Friday, May 21, 2010

Year in Review: 1965

As with many years in the 1960s, when the studio system in America was collapsing, the best films either came from other countries, or by directors who worked outside the studio system. 1965 contains any number of great films from around the globe, but in my mind clearly the best film of the year is a forgotten masterpiece by one of cinema’s true giants. Please, someone, restore the film and put it out so more people can experience it.

10. For a Few Dollars More (Sergio Leone)
The second part of Sergio Leone’s “Dollars” trilogy (following A Fistful of Dollars but before The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), is perhaps the weakest of the three entries – but since all three are great, it hardly matters. The film is about Clint Eastwood’s infamous “Man with No Name” who teams up with “The Man in Black” (Lee Van Cleef) to track down the criminal “El Indio” (Gian Maria Volonte) – who is famous for his musical stop watch, which he uses in his gun duels (“When the chimes finish, being”). The film ends with a spectacular shootout between the leads. The film is wonderfully acted by the three leads – who makes the most of their characters, especially Eastwood who of course, rarely speaks. Another highlight is Klaus Kinski in a supporting role as the hunchbacked henchman. I didn’t find this film quite as engaging as A Fistful of Dollars, which of course was essentially a remake of the Kurosawa film Yojimbo (although this film shares little in common with the sequel, Sanjuro), or The Good, the Bad and The Ugly, which was Leone working on a epic canvas. And yet, I admire the style of this film – in fact For a Few Dollars More is almost all style and little substance. Normally that’s not a good thing, but considering just how great the style is here – and Leone was one of the best – For a Few Dollars More is still one of the most entertaining Westerns of the 1960s.

9. Doctor Zhivago (David Lean)
While Doctor Zhivago is not nearly as good as some of Lean’s epic films, it would be a mistake to dismiss this utterly gorgeous film. Set during the tumultuous years 1912-1921 in Russia, the film is about those years as seen through the eyes of two people – the poet who becomes a doctor (Omar Sharif) and his lover (Julie Christie) who was married to a Bolshevik (Tom Courtenay) and raped by her evil adviser (Rod Steiger). The film, like all of Lean’s work is utterly gorgeous for beginning to end, and has many breathtaking shots and sequences. While the film is a love story, it is a different kind of love story, as they two central characters remain apart for much of the action in the film, and love each other at a quiet distance. While some didn’t like how the film edited down the novel, it was already three hours and seventeen minutes – what they hell did they expect. My biggest problem with the movie is that Sharif is kind of boring in the lead role – but everyone else in the film – especially Steiger – are wonderful. No, this isn’t the triumph of Bridge on the River Kwai or Lawrence of Arabia – but a great film nevertheless.

8. The Collector (William Wyler)
William Wyler was one of the giants of the studio era – winning three Oscars for Best Director, and still holding the record for most nominations at 13. The Collector is, in my opinion, the final great film of his career. The film is basically a two person movie, with Terence Stamp giving a chilling performance as a serial killer who collects beautiful young women like he does butterflies, and Samantha Eggar as his latest potential victim. He locks her in a cellar, and tries to give her everything she wants to make her happy. He tells her he only wants to get to know her, and that he’ll let her go in a few weeks. The film is carried by the performances of the two leads who are both brilliant. Stamp is one of the first modern movie serial killers, and there is an attempt to get inside his mind to see what makes him tick. Eggar is a smart, resourceful young woman who is just trying to survive. Wyler’s direction of the material is taunt and thrilling at times. This is a great thriller – a final great film from a great director.

7. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (Martin Ritt)
Martin Ritt’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is based on John Lecarre’s great novel of the same name. A Cold War spy thriller, Richard Burton plays an English operative who gets demoted, and then approached by the Germans as a possible defector. Interviewed by Oskar Werner, he says he has information that a German is really British spy – but the tangled web is only beginning to unravel. Unlike many spy movies, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is not romantic or action packed in any way. This is life as a spy without excitement – instead a never ending slog of lies and counter lies. When Burton’s British girlfriend – Claire Bloom – berates him for being a murderer, or at least complicit in murder, he berates her right back with a great speech "What do you think spies are? They are a bunch of seedy squalid bastards like me, little drunkards, queers, henpecked husbands." The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is an important precursor to films like The Good Shepherd, which doesn’t try and make being a spy seem cool – but heartless, cold and lonely.

