DeFlip Side #129: Film’s Greatest Year

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Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.

2012 has been a heck of a year for geeky event films. The Avengers. The Dark Knight Rises. Prometheus. Even Cabin in the Woods. But for me, the greatest film of 2012 so far isn’t a 2012 film at all—despite the fact that it was released only last weekend.

I speak of none other than Raiders of the Lost Ark, which just premiered in IMAX digital for a limited run to promote the Blu-ray release of all four Indiana Jones films.

To double the irony, Raiders isn’t even my favorite Indiana Jones movie. That honor is reserved for Temple of Doom, where I was first blown away by Indy’s big screen adventures, and which I still love, without apology. But since I missed it the fist time around, I couldn’t wait to see Raiders in a theater, the way it was meant to be seen: larger than life in all of its boulder-rolling, snake-slithering, Nazi-melting glory.

Best of all, Steven Spielberg didn’t go all George Lucas on it and enhance any of the effects. He didn’t even fix mistakes that would be much more noticeable in IMAX—a deliberate choice. As he told Yahoo’s MOVIEtalk website:

“I think that the fans are going to love that even more, because they’re the ones that picked them out in the first place.”

Spielberg also says this will be the only Indy installment to get an IMAX conversion. Little wonder, since Raiders is obviously very special to him; he says it’s the only one of his films that he can watch all the way through and fully enjoy as a fan. As he told MOVIEtalk:

“I think whenever I’m around the Indiana Jones series in any way… it makes me feel the way I felt in 1980. For me, the movie is a little bit of a fountain of youth.”

And not just for him. The friends who joined me at the IMAX screening came out joyfully recalling their first time seeing Raiders on the big screen, 31 years ago. Apparently, it plays just as fresh and fun now as it did on its opening weekend in 1981, and it’s this rare quality that makes it a classic.

But as it turns out, this quality wasn’t so rare for most of the genre films of 1981.

Most cinefiles look back to the summer of 1982 as the ultimate geek nirvana. The month of June alone saw the release of what many consider to be some of the greatest Science Fiction films of all time: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Poltergeist, E.T., John Carpenter’s The Thing and Blade Runner. When the weakest film on your list is Poltergeist, you know you’re doing something right.

But that’s pretty much where 1982 begins and ends, with the exception of maybe Conan The Barbarian and Creepshow.

Now compare this to 1981, where almost every genre film that came out is still beloved by legions of fans. Raiders is undoubtedly the cream of the crop, followed by another little movie you might have heard of called Superman II; but while these films may have had the biggest mainstream reception, the list of cult classics from 1981 boggles the mind.

An American Werewolf in London set the gold standard for practical monster movie effects; more classic horror came our way with The Howling and Halloween II and The Evil Dead; and let’s not forget Friday the 13th Part II, the movie that catapulted Jason Voorhees to slasher infamy.

Fantasy fans got not only Excalibur and Dragonslayer and Knightriders, but Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion masterpiece Clash of the Titans.

1981 was also the year of the rock and roll animation spectacle Heavy Metal. Kurt Russel donned an eye-patch to play his most iconic role, Snake Pliskin in Escape from New York; even goofy family movies like The Great Muppet Caper and The Incredible Shrinking Woman are now cult classics. And if you think I’m off with Shrinking Woman, think again:

You remember this. Don’t deny it. I’ve had this song stuck in my head for 30 years. But even if you disagree, we still haven’t gotten to the best cult films of 1981. They are, undeniably:

The Road Warrior; my personal favorite, Time Bandits; and the unclassifiably weird Possession.

Isabelle Adjani’s subway alien baby miscarriage scene in Possession is one of the most disturbing things ever captured on film, and that’s including her love scene with the slimy tentacled alien thingy. If you haven’t seen Possession, do so immediately. It’s not the most comprehensible film, but it’s certainly unforgettable.

Hell, even the bad genre films of 1981 like Looker and The Funhouse featured the boobs of Susan Dey and Elisabeth Berridge.

This anomaly of classics doesn’t stop with genre films. Three of the greatest comedies of all time also debuted in 1981: Dudley Moore’s Arthur, Bill Murray’s Stripes and Mel Brooks’ History of the World Part 1.

So I put it to you: is 1981 the greatest year for genre films in the modern era, or am I just getting old and pining for my childhood? The answer is yes, both times. But I honestly don’t think that most people will be clamoring to re-watch The Avengers or Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy three years from now, much less in three decades. And here’s why, circling back to Raiders as an example.

As chock full of action as Raiders is, it never eclipsed the human element. And that’s mainly thanks to Harrison Ford, according to Spielberg. Here he is talking to The Los Angeles Times’ Hero Complex:

“Harrison said if you want the audience to believe I’m real, and not just some guy with a cape, you’d better let me show them that I’m afraid. I’ll recover from it okay, but I need to show that fear. And Harrison brought that entire tapestry to the entire part and that transformed the movie for me.”

As it did for us all. And Spielberg saying “just some guy in a cape” is especially apropos considering today’s movies. Harrison Ford took it a step further in the same interview, talking about the proliferation of CGI in modern genre films:

“The potential that filmmakers have with computer aided graphics can be wonderfully creative. But it can also lead to a failure to attend to human scale. To go so far beyond our experience and our imaginations as an audience to remind us that we’re watching a digital effect, rather than some subtle extension of our experience, which makes us feel like it’s humanly possible. This kind of potential, I think, often robs movies of a degree of soul.”

Well put, Indy. A degree of soul. Great or campy, big budget or small, that’s the one thing most genre films from 1981—indeed, from that entire era—have in common: a degree of soul. Not to say that many of today’s films don’t try, but not one of their slick, over-produced gonzo CGI action sequences can stand up to the simple crack of Indy’s whip.

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Click here to watch Hero Complex’s full interview with Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford