The quality of movies, like all art, is subjective. Sure, there are objective elements like a bulletproof plotline, spot on wardrobe, a script that inspires, provokes or elicits laughter, incredible performances, excellent photography and a score or soundtrack so fitting it becomes synonymous with the film itself. A combination of some or all of these elements can make a great movie. Succeeding in these elements should be the least a great movie strives for. But there’s so much more that goes in to determining what “great” even means. The more I thought about this, the more I realized that unlike more celebrated movie years, say 1939 or 1974, 1980 was the best year for movies…for me.
What makes a great movie a great movie?
Those last two words in the above paragraph are important. Because what influences how we feel about a movie isn’t just limited to the film. It’s a collection of experiences, impressions (or lack of them), feelings and everything that’s happened to us in the lead up to seeing that film.
When thinking about the movies you’ve both loved and loathed, think also about the experiences that shaped your life prior to the moment when you first saw Titanic, or Casablanca, Do The Right Thing or Joker? How old were you, were the themes new and fresh or overly familiar? Did you have a sense of innocence? Was it the coolest theater you’d ever been to? Were you on a date, was it a first date, your first kiss? Were you with your best friend? Were you falling in love, were you falling out of it? Were you bonding with your family during a special time? Was it your child’s first movie? Or the last one you saw with them?
What do critics have to do with great movies?
For better or worse, the arbiters of great or no-so-great movies in our society are critics. From yesterday’s Pauline Kael to today’s crowd-sourced certified freshness, most of us have looked to critics to tell us whether something is worthy or not.
So, what’s wrong with this idea?
Nothing, necessarily. At best, critics’ voices can provide knowledgeable, contextual and insightful guidance about film, at worst those voices can wield grudge holding hatchet jobs. At the end of the day a critic is a human whose experiences have shaped their views, just like you or me. They can be subjective. They can be biased. Their film education and cinematic knowledge defines their expertise and should underline their objectivity but…
Criticism itself is an artistic pursuit. As art, one critic’s point of view can mean more or less than another to your individual sensibility. For professional critics, that aforementioned objectivity may be table stakes, but it’s also a bit inauthentic for artists, when talking about their passion, to divorce themselves from subjectivity. Sure, an argument can be made that as objective as you try to be, you carry all your experiences with you unconsciously. But I tend to gravitate toward opinions that admit their subjectivity, or at least criticism that is more personable (I lean more Ebert than Siskel). Personally, I think it leads to a more honest examination about the merits and failings of the art at hand. Tomato, to-mah-to. It’s fun to debate, and critics are a part of that universe. But just remember to take them (and their experiences) at face value.
What do awards mean for great movies?
For our purposes I’ll limit this to the Academy Awards (or Oscars). Awards carry some obvious cachet and generally help to define what movies are “best”. However as with everything else, judging art is an inexact science and the Oscars are…complicated.
In recent history, the Oscars have had their own subjectivity issues: #OscarsSoWhite, denying Denzel Washington’s Best Actor performance as Malcolm X in favor of Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman (hooo-aaaahhhh indeed), a disturbing propensity to award sweeping historical or biographical movies, and the political process required to campaign for movies.
On the other hand, the Oscars are our most visible, celebrated and documented way to recognize individual and collective performance for film by the group that matters most: their peers. They’ve gotten it right, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King winning 11 statues in 2004, though in full disclosure I’m a fantasy and sci-fi nerd. And they’ve gotten it wrong, like Green Book in 2019 wrong (anything from A Star is Born to BLACKKKLANSMAN would’ve sufficed). I reckon the point is, awards are ultimately validation for what you, or we thought were great movies but the question we should always be asking ourselves, the question that really matters is…who’s idea of greatness?
Why 1980 was the best year for movies…for me
It’s generally accepted, and I’d agree, that the 70’s were the best decade for great movies (pushing the medium forward, challenging norms, introducing groundbreaking and thought-provoking themes). But I’m gonna make the case for 1980 as the best individual year for great movies.
