The best movies by decade, part 4: The 1960s (1-10)

14 Jul

You could call it Paul Newman’s decade. The blue-eyed star, with his absurd good looks and otherworldly charisma, moved into a series of roles that mock the resume of lesser men. (Only Jack Nicholson in the 1970s comes close.) It’s no mistake that his films have lasted, while other movies driven by other stars have disappeared. He had quality and it shows.

Outside of Hollywood, things were changing. Foreign films hit their stride in the 1960s. France had its new wave. So did England. Ingmar Bergman directed incredible films. So did Fellini, Kurosawa, Antonioni. Distinct regional styles were emerging.

Meanwhile, Hollywood fell on rocky terrain, with bloated, overblown movies, sweeping historical epics (many of which are now a snore) and a continual loss of moviegoers to film’s oldest and strongest enemy: television. The western made a comeback, both here and in Spain, but the re-emergence didn’t last. The musical floundered, disappeared completely.

The Cold War—with its flare-ups in Vietnam, Cuba, Greece, Spain, and elsewhere—polarized the world, and its artists, into two camps. The concept of mutually assured destruction was understood, sublimated by our films and sold back to us in visions of a thousand different facets of annihilation.

By the late 1960s, Hollywood recovered its stride, investing in the beginnings of the 1970s return of great (and edgy) American cinema.

Two lonely people, beautiful in an ugly world.

1. L’vventura/Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff?—Antonioni made two great films, this and The Passenger.  A few good films, including Blow Up. And a number of over-esteemed but actually terrible films, including Zabriskie Point and Red Desert. This is his finest hour, a haunting journey, a harsh scrutinizing dissection of obsession, love, and contemporary Italian society. The story begins with an outing to a forsaken island by a group of rich friends. When one of the women disappears, her fiancé and best friend spend weeks and then months looking for her, falling into a destructive love affair. One of the closest things to literature film has produced, as well as one of Woody Allen’s favorites.  Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff: Richard Burton brought a woman to his hotel home one night and Elizabeth Taylor was waiting for them. She chased them both around the hotel with a broken vodka bottle, threatening to slash off their faces. This is the relationship they were in, and loosed upon the Edward Albee play, our two forlorn and doomed lovers inhabit the roles more fully than any onscreen couple before or since. One terrible night in the life of four people, Mike Nichols’s first movie is astonishing, cutting, incredible. A loud, brash, painful eye-opener of a movie.

Released in 1963; the world would never be the same.

2. La Dolce Vita/8 ½—Fellini’s two best films, that together form an entire world of nightmares, dreams, cityscapes, liaisons, religious and sexual mania. Describing Dolce Vita is pointless. It’s a romp, prayer, dirge, pop song, massage, seduction and con. It has dozens of characters and the entirety of Italian life on display. As well as Anita Ekberg in the fountain, as sure a sign of the divine as you can hope for. 8 ½ is even stranger, a mash up of autobiography and nightmare. Marcello Maestroni, the star of both, is Fellini’s stand-in, a director at odds with himself the world around him, devoid of ideas, losing his grasp on reality through the sustained pressure of the dream factory and its klieg lights.

Beauty gets you nothing if you are unhappy in a fallen world.

3. Les Bonnes Femme/ Psycho—A creepy foray into the loves, mores, and pastimes of a group of French woman, and their various sufferings at the hands of vile-hearted men. The scenes follow the women to smoky nightclubs, strange apartments, and rowdy pools. A stranger seems to be following them, but are his intentions good or bad? Claude Chabrol directs, and his psychosexual deviousness, his belief in human frailty and violence, and his chilly serial murderer’s point of view are all on full display. A great film, but hard to watch.  The worst atrocities occur in the human mind. Psycho: Hitchcock’s strongest artistic statement, besides Vertigo, and the only pure horror movie he made. Anthony Perkins is inspired, Janet Leigh gets the knife halfway through the film, the stolen money is meaningless, the whole thing a macabre Chinese puzzle to lock you into Perkins’s androgynous thousand yard stare. Untainted by the passage of time.

