Top Ten Movies: 1966

Blow Up 2

Ah, such were the days when college freshman ransacked art house theaters, lurking in cramped little rooms full of budding green-horned intellectuals searching for discussion springboards in critical studies courses. And what a time! Up on screen they encountered pinnacles of sorts, movies tearing apart at the screen in radicalizations. It’s not an exaggeration then to read down at this list and note that any of these titles on any other given year could have easily ranked at the very top. But alas, the days of Persona and Au Hasard Balthazar are misty-eyed over. Not that there aren’t bona fide masterpieces – whatever that means – today. It’s just not the same scene, man. Far too many wonderful outlets prohibit a singular, dogmatic mentality to rule supreme. No Godardian deity to enshrine en masse or Sarris/Kael arena to pit oneself against as fervent cineastes nervously flip through the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma in defense of Louise Brooks and Allan Dwan. Hell, I wasn’t even born yet and I miss it. But we do still have the movies. And at the top are two of the best damn pieces of celluloid we’ll always have around. Masculin-Féminin captures said youth thriving in said habitat, all raised fingers in opinions, chugging down coffee, and chain smoking-cigarettes en route to bed for both sex, and, most importantly, more bon mots. The movie’s ethnographic (yeah), iconoclastic, and fun. Perhaps Godard’s most disarming, not that it isn’t dark (just picture a Disney star today casually discussing abortion). But then there’s Blowup, which takes it one step ahead by stripping away post-adolescent energy and leaving the remains, nihilism, knowing damn well that that’s where the generation was headed to anyway. Pretty hard to top that, don’t you think? And so at number one Antonioni stands in a hellishly impressive year.

1. Blowup (Michelangelo Antonioni)
2. Masculin Féminin (Jean-Luc Godard)
3. Persona (Ingmar Bergman)
4. Andrei Rublev (Andrei Tarkovsky)
5. Au Hasard Balthazar (Robert Bresson)
6. Chimes at Midnight (Orson Welles)
7. Seconds (John Frankenheimer) and The Face of Another (Hiroshi Teshigahara)
8. The Birds, the Bees and the Italians (Pietro Germi)
9. Cul-de-sac (Roman Polanski)
10. The Taking of Power by Louis XIV (Roberto Rossellini) and Nayak (Satyajit Ray)

A sucker for buxom 60’s blonde expatriates dabbling in glitz town, – and who isn’t!? – The Birds, the Bees, and the Italians was a wonderful discovery for me in the Virna Lisi cannon, and, quite possibly, the very best of the commedia all’italiana genre. It speeds way through three story lines on crack, with each premise topping the one that preceded it until it reaches a mother of a politically incorrect conclusion. Seconds is the All That Heaven Allows with Rock Hudson playing the Jane Wyman role, while Hiroshi Teshigahara’s The Face of Another shares an eerily similar premise to the Frankenheimer drama, which nevertheless is executed just as, get this, surgically. Cul-de-sac has always given me the impression of being Polanski in “pure” form and The Taking of Power by Louis XIV is remarkable in its nonchalant take on a period piece. Seriously, it’s so relaxed that it feels like you’re watching a cinéma vérité reel that just so happened to be filmed in the 17th century.

Those that missed the top include The Battle of Algiers, which on many days is better than most of the stuff I’ve got up here. Seriously, I’m beginning to regret its omission. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, whose reputation I’ll let speak for itself. And Black Girl, Ousmane Sembéne’s claim to international recognition and an incisively frigid piece that’s less than an hour long. Oh! And Monte Hellman’s The Shooting for several reasons, one being Jack Nicholson’s Byronic-like wardrobe and Will Hutchins, ah Will Hutchins. But the list keeps rolling off. There’s John Ford’s oddity Seven Women, somber and strange, really strange. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, an actor’s workshop dandy. Closely Watched Trains and Daisies, Czechoslovakia’s outlets. Wings, Larisa Shepitko’s outstanding debut. Who Are You, Polly Magoo?, a stamp of the time, along with Modesty Blaise, Alfie, and Georgy Girl. Roger Corman’s surprisingly perceptive The Wild Angels. Shohei Imamura’s The Pornographers. Alfred Hitchcock creating a tense scene on how hard it is to truly murder someone in Torn Curtain. And Seijun Suzuki with two wild tales of – surprise, surprise – youth in Fighting Elegy, and, my personal favorite of his, Tokyo Drifter. Lastly, I’d like to make a comment about Robert Downey Sr.’s Chafed Elbows. The comment being that if you like midnight movies here’s one hell of a way to sleaze still-photo storytelling. I wonder what Ken Burns would do with that.

I’ll be on hiatus for a couple of months but will return with 2010. In the meantime, enjoy some Chantal Goya and the wonderful Yé-Yé music I so passionately adore.

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Top Ten Movies: 1962

jules-and-jim

What a year, what a year. While there are countless venerations, books even, about Hollywood’s Golden Age reaching its zenith in 1939, there’s undoubtedly a strong argument to be held in favor for that underrated and infallible coalescing of world cinemas that took place in 1962. Hell, Hollywood’s bloated epics were rapidly deflating into hot air as emerging voices pushed their way out of conventionality. The likes of earnest political dramas in the vein of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington were giving way to acid-dripping bite in the contorted form of John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate. The new kids on the block were taking over, mainly overseas. But those old guards that recognized this change, and accepted it, allowed their work to mature into a poignantly muted lament. I’m looking at you, Ford and Ozu. So why my number one? Francois Truffaut’s Jules and Jim has every deserved right to be identified as a French New Wave product. It malleates film grammar and brandishes it upon youth. But about midway through, unexpectedly, it begins to shift gears. That tire-screeching ride strolls countryside. It takes a long breath and holds it, wearing out into a deep self-reflection its fledgling director had every right not to experience yet. Having died young makes it all that much more touching. So Truffaut’s masterpiece beats out a whistle-blowing list of damn good cinema.

