40 Movies For 40 Years: 1981

I started kindergarten in 1981. That’s about the biggest accomplishment that I can think of. I started going to a place where I had a regular diet of cookies, Kool-Aid, and crayons.

Yes, I ate crayons.

Chariots Of Fire got the Academy Award for best picture. Mommie Dearest got the Razzie for worst picture. Christopher Reeve was back in the tights in Superman II, 007 was drinking another shaken martini in For Your Eyes Only, and Terry Gilliam directed the cult classic Time Bandits.

I am, as I’ve said before, a huge Superman film. I have the tattoo to prove it. And I absolutely love Superman II. I think that in a lot of ways it is superior to the first film. But this list is about more than just nostalgia. I have to determine what my favorites more. And if I’m being honest there is one movie that came out in 1981 that would definitely get more rewatchability. I’m, of course, talking about Raiders Of The Lost Ark.

After The Empire Strikes Back came out Harrison Ford was officially a big star. The ending of Empire had left his character’s fate up in the air. He kind of wanted to have Han killed off so he could move on to something else. He got together with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg to make a movie that was something completely different than Star Wars.

Raiders Of The Lost Ark has Ford playing an archeologist by the name of Indiana Jones. He travels the world collecting artifacts that have been lost and taking them to the university where he teaches. He is given the opportunity to search for the lost ark of the covenant, a biblical object said to contain the original stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written. The film also stars Paul Freeman, Karen Allen, and John Rhys-Davies.

Most fans of Star Wars know that when Lucas made that movie he was trying to make a modern day version of the old Flash Gordon serials that he had watched as a kid. Raiders was no different. There used to be a lot of serials that contained adventurers looking for lost artifacts and getting into fights with smugglers and pirates and things like that. The famous character Alan Quatermaine had several stories and films with comparable adventures.

I saw this movie a bunch of times when I was a kid, but the images are not as spectacular and flashy as Star Wars so a lot of it washed over me. I remember that it came on television a lot and I would get sent out of the room before the “face melting” scene at the end. I didn’t really have a context for the whole thing. I just knew that Indiana Jones had a whip and ran from a boulder.

I was in my late teens when The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles came on TV. I really enjoyed that show and it made me want to go and watch the trilogy all over again. So, I went to the video store and got a couple of strange looks because I rented all three movies. I went home and had a movie marathon. For a short while I became obsessed with Indiana Jones. I read some novels and devoured the TV show when I could.

Up until then most of my movie watching had been dedicated to science fiction and superhero stuff. When I saw this I realized that there were all kinds of adventure stories out there that were a lot of fun. It led me to the classic movies channel to watch some of the movies that had inspired it. Thanks to Raiders I was introduced to Erol Flynn and I watched Bogart in Treasure Of The Sierra Madre for the first time.

Raiders is definitely my favorite of the original three. I’m not a huge fan of Temple Of Doom but I really enjoyed The Last Crusade. But over and above all of that, the first is always going to be the best.

I’m not even going to talk about Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull.

40 Movies For 40 Years: 1980

The year that I turned 3 years old because I have a picture of myself with tears in my eyes sitting next to a birthday cake that said “Happy Birthday You Big Dummy”.

That might seem like a very cruel thing to say to a small child, but there actually was a little context to it. One of my favorite things to do when I was little was to sit in my grandfather’s lap and watch television. “Paw-Paw” would watch all kinds of things, and I’d watch with him no matter what it was. Sometimes it would be Sesame Street just to please me. At other times it would be The Andy Griffith Show or All In The Family. His favorite was Sanford And Son. The slogan on the cake was from that show, but my three year old mind didn’t get the joke so my feelings got hurt.

1980 was a good year for film releases. Dolly Parton was working 9 to 5, Clint Eastwood was back in Any Which Way You Can, and Dan Akroyd and John Belushi were on a mission from God in The Blues Brothers.

I didn’t have to think about this one very much at all. My very favorite movie from 1980 was most definitely The Empire Strikes Back.

After the success of Star Wars in 1977 it was pretty evident that there would be a sequel. George Lucas had laid the groundwork for a series in that first film and this time he was able to build on it. He handed the directing reigns over to Irvin Kershner and he focused more on the special effects that were going to be required for this installment.

