This morning, I have ranked the following films as the ten best of the 1980s, beginning with the very best one and proceeding in descending order of preference:
1. THE CONSTANT FACTOR (Krzysztof Zanussi, Poland, 1980). For whatever reason(s), Krzysztof Zanussi has participated in obscuring his artistic signature by doggedly trying to make films that are different from one another. Constans is perhaps his most personal film.
Witold is beset with difficulties. He is his dying mother’s caregiver; at work his idealism collides with the inwardness, rigidness and corruption of an entrenched bureaucracy that mounts a plot against him; and he longs to scale the Himalayas, as his father died doing. Witold’s life appears bleak at the crossroads of his own character and things beyond his control. Finally, he withdraws from the world and becomes a window washer—a grotesque parody of mountain-climbing. The son will never become his father. The integrity to which he aspires must forever elude him.
Witold places his faith in mathematics, believing it can explain his apparent bad luck, and the film’s precise, almost mathematical style is suited to this faith and Witold’s perception of the world. Something human, though, is ever poised to drop into or out of such a view of reality. As a result, Witold unwittingly contributes to a tragic outcome. Constans is breathtaking in its irony.
Zanussi, a former student of physics and philosophy, has fashioned a rigorously intellectual work about self-determination and other-determination. Constans elegantly locates a man’s emotional life in a complex social and political environment. It demonstrates the struggle for survival by an individual whose resilience and intelligence would seem to offer more hope and better prospects. Of all great films, this may be the bleakest, not least of all for its portrait of daily existence in a joyless, programmatic Communist state. Throughout, its cold colors appear on the edge of colorlessness.
Zanussi has made an uncompromising film about an uncompromising man. The implied self-criticism is devastating.
2. HORSE THIEF (Tian Zhuangzhuang, China, 1986). In the tradition of Robert J. Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922), Tian Zhuangzhuang’s fictional, objectively toned Dao ma zei, nonprofessionally cast, documents an ends-of-the-world existence, in Tibet, amidst an incarnation of Nature that is as fierce as it is gorgeous to behold so long as one doesn’t live in it and have to cope with it. The prevailing silence, especially in terms of the sparseness of dialogue, is correlative to the primitive existence of the film’s protagonist, Norbu (Tseshang Rigzin, wonderful). His is an elemental life—and an awesome odyssey. Norbu is devout; despite this, due to his harsh existence, he steals from his Buddhist temple and, as a result, when he is caught, he, his wife, Dolma, and their son, Tashi, are banished from their clan. Stripped of communal protection, they are at the mercy of the elements. Tashi dies. Another son is born, steeling Norbu’s determination to ensure the newborn’s protection, no matter what this may take.
Here is the masterpiece of the Fifth Generation Movement in Chinese cinema—a portrait of such human hardship and impossible life choices as to unsettle viewers’ complacency and expand their sympathies. Tian has created an ordeal of enlightenment, a celebration of unearthly beauty—his astonishing color cinematographers are Zhao Fei and Yong Hou—that is perpetually disrupted by assaults on the human condition from within and without. His Horse Thief is also a piercing meditation on social organization, on the family unit within the larger group. We are moved to ponder issues of social responsibility in either direction, between family and community, divorced from the prism of ideological prejudice. Horse Thief is heartrendingly humane, as also would be, in a more conventional narrative mode, Tian’s epic of China’s Cultural Revolution, The Blue Kite (1993).
3. LONG LIVE THE LADY! (Ermanno Olmi, Italy, 1987). Written and directed by Ermanno Olmi, Lunga vita alla signora is Italy’s most brilliant film comedy. The “lady” in question, decrepit though still holding on, represents capitalism and wealth. She is her own guest of honor at an elaborate formal dinner/business celebration. Closed-circuit television sets are rolled down the in-between path of the U-shaped dining table to broadcast record high profits.
Her Ladyship wears a veil because, if ever breathed on directly or exposed to too much light, she would disintegrate. She doesn’t attend the opera, because culture might kill her, but she espies distant dinner guests through opera glasses from underneath her veil. Infantile, her Ladyship drinks wine through a straw.
