Thursday, September 9, 2010

Year in Review: 1966

I feel kind of like I have just scratched the surface of the cinematic treasures of 1966. This isn’t because I haven’t seen enough films from that year - I have - it just seems like no matter how many I watch, there is always more to see. Having said that, it would take something quite special to break into the top 4 films.

10. Seconds (John Frankenheimer)
Seconds is one of those strange, genre bending films that could only have been made in the 1960s. It combines elements of science fiction, horror, noir, psychedelic cinema and pure drama and is without a doubt that strangest film that either John Frankenheimer, or his star Rock Hudson, ever made. John Randolph plays a miserable, middle aged man in a career his hates, and a wife he dislikes. He then gets an offer that is too good to be true. “The Company” will provide him with a new identity so he can start over again. Not only that, but the give extensive plastic surgery and psychoanalysis, and he comes out of it now played by Rock Hudson. At first, he loves his new life and the freedom it supplies. But soon he starts to see the drawbacks of what he did, regrets his decision. Too late to go back, but finding it impossible to move forward, he is stuck – but The Company is always there to help. Along with The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May, Seconds forms part of the loosely connected “paranoia” trilogy that Frankenheimer made in the 1960s. This is certainly the strangest of the bunch, jumping genres at will, and having the bleakest ending imaginable. It is a nearly forgotten film, but it should be remembered – Frankenheimer is at the peak of his powers here, and Hudson has never been better. I guarantee, you have never seen anything quite like this before.

9. The Naked Prey (Cornel Wilde)
Cornel Wilde’s The Naked Prey is stripped to the bone filmmaking at its best. Wilde stars as a white hunter in Africa guiding a hunting party. The come across a tribe of natives, and the guy paying for the trip foolishly refuses to offer them anything. The Africans take the entire party hostage, brutally killing one after another, until all that is left is Wilde. They let him loose, so they can hunt him down for sport. But Wilde is not going to go down so easily. The film has little dialogue of any sort, and simply watches as Wilde runs from his pursuers. He is smart and stealthy, and although he is let loose completely naked, he has soon killed on of his pursuers, got a little clothing and a weapon. The chase continues. The movie is brutal, bloody and extremely violent – but Wilde is making more than just another jungle romp here. He is making a movie about civilization, and how uncivilized it actually is. Wilde’s performance is almost all physical, and his camera moves effortlessly along, and the constant, thumping jungle drums score is haunting. Wilde is a forgotten auteur – most of his films are not even available. But even though I have only seen this one, I think he is one of the best actor turned directors I can recall. Please release more his work.

8. Andrei Rublev (Andrei Tarkovsky)
I know most high minded critics would place this film much higher on their list of the best films of 1966 – many in fact would call it the best. But while I think that the film is brilliantly well made – perhaps the best of Tarkovsky’s career – like all of his films I admired the film more than I truly loved it. The film is told in 9 parts, spanning 3 hours and 20 minutes, and it felt that long as well. That doesn’t mean I don’t think that Andrei Rublev is a great film – it truly is, and has some of the best sequences of any film I can recall (in particular during the last section before the epilogue in which they are working on casting a giant bell – the entire sequence is stunning). And I like the way Tarkovsky found a way to make a movie about a painter completely cinematic and stunningly visual, without concentrating on his painting. Rather, Andrei Rublev is a film about the artists place in the world, and in that it succeeds brilliantly. I do (and realize I run the risk of being called a cinematic heretic for saying so) thinking that this film, like most Tarkovsky, could have been edited down a little bit and been a better film. But Tarkovsky was a true artist, who made precisely the films he wanted to make. I may not be running out to see this film again any time too soon, but I know a great film by a great filmmaker when I see it.

7. The Shop on Main Street (Jan Kadar & Elmar Klos)
Jan Kadar and Elmar Klos’ film is one of the most underrated of all Holocaust films. It concentrates on a man from Czechoslovakia who is assigned to take over a local business from an eldery Jewish woman once the Nazis have invaded. She thinks he has shown up for a job, and gives him one, because he does not have the heart to tell her the truth. When the Nazis start rounding up the Jews, he tries to protect her, with tragic results. The film is closely observed, quiet and heart breaking. An all but forgotten masterwork.

6. Blowup (Michangelo Antonini)
Michangelo Antonini’s Blowup is structured like a thriller, but it really isn’t one. Like his previous films – L’Aventurra, La Notte and L’Ecclisse, this is a film about a hollow, empty man who for a brief time has his passions aroused, before he literally disappears into nothingness. David Hemmings has the lead role as a fashion photographer in trendy London. He spends his days doing all those photo shoots of empty headed models, most of whom he sleeps with and then discards, and his nights doing “real photography”. It’s during one of these bouts with the real photography that he captures a man and a woman on film. He cannot tell what they are doing, but the woman (Vanessa Redgrave) chases him down and wants the film back. He refuses. She comes to his apartment and tries to seduce away for him. He refuses again, and in the films centerpiece section, he blows all the pictures up until he is convinced that he has captured a murder on film. But has he really? Antonini sets up this mystery, but has no interest in solving it. The solution isn’t the point – and never was. This is a film about Hemmings and his shallow, empty existence, his contempt for women and how, for a brief period of time, he cares about something again. The murder gives him something real to concentrate on – and when everything disappears, there is no reason left for him to be around anymore.