Empire picks up about a three years after the destruction of the Death Star that we witnessed in A New Hope. The Rebel Alliance has gained strength but the Empire is beginning to regain some footing. Luke goes to Dagobah to train with Yoda, the last remaining of the old Jedi, in the ways of The Force. He leaves to go and rescue Han and Leia after they are taken captive by Darth Vader. In the ensuing fight Luke learns a huge secret about who he is.

This is the very definition of the second part of a trilogy. It dives right into the action. We don’t have to spend any time getting to know the characters because they were already established the first time around. As a result we get a huge battle scene in the first 20 minutes. We see AT-ATs for the first time. And once the battle is over and the story slows down for a while we’re still introduced to a lot of the things that make this world so fantastic.

Yoda explains The Force to us in much more detail than Obi-Wan was ever given the opportunity to do. We also get to see so many different environments in one film. The ice planet of Hoth, the jungle planet of Dagobah, and the heavenly views of Cloud City were the main ones.

It’s hard to name one thing that I love about Empire. It is my favorite Star Wars movie. I love that it’s almost like an episode. It picks up where the last one left off and at the end of it we’re left completely hanging.

As I said in my review of Star Wars, George Lucas is not a very good writer or director. That’s what makes Empire so great. He wrote the story for the film, but the script was written by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan. Kershner directed it and took it to a whole other level. Lucas focused on the stuff that he is good at…world building.

Out of the original trilogy of films, this is the most quotable, has the best battle scene, and lays the foundation for everything else that came after it. The original Star Wars had a lot of the ships and aliens and creatures and all of that good stuff…but Empire introduced all the giant mechanical weapons, more ships, more droids, and just made that universe so much bigger.

I really looked through the list of films that came out in 1980 and tried to be sure that I wasn’t looking at that year with a bias. But having gone through the list three times I can say beyond a shadow of a doubt that no other film from the year that I turned 3 has had more of impact on who I am than The Empire Strikes Back.

40 Movies For 40 Years: 1979

1979 was the year that I turned 2 years old. My dad was transferred from Ft. Walton Beach, Florida to Columbus, Mississippi. And less than a week before Christmas my little brother was born.

The box office was pretty active as well. 007 was back again with Moonraker, Francis Ford Coppola had another hit on his hands with Apocalypse Now, and Sigorney Weaver was running from Xenomorphs in Alien.

I’ve had to do a lot of thinking over this year. I had to really dig down deep and be honest with myself over a couple of films in order to find what takes this spot on my list. This is the year that Star Trek: The Motion Picture was released. If you know anything about me then you know that I am a Star Trek fan. I don’t mean that I kind of like the show a little bit. I mean that I had a couple of years in high school where I didn’t read a bit of literature that wasn’t a Star Trek novel. I watched The Next Generation every evening at 9:00pm even if I had seen the episode 12 times.

So, I sat down today to write this blog entry with every intent on writing about that film. But, just to be sure, I pulled up the Wikipedia page that showed all of the movies that came out that year. Remember that when I started this project I was going to talk about my favorite movies from every year that I’ve been alive. I don’t want to write about the movies that made the most money. I don’t even want to write about the movies that I think are the most well made. There are things that may end up on my list that I actually think are not as good as others that came out that year…but this is about the movies that impacted me the most. And for 1979…Star Trek: The Motion Picture is not my favorite.

My favorite film of 1979 is Rocky II.

I’m not a sports guy. I never played a sport in high school. I was the last one picked to play anything in gym. I don’t even understand the rules of football enough to carry on a conversation with a true fan. So, for me to say that I love a franchise of sports movies is really saying something. But I am a huge fan of all of the Rocky films. The only reason the original isn’t on my list is because it came out a year before I was born. And I was a grown man before I finally sat down and watched it. But after I did I felt the need to consume the entire series. I love each and every one of those films. Even the fourth one that was basically made of montages…and the fifth one in which Rocky didn’t even get in the ring. And I was more excited when Creed came out a couple of years ago than most of my friends thought was necessary.