Yet she is not the protagonist of Olmi’s intricately edited, combustibly funny satire. Boys and girls from a cooking school who have been brought in to serve the wine and dinner are the focus. (Cooked by the lady’s own chef and staff, the unusual meal begins with frogs and reaches a climax with an unidentifiable sea-beast—those familiar with Federico Fellini’s La dolce vita, 1959, will savor the joke—whose skeleton, when it is ceremoniously carted away, is picked-clean and bone-dry.) A flashback-insert shows the working-class youths’ instruction and preparation: Don’t turn around suddenly. Don’t look bored, etc. A flashback is inserted inside the flashback, showing one of the boys being similarly instructed years ago in church: “Beware of impure thoughts!” Libenzio’s “career path” has been this: church; school; job. This path of obedience reflects the patriarchal structure that capitalism now dictates more essentially than the Church.
Poignantly, Libenzio and his truck-driver father steal a private moment outside the mansion. After dinner, a guest tries to impress the waiter sexually, but, come dawn, Libenzio flees the maze of Her Ladyship’s domain.
4. MORTU NEGA (Flora Gomes, Guinea-Bissau, 1988). Drought has dried the village’s wells. Guinea-Bissau’s war of independence from Portugal has been won and those guerrillas to whom death has been denied have returned home. Fractious, selfish interests war against the unity for which ethnic groups strive. A woman who secured her free allotment of oil before the commodity ran out is selling it in portions. Her rationalization for exploiting others, “I am doing it for my children,” is punctured by the sight of children—the new nation’s future—celebrating en masse, first, war’s end and, finally, the end of the drought.
Underwritten by the Guinea-Bissau government, Flora Gomes’s Death Denied is an epic, that is, an expression of the aspirations of a people. The first part, which follows a contingent of guerrillas who have just been resupplied with artillery, is a great, gripping mini-film about war. Instantly the guerrillas are humanized as Diminga participates in the struggle in hopes of reuniting with her husband, Sako, whom she hasn’t seen in years. Almost as soon as they do (most tenderly, most movingly) reunite, an aerial attack wounds Sako, who orders Diminga back to their village, out of greater harm’s way. When Sako himself returns after war’s end, his health is most vulnerable, it turns out, from an earlier war injury, in his foot, that has reopened and become painfully infected. It refers to many things: historical pride, hence, vulnerability; the loss of his children that war exacted (delicately, brilliantly, Gomes mentions this loss only in reference to Diminga); his disillusionment on the heels of victory.
Collapsing time, Gomes includes a song in which Diminga has passed into legend even as she tends to Sako’s needs. The future will commemorate her past; in the meantime, Diminga lives in the present.
And the struggle continues.
5. THE HOME AND THE WORLD (Satyajit Ray, India, 1984). From a novel by Rabindranath Tagore, Ghare-Baire is Satyajit Ray’s most majestic and splendiferous film. The protagonist is Bimala Choudhury, who recalls her marriage in the early twentieth century. Nikhilesh, her spouse, a wealthy Bengal landowner and merchant, encourages her education and departure from traditional Hindu ways. Bimala eventually has an affair with an old college friend of his, Sandip Mukherjee (Soumitra Chatterjee, brilliant), a leader of the incendiary nationalist movement Swadeshi, whose first female member she becomes. Nikhilesh opposes Sandip’s politics, which he foretells will further divide Hindus and Muslims in a region that the ruling British have partitioned in order to short-circuit an alliance between the two groups. Sandip’s call for a boycott of British imports, Nikhilesh contends, will further impoverish Muslim merchants who are already struggling to survive. When his local agitation falls flat, Sandip organizes and unleashes a terrorist response.
This is no facile Reds (1981), Doctor Zhivago (1965) or Gone with the Wind (1939), where history supplies a sweeping backdrop for soap opera. Ray, instead, creates a rich tapestry in which British imperialism, Indian nationalism, the Choudhurys’ marriage, Bimala’s tentative moves toward a liberated modernism, and her extramarital affair are tightly interwoven, generating a complex vision of a society in upheaval. Bimala is portrayed as existing uncertainly between two worlds, while the two men in her life, political opponents, are each certain of themselves but only in partial possession of the truth. Have you ever wondered what it would be like to see the political views of others apart from the prism of your own views? Ray’s final masterpiece enables us to take in a myriad of sociopolitical shades and inflections in a complex, combustible situation. Moreover, it concludes with a devastating shot telescoping a devastated life.
