“Ordinary People” (1980) dir. Robert Redford

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“Ordinary People” winning the Best Picture Oscar over “Raging Bull” in 1980 is considered one of the biggest cinematic crimes of all time by many. I’m not one of those people. “Raging Bull” is, indeed, the better film, but “Ordinary People” is a really good movie and much better than its reputation would have you believe. (Funny, but no one complains that “Coal Miner’s Daughter” got robbed that year … which is one of THE best biopics of all time … but I digress).

“Ordinary People” is often dismissed as the type of middlebrow melodrama that philistines give points to because it displays such “good taste.” That’s not entirely unfair, but “Ordinary People” has a lot of virtues. It contains a great script by Alvin Sargent, admirable (albeit non-flashy) directing by Redford, and best of all, solid acting performances by Donald Sutherland (arguably his best performance … and one that is severely underrated), Mary Tyler Moore, Judd Hirsch, Elizabeth McGovern (who is receiving a well-deserved career resurgence on “Downton Abbey,”) … and Timothy Hutton.

Timothy Hutton won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor that year for this film, but he’s actually the lead. He should have been a contender for Best Actor, but considering his competition that year included Robert DeNiro for “Raging Bull,” Peter O’Toole for “The Stuntman,” John Hurt for “The Elephant Man,” and Robert Duvall for “The Great Santini,” putting Hutton in the Supporting Actor category was probably a shrewder move. His character is the center of the film and Hutton’s extremely rich performance is the emotional core.

Hutton’s performance is so raw, so wounded, so ferocious, it’s one of the best performances I’ve ever seen by any actor. It is the equivalent of James Dean’s performance in “Rebel Without a Cause,” only without the method actor baggage that Dean brings to “Rebel.” It’s an incredibly intense performance that’s neither mannered or pretentious. As much as I love Sean Penn, many of his performances ultimately seem like acting. Hutton’s portrayal of a teenager trying to come to grips with his brother’s death, his own suicide attempt (due to guilt over his brother’s death), and the fact that his mother may not love him seems heartbreakingly real.

Hutton seemed poised to become one of the best and most successful actors of his generation. But fate had a different idea in mind. What’s sad is that Hutton didn’t piss away his talent with bad choices or bad movies … at least not in the beginning. With the exception of “Taps” (which was a hit), none of his follow-up performances achieved the popular or critical success of “Ordinary People.” And all of these follow-up performances were perfectly admirable choices: “Taps,” Sidney Lumet’s “Daniel,” John Schlesinger’s “The Falcon and the Snowman,” and Fred Schepisi’s “Iceman.”  All of these films were among the best, if not underrated films, of the first half of the 1980s.  This was an era before young actors were seeking out their “franchise” to bank $100 million before they got relegated to character roles.  Hutton has stayed employed over the years and it’s always a joy to see him on screen. But Hutton should have had the career Sean Penn had (though please note, I am in no way saying Penn doesn’t richly deserve the great success he’s obtained). If anyone deserves a Robert Downey Jr.-style comeback, it’s Hutton. He’s the real deal.

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“Raging Bull” (1980) dir. Martin Scorsese

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Martin Scorsese’s 1980 film “Raging Bull” is considered by many to be his masterpiece. While I would argue that “Taxi Driver” or “Goodfellas” earn that distinction more, “Bull” is a great film and genuine cinema classic. On its surface, “Bull” is a biopic about former middleweight champion boxer Jake LaMotta. However, it’s also a biopic of Scorsese himself.

Where this story really begins is in 1976. After the critical and popular success of his film “Taxi Driver,” Scorsese directed an ambitious big-budget musical called “New York, New York,” which was released in the summer of 1977. The film did not fare well with critics or with the public, who flocked to a little film called “Star Wars” instead. Scorsese had his first flop and his drug intake grew increasingly worse. While he kept busy making two documentaries (“The Last Waltz” and “American Prince”), his personal life grew more dark and chaotic.

From Peter Biskind’s fantastic book about 1970s Hollywood “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls”: “Scorsese knew he was acting badly, driving people away from him, but he couldn’t help it. He says, ‘I was always angry, throwing glasses, provoking people, really unpleasant to be around. I always found, no matter what anyone said, something to take offense at. I’d be the host, but at some point during the evening, I’d flip out, just like when I’m shooting.'”

