Monday, June 8, 2009

The Best Movies of the 1960s

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)


  1. Persona, Ingmar Bergman (1966)
  2. Jules and Jim, François Truffaut (1961)
  3. La Dolce Vita, Federico Fellini (1960)
  4. Bonnie and Clyde, Arthur Penn (1967)
  5. Viridiana, Luis Buñuel (1961)
  6. Lawrence of Arabia, David Lean (1962)
  7. Yojimbo, Akira Kurosawa (1961)
  8. Play Time, Jacques Tati (1967)
  9. Andrei Rublev, Andrei Tarkovsky (1966)
  10. The Apartment, Billy Wilder (1960)
  11. Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock (1960)
  12. Ride the High Country, Sam Peckinpah (1962)
  13. L'Avventura, Michelangelo Antonioni (1960)
  14. Dr. Strangelove, Stanley Kubrick (1964)
  15. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Karel Reisz (1960)
  16. Tom Jones, Tony Richardson (1963)
  17. Army of Shadows, Jean-Pierre Melville (1969)
  18. Two Women, Vittorio de Sica (1960)
  19. Late Autumn, Yasujiro Ozu (1960)
  20. The Servant, Joseph Losey (1963)
  21. Darling, John Schlesinger (1965)
  22. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Mike Nichols (1966)
  23. Romeo and Juliet, Franco Zeffirelli (1968)
  24. Knife in the Water, Roman Polanski (1962)
  25. The Trial, Orson Welles (1962)
Note: With the exception of Dr. Strangelove, I have followed the release dates listed in the Wonders in the Dark movie timeline 1960-1969.

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.


Anonymous said...

I found this very interesting to read and am, as ever, awed by your knowledge of film.

Glad to see an honourable mention for 'The L-Shaped Room' as that is one I love and which deserves to be better-known. Judy

Sam Juliano said...

I am awed and overwhelmed by your latest testimonial (and your own supern list) but I must leave the house now to see a film. I will return to this thread tomorrow with a comprehensive response.

Thanks again, our very dear friend for the red carpet treatment.

T.S. said...

Outstanding list, R.D. I'm dreadfully envious of those who can compile such projects; I can barely put together a best-of list for a single year, let alone a decade. Kudos.

It is refreshing to hear more voices continue to serve as a corrective to the idea of idolized cult-ish films of the 1960s — The Graduate, Easy Rider, etc. I certainly agree that they have not aged well. Although one I haven't had much of a chance to express my feelings on the decade at either at Mr. Juliano's blog (I'm still lacking in exposure to more obscure but essential 60s cinema) or at my own (I'm not yet ready to discuss cinema writ large from 1960 onward), I'm happy to read the work of others. This is a great list in its diversity, angle, and sampling.

John said...

R.D. – I thoroughly enjoyed your article and the first paragraph practically describes me too! “the decade I first became aware of movies as more than just entertainment, that I first perceived of cinema as an art form. It was the decade that I learned about the history of the movies and began to watch and study movies seriously…” I devoured books from my local library or purchased what was available, “Agee on Film “, Arthur Knight’s “The Liviest Art”, Sarris’ “The American Cinema”, Kael’s early books, “I Lost it at the Movies”, “Going Steady”, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”, to name a few. At that time, I also “discovered” the English magazine “Films and Filming” along with “Films in Review” and the English version of “Cashiers du Cinema.”

While I agree with your assessment of some of the late 1960’s films have lost some of their gloss, the period still has some films that for me have lost none of their power. “Easy Rider” has dated very badly and “Midnight Cowboy” surely is not as shocking as it once was (though I still like it). I also agree with you on “2001 A Space Odyssey” technically brilliant, but cold and having seen it once when it first came out, I now cannot get through the film a second time without falling asleep. Still, there are films from that period that hold up well. “Bonnie and Clyde” (I see it’s on your list), “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” and for me “The Wild Bunch” are still excellent works that have lost none of their power. It’s possible that "Bonnie and Clyde" and "The Wild Bunch", after some forty years of slow motion cinematic violence do not seem as innovative as they once were but these films offer a lot much substance than most films we see today that have imitated their style. “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” gives us one of Jane Fonda’s greatest performances and a still absorbing, relevant look at the great depression era and people’s fascination with watching others humiliate themselves and suffer for money. Pollack’s best film.

