Thursday, March 14, 2013

Top 10's of the decades - 1960's

10. Masque of the Red Death (1964, directed by Roger Corman)
The newest addition to my lists, as far as the most recently viewed by me, is this seventh Roger Corman movie based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe. One of Poe's best stories becomes this terrific movie that really caught me by surprise. With the campy b-movie king Roger Corman directing one of the legends of the campy b-movie, Vincent Price, I guess I wasn't expecting a movie this dark and sinister and not at all campy. It's the story of a plague sweeping through a region in medieval England, where Price's Satan worshiping Prince Prospero holds court in his castle for many noblemen and women, while the countryside dies horrible deaths from the plague.

Price is simply phenomenal, oozing danger and evil while having his trademark sense of humor (which makes him and that smile all the more frightening). It's opulently made, or at least appears so, reusing sets from the Peter O'Toole/Richard Burton starring medieval movie Becket. Looking terrific (shot by the legendary Nicolas Roeg), coupled with Corman not turning away or cheapening the darkness of Poe's original material, it's absolutely a terrific movie, and very worthy of its inclusion on this list.

9. High and Low (1963, directed by Akira Kurosawa)
No secret by now that I'm a huge fan of Akira Kurosawa's work. There's something about his movies that really speak to me. I knew I was going to love this movie simply from its premise. Kingo Gondo (Toshiro Mifune) is a shoe company executive. He becomes the target of extortionists who plan to kidnap his son and hold him for ransom. But as he's getting ready to pay the ransom, he finds out that it's not his son, but his drivers, who is kidnapped. Kurosawa uses this as a jumping off point for a police procedural with some philosophical questions wrapped around it. Is the drivers son worth any less than the bosses? If you were the boss would you use the money you'd saved up in your dream of finally taking control of your company, or would you spare the life of a boy you don't even know?

The movie is split almost in half, with the first dealing with the kidnapping, and the second dealing with the search for the kidnappers. It's to Kurosawa's credit that even though Mifune is one of the most charismatic and watchable leading men the movies have ever known, when the cop characters take over the second half of the film, the quality never dips. It's a tremendous movie, and one whose reputation (rightfully) grows year after year.

8. The Silence (1963, directed by Ingmar Bergman)
One of the stranger films on these lists, Bergman's The Silence is the story of two sisters, one dying and one resentfully caring for her and her son. While on a train home through Europe, they decide to stop in at the fictional town of Timoka, a place on the brink of war, and stay for a bit. The son seems to make a sort of friend in the kind elderly hotel porter, though the country speaks in an unintelligible language. There are long, fascinating shots of the boy exploring the hotel, running into the porter and meeting some of the other inhabitants. This is contrasted to the battle of wills between the sisters, as the sick one gets closer to dying and the other acts out with some of the locals.

Intended as the final entry into Bergman's "Faith Trilogy", starting with 1961's Through a Glass Darkly, and continued with 1963's Winter Light, The Silence evokes its title in many ways. Of course, if an artist refers to something as a "Faith Trilogy" and there's an entry called "The Silence", you can bet that the silence of God will be an issue in that piece. But Bergman always dealt with heavy issues like that in his work. On a much simpler level, The Silence is a very low key movie, with not a ton of dialog. The thing I actually came out remembering most was all of those great shots in and out of the hallway as the young boy searches through the hotel. It felt like an expansive journey of a movie, I was surprised to find out that it is only an hour and a half long. It feels longer, in a weirdly good way.

7. The Haunting (1963, directed by Robert Wise)
THE great haunted house movie, and probably what I would consider my favorite "horror" movie. Sadly, many people only know the title The Haunting from the reprehensible 1999 remake with Liam Neeson, Owen Wilson, and Catherine Zeta-Jones. That version is an unabashed piece of shit. Robert Wise's original is of the great old school variety where they actually created characters, used suspense, and made us believe that we're in a haunted house, instead of just throwing special effects at us.

It's not complicated. A team of people goes to investigate the alleged haunting of Hill House. Two men, Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson) and Luke (Russ Tamblyn), two women, Eleanor (Julie Harris) and Theo (Claire Bloom). Finding simple things in the house like unexplainable cold spots, the tension ratchets up until we have things like "HELP ELEANOR COME HOME" scrawled on the walls and (naturally) Eleanor, who seemed initially to have the least connection to the project, starts to unravel. The movie has some great set pieces, like the door bowing into the room where the girls sit frightened on the bed, but the SFX are always in service of the story, and Wise never forgets that this is the story of these people, Eleanor in particular, not the SFX. Made between his huge successes of 1961's West Side Story and 1965's The Sound of Music, you wouldn't think this was made by the same filmmaker, but that's what makes Wise one of the underappreciated great directors of all time.

