Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Year in Review: 1963

In many ways, 1963 was the last gasp of the studio system. Sure, they would continue to produce their epics throughout the next few years, but this is when the tide really started to turn, and this is reflected in the Oscars of that year – where, while the studios still had enough clout to push their cumbersome epics into the Best Picture line-up (I’m thinking more of Cleopatra and How the West Was Won, more than Elia Kazan’s highly regarded America, America, which is unavailable on DVD, so I couldn’t watch it for this piece), but they went in other directions for their wins. The best films of 1963 come not from America – who only has 4 out of the top ten films on this list(and one of those is definitely NOT a studio production) – but from Italy, Sweden, Japan and Poland. The films by these filmmakers would be among the most celebrated and loved by the new generation of American filmmakers – who were just a few short years from greatness.

10. The Great Escape (John Sturges)
The Great Escape is one of the year’s best pure entertainments. The film is about a new, high tech German prison that they built to try and keep all the allied POWs captive during WWII. The film details the massive escape attempt from the prison – as three tunnels are devised in the hopes of breaking out 250 prisoners, and drawing resources away from the front lines in order to capture them. What everyone remembers about the film is Steve McQueen – perhaps in his best, and most iconic role as the “cooler king”, because he spends so much time in solitary because of his escape attempts – bouncing a baseball off the wall. His daring motorcycle escape is one of the best action sequences every put to film. The rest of the cast – led by James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, James Donald, Donald Pleasance and James Coburn are all wonderful in their roles as well. The movie can hardly be called a “feel good” story because of its tragic ending, but it certainly is one of the most entertaining films of the year – and one that remains endlessly re-watchable.

9. The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock)
On the surface, The Birds appears to be a rather simple, yet brilliantly well executed film, about flocks of birds who attack an unsuspecting woman (Tippi Hendron), her new boyfriend (Rod Taylor), and his family. The scenes with the bird attacks are brilliantly well staged by Hitchcock (especially a bird’s eye view of one attack), and there constant presence in the film builds a sense of true uneasiness throughout the whole thing. But the film is much more than a series of bird attacks – if it were just that, no matter how brilliant they were, the film would not be on the list. The film works to symmetrically break the Tippi Hendron character down. She is a spoiled brat at the beginning of the film, who thinks she is in complete control on her life. Throughout the film, she will continually learn that she is not as in control as she thinks she is – each time this mounting realization hits her, it is followed by a bird attack. She is broken down until in the end, she is essentially a guileless child again, completely dependent on someone else. The Birds is an absolutely brilliant film by the master, who while being late in his career, still never took the easy route.

8. Winter Light (Ingmar Bergman)
The middle installment of Ingmar Bergman’s “Silence of God” trilogy is, I think, the weakest – but that doesn’t mean it is not a great film. The film is about a Pastor (Gunnar Bjornstrand) who has lost his way. His wife has died, he has been having an affair with another woman (Ingrid Thulin), who loves him but who he can only treat with icy silence, or outright cruelty. When a parishioner (Max von Sydow) comes to him looking for advice about how to deal with the cruelty in the world, the fear of nuclear annihilation and the God’s silence, Bjornstrand is too involved with his own crisis to give von Sydow much comfort or support during his time of need. He can only tell him that they must have faith in the Lord, before admitting that he has lost his. Is it any wonder that von Sydow leaves him, and almost immediately commits suicide? Bergman was fascinated by the silence of God, not his absence per se, but by the fact that he no longer seemed to care about humanity. I think Winter Light could be one of Bergman’s most autobiographical films – painting a portrait of himself that is far from flattering as the selfish pastor who lets everyone around him down because he is so self involved. No, Winter Light doesn’t quite achieve the level of greatness of Through a Glass Darkly or The Silence – but it comes so damn close, it hardly matters.

7. Hud (Martin Ritt)
Paul Newman was known for playing charming characters – guys that women fall in love with easily because of that charm, and his good looks. In Martin Ritt’s Hud, based on a Larry McMurty novel, Newman gives one of his best performances, playing off of that image as the selfish, brutish, immoral, drunken title character. Hud has been fighting with his father (Melvyn Douglas) for years, because Douglas is a principled man, and Hud is selfish to the core. Hud’s older brother Norman died years ago, because of Hud’s behavior, and now Hud is trying to corrupt his nephew (Brandon De Wilde) into being just like him. Both Newman and DeWilde are attracted to the housekeeper (Patrica Neal), and although she is attracted to him, she is also wary – she knows exactly what kind of guy Hud is. Ritt’s film is about the difference between the generations – the older one is principled and honest, willing to lose everything if it means doing the right thing. The younger one doesn’t care about anyone but themselves. Newman is brilliant in the lead role, and the rest of the cast are his equal. The film is a penetrating, honest study of these men and women – and a classic American film.

