Thursday, July 22, 2010

YEar in Review: 1968

1968 saw a lot of bold, innovative films from great filmmakers. Audiences wanted something different and these filmmakers supplied to them. I have a feeling that I need to watch a few more films from this year, but the ones I have seen are great.

10. Who’s That Knocking at My Door (Martin Scorsese)
Who’s That Knocking at My Door is Martin Scorsese’s first film as a director, and you can already see the master filmmaker he would become at work. Yes, the film is a little rough around the edges, but it is also a film that is honest and thoughtful about its subject matter. Obviously inspired by the work of John Cassavetes, the film details the relationship between Harvey Keitel, a “good” Catholic boy and Zina Bethune, a not so good girl. Keitel spends his time carousing with these friends and picking up “dames”, but when he meets Bethune, he thinks he has met the “girl” of his dreams. There is a difference between dames and girls you see – you’ll fuck a dame, but never marry her, but marry a girl who is, of course, as pure as the driven snow. Keitel sees no contradiction in his logic. There are several wonderful, honest moments in the film – a scary sequence where it appears Keitel and his friends maybe on the verge of raping a girl, and later when Bethune confesses her past to Keitel, who cannot deal with it. No, the film does not rank among Scorsese’s best. It is rough around the edges, and the fantasy sex sequence that was added at the distributer’s request certainly doesn’t belong in the film (although, it must be said that it is wonderfully filmed), but there is an honesty, an integrity to the film that is rare – and makes it a worthy addition to this list.

9. Planet of the Apes (Franklin J. Scaffner)
There are some movies that you know a hell of a lot about before you ever watch them. Planet of the Apes is one of those movies. Who hasn’t seen the clips of Charlton Heston saying “Get your paws off me you damn, dirty ape”, or lamenting his species for blowing it up, when he realizes that he was on earth all along (which gets me singing the final song from the Planet of Apes musical as seen on The Simpsons). But despite that, and all the unnecessary sequels, and Tim Burton’s completely unnecessary remake (which was good only to see Tim Roth’s evil bad guy), Planet of the Apes remains a hell of exciting, fun and at times surprisingly intelligent movie. Yes, Charlton Heston was one of the cheesiest, most ham fisted actors of all time, but there are times when that works for a movie – and this is one of them.

8. The Lion in Winter (Anthony Harvey)
The 1960s were so full of stylistic innovations that sometimes people forget the more classically entertaining, intelligent films like Anthony Harvey’s magnificent The Lion in Winter. Peter O’Toole gives a wonderful performance as King Henry II, who is aging and needs to decide on an heir to his throne. He has three male children, but he worries that if he names one heir, the others will revolt, or perhaps we will be pushed off the throne himself by his son’s ambition. The movie takes place over one long day – Christmas Eve – where Henry even does his wife, Eleanor (Katherine Hepburn) the honor of letting her out of prison for the occasion. The King of France is there as a guest, and wants to know when his daughter will marry the heir to the throne – the problem is, that Henry has taken her as his mistress, and is thinking perhaps the two of the them can produce the heir themselves. After all, that would give him a lot more time. O’Toole dominates the movie with his larger than life performance – he had played Henry II before (in an even better performance and movie in 1964’s Becket), but Hepburn equals his performance with a grand one of her own. A young Anthony Hopkins is great as one of the sons – who has the line that I remember more than any other in the film when it appears like Henry may have his sons killed, and he wants to fight back and is told by another brother that they will fail no matter what, and why does it matter how they fall and he responds “When the fall is all that’s left, it matters”. Many costume dramas – even the most handsomely mounted among them, feel rather bloodless. The Lion in Winter is one of those rare costume dramas that feel real and immediate.

