Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)


Starring: Sissy Spacek, Tommy Lee Jones, Beverly D’Angelo, Levon Helm (his first acting role)

Director: Michael Apted

Summary: Musical biography of Loretta Lynn, who fought poverty and pills to become a country western star

Other Nominations: Actress (Spacek)*, Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing, Art Direction, Cinematography, Sound

One of the better music biopics. The movie on the whole feels very authentic from the locations and sets, to the cinematography (with subdued color which makes a lot of sense), and the performances (well, mostly-the ages for the actors were off especially at the beginning of the movie, with 31 year old Spacek playing a 14 year old being the strangest). Spacek radiates innocence and naivety at the start but is equally adept at being the strong and troubled woman Loretta Lynn grew up into. The relationships feel real and the character arcs with Loretta Lynn and her husband (Jones, who looks strange with strawberry blonde hair) are very well-done with their shifting positions in the relationship and eventual finding of a happy medium. I’m not a big country music fan, so the music didn’t do much for me, but everything else mostly worked for me even if I wouldn’t call it great or anything.

Random note: Beverly D’Angelo (as Patsy Cline) is a dead ringer for Amy Poehler:

Overall: good biopic which has a great lead performance and good characters with a general feeling of authenticity throughout

Rating: B

The Elephant Man (1980)


Starring: John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins, Freddie Jones, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Anne Bancroft

Director: David Lynch

Summary: A 19th-century doctor questions his motives for rescuing a sideshow freak

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Hurt), Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing, Score, Art Direction, Costume Design

David Lynch is famous for being an idiosyncratic director, but even with the inclusion of a couple of surrealistic scenes at the beginning and end, this is one of his few straight-forward films, and is very good. The film boasts an all-star cast with breakout lead roles for Hurt and Hopkins, along favorites Wendy Hiller (who I first saw in Pygmalion all the back in 1938), Anne Bancroft and John Gielgud that are consistently good throughout, especially Hurt given that he has to act under pounds and pounds of prosthetics and makeup. The makeup of course is one of the most memorable aspects, and while sometimes you can tell it’s layered on an unafflicted face, it’s still pretty remarkable given how extreme it is, and led to there being a “Best Makeup” category at the Oscars.

It has some weak spots (with some aspects hammered home after we get it and some not explored quite as well as I would have liked), but thematically it’s a pretty good exploration of human’s tendency to exploit those in a weaker position, and to either laugh at or sympathize with those worse off than us because it makes us feel better about ourselves. Merrick’s quiet dignity and intelligence shines through and for the most part never gets into glurge territory. The movie takes some substantial dramatic license (especially towards the beginning and end), but they mostly end up working well with the story they wanted to tell so I didn’t mind it.

One thing I didn’t like really was the sound design, which is very distinctive-a lot of isolated sounds, where the movie frequently either sounds like it’s underwater or there’s white noise. It’s a bit much, and that a sound design this distinctive didn’t get nominated for Sound Mixing says something.

Overall: The cast, themes and high-quality makeup design make this an interesting look at the life of a man who dealt with his incredible deformities with dignity.

Rating: B+

*Ordinary People (1980)*


Starring: Timothy Hutton (in his film debut), Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, Judd Hirsch, Elizabeth McGovern (her film debut)

Director: Robert Redford (in his directorial debut)

Summary: A family tries to recover after a son tries to commit suicide

Nominations: Director*, Actress (Tyler Moore), Supporting Actor (Hutton)*, Supporting Actor (Hirsch), Adapted Screenplay*

Excellent film that was one of the first to tackle psychological problems and psychiatry with the seriousness the subjects deserve without being exploitive about it or treating them as something horrible and deserving of stigma. The performances are all great which is remarkable given Redford had never directed actors before, Hutton and McGovern had never done a film previously and Tyler Moore and Hirsch were almost exclusively TV actors at this point. Hutton wasn’t really a supporting actor at all and got more screentime than anybody, but you do feel the weight of the world on his shoulders-the same applies for Sutherland who should have probably got a nomination as well (and somehow never has during his entire career) playing basically a mother character who is male; Tyler Moore plays way against type as a cold and bottled up mother and in a weaker year might have won Best Actress and is by far the most interesting character in the film.

One other thing the movie does really well is developing the story and the characters, as the characters feel like real people and we build and build, gaining insight into the history of the family and what led them to this point using flashbacks effectively and doling out information at a steady pace until we finally get that breaking point. The only real negative for me was that it felt a bit long.

Overall: A movie unfairly maligned for being an undeserving Best Picture Winner (it also won BP at the Golden Globes, National Board of Review and the NYCC), it’s a gripping look into a broken family and presents psychological trauma in a realistic way.

