Best Films of the 1960s
2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, USA / UK, 1968)
really big question regarding humanity’s place in the cosmic scheme of
things, and emphatically answers it: We’re in the embryonic stage,
folks, utterly insignificant compared to the rest of the universe. From
the awe-inspiring featured music of Richard Strauss to Douglas
Trumbull’s landmark special effects, 2001 stands as Kubrick’s
greatest achievement. Never a particularly humanist director, Kubrick
gets to work against a backdrop that ideally suits his cool, detached
style: The immense vastness of space. Beyond being a remarkable film,
2001 is a truly important work of ideas and the expectation of what
our future holds.
Andrei Rublev (Andrei Tarkovsky, USSR, 1966)
career of a 15th century Russian icon painter as a springboard to
examine issues of faith, art and the depths of human degradation,
Tarkovsky fashions his masterpiece. Seven tableaus, luminously shot in
black and white, illustrate the cruel conditions of medieval Russia.
Perhaps the greatest tribute to Tarkovsky’s genius is the fact that each
of these segments could have been a film in its own right, with the
closing bell-making sequence standing as one of the most powerful and
stirring in cinematic history.
8 1/2 (Federico Fellini, Italy / France, 1963)
ode to the "beautiful confusion" that is the craft of filmmaking (or at
least his unique method of same) stands as the director’s most personal
work -- seamlessly moving through three divisions of time (past, present
and speculative fantasy). Fellini challenges the viewer but never
condescends, rather celebrating the wonder of his chosen profession and
exorcising a few personal demons at the same time.
Woman in the Dunes (Hiroshi Teshigahara, Japan, 1964)
rejection of selfish Western individualism in favor of traditional
Eastern communalism underlies this haunting examination of a man trapped
in a sand pit with a lonely widow. Hiroshi Segawa’s peerless photography
makes the shifting sands as much a main character as the two leads, and
creates a surreal yet naturalistic atmosphere that adds tactile weight
to this moody examination of heady existential issues.
Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, USA / UK, 1962)
the epic grandeur -- the striking cinematography, stirring combat
sequences and marvelous score -- and what's left is the enigma of T. E.
Lawrence (wonderfully embodied by the contradictorily sensual yet
asexual performance of Peter O'Toole), who has no answer for the
fundamental question: Who am I? Like the vast desert that played host to
his famous exploits, Lawrence absorbs all that he encounters yet offers
very little in return. The film is a poetic masterpiece of
anti-identity, easily Lean’s greatest achievement.
Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
(Stanley Kubrick, USA / UK, 1964)
away the greatest film satire of all time, Dr. Strangelove shows what
can happen when the fate of so many lays in the hands of an incompetent
few. From Peter Sellers' bravura three-character performance to the
abundantly quotable dialogue by Terry Southern, Kubrick never made a
funnier, more biting work. While the Cold War issues the movie addresses
have proven less relevant over time, the general targets of paranoia and
abuses of power remain vital points of contention for those willing to
question the people entrusted with their leadership and safety.
La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, Italy / France, 1960)
fond yet jaded look at life along the Via Veneto, the Roman street
famous for its nightclubs, sidewalk cafes and stargazing, as viewed
through the weary eyes of gossip hound Marcello Rubini (the great
Marcello Mastroianni), reveals the vacuous pleasures and ultimate
miseries and futility inherent in such an existence. An absorbing,
fascinating and tragic trip through a world filled with bored, decadent
aristocrats and restless, spoiled movie stars.
Closely Watched Trains (Jirí Menzel, Czechoslovakia, 1966)
The term Underground Railroad truly
applies to this Eastern European masterpiece about a young railway
dispatcher who attempts to do something useful with his life -- even if
that means sacrificing it for the Czech resistance during the Nazi
occupation. Menzel flawlessly meshes cheeky humor and silent
comedy-worthy slapstick visuals with the more serious issue of degrading
capitulation versus brash defiance on the part of the Czech people
during wartime. Absolutely brilliant.
Belle de jour (Luis Buñuel, France / Italy, 1967)
Buñuel examines the damaging effects of childhood guilt in a unique,
intentionally ambiguous and unsettling manner. Catherine Deneuve’s
Severine places herself in increasingly dangerous and compromising
situations, all the while neglecting a devoted husband blessed with
Job-like patience. Be it dream, reality or a strange mixture of the two,
Buñuel's film casts a disquieting spell that's difficult to shake.
In Cold Blood (Richard Brooks, USA, 1967)
"Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed." (Gen 9:6)
Killer or victim, In Cold Blood powerfully illustrates the
pointlessness of murder -- be it for meager profit or criminal justice.