“The Graduate”, for me is a special case. Despite it flaws, I love this film. Even when it came out, regardless of all the critical phrase it received, the film was dated, at least the character of Benjamin Braddock was. College grad Benjamin looked more like an early 1960’s student than late 60’s Berkeley alumni. I can’t imagine Ben listening to Jimi Hendrix, The Grateful Dead, or Dylan or participating in anti-war protest or the Summer of Love. Benjamin was not just out of touch with his parents generation, he was out of touch with the entire late sixties youth movement.
Like I said, I still love this film, Anne Bancroft was excellent and Robert Surtees photography still stands out. Nichols use of Simon and Garfunkel’s music was innovative, as was “Easy Rider’s” use of rock and roll on the soundtrack; still after forty years of movies copying these films they no longer seem so ground breaking.

Your list of best films is exceptional. The early 60’s certainly had it share of great cinema. “The Apartment”, Dr’ Strangelove “, “Knife in the Water”, “Psycho”, “Yojimbo” along with so many others. Your list makes a persuasive argument for the early 60’s vs. the late 60’s on which part of the decade had the most important works.

In your runner- ups list, I was happy to see “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” included. For me, that film is Richardson’s best film. I still need to see some of these masterworks (The Trail, Lawrence
of Arabia). I am awfully deficient in Bergman’s work having only seen about three of his films, and my
jittery hands screwed me the other night. TCM showed “Persona”, “Hour of the Wolf” and other Bergman
works for which I set my DVD recorder. In a moment of uncontrollable mind and body disconnect, my
fingers went to the delete button and I pressed “YES.” It was like the slow motion shoot out in “Bonnie and Clyde.” My brain is telling me “Nooooooo!” yet my fingers couldn’t stop. My intent was to divide the
Films that were recorded all at one time and not delete.

R. D. Finch said...

Judy, I'm glad to know you're still visiting the site. I saw "The L-Shaped Room" maybe a year ago and was not only impressed but also quite entertained. The ensemble of boarding house characters was great. But Leslie Caron really held it all together. After all those winsome iconic performances in musicals, who would have thought she could be such an effective dramatic actress? For my money, the best lead performance by an actress of 1963 (the year it was released in the U.S.).

T.S., thanks so much for visiting the site. It's always a pleasure to welcome such an esteemed visitor. I can't claim anywhere near comprehensive knowledge of the 1960s (or any other decade). Many of the films Allan Fish listed at WitD I had never even heard of, much less seen! I was lucky enough to live a block away from a classic art house theater in the 60s and saw many of the great films of that decade and the 50s there. My knowledge of subsequent decades is more limited and to be honest, I find the movies of the 1930s-1970s the most interesting.

John, I could tell from the movies you write about and the things you say about them that we have a lot in common when it comes to film. I was a bit disappointed by "The Wild Bunch" when I finally got around to seeing it a few months ago (although I still think it's an excellent movie). I prefer the leaner story line and style of "Ride the High Country." And I had seen "The Professionals" again a while before that and couldn't help noticing the similarities, especially in the treatment of the Mexicans. I was initially completely enthusiastic about "The Graduate" but later downgraded my enthusiasm a bit. It's brilliantly directed and edited. But Anne Bancroft is such a strong presence for me and Katharine Ross such a bland one that the movie seemed to sag after the emphasis shifted from Mrs. Robinson. And you're absolutely right in noting that Benjamin has more in common with the Holden Caulfield generation than with the Flower Power generation. I'm glad you mentioned "They Shoot Horses." I recorded it the last time TCM showed it. But I have to be in the right mood to watch a movie I know in advance is going to be a downer (like some Bergman films). Your praise may spur me to get around to it sooner. I'm glad you like "Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner" too. The Richardson film I want to see next is "A Taste of Honey," but it doesn't seem to be out on DVD.

Thank you all for visiting the site and contributing such encouragingly insightful comments.

Sam Juliano said...

I can't say how thrilled I am to read this thread! I know I go overboard, but can excuse me this one time, and understand why I feel this way? You have honored us with your references and respect, and on board are Judy, T.S. and John, three people whose writings I greatly respect. And then there is you R.D., who has painstakingly spent much time and effort compiling and validating the project with incredible humily and perspective. In that sense, from my own perception it's fool proof.

I think we can circumspectly corroborate this excellent look at this period:

"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."

And it's absolutely true what you say here about BONNIE AND CLYDE and THE GRADUATE being forerunners and this witty aside about the advent of serious film criticism: (too bad the great James Agee never lived through to this time)

"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."

