Friday, March 26, 2010

Year in Review: 1962

1962 was a banner year for Hollywood. It created one of the most timeless, and important, epics in screen history, saw the best director of Western ever make his last important contribution to the genre, and saw early works by some of cinema’s greatest directors. Often during the 1960s, my lists seem to be dominated by European masters, and while they have their place on this list, 1962 was all about American films.

10. To Kill a Mockingbird (Robert Mulligan)
Robert Mulligan is not exactly an exciting filmmaker – but his straight ahead point and shoot style works marvelously in this heartfelt adaptation of Harper Lee’s classic American novel. Gregory Peck gives his most famous, and probably best, performance as Atticus Finch, the Southern lawyer who takes on the case of a poor black man accused of raping a white woman. Told from the point of view of Peck’s daughter (a great Mary Badham), the movie is a perfect view at the confusing adult world from the point of view of a child. It depicts the South during the great depression as a place where racism is the norm, and no one wanted to give the poor man a fair trail. In short, the subject matter is so powerful that it doesn’t matter than Mulligan isn’t much of a director – the material speaks for itself.

9. Advise and Consent (Otto Preminger)
Otto Preminger’s Advise and Consent is not a film we hear a lot about these days – and that’s too bad because it is one of the best movies I have ever seen about the inner workings of Washington. A sick President (Franchot Tone) nominates an unpopular liberal (Henry Fonda) to be Secretary of State. The Republicans, led by the great Charles Laughton, do not want Fonda to be confirmed – he apparently has a communist past – but the Democrats, led by Walter Pidgeon, do. The movie is a detailed, behind the scenes look at the dirty politics of Washington – including one Senator threatening to out another as a homosexual, which leads to his suicide. The film was daring in its depiction of a homosexual affair, and openly challenged the Hollywood blacklist, by casting the likes of Burgess Meredith (who is great in the movie, and ironically, plays a Senator who accuses Fonda of being a Communist). Advise and Consent has aged a little bit in the decades since its release, but it is a film that deserves to be rediscovered and reconsidered – especially in these times, when the US Senate is full of a bunch of idiots who cannot get anything done.

8. Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Sidney Lumet)
Sidney Lumet has done a great job numerous times in his career in adapting great stage plays into movies. In this version of Eugene O’Neil’s classic final play, he has created one of the best films of his career. The movie centers on the eccentric Tyrone family. Ruled by former stage star James (Ralph Richardson), who now wanders around their huge house unscrewing light bulbs to save movie, and his wife Mary (Katherine Hepburn), a recovering morphine addict, this family is screwed up. Older brother Jamie (Jason Robards) is a drunk, who resents the attention everyone gives to his younger brother Edmund (Dean Stockwell), who has TB. While Mary’s addiction is out in the open in the family, everyone else is also an addict – alcohol in their case – and the play is about each family member’s efforts to deflect blame from themselves onto others, in long, dialogue driven scenes. The film is nearly three hours long, but the performances are absolutely masterful, and Lumet keeps the movie’s pace at a high level. This is how you adapt a play for the screen.

7. L’Eclisse (Michelangelo Antonioni)
I have a sort of love/hate relationship to the films of Michelangelo Antonioni – admiring films like L’Aventurra and The Passenger but finding much of his work pretentious beyond belief. But L’Eclisse definitely plays into the earlier category. The film has a deceptively simple plot – where Monica Vitti breaks up with her boyfriend early in the movie, than begins an affair with a young stockbroker (Alain Delion) soon thereafter. This is probably actually my favorite Antonioni film, because while it shares similarities with the more celebrated L’Aventurra, the characters in the movie are more grounded in reality, their lives take place in the real world, where they have jobs to support themselves, and don’t merely have sex to fill the void inside them, but because they are really attracted to each other. This is a film as much about the environment – the setting – as about the characters. Antonioni extends his film for seven minutes after we last see the characters in the movie – as we flash to one place after another where the lovers have been, and we feel their absence. L’Eclisse is a movie that most modern audiences are going to hate – or would if they had any desire to see true art on screen – but for those of us who like this sort of thing, it is one of the best films of its kind.

