Beyond the Jedi: 10 underappreciated movies from 1983

Beyond the Jedi: 10 underappreciated movies from 1983

1983 was the year Tom Cruise got into risky business, Shirley MacLaine used terms of endearment, and America took one last trip—or so it seemed at the time—to a galaxy far, far away. But it was also a year of less heralded pleasures, when some of world cinema’s most radical auteurs were operating at the top of their games. The 10 unsung triumphs listed below were either poorly received or sadly neglected upon first release. Some are easier to track down than others. All are worth the hunt. And none feature Jedis, though viewers will find a pirate or two represented.

Cracking Up
Jerry Lewis’ reputation in the United States has been destroyed by his ego. In retrospect, this seems inevitable; Lewis’ two best films as director, The Ladies’ Man and The Nutty Professor, are both explicitly about male insecurity, turning one man’s hang-ups into the stuff of rubber-faced comedy. While Lewis’ self-obsession has produced its share of self-congratulatory vanity projects (the MDA Telethon being probably the worst offender), it has also yielded some of the medium’s most thorough explorations of self-loathing (see also: Kanye West). Following the surprise success of his comeback film Hardly Working (1980), Lewis reunited with Bill Richmond, his regular co-writer in the 1960s, to make Cracking Up (also known as Smorgasbord), a bracingly bleak throwback to their best-known work. Structured as a series of skits, the movie stars Lewis as a severely depressed klutz; bravura slapstick turns his emotional pain into a ballet of pratfalls and Rube Goldberg suicide attempts. Tapping into a dozen different social anxieties, Lewis and Richmond create a cartoon world that is unremittingly cruel and difficult; one typically funny, nightmarish sequence finds Lewis flying on a discount airline where the planes have dirt floors, livestock roam the aisles, and customers are allowed to bring ammunition belts as carry-on. Unsurprisingly, Cracking Up was barely released in the U.S., and proved to be Lewis’ final film as a director; the past 30 years have seen it acquire a rightful reputation as one of Lewis’ best movies—and possibly his most brazen. [IV]

Testament
Less than a month after ABC scored huge ratings with The Day After, a Cold War cautionary tale from the director of The Wrath Of Khan, an even more disturbing vision of American nuclear fallout crept into theaters. Testament was also developed for TV, which explains its televisual appearance, but it’s hard to imagine any network—then or even now—airing something this unrelentingly bleak. (The Day After looks like a Roland Emmerich blockbuster by comparison.) After a half-hour of Spielbergian small-town setup, complete with a misleadingly chipper James Horner score, news of impending annihilation reaches the suburbs of San Francisco. The metropolis has been vaporized off-camera, leaving in its wake the deadly threat of radiation poisoning. Unlike its boob-tube predecessor, Testament offers no glimpse of mushroom clouds, nor does it explain who dropped the bomb or why. Instead, director Lynne Littman and writer John Sacret Young adopt the severely limited perspective of their heroine, a mother (Jane Alexander, the worthy recipient of an Oscar nomination) who can only watch as her community and her children succumb to the invisible menace. The filmmakers do more than just issue a warning here: By daring to envision the effects of nuclear war on the nuclear family, they also communicate the immorality of rationalizing what America did to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It’s a haunting, deeply humane movie. [AAD]

A Brutal Game
A mercurial filmmaker with a predilection for unsavory material (and naked women), Jean-Claude Brisseau remains almost entirely unknown in the U.S., apart from his 2002 quasi-porn film Secret Things. That might change, should folks ever get a look at his nerviest work, A Brutal Game, which plays something like The Glass Menagerie if Amanda were a tough-love serial killer instead of an aging Southern belle. It’s never quite suggested that the film’s domineering father is killing little kids as part of a deliberate strategy to break through his handicapped daughter’s wall of self-pity, but that’s somehow how the dynamic plays out. Mining discomfiting emotional paradoxes from blatantly melodramatic material, A Brutal Game has a sensibility so odd and arresting that it can make viewers question their own system of ethics, if only for the film’s duration. The word “brutal” (same word in the French title, Un Jeu Brutal) is in the title for good reason. [MD]

Zu Warriors From The Magic Mountain
Though he helped make Jet Li, Chow-Yun Fat, and John Woo into international household names, producer/director Tsui Hark remains little more than a cult figure in the U.S. The extravagant fantasy Zu Warriors From The Magic Mountain helped establish Tsui’s Hong Kong reputation as a master visual showman with a love of Expressionist sets and live-action cartoon physics. Working with production designer William Chang (later to become Wong Kar-Wai’s most important collaborator), Tsui creates a world where the battle between good and evil plays out as an explosion of garish colors and objects hurtling toward the camera. Though the film was distributed in the English-speaking world in a dubbed version with a modern day framing device that negated the story’s supernatural elements, its style proved to be influential: John Carpenter has cited it as the main inspiration for Big Trouble In Little China. [IV] 