6. Knife in the Water (Roman Polanski)
Knife in the Water was Roman Polanski’s debut film – and it has remained one of the best of his career. A wealthy couple are on their way to spend the day, and night, on their boat out on the lake. They run into a hitchhiker, and invite him along. What follows is a game of sexual one up manship, between the two men who are vying for the attention of the beautiful woman. Polanski’s imagery perfectly evokes the feeling of isolation and incarnation that is so key to the film. No one but these three characters is in the movie, and the film offers us glimpses into each of them, and it strips away all their outer layers to reveal the people underneath. The film feels more violent, more sexual than it actually is – no one dies in the film, and no one has sex – but the threat of both lays just beneath the surface. The cast certainly helps – Leon Niemczyk as the wealthy man, who feels his wife’s lust for the younger man, and doesn’t like it, Zygmunt Malanowicz as the young man with the knife, which is of course a phallic symbol, and especially Jolanta Umecka as the woman who is attracted to both men. Polanski would go onto make better films than Knife in the Water – but that doesn’t mean this isn’t a masterful film.

5. The Trial (Orson Welles)
Orson Welles is, of course, one of the greatest filmmakers of all time – and yet there are only a few of his films where his vision is up there on the screen with no compromises at all. The Trial is one of those few films. The film exists in a nightmare world where Joseph K. (Anthony Perkins) wakes up one day and is accused of a crime and arrested. They never tell him what his crime is, and he spends the entire film trying to figure it out. How is he supposed to defend himself when he has no idea what the hell he did? Based on Franz Kafka’s brilliant novel, Welles captures Kafka’s paranoid dystopia on film perfectly. He has always favored strange camera angles, and elaborate sets, and The Trial gives him an opportunity to play with those in abundance. Perkins is just about perfect in the lead role – a few years removed for Norman Bates, he had a squirmy energy that was right for the role. Welles used Perkins own hidden sexuality to great advantage – suggesting that he is hiding something, and doesn’t want to be found out, even though we are never told what they could be. Welles himself gives a wonderful performance as The Advocate – a lawyer, or something like that, who specializes in cases like Joseph’s, and whatever that may mean. He wants Joseph to gravel before him, and gets off on the power he has over people. My only problem with this masterpiece – that deserves to be mentioned right alongside other Welles masterpiece like Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil and Chimes at Midnight – is the ending, which feels too final for the film, but when a film is this masterful, it’s impossible to complain.

4. High and Low (Akira Kurosawa)
Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low starts off as a fascinating moral puzzle, and then at the half way point, switches gears and becomes an equally fascinating police procedural. In the first half, Toshiro Mifune gives a marvelous performance as a successful businessman who has gone into huge debt to get the money he needs to take over the shoe company he works at. But his plans are thrown off when kidnappers advise them that they have his son – and want a huge amount of money from him for his return. Mifune agrees, but then learns that the kidnapper picked up the wrong boy – kidnapping his chauffer’s son, not his own. But the kidnapper is relentless. It doesn’t matter to him which boy he has – he will kill him if Mifune doesn’t pay up. He was willing to sacrifice everything to get his own son back, but will he do the same thing to get his servant’s son? The second half deals with the effort to locate the kidnapper, and is rigorous in its attention to detail. Kurosawa was always fascinated with Shakespeare – making Japanese versions of Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear, and although High and Low is not directly based on a Shakespeare play, it has the same epic feel, and tragedy in it that those other films do. The entire cast is great – especially Mifune who is put in an almost impossible situation, and finally Tsutomu Yamazaki as the kidnapper, whose motives are different than we expect. Kurosawa is best known for his samurai films – but he was equally at home in the crime drama – and High and Low represents him at his very best.

