Top Fifty Films of the 60s — Number One

#1 — Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, 1964)
It may be that true cinematic genius stems less from an ability to fulfill a particular vision to the letter and more from a knack for pulling together all the unwieldy challenges that beset any production into a coherent, satisfying finished product. When pieces threaten to go flinging off the rig while it’s moving at top speed is when a director’s talent is truly tested. Compromises can always be transformed into advantages, but it takes someone with the intellect, patience, creativity and recognition of the value of happy accidents to do it. When Stanley Kubrick made Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, he didn’t want to cast Peter Sellers in multiple roles (it was insisted on by the studio, attributing much of the box office success of Kubrick’s Lolita to Sellers’ playful, identity-shifting performance as Clare Quilty), he had to contend with George C. Scott’s discomfort with playing the material as broadly as was called for and he went down a few creative blind alleys, most notably the famed pie fight scene that was shot but not used in the finished film. Kubrick had to be shrewdly adaptive throughout the process, from taking Peter George’s novel Red Alert from the serious to the bleakly comic (aided by George himself and Terry Southern, co-conspirators on the screenplay) to the complicated shoot to the final assemblage, the last with the added task of threading the multiple improvisational digressions of Sellers into the film in a coherent manner. Making this chaos into a resounding satisfying work of art is a crazy task, but, as I alluded to above, we are in the territory of genius here.

Dr. Strangelove is Kubrick’s attempt to make sense of the heightened Cold War paranoia and tension that helped define the first half of the nineteen-sixties. Always a sardonic observer of human foible, Kubrick naturally determined that the only way to confront this aspect of global life–especially the bizarro strategy of mutually assured destruction–was with the blackest of comedy. The plot begins with the alarmingly realistic notion that a stockpile of weapons can become the tool of destructive misuse through the actions of a single individual, even one whose clearly toppled off his rocker. That describes Brigadier General Jack. D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), who strays from his soliloquies about the dangers of fluoridated ice cream and sharing one’s essence during the physical act of love long enough to order a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. That sets off a flurry of arguments and strategic conjecture in the Unites States “War Room,” with U.S. President Merkin Muffley (Sellers) and General Buck Turgidson (Scott) representing dovish and hawkish approaches, respectively. Unable to reach the plane bound for Mother Russia, the American officials are forced to engage in varied discussion with Russian counterparts to figure out how to extricate the planet from pending nuclear annihilation.

Kubrick’s bleak sense of humor suits the topic well, and his sense of timing throughout the film is pinpoint perfect. He knows when to hustle and bustle through scenes, playing up the kinetic energy as the tension increases, and then when to slow down the filmmaking process to simple soak in a brilliant comic set piece, such as the long held shot on President Muffley as he makes a bad news phone call to the Soviet premier. And if Kubrick’s subterfuge to get Scott to go bigger and bigger in his acting eventually angered the actor when he found out the director used what were promised to be “practice takes,” the results are worth the hard feelings. I mean it with complete sincerity and stripped of as much hyperbole as I can manage when I call Scott’s performance here one of my four or five favorites ever committed to film. The actors are uniformly strong (Hayden manages to be simultaneously hilarious and terrifying), but Scott is incredible, wringing every bit of wryly funny petulance out lines that signal the self-perpetuating folly of constant arms escalation: “Gee, I wish we had one of them doomsday machines.”

Every bit of the film contributes to its marvelous whole, including the beautifully realized War Room set, a triumph of art direction, and the rich, evocative black and white cinematography, by the masterful Gilbert Taylor. Kubrick’s satire traverses the fine line between outrageousness and pointed truth with acrobatic ease, exposing the lunacy of nations that preserved the peace by hovering shaky fingers directly over buttons that could eradicate mankind if pressed. Unthinkable as drama, it makes for grand comedy, at least as long as the right creator is presiding over it. Dr. Strangelove had the exact right creator, one who had the wherewithal–and, yes, the genius–to shape its glorious mayhem into something vivid and vital.

