LIFE WITHOUT OSCAR: 1981 and 1982

Posted by · 8:10 pm · October 5th, 2010

Catch up with the idea behind this series here.

Can I just take a moment here to publicize that the 1980’s are by far, my least favorite decade in cinema. Despite the great titles that I’ll be spotlighting here and my feelings that it was the best time for blockbuster filmmaking, it’s just a generally depressing era. Genuine artistic voices were in short supply so if anyone has recommendations for these years, definitely throw them my way.

Perhaps I should start with “Chariots of Fire,” one of only a handful of Best Picture winners I have yet to see. The unheralded British production was a surprise winner over Warren Beatty’s “Reds,” which I have also not seen.

I was, however, conceived in 1981 so cut me some slack on these titles. I’ll get to them. As I was preparing to enter the world, all four acting winners were on their way out, averaging 71 years old, including Henry Fonda’s first ever win.

Another British production about a true story, “Gandhi,” took top honors in 1982. This was also the year “Tron” was disqualified from the Best Visual Effects category because the Academy thought using a computer was cheating.

1981 – “The Evil Dead” (Sam Raimi)

I’m not really a huge fan of “The Evil Dead,” but 1981 presented itself to be a weak year for eligible films that I’ve seen and I had to pick something. That being said, Sam Raimi’s debut feature has an awful lot going for it and thoroughly scared the shit out of me when I first saw it at age 16. It’s a testament to the talent on display here that despite going on to make the utterly unwatchable and worthless “Crimewave” next, he not only managed to work again, but eventually take the reigns of one of Hollywood’s biggest franchises.

The story is simple enough- a group of young people head to a cabin in the woods and accidentally unleash demonic forces that cause all sorts of unruly shit to happen. Not exactly Nobel Prize material. But Sam Raimi had enough visual tricks up his sleeve to keep things interesting and his devotion to The Three Stooges infused the blood and guts with enough sly humor to signal a unique voice amongst the genre. Plenty of the credit should also go to lead actor, Bruce Campbell, who takes on the role usually given to female scream queens and goes crazy with it.

Famously made on a tiny budget, viewers with no knowledge of the backstory would be hard pressed to find flaws in the makeup, effects and execution. Us old fogeys say it all the time, but practical effects truly make all the difference in the world when it comes to making the fantastic seem completely real. “The Thing” being a hallmark example for the sci-fi genre from the same time period. If you need proof that limitation feeds creativity, look no further than a double feature of this film and “Spider-Man 3.”

Bottom line again, is that the film is extremely scary. Particularly to a teenager raised by hard core Christians to whom nothing is scarier than demonic possession. The campiness makes repeat viewings fun, but I’ll never forget how the hairs raised on my neck the first time I saw the card guessing sequence. At that point, the film has been a model exercise in tension and atmosphere building and from that moment on, it’s a non-stop shitshow of horror. Not everyone’s cup of tea, and typically not mine, but executed with such glee and conviction that it’s hard not to be swept in.

1982 – “The Prefab People” (Béla Tarr)

I first heard of Béla Tarr through Gus Van Sant. I had read that “Gerry” was in some ways a direct copy of Tarr’s style and since I thought “Gerry” was pretty much the greatest thing ever, I had to look into this Tarr fellow. I watched “Werckmeister Harmonies” and immediately saw what everyone had been talking about. His meditative, patient style was a perfect match for the philosophical yearning explored in both that film and Van Sant’s. It’s a fabulous film, despite being boring and pretentious (not always pejoratives in my book). When I saw his earlier work, I was absolutely floored.

“The Prefab People” follows a married couple with a newborn baby through a few days in an economically desolate Hungary. The husband grows increasingly disconnected from his family and his wife grows increasingly frustrated by him. The only real plot development is the chance of a job that would take the husband away for a while. With this simple framework, Tarr creates a devastating portrait of these characters and without any of the style or enigmatic themes he would employ in his more famous, later work. This is a film Mike Leigh or John Cassevetes could have made.

The exquisite cinematography comes courtesy of Barna Mihók, working with black and white stock and very limited resources. Tarr’s uses extreme close-ups on his characters for much of the film, symbolizing the claustrophobic nature of their relationship, and Mihók finds a way to frame and light their faces for maximum emotional impact. Tarr’s love of long takes also makes for good use in a fantastic scene involving a drunken party where he pans back and forth between husband and wife rather than cutting- the space between them hogging up as much screen time as they do.

