The website Wonders in the Dark has just finished its countdown and poll of the best films of the 1960s. I've finally submitted my own list of the 25 best films of the 1960s, and now it's time to reflect on what the decade meant for me. This was the decade that I first became aware of movies as more than entertainment, that I first perceived of cinema as an art form. It was the decade that I learned about the history of movies and began to watch and study movies seriously, applying analytical skills to the movie-watching experience. It was the decade I first discovered British and foreign-language movies. For me the 1960s and the 1950s are the greatest decades in film history in terms of the richness and variety of films produced.
For American movies, the first years of the 1960s were good ones, culminating in the year 1962. So strong do I think this year was for American films that in the future I plan to start a multi-part series on the great American movies released that year. But the mid-60s were not strong years for the American film industry. The great filmmakers who came up in the studio years and were still working were aging, and their movies seemed out of touch with the times. The giants of the studio era like George Cukor, William Wyler, Billy Wilder, and John Ford made their last great movies in the 1950s or very early 1960s. In general, their works made after this time seem anachronisms, predictable and staid compared to the best work being done by Europeans and younger American directors who had learned their craft not in the studios, but in television and the theater—men like Sidney Lumet, John Frankenheimer, Arthur Penn, Martin Ritt, Stuart Rosenberg, and Sydney Pollack. These directors were aware of the works of the Europeans and Japanese and willing to experiment to some degree with more adventurous, genre-bending plots and more innovative techniques of film storytelling than their counterparts of the previous generation.
In 1967 the American film industry caught up with the changes in American society and became revitalized almost overnight by two movies, Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate. Suddenly moviemakers realized that sex, violence, and an appeal to the rebelliousness of the newly discovered youth market appealed not only to ticket-buyers but also to the new generation of film critics. Fuddy-duddies like Bosley Crowther were replaced as arbiters of cinematic taste by critics like Pauline Kael, John Simon, Stanley Kaufmann, Vincent Canby, and that most vocal American cheerleader for auteurism, Andrew Sarris.
Topics and attitudes that had been unthinkable for mass consumption a few years earlier became the latest, most daring fashion. Trends in American culture—the open discussion of sexuality that grew from the sexual revolution, the pervasiveness of harsh images of violence begun by the Kennedy assassination and continued by television news reports of the Vietnam War, and the anti-authoritarian attitudes and uninhibited language of the Free Speech Movement and other youth protest movements—made formerly taboo topics acceptable for mass consumption. Moreover, the stranglehold the Production Code had held over American movies for more than thirty years was finally broken, and the ratings system that succeeded it barely restrained filmmakers of the latter half of the 1960s from pursuing subjects that previously had been effectively forbidden. That Midnight Cowboy, then an X-rated movie, won the Oscar as the best film of 1969 shows how far American movies had come in less than five years.
American movies both seized this opportunity and advanced the acceptance of these subjects even further. And an even newer generation of directors—men like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola who trained at the new film schools like those at UCLA, USC, and NYU or like Peter Bogdanovich and again Scorsese and Coppola, who learned their craft working on low-budget quickies at Roger Corman's American-International Pictures—joined those TV veterans late in the decade. I have no doubt that many readers will consider it sacrilege to say so, but my own view is that many of the American films that were tremendously popular and considered groundbreaking in the late 1960s no longer seem as special as they once did. The Graduate, The Wild Bunch, Easy Rider, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Midnight Cowboy, for example, seem to me good but flawed movies. 2001: A Space Odyssey, which at first bowled me over, now strikes me as a technical masterpiece but a cold, sterile work, and its New Age/Sci-Fi version of Creationism simply inane. The true masterpieces that came from the American cinema revolution of the late 1960s were actually not made until early in the 1970s.
The British cinema, which produced surprisingly few great films in the 1950s, became revitalized in the early 1960s by British New Wave directors like Karel Reisz, Tony Richardson, Bryan Forbes, Lindsay Anderson, and John Schlesinger. By the end of the decade, though, these men were either entering the mainstream or simply beginning to fade away.
The European cinema remained vital, with established masters from the 1940s and 1950s like Vittorio de Sica, Federico Fellini, and the irreverent Luis Buñuel still going strong. Of the French New Wave directors, François Truffaut entered the pantheon of greatness, even though his style, perhaps the most conventional of the French New Wavers, became if anything even more conservative as the decade progressed. Near the end of the decade, the young filmmakers from Eastern Europe received a great deal of attention. But today, those movies that at the time seemed to be harbingers of an Eastern European New Wave—films like Loves of a Blonde, The Fireman's Ball, and Closely Watched Trains—strike me as charming but lightweight works. Of the Eastern Europeans, only Roman Polanski seems to have fulfilled his promise as a director of consistently important movies. Of all the Europeans, Ingmar Bergman dominates the decade the way Alfred Hitchcock dominated the 1950s. Like Hitchcock a decade earlier, in the 1960s Bergman entered his greatest phase and produced an unprecedented string of masterpieces. In Japan, Akira Kurosawa remained a formidable presence, and the great Yasujiro Ozu produced a trio of late masterpieces before his death in 1963.