7. Yellow Submarine (George Dunning)
By 1968, The Beatles didn’t want to make another movie. They were in the process of creating the White Album, and their band was on the verge of collapse, but they had signed a three picture deal, and had to deliver something. What they came up with was Yellow Submarine, a daring, innovative, trippy animated movie that uses their songs and their likenesses, but allowed The Beatles not to be overly involved – although they loved the final product. The film tells a story of Pepperland, where the evil Blue Meanies, who hate music, invade and turn the colorful Pepperland into a blue, depressing place – until The Beatles arrive to save the day. The plot doesn’t really matter, and neither really does the dialogue which is at times so nonsensical that you simply have to smile and go with the flow. The songs, of course, are a highlight of the movie, but so is the imagery which is whimsical, funny and inventive. Yellow Submarine is a movie that doesn’t have to make sense – it is precisely what it wants to be, no more and certainly no less.

6. The Producers (Mel Brooks)
Mel Brooks has got to be considered the father of the dirty comedy – yet unlike many of the people who came after him; his best films are also intelligent and satirical. Brooks’ first film, The Producers, may just be the best thing he ever made. Zero Mostel gives a deliriously funny performance as a down on his luck theater producer who hits upon an idea given to him by his accountant, Gene Wilder. They will produce the worst play in Broadway history – and yet all of Mostel’s old lady backers to put up the money for it – pocketing the extra money, and never having to pay them any of the profits, because there won’t be any. The find the play – called Springtime for Hitler – written by deranged Nazi Kenneth Mars, which they describe as a “love letter to Hitler”. They cast a drugged out hippie, Dick Shawn, to play the lead, and hire the worst director on Broadway, Christopher Hewitt to direct. The resulting show is so offensive that they feel they have succeeded in their goal. Brooks film is hilarious for many reasons – the wonderful cast, the great songs, the staging of the musical the title musical number – but mainly because Brooks is fearless in how he presents it. He knows people will be offended by the movie, and doesn’t care. He goes for broke. That’s what great comedies are supposed to do.

5. Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero)
Night of the Living Dead is one of the most groundbreaking horror films in history – and other than my number 1 film, probably the film that has had the greatest influence on film history of anything released this year. Director George A. Romero made the film for practically no money in 1968 – and the independent nature of the production allowed him to create precisely the movie he wanted to make. The film was grisly, violent and shocking by the standards of the times, and while the shock value has faded, the film still has an undeniable visceral impact when viewed today. Night of the Living Dead was also daring in that, although it was a horror film, it took on many social issues – the destruction of the American family, the war in Vietnam and racism. Romero has continued his zombie apocalypse movies for the past forty years – most recently with 2010’s Survival of the Dead. He has become one of the giants of horror films – and it all started with this shocking little film.

4. Faces (John Cassavetes)
Faces is an appropriate title for John Cassavetes film about a marriage that is slowly imploding. Here is a film where the characters are constantly talking, laughing, singing, dancing, yelling and yet it is in those rare quiet moments, where Cassavetes simply concentrates on the actors faces that we truly get the see the real people inside. John Marley and Lynn Carlin are excellent as a married couple whose marriage is simply crumbling down around them. He spends time with a prostitute (Gena Rowlands), comes home and ends up in an argument with his wife that ends with him demanding a divorce. Then he goes back to the prostitute. Perhaps the forget the pain she is feeling, Carlin and some friends go out, and end up back at her place with a charming younger man – Seymour Cassell. Soon all her friends are gone, and it’s just Cassell and Carlin together. These four characters are so acutely observed by Cassavetes, avoiding all stereotypes and simply allowed to be themselves. There is a lot of false bravado in the film – a lot of laughing and joking, but these characters are really insecure below it all. This is one of the greatest triumphs of Cassavetes career – because he sees these people who are trapped in their own little worlds, hung up with their own issues that they are unable to see the other people around them for who they are. The performances are all wonderful, and Cassavetes trademark style (which infuriates some, I should point out) is put to full use here. There are some movies that are mere time capsules of their era, that age badly over time – Faces seems just as relevant today as it must have in 1968.

3. Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski)
Rosemary’s Baby still has the power to shock, scare and titillate over 40 years after it was released. The film works so well all these years later, because it does not depend on the surprise ending for its effectiveness. I’m sure most viewers were like me the first time they saw the film – and knew the ending heading in. But Roman Polanski does a masterful job in Rosemary’s Baby precisely because he does not depend on that shock for the ending. There is a sense of foreboding throughout the entire film, a sense that something is not quite right, and not that Mia Farrow is simply crazy – but that her husband (John Cassavetes) and her next door neighbors (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer) really are up to something evil. We watch in horror not to find out what is going to happen, but because we cannot stop it from happening. Farrow is marvelously effective as Rosemary, and Gordon is perhaps even better as the seemingly kindly old woman next door. Polanski keeps the plot moving along, and the sense of dread gradually building until it becomes nearly impossible to watch. He keeps us involved in the story, believing the story right up until the final moment. Polanski hit it out of the park in his first American film.

2. Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone)
Perhaps because it doesn’t star Clint Eastwood, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America isn’t as well known by the public as his previous spaghetti Westerns were. Yet the film has enjoyed a huge, and deserved critical reputation. It just maybe the best film of Leone’s career. The film’s plot is almost endless complex – involving a new wife (Claudia Cardinale) of a wealthy man who arrives at her new home to discover her family is dead, and she is now the sole owner of a prime piece of land. Henry Fonda is magnificent as the cold blooded bad guy who killed them, and wants the land, and has framed Jason Robards for the crime. Then there is Charles Bronson, a man with no name, who rides in and has a score to settle with Fonda. What score? Leone doesn’t tell us until very late in the movie. The film is masterfully photographed, contains a wonderful score by Ennio Morricone, and great performances all around – especially Fonda whose icy blue eyes are full of evil and malice. Leone captures the atmosphere just about perfectly – a large, expansive set, lots of extras who feel real, and he wrings every last ounce of drama and tension out of the films set-up, and gun battles. I’m not sure if Once Upon a Time in the West in Leone’s best film – but it ranks right alongside The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon in America as the masterpieces of his career.

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick)
Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is the kind of big budgeted, epic mind trip movies that no one in their right mind would ever green light to day – where audiences are not as adventuresome, or perhaps just not on as many drugs, as they were in 1968. It is one of the best films of all time, which is even more impressive when you remember that the most intriguing character in the film is little more than a blinking light, and an eerily calm voice of the computer HAL. None of the human characters offer any real complexity – but then again they do not have to, because they are not the point of the movie. 2001 may just be the ultimate atheist movie – a movie that proposes an alternate version of human history from that proposed by the bible. The story of human is not the great tragedy of how far we have fallen from our biblical roots – where Eve damned mankind forever by eating that apple – but how far we have come from the our roots as savage primates. Kubrick’s movie suggests the next step in human evolution, how we are constantly changing, shifting into something greater than ourselves. The film is innovative and groundbreaking in its use of special effects, masterful in its direction from the longest flash forward in cinema history – representing millions of years when that monkey at the beginning throws the bone in the air – to the breathtaking “murder” of HAL, but the film is so much more than just those elements. This truly is one of the greatest films ever made – and the supreme achievement by one of the true masters of cinema.

Just Missed The Top 10: The Boston Strangler (Richard Flesicher), Bullitt, Greetings (Brian DePalma), Hour of the Wolf (Ingmar Bergman), Madigan (Don Siegal), The Odd Couple (Gene Saks), Shame (Ingmar Bergman).

