Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Year in Review: 1961

1961 was a great year for foreign filmmakers - they make up half of this list, and most of that is in the top half. Yet for me, Hollywood delivered the best film from 1961 - no matter how great the rest of the films from this year are.

10. One, Two, Three (Billy Wilder)
With the possible exception of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (which I have unfortunately not seen), I think that Billy Wilder’s One, Two, Three is his last truly great film. Sure, he made some quality films after this (The Fortune Cookie, The Front Page, Avanti, Irma La Douce), but none quite reached the heights of his best work after this film. It is a merciless satire set in post WWII, pre Berlin Wall era Germany – and Wilder skewers everyone – capitalists and communists, Americans, Germans and Russians with the same savage glee. James Cagney is brilliant in his role as a Coca Cola Executive assigned to Berlin, who has his eye on the prize job as head of the company in Europe based on London. He has just signed a deal to provide Coke to the people of the Soviet Union, when his boss calls from Atlanta and tells him that his socialite daughter is on her way to Berlin and he better take good care of her. But, unbeknownst to him, the daughter (Pamela Tiffin) has married an East German communist (Horst Bucholtz), so before her parents can find out, he turns him over to the Stasi, who torture him by playing Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini over and over again until he admits that he is an American spy. But then things go wrong again, and Cagney has to get him out of jail, and turn him into a capitalist in less than a day. Wilder’s film fires on all cylinders from beginning to end – this is a film that doesn’t slow down for a second, but just keeps on going. Cagney is hilarious in what would be his last screen performance for 23 years, and the rest of the cast helps him out tremendously. This is Wilder at his craziest, but also at his most intelligent. A truly great comedy.

9. Judgment at Nuremberg (Stanley Kramer)
I know that it is not cool to like Stanley Kramer – he was perceived as rather square and heavy handed even during his career, and the years since have not been kind to the filmmaker. And while I think that many of his films have aged poorly, I have to say that Judgment at Nuremberg is not one of them. It remains one of Kramer’s best achievements – a towering film about morality and the rule of law. Spencer Tracy plays an aging American judge sent to Nuremberg to preside over the trial of four German judges (including Burt Lancaster) who are charged with crimes against humanity during the Nazi years. Maximillian Schell gives an excellent performance as the lawyer charged with defending the Nazis – miraculously, he doesn’t come across as evil, but a measured, intelligent man fighting for his clients the way he is supposed to. All three of those actors are great in the movie – as is Marlene Dietrich as the widow of a German General who befriends Tracy, Richard Widmark as the prosecutor, and in two stirring cameos Montgomery Clift and Judy Garland as victims of Lancaster’s justice. Kramer made the daring decision to show actual footage of the Concentration Camps after liberation – and while he has been criticized for doing so, I think the tactic is justified – it brings home the point of the movie stronger than any courtroom drama could. You can dismiss Kramer and his film if you want to – but Judgment at Nuremberg remains an important film.

8. One Eyed Jacks (Marlon Brando)
You would think that a film directed by an actor who had never made a film before (and never made another since) who fired both Sam Peckinpah and Stanley Kubrick from the film would be an absolute mess. But somehow, Marlon Brando’s One Eyed Jacks remains a masterful film despite all the problems with the production. Brando gives an excellent performance as Rio, loosely based on Billy the Kid, who pulls off a daring robbery in Mexico with his partner Karl Malden. But Malden betrays Brando, and rides off with all of the money, leaving his partner to rot in a Mexican prison for 5 years. When he gets out, he tracks down Malden, who has become a Sheriff in California. He wants vengeance for what happened, but also falls in love with Malden’s new stepdaughter Katy Jurado. Will he force vengeance, or will he let it go and try and start fresh? What do you think. Brando is wonderful as the romantic hero of the film – a rebel who wins our sympathies. Malden is quite good as well – especially in the section in California where he becomes sadistic and cruel because of his own feelings of guilt. Brando, despite firing some of the most talented filmmakers of their time, knew what he was doing with One Eyed Jacks and made a great Western. It’s a shame he never directed again.