6. ARIEL (Aki Kaurismäki, Finland, 1988). A brilliant tragicomedy of the discontinuous lives of the working poor, Ariel is the second part of Aki Kaurismäki’s “proletarian trilogy.” Taisto Kasurinen’s unhappy lot in life, we are given to understand, was set prior to the film’s action and will continue beyond its completion. At the outset, the closing of a coal mine deprives him and his father of their jobs; the latter gives Taisto the keys to his convertible and announces his intention of committing suicide. Taisto doesn’t believe he will do this, even after he brandishes a gun, for the simple reason that he has not already done this in a perpetually hard, unfair life. But we hear the offscreen shot and see Taisto looking down at his father’s body, which remains out of camera range. What we see reflects what Taisto sees, because we see him and his fate reflects his father’s.
Taisto, on the road, is beaten and robbed. He becomes a day laborer and sleeps at night in a mission flophouse. Nights are as black as oil. He meets Irmeli Pihlaja, who gives up her job monitoring illegal parking ticketing cars in exchange for dinner, and has sex with him. “I hated [my ex-husband] from the start.” Taisto: “That’s unusual.” Irmeli: “That’s what you think.” The two, along with Irmeli’s self-sufficient young son, become a family. Irmeli takes a factory job cutting meat.
But the law puts Taisto in prison after he runs across one of the men who robbed him and he tries taking back some of his money. With Irmeli’s help, he escapes, and the three plan on fleeing aboard the Mexico-bound Ariel under a mockingly gorgeous, dusky blue sky. We hear “Over the Rainbow” sung in Finnish and recall Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ill-fated schooner, Ariel.
7. A TIME TO LIVE, A TIME TO DIE (Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan, 1985). The second part of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Coming-of-Age trilogy is based on Hou’s own childhood. Tong nien wang shi begins with Hou’s voiceover recalling that his father relocated from Mei County, Kwangtung Province, in mainland China to Taiwan shortly after his birth, with him and the rest of the family following a year after. Hou, in effect, knew only the new country; his difficult adjustment, therefore, was to his family, whose difficulty adjusting to Taiwan exceeded his—although, because of his connection to them, he also experienced an acute sense of loss of homeland.
Tong nien wang shi comprises incidents—recollections, to which Hou has added imagination, especially regarding his mother, who is seen explaining things to the family that goes beyond what she must have said at the time. One infers from this Hou’s greatest need for reconciliation with the memory of the woman who spunkily spanked him and kept the family together. However, it is Grandma whose wanderings keep her searching for Mekong Bridge and the way home. Eventually Grandma returns to the mainland.
We know the name of Hou’s father from her cries at hospital at his death. Fen-ming! A laterally moving shot records the children’s faces of grief. Ah-hsiao, or Ah-ha, as his peers teasingly put it, is bathing in an adjacent room when he hears his mother’s piercing lament.
We watch the boy and other children at play and getting into more serious trouble. It is the portrait of a great artist as not yet a young man.
Tong nien wang shi is a gently melancholy work, full of a sense of lost cultural moorings that Hou now can grasp as an adult. The film is his brilliant attempt to fill in the blanks of his aching heart.
8. EPIDEMIC (Lars von Trier, Denmark, 1988). Save Vampyr (1931), by another Dane, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Lars von Trier’s Epidemic may be the greatest horror film ever made. It is certainly one of the most playful and visually fetching horror films.
It’s pseudo-cinéma-vérité—a film-within-a-film the boundaries of whose Chinese boxes bend and blur. A film director named Lars (endearingly played by Lars von Trier himself) and his scenarist, Niels (played by Trier’s actual co-scenarist, Niels Vørsel), dream up a medical horror movie, in the dream of which Dr. Mesmer (Trier again), an epidemiologist, battles a disease that in fact he unwittingly spreads. Both films are in black and white; but the objective framing film is shot in 16mm, while the interior dream of a film is shot in luxuriant 35mm. The phenomenal cinematography is by Henning Bendtsen, who photographed Dreyer’s Ordet (1954).
The dream is a nightmare of reality; talk of “mass graves” invokes specters of two world wars, the Holocaust, and the threat of annihilation imposed on us all by the examples of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Indeed, the framing film, in which the plague ultimately erupts with the assistance of hypnosis, seems to be catching up with the interior film.