It’s up to the audience to pick sides, since Tarr refuses to. Is the husband a boor or underappreciated? Is the wife shrill or neglected? This was the first time Tarr had worked with professional actors and the results are noticeable in how unnoticeable the ‘acting’ really is. Róbert Koltai and Judit Pogány beautifully inhabit the characters and are both completely fearless. The film is a scant 80 minutes but there’s so much packed in that you’re left exhausted by the final, heart-breaking shot.

Those are my picks. What do you guys think?

[Photo: Fearnet]
[Photo: Walkerart]

→ 30 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , | Filed in: Life Without Oscar

30 responses so far

  • 1 10-05-2010 at 8:32 pm

    Frank Lee said...

    Well, the 1980s are my favorite decade for movies, but I was in college at the time, so that figures. Among the great movies of that decade are:

    A Room with a View
    The Night of Shooting Stars
    Fanny and Alexander
    Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
    Blade Runner
    Terminator (a guilty pleasure)

  • 2 10-05-2010 at 8:33 pm

    par3182 said...

    1981 – blow out

    1982 – shoot the moon

  • 3 10-05-2010 at 8:43 pm

    James D. said...

    After I finish Scorsese, I need to dive into Tarr. I must.

  • 4 10-05-2010 at 9:11 pm

    Patriotsfan said...

    I could not agree with you more about the 1980’s. There are some fun and well made comedy and action films, but the dramatic films are usually so heavy-handed. It’s weird to me how a decade can be so much worse than others. In terms of American cinema, I also think that the 1950’s is a pretty weak decade.

  • 5 10-05-2010 at 9:42 pm

    Rashad said...

    Raiders of The Lost Ark and Blow Out


    Also for ’82, I found Poltergeist scarier than The Thing. The latter is more of an action movie to me.

  • 6 10-05-2010 at 10:06 pm

    Casey Fiore said...

    1981 – Gallipoli
    1982 – Diner

  • 7 10-05-2010 at 10:28 pm

    Jeremy said...

    I like “Evil Dead”, but I’d definitely go with “Body Heat” for 1981. I would also throw in “Excalibur”, but that earned a cinematography nomination.

  • 8 10-05-2010 at 11:43 pm

    the other mike said...

    I grew up in the 80’s, its my favorite decade. Best films, best music. Eddie Murphy broke through, Scarface changed America, Ferris Bueller charmed , Back To The Future probably the best trilogy ever? come on, 80’s gets a bum rap. I actually wish I was back in the 80’s right now.

  • 9 10-06-2010 at 12:01 am

    Alexander C said...

    The best Academy-unrecognized movie of 1981 is Thief. The best of 1982 are Blade Runner, Diner, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The King of Comedy, My Favorite Year, and The Year of Living Dangerously.

  • 10 10-06-2010 at 12:11 am

    par3182 said...

    blade runner – 2 nominations
    diner – 1 nomination
    my favorite year – 1 nomination
    the year of living dangerously – 1 win
    king of comedy – 1983 release

  • 11 10-06-2010 at 3:23 am

    Carson Dyle said...

    81 – Gallipoli. Still Weir’s masterwork.

    82 – Can’t find a non-nominated favourite, but a favourite that wasn’t up for Best Picture: Victor Victoria. The last really great film Blake Edwards ever did.

  • 12 10-06-2010 at 5:28 am

    Hero said...

    Don’t be in a hurry to see Chariots of Fire. Not long ago I made a point of seeing all of the Best Pic winners I hadn’t seen before and sitting through Chariots was not a fun way to spend an evening. The script is an unfocused messed and I’ve never seen a movie so sabotaged by its own score.

  • 13 10-06-2010 at 7:02 am

    JJ1 said...

    1981 – Body Heat. How did that go with nothing?

    And I second (or third …) the “I thought 80’s movies rcoked”. I was born in 1980. And to me, the early 80’s were a bit rough. But starting with, say, 1984 onward, there are classics in every single year. As mentioned, actioners and comedies were at an all-time high. I agree that most of the Oscary ‘dramas’ fell short. But still, I think there are gems to be found, for sure.

  • 14 10-06-2010 at 7:03 am

    JJ1 said...