Robert DeNiro really wanted to make “Raging Bull” and Scorsese half-heartedly agreed to direct it, more as a favor to his longtime friend and collaborator. However, he couldn’t find the hook that made him really want to make it. Scorsese’s friend and collaborator Mardik Martin started a screenplay, but Scorsese was no longer listening to Martin’s suggestions and wanted Martin to add a lot of things to the script that had nothing to do with the story. When Scorsese suggested having Paul Schrader (the writer of “Taxi Driver”) come in for a polish, Martin seemed relieved to finally be done with it.

Schrader grudgingly agreed to work on the script, but advised that the script needed a rewrite, not a polish. Schrader had trouble adding depth to a character who he saw as a Neanderthal. Schrader and DeNiro pushed each other in terms of how unpleasant a character could be and have people still care about him. Schrader added a lot of raw, powerful scenes … some of which made it into the final film.

It was at that point that Scorsese got hold of some bad cocaine, which made him cough up blood and black out. He eventually started bleeding out of every part of his body and went to the hospital. He was told he had no platelets, that he was bleeding internally everywhere. The doctor made him stop all drugs and pumped him full of cortisone. Scorsese was in the hospital several days recovering. At that stage, Scorsese had dropped to 109 pounds. Eventually, he got better, but his doctor told him that he would die if he did not change his lifestyle. It was at that stage that Scorsese finally found the hook for “Bull” … the self-destructiveness, the emotional damage to his friends and family for no other reason that some sick desire to bottom out. He realized he was LaMotta.

Scorsese got clean and directed “Bull.” The film did well with critics and at many of the year-end awards (DeNiro won a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of LaMotta), but did only so-so at the box office. The film was just too brutal and depressing for most people, and still is. “Bull” is not exactly a film you want to watch after a hard day at work. But it is one hell of a film and keeps growing in esteem over the years. It is roundly considered the best film of the 1980s and many consider it one of the best films ever made.

The attached clip is one of the best scenes in the film. It’s where LaMotta challenges his brother Joey (played by Joe Pesci) to punch him in the face repeatedly and it’s a clear illustration of the depths LaMotta’s self-destructiveness can sink. The scene has elements of dark humor, but it’s incredibly disturbing and depressing at its core. Due to some very rough and beyond politically incorrect language and violence, the scene is absolutely not safe for work or little ones.

“Taxi Driver” (1976) dir. Martin Scorsese

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“Taxi Driver” is arguably director Martin Scorsese’s best film. While I admire “Raging Bull” a lot, will watch “Hugo” with my kids anytime they want to watch it, and will put on “Goodfellas” when I want a Scorsese film to entertain me and make me laugh, “Taxi Driver” is the one that sticks to my brain the most.

Written by Paul Schrader when Schrader was coming out of the tail end of a hellish personal period when he was drinking too much and going to porn theaters, “Taxi Driver” is a brilliant portrait of a damaged mind rotting away into the ugliest thoughts a mind can have.

The lead character, Travis Bickle (in what’s arguably, Robert DeNiro’s greatest performance), is an ex-Marine who can’t sleep and decides to deal with his insomnia by being a taxi cab driver in NYC. However, Travis purposely seems to go the worse areas of NYC, specifically Times Square and 42nd street, for fares.  As the unreliable narrator, he spits at this world and predicts that one day a real rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets.

But Travis can’t help subjecting himself to this world, even spending time in low-rent 8mm and 16mm porno theaters on his off hours.  His vision is so warped that  he convinces Betsy, a beautiful blonde campaign worker (played by Cybill Shepherd) to go on a date with him, but  takes her to a fancy porno theater because he thinks it’s a classy date.  He could be naive … or he could be wanting to subject her to the same filth he’s subjecting himself to … in much the same way emotionally crippled people put potential lovers through the ringer to prove their love for them.  Betsy wisely ditches him, which sends Travis further down a downward spiral.  Notice how the camera pans away from Travis while he’s on the phone.  It’s almost like we can’t watch him being rejected because it’s too painful.