Top Fifty Films of the 60s — Number Two

#2 — The Apartment (Billy Wilder, 1960)
Often I have described myself as a cynical romantic (or a romantic cynic, but the other version rolls off the tongue more pleasantly). While there are undoubtedly a multitude of influences that led me to this worldview that’s equal parts wistful and curdled, I’m willing to lay a decent chunk of the blame at the feet of Billy Wilder. I maintain the Austrian-born filmmaker is one of the greatest to earn his living in the wilds of Hollywood, in part because of his mastery across films with vastly different tones–I marvel that the same director presided over Double Indemnity and Some Like It Hot–but mostly because of the bracingly frank appraisal of human nature, often leavened with a dose of wicked wit, that was the common denominator across his filmography. At a time when many of his contemporaries were depicting the motivations and inclinations of people in starkly delineated categories of good and bad, Wilder allowed that it was all more complicated than that, even when he was working with clear heroes and villains. Morality was clear, but it was slippery all the same. And all that leads me straight to The Apartment.

Jack Lemmon, fresh off his shared triumph with Wilder on the prior year’s Some Like It Hot, stars as C.C. “Bud” Baxter, a low-level drone at a New York-based insurance company who starts rising up the corporate ladder largely due to his reluctant willingness to lend out his apartment to corporate executives looking for a discreet place to stage their extramarital trysts, especially once the company’s personal director, Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), claims exclusive rights to the space. Complicating matters for Baxter is the little detail that Sheldrake’s latest conquest, Fran Kubelick (Shirley MacLaine), is the woman he himself has been pining for, the elevator operator in the company’s building. Not only does this stir up jealousy and resentment, but Baxter gets firsthand exposure to the way Sheldrake’s heartless exploitation of Fran harms her when a holiday dalliance in the apartment takes a grim turn. That Wilder and his regular screenwriting collaborator, I.A.L. Diamond, manage to keep the film funny and light-on-its-feet despite the fairly dark subject matter is one of the great wonders of the filmmaker’s lively creativity.

Wilder also had a clear sense of the gift he had in Lemmon. The actor possessed a restless craftiness that was ideally suited to Baxter’s uneasy interactions. He takes the unseemly predicament the character finds himself and makes the trip to that point both highly understandable and worthy of great sympathy. Lemmon had a way of artfully playing characters who were beset by troubles without ever letting them become wallowing victims; his sad sacks were oddly winning. There are other fine performances across the film–particularly MacLaine, who makes Fran charming and sweetly lost–but it’s Lemmon who grounds it, making the various conceits of the story into pieces of a real life, remnants of genuine dilemmas. Wilder was deft enough with tone that it’s entirely possible he could have pulled off the necessary balancing act no matter who was in the leading role, but he was shrewd enough to know the likability of Lemmon allowed him to push deeper in the murky corners of his story. This is, at the bottom line, a story about adultery, duplicity, loneliness, depression and attempted suicide.

Finally, what makes The Apartment into something beyond a smart comedy with a blackened inlay is that it is eminently, compulsively watchable. That’s an elusive, almost indefinable quality to celebrate, to be sure. And yet it’s what I return to as its greatest strength every time I sit with it. The conception and execution of the film is so complete–the depth of characters, the establishment of the office and social cultures they move through, the organic progression of the plot–that the whole film becomes a gift. This is how cinema can work when its infused with careful intelligence and depth of feeling. The meaning isn’t imposed upon the work. Instead, it emerges from the convincing totality of it. Watching The Apartment is like living with these characters through a complex and meaningful time in their lives, separately and, for two of them, finally together. When the film reaches its absolutely perfect final line, the satisfaction of it all extends past the usual reach of fiction. It arrives like a blessed outcome for dear friends. It hits the heart, even for–of maybe especially for–a cynical romantic like me.

Top Fifty Films of the 60s — Number Three

#3 — Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1966)
I expend a lot syllables in these pieces considering how individual films fit in with the shifting trends of the cinematic era. Maybe they connect to the French New Wave, as a representative example of it or a film that bears its mighty influence. Or maybe a film forecasts the dark, intense revolution of American moviemaking on the horizon. And then there are those efforts that stand wholly apart from any such contextualization, that are astonishing entirely on their own terms, set against any era, any place, certainly any trend. That’s where the work of Ingmar Bergman usually lands for me. I’m know loads of stirring theses have been spun out of the Swedish master’s influence and shifting place on the cinematic firmament, but I always feel very detached from all that scholarship while watching his films. Maybe more than any other major filmmaker, Bergman feels apart from everyone else–not always better, but always distinctly separate–as if he were operating with completely different rules, norms and even techniques. His films bear a classical structure from an alternate version of film history, where experimentalism and narrative evolved with hands tightly clasped. And no film of his exposes that evaluative truth quite as beautifully and convincingly as Persona.