I would only add Dwight MacDonald to that list of America's formost film critics. Kauffman and Kael in my mind are the two greatest critics in the relatively short period of scholarly film criticism.

And I remember MIDNIGHT COWBOY'S release, well and was likewise amazed how far American cinema had come!

While I didn't have adownturn of thinking on Kubrick's 2001 as you did, I quite understand what you saying there, and likewise express complete agreement on the movies you cite there as flawed.

The 1960's were quite simply the greatest individual decade for foreign-language cinema, and the results of the poll at WitD corroborated this with a remarkable 11 of 25 films in a foreign language, nearly half. If not for several 'American standards' that always place in polls such as this, the foreign cinema would have dominated. This was simply (as you rightly contend) the advent of the aeteurs.

I was actually very moved by your difficulty in choosing between JULES AND JIM and PERSONA, as I often am torn betwen the intellectual and th eemotional. I know that quandary well R.D. Yet, both films at the top for you are bonafide masterpieces of cinema (both of course did make the final Top 25 at WitD, with the Bergman at #2)

As I stated at WitD, your list was marvelous, diversified and devoid of the "safe" choice. You were not afraid to go with "alternate choices" on some essential directors, neither did you "compromise." I salute you for that sir!

Your honorable mention lists took up some that may have seen forgotten on the 25, and I must say I am rather shocked that LE SAMOURAI, BATTLE OF ALGIERS and ROMEO AND JULIET did not make the Top 25 in the final results, but we will soon be releasing the 26 to 50, which does include the lot.

R.D. you have a right to be heartened as all your great work--and what a humble guy you are--is now circulating the net, and your exquisite backround and taste in film, along with fantastic writing skills are being informed by respect, and even adoration.

Sam Juliano said...

Here are the results of 26 to 50, which are hereby published at The Movie Projector before anywhere else. (they haven't even posted at WitD yet and won't for several days.)

26 PRODUCERS (BROOKS) 1968 153
32 PAWNBROKER (LUMET………USA) 1964 139
34 SPARTACUS (1960)
35 KES (LOACH, 1969) 125


46 LA JETEE (MARKER, 1962) 97

John said...

Congratulations R.D. on this sneak peek and Sam thanks for sharing this early look at WitD’s list.
It is an amazing list of films, and all are deserving of a spot on it. What a rich decade the 60’s turned out to be. List are always made to be debated and reevaluated over time, and they give you a birds eye view of the richness of the art of film and how it has evolved, and the 1960’s is a perfect decade to examine this evolution. First you had the maturity of the French New Wave, the influence it had on American film and a new generation of American filmmakers. Simultaneously, as R.D. states in his excellent article, you had the last great wave of films from the old guard (Ford, Hitchcock, Wilder) and the emergence of the TV generation of directors (Frankenhemier, Pollack, Lumet). All this activity mingled together resulting in the emergence of another great period of films that we experienced in the 1970’s. This list reflects this richness and its history. There is not much more you can ask from a list.

Thanks guys.

R. D. Finch said...

Sam, thanks for all the kind things you said about the post and about my participation in the WitD poll. The polls at WitD are so stimulating that I have to be careful not to become too obsessive about them! As I said at the site, they are really inspiring in the way they make us think about what we like and why. Looking over all the lists submitted, I was amazed at their diversity and also at the independence your readers show in their judgments. As for you, I am astounded by your ability to watch all these movies (including current ones) and maintain your enthusiasm for concert music, opera, and theater--and still have a life as well. And you take the time to leave such thorough comments here too. I feel truly honored that you posted a sneak preview of the rest of the top 50 here. Thank you.

John, thanks for your follow-up comment. I especially appreciated your concise summary of the evolution of film in the 1960s. I can tell from your closing remark that you are looking as forward to the best of the 70s poll as I am.

Eric said...

Ah, La Dolce Vita is a masterpiece! One of my favorites of all time.

Sam Juliano said...

R.D.: Your incredible comments here R.D. leave me speechless. I'll admit I am always juggling to address the many interests and responsibilities in my life, and so far I'm managed. But I'll admit it's always a struggle. I was thrilled to post the supplement results here, and remain awed by all the attention and time investment you have given these polls, not to mention the many acknowledgements of WitD. My deepest appreciation. This entire comment thread has been fantastic too.