6. Blowup (1966, directed by Michelangelo Antonioni)
The first English language movie from Michelangelo Antonioni, Blowup is a hell of a good time at the movies. The Hitchcockian tale of a photographer who may or may not have accidentally photographed a murder, and the ensuing 24 or so hours after he did it. Antonioni doesn't give us any easy answers, and never answers the question of what "really" happened. But he doesn't need to, because that's not what he's after.

I think he's after a couple of things. 1.) He shows his main character, Thomas, bored with the mundanity of his fashion shoots and longing to be artistically motivated again. Antonioni had not really been going through a dry spell as an artist, but I think all artists feel bored and feel a need to reconnect or rechallenge themselves again. But to what end? Thomas almost becomes stuck in his project, not sure of how to get out (or if he even wants to) 2.) Antonioni is commenting on the nature of reality and perception. The famous ending scene with the mimes playing tennis as Thomas watches is a perfect distillation of Antonioni's asking of the question "what is reality? How is it different from perception? IS it different?" Few thrillers have ever challenged us to ask such deep questions before.

5. Red Beard (1965, directed by Akira Kurosawa)
One of the most human epics the movies have ever given us, Red Beard is one of the handful of movies I would ever describe as being "novelic". It was a hellish shoot, taking over two years, and the stress it caused meant it was subsequently the last of 16 movies Kurosawa made with Toshiro Mifune.

The movie is the journey of arrogant young doctor Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama), who for his post-graduate job is sent to work for the enigmatic Akahige, or "Red Beard", Dr. Niide (Mifune). Brash and uppity about his fancy Dutch medical training, Yasumoto believes he has nothing to learn from the small hospital Niide runs, and certainly not from the man himself. Over the course of the movie, though, Yasumoto's guard comes down and Niide forces him to grow up and realize that there's much more to medicine than the latest technological training. Sometimes you simply need to bear witness to the life of someone you can't save, and sometimes you have to work harder than you thought possible to save someone who doesn't think they can be saved.

Red Beard is probably Mifune's triumph as an actor. Gruff, no-nonsense, intimidating, but caring, philosophical, and strong and smart in every possible way, he's a fascinating character, expertly underplayed by the sometimes over-the-top Mifune. Sadly, it was allegedly the reservations of one of the writers saying that Mifune's performance was "all wrong" that led Kurosawa to question his leading man and ultimately never work with him again. While it was the financial stress put on Mifune by having to wear a natural beard and be available for sporadic shooting for more than two years, ultimately losing out on upwards of 10 movie roles in the process that caused Mifune to not want to work with Kurosawa again. Sad though it was that this was their swansong, it's a remarkable movie and a satisfying finale to the greatest actor/director combo in all of cinema.

4. Psycho (1960, directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
One of the most famous, talked about, written about movies ever made, Hitchcock's low budget masterpiece Psycho deserves every bit of attention it's had. Knowing in advance the twists and turns of the story, it's to Hitch's credit that I was engrossed from the first frame of film. Anthony Perkins delivered the performance of a lifetime as Norman Bates, a truly extraordinary character we've never seen before. Janet Leigh is terrific as well, as the woman on the run who checks into the wrong hotel. It's not quite as quick moving as some of the other greats from the master, I don't think the search storyline is anywhere near as interesting as the Norman/Marion piece, but it's still good so it's a minor quibble in an otherwise tremendous movie.

On a side note, the controversial "shot-by-shot" remake that Gus Van Sant made in 1998 is one of the most fascinating pieces of experimental cinema I've seen. When asked why he did it, he said "so no one else would have to." He was trying to see if recreating a magical movie like Psycho shot-by-shot would retain all of the cinematic greatness, or if there's something deeper and unexplainable that makes a certain movie special. Sadly, it's obvious from seeing his version that the movie doesn't work, and there is indeed something deeper and unexplainable going on here. But since so much vitriol has been spit at Van Sant over the years for this project, I actually wanted to voice my support of his artistic balls, even if I think he failed to make a good movie.

