Friday, November 5, 2010

Year in Review: 1964

1964 was another great year for movies, if for no other reason than because one of my all time favorite filmmakers made what I consider to be his best film. Yet all of the films on this list are deserving of praise. And when you look at the notable films missed section, you see that I have perhaps just barely scratched the surface of this year. Too bad the Academy didn’t notice.

10. A Fistful of Dollars (Sergio Leone)
Sergio Leone invented the spaghetti Western with A Fistful of Dollars – a genre he would later perfect with The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West. He felt that American Westerns were becoming too preachy, so he decided to make this Western with high style. An unofficial remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, the film stars Clint Eastwood as the “Man With No Name” (although quite clearly, in this film anyway, everyone calls him Joe) who rides into town and decides to hire himself out to both warring factions. The film is all style, but what style, and Eastwood gives an iconic performance, and Ennio Morricone contributes one of his best scores. This film isn’t as good as Yojimbo – and isn’t as good as Leone’s best work – but it’s still a great one.

9. Goldfinger (Guy Hamilton)
Goldfinger was not the first of the James Bond films – that was Dr. No – but it is definitely the best of them – the film that has set the standard that no Bond film (except maybe Casino Royale) has been able to match since. Sean Connery proves why he is the definitive Bond – he is all dry wit, delivered in his sexy, Scottish drawl, and action. Goldfinger (Gert Frobe) is the best Bond villain, because he seems the most real – no plans for world domination, the guy just wants to be rich – and Oddjob (Harold Sakata) is probably the most memorable henchmen of the series. We’ve seen the formula done so many times now, that even good Bond films sometimes feel warmed over – but that is never the case with Goldfinger, which is just pure movie joy.

8. Seven Days in May (John Frankenheimer)
If Dr. Strangelove (which we’ll get to) was the comic view of nuclear annihilation, than John Frankenheimer’s Seven Days in May was the more serious side of the same coin. The President (Frederic March) wants to sign an agreement with the Russians where they will both destroy their nuclear weapons for the good of the planet – a move that is extremely controversial. This is when a Colonel (Kirk Douglas) discovers that the Joint Chiefs of Staff, along with several members of congress, are planning a coup d’etat to prevent the President from signing the agreement. The conspiracy is led by Burt Lancaster, who is Douglas’ commanding officer. The entire cast is great – including Edmond O’Brien as an aging alcoholic senator, Martin Balsam as an aid to the President, and Hugh Marlowe and Whit Bissell as other key members of the conspiracy. Although the plot would seem to be outlandish, it rings true in this movie, and Frankenheimer, who was as good as anyone has been at staging thrillers, makes this is a scary, and intense what-if scenario.

7. Band of Outsiders (Jean Luc Godard)
I have often been very hard of Jean Luc Godard – especially in regards to his output in the past few decades. But the reason I am is because I know how good he can be, as he proved time and again in the 1960s. Band of Outsiders is to me one of his best films, perhaps because as Amy Taubin put it “it’s a Godard film for people who don’t much like Godard”. While his technical innovations and playfulness is on full display throughout the film, the film also tells a clear story of three young people who decide to become criminals, even though they don’t really know what they’re doing. The gorgeous Anna Karina is the woman that both the young men (Claude Brasseur and Sami Frey) want, and Band of Outsiders may actually be at its best when it doesn’t concentrate on its plot – the infamous Lourve race scene, or when they three of them dance together. The film is a head rush, and must have seemed radical in 1964. It doesn’t seem that way much anymore, but it remains perhaps Godard’s most entertaining film.

6. A Hard Day’s Night (Richard Lester)
A Hard Day’s Night is an inspired cinematic comic fantasy starring The Beatles. Most of the time when musicians decide to make a film, they come out with some insipid vanity project – but The Beatles always did things a little different. A Hard Day’s Night throws everything at the wall to see what will stick, and surprisingly, almost of it does. The Beatles aren’t really very good actors, but here playing themselves, they feel natural and unforced, even when the films goes on its many flights of fancy. The film is just pure fun – and it goes without saying, contains perhaps the greatest soundtrack of rock songs of any film in history.