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Life Is A Bed of Roses
When it came out in 1983, Alain Resnais’ feature was generally regarded as an unmitigated disaster. Life Is A Bed of Roses is a complex structural comedy by one of cinema’s most incorrigible gamesmen, but upon its release no one really expected out-and-out frivolity from the director of Night And Fog and Hiroshima, Mon Amour. Adding to the confusion is that Bed Of Roses isn’t exactly “funny ha-ha.” Instead, it examines whimsy theoretically, within three intersecting plotlines. A wealthy count uses his castle to build a utopia through hypnosis; in contemporary times, the castle is the site of a conference on progressive education; and on the castle grounds, children enter the medieval era through pretend play. While at the time Bed Of Roses may have seemed like a bit of a UFO, it makes far more sense in the context of Resnais’ late-period larks, such as Not On The Lips and Wild Grass. [MS]

City Of Pirates
Chilean-born director Raoul Ruiz’s best films combined labyrinthine storytelling with devil-may-care playfulness. Recklessly prolific, Ruiz directed five movies in 1983; of those, the best known is Three Crowns Of The Sailor, a collection of sea-stories-within-sea-stories whose oddball visuals—extremely low angles, split diopters, distorted close-ups—suggest Orson Welles on acid. However, Three Crowns seems restrained when compared to City Of Pirates, a summary-proof fantasy that showcases Ruiz’s gift for making movies move like dreams. Surprising and imaginative (one memorable shot is framed from the point-of-view of an open mouth, with teeth at the top and bottom of the frame), City Of Pirates continually confounds the viewer’s expectations; the result is a movie that seems to be creating and discarding new rules with every scene. It also marked the screen debut of Melvil Poupaud (Laurence Anyways), an actor who remained a staple of Ruiz’s work until the director’s death, even popping up in a supporting role in his swan song, Mysteries Of Lisbon. [IV]

Slow Moves
Few American filmmakers are as consistently underappreciated as Jon Jost, a fiercely independent director whose experimental features have carved a complicated place for themselves in cinema history. During his highly productive late-’70s/early ’80s run, some critics compared him with Godard. If anything, Jost has modeled himself on the ’70s Godard who made 16mm Maoist documentaries to be shown in factories (also known as “the Godard no one likes.”) Jost’s work, low budget and political, is nevertheless often lyrical and deeply personal. Slow Moves is a snapshot of a uniquely doomed relationship between two lost souls. Julie (Roxanne Rogers) is about to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge when Jeff (Marshall Gaddis) happens by, chats her up, and takes her for coffee. Their nascent romance is hobbled by Jeff’s unemployment, which Jost depicts in painstaking bureaucratic fashion. Slow Moves is a tough film, one whose real meaning only becomes clear in the final scene. It just might be Jost’s de-romanticized revision of Breathless. [MS]

The Terence Davies Trilogy
Before the eccentric English filmmaker Terence Davies made his first feature, 1988’s seminal Distant Voices, Still Lives, he completed a trilogy of semi-autobiographical shorts—Children, Madonna And Child, and Death And Transfiguration—that laid the groundwork for his later movies. The films follow Davies’ alter ego, Robert Tucker, a working-class gay Catholic from Liverpool, with Children depicting the character as a schoolboy and Madonna And Child, as an adult. Death And Transfiguration, however, departs into “speculative autobiography,” with Davies effectively imagining his own death by turning Tucker into an old man dying in a hospital. Wider in scope than the other two films, Death And Transfiguration was the first film where Davies used his distinctive style, which excels at capturing moments in time, to explore a character’s relationship to their past—life not as it’s lived, but as it’s remembered. [IV]

First Name: Carmen
Jean-Luc Godard hit a second peak in the ’80s, returning to the French mainstream with a string of studio-backed features that were even more formally radical than his iconic New Wave work. First Name: Carmen stars Maruschka Detmers as a wannabe criminal who uses her uncle, a washed-up director played by Godard himself, as cover for a heist. As is typical of Godard’s work, the plot is less important than the juxtapositions it creates—between crime and filmmaking, music and noise, classicism and modernity. Though newcomer Detmers, a former au pair, was the film’s nominal star, its major discovery turned out to be Godard himself, playing his first major role after decades of scene-stealing cameos. His aloof body language and gnomic pronouncements (“Young people are scum; they didn’t invent the jeans or the cigarette.”) make for an arresting screen presence; Godard would expand upon this persona in the underrated Keep Your Right Up (1987), which also showcased his surprising talent for slapstick comedy. [IV]

Project A
Long before America fell in love with his ability to keep a wobbly vase from breaking, Jackie Chan was already a major star in his native Hong Kong. Produced over a decade before his American breakthrough, Chan’s fourth directorial effort, Project A, is not as well known to Stateside viewers as later films like Armour Of God II or the Police Story series. However, the movie, an extended tribute to silent-era slapstick, stands as one of his best. Set in the late 1800s, Project A finds Chan and Sammo Hung squaring off against villainous pirates in an impressive array of set-pieces which range from a bicycle chase down a series of intersecting alleys to a recreation of Harold Lloyd’s famous clock tower dangle from Safety Last! [IV]

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