While I’ve admittedly seen a lot of films in my lifetime, the first few years of my life are a bit sparse as far as what I’ve seen or what I remember. Being a few years old, and these waning in popularity by the time I started getting into movies in my teens and pre-teens, a few of these I haven’t seen in over two decades. The early 80’s is where my inner film geek started to open up and I started watching a lot more films, some way beyond my years as I snuck them on cable tv or begged my mom to take me. I basically went through each year on IMDB, added in all the films I’d seen from that year, then whittled it down and put them in order of my personal preference. You can find my actual list for 1981 on Letterboxd here and the others I’ve finished so far off my profile, but the write-ups are going to be here on Cinefessions. Without further ado, here’s my top ten from 1981.
10. Outland (Peter Hyams)
Sean Connery plays a Marshall investigating murder and corruption no one wants answers to, and gets a bit in over his head on the moon of Io in orbit over Jupiter. Connery is one of those actors I love watching on screen, and I have to admit that started with him as James Bond and spread from there. With some great grit and science fiction that only the late ’70s and ’80s delivered, showing humanity could still be scummy and not always a utopian society. Outland likened itself to Alien and Star Wars for that beat up look and feel which works amazingly well. I haven’t seen this film in forever, and making this list made me want to watch it again. Great film premise even before you throw the science fiction into it. The sci-fi is just gravy on the top.
9. Heavy Metal (Gerald Potterton)
An animated anthology film with a loose-tying thread of a story surrounding an evil orb telling a young girl of all that its done throughout the ages and across space and time, Heavy Metal captured my teenage imagination fairly early on, and even got me collecting the magazines for a time. Each story stands on its own, even without the orb, and while the orb might end up being a focal point, it’s not always the most important aspect of the story. An amazing soundtrack and decent score with some great voiceover work from some well-known actors help set the stage for what’s become a cult classic that used to be only shown late night on Cinemax, if you were lucky.
8. Halloween II (Rick Rosenthal)
Picking up literally moments after the first one ended, Halloween II isn’t as menacing as the first, but at the same time I liked this one better and even like them best as a package deal. Michael continues to stalk Laurie in this installment, and we get more into his motivations. The hospital is an interesting place to drop us for the second one, and I can’t help but think that this choice spurred on even more filmmakers to make the place where you go to get healed, the place where you’ll definitely end up dead. While not as well crafted as Carpenter’s first film, Rosenthal does keep the same feel, and Michael is still more the shape than the defined version we’d see in later sequels that really take the menace out of him.
7. The Fox and the Hound (Richard Rich, Art Stevens, Ted Berman)
This won’t be the last Disney animated film you see on one of my top ten lists. The Fox and the Hound will always have a special place in my broken heart. I’ve lost a lot of friends due to moving, or just losing touch, and even a feud between neighbors at one point, so I can empathize even more with what happens in this film. As a kid it was touching, and as an adult it’s heartbreaking, and I will forever love the dynamic between Todd and Copper.
6. The Howling (Joe Dante)
This is my second favorite werewolf film of all time. The other one is further up this list. 1981 was a fantastic year if you like films about people who get furrier and homicidal on the full moon. This one has a neat murder mystery surrounding it, coupled with some great werewolf transformation scenes, only topped by one other film, again, on this list. Honestly I’ve never seen a transformation scene better than these, and they were done with practical effects and before CG, and are always jaw-dropping. Some decent acting and a good plot keep this from being ho-hum and seeing the change in people that have been bitten and haven’t quite changed yet was fantastic.
5. History of the World: Part I (Mel Brooks)
We’ll probably never get a Part II but Part I is hysterical. This one rates up there as one of my favorite comedies, with so many great lines that you often can’t repeat in public. While it doesn’t pull any punches and some of the satire isn’t as punchy, most of this film’s delivery and goofiness saves the day. Madeline Kahn nails it in this film, and while I love her in Clue and Young Frankenstein, her sequence with the virgins cracks me up every time. Dom Deluise and Mel Brooks are also excellent as always.
4. Excalibur (John Boorman)
While it’s not nearly as cohesive as I remember it, Excalibur was actually my first real exposure to the Arthur Legend. Patrick Stewart is good in this, but Helen Mirren as Morgana and Nicol Williamson as Merlin steal each and every scene they are in. Merlin has some great lines, and while this is a much dirtier Arthur Legend than we’re used to, it’s treated mostly with adult eyes and has some really great moments. Still love this one.
3. Escape from New York (John Carpenter)
Our first outing with Snake Plissken, John Carpenter set out to tell us a story about an anti-hero in an action film on a budget and delivered. Casting Kurt Russell as the lead when everyone had him type cast as the Disney kid did wonders for his career and a great cast behind Russell rounds things out nicely. While not an amazing film, it’s definitely a cult classic that’s great entertainment and has all the staples I’ve come to love in a great John Carpenter film, including him contributing to the score.
2. An American Werewolf in London (John Landis)
The. Greatest. Werewolf. Film. Of. All. Time. Yeah, I said it. Some amazing practical effects in this film coupled with a great script full of sharp wit and fantastic looking kills and the best werewolf transformation sequence ever committed to film. The humor still holds up today, and while a few things are a little dated, David Naughton and Griffin Dunne playing off each other never gets old. There is a great charm in the relationship David develops with Jenny Agutter as well. Landis did such a great job with this that it landed him a job working on Michael Jackson’s best music video, “Thriller”.
1. Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Speilberg)
The brainchild of Lucas and Speilberg, Raiders of the Lost Ark called back to the adventure and serial films of old and is a fantastic romp. John Williams’ score is amazing, and Harrison Ford ended up being the better choice of Tom Selleck, as well as a great cast through out. Sparking two more sequels within a reasonable time frame, and an attempt to revisit it, the first film is a little more rough around the edges than the others, but works much better overall than the follow-ups. On top of that, the Drew Struzen movie posters that came out of it have continued to be amazing over the years.