Rating: A-

Raging Bull (1980)


Starring: Robert De Niro, Cathy Moriarty (her debut), Joe Pesci

Director: Martin Scorsese

Summary: Biography of middleweight champ Jake LaMotta, whose life was haunted by violence inside and outside the ring

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (De Niro)*, Supporting Actor (Pesci), Supporting Actress (Moriarty), Film Editing*, Cinematography, Sound

This is going to be one of the more controversial opinions I give during this project: I think Ordinary People deserved to win best picture over Raging Bull. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of great things about this film: De Niro is excellent, showing both obvious dedication to the role and having this constant simmerling (and sometimes boiling) intensity; the cinematography and sound are fantastic, especially during the fights, and capture both the triumph and sorrow of LaMotta; the score is great; and the last 35 minutes or so are terrific. However, the first hour and a half or so just weren’t that compelling to me. It’s not especially unique and is mostly a simple story of the rise and fall of a man who was driven by the basest emotions (anger, jealousy and sexual desire) who could have been more but always stood in his own way. There’s way too much of a start-stop feeling to the first 3/4 of the movie where we follow a great scene with a couple of mostly uninteresting ones giving the movie a lot of dead air. I also thought it was odd that LaMotta’s first wife was basically ethered and after he meets his future second wife (while still married), we see or hear nothing about her again the rest of the movie.

Overall: Great performances, technical aspects and a strong finish make it memorable, but the first 3/4 of the movie didn’t do enough for me to call it great

Rating: B+

Tess (1980)


Starring: Nastassja Kinski, Peter Firth, Leigh Lawson, John Collin

Director: Roman Polanski

Summary: A simple country girl is torn between the honest farmer who loves her and a corrupt nobleman

Other Nominations: Director, Original Score, Art Direction*, Cinematography*, Costume Design*

*Note: This film was released in France in 1979 but not in the U.S. until 1980 (despite being an English-language film), hence why it was a 1980 nominee*

Not a lot to say about this one really, other than I was disappointed with it considering Polanski had a good track record with his previous 4-5 movies. While the film looks beautiful with lots of pretty locations and very good cinematography, the plot was a long (170 minutes), slow and fairly dull tragic romance with a bland heroine, an evil rich guy and a humble nice guy farmer (well, up to a point at least). The performances are okay, but when the characters felt as stock and unoriginal as they did, it’s hard for them to stand out all that much. I didn’t hate it or anything, but it didn’t do a lot for me either.

Overall: Tepid and long romance story filled with characters and elements that you have seen before, although it looks outstanding.

Rating: C-

1980 in Review

Notable Films of 1980

The Empire Strikes Back (Star Wars Episode V): The other films in the original trilogy are entertaining (Star Wars), or have some really exceptional stuff but are really uneven (Return of the Jedi), but Empire is the one that makes it a truly great franchise beyond just having revolutionary special effects. It really expands the universe in great ways by greatly expanding Darth Vader as a character, introducing Yoda and changing what we think of when we think of what the force is, and teasing the emperor. The whole conflict that we see glimpses of in the first film feel a lot more dire and our heroes have more going on and their characters in general are more interesting. In the National Film Registry.

The Shining: The last Stanley Kubrick movie that pretty much everybody, without reservation or qualification, loves (except for Stephen King I guess). Jack Nicholson’s descent into madness is amazing to watch and is one of his best performances, and it also spawned one of the best Simpson’s Treehouse of Horror segments.

Airplane!: This disaster-film parody is one of the best and most quotable comedies of all-time that is simply a relentless series of gags that consistently hit the mark. It turned Leslie Nielson from a decent dramatic actor in mostly schlocky movies to one of the best comedians of the 80s with Police Squad! and the follow-up Naked Gun films. In the National Film Registry.

The Blues Brothers: One of the all-time classic comedies starring Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi as brothers who are on a “mission from god” to save the orphanage they grew up in. Personally, the movie never really connected with me when I watched it a while back and the frequent song breaks and cameos were more distracting than entertaining for me, although the more action-oriented scenes were still great.

Caddyshack: A great year for comedy (and SNL alums), as we also had the all-star cast of Rodney Dangerfield, Michael O’Keefe, Ted Knight, Chevy Chase and Bill Murray in Harold Ramis’ directorial debut. Upon its original release, critics found the movie’s humor overly crude and all over the place, but it’s now considered a classic and probably the most beloved golf movie of all-time.

Friday the 13th: By no means did it start the slasher genre, but this one of the defining films in the genre and definitely reflections where the genre went for the rest of the decade than say, Halloween did. With that said, the movie does have some unconventional elements in comparison to later entries (the identity killer being one of them), and is probably the best of the series in terms of being an objectively good movie.

1980 Nominees in Review

Ordinary People: A- (Won Best Picture)

Raging Bull: B+

The Elephant Man: B+

Coal Miner’s Daughter: B

Tess: C-

Yup, one of my most unusual opinions is reflected here-that the Oscars (and most every other major award ceremony) was correct in giving Ordinary People the Oscar over Raging Bull. While Raging Bull at its best is better than anything in Ordinary People, the latter’s consistency made it a more enjoyable movie to watch on the whole. The Elephant Man was also a strong 3rd place in what was a very good year overall (with one exception) and feels like a proper send-off to the last Hollywood golden age.

Up next for 1981: One of only 8 movies to be nominated for all of the Big 5, but come away with no awards at all; This film’s theme was played during every medal ceremony at the 2012 London Olympics; a film that won Oscars for its 74 and 76 year-old leads; *Indiana Jones fist pump*; and the last movie to be nominated in all 4 acting categories until 2012.