6. Ride the High Country (Sam Peckinpah)
Ride the High Country established Sam Peckinpah as a great director of Westerns – a worthy successor to the likes of John Ford. Although it is 1969’s The Wild Bunch which is Peckinpah’s masterpiece, Ride the High Country is a great film in it’s own right. Two former lawmen (Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea) have aged beyond their usefulness, and not stuck guarding gold shipments down from the mountains. Scott plans on stealing the gold with the help of his young partner – and wants McCrea to join in the plot as well. While this leads to a conflict between the two of them, they don’t have long to fight it out, as the fiancĂ© of a beautiful young woman they rescued from him (he was planning on making her a prostitute), comes storming after them. Peckinpah’s penchant for violent men past their prime and the women, who get them in trouble, is all here in their assured film. The final image of the movie is haunting and beautiful. Like The Wild Bunch, this is a film about the old west dying, and it established Peckinpah as a master.

5. The Manchurian Candidate (John Frankenheimer)
There is a probably not a serious thriller ever made that better captures the paranoia of the Cold War than this one. The film opens during the Korean War, where the Soviets capture an American platoon and take them to Communist China for the purposes of brainwashing them. Now, years later, two of the men who were brainwashed seem to be on a collision course. Frank Sinatra gives perhaps his best performance as a Major suffering from a recurring nightmare involving Laurence Harvey murdering his own men – even though he remembers Harvey being a hero. He starts to dig deeper into his memory, to try and figure out what is happening. The Manchurian Candidate is a brilliant thriller – one that gradually twists and turns our expectations, and leaves many questions unanswered (is Janet Leigh just a romantic foil for Sinatra, or is she his handler?). It also provides us with one of the best screen villains in history – in the guise of sweet Angela Lansbury, who coldly will do anything to get ahead. John Frankenheimer made a lot of good films in his career – but The Manchurian Candidate is far and away his greatest achievement.

4. Lolita (Stanley Kubrick)
I know a lot of people view Lolita as one of director Kubrick’s lesser films – a film hampered by censorship, where Kubrick was not able to depict the sexual, carnal relationship between Humbert (James Mason) and Lolita (Sue Lyon) – Kubrick himself said that if he knew what the censorship issues would be, he probably never would have made the film. However, I don’t agree. The censorship forced Kubrick to be more subtle in the movie – no, we do not witness sex between these two, but we feel Mason’s erotic desire for Lolita throughout the movie – as he obsession drives further and further into a downward spiral. Mason is great, as is Lyon in the lead roles – he a perverse portrait of a pedophile, she a flirty, precoruis “nymphet”. The best performances may belong to two of the supporting characters – Shelley Winters as Lolita’s overdramatic mother and Peter Sellers as the even more perverse Claire Quilty. Kubrick leaves out a lot of the explanation for why Humbert is who he is, that was in the Nabokov novel, but this serves to make things even more interesting. Lesser Kubrick? Hardly.

3. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford)
John Ford directed a lot of great Westerns in his career, and although he would go on to direct two more after this one, this was his last Western masterwork. By the 1960s, Westerns were not just the fun and games shoot’em ups as they were when Ford started (a film liked 1939’s Stagecoach is a perfect example of that kind of Western), but had taken on a darker tone. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is more in line with those films. In it, a lawyer (James Stewart) comes to a small Western town, believing in law and order. He clashes with the Sheriff (John Wayne), who has different ideas on how to handle things. But when he angers Liberty Valance (a wonderful Lee Marvin), things really get bad. As we would see often in the Westerns of the 1960s, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was about the era of the Wild West coming to an end – a time when people like John Wayne would become irrelevant, and the law and order type represented by Stewart would come to power. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is one the best Westerns of all time.

