Top Fifty Films of the 60s — Number Eight

#8 — To Kill a Mockingbird (Robert Mulligan, 1962)
The film adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird arrived about two-and-a-half years after the novel’s original publication. Both are so firmly ensconced in the American canon that it can be hard to conceive of what this story must have seemed like when it was still sharply, shockingly new. The fiction’s consideration of the racial divide in the United States–especially in small town Alabama, where it’s set–wasn’t part of our regrettable history with remaining ripples, reaching different heights depending on who’s looking at them. It was the roiling agony of current events, the film released less than a month before Alabama governor’s infamously vile inaugural call for “segregation forever,” four months before Dr. Martin Luther King’s Birmingham arrest led to one of the most important pieces of correspondence in the country’s history and eight months before the March on Washington. To Kill a Mockingbird may have been set a few decades earlier, but it was truly about the living pain of a nation. Surely the film’s almost immediate veneration didn’t play out the same way in the American South.

A significant part of the film’s brilliance stems from its commitment to broad-based decency. If it were solely about the main plot–the courtroom defense of black man Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), who’s been accused of raping a white teenaged girl–the film would likely still be inspirational, stirring and important, although it could easily become overly pious, taking on the stultifying tinge that makes any number of self-important Hollywood prestige dramas transform into the cinematic equivalent of medicine. When Atticus Finch, played with splendid stentorian gravitas by Gregory Peck, takes Tom’s case, it is clear it’s less an act of heroism than a expression of his prevailing self, the person who accepts trade for legal services and insists on understanding when a boy from a impoverished family indulges in too much luxurious syrup when he’s a guest at the Finch dinner table. The life of injustice that Tom is doomed to face is one square in the quilt of human dismay, and Atticus meets it all with grave, understated compassion.

The adult tensions are contrasted with the unabashed freedom of youth, as much of the film’s drama is seen through the eyes of Atticus’s children, their classmates and neighbors. The rhythms of childhood are beautifully rendered, screenwriter Horton Foote and director Robert Mulligan pulling details from Lee’s novel and realizing them with a looseness that translates as purity and truthfulness. The kids are guileless but endlessly curious, especially Atticus’s daughter, Scout (Mary Badham). It is her gradual realization of the complicated, often contradictory workings of the world that gives the film its aching, lovely soul. Mulligan wisely brings restraint to scenes involving Scout’s mounting wisdom, especially in the closing scenes when the folly of judgment and preconception is driven home by the necessary reassessment of town outcast Arthur “Boo” Radley (Robert Duvall, in his film debut). If nothing else, there’s something wonderful about scenes of great suspense and worry playing out while Scout is housed within a bulky smoked ham Halloween costume. In less assured hands, this element could undercut the seriousness of the film. Instead, Mulligan’s command of tone assures that is instead enhances the story by emphasizing the fullness of the community and the lives of those who reside in it. To Kill a Mockingbird is relentlessly, deeply real. Indeed, it comes across as real and honest of a reflection of the American character now as it must have seemed in 1962, when the screen may as well have been a mirror.

Top Fifty Films of the 60s — Number Nine

#9 — West Side Story (Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise, 1961)
When I watch the portions of West Side Story over which Jerome Robbins had sole authorship, I wonder if completing the film even would be possible had he been left in charge. The director who presided over the hit stage version of the musical reimagining of the classic Romeo and Juliet story was hired to perform similar duties on the film version, working side by side with Robert Wise, who had an extensive resume but hadn’t previously handled a big Hollywood musical. About a third of the way through the production, Robbins was dismissed, largely because his exhaustive process was sending the film behind schedule and well over budget. By some accounts, this may have been the best possible outcome for Robbins, as the pressure of making the film had him close to a nervous breakdown. It may have also been the ideal development for the film itself because, bold as the Robbins-directed sequences are, a film musical operating consistently at that level of intensity would have been cinema woefully out of balance. Wise was always meant to provide some grounding to the project (it was his work on urban dramas that earned him the job), but it also seems he rose to the levels that Robbins set, albeit with a touch more tempering of the heightened emotions of the piece. Indeed, Wise was a strong champion for Robbins maintaining the co-director credit after the firing, obviously realizing the finished product wouldn’t exist, at least not in its masterfully inventive form, without the both of them.

