Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Ten Great Films of the Sixties: Part 1

            Film history is often simplified into eras notably The Golden Age of Hollywood between the nineteen forties and fifties, and New Hollywood in the seventies. The sixties takes place in this weird transfer between the two eras, which is bitterly called The Fall of Hollywood; but a more optimistic critic would simply call this new wave.  The reason it was called “The Fall” was because so many changes happened spontaneously that it looked like the film industry was going to crash.  At the time, television was becoming a competitor; foreign films were in vogue, and the infamous censorship codes were being replaced by the more lax MPAA rating system.  In this context, it makes sense for Hollywood executives to think that the sky was falling, but they did not have the foresight to expect the creative explosion that would occur in this decade.  It was the moment when the filmmakers began to push the idea that film is not just entertainment, but also an art form.
            That being said, it is impossible for me to even talk about these films without sounding esoteric. Heck, a drinking game can be made out of the number of times the phrases “at the time” and “for its time” is used in this article, but is that not the point?  First of all, because so much of what made these films has been copied to death so it is required for me to provide context. It is not enough to just say that a film is good and a must-see, a critic must examine the themes, ideas, and subtleties in order to explain why a film is great. Like what Roger Ebert said "It's not what a movie is about, it's how it is about it." So what if these post sounds stuffier than usual, at least it shows that actual thought went into these films.

10. Night of the Living Dead
            Night of Living Dead is a film that I wrote about before and while my grammar was bad I still think it is fun film to watch, but I want to revisit it to explain why it is a great from a more mature perspective. Prior to Night of the Living Dead, the horror genre looked more like a series of grotesque melodramas. These types of film are nice for a lark and some are actually really good, but the formula was so stale, it was moldy.  They also looked so embarrassingly cheap. But then Night of the Living Dead took this formula and ripped it to shreds, defying any expectations that audience had at the time.  
            In any interview with the director George A. Romero, he often talks about how he grew up on sophisticated films like Tales of Hoffman, and this love shows in Night of the Living Dead because the camerawork is very refined. Through the use of low-key lighting, clever angles and mise en scéne Romero gives the film better production value than most films that have actual sets.  Another thing is how realistic the premise is portrayed with the characters being too scared, confused and angry to comprehend the impending doom, let alone work together. But given that this was a contemporary film made during the Cold War, it also doubles as a satire of the fear of invasion.  In the end, beneath the blood and gore is a brutality nihilistic, masterfully atmospheric film, emphasized by stark black and white cinematography and at the time a very relevant plot.
            (Funny Story: Due to a mistake in the beginning credits. Night of the Living Dead has been the Public Domain since its premiere. There are dozens of companies that sell the DVD and its free on Google Video, Youtube and even Hulu. But if you don't want be interrupted by adds I recommend this DVD, which ranges from 5 to 2 bucks on Amazon.

9. Le Samouraï
            To understand a film like Le Samouraï it is required to know a little about French New Wave, but since this a top ten, I apologize for grossly over simplifying these subjects.  Long ago in the mystical land of late fifties Paris, a collective of film critics, many of whom became filmmakers as well, began to dissect film and its history in order to define it as an art form unique to other forms.  This included many theories that eventually made cinema the way it is today, including the Auteur Theory (more on that later). Soon enough many of these critics put these studies to test by creating their own film and thus French New Wave was born.
            The reason I chose Le Samouraï over a dozen of equally brilliant, if not better films among this movement is that it is the most accessible; but that is just a formal way of saying “Oh my God this is so cool!” Le Samouraï is about a hitman who dresses like Sinatra and lives by Bushido.  No lie, the first thing shown on screen is a fake line of samurai philosophy, which should make the Quentin Tarantino fans quiver in fear.  Anyway, while Le Samouraï is at heart a gangster film, but the fact the plot blends such genres like westerns, film noir, thrillers, and of course samurai films makes it a one of a kind film.
            (Le Samuoraï is only available on DVD, but it's a Criterion release so at least the print is nice)

8. Belle de Jour
            In order to really know what to expect from a film like Belle De Jour, one must understand auteur theory. After certain French New Wave members recognized that the filmographies of many directors have similar themes and trends, they theorized that the director provides the artistic vision.  Whether it is as something simple as Quentin Tarantino’s love for B-movies, or complex as Ingmar Bergman’s ideas on spirituality in a nihilistic society, the most superior film is one that is part of the artistic legacy of the director. In the case of Luis Buñuel, he was a master cinematic surrealism, and Belle de Jour was one of his greater successes.  
            The story of Belle de Jour is bare bones, is about an upper-class housewife, played by a very understated Catherine Deneuve, who secretly works as a prostitute under the titular pseudonym.  Yet with such simple plot, Buñuel manages to create a strange possibly allegorical tale of sexual repression, masochism and counterculture. Buñuel surrealist style is shown in Belle de Jour through a stream of conscious approach to narrative. The main character frequently has revealing flashbacks and bizarre masochistic dreams, but Buñuel does not uniquely frame these scenes to separate them from the film’s reality, making it difficult to separate the actual story and the main character’s psyche.  While the plot sounds like an excuse for some very uncreative pornography, Buñuel is more interested Deneuve’s costumes and dream sequences than actual nudity.  In spite of sounding incomprehensible to Belle De Jour is a funny, sensual drama made by a director who truly has a singular, albeit twisted, vision. If you want to see a Salvador Dalí painting move, then check out Belle De Jour and the rest of Buñuel’s work, he will melt your brain.
            (Belle de Jour is available on DVD and Blu-ray, it is also a Criterion release.)

7. The Great Escape
            The Great Escape is a World War II story about how a group of prisoners of war managed to dig their way out a concentration camp, which is theoretically a serious subject, but that idea was scrapped as each prisoner tries to piss off every guard in the camp. The Great Escape is just fun personified, filled with great actors, humor and awesome action sequences.  It features both Richard Attenborough and Steve McQueen in one of their most iconic roles as well as James Coburn, James Garner, Charles Bronson and Donald Pleasance; and all of them wonderfully ham it up for the camera.  There are moments of dark drama that are rather jarring, especially during the ending, but scenes like the moonshine fueled Independence Day party and McQueen’s motorcycle stunts keep the picture from ever breaking momentum. 
            (The Great Escape is only available DVD, there is a single disc and a two disc set)

6. To Kill a Mockingbird
            Even though many of the best films in the sixties are famous for being different and innovative there were still many films that were still made in the old-fashioned style; but that being said, I cannot imagine To Kill a Mockingbird being made in any other way. With the expressive musical score and black-and-white cinematography, To Kill a Mockingbird looks more like one of John Ford’s old non-western films (like Grapes of Wrath) than anything modern, yet this works with the nostalgic tone and time period of the plot.
            The story is a sprawling piece about the days in the life two siblings, Louise “Scout” Finch and her brother Jem, and their strange adventures while living in Alabama during the Depression Era.  The main link of their plot(s) though is their father Atticus Finch, the only lawyer anyone can respect. But in all seriousness, of all the great heroes in film history, Atticus Finch is easily the best. He is not a great hero in the escapist sense like Indiana Jones, as in the audience wishes to be like him, but he is a character that people wish that he exists in real life.  
            (To Kill a Mockingbird is available DVD and Blu-ray)


Yeah, even I think I'm being a lazy %@#$. Another college semester is looming around the corner, which will make these already hefty posts take even longer to create.  Hopefully by splitting these lists into sections will help prevent my ridiculous delays.  (buyer's info coming soon)

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