2. The Exterminating Angel (Luis Bunuel)
Luis Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel is one of the surrealist master’s best films. In it, a group of wealthy people get together for dinner after going to the opera. After dinner, they retire to the sitting room, and soon discover that they cannot leave. There is nothing blocking there way out, but they are trapped in the room regardless. As the hours turn to days turn to weeks, they start to fall apart – retreating to small closets to defecate or have sex, or perhaps even kill themselves. Stripped of all the niceties of society, they slowly become as savage as cavemen – they even slaughter some sheep that happen to walk in. Bunuel's film is the type that isn’t made anymore – and really, was never much made in the first place. It isn’t a movie about plot, or even character, but rather about society. The people in the movie are trapped by their circumstances, and by the end of the movie, Bunuel makes it clear that the audience is just as trapped as his characters.

1. Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean)
Realistically, how could I pick anything other than Lawrence of Arabia? David Lean’s epic film is certainly one of the most influential and important films of the 1960s. Its concentration on character, above story and action, was daring for a movie of this length – as was having the entire film populated by men – no love interests. And yet, Lean’s extremely long film never once drags, never becomes boring or monotonous. Peter O’Toole is amazing as Lawrence, a performance full of passion and life, and he is supported by an excellent cast who are all great in their own roles. The only regret I have about Lawrence of Arabia is that I have never been able to see it on the big screen – never been able to experience what it must have been like to see the film in 1962. DVD is a great invention, allowing us to see, in pristine condition, classic movies – but for films like this one, it hardly seems to do it justice. I love this movie, and I expect that if I ever do see on the big screen, I will love it even more.

Special Mention: La Jetee (Chris Marker).
Marker’s film is a true masterpiece of film construction – telling it story almost entirely in still pictures and voiceover narration. It is a daring, avant garde film. However, it is a short film, and as such, I decided to exclude it, as I wanted to keep this about feature films. Feel free to disagree with me.

Just Miss the Top 10: Days of Wine and Roses (Blake Edwards), The Longest Day (Ken Annakin & Berhard Wicki), Sweet Bird of Youth (Richard Brooks), Cape Fear (J. Lee Thompson), Sanjuro (Akira Kurosawa).

Notable Films Missed: An Autumn Afternoon (Yashijiro Ozu), Ivan’s Childhood (Andrei Tarkovsky), Hatari (Howard Hawks), The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (Tony Richardson), Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Vincente Minelli), The Music Man (Morton DaCosta), Mutiny on the Bounty (Lewis Milestone).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture and Director: Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean)
Like me, the Academy couldn’t possibly deny David Lean’s monumental achievement (marking one of only 13 times that I agree with the Academy’s decision). This was a great year in film, but Lawrence towers over all comers.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Gregory Peck, To Kill a Mockingbird
It is hard to argue against Peck’s performance winning an Oscar – it is certainly one of the most loved, most iconic in film history. Personally, I would have liked to see Peter O’Toole win for his great work in Lawrence. Out of the people not nominated, I thought John Wayne deserved consideration for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, along with James Mason for Lolita, and Robert Mitchum for Cape Fear (he was far and away the best thing about that movie).

Oscar Winner – Actress: Anne Bancroft, The Miracle Worker
I certainly have no problem with Anne Bancroft winning an Oscar – I just wish it had been for one of her best performances, and I don’t think her work in The Miracle Worker qualifies. I would have rather seen Geraldine Page win for her performance as the aging movie star in Sweet Bird of Youth, or Katherine Hepburn for her work in Long Day’s Journey Into Night (ironically, I would have much preferred Bancroft in The Graduate to Hepburn in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner). And I have to say that Sue Lyon never got the recognition she deserved for Lolita.

Oscar Winner – Supporting Actor: Ed Begley, Sweet Bird of Youth
Out of the nominees, Southern patriarch Begley may have been the best choice – he does drip malice in the film. However, I would have loved to see Dean Stockwell for Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Lee Marvin for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Charles Laughton for Advise and Consent and Peter Sellers for Lolita in competition.

Oscar Winner – Supporting Actress: Patty Duke, The Miracle Worker
Patty Duke was a young TV star proving herself capabale – and her performance as Helen Keller is impressive – not impressive enough for an Oscar however. Out of the nominees, Angela Lansbury’s brilliant villainous turn in The Manchurian Candidate should have been a shoe-in. And I would have loved to have seen Shelley Winters get in for Lolita.

No comments:

Post a Comment