Five Favorite Films From The Year I Was Born: 1981

Scanning over the list of movies released in 1981, my birth year, it seems almost impossible to try and pick my five favorite films. The challenge among us MFR writers and editors was thrown down a few days ago by E.J. Moreno (and his 1990 choices), followed up Kris Solberg (and HIS 1990 choices). Jen Schiller talks 1988 in her post. I felt it was time for an old fart to take a look in the way back machine to Ron Reagan’s first year in office, and pick out the five films which have stuck with me over the years.

But how do I choose between the greatness of John Carpenter’s Escape From New York, the game-changing American Werewolf in London, Raiders of The Lost Ark (!), or the perfection of The Road Warrior? The list goes on and on. The only solace in making a list as exclusive as “Top Five” is the fact these are my favorites. There will be a dozen great films left off this list, but with the unique qualifier that these are movies speaking to a deeper part of my own personal experience with cinema, and not just the greatest, you’ll just have to deal with it. Here goes nothing…


5. Thief – It’s hard to believe Thief was Michael Mann’s first journey into feature-length filmmaking. This is the work of a seasoned veteran, a slick, stylish, but incredibly dense thriller that has more on its mind than crime. And it captures the essence of Mann’s signature aesthetics from the first frame. James Caan’s Frank is a seething knot of desperation, a safe cracker who’s on his way out and is pulled in for the fateful “one last job,” with the mob. Only the mob has other ideas.

Mann’s film is full of tense action and incredibly detailed technical authenticity. Once Frank decides to go scorched earth and get even with mob boss Leo (Robert Prosky, tremendous) the kinetic energy bleeds through the screen. But the film’s most powerful moment comes between Frank and his girlfriend, Jessie (Tuesday Weld), in a diner. It’s heavy with dreams and aspirations, history and desire, and it’s a beautiful eye of the storm. Balance is the modus operandi for Thief, and that balance builds a stunning thriller.


4. An American Werewolf in London – What’s so incredible about An American Werewolf in London is the fact that said werewolf (or werewolves) isn’t the focus of the film. The werewolf lives in this film as a curse, a specter existing in the undercurrent of mental anguish. There is the transformation scene, sure, groundbreaking and horrifying all at once, and plenty of “wolf action” as it were, but the story has much more working for it than geek-show thrills. And the wolf attacks are mostly shot through the wolf’s perspective. This is a story primarily focused on the plight of David (David Naughton), the days leading up to his transformation, and the strange psychological issues surrounding his slain buddy, Jack (Griffin Dunne, decaying into oblivion).

And it’s also incredibly funny, as hard as that is to believe. Even with these 2016 eyes, An American Werewolf in London holds up as a rather brilliant dark comedy. It also holds some shocking surprises along the way – did anyone expect those Nazi monsters to blow away David’s family in his dream sequence?


3. Raiders of The Lost Ark – I have held on to, and always will hold on to, the theory that your favorite Indiana Jones film is the one you grew up on. For me, that was Temple of Doom in 1984. I love that sequel more than any of the other in the franchise, because it was my first experience with Harrison Ford’s swashbuckling archeologist. Those a few years younger than me tend to latch on to The Last Crusade. Regardless of that adolescent connection, I recognize Temple of Doom‘s shortcomings, especially when held up to the whimsical energy of Raiders.

I watched Temple of Doom at least a dozen times before I took the time to soak in Raiders of The Lost Ark, and only in my later years have I truly come to appreciate its greatness. It is everything adventure films aspire to, and it has the unbridled energy of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, two filmmakers whose youth was shaped by the serialized stories from which Indiana Jones was born.


2. The Road Warrior – Mad Max was born from the mind of Aussie auteur George Miller in 1979, but that film still has an air of uncertainty about what it could become. In 1981, Mad Max 2 (named The Road Warrior for American audiences who more than likely never saw the original) has the advantage of confidence, budget, and a story firmly locked into a unique, visionary world.

The original Mad Max was on the precipice of a society unraveling. Here, society has long-since abandoned all recognizable structure. The Road Warrior is a fascinating film, and a masterpiece of action on a practical level. It was, like so many Americans, my true introduction to Gibson’s Max Rockatansky, and the streamlined energy and incredible stunts – bested only by Fury Road 34 years later! – are timeless.

Five Favorite Films

1. Blow Out – When I was a teenager I remember my mother hyping up Blow Out. It was one of her favorite movies, and I should watch it, but she was my mom and I was a teenager so she didn’t know what she was talking about. It wasn’t until college before I watched Blow Out. I liked it okay, but then I moved on to other things, different movies, and it was just a thing I saw for a long time.

Then, eventually, I began to appreciate the technical mastery of Brian De Palma, and understand the way he riffs on Hitchcock (and Antonioni here) while still managing to create unique visions. Then I watched Blow Out again, and came to understand it may very well be De Palma’s crowning achievement. John Travolta is great, John Lithgow incurable, and the timeliness of the plot and unbearable suspense permeates each and every scene.

Larry Taylor - Managing Editor
Larry Taylor - Managing Editor
Larry is the managing editor for Monkeys Fighting Robots. The Dalai Lama once told him when he dies he will receive total consciousness. So he's got that going for him... Which is nice.