Travis then becomes obsessed with a teen prostitute named Iris, played by Jodie Foster and decides he wants to rescue her from her pimp, played by Harvey Keitel.  He also becomes obsessed with the political candidate Betsy is working for.   Travis starts buying guns and working out.  The conclusion is troubling to say the least.  Below is a scene where Travis in the middle of his madness is quietly watching “American Bandstand” with jaundiced eyes … especially watching the interracial couples dancing while pointing his gun at the TV.  The song playing is Jackson Browne’s terrifically sad “Late for the Sky”:

“Taxi Driver” is the flipside and middle finger to the mid-1970s Charles Bronson urban revenge blockbuster “Death Wish.”  DeNiro’s Travis character is not only nuts, but racist and sexually twisted.  However, the way that Scorsese directs the film (with brilliant editing by Marcia Lucas), you can’t help but feel for Travis while also being repulsed by him.

Of course, by now, everyone knows that “Taxi Driver” was the film that inspired John Hinckley Jr. to attempt to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in 1981 in order to impress Jodie Foster.  While this is (hopefully) a ridiculous notion to most of us, the film is so brilliantly made and gets you so far inside the mind of a gone individual, it really does seem like a blueprint for being a psychopath if one were not in the right frame of mind.

But that’s the problem with great art.  By conveying the darkest parts of the human soul in a realistic and convincing manner, you run the risk of encouraging those in a similar frame of mind to identify a bit too deeply with what you’re trying to express.  However, you can’t begin to understand such dark souls without realistically looking into the heart of darkness that beats in many lost souls that wander through our culture.

“The King of Comedy” (1982) dir. Martin Scorsese

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“The King of Comedy” was Martin Scorsese’s follow-up to his legendary Jake LaMotta biopic “Raging Bull.” “King” flopped with audiences and got mixed reviews from critics. However, I think it’s one of Scorsese’s best films and as I much as I admire “Raging Bull,” I would watch “King” before “Bull” any day.

This movie seriously rubbed many the wrong way, because “King” did not resemble the typical Scorsese film. (There’s no gangsters, rat-a-tat dialogue and editing, or violence.) And star Robert DeNiro, as obnoxious autograph hound and wanna-be comedian Rupert Pupkin, likely really repulsed people. Granted, Jake LaMotta and Travis Bickle were scary characters, but let’s be honest, people love scary characters. Pupkin is the delusional loudmouth that most people go out of their way to avoid, let alone avoid seeing a movie about.  But DeNiro really brings it in this role, as well as Jerry Lewis as talk show host Jerry Langford and Sandra Bernhard as DeNiro’s arguably more demented cohort Masha.  Berhnard’s “seduction” of Lewis’s character is absolutely hilarious and frightening.

But I think time has been really kind to “King.” Uncomfortable, queasy comedy (i.e. “Curb Your Enthusiam,” “Louis”) has attained a certain kind of cache and if you like Larry David and Louis C.K., you should really give “King” a chance. “King” is one of the most brutal critiques of celebrity culture / worship ever created. It’s extremely uncomfortable to watch, but also very darkly funny.

8. “The Stunt Man” (1980) dir. Richard Rush

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Number 8 on Dave’s Strange World’s list of 10 favorite films comes Richard Rush’s bats–t crazy masterpiece from 1980, “The Stunt Man.” I saw this when it was in theaters in the fall of 1980, thanks to my Dad. Back in the day, my Dad was an avid “New Yorker” reader and likely wanted to see this based on Pauline Kael’s rave review of this film. Granted, this film was grossly inappropriate for a 10-year old to see, but I respect my Dad for trusting my intelligence and good taste in letting me see this.

Like “Pulp Fiction,” this is quite possibly the perfect film: action, suspense, comedy, violence, sex, and plot twists that seriously f–k with your brain and make you question reality. It’s cerebral, but ridiculously entertaining at the lowest common denominator as well. It’s what every Hollywood film should be like, but isn’t. Richly deserving of its 3 Oscar nominations for Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Actor for Peter O’Toole’s turn as the Satanic director. O’Toole could have easily walked off with the Best Actor Oscar that year, had it not been for DeNiro’s turn in “Raging Bull.” (Shaking fist in the air, Stephen Colbert-style: “DENIRO!!!!!!!”)

I think this is still available on Netflix instant and if you haven’t seen it, you’re in for one of the greatest treats of your life.