Maybe in part because some of the fractious dynamics in play–both behind the scenes and in the gang war plot–West Side Story sometimes feels like the last flinging fist of the Hollywood musical, a desperation punch that connects beautifully. So much of the film plays like a refutation of the gala pageantry that had typified the cinematic form previously, from the sequences that play out on the pavement to the brash youthfulness to the most jagged of the details. It’s not simply feuding gangs, but different cultures, the white youth against the Puerto Ricans, the latter group disdained for their supposed invasion of the neighborhood, an assessment occasionally backed up by the authorities that are otherwise the enemy. The work doesn’t shy away from the tensions on this scenario, instead welcoming them as exactly what’s needed to give the entire thing added weight, to make the songs mean something beyond the ingenuity and tunefulness fully expected considering they were crafted by the almost unthinkably talented duo of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. There are stellar highlights among the songs–the infectious “America,” the delightfully goofball “Gee, Office Krupke,” the powerfully-staged “Cool”–each of them drawing greater potency from the narrative elegance of the full work. If previous musicals could sometimes get by with little more than filler from song to song, West Side Story adheres to the notion that everything is improved with care and attention throughout.

There’s also a bracing muscularity to the film, found most noticeably in the fierce dance sequences but also evident in the bravado throughout. If the precious Natalie Wood seem a touch too demure (and, ahem, noticeably non-Latina) to play the lead Maria, then the proof of sound judgment in her casting needs to come through in the performance, making the bit of spreadsheet showmanship into an act of artistic fearlessness. Don’t think the absurd cross-cultural casting can work? Just watch. To pick a metaphor befitting a musical, every note is struck just right, even those that initially seem atonally off. As with the directorial shift that happened early on, every potential problem only leads to a better pathway enlivened by the unexpected. If there was ever a musical that needed to avoid any temptation to play it safe, it’s the one using gang violence and racial conflict as a backdrop. West Side Story, in large part because of its limitless daring, is a film that’s bracingly, blisteringly alive.

Top Fifty Films of the 60s — Number Ten

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#10 — The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967)
Famously, the casting for The Graduate was all messed up. Dustin Hoffman, in only his second film role and first of any significance, was thirty years old, nearly a decade older than would be expected to play a freshly minted college graduate. What’s more, the original conception of the WASP scion Benjamin Braddock was such that the likes of Warren Beatty and Robert Redford were initially considered, neither of them quite as skilled as Hoffman, but miles away in appearance and physical stature from the diminutive Los Angelenos who had the gait and anxiety of a furtive New Yorker. As the first casting inclinations suggest, on paper Benjamin seems like a golden child beset by the tarnish of society, presented with privilege and mortified by the trap of spiritual stasis it hides. As embodied by Hoffman, he instead becomes a fount of dread, misplaced from a darker world in the light of a seemingly perpetual American sunrise. Similarly, Anne Bancroft is too young to played the middle-aged seductress Mrs. Robinson, a mere six years older than Hoffman. Indeed, she only has nine years on Katharine Ross, playing her idyllic daughter, Elaine. Vivacious, cosmopolitan, self-assured and wickedly intelligent, Bancroft makes the eventual flight away from an illicit affair with her to seek the comfort of her comparatively drab onscreen offspring seem like Benjamin’s most ill-founded decision since ignoring Mr. McGuire’s surprisingly sound single-word advice regarding plastics.

And yet. It’s of course all those jagged, unconventional turns in the creative process that make The Graduate so remarkable, not simply a sardonic put down of a generation poised to intermingle love and fury in astoundingly contradictory ways (and, more damningly, the preceding generation that boxed them into that corner with exhausting aspirations towards eternal betterment) but an encapsulation of the confusion of a whole society when the aftershocks of being the victors of the world were beginning to shake hope and confidence, always more fragile then they seem, off of the high shelves. In subtle ways, perhaps sometimes even unwittingly, director Mike Nichols constantly gives reasonable audience expectations just the slyest, gentlest shove. This simultaneously mirrors Benjamin’s chronic discontent and anxious confusion while setting up every wry turn that the plot offers up. In Hollywood films, the final, most decisive triumph involves getting the girl. That’s always a win for the hero. Well, The Graduate suggests, maybe not. The grind of life settles in after the celebration, often more quickly than anyone could anticipate.

Working from a screenplay by Buck Henry and Calder Willingham (adapted from the Charles Webb novel of the same name, released four years earlier), Nichols builds a visual palette that paradoxically bursts forth precisely because it is so tightly contained. There’s barely a shot that doesn’t comes across as deeply pondered upon before a single light was set or camera rolled into place, a fitting stylistic corollary to Benjamin’s misgivings about moving forward, his escape from impatient parental expectations that he will take his anointed place in their polished world by indulging in the most intimate connection to it, deeply intertwining himself, albeit secretly, within their social circle. And Nichols offers up this astute commentary and withering assessment with a well-honed comic timing that makes the film brisk, lithe and plainly delightful. At a time when much of American film, even the best of it, was tilting towards nihilistic lecturing, Nichols demonstrated that the same points could be hit with a rueful laugh. And maybe–just maybe–hit more effectively that way.

