The best movies by decade: The 1960s (11-25)

15 Jul

Paul Newman, as the hustler, smoking like a son of a bitch.

11. Requiem for a Heavyweight/The Hustler—It’s a boxing movie, but with little heart. Rod Serling wrote the screenplay for this lean little film about a washed up boxer (Anthony Quinn’s finest hour) and his busted out manager and trainer (Jackie Gleason and Mickey Rooney). Gangsters are involved, led by a Serling was a great writer—he could capture a character in two or three quick scenes, a few pieces of castoff dialogue—and the story of an uneducated boxer’s decline into parody is harsh, unsentimental, and scathing. Don’t expect it to all come up roses. The Hustler: The best portrait of the mangle that talent, ambition and pride can become when in the hands of unprincipled people. Paul Newman, playing Fast Eddie Felson, is a pool hustler traveling alongside Myron McCormick. They’re on their way to defeat the big-time Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). George C. Scott plays Fats’s manager, who decides to take Felson under his wing. A fantastic movie about late nights, stiff drinks, and the price of love and losing.

Toshiro Mifume is one of the baddest samurai around.

12. Yojimbo/The Odd Couple—Funny, violent, quirky, beautiful, Kurosawa’s Yojimbo watches like a gangster movie mashed up with a western, blended in with a hard-boiled detective story (I’ve heard it’s based on Hammett’s Red Harvest, but I don’t quite see it) and then re-imagined through the lens of Japanese culture. A stranger wanders into a town, where two dueling clans have reached an unstable peace. For reasons that are never quite clear, the stranger then systematically sets them against each other. Excellent entertainment. Odd Couple: We all have our middlebrow favorites, and this one is mine. Lemmon and Matthau are wonderful together, the script is funny, mean-spirited and then sweet. Three good films have come from Neil Simon’s stage plays: The Sunshine Boys; Biloxi Blues; and this, his best. The movie’s gender politics by today’s standards are strained. But the warmth and genius of the two main performers cements this oddball little movie into the realm of the classics.  Along with The Sunshine Boys, and Biloxi Blues, this is the best Neil Simon play.

French science fiction weirdness by Jean-Luc Goddard.

13. Alphaville/Contempt—I find Godard to be strange, distant, horribly overrated in his later films and arrogant beyond belief. But I love these two of his films. Alphaville is Godard’s strangest, and maybe his best. The story follows an assassin, of sorts, and is narrated by a robot intelligence, and the surreal touches alienate the viewer. But Paris has never looked stranger, and Godard’s point is clear: we are living in the future. We’ve always lived in the future. Contempt: Godard’s self-referential film, about a blocked screenwriter attempting to distill the Odyssey into film version while juggling his failing marriage and the approval of money-mad producer Jack Palance. Wide shots, big color, human foibles and failings. Watching this, it’s clear how much talent Godard has wasted in pursuit of political and philosophical meanderings.

Formalized misanthropy a la Stanley Kubrick.

14. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid/2001: A Space Odyssey—A Goddamn great movie, although fractured by time, money, and multiple versions.  James Coburn plays Pat Garrrett as a villainous, hedonistic, poker-faced killer. Kris Kristofferson plays Billy as an immature, reckless man who is living in the wrong era. The movie suffers, in parts, by strange editing decisions and multiple versions. (Once Upon a Time In America has a similar problem.) But, then the scenes, the goddamn scenes so perfect, and nothing sums up Peckinpah’s talent and sadness and eccentricity than Slim Pickens sitting at the water’s edge, with the sun setting into a vermillion horizon, and he’s holding his guts in with a flimsy gloved hand. With a few changes, this would be the greatest western ever made. 2001: Magisterial and misanthropic. Slow, pretentious, laborious, and yet a journey to another world. Godlike forces are at work. Humanity moves from mindless beasts to calculating machines. Giant stone monoliths seem to direct human evolution towards some vast new life form. Strauss’s musical pieces are used to great effect, and the whole thing seems like a somber new age hymn. Or a big fucking joke. Kubrick’s misanthropy—hiding as faith in human evolution—is on full display.

