Friday, October 8, 2010

Year in Review: 1960

By any standard, 1960 was a great year for movies. In many other years, the bottom five films on my top 10 list could have easily been the top five, and it still be considered a strong year. I know I have been accused in the past of being too auteur centric in my choices, but I’m sorry, this year all the best films are by major auteurs. Deal with it.

10. Spartacus (Stanley Kubrick)
I know that Stanley Kubrick had to compromise his exacting vision a little bit to get Spartacus to the screen, but that doesn’t mean that his sword and sandals epic is still not a great film. After being fired from One Eyed Jacks for clashing with Marlon Brando, Kubrick again clashed his star, Kirk Douglas, here but stayed on anyway. The result is a film that may not be Kubrick’s own entirely, yet remains one of the best films this genre ever produced. Douglas is truly great in this Roman epic as the rebellious slave Spartacus – but I think that Laurence Olivier, as his evil, powerful rival, is even better. That doesn’t even mention the Oscar winning turn by Peter Ustinov as a slave trader or Charles Laughton, John Gavin, Jean Simmons and Tony Curtis – along with an overall great cast. The film is stunning visually – I still do not think there have been better gladiator battles ever put on screen – and has an emotional pull that is different from the usual Kubrickian coldness. I am a huge Kubrick fan, and although I think Spartacus is one of his lesser efforts, it still deserves a place on this list.

9. Shoot the Piano Player (Francois Truffaut)
Francois Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player is one of my favorite films from this hero of the French New Wave. It s a playful film, using the hallmarks of the French New Wave – jump cuts, extended narration and a time hopping narrative to tell the story of a widowed piano player (Charles Aznavour) who plays at a seedy Paris bar after his wife’s suicide. He seems like just another sad sack, but the secrets from his past will not leave him alone. Shoot the Piano Player is Truffaut’s playful salute to the American film noir – a fast paced, and funny little film. The film jumps genres from noir to gangster film to comedy to tragedy with ease. Does the film really mean anything? Not really, but it is so well done, so well handled by Truffaut, that we don’t care. It is a wonderful little film.

8. The Bad Sleep Well (Akira Kurosawa)
Akira Kurosawa was a big fan of Shakespeare – after all, this is the man who took MacBeth and King Lear and turned them into samurai epics with Throne of Blood and Ran. With The Bad Sleep Well, Kurosawa turned Shakespeare’s Hamlet in a Japanese noir film with great results. Toshiro Mifune plays a man who gets a good position at a seemingly respectful corporation – only to discover corruption that is rotting the company from the outside in. He decides to fight the corruption, but it is bigger than he is, and he cannot really do it alone. The Bad Sleep Well is a cynical film – it ends with no happy ending, but essentially has the bad guys winning. Yet even Mifune, the hero of the movie, isn’t an entirely good guy – he uses people for his own needs, and even if those needs are honorable, he destroys people just as thoroughly as the bad guys do. Kurosawa’s film is an indictment of corrupt corporate culture and the evils of greed and capitalism. Like most of his films, although set in Japan, The Bad Sleep Well could relate to anywhere else in the world. It is a great film, one of Kurosawa’s lesser known masterworks.

7. Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock)
Norman Bates is one of the most famous of all movie characters. Played by Anthony Perkins, Bates became one of cinemas first “slasher” villains – in a way characters like Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers all spring from Bates – the sad, pathetic, lonely Mama’s boy, sitting all alone in his hotel just waiting for someone to come along. The first time we meet Bates, we sense something is off. He is a little too shy, a little too quiet, sitting there surrounded by his taxidermy experiments, talking to the film’s heroine, Janet Leigh. Leigh is in fact the main character at the start of the movie, as we watch her embezzle money from her boss and hit the road, this seems to be a movie about another one of Hitchcock’s famed icy blonde man killers, but all that changes when we reach the motel run by Bates. The shower scene is just infamous – perhaps the most famous cinematic murder of all time – but the film is full of Hitchcock’s trademark touches. For many people, Psycho is Hitchcock’s most famous, most remembered and “best” films, yet although I do think it is a masterpiece, I wouldn’t go that far. For one thing, it is virtually impossible for a newcomer to Hitchcock’s film to be shocked the way audiences back in 1960 were – we know Bates is a psycho, and we know Leigh is going to get killed in the shower, etc. But even when the mysteries are known, Psycho has the power to draw us in and get under your skin and stay there.