5. The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo)
The Battle of Algiers is one of the most important films of the 1960s – a film that remains relevant right up to today. That’s because it depicts the kind of guerilla warfare that has dominated the world since the end of WWII in a harsh, unblinking light. Yes, the critics who claimed that Pontecorvo had made an objective film were kidding themselves – his sympathy is clearly with the Algerian rebels and against the French Army (listen to when the masterful score by Ennio Morricone plays for an idea of why), but he did make a clear eyed film. The French Army is not exactly villains, but they are not heroes either. Neither are the Algerians. Both of them kill civilians, and feel no remorse about it. The Algerians with their bombs that take out anyone who happens to be around, and the French respond by using torture to try and get the terrorists to reveal their plans and others whereabouts. Sound familiar? It should, this is essentially what has been going on in Iraq and Afghanistan for the last decade. Pontecorvo’s film is still relevant, is still watched by people on all sides of similar conflicts the world over. And the skill in which Pontecorvo made the film is still evident – it really is a masterful directing job, and this really is a great film.

4. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Mike Nichols)
Edward Albee’s play about a warring older couple (brilliantly played by Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton) who use a younger couple (George Segal and Sandy Dennis) as pawns in their own twisted game is brilliantly brought to the screen by Mike Nichols. Martha (Taylor) is the daughter of the dean of the University, married to George (Burton) an associate professor of history. They spend the play verbally and at times physically, abusing each other in front of their guests – a new professor, and his alcoholic wife. But it is all a game to George and Martha, who invent their own stories to try and get a rise out of their guests, for their own amusement. Nichols avoids the trap of making this all seem like a stage bound play – something amazingly difficult as he was a theater director, and this was his first film behind the camera. He gets Taylor and Burton to open up in ways that I had never seen them do before. True they often made films together, but many of them were vanity projects – this is one is anything but. I have rarely seen a better film about two worse people than this one.

3. Persona (Ingmar Bergman)
Persona is one of Ingmar Bergman’s best, most iconic films. Despite its reputation for being difficult to follow, it is actually a rather simple film. A well known actress (Liv Ullman) just stops talking one day on stage in mid sentence. She is sent off to the remote island, where Bergman made a lot of his films, his her nurse (Bibi Andersson). Because Ullman doesn’t speak at all, Andersson has to fill the silence with her constant stories – including one that is so shocking and so detailed, it surprises me every time I see the film that Bergman never does visualize this story – Andersson is such a good storyteller that I feel that I have seen the scene she describes. The two men gradually seem to merge – hence the title – into one. The film is disturbing and mysterious, and one that I can’t tell if it is deceptively simple or deceptively complex. Watching the film, you understand what is happening the first time you see it – and yet it is a film that draws me in time and again, because of its mysteries. Persona is a masterpiece.

2. Au Hasard Balthazar (Robert Bresson)
Au Hasard Balthazar is one of the great spiritual films of all time, and also one of the simplest. The film follows a donkey named Balthazar from the moment he is born to the moment he dies. He spends his entire life in a small French farming community, and he will change hands multiple times throughout the film. Some of his owners are kind, some are downright cruel, but Balthazar goes through his life as best he can. He is not a cartoon animal – we never really get to know what he is thinking, and we don’t need to know. His life is just a series of events that he is powerless to control. When feel happiness at certain times in the movie – when he takes his first brave steps, or when he enjoys life as a performing donkey, and we feel sadness in other parts, like when one of his owners beats him so much that he simply refuses to move anymore. He has had enough, the consequences be damned. But those emotions are ours, not Balthazar’s. Bresson, like he does in all of his movies, forces the audience to do the work in this film – he doesn’t supply us with simple moralizing, but rather he uses this movie about a donkey to enable us to see the world. We are all Balthazar. True, we have the ability to think and feel more than he does, but we are still pretty much powerless over whatever life wants to do with us. It does what it does, until we die. Hopefully, we can all find that moment of peace like Balthazar does at the end of the film, where he simply sits down in a meadow and waits for death.

1. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Sergio Leone)
The Good, the Bad and The Ugly is Sergio Leone’s masterpiece. There is a strange, almost otherworldly quality to it – so much so that it inspired Stephen King to write his The Dark Tower books, which in fact take place in an alternate world that is like ours, but not quite. That is true of Leone’s film as well. On the surface, it does seem like a typical Western. Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach and Lee Van Cleef play three men all after a fortune in Civil War gold, buried in a cemetery. None of them know all of the information needed to get the gold – but together they hold the pieces. They team up, but we know when the gold is found, the chances are two of the three men will not be around long enough to enjoy it. Leone’s film is full of shootouts, masterfully directed in his high style (none better than the climatic one). The performances work wonderfully, perhaps because all three men are simply playing types, not real characters, know that and except it. Leone’s film is thin on plot, but that doesn’t stop him from making the film three hours long. He is not afraid of long detours, and drawing out his material. In that way, he is like Tarkovsky (but it should be noted in no other way do the filmmakers resemble each other). Leone makes his film, brilliantly stylist that he is. No other filmmaker made films quite like he did. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is his masterpiece.

Just Missed The Top 10: The Chase (Arthur Penn), The Fortune Cookie (Billy Wilder), How to Steal a Million (William Wyler), A Man for All Seasons (Fred Zinneman), The Professionals (Richard Brooks), Tokyo Drifter (Seijun Sukuki).

Notable Films Missed: Alfie (Lewis Gilbert), Closely Watched Trains (Jiri Menzel), La Collectuineuse (Erich Rohmer), Cul De Sac (Roman Polanski), Daisies (Vera Chytilova), La Deuzieme Souffle (Jean Pierre Melville), Faster Pussycat, Kill Kill! (Russ Meyer), Masculin Femenin (Jean Luc Godard), The Rise to Power of King Louis XIV (Roberto Rossellini),The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (Norman Jewison), The Sand Pebbles (Robert Wise), Seven Women (John Ford), Yesterday Girl (Alexander Kluge).

Oscar Winner – Picture & Director: A Man from All Seasons (Fred Zinneman).
A Man for All Seasons is a fine film – the type of classy, historical drama that the Academy cannot seem to help rewarding year after year. And it is a well made film, with some excellent performances, not just by Paul Scofield but by Robert Shaw, Wendy Hiller and Orson Welles – looking like a huge red fire truck as the cardinal. For me though, 1966 was about more daring films, and A Man for All Seasons was anything but daring. It was an old school director, making an old school Hollywood film, and doing a fine job, but it doesn’t strike me as exciting filmmaking – it strikes me as something you would watch in school, and considering that it was English class where I first saw this film, I guess I am right.

Oscar Winner – Actor: Paul Scofield, A Man for All Seasons
Scofield is the best thing about A Man for All Seasons. Recreating his role on Broadway as Thomas More, who refused to relent and give a favorable opinion to the King getting divorced, even when it leads to his beheading, Scofield is intelligent and articulate throughout the film – and still has a sense of humor about things as well. It’s a fine performance. Personally, I think it is a shame that Richard Burton never won an Oscar for his great career, and since I think that his work in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Is the best of his career, I think he clearly should have won.

Oscar Winner – Actress: Elizabeth Taylor, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
This was a great year for lead actresses. Bibi Anderson and Liv Ullman were both spectacular in Persona and Ida Kaminska was wonderful as the dottering old woman in The Shop on Main Street (for which she shockingly got an Oscar nomination). But as good as they were – and they were all great – I think the Academy made the right choice in giving this Oscar to Taylor. She may have won her first Oscar (for Butterfield 8) for being young and gorgeous (I can’t comment because I haven’t seen that movie, but even she thought the film was crap), but at this point in her career, she had moved onto a new level. Her work here is without vanity – she has perhaps never looked worse in any film in her career – and she digs into her cruel role with a vengeance, and not only keeps up with, but I think surpasses Burton. A great performance by a great actress.

Oscar Winner – Supporting Actor: Walter Matthau, The Fortune Cookie
Walter Matthau always said he only won this award because he had a health scare right in the same year. Who would have guessed that he would have pulled through and lived another 3 plus decades? Matthau is wonderful as the sleazy lawyer in Billy Wilder’s highly enjoyable farce of a movie – and of course anything that stars Matthau with his good friend Jack Lemmon is certainly worth watching. But perhaps Matthau was right. Fellow nominees Robert Shaw and George Segal were better than he was – in more prestigious movies to boot, and although I have not seen the movie, Hollywood favorite James Mason was nominated for Georgy Girl – and he ended up never winning an Oscar. I don’t mind this win too much – it is an enjoyable romp of a film, but Matthau was so good, I do wish he had won for something else.

Oscar Winner – Supporting Actress: Sandy Dennis, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Sandy Dennis was excellent in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? She is far and away the dumbest character in the movie – at times she is so out of it she doesn’t even realize that she is being mocked mercilessly. But there is more to the Dennis character than just her drunken stupidity. She is a little smarter than she looks, and she is surely the most sensitive, and likable of the characters as well. The film wouldn’t quite have the impact it does if George and Martha were picking on a awful character just like themselves. All the performances in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf were worthy of Oscars, and that includes this one.

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