For my list of the 25 best movies of the decade, I began with the 59 films I have seen that I believe merit a full **** rating (my highest): 18 American, 15 British, and 26 foreign-language. I included only one movie for each director. Looking over this list, I am surprised at how many of them come from the first half of the decade. The only explanation I can offer for this is that the films from early in the decade seem to be made in a more classic style, which I evidently prefer. The more stylistically innovative films on the list seem to use their creativity with some degree of control and to clear purpose. Those from later in the decade seem to be made in a freer style, and to my mind many of these have aged in a less graceful way than films from earlier decades. The great American studio pictures of the 1930s and 1940s, for example, seem if anything better to me than they once did.
Perhaps the greater experimentation of that period resulted too often in inconsistency. Directors were willing to take more risks by trying more unconventional and personal techniques, but the fact is that some of these techniques worked better than others. Many of the movies of that era contain stylistic fads that in retrospect seem dated. Nothing, for example, screams "1960s" to me more than overuse of the zoom lens or the split screen. Then too the cult of the auteur resulted in too many movies in which the director became the star of the movie, where indiscriminate and pointlessly showy stylistics pushed traditional elements like plot, characters, actors, and ideas into the background. Other movies were so intent on sending a trendy message to audiences that they became didactic political tracts or knee-jerk anti-authoritarian diatribes.
For the 1960s, the greatest dilemma I faced was the ranking of what I believe are the two best films of the decade, Ingmar Bergman's Persona and François Truffaut's Jules and Jim. I love both of these movies. The problem is that one appeals more to my intellect and the other more to my emotions. I finally went with Persona at #1 and Jules and Jim at #2, but the truth is that I like these two movies equally well and would have preferred to declare a tie if that had been possible. Anyway, here is my final list as submitted to Wonders in the Dark:
Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann in Persona (1966)
Henri Serre, Jeanne Moreau, and Oskar Werner in Jules and Jim (1961)
THE 25 BEST MOVIES OF THE 1960s
- Persona, Ingmar Bergman (1966)
- Jules and Jim, François Truffaut (1961)
- La Dolce Vita, Federico Fellini (1960)
- Bonnie and Clyde, Arthur Penn (1967)
- Viridiana, Luis Buñuel (1961)
- Lawrence of Arabia, David Lean (1962)
- Yojimbo, Akira Kurosawa (1961)
- Play Time, Jacques Tati (1967)
- Andrei Rublev, Andrei Tarkovsky (1966)
- The Apartment, Billy Wilder (1960)
- Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock (1960)
- Ride the High Country, Sam Peckinpah (1962)
- L'Avventura, Michelangelo Antonioni (1960)
- Dr. Strangelove, Stanley Kubrick (1964)
- Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Karel Reisz (1960)
- Tom Jones, Tony Richardson (1963)
- Army of Shadows, Jean-Pierre Melville (1969)
- Two Women, Vittorio de Sica (1960)
- Late Autumn, Yasujiro Ozu (1960)
- The Servant, Joseph Losey (1963)
- Darling, John Schlesinger (1965)
- Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Mike Nichols (1966)
- Romeo and Juliet, Franco Zeffirelli (1968)
- Knife in the Water, Roman Polanski (1962)
- The Trial, Orson Welles (1962)
American: West Side Story, The Hustler, A Raisin in the Sun, The Miracle Worker, Long Day's Journey into Night, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Hud, Zorba the Greek, Point Blank, Rosemary's Baby
British: Sons and Lovers, The Entertainer, The Innocents, Whistle Down the Wind, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, The L-Shaped Room, Heavens Above, A Hard Day's Night, Repulsion, A Man for All Seasons, Women in Love (Peeping Tom was originally listed by Wonders in the Dark as a 1959 release and was included in my post on the best of the 1950s)
Foreign Language: Shoot the Piano Player, High and Low, The Exterminating Angel, Through a Glass Darkly, The End of Summer, An Autumn Afternoon, 8½, Woman in the Dunes, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, The Battle of Algiers, Le Samouraï, Shame, The Passion of Anna
The results of the Wonders in the Dark best movies of the 1960s poll are in.