First, let’s look at what was happening in 1980…
- The airwaves were getting the last of disco, the first of the new wave and the beginnings of hip-hop (Call Me, Rock With You, Upside Down, Rapper’s Delight, Whip It, Another One Bites the Dust, Dirty Mind & Uptown, The Piña Colada Song)
- Pac-Man debuted, which meant that arcades and games inside the movie theater were an event in and of themselves
- “Who shot JR?” on Dallas held the nation captive and took the power of storytelling and cliffhangers to a whole new level on TV
- US hockey beat the Soviets in the Miracle on Ice, giving us the feeling that anything was possible
- Reagan wasn’t yet elected, and his destructive economics and politics were yet to destroy the black family
- Magic Johnson, a 20-year old rookie from Michigan State, on the heels of winning an NCAA national championship in 1979, led the Los Angeles Lakers to their seventh NBA championship and won the Finals MVP
- The Rubik’s Cube came out, one of the first “viral” games that spawned competitions worldwide for who could solve it the fastest
- There was a heavy summer heat wave that had everyone open and sensitive to everything
I had just finished the fourth grade. My personality was in development and I was starting to fall somewhere between super considerate and incredibly sarcastic. Our family was doing well, and we lived in a community of friends that were doing well. They were simpler times (or at least seemed that way). We’d go to school, get a snack when we came home, watch TV or play Atari, do homework, eat dinner, watch some more TV and go to bed. On weekends there were chores, baseball, basketball or messing around with Star Wars toys, bike rides, The Muppet Show, and sleepovers that ended with breakfast the next day. I was yet to know pain, suffering or loss. Life was easy and the good guys were winning.
It is within this cultural context that a young, impressionable mind was opened to the movies that debuted throughout 1980. As David Thomson mentioned in his tome The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, “Perhaps the movies (like playing sports) belong to the young.” Some forty years later, I’d now selfishly edit that to include the young at heart. In many ways, I still feel like that nine-year old kid.
Now, in full transparency, I possessed neither unlimited funds nor the wherewithal to visit the movie theater every weekend so many of these movies I didn’t see, or fully comprehend, until later on. Movies didn’t come out on VHS for what seemed like 24 months after their screening. And HBO and movie channels were busy airing shit like An Almost Perfect Affair, Andy Griffith detective vehicles and Lou Rawls concert specials (though don’t sleep on the sheer swag of “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine”).
The movies that made 1980 the best year
The Shining– Every time this movie is on television, no matter how far into it, we stop whatever we’re doing and watch it. I can’t think of a better compliment for a film. It was my first introduction to Jack Nicholson.
Caddyshack– Prior to seeing this I would listen to the echoes of old Richard Pryor records as they played during my parents’ late-night poker parties. So seeing Dangerfield in his prime dick around on a golf course was like a volt of electricity running up my arm. Not only was the movie hilarious, it was about sports and having an older brother and father who were into sports meant I was into sports. It was the first time I heard Journey’s Any Way You Want It. Yes, there were jokes and situations that are probably considered inappropriate now but “what’s accepted then vs. what’s accepted now” is a scalpel that cuts across the history of film (i.e. Gone with the Wind, Driving Miss Daisy). So yes, my sides were splitting, but what was really cool about Caddyshack was this underlying theme of laid-back, working class righteous folks taking on the stuck-up, conservative Ted Knights of the world. And righteousness won out, as it should. *Peace to Ted Knight who was awesome by the way.
The Blues Brothers– A musical about the blues? With John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd reviving their sketch from SNL? Directed by John Landis, who also directed Animal House, Trading Places, Coming to America, Three Amigos, and thee music video Thriller? With a legendary musical cast featuring Aretha Franklin, John Lee Hooker, Ray Charles, James Brown, Cab Calloway? Simultaneously reinforcing our great music and lighting a fuse of love for the blues in me? One of the most memorable non-digitally enhanced car chases of movie history (that would be next to impossible to pull off now)? Give me all of it, still. Along with four fried chickens and a Coke.
9 to 5- Call it a hunch but without this important movie, a satire on sexism, Tootsie (an even better satire on sexism) doesn’t happen two years later. Funny how some of the most important movies of all time were comedies. 9 to 5’s Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda and Dolly Parton added to the incredible comedic cannon of 1980’s films, yielding perhaps the most recognizable movie theme song ever.
Ordinary People– One of the first “serious” movies I saw, Robert Redford’s directorial debut was his best and revealed the pain that exists in life. Moving, gripping and disturbing drama of a family’s loss of one son and the attempted suicide of another. Stellar performances from Mary Tyler Moore, Donald Sutherland, Timothy Hutton and Judd Hirsch, with Tyler Moore and Hirsch showing incredible range. And oh yeah, 4-time Oscar winner.
American Gigolo– Richard Gere in his seminal role of a nonchalant playboy in LA. A movie that set a new bar for cool. It was one of the first explorations of male prostitution (not to mention the first full frontal nude scene by a Hollywood actor). The character Julian Kaye’s wardrobe was bespoke Giorgio Armani, planting a seed of what real style can and should be in my mind. Armani would go on to do the wardrobe for many films based on the success of Gigolo. Paul Schrader, esteemed screenwriter of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, wrote and directed the movie. 37 years later in his prodigious career he’d earn an Oscar nomination for First Reformed. The landmark theme song “Call Me” was from Blondie, a band I loved and who at the time were at the height of their musical career. In fact, Debbie Harry wrote the song in an afternoon after a screening of the movie with Schrader and Giorgio Moroder. As described in Debbie Harry’s biography Face It: inspired by the soft color palette of the movie’s visuals, the palette of Armani, with Julian driving down the coast, the first lines came to her: “Color me your color baby, color me your car.”