Conrad Hall’s stark, black-and-white photography and Quincy Jones’
spiky, minimalist jazz score add darkly poetic textures to this
unflinchingly harrowing and tragic true crime tale.
|Notable near misses
- The Apartment (Billy Wilder,
USA, 1960) Perhaps only Billy Wilder could wring so many laughs from a
film about morally bankrupt businessmen who use a lower-ranking worker's
apartment for their philandering trysts. Jack Lemmon and Shirley
MacLaine walk an incredible acting tightrope between comedy and tragedy.
A cracked gem.
- Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn,
USA, 1967) Aside from the gorgeous leads, it’s the ugliness and hardship
of Bonnie and Clyde’s Depression-era crime spree that stands out. A film
that could easily have glamorized violence instead chooses to reveal the
brutality and senselessness of killing for what it is, influenced, no
doubt, by the disruptive times in which the film was made. There's
certainly nothing glamorous about the way the titular outlaws died,
which is one reason the film still holds up today.
- Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard,
France, 1960) Self-consciously cool, Breathless stands as one of
the hallmarks of the French New Wave. From Jean-Paul Belmondo’s amoral,
blithe demeanor to the pop culture images and items liberally scattered
throughout, Godard breaks every filmmaking rule imaginable, and gets
away with it because beneath the shallow façade is a restlessly manic
cry for help from a French nation still coming to terms with the trauma
of the Second World War.
- Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
(George Roy Hill, USA, 1969) The posse that relentlessly chases Butch
and Sundance serves as the perfect metaphor for encroaching progress in
the Old West. Simply one of the best written/acted/directed buddy movies
of all time.
- Chimes at Midnight (Orson
Welles, Spain / Switzerland, 1966) It’s the verve with which Welles
tackles Shakespeare’s plays that makes this so wonderful a film.
Judiciously fusing the playwright's Falstaff-related material into a
raucous (and ultimately tragic) romp through Merry Olde England,
Chimes at Midnight is perhaps the greatest adaptation of the Bard’s
work ever committed to celluloid. If only Welles had had a sufficient
budget to clean up the dodgy soundtrack, it would have been damn near
- Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, USA,
1969) The foreshadowed doom is too heavy-handed, but the brutal ending
still resonates. A bitterly cynical take on the post-party '60s
counterculture dream, when drugs became big business and peace and love
had been reduced to cheap taglines by self-absorbed no-accounts in
search of a free ride. Despite being badly dated, this beautifully shot
and urgently edited film still captures the mood of a turbulent time in
- The Graduate (Mike Nichols,
USA, 1967) This hilarious examination of the generation gap works as
well as it does due to the fact that Dustin Hoffmann's character, Ben,
is clueless as to where his future's headed. The final scene on the bus
with Ben and arranged-wedding-liberated lady love Elaine giddily
enjoying the moment, but bothered by the uncertainty of what tomorrow
holds, perfectly reflects the ambiguity and concerns of '60s youth
- A Hard Day's Night (Richard
Lester, UK, 1964) Captures the spirit of Beatlemania, and our ongoing
fascination with pop stardom, better than any other work. Lester simply
staged the Fab Four being themselves, and the immediacy and zaniness of
the group shines through in every scene. A manic, deliriously fun trip
through a period in music history when the inmates, more so than the
corporations, ran the asylum.
- The Hour Of The Furnaces
(Fernando E. Solanas, Octavio Getino, Argentina, 1968) The lingering
shot on a dead Che Guevara's face might be what this film is most famous
for, but Getino and Solanas had nothing less than a Marxist revolution
via cinema on their minds with this intense, chaotic collection of
footage detailing the Argentinean government's betrayal of the common
people. Third World liberation may not have come as a result of
Furnaces, but in its triumph of free expression and direct challenge
to neo-colonialist ideals, it remains a powerful work deserving of high
- The Hustler (Robert Rossen,
USA, 1961) From Kenyon Hopkins’ hip, spare score to Eugene Schuftan’s
masterfully lit photography, The Hustler inhabits its world of
all-night pool halls and lonely bus depots with a hard-edged reality
that underscores the adrift, broken lives of its characters. The acting,
especially by Piper Laurie, is flawless, as are the direction and set
design. The pool scenes might be what it's most famous for, but The
Hustler endures because of the way it so expertly captures the
arrogance and folly of human nature.
- Judgment at Nuremberg (Stanley
Kramer, USA, 1961) Though it too obviously adheres to its stage roots,
Judgment at Nuremberg is nonetheless a handsomely executed, if
statically presented, courtroom drama that can’t help but fall into
melodramatics given the intense subject matter regarding Nazi atrocities
during the Second World War. In its attempt at reconciling past events
with the beginnings of the Cold War, Kramer’s film is an undeniably
powerful and important document.
- Jules and Jim (François
Truffaut, France, 1962) Truffaut puts relationships under a tight
microscope in this poetically executed look at two friends and the woman
they both love. Despite following a predictably tragic course, Jules
and Jim feels fresh and vital throughout.
