Best Movies of 1981

10. ON GOLDEN POND

40 LISTS | 4 TOP SPOTS
Mark Rydell | 109 mins | Drama
Katharine Hepburn | Henry Fonda | Jane Fonda

“Last year’s big Oscar-winner, and an easy choice given the nominees. A sweet, mostly knowing movie about growing old, with the bravura performances from Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn; Fonda’s last, of course, and fierce and strong. The movie itself was sharp and funny enough to transcend the culture’s aversion to serious treatments of age, and to become one of the more popular films of this year.” – Bill Cosford, Miami Herald

9. RAGTIME

51 LISTS | 5 TOP SPOTS
Milos Forman | 155 mins | Drama
James Cagney | Elizabeth McGovern | Howard E. Rollins Jr.

“”Ragtime” told only two of the E.I. Doctorow novel’s four stories, merely touching on abutting tales. But the ones it related were told splendidly. Not only were the details of the period exactingly reproduced in the set design, but, thanks to Milos Forman’s pinpoint direction, one exclaimed at the winsomeness of small children, at the beauty of the music and at the performances by newcomers Harold R. Rollins Jr. (as the ragtime pianist, whose search for justice sets off the explosive climax), Elizabeth McGovern (as Evelyn Nesbit Thaw) and the unexpected resonance and depth of Mary Steenburgen (as the gentle Mother).” – Carole Kass, Richmond Times-Dispatch

8. GALLIPOLI

54 LISTS | 5 TOP SPOTS
Peter Weir | 110 mins | Adventure/Drama/History
Mel Gibson | Mark Lee | Bill Kerr

“In the year’s most memorable film, the director of “Picnic at Hanging Rock” gave familiar antiwar material a fresh sting by concentrating not on the battle of Gallipoli but on the intense friendship of two young men drawn to their destiny there. The title finally explodes into tragic significance, no longer the name of a place but an instant reminder of the anguish, devastation and personal loss.” – John Hartl, Seattle Times

7. CHARIOTS OF FIRE

65 LISTS | 7 TOP SPOTS
Hugh Hudson | 125 mins | Biography/Drama/Sport
Ben Cross | Ian Charleson | Nicholas Farrell

“This British film told the stories of two British runners in the 1924 Paris Olympics. But it was a great deal more than a sports movie. Among its other subjects were outsiders, and courage. Both of the runners stood outside the mainstream of the class-conscious British society: Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) was Jewish, and Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) was the son of Scottish missionaries. Both ran to prove something to affirm his own self-identity and beliefs. And both depended more on heart than on technique to win.
The film’s unusual structure was mirrored in its elegiac visual style and underlined by a remarkably moving soundtrack. This movie made me feel good, made my spine tingle not only with excitement, during the races, but also with deeper emotions, as in the scene where Abraham’s old coach (Ian Holm) softly celebrated a victory by whispering “My boy!”” – Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

6. THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT’S WOMAN

67 LISTS | 1 TOP SPOT
Karel Reisz | 124 mins | Drama/Romance
Meryl Streep | Jeremy Irons | Hilton McRae

“Harold Pinter deftly has reworked John Fowles’ intricate novel for the screen. Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons are nearly perfect in twin roles as a Victorian contemporary couple in love. Atmospheric and evocative, the film should garner numerous Academy Awards. Miss Streep probably will win the Best Actress award.” – Ron Legro, Milwaukee Sentinel

5. BODY HEAT

67 LISTS | 2 TOP SPOTS
Lawrence Kasdan | 113 mins | Crime/Drama/Romance
William Hurt | Kathleen Turner | Richard Crenna

“A triumph of texture over context this smoky mystery was everything the remake of “The Postman Always Rings Twice” tried to be but wasn’t. William Hurt proved himself one of our most intelligent young actors, and Kathleen Turner was the epitome of the black widow temptress. They were the ultimate film noir couple – an attractive, vulnerable man used and abused by a foxy lady. Lawrence Kasdan’s direction, which existed in a fascinating time-warp of electric fans and sweaty brows, helped things enormously.” – Philip Wuntch, Dallas News

4. PRINCE OF THE CITY

70 LISTS | 5 TOP SPOTS
Sidney Lumet | 167 mins | Crime/Drama
Treat Williams | Jerry Orbach | Richard Foronjy

“Sidney Lumet’s dazzling treatise on the ambiguity of evil and the further corruption of the none-too-innocent was far and away the most impressive American film of the year, perhaps of the past two or three. Other films may have been more structurally “perfect” – and perhaps even more technically virtuosic – but Lumet took the biggest risks, and the results placed this, his longshot masterpiece, into a class with such past worthies as Jean Renoir’s “Rules of the Game” and Louis Malle’s “Lacombe, Lucien.” Contributing to “Prince’s” regal touch were Jay Presson Allen’s tough, intelligent, ever-paradoxical script, Jerry Orbach’s gritty supporting turn as a cop on the take, and, above all, Treat Williams’ remarkable (and unanticipated) performance as cop-turned informer Robert Leaci. Bravo.” – David Baron, New Orleans Times-Picayune

3. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK

96 LISTS | 11 TOP SPOTS
Steven Spielberg | 115 mins | Action/Adventure
Harrison Ford | Karen Allen | Paul Freeman

“Who would ever have thought that a movie about a reckless adventurer’s search for the Ark of the Lost Covenant would have made such a marvelously entertaining movie? But that is exactly what Steven Spielberg’s movie is, a non-stop kaleidoscope of thrills and spills that resurrected the appeal of the old movie serials of the 1930s and the 1940s. A breathtaking spectacle filled with hair-raising stunts and great special effects, it epitomizes the kind of motion picture that once brought people to the movies in droves – a combination of humor, intelligence and wonder that is quite irresistible. The hands-down winner.” – Joyce J. Persico, Trenton Evening Times

2. REDS

100 LISTS | 19 TOP SPOTS
Warren Beatty | 195 mins | Biography/Drama/History
Warren Beatty | Diane Keaton | Edward Herrmann

“In telling the story of early 20th-century radicals, John Reed and Louise Bryant, Warren Beatty, as star, director and co-writer (with Trevor Griffiths), has been able to create an epic without losing the intimacy of the turbulent love story. The film stretches from Portland to Moscow, where Reed’s reportage and involvement in the Russian Revolution led to his book, “Ten Days That Shook the World,” with stopovers in Greenwich Village and New England Bohemia. On hand are Maureen Stapleton’s forceful, uncompromising Emma Goldman and Jack Nicholson’s shrewd, insinuating Eugene O’Neill. Always at the center are Beatty’s Reed and Diane Keaton’s Bryant, a headstrong young couple who really try to change the world. Ravishing-looking and exciting, “Reds” is that rare ambitious project that pays off on all counts.” – Kevin Thomas, Los Angeles Times

1. ATLANTIC CITY

106 LISTS | 10 TOP SPOTS
Louis Malle | 104 mins | Crime/Drama/Romance
Burt Lancaster | Susan Sarandon | Kate Reid

“”Atlantic City” is one of the most joyous and original American movies in years, though I’m aware that it is, technically, a Canadian-French co-production and that its director, Louis Malle, is French, but he is a director who works as successfully in this country (”Pretty Baby,” ”My Dinner With Andre”) as he does in France (”Lacombe, Lucien,” ”Murmur of the Heart”). In ”Atlantic City,” the movie as well as the place, Mr. Malle and his collaborator, John Guare, the New York playwright who wrote the screenplay, tell an elegiacal fairy tale of love and luck about an aging, one-time Mob gofer (Burt Lancaster at his very best), a spoiled, bedridden, former beauty (Kate Reid), whom he nurses to earn pocket money, and some of the younger people who drift into the ”new” Atlantic City to make their fortunes in the legalized gambling boom. The movie, photographed by Richard Ciupka in such an extraordinary way that the real Atlantic City becomes a place of myth, has the manner of a happy ghost story, in which the spirits of Atlantic City Past meet (and, in one case, make love to) the spirits of Atlantic City Present. The excellent cast includes Susan Sarandon, Hollis McLaren and Robert Joy.” – Vincent Canby, New York Times

Full List:

RFilmL#1ARL%#1%TCLTCL1TCL%TCL1%
1Atlantic City106104.1669%10%43270%6%
2Reds100194.2065%18%40466%11%
3Raiders of the Lost Ark96114.2163%11%38362%9%
4Prince of the City7055.0746%5%31151%3%
5Body Heat6725.2744%2%32152%3%
6The French Lieutenant's Woman6715.9444%1%24039%0%
7Chariots of Fire6573.8142%7%29548%14%
8Gallipoli5445.4135%4%16426%11%
9Ragtime5154.7133%5%17128%3%
10On Golden Pond4044.4426%4%18230%6%
11Arthur3916.8825%1%16026%0%
12My Dinner With Andre3633.8423%3%14323%9%
13Cutter's Way2933.8719%3%16126%3%
14Superman II2806.3018%0%6010%0%
15Heartland2707.2018%0%11018%0%
16True Confessions2716.3818%1%13021%0%
17Pixote2735.1717%3%15225%6%
18Excalibur2615.5017%1%11018%0%
19The Four Seasons2606.1417%0%7011%0%
20Thief2006.9213%0%9015%0%
21Absence of Malice1907.9112%0%508%0%
22Blow Out1815.6412%1%7111%3%
23Pennies from Heaven1804.1412%0%11018%0%
24S.O.B.1607.0010%0%8013%0%
25Napoleon1623.7810%2%9015%0%
26Whose Life is It Anyway?1515.1310%1%508%0%
27The Last Metro1406.259%0%203%0%
28Time Bandits1307.008%0%6010%0%
29Southern Comfort (1981)1206.638%0%203%0%
30Man of Iron1205.008%0%203%0%
31Eye of the Needle1005.207%0%508%0%
32The Aviator's Wife1034.207%3%518%3%
33The Woman Next Door1006.756%0%407%0%
34Four Friends1008.006%0%407%0%

Lists Included 153 | Top Critics’ Lists Included 61

R Rank
L Total number of lists where the film was selected as one of the top 10 films of the year
AR Average position on ranked top 10 lists
#1 Total number of lists where the film was selected as the best film of the year
L% Percentage of total lists where the film was selected as one of the top 10 films of the year
#1% Percentage of mentions where the film was selected as the best film of the year
TCL Number of times that the film was selected as one of the top 10 films of the year on top critics’ lists
TCL1 Number of times that the film was selected as the best film of the year on top critics’ lists
TCL% Percentage of times that the film was selected as one of the top 10 films of the year on top critics’ lists
TCL1% Percentage of lists where the film was selected as the best film of the year on top critics’ lists