Rocky II is an example of a perfect sequel. It brought all of the main players back to the stage. It stars Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa, Talia Shire as Adrian, Burt Young as Paulie, Burgess Meredith as Mickey, and Carl Weathers as Apollo Creed. They felt genuine. They felt like they were the same people as before. One thing that I always find irritating about sequels is that they can be so by the numbers and wink at the audience with in jokes and references to the original piece. This felt like a true continuation of the first film.

Apollo Creed beat Rocky in the original by a split decision. Rocky II finds him obsessed with the thought that America thinks that Rocky could have beaten him. He challenges him to a rematch. Meanwhile, Rocky is dealing with the new fame that has found him and tries to build a life with Adrian.

What I like about the Rocky series is not so much the boxing…it’s the heart. The character that Stallone plays feels like a real man. He is not the brightest bulb on the tree, but he has so much courage and integrity that it is hard not to feel as if he’s someone that you know. In a way, he is someone that you know. He’s the guy that we all secretly want to be. He’s a guy that started out with nothing; living in a hole in the wall apartment and making ends meet by boxing for a few bucks in a church basement. He’s such a nice guy that he can’t even do his job as an enforcer for a loan shark correctly because he doesn’t like to hurt people.

The second time around Rocky is finished with boxing. He has money to burn after his famous near-win in a championship fight. But Creed wants a rematch so bad that he launches a smear campaign to force Rocky back into the ring. Rocky obliges in order to clear his name. I won’t spoil the ending in case there are some that haven’t seen it.

I can’t say enough good things about this whole series, but this one in particular is probably on my top ten movies of all time. And it is definitely my favorite sports movie ever. The first movie is about a guy that had nothing in the world and created a name for himself. This one is about a man who didn’t let fame and fortune stand in the way of his principles and created an empire.

So, yes, my favorite TV franchise of all time launched a film in 1979. And while Star Trek had the special effects and the starships and the phasers and all of that…I don’t feel that it can beat Rocky in the story department. There are only a few movies that have characters with as much heart and depth as the Rocky films, and lucky for me the second of the series was good enough to make my list.

40 Movies For 40 Years: 1978

I had my first birthday in 1978. It was a big day for my family because it meant that my mom and dad had gotten through their first year of parenthood without killing me. I have no idea what my cartoon character my cake was made to look like. I don’t know what decorations that my mom put up for my party. I’m not even entirely sure that I had a birthday party. My dad was in the Air Force when I was a baby and at the time that I turned one I believe he was still stationed in Ft. Walton Beach, FL, which is the same place where I was born. This was a good four hour drive from most of my extended family so I doubt that they all made the trip just for some cake and ice cream.

1978 was also a big year for movies. John Travolta had another hit in theaters when he donned his leather jacket in Grease. Clint Eastwood was taking care of business in Every Which Way But Loose. And Michael Myers was chasing down Jamie Lee Curtis for the very first time in Halloween.

It wasn’t until December that one movie in particular came out that has since found its way into the list of movies that have had a profound impact on my life. On December 15th we learned that a man could fly when Superman hit the screen.

Superman stars Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Marlon Brando, and Gene Hackman. It was directed by Richard Donner.

I have to make a confession. I was a huge Superman fan when I was a kid. I read Superman comics, watched Superfriends every Saturday morning, and even watched a lot of reruns of the old black and white series starring George Reeves on Nickelodeon. I had a ceramic lamp of the Man of Steel on my desk in my bedroom that my mother had made for me. And even after the lamp part broke, I still kept the statue part as a decoration. I wish that I had that statue now.

My obsession with the Last Son of Krypton didn’t die out as I grew up as most things tend to. I didn’t read the comic books as much in my late teens and early twenties, but I still consumed as much as I could. The day that the animated series hit the airwaves was a very happy day for me.

And when I was 19 I had the “S” shield tattooed on my right shoulder. Yes, you read that correctly. I have a Superman tattoo.

So, obviously, as soon as I was old enough to watch this movie I was placed in front of it as often as it was on television. In the days before VCRs that must have been fairly frequently because I remember seeing it a number of times as a kid. My first few viewings kind of washed over me. I didn’t understand a lot of what was happening with the Marlon Brando scenes. I just remember being amazed when Reeve showed up in that costume and commenced to saving the day. Looking back now I realize that it was almost a full hour into the film before we see that famous costume, but I didn’t know that back then.