7. Last Year at Marienbad (Alain Resnais)
I still don’t know precisely what the hell happens in Last Year at Marienbad. That’s because director Alain Resnais devises the movie so that you cannot possibly know what happened either last year, or what is precisely going on this year. The characters don’t have names, but letters. They talk around in circles, insisting either that they did meet last year, or they didn’t. They wander around in huge, opulent settings merely passing the time. Yes, there is sex and murder in the movie, but the motives behind each are blurred. Why then is Last Year at Marienbad a great film, one deserving of our attention nearly 50 years later even though it supplies none of the normal payoffs we expect in movies? Perhaps because the film is so different – so uniquely itself. It’s masterly control of mood and tone, the way it draws us into its mystery even though we know there will be no solution. In a way, no solution is needed in a movie like this – in fact giving us a solution would make the movie rather forgettable. Resnais, a master of the French New Wave gives us a film that has no solution, and that is why it is so great.

6. Two Women (Vittorio De Sica)
Sophia Loren was tired of being viewed merely as tits and ass in America, so she went back to her native Italy, teamed up with legendary director Vittorio De Sica and made this brilliant film – which is easily the best performance she ever gave, and won herself an Oscar – something completely unheard of at that time for a foreign language film. The film is not quite on par with De Sica’s masterpieces from the late 1940s and early 1950s – but it’s close, and it deserves more attention that it has received in the years since its release. The film is the harrowing story of a widowed mother and her daughter who first flee Rome to try and escape the allied bombs during WWII. They take shelter in a small rural town, where she meets and falls for a young communist (Jean Paul Belamondo), who will meet his own tragic end. After Italy is liberated, they try and make their way back home – only to be set upon by a group of French Moroccan soldiers, who rape both the mother and her teenager daughter. Loren won her Oscar for this movie, and it is marvelous performance as she plays a woman who is a tower of strength no matter what she goes through. She is matched by Eleonora Brown as her daughter, whose deeply religious feelings take a hit after the rape. De Sica captures the movie in unflinching detail – and the result no doubt shocked audiences in 1961. The film still packs a wallop today, and deserves to be seen right alongside his acknowledged masterpieces Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D.

5. West Side Story (Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins)
Out of all the big musicals of the 1960s, West Side Story is far and away my favorite. The dancing in this movie alone makes this one of the most entertaining films of the year, and the songs are also wonderful. Yes, the two leads (Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood) are a little bland in the lead roles (they have the Romeo and Juliet roles in this which is essentially an updated version of that story), but so many other things are right about this movie that we forgive its flaws. For one thing, George Chakris and Rita Moreno are so full are energy and electricity when they sing and dance, that we forget the leads. Jerome Robbins choreography set a new standard in excellence for the genre, and even if they hated each other, it was smart to bring in Robert Wise to direct the dramatic scenes, or else they may seem even more perfunctory than they are (the non-singing dialogue doesn’t always work very well). West Side Story is a flawed film to be sure – but also a joyous one. And in a year with so many heavy films, we need a film like this one just to balance it out.

4. Yojimbo (Akira Kurosawa)
Toshiro Mifune made a lot of films with Akira Kurosawa – pretty much every one from their first together, 1948’s Drunken Angel, until disagreements on the set of their last film, 1965’s Red Beard, forever ruined their friendship. But out of all of those films – that include such masterpieces as Rashomon and Seven Samurai – I don’t think Mifune was as brilliant as he was in Yojimbo. He arrives in a sleepy, dusty town a samurai without a master. Two warring factions want to hire him to fight the other side – thinking that a samurai will give them a leg up. He signs up with one and then the other. He plays the two sides against each other even more than they already were, and then he simply goes on his way. Mifune betrays no emotion in the film, and gives us no real insight into this character and why he does what he does. He doesn’t need to. He really doesn’t do anything in the film – we think him completely amoral, but he isn’t. He is capable of performing good deeds, but sees no real purpose in performing them for people who do not deserve them. Kurosawa’s film is masterful in its filmmaker, its shot carry a strange power to them. But it is even better at portraying this character. Like what Sam Peckinpah would do later in the decade with The Wild Bunch, Yojimbo is essentially about a man who has lived past his usefulness – everything he knows is only good in a society that is already dead. He just wanders through it, taking advantage of everyone who deserves to be taken advantage of.