5. The Naked Kiss (Samuel Fuller)
Samuel Fuller was one of the best directors of “B” movies in history – and The Naked Kiss ranks among my very favorite of his films. Constance Towers gives a wonderful performance as a prostitute who has moved to a new town, and has decided to reform her life – becoming a nurse, and falling in love with a rich, young man who loves her even after she tells him of her former life. What she doesn’t suspect is that her new man is really a pedophile, and when she is confronted with the awful truth, she snaps, and then has to try and prove her innocence. The film is innovatively shot by Fuller, in his typical hardboiled style, where he looks at hypocrisy and deviancy right in the face and doesn’t flinch. I do wish the ending had been a little tougher than it is, but that’s a small complaint with an otherwise great film.

4. Becket (Peter Glenville)
Becket is a film I don’t hear much mentioned anymore, and I don’t know why. It is a supremely well made and very entertaining film. Peter O’Toole gives one of his characteristically off the wall performances as King Henry II, who makes Thomas Becket (Richard Burton) the Archbishop of Canterbury, because he wants his good friend and adviser close to him. But Becket refuses to be just another mouthpiece for the King – and displays a mind of his own, much to the King’s displeasure. I loved O’Toole performance as the King, especially when he walks around his castle cursing Becket, because he is the only one who ever gave the King anything (to which the Queen replies “I gave you your children”, prompting perhaps my favorite line O’Toole ever uttered “But I don’t like my children”). Burton is also great, but it’s not as showy of a role. The pair is supported wonderfully well by the likes of John Gielgud, Pamela Brown and others. Yes, this is a straight ahead historical biopic – but rarely has one been done this well or provided this much entertainment.

3. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Jacques Demy)
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is one of the great movie musicals – because it is so unlike most movies the genre has to offer. Jacques Demy obviously admired the Hollywood musicals that came before this, and the film has the form, color and style of those films – but the subject matter is quite a bit darker. The great Catherine Den eve gives a wonderful performance as a teenager who falls in love with Nino Castelnuovo, and the day before he leaves for the war in Algeria, he impregnates her. He doesn’t write often, and her mother encourages her to marry and older, well to do admirer. When Castelnuovo returns, he is bitter and angry – not just because of the war, but because he has lost Deneuve, but slowly he rebuilds his life. We know what to expect from musicals – and while this movie offers the musical numbers we expect (in fact, everything in the film is sung, no matter how matter of fact), the ending of the film packs an unexpected wallop. Most musicals end with characters happy and riding off into the sunset together – in this one, everyone is miserable.

2. Marnie (Alfred Hitchcock)
Marnie was pretty rounded reviled when it first came out – but the years have been kind to it. I now consider the film to Hitchcock’s best of the 1960s – yes better than the much more famous Psycho or The Birds. Tippi Hendron gives a flawless performance as a woman who makes her living by stealing from her employers, then moving on and changing her identity. But then Sean Connery catches her stealing from him – and blackmails her into marrying him. It isn’t long before her sexual frigidity becomes a problem – but Connery is determined to help her work past this block – even if that means raping her. Marnie is a complex film, where no one is really a good person – Marnie is after all a thief, and Connery is a rapist – yet it is fascinating to watch these two characters interact with each other, and Hitchcock’s cinematic eye is as great as always. The solution to the mystery of Marnie’s frigidity isn’t all that interesting, and do I wish Hitchcock had ended the film on a less optimistic note. But no matter – Marnie is still a Hitchcock masterpiece that I feel has been underrated for too long.

1. Dr. Strangelove (Stanley Kubrick)
Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove is perhaps the best satire ever made, and also perhaps the funniest film I have ever seen. It is an inspired piece of comic lunacy from beginning to end – but also had the guts to mock the nuclear age with razor sharp insights. Sterling Hayden is a General, who launches a nuclear attack on Russia because he is convinced that there is communist plot to sap his “precious bodily fluids”, which he realized during the physical act of love, when he found he couldn’t perform. Peter Sellers gives a trio of excellent performances – one as the President, situated in his War Room, trying to come up with a plan to stop the planes, and meeting bureaucratic red tape (not to mention perhaps the funniest scene in history where we hear his side of a phone call with the drunken Russian Premier – “No, Dmitri, I do like you”), one as the freaky Nazi Dr. Strangelove, brought in for his expertise, and finally one as a mild mannered British officer stuck on the base with Hayden. This is inspired acting by Sellers, but it should also be noted that George C. Scott gives what I think is his best performance as the gung ho military man who advises them to go ahead with the attack, despite the fact that millions will die (“I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed a bit”). Kubrick somehow contains this mayhem, and sustains the comic momentum for its entire running time. He finds brilliant ways of shooting the film, and shows a surprising amount of humor for a man known to be so serious. Yes, 2001 is definitely Kubrick’s greatest cinematic achievement – but Dr. Strangelove is my favorite of his films.