Richard Burton—perhaps sober?—in his greatest role.

15. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold/Dr. Strangelove—Richard Burton’s finest hour and it’s as cynical and bleak a story as they come. He plays a burned out British secret agent who returns to a rainy London unsure of his place in the world. The intelligence officers want him to pretend to defect, so they can infiltrate the East German high secret service. He does, meets his counterpart on the East German side, and begins to like him. Shot in luminous black and white. Strangelove has a different, absurdist view of the cold war and mutually assured destruction. It’s a mish mash of styles, and parts haven’t dated well. In some ways it’s a challenging movie; there were at least three screenwriters on the thing, and the various viewpoints show. But, when it’s funny, it’s great. Predictably, George C. Scott steals the show.

Youth in revolt, British style.

16. If . . . /Alfie/The Sound of Music—The best movie about youth in revolt, and it’s set in an English boarding school. The Brits are a perverse bunch, and if you don’t believe me watch this, then watch A Clockwork Orange, then skip forward to Scum and Made in Britain. They seem to think parenting involves a good whack to the knuckles and then months of confinement with vicious narcissists. If . . . stars a young Malcolm McDowell who is prodded, bullied, tortured and tormented in a tight-knit boarding school where the older students bully, bruise, and seduce their younger wards. As McDowell’s treatment worsens, so do his fantasies bloom. And a movie that begins as a straight-forward slice of life tale becomes unhinged. By the film’s end, you won’t know what’s real and what’s imagined. Give this film a chance; you will never forget it. Alfie: I love this movie. Michael Caine plays Alfie, a womanizing freeloader in swinging London. The film is even-keeled and simple, until Alfie must confront the horrendous consequences of his philandering. Simple, straightforward, film about real people surviving mundane situations. There aren’t enough movies like it. Sound of Music: I’m not all about murder, paranoia, and fear. I have a heart, too. Take The Sound of Music. It’s a long but thoughtful film about a distracted nun and her nine Austrian wards, and despite the premise, it’s a very fine film. Christopher Plummer, who’s has a late career renaissance these last 6 or so years, plays a stern naval officer who thaws from the affections of Julie Andrews. Andrews’s acting is often overlooked because of her voice, but she’s utterly convincing in the role of Maria.

Three killers waiting for their last train in the spaghetti-western masterpiece.

17. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly/ Once Upon a Time in the West—Sergio Leone’s one two punch to the myths, lies, and ugliness of the old West. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly watches like some science fiction creation myth. The characters don’t have names, they wander through a desolate landscape peopled with bizarre swarthy soldiers from both sides of the Civil War, and everyone is quick to shoot, maim, and kill for money, water, revenge, anything. Stephen King credits it for inspiring him to write the Dark Tower Books, and Quentin Tarantino claims it’s his favorite movie of all time. It’s a pop relic, for sure, but also primal and powerful, if a bit too long. West is a different story altogether, serious, brutal, and tragic, a study of revenge and land speculation. Charles Bronson and Jason Robards are both great, but its Henry Fonda, cast against type as the steely eyed villain, that stands out. Perhaps the best beginning in movie history.

St. Disturbia—the most unsettling movie of the 1960s.

18. Lolita/Peeping Tom—Stanley Kubrick’s warmest movie, which is a disturbing thing to say. His version keeps the dark humor and utter strangeness of the novel, while also capturing the character of Humbert Humbert with James Mason’s ironic, sly, self-effacing performance. Peter Sellers is a great joy to watch here, controlled and vibrant behind the strange disguises and pipsqueak voice. Peeping Tom: The mother of all disturbing movies, this Michael Powell film follows an emotionally disengaged young man who uses his movie camera to murder women, taping their final death rattle expressions. But, as if in a Hitchcock film, you start to root for the fucked up little creep as the lasso of the law begins to tighten around his neck.