"What's wrong with his eyes!"

4. Rosemary’s Baby/Cool Hand Luke—One of the great horror films, although with a hideous backstory. Mia Farrow plays Rosemary, a sheltered woman married to a weak-willed, overbearing man (played by John Cassavetes). She gets pregnant, and all manner of weirdness breaks loose, including a total invasion of their lives by their elderly neighbors. Polanski has always been an up and down director (ups: Chinatown, Knife in the Water, the Pianist; downs: Fearless Vampire Killers, Oliver Twist). One year after the film his fiancé and unborn daughter were killed by the Manson family, and 9 years later he fled America after being found guilty of sexual assault. (They called it something else, but . . .) Polanski is a divisive, polarizing figure. My father won’t have anything to do with him. My wife despises him, too. But this movie has stuck with me. I watch it every other year. The best scene follows Rosemary in the doctor’s office, plagued by fear, paranoia and doubt, staring at a magazine cover that reads in bold devilish letters, “Is God Dead?” I’ve never been able to shake it. Luke: Paul Newman’s signature role is complex, misunderstood. He plays a non-conformist of the title who, stupidly, ends up on a stint on a chain gang. He wins over the various hard cases on the gang through his charm and wits, but his inability to be someone he isn’t runs him into conflict with the warden (played by the best character actor of all time, Strother Martin). Luke has it all figured out, except he can’t take the little humiliations, dehumanizing treatment, and systemic unfairness of the world he’s in. This isn’t a David and Goliath story; it’s a study of self-sabotage, how and why people fail.

The best film about post-adolescent ennui.

5. Darling/ Billy Liar—John Scheslinger made three great films: Midnight Cowboy, and these two. All three deal with the ruin of decent people through their own misguided choices. In Cowboy, it’s Jon Voight confusing innocence with the pursuit of pleasure. In Liar it’s the desire to be safe; and here in Darling it’s the distorting lens of money and fame.  Julie Christie plays an ambitious model and actress who uses everything she can to rise up to prominence. Her beauty is her best weapon and she knows it, and watching her exploit, manipulate, and ruin the people around her is thrilling, sad, and ultimately devastating. Billy Liar is joy and nonsense, fear of failure and the invisible threads of confined life, set against the backdrop of postwar Britain. For my money the best film about England, and also a great example of the British New Wave (which, for my money, is superior to the French New Wave happening at roughly the same time).

Behind those cool blue eyes lies the heart of a hard as nails son of a bitch.

6. Hud/Hombre—Hud is a great film about Texas, about fathers and sons, about rural life and about moral ambiguity. Newman plays a womanizing drunkard who hides his disregard for other people behind a charismatic smile. His father, played by Melvin Douglas, dislikes him and doesn’t hide this ambivalence. Instead, he opts for the company of live-in housekeeper (Patricia Neal) and grandson played by Brandon De Wilde. Things fall apart when Douglas’s entire stock of cattle—and therefore Hud’s inheritance—is infected with an uncurable contagion. A mesmerizing film about what happens to cowboys who refuse to grow up. Casting De Wilde from Shane is a perfect bit of casting. Hombre: Director Martin Ritt made both of these films, and its shows. They share a strong sense of visual style, but never over done. He’s similar to George Stevens and Sidney Lumet in this regard: he tells great stories. (Ritt is arguably the best unknown director: he made The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, The Long Hot Summer, and The Molly Maguires, among others, all excellent films.) If Hud is Newman as a lecherous drunk, Hombre is Newman as an uncaring killer. He plays a white man raised by American Indians, who is thrown together with a group of travelers, including Martin Balsam and Frederic March. Their coach is soon besieged by a group of thieves, led by the fantastic (and terrifying) Richard Boone. A grueling psychological study of desperate people, a sort of anti-western Key Largo.

