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Laurence Station's Best Films of the 1960s

Top 10:

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, USA / UK, 1968)
Asks the 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.
 
2. Andrei Rublev (Andrei Tarkovsky, USSR, 1966)
Using the 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.
3. 8 1/2 (Federico Fellini, Italy / France, 1963)
Fellini’s 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.
 
4. Woman in the Dunes (Hiroshi Teshigahara, Japan, 1964)
The 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.
5. Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, USA / UK, 1962)
Take away 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.
 
6. Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, USA / UK, 1964)
Far and 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.
7. La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, Italy / France, 1960)
Fellini’s 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.
 
8. 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.
9. 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.
 
10. 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 (Alphabetically Listed):
 
  • 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 perfect.
  • 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 American history.
  • 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 culture.
  • 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 praise.
  • 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 Napoleon's reign.
  • 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.
  • Playtime (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 redemption.
  • 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 acknowledged.
  • 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.
 
Outstanding Actors:
 
Jean-Paul Belmondo - Key films: Breathless (1960), L'Homme de Rio (1964), Pierrot Le Fou (1965), Is Paris Burning? (1966)   Catherine Deneuve - Key films: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), Repulsion (1965), Belle de jour (1967), The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)
 
Outstanding Director:
 
Stanley Kubrick - Key films: Spartacus (1960), Lolita (1962), Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
 

Much thanks to Filmsite.org for having scans of many of these posters online: http://www.filmsite.org/posters.html

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