6. Juliet of the Spirits (Federico Fellini)
Fellini’s first feature film shot in color, Juliet of the Spirits continued Fellini’s move into more surreal territory following La Dolce Vita and 8 ½. If this film is not quite as good as either of those films, it is because those are among the greatest films ever made, and this isn’t quite up that high. Fellini’s wife, Giuletta Masina gives a great performance as a bored housewife, with a cheating husband, who gradually tries to break away from her life – exploring her own subconscious desires and fears, and becoming fascinating by her sexy neighbor (Sandra Milo). To me, what makes Juliet of the Spirits so fascinating is that Fellini is giving his wife a showcase role, and in doing so said he was giving her a gift, and turning the tables on his previous film about a philandering movie director. This time, it told from the point of view of the wife – and yet the film is still Fellini’s. The film seems to argue that Masina would be happier if she were a sex kitten, like the neighbor, but really that isn’t it. The film is magnificently well made, with its drifting camera, and wonderful score by Nina Rota. Yes, the film is problematic, as it is ultimately a man telling a woman what her fantasy should be, rather than what it actually is. But this makes the film more fascinating, not less. No, it isn’t the achievement of some of his other films – but it is wonderful on its own terms, and that fascinating is just as much because of Masina – whose performance adds a sad undertone to the proceedings – as her husband.

5. Pierrot le Fou (Jean Luc Godard)
It has been said that Jean Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou was shot without a script, and I believe it. In the 1960s, Godard was a daring and original filmmaker – not all of the films he made during this period were masterworks, but they were all interesting. Pretty much down the line after the 1960s however, his films have become increasingly pretentious and at times nearly unwatchable – but in the ‘60s he was one of the darlings of art cinema for good reason. Pierrot le Fou is not his best film – that would be Breathless – but it shows Godard at the height of his skills. The film is about a bored husband and father (Jean-Paul Belmondo) who runs off with the babysitter (Anna Karina) who is being chased by Algerian gangsters. This is Godard at his most postmodern – as the film dissects popular culture, taking aim at its shallowness, but also celebrating American movie conventions and genres – and Belmondo is an example of a character who has seemingly lost the ability to tell truth for fiction. The film is wonderfully shot in vivid color and is so fast and loose that you can never tell what is going to happen from one scene to the next. One of the triumphs of Godard’s career, before we lost him forever in his own pretensions.

4. The Pawnbroker (Sidney Lumet)
Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker was a groundbreaking film in many ways. It was the first American film to deal with the Holocaust from the point of view of a survivor, and it also showed nudity in a film, and didn’t receive an X rating (after appeal of course). Rod Steiger gives a powerful performance – perhaps the best of his career – as a survivor who saw his children die in the Concentration Camps, and his wife raped by Nazis. Now living in East Harlem and making a living as a pawnbroker, he is haunted by the memory of what happened 20 years ago. Numbed by his experience, he walks through life trying not to get close to anyone, and rebuffing the friendship of the people who try and reach out to him. I’m not as interested in the storyline itself, as with Steiger’s character and his haunted performance. Director Sidney Lumet has made a sensitive, powerful film – one that stands the test of time, when so many other films that seem “important” at the time do not. A wonderful film.