3. Viridiana (Luis Bunuel)
Viridiana is one of Luis Bunuel’s best films – and in a way, it set up the entire later part of his career. There are echoes on Viridiana in such films as Belle de Jour, Tristiana and That Obscure Object of Desire. In this film, the beautiful Syliva Pinal, a novice on her way to becoming a nun, is sent to visit her rich uncle (Fernardo Rey, who Bunuel never tired of using as a dirty old man) before he dies. He hasn’t seen her in years, and is immediately struck her beauty – she reminds him of his dead wife on their wedding day. He even convinces her to put on the wedding dress his wife wore. He thinks he is in love (its really lust), and wants to marry her – she wants to leave, and then the perversion really starts. Bunuel was thought of at the time as a scandalous filmmaker who delighted in pointing out the hypocrisy of Catholicism and the rich, and while this is surely true, I have a hard time figuring out what offended everyone so much. Bunuel’s films are often dark, sly comedies, and such is the case with Viridiana. Pinal is great in the lead role – the innocent girl spoiled by her perverted old uncle – but she doesn’t really seem to mind all that much. After all, by the end of the movie there are no more thoughts of being a nun, she has tried and failed miserably to help out the homeless in her town, and she has gone into her cousin’s bedroom, along with his mistress, for a game of cards. And I am sure that playing cards is all they are going to do.

2. Through a Glass Darkly (Ingmar Bergman)
The first part of Ingmar Bergman’s loosely related “Silence of God” trilogy is probably the accessible of the three films – the film that provides us with more of what we expect from Bergman at his peak. And at his peak he surely is here, as Through a Glass Darkly would rank for me among his very best films. It tells the story of a very dysfunctional family alone on a remote island in Sweden for a “vacation”. The daughter (Harriet Anderson) has just been released from the sanitarium, and has come here with her husband (Max von Sydow), her father (Gunnar Bjornstrand) and her brother (Lars Passgard). These three men all have different reactions to Anderson – von Sydow loves her, but has no idea what to do, Passgard is a teenager who is harboring incestuous feelings for his sister (perhaps because there’s no other women around) and Bjornstrand simply tries to ignore the problem and hopes it all goes away. Anderson reaches out to God in the film, but gets no answer, eventually becoming convinced that a spider is God. She breaks down heartbreakingly near the end of the film. The film is assembled with the great care that Bergman had in all his films – filmed by the great Sven Nykvist whose every shot here is beautiful in its own way. Through a Glass Darkly is a devastating film, and one of the best that Bergman ever made.

1. The Hustler (Robert Rossen)
In a year dominated by foreign films by some of the greatest filmmakers in history, I still have to go with the more populist pick for my favorite. Robert Rossen’s The Hustler is one of the great sports movies of all time, because like the best the genre has ever produced, it is about so much more then the game being played – in this case pool. The movie is not about the big pool match that acts as its climax, but instead it is about Fast Eddie (Paul Newman) accepting reality and defeat – his talent isn’t enough. Paul Newman has always been one of the charming actors in cinema history – but he was also one of the best and most daring. Here, like in a movie like Hud, he risks alienating the audience’s sympathy for him. He is charming and we like him – but he isn’t a very good person. The movie benefits a great deal from the performance of Piper Laurie as Fast Eddie’s woman. This isn’t a sports movie that belittles its female lead into little more than a prize for the victor – but a movie that dares to tell her story as well, and how it is really his relationship with her that destroys him. The film also benefits from the supporting work of George C. Scott as the cruel, vicious gambler and manager who sets up to destroy Fast Eddie using only his words, his suggestions. And of course by Jackie Gleason as the famed Minnesota Fats, the man Fast Eddie must beat to prove himself. Gleason says almost nothing apart from calling his shots in the movie, but his presence, his body language is unforgettable. A movie like The Hustler would not be possible today. Hell, even with Martin Scorsese directing and Paul Newman and Tom Cruise in the lead roles, the sequel, The Color of Money in 1986, is a disappointment. By then, and continuing to today, you couldn’t have such a flawed character like Fast Eddie as your movies “hero”. He had to be more likable and charming, not devastatingly human. It’s that that makes The Hustler a masterpiece, and even in a year as strong as this one, the best film of the year.