Notable Films Missed: The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (Jean Marie Straub), Funny Girl (William Wyler), Hour of the Furnaces (Octavio Getino & Fernando E. Solanas), L’Amour fou (Jacques Rivette), Memories of Underdevelopment (Tomás Gutiérrez Alea), The Party (Blake Edwards), Rachel Rachel (Paul Newman), Romeo & Juliet (Franco Zefferelli), The Salesman (David & Albert Maysles & Charlotte Zwerin), The Subject Was Roses (Ulu Grosbard), Teorema (Pier Paolo Passolini), A Touch of Zen (King Hu).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture & Director: Oliver (Carol Reed)
Contrary to what many of my readers probably think of me by now – considering how often I have picked on the musical winners of the Best Picture Oscar – I can, and do musicals – even large scale ones at times. But, don’t count me among the people who think that Charles Dickens’ dark tale of orphans needed a toe tapping update and lively music to make it worthwhile. Worse still, the boy who plays Oliver is a consummate bore – he has zero personality and is so bland he fades into the background in practically every single scene. Ron Moody’s Fagin is Jewish stereotyping at its worst, providing no complexity to the character, and essentially making him an evil clown. The only actor in the film who is truly wonderful is young Jack Wild as The Artful Dodger, who is full of energy and charisma. The rest of the movie is a big, bloated bore. I love Carol Reed as a director – see his 1940s films like The Fallen Idol, Odd Man Out and The Third Man to see what he is really capable of, and forget this mess of a film.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Cliff Robertson, Charly
There are some choices the Academy has made over the years that I not only don’t agree with, but that absolutely mystify me. I may not like Oliver as a film for example, but I understand why others did and why it won the Best Picture Oscar. But this win for Cliff Robertson in Charly is one of those ones where I simply shake my head and wonder what the hell they were thinking. Robertson plays a mentally challenged janitor who wants to become smarter – but after years of night school, he still cannot spell his name properly (hence the title). He undergoes an experimental treatment to make him smarter – and it works, as he soon surpasses his teacher, Claire Bloom, and then falls in love with her, and she with him, until it is realized that the affect is only temporary, and that he will revert back to his former state. The film, when viewed today is so horribly dated, that at times it borders on unwatchable (the two montage sequences, first with Charly growing a mustache, riding a motorcycle and kissing lots of women, the second as he and Bloom fall in love are the most glaring examples, but the whole movie suffers). Robertson isn’t all that convincing as a mentally challenged man, and isn’t that much better when he regains his intelligence. I suppose a good movie could be made out of this material – but this movie certainly is not it – and Robertson is among the main reasons why. When you think that they nominated Peter O’Toole’s great performance in The Lion in Winter – an actor who holds the record for the most nominations without a win – and still went with this bad performance in this bad movie, it simply boggles the mind.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Katherine Hepburn, The Lion in Winter/Barbara Striesand, Funny Girl
For only the second time in history, The Academy had a tie for an acting Oscar win. The strange thing about it is, that this was the only year that the Academy allowed nominees who were not previously part of the Academy to vote in the winning round – normally, although they become automatic members, they have to wait until the next year – meaning that if assuming Striesand voted for herself, this strange quirk in the rules (that no one could possibly see resulting in this) was the cause of the tie! Due to my completely irrational hatred of Striesand (other than The Prince of Tides and Meet the Fockers, I have never see any of her other films), I cannot comment on her performance. However, Hepburn was marvelous and forceful in her performance in The Lion in Winter. While I wouldn’t say it was her best performance, it is certainly the best of her performances to win an Oscar (and there were 4 of those!).

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: Jack Albertson, The Subject Was Roses
As far as I know, The Subject Was Roses has never been released on DVD, so Jack Albertson’s Oscar winning turn has eluded me up to this point – although I am very interested to see the film, and Albertson is a fine character actor, so I suspect it’s a quality performance. Out of the nominees, I would have probably chosen either Gene Wilder’s hilarious turn in The Producers, or Seymour Cassell’s wonderful hippie performance in Faces – although I think the best performance in this category this year was by Henry Fonda in Once Upon a Time in America.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Ruth Gordon, Rosemary’s Baby
Ruth Gordon is great in Rosemary’s Baby – the seemingly sweet old woman next door to Mia Farrow who at first simply seems kind and overly concerned and nosy regarding her pregnancy, but gradually starts to become creepier and creepier leading up the finale of the film, where she reveals her true colors. Gordon, along with her husband Garson Kanin wrote some wonderful comedies in the 1940s and 50s – including Oscar nominations for her work on A Double Life, Adam’s Rib and Pat and Mike. She had also been acting for years, but never really got good roles until the 1960s. Her work in Rosemary’s Baby is legendary. Considering how infrequently work in the horror genre is recognized by the Academy – in any category, but especially acting – her win is a cause for celebration for fans of the genre.

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