3. Red Beard (Akira Kurosawa)
Although Akira Kurosawa’s Red Beard focuses on two male doctors, it could be the most feminist film that the director ever made. The film is about a young doctor who thinks he is destined for greatness (Yuzo Kayama) and is insulted that he is sent to a lowly clinic run by the seemingly harsh doctor known as Red Beard (Toshiro Mifune). However, he quickly gets won over to Red Beard’s cause of helping the poor and downtrodden. Throughout the film, we see several flashbacks, or are simply told stories, by the patients – almost all of them women – about their lives, and the cruelness that has been inflicted upon them in them. The film is about what it really means to be a doctor – that the patients well being is more important than wealth. The film is masterfully directed by Kurosawa, who despite having no action and a more than three hour running time, manages to keep the film from ever being boring. This marked the end of two eras for Kurosawa – it was the last film he would ever make in black and white, and the last film to star his frequent collaborator Mifune. Depending on who you believe, Mifune was either angry at Kurosawa that the shoot took so long, and he had to maintain his natural full beard making it impossible for him to do other work and causing financial strain, or that the writer of the novel on which the movie was based thought that Mifune did a poor job in the role, making Kurosawa doubt his abilities. Whatever the reason, it is sad that they didn’t make any more films – some of the 16 they made together rank among the best ever made.

2. Repulsion (Roman Polanski)
Roman Polanski’s Repulsion is a brilliant character study and thriller about a beautiful young woman (Catherine Denueve) who cannot handle life in the real world. For reasons left unexplained (which makes it all the more chilling), Deneuve is repulsed by men. When her sister, who lives in the same apartment as she does, goes on vacation, Denueve is stuck home alone, and she starts a downward spiral that leads her to start hallucinating about the walls closing in on her and hands coming out to grab her. She refuses to leave the apartment, and the place becomes more and more disgusting. When two men come to her apartment, they do not know what they are in for. This is masterful direction by Polanski, who uses the one setting wonderfully well – it never feels stage bound. And Denueve carries the film – often for long stretches simply by herself. The final shot of the movie – a slow zoom in on a family picture – is haunting because of what it implies, but leaves unsaid. Polanski is a great director, and Repulsion is one of the best films of his career.

1. Chimes at Midnight (Orson Welles)
One of the saddest things in cinema is that Orson Welles’ masterpiece Chimes at Midnight is not widely seen. Arguments over ownership have pretty much stopped this film from being released in any form for years – I was lucky enough to buy a DVD from Amazon of the film, and although the sound quality is poor and at times out of sync, the mastery of Welles comes through in every frame of the film. Welles combines element from five Shakespeare plays – Henry IV Part I, Henry IV Part II, Henry V, Richard II and The Merry Wives of Windsor – and casts himself in the lead role of one of Shakespeare’s greatest characters – Sir John Falstaff. Falstaff wasn’t the lead in any of these plays, but by combining them, Welles has created a great portrait of Falstaff from beginning to end. The film mainly focuses on Falstaff’s relation with Prince Hal (Keith Baxter), the hard partying son of Henry IV (who of course, would go onto be Henry V), who shares his taste in the hedonistic pleasures of the world. Although Falstaff is constantly in debt, he is always joyous and full of life. The Battle of Shrewsbury is brilliant filmed in the movie and served as the inspiration for similar battles in Braveheart and Saving Private Ryan – and the visceral impact of the sequence is brilliant. But for me, the true greatness of Chimes at Midnight lies in one scene. Upon learning that his friend has become King, Falstaff runs to the parade and yells out at him “Long live the King”. When Hal, now Henry V, turns around he says “I know thee not, old man”, and the camera simply watches Welles face as his heart breaks. It is a masterful moment in a masterful film – perhaps not my favorite Welles film (that would still be Kane or Touch of Evil), but still one of the best films ever made. It is time that the legal battles are forgotten and that someone like Criterion can properly restore this film so that we may properly enjoy this film.

Just Missed The Top 10: Darling (John Scheslinger), Flight of the Phoenix (Robert Aldrich), Mirage (Edward Dmytryk), Morituri (Berhard Wicki), Ship of Fools (Stanley Kramer), Von Ryan’s Express (Mark Robson).