The movie progresses by feel more than an adherence to commonplace rigors of movie storytelling, but there is a recognizably sketch of a plot. A nurse named Alma (Bibi Andersson, extraordinary) is dispatched to provide care to an ailing stage actress (Liv Ullmann). They retreat to a remote cottage by the sea, and the process of healing begins. More interesting, the process of shifting identity begins. Alma grows obsessed with the actress, beginning to adopt her history, her life. As this happens, Bergman bends the film’s narrative to its breaking point and sometimes beyond it, almost literally. The director probes in on the primary pair, allowing the fabric of the film’s reality to become as pliable as the understanding of existence held individually and collectively by the nurse and actress. The black-and-white cinematography by the incredible Sven Nykvist is stark, beautiful and equally prone to shifting, sometime as fast as the flick of a frame. Under Bergman’s watchful, inquisitive eye, the film pushes into realms of unfathomable creativity.

Bergman knew he had reached new levels. He wrote the film while recovering from his own ailment, and a profound sense of human fragility pervades the film. It is specifically reflected in the way the film threatens to splinter apart, the way the very sanity and mental sanctity of the characters feels increasingly poised to shred away, like aged paint on a weather-beaten wall. Bergman wrote of the freedom he felt when working on the film, the openness he had to exploring possibilities with little concern for how it would be received, by the studios, by the audience, by his peers. He exhibited an innate sense for how film worked, and the ways its inner workings could be disassembled and strewn across the screen, almost haphazardly, to strangely create a cleaner, clearer truth. It has the potency of an artist feeding on his own mind, delightedly subverting his safest instincts in favor of excavating the hidden wonders of his wanderlust creative soul.

Top Ten Films of the 60s — Number Four

#4 — Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967)
“We rob banks.” It’s a beautiful line of dialogue: so simple, so direct and yet so revealing. When delivered by Faye Dunaway as Bonnie Parker, there’s a disarming pride to it, a hint of boastfulness and a charming, even sexy certainty to the words, as if they weren’t a report of criminality. Warren Beatty brings just a slight sheepishness to the words, a testing out of a shift from outlaw to folk hero when he speaks those words to a man whose been forced out of his home by one of the very institutions that he and Bonnie put in their sights. That is the thesis statement of Bonnie and Clyde. This isn’t merely a tale of a couple of bank robbers. It’s instead about self-styled stalwart soldiers, meting out karmic justice at the time of the Great Depression. In the film, they position themselves as the direct descendants of mythologized Wild West bandits, building upon their myth with each successive job and doing it in defiance of the fiscal power structure that had brought the nation to its knees. They stood together as a modern American Robin Hood, albeit with sharper outfits.

The conventional wisdom holds that Bonnie and Clyde is the opening Tommy gun volley of shots that heralded the arrival of the new American cinema that made the nineteen-seventies a decade of beautifully tarnished gold. Directed by Arthur Penn, a major designating factor of Bonnie and Clyde was its clear, rapturous influence by the French New Wave, taking a tried-and-true genre–the crime picture–and dressing it up with vibrant, innovative and often playful modern flourishes. The film is bold in its construction, somehow shaping the most stylized details–in structure, storytelling and acting–in such a way that the paradoxically deepen the emotional honesty of the work. Bonnie and Clyde is not designed to make its storytelling technique invisible. It is always heavily present, without ever being a blatant exercise. It’s grounded and fanciful all at the same time, drawing upon the star power of its two leading actors to infuse the film with glamor and the craftiness of the decidedly offbeat character actors in supporting roles to shift it out of the realm of manicured Hollywood fakery.

Perhaps more than anything else, what I’m struck by every time I rewatch it (and its probably I’ve seen this one in the theater more than any other film on the nineteen-sixties list) is how thoroughly entertaining it is. The film is spirited, funny and quietly grand. This is the true beginning of Beatty shaping his image for the screen (his first producer credit, Beatty took a very strong hand in the setting the creative direction of the film, which his involvement in a production guaranteed from there on in), and he knew that he served himself and the audience best but undercutting the easy command and ungodly handsomeness he had on screen. His Clyde is a mess and a child, in command mostly by default, impotent in the bedroom in a way that mirrors his shaky hold on the entire situation he’s gotten himself into. He’s the boss, but one who’s consistently exasperated by the band he’s assembled. Held up against the icy allure of Dunaway, and the unpredictable energies of co-stars Gene Hackman, Michael J. Pollard and Oscar-winner Estelle Parsons, Beatty takes on a mild but clear befuddlement of a beset hero in old silent film two-reeler. It’s just one more tendril of the unexpected that gives Bonnie and Clyde its effusive energy. They rob banks. And it’s a delight to watch them do it.