"Z," the greatest political thriller ever made.

19. The Battle of Algiers/Z—Two overtly political movies, both raw and riveting. Shot in a documentary style, this tale of Algerian freedom fighters cum terrorists and the French military men who fight them is horrifying and bleak. There’s little plot, the characters lack dimension, and the most interesting character is a French military officer who has too little screen time, but the movie still works. Marvelous. Z is the political thriller of the 20th century, a raging true account of the murder of a leftwing Greek politician. It has excellent action sequences, great dialogue and wonderful homages to other movies (the Singin’ in the Rain sequence, re-contextualized as a villainous gay hustler cruises for rough trade, is unforgettable).

The classiest of thrillers.

20. Bunny lake is Missing/La Jetee—Otto Preminger again, in a horror-thriller hybrid made with consummate craftsmanship. It’s merry old England, but something is amiss. Ann Lake and her brother are fresh off the boat from America, when Ann’s daughter, Bunny, has gone missing from her daycare. But, was she ever really there? Lawrence Olivier plays the detective hired to sort it all out, Noel Coward plays a skeevee pervert living next door, and Keir Dullea (of 2001 fame) plays Ann’s clingy patronizing older brother. Somewhere in the middle, one of the great scenes in movies: the camera breaks from Lawrence Olivier interviewing Ann Lake—leaving the plot behind—to the Zombies performing “Just out of Reach” on the tube. It’s a strange moment, and it isn’t clear if it is meant to be comical or disturbing or a comment on the cultural sea change about to happen. Rich and strange. La Jetee: The best short film ever made, period. The basis for 12 Monkeys, La Jetee is told entirely from photographic stills, with a disconcerting voice over. The story involves a burned out future where a ruling elite of scientists think they’ve discovered the key to fixing their world: time travel. The traveler they send spends his nights dreaming of an enigmatic death he witnessed as a young child. The film is all of 26 minutes long, but it will rub in your thoughts forever.

"Nine men who came too late and stayed too long."

21. Will Penny/The Wild Bunch—Charlton Heston’s best acting, and this isn’t a slam on the film. He plays an illiterate cowboy who runs afoul a gang of murderous whackos, led by Donald Pleasance (who also does his best work; again, not a joke). There are three movies here: a love story, a revenge western, and a story about work. Each movie works well, and the movie is surreal, violent, mainstream, loving and tough all at once. Some critics have dismissed this little movie over the years as sentimental and slight, but there’s something here that I can’t shake. A deep humanity, coupled with an embarrassed confession of how bad people have become. Wild Bunch: Stylized, hyperviolent, and despondent in its grisly view of human nature, but also a great film. William Holden leads a band of nasty outlaws through the American southwest and Mexico, first looking for loot and later looking for revenge. They’re followed by Robert Ryan and an even worse band of killers and thieves, and they leave a bloody trail of bodies every which way. It isn’t for everyone; some will even hate it; but for the converted it’s the final chapter, until Unforgiven, on the western and the west. The tagline says it all: “Nine men who came to late and stayed too long.”

Two aging starlets strapped to a ghastly grist mill.

22. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?/Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte—And people think movies have become more obscene. Bitchy Joan Crawford and kind Bette Davis are cast against type here as two deranged sisters, locked into psychological combat through need. Crawford plays a paraplegic at the mercy of her sadistic sister, who savagely brutalizes her for most of the movie. Robert Aldrich is known as a maker of male-dominated films of violence: Vera Cruz, The Dirty Dozen, Attack. But his two best films—besides Kiss Me Deadly, of course—star Bette Davis and watch as grotesque horror films from a twisted psyche. Baby Jane is difficult to watch even now. Charlotte, on the other hand, is an old-fashioned Southern gothic, grisly but handled with aplomb. He wrings a very good performance from Olivia De Havilland, which makes you realize how little good work there was for actresses. Aldrich’s touch is not subtle, but it’s strong, strong, strong.

