Fun Flix for Free: 1981 – A Look Back Across 40 Years
by James Byron Wood
In these times of multiple streaming sites competing for your entertainment dollar, it’s nice to know there are still great films to watch for free online. This column will help you locate classic films, cult films, indie films, and overlooked gems.
1981 was a great year for the movies. Raiders of the Lost Ark topped the American box office and began a franchise that brought us two fabulous sequels. (Was there a third one? I can’t remember…) On Golden Pond came in at #2, bringing us Henry Fonda’s final performance and only Best Actor win. #3 was Superman II, which started with Richard Donner shooting 75% of the film before being fired in 1979 and Richard Lester having to re-shoot at least 40% of the film to qualify for DGA screen credit, ultimately led to the 2006 release of Superman II: The Donner Cut.
Comedy classics Arthur and Stripes came in at numbers 4 and 5. The decidedly non-classic but hit and missedly amusing The Cannonball Run crashed into 6th place. That film’s use of funny flubs during the end credits led co-star Jackie Chan to do the same with stunt mishaps in all his future films.
British picture Chariots of Fire took the #7 spot, leading to a surprise Best Picture Oscar win in 1982 against stiff American competition. #8 was For Your Eyes Only, a back to basics Bond film following up the Moore over-the-top-than-usual Moonraker.
Alan Alda wrote, starred in and made his feature directorial debut with #9’s The Four Seasons, with Carol Burnett leading a very funny cast of comedic character actors. And Terry Gilliam’s second film Time Bandits ended the top ten list with arguably the most amusing and crowd pleasing film of his long and chequered career.
It was a great year for genre films, with future cult classics Escape from New York and Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior leading the action pack. A post-Rocky, pre-Rambo Sylvester Stallone starred as a cop in Nighthawks with Rutger Hauer making his American debut as his terrorist nemesis. John Travolta took a dramatic turn in Brian De Palma’s thriller Blow Out. “Neo-Noir” entered the scene in a big way with Body Heat and Thief. Horror effects transformed forever with the werewolves in The Howling and An American Werewolf in London. We also got the original Evil Dead movie, the first sequels in the Halloween and Friday the 13th franchises, and two of my favorite underappreciated horror thrillers: Wolfen and Road Games.
1981’s notable comedies included Mel Brooks’ History of the World Part 1 and Blake Edwards’ S.O.B., Cheech and Chong’s Nice Dreams and my favorite Albert Brooks film, Modern Romance. Audiences howled at the infamous Porky’s and the unintentionally funny camp classic Mommie Dearest. Sci-Fi and fantasy fans were given Dragonslayer, the animated feature Heavy Metal, and the original Clash of the Titans. Classier films included My Dinner with André, Four Friends, and Prince of the City, not to mention the foreign thrillers Diva and Das Boot.
Yes, James. But some of these films aren’t streaming anywhere and the rest aren’t streaming for free. Why are you frustrating us with this list of 1981 films?
To set the stage for my next three columns, featuring six of my favorite and somewhat underappreciated films from 1981, which you CAN stream for free. First I’ll be featuring Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort and Peter Hyams’ Outland. Southern Comfort is on YouTube and Outland is on Tubi. Thank you for joining me on this journey.