Top Fifty Films of the 60s — Number Five

#5 — High and Low (Akira Kurosawa, 1963)
Director Akira Kurosawa is so strongly associated with samurai films–his signature films that it can be jarring to see him working with a story set outside of feudal Japan. Natural as that reaction might be, it’s also silly, of course. What marks Kurosawa’s filmmaking is a pure command of the mechanics of narrative, the differing levels of emotional intensity and an ability to shape and shift mood. That can translate to any story, any time, any place. John Ford and Howard Hawks may have prospered in westerns, but that didn’t make it strange when they triumphed with other styles of cinematic efforts. Like them, Kurosawa knew his way around the dynamics of a movie like few others, making it thrilling no matter what he leveled his artistic gaze at. Indeed, one of the reasons I am so completely taken with High and Low is that Kurosawa shows just how many different forms he can master within the space of a single feature.

In modern-day Japan, Kurosawa regular Toshirō Mifune plays a wealthy executive who becomes the target of a criminal endeavor just as he’s about to complete a major deal, using most of his personal fortune to do so. He receives a call claiming that his young son has been kidnapped. The criminals demand a sum that will essentially wipe out the executive’s ability to complete the deal. He’s prepared to pay up when his son arrives home, completely safe and with no sense of any problems. In short order, the kidnappers realize their mistake: they inadvertently captured the child of one of the executive’s servants instead of their intended quarry. They still have a child and presumably an enduring desire for money, so they ask for the exact same sum from the man, setting up a particularly sticky moral dilemma. There is still a boy in harm’s way, and the amount is precisely what the executive had been prepared to pay. But now the personal stakes are lowered, with the prospect of a very different sort of guilt if he chooses to ignore the demand.

This psychological back-and-forth represents only the first part of the film, which takes place almost entirely in the spacious apartment of the executive. Kurosawa (working with a trio of other screenwriters) teases out the conflicts and emotional underpinnings of the story like a master playwright, delivering something with the meticulous restraint and intricacy usually associated with the likes of Harold Pinter. For a creator who was best known for the startling momentum of swords and devastating hails of arrows, he has a perfect sense of how to get the same heightened impact out of drawing room debates. From there, the film expands past the apartment, becoming equal parts procedural, thriller and psychodrama, each different form taking turns and then intermingling. The whole time, Kurosawa builds the film with an assurance that is almost its most compelling element. No matter where it goes–how it shifts, what aspect of the story it focuses on–Kurosawa has the film is a tight grip, guiding it perfectly through its carefully considered plot. As tightly controlled as it is, High and Low also has room for little glints of playful style, signs that a master is in command and he knows a slow, steady hand is required when the time comes to deploy the lightning-fast trick. High and Low may use an entirely different set of props than were required for most of Kurosawa’s best-known films, but it’s clearly the work of same beautifully skilled filmmaker.

Top Fifty Films of the 60s — Number Six

#6 — Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Mike Nichols, 1966)
Let’s start by challenging a myth. Life magazine never actually reported a panicked revolt by Warner Bros. executives against the film version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, standing up at a studio screening to lament that they’d spent a tidy sum on a “dirty movie.” Instead, that was an imagined scenario offered by the publication’s writer in a feature story on the adaption of Edward Albee’s play, a way to contextualize the film’s boundary-shoving content. There’s no actual evidence of studio discontent in the article, and not necessarily a lot of reason to think there might have been all that much. After all, this was a prestige project: a play that had been a major hit (major enough that a four LP recording of it was released) on its way to winning a Tony and the Pulitzer Prize, and it had two major stars in the leading roles, one of them already with an Oscar on her shelf and the other surely destined to win one someday, as evidenced by four prior nominations. As a bonus, those two performers were recently married and dominated the celebrity rags like few who’d came before. Or after, for that matter. There was every reason to believe the film would be a major hit, and indeed it was. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was one of the highest-grossing releases of the year.