6. L’Aventurra (Michelangelo Antonnini)
A young woman, on a boat trip with a bunch of her friends, goes missing on a small, seemingly deserted island. Everyone looks for a while, but she appears to be nowhere so they leave. Her boyfriend and best friend continue through Italy under the guise of continuing to search for her – but that isn’t what they are really doing. After all, how would she have gotten off the island? And if they are both so concerned for her, why do they start sleeping together? And why, when they talk, do they rarely mention her? Antonnini’s breakthrough film is a mystery that he never bothers to resolve, because that’s not really what the film is about. It is about the shallowness of the people, the idle rich, drifting through a modern world that gives them everything except for happiness. It doesn’t matter where the girl goes, because she was barely existing in the first place. The people in the movie are all too self involved to really care all that much, all too wrapped up in their own petty concerns to see outside themselves. This is a theme that Antonnini would derive a lot of use out of throughout the 1960s, and then would perhaps take too far for the rest of his career. But this film, which brought him to the upper echelons of filmmakers in the 1960s, remains a haunting, beautiful masterpiece.

5. Peeping Tom (Michael Powell)
Peeping Tom is one of Michael Powell’s greatest films – one of the greatest films ever made about filmmaking – and yet it pretty much ended his career as it was reviled upon its initial release. It is a film that pretty much traps us with a serial killer, played by Karl Boehm, who films his crimes so he can watch them again and again in his small, dark apartment. His murder weapon is his camera, where he has a knife blade attached to the leg of the tripod, and he films his victims as they realize they are about to die for the fear on their faces. He is a director just like any other, frustrated when his actors don’t perform the way he wants them to. Powell gives us reasons why Boehm got as screwed up as he is – he himself plays Boehm’s father, who we hear behind the camera as he conducts his own experiments in terror on his young son. Peeping Tom is a film about voyeurism, and unlike most films on the subject, it implicates the audience as much as the characters – we are watching things we should not see, filmed by a man who should not film them. But without an audience, would he have even done it? Peeping Tom is a thriller that Hitchcock would have been proud of.

4. Rocco and His Brothers (Luchino Visconti)
Most people would probably say that The Leopard is Luchino Visconti’s best film – but in my mind, I would have to choose Rocco and His Brothers, a stunning cinematic achievement by the master filmmaker. Rocco and His Brothers is a film that should not work – it combines the neo-realism that Visconti favored in his early career with the operatic melodrama that he loved later on. These two styles would seem at odds with each other, but somehow the movie doesn’t just work, it becomes a stunner. The movie stars the great Alain Delon as Rocco, the third of five brothers, who along with their mother movies to Milan after the death of their father. They are all crowded is a small apartment, all trying to find work. The main action in the film revolves around the love triangle between Rocco, his brother Simone (Renato Salvatori) and a prostitute (Anne Giradot, who is simply stunning in the film). She is at first with Simone, but he is dumb and cruel, so she leaves him. When she later meets Rocco again, the two fall madly in love, but this pretty much destroys Simone who becomes a jealous maniac. The film is full of scenes with of staggering power. So much happens in the film that it is overwhelming at times, and yet someone the sum is greater than the parts. Rocco and His Brothers is a film like no other.

3. La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini)
Fellini has certainly made more ambitious films than La Dolce Vita – 8 ½ for example – but I still think that La Dolce Vita is my favorite of all of his works. Marcello Mastroinani is brilliant as a tabloid reporter who spends his days hanging out with the rich and frivolous in Rome. His one connection to the more serious world in a professor, whose eventual suicide will pretty much seal Marcello’s fate – he will be trapped forever with the beautiful, but shallow, people who surround him – going to parties, drinking, going to orgies. The film is long at nearly 3 hours, but never dull or boring. It is a film that changes the more you watch it – depending on who you are at the time. You can view it as a fun and sexy film – a portrait of a lifestyle that everyone wants to live. Or you could view it as a film about the soul sucking power of the people it portrays – people without a care in the world, and who spend much of their time thinking they are happy. Since there is no real difference between thinking you’re happy and actually being happy, this woks for a while – but eventually Marcello has to wake up and face the day in front of him – the day that will be exactly like all the rest.

2. The Apartment (Billy Wilder)
Some of Billy Wilder’s films were too cynical to be hits with the general public. Some of his films were a little too sweet for my tastes – but in The Apartment the master comedy director got the balance perfect. This is a movie that starts off a cynical movie about a mild mannered accountant (Jack Lemmon) who, in order to get ahead in his large company, lets the executives use his New York City apartment as their own private love nest for their mistresses. This includes Fred MacMurray, whose mistress, unbeknowest to Lemmon, is Shirley Maclaine, the elevator girl he is secretly in love with. The movie is hilarious at points, but is really a little more serious and daring than most Hollywood comedies in the early 1960s. I don’t think that Jack Lemmon or Shirley Maclaine were ever better than they are in this movie – the perfect screen couple in one of the best comedies to ever come out Hollywood – and one of Wilder’s greatest films.