Just Missed The Top 10: Cheyenne Autumn (John Ford), Gertrud (Carl Theodor Dreyer), The Killers (Don Siegal), Kwaidan (Masaki Kobayashi), Mary Poppins (Robert Stevenson), My Fair Lady (George Cukor).

Notable Films Missed: The Art of Vision (Stan Brakage), Before the Revolution (Bernardo Bertolucci), Black God, White Devil (Glauber Rocha), Charulata (Sayajit Ray), Dog Star Man (Stan Brakage), I Am Cuba (Mikheil Kalatozishvi), Red Desert (Michangelo Antonnini), The Saragossa Manuscript (Wojciech Has), Scorpio Rising (Kenneth Anger), Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors (Sergei Parajanov),Topikapi (Jules Dassin), Woman in the Dunes (Hiroshi Teshigahara),Zorba the Greek (Michael Cacoyannis).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture & Director: My Fair Lady (George Cukor)
My Fair Lady is a fine movie of its sort. It is a big, bold, colorful musical full of wonderful, memorable songs, and charming performances by Rex Harrison, Audrey Hepburn and the rest of the cast. What keeps the movie from being truly great in my opinion is that the film, at over three hours, wears out its welcome, even if the ending is a charmer. Also, I am annoyed by sing-talking, like Rex Harrison does in the film, and the fact that Hepburn was cast at all considering she cannot sing and had to have her voice dubbed. If you can’t sing, don’t be in a musical! Still, it’s not surprising that the Academy gave the film the Oscar that year. 1964 really was a slightly schizophrenic year for the nominees – I mean really, how are you supposed to compare this film with Dr. Strangelove?

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Rex Harrison, My Fair Lady
Rex Harrison was apparently a drunken asshole in real life, but onscreen he was charismatic and charming. His performance as Henry Higgins has the perfect amount of pompousness to it, and he really does a fine job with it. My only real problem with the performance, as mentioned above, is that he sing talks his way through all the songs. If you can sing, then belt it out, and if you can’t, then don’t be in a musical. Considering that Harrison beat out Peter Sellers, Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton for this Oscar – all of whom are better overall actors, delivered better performances this year and have a grand total of zero acting Oscar between them, makes this win undeserving.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Julie Andrews, Mary Poppins
Julie Andrews had sympathy of her side when she won this award. She had been the original Eliza Doolittle on Broadway, but lost the part to Audrey Hepburn, who can’t sing, in the movie because the studio didn’t deem Andrews famous enough to have the film role. I guess Andrews got the last laugh however, because being passed over for that role, allowed her to deliver one of her most famous screen performances – as the charming British nanny Mary Poppins. I loved the movie as a kid, but haven’t watched it in years – which is probably for the best. I have a feeling I may cringe if I ever watch it again.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: Peter Ustinov, Topikapi
I love Peter Ustinov. I love Jules Dassin, especially when he’s working in the heist genre. So why then I have never seen this movie, which is said to be an excellent comic caper, with Ustinov amazing in his role? Beats me, but I haven’t. I have always meant to see the film, and I certainly will one day, but for now I am comforted by the fact that there is a great Peter Ustinov performance out there waiting for me to discover it.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Lila Kedrova, Zorba the Greek
For whatever reason, I have never been that anxious to see Zorba the Greek. Perhaps it’s because I still cringe every time I think of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which isn’t the fault of this film, but perhaps has turned me off of all movies with a boisterous Greek person. I do here the film is quite good, and that Kedrova’s performance as a French War Widow was a worthy winner, but until I get past my biases, this will remain a mystery to me.

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