For all the fuss over the film’s willingness to deploy somewhat profane language–the roughest words completely tame when held up against what would be commonplace in American films just a few years later–the real challenging part of the work is the raw depiction of incendiary emotions. Screenwriter Ernest Lehman did his level best to preserve what Albee originally wrote, depicting the highly fraught marriage of George and Martha with a commitment to the combative anger at the core of their relationship. In one boozy night, the two welcome a younger couple into their home, a colleague of George’s at the college where he’s a professor, along with the younger educator’s wife. The battle is waged with tongues sharper than daggers, as George and Martha demonstrate a capacity for tearing at old wounds that can only come from years upon years of practice. Albee’s words transferred by Lehman and delivered by pros at the top of their respective games have a staggering fury, showing the brilliant cruelty that can be perpetrated by people in an desperate attempt to salve their own pain, to counter their own resounding dissatisfaction.

If executives had any further cause to worry than that bruising emotional content, it came from putting this delicate material in the hands of an entirely unproven film director. Mike Nichols had already won two of his astounding nine Tonys by this point, but he hadn’t yet wielded a camera, accentuating the impressiveness of his artful command on this first outing. His directing is stylish and yet unobtrusive, weaving the camera through the scenes with a keen eye for the best way to frame a moment, finding Taylor and Burton (along with George Segal and Sandy Dennis as the other couple) as they offer added shading to their characters in quiet, agonized reactions. Nichols certainly had his affectations, but at his regularly-seen best he knew how to make his distinctive choices serve the story rather than knock it aside. That’s certainly the case with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, in which the director’s studied coolness actually adds to the heat of the piece. In terms of actual experience on a movie set, Nichols may have been a novice, but the talent that made him a master was already in evidence. Surely, that was what the Warner Bros. brass noticed rather than a few salty words.

Top Fifty Films of the 60s — Number Seven

#7 — 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
Stanley Kubrick, master director and cinematic innovator with a heavy influence on countless cinematic greats who followed, won exactly one Academy Award. One. Of course, that’s more of a damnation of the selection process of the Academy than it is any reflection on Kubrick, especially since the Oscar bestowed upon him wasn’t for producing, writing or directing, all categories in which he competed over the years, but instead for the special effects of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Certainly the film’s triumph over Ice Station Zebra, the only other nominee in the category, was a marker of sound judgment, but the Academy’s exclusion of Kubrick’s mind-blowing feature in the Best Picture race was not. (Kubrick was nominated in both the writing and directing categories that year, losing out to The Lion in Winter‘s James Goldman and Oliver!‘s Carol Reed, respectively.) It was simply one more example of the people toiling in the movie industry completely misunderstanding Kubrick in his time. The visuals in 2011 are amazing, groundbreaking, unthinkably beautiful. They’re also the least impressive part of a relentlessly challenging film.

The film is so commonly broken into its distinctive pieces in retrospective analysis and celebration–depending on whether someone wants to pirouette agog around the opening prehistoric set piece, the malevolence of technology in the conflict over whether or not some pod bay doors should be opened or the wild head trip of the conclusion (sadly, the futuristic corporate bureaucracy up on the moon is the least likely segment to be touched upon)–that the potency of the whole can be shortchanged. It is the intellectual unity of these pieces, however, that makes the film so significant and even devastating. They are shards of story, connected by the most tenuous of threads, and yet they fit together as a complete vision, a view of existence in which mankind utterly and completely lacks the primacy it is constantly claiming as a birthright of the species. The command over earth, space and self is a fiction, dashed when considered against the vast unknown of the universe. It’s common enough to look up at the sea of stars in the sky and feel like an ant. Kubrick warns that forgetting one’s proper place for even a moment makes it all the more likely that a boot will come crashing down.

Inspired by an Arthur C. Clarke story (certainly not adapted from his work in any reasonable interpretation of the term, though the revered science fiction author was an active collaborator on the film, making his contribution undeniably significant), 2001 is a film alive with possibility, both for the future and for the boundaries of filmmaking itself. Kubrick’s nonconformist tendencies never came out quite as fully as they do in this film, with narrative subsumed to what is impactful, particularly as one idea tumbles into another. The movie can shift at the speed of thought and decidedly rejects any perceived need to fill in gaps. The director was as committed to honoring his setting here as he was in any of his films in more grounded, familiar territory, plunging the audience into the gaping maw of the solar system, chilliness and uncertainty completely intact. The film questions, cajoles, marvels and even occasionally recoils from its own truths. It is as plain and perfect of an example of a director allowing for no compromise in following his instincts no matter where the might lead as can be found in conventional American cinema, at least until Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, which owes a clear debt to 2001. It’s a stunning piece of work.

And the special effects are good, too.