen)
Of the films of 1981 that I haven't seen, I'm most interested in Huie's Sermon.