3. The Leopard (Luchino Visconti)
Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard is one of the most gorgeous epics in cinema history. It takes place in 1860s Sicily, where a revolution is underway, and the old aristocratic ways are dying out. The aristocracy is represented by Burt Lancaster’s aging patriarch – who married a woman he didn’t love because it was a “good match”, and is now watching as his way of life is dying. His nephew (Alain Delon) is the rising star of the family, but he as well needs a good match. Lancaster’s brother in law was not as wise with his money as Lancaster was, and now Delon’s inheritance is in jeopardy. But when Delon falls in love with the daughter of a wealthy man (Claudia Cardinale)– of lower class standing – things seem to be falling into place. The Leopard, with all its period detail – the huge palaces, the ornate ballrooms, the meticulous costumes – makes this the most visually stunning of all of Visconti’s films. In the end though, the film – despite all its talk of politics – is really about one man – Lancaster – and his acceptance of death and mortality. Almost the entire last hour of the film – and at over three hours this is an epic – is devoted to a ball, but the key scenes are right before when a visiting diplomat offers Lancaster a Senate seat in the new regime, and Lancaster refuses – knowing that his way is on the way out. At the ball, when he dances with Cardinale, it is a dance of death. He knows, as does she, as does Delon, now her fiancĂ©e, that in different times, it would be Lancaster who ended up with this beautiful woman (and Cardinale has to rank among the most beautiful women of all time). But age, class and social demands have made that all impossible. Visconti’s film is attuned to the smallest details that never get lost in the visual splendor. Visconti himself was descended from the aristocracy, but hated what it did to the common man. Yet, his familial roots show in this film, which is a thoughtful, sensitive character study. A masterful film.

2. The Silence (Ingmar Bergman)
In the first part of his Silence of God trilogy, Through a Glass Darkly, a woman goes insane because her need for God is so intense, and all she finds is a spider. In the second part, Winter Light, people talk constantly about how God is silent, and has abandoned them. In the third, and best part, of the trilogy, there is no talk of God, because God exists nowhere in the world that Ingmar Bergman has created in this film. Two women and a boy get off a train in an unknown city, and check themselves in a hotel. The women are sisters. Ingrid Thulin is a repressed woman whose illness forced them to get off the train in the first place. Her sister is Gunnell Lindblom, who is anything but repressed. The boy (Jorgen Lindstrom) is Lindblom’s son, but has lived so long with the two women that it hardly matters. The sisters hate each – for reasons left unexplained, but probably has to do with their father. Lindblom feels no sympathy for Thulin, and flaunts her sexuality. The Silence is one of Ingmar Bergman’s best films – perhaps his very best. Often thought of as a cerebral director, who uses long monologues to get all his thoughts out, The Silence shows a different side of Bergman. The film is almost entirely visual – with long stretches where no dialogue exists at all. The two sisters represent two sides of the same coin – Thulin is the mind, constantly thinking, constantly probing, but is slowly dying. Lindblom is the body, thoughtless to anything but her own immediate desire. The boy tries to reconcile these two opposites – bring them together, but he cannot. The world outside the hotel is falling apart – we see tanks rumbling down the street, war or something worse, seems to be at hand, but no one mentions it. The Silence is one of the most haunting films in cinema history. It would not be the film that I would recommend you start your journey into Bergman’s film on – but perhaps the one where you should end it. Bergman was a director of immense talent, and The Silence maybe the film where everything he wanted to say came out perfectly.

1. 8 ½ (Federico Fellini)
8 ½ is perhaps the greatest film about filmmaking in history. Guido (Marcello Mastroianni) is a successful film director, supposed to be concentrating on directing a new autobiographical science fiction film, when he loses interest. The film is essentially interwoven between Guido’s present, and flashbacks and dream sequences that merge with reality at several points. The film details his relationships with women – his long suffering wife, his mistress, his star, his mother – both how they are in reality, and how he wishes they would be. The action takes place in a spa, where he goes to get away from the massive set of a new science fiction he is supposed to be making – although no one, not even him has any idea what the movie is actually about – there is no screenplay to speak of. The film is full of memorable images – the opening scene, the harem scene, the massive set, the final procession. When I saw the film the first time, I was 15, had never seen a Fellini film before, and wasn’t ready for it. Yet, even though I left the film completely and utterly confused (those clowns at the end were strange to me then), I never forgot the film. Now, having seen it multiple times, the true genius of the inventiveness of Fellini’s work becomes clearer, and I regard the film as one of my favorites. I still think I prefer La Dolce Vita – the films whose huge international success this one references – but 8 ½ is a masterpiece just the same.

Just Missed The Top 10: Charade (Stanley Donen), Cleopatra (Joseph L. Mankiewicz), Contempt (Jean Luc Godard),How the West Was Won (John Ford & Henry Hathaway) , Irma la Douce (Billy Wilder), Lilies of the Field (Ralph Nelson), Lord of the Flies (Peter Brook), The Pink Panther (Blake Edwards), Shock Corridor (Samuel Fuller),The Sword in the Stone (Wolfgang Reitherman),The Ugly American (George H. Englund), Youth of the Beast (Seijun Suzuki).