Getting Superman to the screen was a pretty big endeavor. There had been a lot of issues involving the film rights to the character that dated back a good 5 years before the movie finally came out. And then the process of finding the right people to make the movie had been daunting as well. Mario Puzo, the man who wrote The Godfather, penned a 400 page script. That is an obscene length for any film, much less a simply story based on a comic book.

The production had its share of directors attached to it as well. Steven Spielberg was Puzo’s choice. He turned it down but said that George Lucas would be a good candidate. Lucas was tied up making Star Wars at the time. Finally, after a few location changes and script alterations the job was given to Richard Donner, who decided that he wanted to start from scratch. The script at this point had grown to 550 pages. He had it rewritten which probably didn’t make Puzo very happy.

A lot of Hollywood’s leading men were considered for the role of Superman. Burt Reynolds, Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Charles Bronson were just a few actors that were seriously thought about. Ultimately, Donner decided that he wanted someone that was unknown to fill the red boots. He wanted the audience to look at the character and see…the character. If it had been someone huge like Schwarzenegger no one would be able to see anything but Arnie in tights.

Reeve was given the part even though he didn’t show up to the audition in a muscle suit as he was requested to do. He was in very good shape and his posture and look just resonate on the screen. He truly looks like Superman. And I always thought that making some beefcake play the part would have been a big mistake anyway. Superman isn’t strong because he’s big…he’s strong because he has super powers. He doesn’t have to be big to have that.

The rest of the cast play out pretty well. I’ve always thought that Margot Kidder may not have been the best choice to play Lois Lane because she’s a little too brash and off-putting. I find it hard to believe that this Kansas farm boy would fall for her. But, she does fit the part of a 1970s newspaper reporter so I guess it does work in that respect.

Gene Hackman is a fantastic actor. He is one of Hollywood’s living legends and he has definitely earned that distinction. But I’m not that big of a fan of his portrayal of Lex Luthor. In the comics, Luthor has evolved over the decades. While he was simply a mad scientist of some sort in the early days, he has since become a truly threatening, and powerful foe for Superman. Hackman portrayed him as being a kind of conniving and smarmy crook bent on gaining real estate to make himself rich. It’s not really a true representation of the character. But, in the late 70s I realize that they were going for something that would make people laugh and that they didn’t really have to think too much about. The sad thing is that we have never gotten a true transfer of Luthor from page to screen. The closest we’ve ever come to the real thing was Michael Rosenbaum’s portrayal of a young Lex Luthor on Smallville.

Comic book movies are all the rage today. Marvel is releasing two titles every year. DC is doing their best to keep up. And there are all sorts of other comic book properties making their way to our theaters and living rooms every year. From The Avengers to The Walking Dead, adaptations of comics have proven to be a huge industry. And more importantly, we have proven that superheroes are something that we aren’t going to get tired of any time soon.

And all of that can point to 1978 as its origin. When Kal-El’s tiny ship crashed into that Kansas field it changed a lot of things about movies. Superheroes have regularly found their way to us since then. And it all started when Christopher Reeve sailed over the Earth, smiled, and drifted into our hearts.

40 Movies For 40 Years: 1977

On July 4 of this year I will be turning 40 years old. That is a big day for any person. It seems bigger to the person actually making the milestone than to the people around them since everyone has a 40th birthday eventually…unless they die before they get there. And barring any unforeseen circumstances over the next six and a half months I will probably be blowing out those candles on Independence Day.

But I want to conduct a little experiment with myself. I am a movie guy. I love movies and I love television. I have been this way since I was a child. To me there has never been a more pleasant and satisfying pastime as sitting and letting a story wash over you the way that a movie can do. The two or three hours that you spend watching film are the culmination of hundreds of hours of work by hundreds of individuals that poured their heart and soul into that project. The actors, the director, the camera guys…all the way down to the guy that sweeps up after everyone has left have all built their careers on making stories for us to consume as entertainment.