Notable Films Missed: Alphaville (Jean-Luc Godard), Loves of a Blonde (Milos Forman), Not Reconciled (Jean Marie Straub), A Patch of Blue (Guy Green), Simon of the Desert (Luis Bunuel), Subarnarekha (Rithak Ghatak), A Thousand Clowns (Fred Coe).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture & Director: The Sound of Music (Robert Wise)
I know that The Sound of Music is one of the most beloved films of all time. I also know that right from the time of the films release, it has been considered hip and cool to mock the film. So let me choose my words carefully. By no means do I hate The Sound of Music – which is a handsomely mounted, epic musical with some very catchy, well known songs in it. Neither do I think the film is all that good either – it’s too square, too conventional, too predictable and too sappy to be a great movie. I am more than happy to fall in the middle of the two extremes of this film – with Pauline Kael’s vitriolic response on one side, and my mother’s absolute devotion on the other. Just don’t ask me to watch all three hours of the film again.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Lee Marvin, Cat Ballou
Lee Marvin is the second name that comes to mind when I think of a man’s man – right after Robert Mitchum. Marvin delivered any number of great performances – The Big Heat, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Point Blank and The Big Red One to name just four, and I count him among my favorite actors – no matter how bad the movie he is in, you can always count on something interesting from Marvin. But really, Cat Ballou? His dual role in this cheesy, comedy/western just isn’t very good, let alone Oscar worthy. On one hand, he plays a drunken, ex-gunfighter the heroine needs on her side, even if he acts like a buffoon. On the other, he is a nose less, hard ass gunslinger trying to get what he wants. Neither performance is very good in a film that is mediocre at best – and derives most of its charm from Jane Fonda’s sexy performance in the lead role. Hell, I prefer Marvin’s performance in the overly long Ship of Fools this year than this one. And considering the nominees included Rod Steiger’s brilliant portrayal of a Holocaust survivor in The Pawnbroker, I cannot say that Marvin deserved to win for this film – for something else in his career, but good God not Cat Ballou. (I will say that this is my favorite poster of the year – it looks like it was designed by a 5 year old!).

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Julie Christie, Darling
Between her performances in this film, alongside Doctor Zhivago, it is safe to say that 1965 was the year that Julie Christie truly became a movie star. The Academy nominated her for the right performance – her work in Darling as the beautiful young model who sleeps around and finds that it brings her nothing but emptiness is her best work this year, but not of her career. Yet, she captures a certain kind of a woman – they kind who become famous because of their looks, not their talent, just about perfectly. Despite the dated clothes and 1960s infused editing techniques, Darling remains a truly modern looking film – and Julie Christie’s performance is a big reason for that. Personally, I think Catherine Denueve’s work in Repulsion is truly the best work we saw this year, but the Academy unsurprisingly didn’t see fit to nominate her, so I’ll take Christie.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: Martin Balsam, A Thousand Clowns
A Thousand Clowns is one of those rare Oscar winning movies that has yet to make an appearance on DVD as far as I can tell, so unfortunately, I have not had a chance to see Martin Balsam’s Oscar winning supporting performance. What I will say is that Balsam is a wonderful character actor, who delivered many great performances, so as an actor; I certainly do not mind him winning an Oscar. Out of the work I have seen, I did admire the work by Tom Courtenay in Doctor Zhivago (although I seem to be the only one who thinks Rod Steiger was better in that film) and Michael Dunn in Ship of Fools – who was probably the best one in the cast. This does seem to be a rather weak year for this category however.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Shelley Winters, A Patch of Blue
Unlike A Thousand Clowns, this one is available on DVD, but just like that film, I have never seen it. I always meant to rent it, but have someone never gotten around to it yet, although I certainly will one day. I am a big fan of Shelley Winters – her work in A Place in the Sun, Night of the Hunter and Lolita is especially great, although considering I was a fan of the TV show Roseanne before I saw any of those movies, a certain part of me will always think of her as Nanna Mary on that show. Again, I must say this seems like a rather weak category this year however.

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