Leno Ventura: A killer with well-groomed hands.

7. Shoot the Piano Player/ Classe Tous Risques—Truffaut’s best film, and an incredible adaptation of an American artform. The story follows a down-on-his luck barroom pianist, and the demons pushing their way into his life. Probably the best film to come out of the French New Wave. Classe:  The great crime movie you haven’t yet seen. Starring Leno Ventura—who is in Army of Shadows, Touchez Au Grisbi, and a number of Jean-Pierre Melville films, how’s that for a resume?—and Jean-Paul Belmondo. Fast-paced, beautifully shot, moving. I saw this on a whim, and was blown away.

"Do you think I'm proud of myself Mrs. Robinson? Because I am not."

8. The Graduate/ Lawrence of Arabia: In retrospect, a meteor. Dustin Hoffman pulls his character so far inside it’s hard to see the tics from the yawns. Ann Bancroft is amazing, of course, and Mike Nichols, then a relatively unknown director, shoots the whole thing in a rarified glow; the movie’s quick cuts and odd shots make it stranger than the story suggests. It feels like one of the characters is viewing the events through a rotoscope, or just their memories. There’s something puzzling at the edges of this on the surface simple film; trying to figure out what’s providing the luster, the haze, the longing, the nostalgia, is part of the fun. Lawrence: David Lean’s masterful character study of the strange, deranged, masochistic Lawrence of Arabia. The film vacillates between wide on-location shots of the desert and up-close examinations of too-human faces. It’s a long, at times torturous slog through the desert, but also a fascinating portrait of a complex man. Long, but worth it.

"I'm the oldest man I know; I have ten years on the pope!"

9. The Lion in Winter/Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid—The two best historical sagas ever made both center on Henry II. (The other film is Beckett, also excellent.) Peter O’Toole plays him in both films, at the beginning and ending of his reign. The Lion in Winter is incredible, a labyrinthine play with verbal acrobatics, endless scheming, and some very unhappy people. Hepburn plays Eleanor of Aquitaine, Anthony Hopkins plays Richard (later the Lionhearted), and Timothy Dalton plays a young, French Philip II. Peter O’Toole was never better, and he later admitted that he could have built his whole career around the most successful of British monarchs. In Beckett, Richard Burton plays Beckett, the priest who dares to defy his childhood friend. It’s long, too, and a bit melodramatic, but the scenes of Henry II with his family are excellent. The consensus is that A Man for All Seasons is the better film, but the consensus is exactly wrong. Butch Cassidy: A fantastic western/buddy comedy hybrid, Butch Cassidy is a film I can watch over and over; it just feels right. The characters are believable, funny, interesting. The story is at times thrilling at others funny about a loveable thief and a hard-nosed gunman, their friendship, their love of the same woman, and their exodus from the west to South America, where they try, and fail, to live a decent life. It’s a testament to how good Hollywood could be when they did things the right way: hire the best actors, write a good script, and shoot the damn thing correctly. A sure sign of what we’ve lost, when the old studio system finally disappeared.

A terrifying descent into madness.

10. Hour of the Wolf/Cries and Whispers—A goddamn scary movie that still unnerves. Max Von Sydow plays a tortured artist who has withdrawn from the world to a tiny island. His wife, Liv Ullman—they played a couple in the great Disgrace, too—tolerates him to a point, but when a new group of people move onto the island things begin to unravel. Director Ingmar Bergman dabbled in horror a lot—look at the climax of The Magician, or the flagellants in The Seventh Seal, or even much of Persona—but here he stays on the money with an ending that you will never forget. Cries: Bergman’s chamber room psychodrama about a group of women, the tragedies they endure, and the necessary suffering at the end of a life. The shots are all of faces, bold contrasting colors. Everything is indoors. It’s a great example of how excellence isn’t dependent on budget or spectacle, just great ideas.


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