Notable Films Missed: An Actor's Revenge (Kon Ichikawa), America America (Elia Kazan), Barren Lives (Nelson Periera Dos Santos), Bay of Angels (Jacques Demy), El Verdugo (Luis Garcia Berlanga), Il Sorpasso (Dino Risi), Judex (Georges Franju), Le Feu follet (Louis Malle), Mothlight (Stan Brakhage), Muriel (Alain Resnais), The Nutty Professor (Jerry Lewis), The Servant (Joseph Losey), The VIPS (Anthony Asquith),

Oscar Winner – Best Picture & Director: Tom Jones (Tony Richardson)
It can hardly be seen as surprising that the Academy went with Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones this year. I have a feeling they sensed the changing of the guard was coming – and given that the nominees included Cleopatra, How the West Was Won, America America – three old school epics, along with a slight black and white character study (Lilies of the Field), they probably decided they wanted to be a little edgier in their pick. Richardson’s adaptation of the once scandalous novel may have taken place in England’s past, but he filmed it as if it was taking place in the 1960s, with strange camera moves and editing that makes it very much a 1960s film. To me, the film which must have seemed modern at the time, is no hopelessly dated. I watched the film once, and didn’t find much in it to like if I’m being honest about it. It is an utterly forgettable film, and one of my least favorite winners. Out of the nominees, I guess I would have liked to see America America win, even though I haven’t seen it, because none of the other three nominees were great films either.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Sidney Poitier, Lilies of the Field
When I think of Sidney Poitier and his career, I often feel sad. For a long time, he was the only African American being cast in lead roles in American movies. As such, there was pressure on him – from himself among others – to represent the African American community in a positive light. Therefore, he was often not just playing a man, but he was playing “The Black Man”, and had to be honorable in all his dealing, lest he be accused of confirming unflattering stereotypes at a time when they couldn’t afford to do that. Having said all of that, Poitier really was a terrific actor, and his dignity shined through in his every role. And his role in Lilies of the Field is one of his best – he is far and away the best reason to see the film, which itself is kind of bland. He plays a travelling handyman who stops in the desert of Arizona and decides to help a group of nuns to build their church. What fascinates me about the film, and Poitier’s performance, is that his character remains an enigma. They don’t explain where he came from, or at the end of the film, where he is going. It’s a fascinating performance to be sure, and I don’t want to rain on his historic victory (he was the first African American man ever to win an acting Oscar), but no matter how good Poitier is in this film, he cannot match Paul Newman’s performance in Hud (Poitier reportedly admired Newman, because he could play whatever kind of character he wanted to).

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Patricia Neal, Hud
Patricia Neal is excellent in Hud, as the handywoman who is lusted after by Paul Newman, and is protected by his nephew Brandon De Wilde. It is a marvelous performance by an actress who had been working steadily for years. Oddly though, I think that this is more of a supporting performance than a lead one. She doesn’t have the screen time that Newman does, and perhaps not even as much as Melvyn Douglas who won the supporting actor Oscar for the film. It hardly matters though, as Neal is terrific and deserved to win an Oscar for the film – even if I think it is in the wrong category.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: Melvyn Douglas, Hud
Melvyn Douglas was a great actor for decades before Hud was released – most often working in the great comedies, most notably Ninotchka. But by 1963, despite an impressive resume, Douglas had never even been nominated for an Oscar let alone winning one. Giving him the award for Hud was a nice way for the Academy to make up for that – and better still, they gave him an Oscar for an excellent performance, far better than the other nominees.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Margaret Rutherford, THE VIPS
I have to admit, that I have not seen this film. For a long time, it wasn’t available on DVD, and by the time it came out, I didn’t bother to rent it – again, it is a film that I will likely see at some point in the future. The film was not very well received at the time – and is notable mainly for it being the second collaboration between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor that year, following Cleopatra. If not for Rutherford’s win, I have a feeling that The VIPS, which sounds like a more melodramatic version of Grand Hotel (if that’s possible) set in an airport would most likely be all but forgotten today. Still, considering that I cannot say I was found of any of the other nominees – Lila Skala in Lilies of the Field or any of the three nominees from Tom Jones, I guess I would most likely be pissed at whoever won the award this year.

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