Top Fifty Films of the 60s — Number Eleven

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#11 — A Hard Day’s Night (Richard Lester, 1964)
Is there another movie that is as inherently likable as A Hard Day’s Night Under most circumstances involving a film centered on a single rock ‘n’ roll act, I’d be inclined to couch that rhetorical question in a caveat allowing that the answer may very well depend on the level of personal preference an individual has for the act in question, but it’s hard to fathom how anyone could have an ill opinion of the Beatles, at least without operating in a perpetual state of deliberate contrary argumentativeness. That’s especially the case when catching the moptops at this point in the career. The film was released a mere sixteen months after their debut LP, and only five months after their American live television debut on The Ed Sullivan Show demonstrated that this quartet was likely to redefine the extraordinary levels a pop sensation might reach. It’s before stadium tours and groundbreaking albums, before they fully changed the face of popular music. It’s from that sliver of time when it wasn’t ludicrous to speculate over whether it would be them or the Dave Clark Five who’d have the longer, more significant career. They were barely out of the Cavern, enjoying unbelievable success and without any burden of imposed expectation to do anything but bang out a catchy tune.

A Hard Day’s Night is a brisk, almost hit-and-run attempt to capture the crazy energy the Beatles were creating at that point in time. There is less of a plot to the film as there is simply an attitude. It is informed somewhat by the brashness of rock ‘n’ roll, but more than that it is the freedom of youth (at the time the film was released, George Harrison was nineteen-years-old, or a year younger than Miley Cyrus is right now). Like their fellow citizens who came of age after World War II, the Beatles were presented with a world that was moving faster than could be believed and was simultaneously theirs for the taking. The main difference for this particular quartet was that they’d managed to actually grab it, a gold ring the size of the globe. The exuberance of that triumph–arrived at so suddenly, arrived at so early in their lives–gives the film an astonishing energy. Director Richard Lester thankfully manages to keep up, stitching together the film with a point of view that shifted and bounced quicker than Ringo Starr’s deviously thrilling backbeats. Any staidness of traditional film technique was jettisoned in favor of a tremendous visual verve that anticipated the rapid-fire editing of the future without succumbing to the recklessly hashed aesthetic that would emerge concurrently with MTV nearly two decades later. As did his subjects, Lester operated with a creative latitude that indicated he knew the rules but felt that maybe–just maybe–they didn’t really apply anymore.

If the movie were solely about the thrill and joy of the Beatles’ music, it would be little more than another relic from the days when filmmakers anxiously plugged these skyrocketing rock combos into half-considered movies in an effort to make a quick buck (well, considered it was the Beatles’ music, it would be likely still be a cut above). But the unique charisma of the band member’s was matched with a genially anarchic sense of humor, a love of daffy absurdity that owed a debt to the Marx Brothers. Alun Owen’s screenplay was drawn from conversations he had with the band or responses he’d seen them give in earlier interviews (Starr’s assertion “I’m a mocker” when asked whether he was a “mod” or a “rocker” was a prime example of the latter), giving the lads a racing wit that forecast the band’s inventiveness to come more than it mirrored their simple, graceful songs that filled this particular soundtrack. Subtly, gently, it also relayed the cost of Beatlemania, a bit of commentary undoubtedly lost on the fans who were known to scream straight through screenings. Maybe that didn’t matter, though. One of the most cunning attributes of the Lester’s film is the way it feels blithely disposable while simultaneously exhibiting the durability of the best-built time capsule.

Top Fifty Films of the 60s — Number Twelve

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#12 — Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962)
I had a professor in college who took the highly contrarian position of criticizing Lawrence of Arabia. Already ensconced firmly in the cinematic canon as a paragon of epic filmmaking, David Lean’s venerated offering was dismissed by her as little more than endless shots of sand, sand and more sand. Now, this was a professor in the English department, but it was indeed a film class, making the unkind judgment seem especially harsh. How could this be? I’d seen it, after all, and totally bought into the notion that it was unassailable wondrous. A few years later, I got the chance to see it on the big screen as part of a rerelease series, and as I sat there getting as close as I ever would to seeing it as it was intended to be seen I had to admit that I could understand where she was coming from. I didn’t necessarily agree, but I was sympathetic to the viewpoint. It’s majestic, intricate, fervently intelligent. But yeah, it’s slow, with Lean especially reliant on grand vistas filling the extra-wide screen to leave the audience rapt. It’s not unreasonable to equate its deliberateness with tedium. And yet….