    And to be perfectly honest, I found MANY revolutionary/zeitgeist dramas in the 1970’s to be slowwww and pretentious. I know, unpopular opinion.

  • 15 10-06-2010 at 9:24 am

    Chad Hartigan said...

    I think both Body Heat and Excalibur are terrible.

  • 16 10-06-2010 at 10:19 am

    Frank Lee said...

    I forgot: Blue Velvet and The Year of Living Dangerously are both from the 80s as well.

  • 17 10-06-2010 at 10:59 am

    Jeremy said...

    “I think both Body Heat and Excalibur are terrible.”

    What a surprise!

  • 18 10-06-2010 at 11:14 am

    JJ1 said...

    Shocking, Chad. Shocking. :-)

  • 19 10-06-2010 at 12:51 pm

    /3rtfu11 said...

    Chad, I’m shocked you fall into the cliché the 80s sucked for movies.

    Cronenberg: Videodrome – The Fly – Dead Ringers
    Lee: She’s Gotta Have It – School Daze – Do the Right Thing
    Cameron: Aliens
    Verhoeven: Robocop
    Polanski: Frantic
    Scorsese: After Hours – The Last Temptation of Christ
    Lynch: I find Blue Velvet to be so boring these days I can’t recommend it and I prefer Dune in spite of itself.

  • 20 10-06-2010 at 2:06 pm

    Chad Hartigan said...

    /3rtfu11- I’ve never seen any of the movies you list except Aliens (don’t like it), Blue Velvet (don’t like it), After Hours (ok) and The Last Temptation of Christ (terrible)

  • 21 10-06-2010 at 2:07 pm

    El Rocho said...

    I love the fact that Joel Coen helped edit ‘The Evil Dead’. Neat to see where people get their starts.

  • 22 10-06-2010 at 2:48 pm

    El Rocho said...

    Admittedly, I also absolutely love ‘Amadeus’ and ‘Terms of Endearment’. Both I thought were pinacles of creative filmmaking and screenplays.

  • 23 10-06-2010 at 4:14 pm

    Speaking English said...

    The 80s has “Ran,” “Brazil,” “Amadeus,” “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters,” “Reds,” “Cinema Paradiso,” “Pelle the Conqueror,” “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” and “Au Revoir, les Enfants” among others. Calling it weak is ridiculous.

    ***… despite being boring and pretentious… ***

    LOL, that’s Tarr for you.

  • 24 10-06-2010 at 6:07 pm

    ChrisP said...

    Some of my favorite’s that were pretty much ignored:

    1981 – Pixote, The Road Warrior, Gallipoli (Weir’s best film in my opinion), Smash Palace, Prince of the City, Cutter’s Way

    1982 – Fitzcarraldo, Eating Raoul, The World According to Garp, Fighting Back (better than ‘Death Wish’ for the ordinary becomes vigilate genre) , Basket Case

  • 25 10-06-2010 at 8:05 pm

    /3rtfu11 said...

    Chad, I take back the cliché remark –you’re certainly not. I can’t think of anyone I know who hasn’t seen Robocop. I’m genuinely excited to get your response about it.

  • 26 10-06-2010 at 10:47 pm

    SaMoFilmGuy said...

    Who are you? How is it you’re writing about movies when you’ve missed so many iconic films (whether they’re good or bad)? Imagine a literary critic who never got around to reading Huck Finn or Catcher in the Rye. Get off Facebook, dude, and watch some real films.

  • 27 10-07-2010 at 12:21 am

    Chad Hartigan said...

    I also haven’t seen 300, Juno, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Blues Brothers, Carlito’s Way, Spartacus, Blazing Saddles, Cool Hand Luke, Animal House, American Graffiti, Natural Born Killers, Akira, Carrie, Point Break, Wall Street, Deliverance, Caddyshack, The Lost Boys, The Color Purple, Eraserhead and roughly two million other titles.

  • 28 10-07-2010 at 3:52 am

    Dennis said...

    How has no one yet mentioned My Dinner With Andre?

  • 29 10-09-2010 at 11:49 am

    SaMoFilmGuy said...

    You may have invented something new: the anti-resume!
    It describes how ill-suited to a particular job one is!
    Still, I admire your honest, and how you write about those films you have seen.
    In the words of Tower of Power: You’re still a young man. Don’t waste your time.

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