1. Jules and Jim (Francois Truffaut)
2. Vivre sa vie (Jean-Luc Godard)
3. L’Eclisse (Michelangelo Antonioni)
4. Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean)
5. The Manchurian Candidate (John Frankenheimer)
6. The Exterminating Angel (Luis Buñuel)
7. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford) and Ride the High Country (Sam Peckinpah)
8. An Autumn Afternoon (Yasujiro Ozu)
9. Cléo from 5 to 7 (Agnès Varda)
10. Freud (John Huston)

You want to talk about omissions? Let me mention to you those that just missed the cut. There’s Roman Polanski’s scathing feature debut Knife in the Water. You had Kubrick behaving very naughty with Lolita. Bergman was especially Bergman this year with Winter LightKurosawa had his Yojimbo sequel, Sanjuro. Chris Marker had his brilliant short, La Jetée. The Brits provided us with their ever-so-dependable angry men in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. Andrei Tarkovsky introduced himself to the cinephile world with Ivan’s Childhood. Pasolini collaborated with Italy’s brass beauty in Mamma Roma. In Hollywood, there was Mulligan’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Penn’s The Miracle Worker, Aldrich’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Hell, we even had the mother of predecessor indies through the horror vessel I like to call Carnival of Souls. Throw in Il SorpassoOs Cafajestes, Sundays and Cybele, The Trial, Salvatore Giuliano, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, A Kind of Loving, and I might as well be giving myself a heart attack. Seriously. Harakiri, Merril’s Marauders, Cape Fear, Two Weeks in Another Town, The Intruder, Advise and Consent. I can’t stop!

Top Ten Movies: 1967

1967 Le Samourai

What a year for French cinema! While those wunderkinds of the New Wave continued to hack away at the content and form of film, one even going so far as to disown the medium, you had seasoned veterans producing some of their most distilled and finest work. And distilled is exactly the word I’d use to describe Robert Bresson’s Mouchette and Jacques Tati’s Playtime, both lauded masterpieces that produce a certain kind of purity in their directors’ visions. The same could also be said about Belle de Jour, a movie that has always struck me as the Buñuel film to initiate one unfamiliar with his sensibilities, foot fetish and all. But it is Jean-Pierre Melville’s lean and stoic crime drama that nabs the top spot with its astonishing balance of both quiet urgency and its counterintuitive weariness. Melville, caught between the French pre-war traditional method of filmmaking and its enfants terrible successors, always seemed to mirror a combination of the two. With Le Samouräi, he just so happened to also produce his most stylish and iconic gangster movie of them all. And in Melville’s world, that kind of detail makes every bit a difference.

1. Le Samouraï (Jean-Pierre Melville)
2. Belle de Jour (Luis Buñuel)
3. Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn)
4. Mouchette (Robert Bresson)
5. Playtime (Jacques Tati)
6. Accident (Joseph Losey)
7. Weekend and Two or Three Things I Know About Her (Jean-Luc Godard)
8. Point Blank (John Boorman)
9. The Young Girls of Rochefort (Jacques Demy)
10. Cool Hand Luke (Stuart Rosenberg)

Even American films began to exude with an invigorated youthfulness that had rubbed off from overseas. Bonnie and Clyde and Point Blank, the former initially orchestrated to be directed by Francois Truffaut, brimmed with an energy knowingly produced by French gangster movies like Breathless and Shoot the Piano Player, movies themselves influenced by, what else, but older American gangster pictures. I guess we Yankees just didn’t know how good we had it. But we did have Cool Hand Luke, an Americana piece of classical craftsmanship that beats out another peer amongst its class, El Doroado.

Those that just missed the cut include Mike Nichols’ little known comedy The Graduate (have you heard of it?), which unfortunately conventionalizes in its second half when it should have jabbed deeper into the Braddock-Mrs. Robinson affair. D.A. Pennebaker showed the world that Bob Dylan could be a not so very nice guy in Don’t Look Back, and Robert Blake gave the performance of a lifetime – even though Scott Wilson’s is better – in In Cold Blood, eerily foretelling a future all too familiar to Blake’s movie character. Then there’s Shirley Clarke’s fly-on-the-wall Portrait of Jason, which, along with David Holzman’s Diary and Titicut Follies, makes for an astounding case of exceptional documentaries that emerged in 1967 – if Diaries could be considered that.

Czechoslovakia had the breathtaking Marketa Lazarová and The Firemen’s Ball, Sweden gave us the *ahem* mature I Am Curious (Yellow), and Brazil offered up the spellbinding Terra em Transe. More great French films included Éric Rohmer’s La Collectioneuse and Godard’s La Chinoise (which makes three!), while Britain bestowed the… what would you call it? Somber? Somber cinematic year with an underrated and still clever comedy, Bedazzled, that, come to think of it, could take a spot on the top ten any day of the week. Now where do I sign?

Next time it will be the year 1995. “There’s a snake in my boot!”