"Somewhere in the universe there must be something better than man."

23. Planet of the Apes/The Time Machine—This is how the world ends, in flames, fire and cannibalism. Planet of the Apes is the first and best of the Charlton Heston science fiction extravaganzas (although Soylent Green is an underrated picture). The film operates at some primal lizard part of our brains. An alien planet where evolution has pushed apes, orangutans and chimps to the top, while sifting humans to the bottom? A strange caste system of scientists, warriors and leaders, who worship ape statues from the distant past? I remember, when I was 18, I saw a postcard for the movie that read, “Somewhere in the universe there must be something better than man.” Time Machine: A visit to retro-future nostalgia. Rod Taylor stars in this fabulous science fiction romp, a cold war adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel, that takes our hero to the far future where Eloi, docile, tender humans frolic all day while Morlocks, Eloi-eating monsters toil away in the earth, doing all the work.

Robert Blake and Scott Wilson, two cold-blooded killers on the road.

24. In Cold Blood/Lord Jim—As disturbing as the book, and influential on a number of filmmakers, including David Lynch, although he might not admit it. Robert Blake and Scott Wilson play the two cold-blooded murderers. Richard Brooks directs this incredible adaptation of the Truman Capote wonder. The story follows Blake and Wilson before, after and during their slaughter of the Clutter family, as well as the detectives who hunt them down. Stylized and scored with excellent music, this one is unforgettable. Brooks directed Lord Jim, too, and I’m one of the only people who champions it. Peter O’Toole stars as the coward who flees to Africa to start anew, where he first crosses swords with a brutal warlord (Eli Wallach) and then later a band of mercenaries (led by James Mason).  An epic study of deception, self-delusion, and fate, it’s just a great movie that has been overlooked for far too long.

Night of the Living Dead: "They're coming for you Barbara. Barbara? They're coming for you."

25. Night of the Living Dead/The Manchurian Candidate—A how-to guide for independent filmmaking and a cinematic Molotov cocktail. George Romero shot his low budget creepie in a small town over a few nights. The extras brought their own costumes and were paid in barbecue.  The mood is desolate. Romero hides his low budget with odd camera angles and a terrifying idea: the dead are coming back to life, and they are hungry. There’s no real back story. There have been other zombie movies, from Romero and others. And an argument could be made that Dawn of the Dead is superior. But there’s something special about the original. A film that bites into your flesh and never lets go. Manchurian: The great political thriller of the 1960s, and the movie that almost never was. Veterans of the Korean Conflict are all suffering from the same dreams. The hero of their outfit is the son of well-known politicians. Something is happening, and no one is sure what it is. Frank Sinatra begins to suspect foul play, and all manner of hell breaks loose. Frankenheimer, one of the great technical filmmakers, shot this film with magnificent aplomb. The violence is casual, the performances are strong. When President Kennedy was assassinated, the movie disappeared. Thankfully it has returned, with its lessons of media manipulation and the costs of fear.

The truth behind the iron curtain—nonsense, ineptitude, melancholia.

26. The Fireman’s Ball—A zany, crazy, hard-edged satire of the crumbling communist republics. The whole movie follows a retirement party for an ancient fireman. The party is a disgrace. The auction items keep disappearing. There isn’t enough food. The partiers drink too much, misbehave, talk nonsense and ignore the very real dangers lurking outside their proscribed world. This pre-Hollywood Milos Forman movie reveals a sharp-toothed satirist’s eye, as well as a surreal view of people and the world—that he lost as he got older. (Although anyone who directs this and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest has had a better career than most.)

Honorable mention: Days of Wine and Roses; Zorba the Greek; Zulu; Georgy Girl; The Apartment; The Great Escape; Kelly’s Heroes; Advise and Consent; Beckett; Easy Rider; Diary of a Chambermaid; Sword of Doom.

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