Just Missed The Top 10: Breakfast at Tiffanies (Blake Edwards), El Cid (Anthony Mann), The Innocents (Jack Clayton), Jules and Jim (Francois Truffaut), La Notte (Michelangelo Antonnini), 101 Dalmatians (Wolfgang Reitherman & Hamilton Luske & Clyde Geronimi)

Notable Films Missed: Accattone (Pier Paolo Pasolini), Cleo from 5 to 7 (Agnes Varda), The End of Summer (Yasujiro Ozu), Fanny (Joshua Logan), The Guns of Navarone (J. Lee Thompson), Lola (Jacques Demy), The Misfits (John Huston), Plácido (Luis Garcia Berlanga), Il Posto (Ermanno Olmi), Salvatore Giuliano (Francesco Rosi), Splendor in the Grass (Elia Kazan), A Woman is a Woman (Jean Luc Godard).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture & Director: West Side Story (Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins).
As a general rule, I do not complain when a film on my top 10 list wins the Oscar for Best Picture, so I won’t do so here. I will say however that I think The Hustler was the far superior film to West Side Story, and should have easily won the Oscar for Best Picture – and I have a feeling that voters were looking at other factors than just quality when they made their decision (don’t they always?). For one thing, they had just given the Oscar to a smaller black and white movie the year before in The Apartment. For another, the studio system was struggling, and needed big movies like West Side Story to survive. And finally, West Side Story was a musical that also had a social conscience, so they could feel good about rewarding it. So, they made their choice, and history looks on it rather kindly – but I think not as kindly as had they given the award to The Hustler.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Maximillian Schell, Judgment at Nuremberg
Maximillian Schell is excellent in Judgment at Nuremberg. It is rare for the Academy to reward this kind of role – not because he is a lawyer who gets to make big speeches (that has worked for everyone from Lionel Barrymore to Gregory Peck) but because he is a lawyer who is arguing for the OTHER side. We don’t necessarily agree with much of what Schell has to say, but we admire the vigor in which he says it. The final speech, the one where he condemns himself, the defendant and the German people for being complacent in the extermination of the Jews is probably what sealed the Oscar for him – but there is more to his performance than that. Having said all of that, I have to say that Paul Newman did a better job in a more complex role in The Hustler – and I do think you could argue that Schell’s is a supporting performance – he has less screen time than Tracy (who was also nominated), and about as much as Burt Lancaster and perhaps even Marlene Dietrich. I won’t complain too loudly, because I do admire the Academy for giving him an Oscar for this performance, but there was at least one better performance nominated.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Sophia Loren, Two Women
The Academy has always shied away from foreign language films in their major categories. Really only Loren and Roberto Benigni have won Oscars for performances in foreign language films (although almost all of the dialogue deliverd by Robert DeNiro in The Godfather Part II and Benicio Del Toro in Traffic is not in English). So I admire the Academy for giving Loren an Oscar – particularly because she was an actress they didn’t take seriously before her role here. But if they were giving awards to foreign performances, why not Harriet Anderson’s devastating work in Through a Glass Darkly or Silvia Pinal’s wicked work in Viridiana? And out of the nominees, I may have been tempted to give the Oscar to Piper Laurie for The Hustler.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor & Actress: George Chakris & Rita Moreno, West Side Story
Watching George Chakris and Rita Moreno in West Side Story it becomes clear why they won Oscars, while the leads Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood were not even nominated. They have fire and charisma in their roles as Puerto Rican lovers that is missing for the leads. Together, they are mesmerizing right up until Chakris’ tragic death in the film. But Moreno’s performance goes even further – causing the death that ends the film on its tragic note – yet we never blame her for her actions. These two could sing and dance circles around the rest of the cast, but their acting is also superb throughout. Two great performances by two great actors.

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