This year, as I approach the big Four-oh, I have decided that I want to go on a journey. I want to find out what the 40 most important movies are to me. What are the 40 movies that I love more than anything in the world? And to do that I am going to start in the year that I was born and do a review of my favorite film from that year. I will post an entry for my favorite movie out of every year that I’ve been alive. These are not the top movies of those years. These are not the classics that are on the “movies you should see before you die” list. These are my favorite movies and the ones that have had an impact on my life.

A lot of the earlier ones I obviously didn’t see until later in life. And my no means have I seen every film that has come out in the last 40 years, so my list may change in the future.

The year that I was born was 1977 and a lot of things happened on the silver screen that year. John Travolta had Saturday Night Fever, Woody Allen was back with Annie Hall, 007 was taking us on another thrilling adventure with The Spy Who Loved Me, and Burt Reynolds was eastbound and down in Smokey And The Bandit. But there was one movie that was released that year that has been more of part of my life than almost any other movie that will be on my list. Of course I’m talking about Star Wars.

When it originally came out it was known as Star Wars, though fans today refer to it either as Episode IV or A New Hope. I can’t imagine that there would be anyone reading this blog that has never heard of this film, but it is a fantasy story that takes place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. It’s the story of Luke Skywalker, a farm boy who lives on the planet Tatooine. He intercepts a message from Princess Leia, one of the leaders of a rebellion against the evil Empire, on its way to a former Jedi knight by the name of Obi Wan Kenobi. The message contains the plans to the Empire’s newest weapon, a planet destroying space station known as the Death Star. Now Luke finds himself embroiled in a battle that will decide the fate of the galaxy and a road that will lead him to becoming the last Jedi warrior.

When George Lucas dreamed up this movie he came up with so many concepts that have been borrowed and reused hundreds of times in the decades since. But a lot of the storytelling elements that make this movie so great were themselves borrowed from things that have come before. This is more than just a science fiction story. Those kinds of stories are a dime a dozen. This movie is a perfect storm that occurs when you take a story that we’ve heard before and throw in a few dashes of things that we’ve never dreamed of.

This movie had a princess, a wizard, a pirate, starships, swordfights, a couple of monsters, some soldiers, and everything in between. It introduced us to Storm Troopers, TIE Fighters, X-Wings, and light sabers. We hear sounds that resonate even today. There is no other sound in cinematic history like the sound of a light saber being turned on.

And then there is Darth Vader. In this first film he is terrifying. Dressed all in black and wearing a mask that completely hides his face…I can remember the way my little heart thumped in my chest the first time that I saw him. The sound of his breathing sent a chill down my spine. Vader was a dark lord of the Sith, the evil mirror image of the Jedi. Lucas took the scary away from him in later films, but in this one he was perfect. I remember watching him first step into the frame in those first few scenes and having horrible thoughts about what was under that mask and being convinced that he was going to pull it off and scare me.

This movie also did things with special effects that had never been done. Not only that, they had never even been thought about. You’ll find in future blogs that I don’t really think much of George Lucas as a writer. But I stand in awe at his ability to create an environment and to figure out how to show us on the screen what he’s seeing in his mind. When I watch this movie now it is usually some sort of remastered version that has doctored all of the effects shots to make them look more modern. Back then I was watching a VHS that had been recorded off of television. You could see the blank squares around the X-Wings and the TIE Fighters during that famous dog fight and in the battle around the Death Star. We notice all of that when we go back to it now. All we saw then was that this world was unveiling before us. We were being transported to this galaxy and it was amazing.

The movie that we got wouldn’t have been the same without the cast. Mark Hamill was the only one that could play Luke. Sir Alec Guinness was a the veteran actor that brought credence to the project, even though he thought that it was all rather silly. Harrison Ford went on from here to become one of Hollywood’s A-List actors and he’s still working today. James Earl Jones was the perfect resonating voice of Vader. And the late Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia…

When I heard of her passing I mourned as though she were family.

Many, many filmmakers have tried to do their own version of Star Wars. Even Lucas tried to catch lightening in a bottle a second time when he made his prequel trilogy 20 years later. But nothing has equaled what we got in the summer of 1977.

There are a few movies throughout the history of cinema that are true game changers. Star Wars changed the way science fiction and fantasy unfolded before us. There is no question that it takes the prize as my favorite movie from 1977.

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