Irrepressibly funny and absolutely terrifying, Epidemic locates individual imagination in the grip of shared political realities. We cannot get away from our worst dreams, our worst imaginings, because they are real and because the paranoid U.S. is ever poised to drop at a whim another stupendous bomb. Art, our principal defense, only returns us to reality. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark because something is rotten elsewhere in the world. Europe exists in a colossal shadow.
This is the second entry in Trier’s “European trilogy” begun with The Element of Crime (1984).
9. THE DEAD (John Huston, Ireland, U.S., 1987). Some literary works are untranslatable into cinema, and The Dead, from James Joyce’s 1914 collection Dubliners, is probably one of them. However, Irish-American John Huston long had nurtured the dream of turning the most beautiful short story in the English language into a film. He was in his eighties and working from an oxygen tent when he did this, from son Tony’s script, and the result is overwhelmingly moving. The Dead was Huston’s last completed film.
With its bristling life, irresistible humor, sharp observation, and glow of melancholy, The Dead is Huston’s most deeply felt and beautifully composed film. One problem, though, did intercede. Joyce’s story unfolds through an omniscient narrator, some of whose gravest reflections are, now, unsuitably given over to Gabriel, the protagonist. Otherwise, though, the film is bliss. With guests dancing lightly around their persistent awareness of “the last end,” the film gives us afresh Joyce’s buoyant, captivating comedy of life written in his twenties to acknowledge “all the living and the dead.” Approaching his own end, his legendary sourness gone, Huston transforms this young man’s piece into a serene contemplation of a universal mystery whose depth of secrets only now he is on the verge of discovering. This hauntingly lit and gloriously acted film—Donal McCann, Anjelica Huston (Huston’s daughter) and Donal Donnelly are the Gabriel, Gretta and Freddy of our dreams—bears the sense of a gracious last testament freely given.
Huston’s is one of the most substantial careers in American cinema, and some films of his that once seemed failures or overly commercial, such as Key Largo (1948) and The Misfits (1961), are of greater interest today.
10. IMAGES OF THE WORLD AND THE INSCRIPTION OF WAR (Harun Farocki, West Germany, 1989). The objective nature of photographic images is probed in this brilliant West German documentary by Harun Farocki. Such images, Farocki’s cinematic essay suggests, bear the subjectivity of the political uses to which they are put at one end and the subjectivities of human reception and perception at the other. Indeed, something else predates either of these mediations: manipulations of reality that generate those appearances which images then proceed to memorialize. In wartime, factories producing necessary equipment, for instance, are camouflaged to fool aerial reconaissance into generating photographs in which the factories appear to be ordinary residences.
Such photographs were inadvertently taken of Auschwitz during the last world war. This was April 1944, when Allied reconaissance was searching instead for factories, chemical plants, etc., that is, bombing targets in order to fell the Nazi war effort. The aerial photographs were ignored as revealing nothing relevant; only in the mid-1970s, when they were discovered in CIA files and scrutinized from the vantage of considerable knowledge of the death camps, were they correctly deciphered. Farocki compares this “outside,” “objective” view with an “inside,” personal view aiming at objectivity: drawings of Auschwitz by Jewish prisoner Alfred Kantor. The photographs are also compared to Nazi photographs of Auschwitz.
We may fetishize the photograph—and, more generally, technology. Farocki mockingly prefaces the Auschwitz material with the case of Albrecht Meydenbauer, a nineteenth-century architect who, in order to safely deduce measurements of a church, relied on still photographs from which a scale model presumably could be constructed.
Farocki’s associative method may seem at times to want coherence, but his stunning Images is tightly constructed without appearing to be—a strategy to avoid imposing on the viewer just the sort of quantifiable “truth” the film seeks to penetrate.
Filmmaker and new father Blake Eckard has sent me his own list of the ten best films of the 1980s—and his includes two titles that narrowly missed my own list. Here is Blake’s list as I received it:
THE SHINING (1980, Stanley Kubrick)
PRINCE OF THE CITY (1981, Sidney Lumet)
WHITE DOG (1982, Samuel Fuller)
L’ARGENT (1983, Robert Bresson)
LAST NIGHT AT THE ALAMO (1984, Eagle Pennell)
COME AND SEE (1985, Elem Klimov)
BLUE VELVET (1986, David Lynch)
PLATOON (1986, Oliver Stone)
BELL DIAMOND (1986, Jon Jost)
THE THIN BLUE LINE (1988, Errol Morris)