1. Breathless (Jean Luc Godard)
Over my years on this blog, I have been rather hard on Jean Luc Godard. I pretty much find all of his work after around 1967 to be utterly and completely pretentious. Godard lost whatever grip he had on narrative filmmaking and has decided to make films that are deliberately so dense that almost no one seems to know what the hell the films are about. I have tried to watch many of these films, and it always boggles my mind to read rave reviews of them where critics claim they are deep and meaningful, when to me they often seem to be just a random assortment of images, without any connecting tissue. But if Godard were not capable of such greatness, I wouldn’t be so disappointed in his later work. Breathless was the director’s first feature – and it belongs on that very short list of films including The Birth of a Nation and Citizen Kane as one of the films that forever changed the medium. True, Godard may not have invented the jump cut as many claim he did, but he perfected it here. His characters – a low level hoodlum (Jean Pierre Belamondo) and his girlfriend (Jean Seberg) are both not very nice – he is a murderer, and she is someone who betrays him, which ends with his death, making her a de facto murderer herself. But the film, even 50 years later, feels fresh and alive as so few films do. It moves effortlessly and draws us into its narrative, its strange rhytm, and grips us – even in the extraodrinarly long dialogue scene between the two of them in his apartment. Breathless is a one of a kind film – and film that broke the mold at its time, and remains vital today. Godard, no matter how good some of his other 1960s films are, has never come close to matching his debut in his career – it is a true masterpiece.

Just Missed The Top 10: Elmer Gantry (Richard Brooks), The Entertainer (Tony Richardson), Eyes Without a Face (Georges Franju), Inherit the Wind (Stanley Kramer), Sergeant Rutledge (John Ford), The Virgin Spring (Ingmar Bergman).

Notable Films Missed: The Alamo (John Wayne), Black Sunday (Mario Bava), Chroincle of a Summer (Jean Rouch & Edgar Morin),The Cloud Capped Star (Ritwik Ghatak), Late August (Yasujiro Ozu), The Magnificent Seven (John Sturges), Plein Soliel (Rene Clement), Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Karel Reisz), Sons and Lovers (Jack Cardiff), Strangers When We Meet (Richard Quine), The Sundowners (Fred Zinneman), Wild River (Elia Kazan).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture & Director: The Apartment (Billy Wilder)
The Apartment is one of my favorite Best Picture winners ever for a number of reasons. For one, it is a comedy, and those rarely win the big prize. The fact that it is a great comedy is just icing on the cake. For another, Billy Wilder is one of the best directors in history, and although he had already won an Oscar for Director, he deserved another. One last thing, the film is sandwiched between two HUGE Hollywood films in the Best Picture list (Ben Hur on one end, West Side Story on the other), so it is great to see a smaller, black and white film win this prize (other than Schindler’s List, this is actually the last black and white best picture winner).

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Burt Lancaster, Elmer Gantry
Burt Lancaster had been one of the best actors in Hollywood for well over a decade by the time he finally won an Oscar for his role here, as a crooked preacher in Richard Brooks wonderful little film. In many other years, Elmer Gantry would have been on my top 10 list, but there just wasn’t room here. Lancaster certainly does command the screen for the entire length of his performance, carrying the film on his shoulders. Is it Lancaster’s best performance? No, that would be Sweet Smell of Success or The Leopard or Atlantic City, but it’s a great performance nonetheless.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Elizabeth Taylor, Butterfield 8
I have not seen Elizabeth Taylor’s Butterfield 8, because not even Taylor thinks much of this movie. By this time, she was one of the biggest stars in the world, and despite several nominations, she had not yet won the Oscar yet. So the Academy threw her a bone with her first Oscar win. Shirley Maclaine was the best of the nominees that I have seen, and Anne Giardot is simply stunning in Rocco and His Brothers, but whatever. I didn’t see it, so I can’t complain.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: Peter Ustinov, Spartacus
I love Peter Ustinov, who I have always kind of thought of as his generation’s Charles Laughton - a larger than life actor that rips into his roles with an over the top theatricality that no one can do very well anymore. His first of two Oscar wins in a very short span (his second was in 1964), was here as a slave trader in Stanley Kubrick’s epic (strangely, this is the only performance in a Kubrick movie ever to win an Oscar). He is wonderful, hilarious and over the top, and is certainly the best of the nominees. Like Lancaster and Taylor, I think they wanted to give him an Oscar, so in a year without a real competitor, they gave it to Ustinov. I have no problem with this win.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Shirley Jones, Elmer Gantry
Yes, Shirley Jones has won an Oscar - and for playing a young, pretty prostitute no less (that’s right both of this year’s female Oscar winners won for playing prostitutes. I have not counted but I think more women have won for playing hookers than any other single profession). It’s not a large part, but Jones certainly does leave an impression on you while watching it. Personally, I would have preferred Janet Leigh to win for her role in Psycho (and isn’t it too bad that Leigh, who has a number of iconic performances on her resume has never won an Oscar). But the supporting actress category has always been about rewarding pretty newcomers. Jones is worthy, even though she would not have been my choice.

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