3. The Apartment (1960, directed by Billy Wilder)
One of the loneliest movies ever made would not seem the place to inject a healthy amount of comedy, but Billy Wilder's triumph does exactly that with a grace and wit rarely seen. Jack Lemmon does his greatest work creating C.C. Baxter, the lonely corporate ladder climber who lets his bosses use his apartment for their affairs because it's cheaper than a hotel room (and doesn't come with any paperwork). He has never realized just how alone he feels until he falls for Shirley MacLaine's Fran Kubelik, and the moment late in the movie when he voices this is one of Lemmon's greatest scenes. Fred MacMurray plays Lemmon's boss, who MacLaine's character is having an affair with.

The description of the plot doesn't sound like there's much room for comedy either, but you must remember that this was the creative team just coming off of the great Some Like It Hot the previous year. Lemmon, Wilder, and co-writer I.A.L. Diamond were all at the top of their games and crafted one of the most complex, interesting movies to ever win a Best Picture Oscar, a fitting cap on the unabashed greatness that's permeates this masterpiece.

2. Persona (1966, directed by Ingmar Bergman)
Bergman's Persona is truly one of the most exciting movies ever made. It's a minimalist almost surrealist film about an actress named Elisabet (Liv Ullmann) who stops speaking onstage one night, and Alma (Bibi Andersson) the nurse assigned to be her caretaker while Elisabet goes to a small cottage to recover.  Alma talks almost constantly, initially good naturedly, to Elisabet about all manner of things, from reading a letter Elisabet's husband sends, to relating the story of a sexual encounter at the beach. Alma slowly begins to resent Elisabet and when she acts out by leaving a piece of broken glass for her to step on, Elisabet's eyes meet Alma's and the film famously burns up before Bergman reassembles it and we get on with the story.

The story then gets more odd and abstract, as we later see a monologue delivered once with the camera completely on Liv Ullmann's face, and then cut to Bibi Andersson's as the monologue is redelivered. After this comes the famous scene where Bergman take half of Ullman's face and half of Andersson's and mashes them together to show a truly frightening image of one face. Despite the bone chilling feeling of watching these two come together, my interpretation of the movie has always been that Alma and Elisabet are simply the same person, with Alma breaking off into her own character as Elisabet refuses to speak out loud.

Interpretations of movies like this are fun, but nothing compares to the visceral feeling of actually watching it. The moment when the two faces of these absolutely gorgeous women come together to make this monstrous looking face is a chilling psychological horror feeling I've not ever felt from another movie. I almost had to turn it off it was so disturbing to me. So great is Bergman that a simple act like this (something Bergman superfan Woody Allen later used in his comedy Love and Death) could have such an impact. Less than an hour and a half long, it's the epitome of the movie that you may not quite be sure what each piece means upon your viewing, but you're sure that you've seen greatness that must be dissected and examined.

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, directed by Stanley Kubrick)
Another movie that must be talked about and examined in detail is the best movie of the 1960's, Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Disappointed that there were no great sci-fi movies, in his mind, Kubrick set out to collaborate with one of sci-fi's great minds, British author Arthur C. Clarke. They came up with the general outline together, and Kubrick went off the write the script and make the movie while Clarke wrote the book, that way both had artistic freedom in their fields, while also having worked together in the project's inception. What we got from Kubrick (I've strangely never read the book, despite being a huge Clarke fan) is sci-fi's great intellectual work, taking a long hard look at technology and how it affects us.

The movie really is driven by technology, the apes in the opening sequence discovering the use of bones as tools and weapons really being the first technology. We jump ahead to spaceships and all this crazy cool tech stuff that has become so commonplace it's boring to the characters. Next, the most conventional (and entertaining) section, with the HAL9000 and its crew on their dangerous mission to Jupiter. And the final section where our technology is irrelevant, but our evolution keeps going. A fascinating look on every level, with all the questions it raises stimulating our minds, while the still nearly flawless SFX holding our  eyes, 2001 is really an amazing achievement on every level.

Not necessarily easy to get through, I turned it off just a few minutes after the opening "Dawn of Man" sequence was over during my first attempt to watch it. But I went back and am glad that I did, as seeing it as a whole let me see what Kubrick was going for. Really the only complaint I have about this movie (which is in my all-time top 10) is the "Beyond the Infinite" sequence, where Dave goes through the wormhole into universes and planets and surfaces we could never imagine and can't really even process in our minds (this subject was a the focus of a section in Clarke's earlier masterpiece Childhood's End). The sequence goes on long after the point has been made, but even though it becomes monotonous after a bit, that makes the eventual sudden cut to Dave's face all the more shocking and effective. Kubrick's greatest movie, and the best movie of the 60's, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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