- La jetée (Chris Marker, France,
1962) Known more today for inspiring the writers of Terry Gilliam’s
12 Monkeys, Marker’s short film -- primarily comprised of carefully
chosen and exquisitely composed still images -- remains a haunting,
penetrating look into the way we perceive time, childhood and memory.
All this, and a foreboding post-apocalyptic theme to boot, validate
La jetée’s richly deserved classic status.
- L'avventura (The Adventure)
(Michelangelo Antonioni, Italy / France, 1960) A young woman’s
inexplicable disappearance while visiting a volcanic island during a
Mediterranean yachting cruise is the jumping-off point for this
deliberately paced examination of empty lives and its cynical
observation about one’s ultimate purpose in life. Antonioni’s brightly
lit and beautifully photographed scenes serve to further expose the
underlying shallowness of his bored, self-absorbed characters.
- A Man for All Seasons (Fred
Zinnemann, UK, 1966) Paul Scofield brings a quiet, intense dignity to
the role of Sir Thomas More that elevates this film (based on Robert
Bolt's play) beyond mere costume drama fare. Historical quibbles on the
factual basis of More's impeccably noble bearing aside, A Man for All
Seasons takes the matter of honor, oath and duty to one's God and
country very seriously at a time when such hot button issues were
confronting contemporary audiences.
- The Manchurian Candidate (John
Frankenheimer, USA, 1962) Frankenheimer’s inventively paranoid take on
Cold War espionage might be a little too obvious in the way it plays its
narrative cards, but the performance by Angela Lansbury, as a scheming
mother intent on nothing less than global domination, is truly
outstanding. Think of it as a more serious-minded complement to
Kubrick’s apocalyptically farcical Dr. Strangelove.
- Marat / Sade (Peter Brook, UK,
1966) Sade versus Marat. Individualism versus collectivism. Personal
identity versus mass consciousness. It's a war of wills in this Royal
Shakespeare Company production based on the plays the infamous Marquis
staged while in Charenton asylum. From the bars separating patrons from
inmates, to the raging performances of Sade's mad troupe, Peter Brook
ably manages to touch on issues about revolution, madness and freedom
that proved just as relevant to mid-'60s audiences as they did during
- Midnight Cowboy (John
Schlesinger, USA, 1969) The desperate need to belong stands out in this
brutally frank examination of a male hustler fresh off the bus from
Texas and his lone ally in the rotten-to-the-core Big Apple. Dustin
Hoffman's turn as pathetic consumptive Rico "Ratso" Rizzo stands as one
of the actor's finest performances.
(Jacques Tati, France / Italy, 1967) It’s the incredible rhythms of
Playtime that truly stand out (opening and closing doors; honking
horns; noisy shoes). And that’s saying quite a lot considering the
intricately staged, yet minimally executed sight gags Tati instigates in
this hilarious send-up of modern life and conveniences. From the beauty
of silences to the chaotic exuberance of human interaction, Playtime
is a marvel of understated observation.
- Point Blank
(John Boorman, USA, 1967) Lee Marvin plays a restless ghost -- an
implacable revenant who can't rest until he gets the money that was
stolen from him during a robbery betrayal that went down within the
shadowy, abandoned pens of Alcatraz. Incredibly evocative camerawork and
an almost surreal examination of the dark heart of the criminal element
power this fascinating examination of revenge, loss, and hollow
- Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, USA,
1960) Sure, like Norman Bates says, we all do go a little mad sometimes.
But Norman's is a psychosis unlike any other in screen history.
Hitchcock brilliantly subverts conventional narrative (taking a
potboiler noir plot and dramatically shifting gears in midstream by
killing off the lead character), serving up some of the most arresting
images ever seen, perfectly complemented by Bernard Herrmann's
unforgettably chilling score.
- To Kill a Mockingbird (Robert
Mulligan, USA, 1962) Wonderfully told from the eye level of children
forced to confront the evil that all-too often emanates from our own
backyard. A film about bigotry that reveals its truths with a
staggering, emboldened and unwavering confidence.
- A Touch of Zen (King Hu,
Taiwan / Hong Kong, 1969) This gorgeous epic set during the Ming Dynasty
is truly a visual feast. The fight choreography is superb, the attention
to period detail exquisite. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon would
not exist without this film -- a fact Ang Lee has rightfully
- The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah,
USA, 1969) It's the climactic "death walk" of the four remaining Bunch
members that embodies this unflinchingly nihilistic take on the final
days of the Old West. Cinematographer Lucien Ballard zeroes in on the
reality of violence, and its immediate and larger social fallout, while
Peckinpah concentrates on the faces of the innocent bystanders as much
as the men with guns. An astonishing mediation on honor, dishonor and
the final weeks of outsiders who had no place left in modern society.
L'Homme de Rio
(1964), Pierrot Le Fou
(1965), Is Paris Burning?
Key films: The
Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964),
(1965), Belle de jour
(1967), The Young Girls of Rochefort
Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop
Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964),
2001: A Space Odyssey
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