Stir Crazy– Quite simply, comedic genius in a re-pairing of Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor (their first pairing was in Silver Streak). Incredibly, their hilarious scenes together were improvised at the time of filming. Directed by Sidney Poitier, the film made over $100M in the US box office and was the first film by an African-American to make that kind of bread (it came in third that year behind Empire Strikes Back and 9 to 5). That meant a lot to me then, it means a lot to me now.
Raging Bull– Keep in mind, this was the same year Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto “Hands of Stone” Duran went round for round like the pugilists of old…twice in the same year. After dropping the first bout, Sugar Ray bounced back in the second and famously made Duran utter “No Mas!” I saw Raging Bull before I ever saw Taxi Driver, and when I did it was the mid-eighties. The black & white love letter to Jake LaMotta had me at hello because (again) it was about boxing and sports and the allegorical internal battle for one’s will. It came against the backdrop of not just an incredible year, but an incredible era in boxing. Add an Oscar winning performance by De Niro, a should’ve been Oscar winning director in Martin Scorsese, searing dialogue from Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin and it still stands and delivers one of the best films I’ve ever seen.
Young Boy with Coffee: Excuse me, I happened to be passing, and I thought you might like some coffee.
Little Girl: Oh, that’s very nice of you, thank you. [takes coffee]Little Girl: Oh, won’t you sit down?
Young Boy with Coffee: Cream?
Little Girl: No, thank you, I take it black, like my men.
That. Right. There. Though.
Fame– Seeing this multi-cultural musical about a New York School for the Arts very much appealed to the artistic sensibilities in me (it was the first time I could remember seeing black and latin teenagers on the big screen). The movie introduced (and managed to pull off) heavy themes like abortion, homosexuality and suicide within the context of kids performing joyful numbers in pursuit of their dreams. Fame took home the Oscar for best score and hearing the music while seeing the dancing inspired you to follow your dreams. The movie also spawned a later TV series which gave a pre-teen me the opportunity to see Janet Jackson so…
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back– In film lore there aren’t many sequels that are better than the original. In fact, there are only two for me: The Godfather Pt. II and Empire Strikes Back. George Lucas’ Star Wars: A New Hope gets credit for changing the sci-fi game and rightfully so. Hearing the Force theme playing behind the binary sunset Luke gazed into on Tatooine would forever make me a Star Wars fan (at 6 years old).
But “Empire” took things to a whole new level. This intergalactic family drama (that you didn’t know yet was a family drama) introduced the wisdom of Yoda to the world “…do, or do not, there is no try” and mystified us with metaphor on Dagobah. It was back and forth, edge of your seat, popcorn chewing, panic on the dance floor frantic action all choreographed to John Williams’ indelible score. It was done so tightly it was like watching space ballet on a movie screen. It brought Billy Dee Williams as Lando into the fold, and we all discovered the beloved Millennium Falcon was owned by a black man before Han won it in a poker game. It was the first light saber battle between Luke and Vader. It introduced the Emperor. Boba Fett. Where the first movie had hope and lightspeed, this one seemingly had the inevitability of evil and the efforts of the resistance sputtering at every turn just like the Falcon. It had Leia with “I love you”, and Han with “I know”, “putting just the right touch on character,” a critic of the time mentioned…making us laugh and cry simultaneously. Ben, why didn’t you tell me and it’s not my fault. Ending with the most shocking cliffhanger of all time.
Other notable movies of 1980
- The Elephant Man
- Friday the 13th
- Private Benjamin
- Urban Cowboy
- Seems like Old Times
- Altered States
- The Big Red One
- Coal Miner’s Daughter
*This post was written during the throes of the global pandemic, the likes of which society hadn’t seen in over 100 years. I began this writing as an escape, to take my mind off the same four walls, the reverberating term “social distancing” and the mounting body counts of Covid-19.
Little did I know all of that would quickly become a footnote in the shadow of the deplorable racial motivated events to come, utterly throwing the United States and its cities into justifiable chaos as of early June 2020.
This post is long enough without my bemoaning the well-documented, ingrained and institutionalized white nationalist policies and attitudes of America and its history. The collective treatment of black people in this country has now forced the moment of seemingly all American citizens and industries. My only hope is that Mr. Floyd’s death is an inflection point for becoming a better country in all levels of society and touching all people, no longer afraid of learning history, emerging a true democracy for all citizens. No justice, no peace. Silence is compliance.