Top Fifty Films of the 80s — Number One


#1 — Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese, 1980)
By his own account, Martin Scorsese thought Raging Bull could be his final film. His previous fiction feature, 1977’s New York, New York, was widely considered a disaster. A costly “film noir musical,” as Scorsese called it, the picture failed to connect with either critics or general audiences. Exhausting to pull together, the film engendered responses that were completely vitriolic, and Scorsese became disillusioned with the whole process of creating movies, a sense undoubtedly fueled further by the brewing hangover as the bacchanalia of nineteen-seventies American cinema began to collapse under its own weight. Scorsese entered the business at a time of unprecedented freedom for creative personnel and the self-destruction propagated by many of the surging, youthful wonders of the age combined with the fresh discovery of new avenues for making money–thanks primarily to the unexpected marketing prowess of George Lucas with his Star Wars films–meant that the clampdown was coming. So the skilled filmmaker had something to prove and a sense of valedictory urgency. As he put it, “I used Raging Bull as a kind of rehabilitation, thinking all the time that it was pretty much my last picture in L.A., or America.”

That must have weighed heavily on him, especially considering this was a guy who was creating storyboards for imagined epics before he’d even entered his teenage years. He’d grown up his whole life with movies as the transforming escape from every disappointment he faced, every personal inadequacy he suffered. Then he’d lived his dream, made great art, basked in acclaim, romanced the daughters of his favorite filmmakers and stood certain it was all going to slip away. He wasn’t yet forty-years-old. Operating as a man with nothing left to lose, Scorsese poured every bit of his roiling emotional stew into the story of boxer Jake LaMotta, a New York-born, Italian-American boxer in the nineteen-forties and fifties whose minor fame allowed him to publish a memoir in 1970. It was that book that Scorsese’s regular collaborator Robert De Niro brought to him, insisting there was a movie there.

Shot in black-and-white by the masterful cinematographer Michael Chapman, Raging Bull is a riveting saga of the soul, depicting the ways that ambition and confidence corrode into paranoia and wretched destructiveness as easy as ringing a bell. De Niro’s bravura performance as LaMotta was famed at the time for the drastic physical changes he underwent for the role, but that’s the least of his accomplishment. De Niro picks at LaMotta’s failings like a restless child working a scab. He examines the way that the professional brutishness of a man who punches and gets punched for a living creeps into every interaction he has. There is no moment–with his wife, with his brother, with the gangsters that surround like fight game like sharks around potential prey trailing blood–that doesn’t involve him instinctually erecting some level of defense. And that defense often involves throwing his own blistering hooks, even if the only strikes against him have been phantom blows. De Niro compellingly portrays a man incapable of resting, a man totally uneasy in his own spirit.

Scorsese is always a fiercely physical filmmaker, but there is perhaps no other work of his that is so visceral. Relying of the peerless craft of editor Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese makes the fight sequences into reeling mosaics of human punishment. The black-and-white turns the blood as dark as ink, making everything else into ashen remains. That sensation follows into the blaring New York streets and dumpy tenement apartments that the characters move through. It’s an existence built of unyielding stone and Scorsese makes it so forbidding and real that it seems that the screen would feel like the sandpaper roughness of the city sidewalk if fingertips were brushed against it. There is no retreat, no forgiveness. There is just the harsh truth of the now, when impulsive decisions swing a sledgehammer at promise.

Of course, this wasn’t Scorsese’s last film, not by a long shot. Though he remained a director without the easy means to draw audiences into theaters–with qualified exceptions, he wouldn’t start generating consistently respectable box office receipts until a couple of decades later–the film delivered its intended redemption. It received eight Oscar nominations, including the very first Best Director nod for Scorsese (amazingly, he was denied that honor when Taxi Driver was a Best Picture nominee four years earlier). He’d won his cinematic honor back, established himself as someone who needed to remain in the conversation when considering the great artists of his generation. The remainder of the eighties would be a mixed bag for him and a time when he toiled valiantly to get funding to support his ongoing vision of what movies could be, should be. It wouldn’t always be easy–hell, it would rarely be easy–but with Raging Bull he proved to everyone, maybe most importantly himself, that the struggle to keep creating would always be worth it.

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