The enormity of Lawrence of Arabia remains awe-inspiring. If it set the template for countless Hollywood epic dramas that followed to such a degree that its stern, serious beats can sometimes feel too familiar in a modern viewing, then its capability to recreate an entire era and world in tactile fashion has certainly circled back around to be seen unquestionably as a truly astonishing feat given that digital handiwork is now the preferred methodology for such spectacle. In trying to capture the adventures of a man bigger than life, Lean harnessed the boundless power of the movies to make everything seem even larger, improbable as that may be. In ticking between the mammoth–such as battle scenes that must have been as logistically challenging as the original warfare–and the intimate–as the repercussions of those battles weigh upon the souls of those involved–credited screenwriter Robert Bolt (along with originally uncredited Michael Wilson) convey the ways in which personality collide with and therefore shape history itself. The scale of the film is ideally calibrated to the vastness–of terrain, of spirit, of agony, of charm–that it depicts.

And surely if every other element of the film has the capacity to strain the patience of viewers more accustomed to the bang-bang pace of current cinema (and, truthfully, many of the films that share the 1962 copyright date), there is still splendid pleasure to be found in the greatest attribute of Lawrence of Arabia, the part of it signaled with a deceptively understated title card at the end of the cast listing in the opening credits: “Introducing Peter O’Toole as T.E. Lawrence.” It was something of a fib, O’Toole having at least a trio of film credits to his name when he got the part that elevated him to immediate stardom and the first of an amazing eight Best Actor Academy Award nominations, all futile, save for the consolation prize of an Honorary trophy, bestowed in 2003. From the first moments, O’Toole has a magnificent magnetism and a lean, angular physical beauty that is impossible to look away from. He commands the screen as if he were the person it was sized for, everyone else drowning in its shimmering breadth before him. I can’t think of another actor who could make such droll magic out of a line such as the one O’Toole delivers in response to the gruff assertion “I can’t make out whether you’re bloody bad-mannered or just half-witted”: “I have the same problem, sir.” If Lawrence was bigger than life, so was his portrayer. No matter what my old professor implied, O’Toole was never a person who get overwhelmed by the scenery.

Top Fifty Films of the 60s — 8 1/2

#13 — 8 1/2 (Federico Fellini, 1963)
I have an aversion to dreamlike story structures, or even dream sequences in films, largely because they are often done so poorly. Never mind the frequency with which they’re little more than a fake-out, structured to set a character bolting upright in bed over whatever wicked turn just glimpsed in dreamland, an supposedly unnerving headspace depicted with essentially the same tone and approach as every other part of the film, all the better to deke the viewer. The real problem is that the depiction usually doesn’t resemble a dream all that much, instead cohering to a writer or director’s bumbling imagination, usually leading to crazy imagery that doesn’t add up to anything. Though he didn’t invent the notion of cinematic dream sequences or narratives steeped in dream logic, it can be argued that Federico Fellini made it look equally easy enough and profound enough to encourage all his directorial descendants to feel empowered to try it out themselves. The problem is simple: there was only one Fellini.

Actually, there’s sort of a second Fellini, and that’s the one that shows up inside his films, thinly disguised representations of the director himself as he works out his various anxieties onscreen. In the masterful 8 1/2, it’s Guido Anselmi, a famed Italian director played with casually engrossing charisma by Marcello Mastroianni. Guido is a man unmoored, struck by a profound block to his creativity that leaves him mining his own memories and fantasies with such vigor that they shuffle in to stand alongside his reality, taking the tangible world into a waltz of benignly surreal madness. This could all be little more than visual tomfoolery, which would have reasonably been enough to convey the unbalanced state of a visual artist. Instead, Fellini brings in the discombobulating elements with great care. Every bit of it carries weight, conveys something about the central character or his perceptions of the greater world that has set him reeling. The entire film is purposeful enough to make it seem as though it’s actually sprung directly from its creator’s subconscious.

Perhaps the sense of greater control, greater intent to the fanciful stretches is attributable to the immaculate craft brought to every level of film. Mastroianni is wonderful, staying true to the reality of his role while consistently finding creative ways around a line or a moment, in a manner fully in keeping with the film’s slanting sanity. There is Gianni Di Venanzo’s gorgeous black-and-white photography and the bright, slippery music of Nino Rota. Of course, the most striking contribution comes from Fellini himself, walking the highest of wires as he creates a sort of cinematic poetry that finds meaning in cadence, tone and shifting energy. It’s a film that isn’t gripping in any sort of conventional way, and indeed it doesn’t make an evident attempt to hold the viewer as it plays out. Instead, its odd, embedded power is in growing in stature and impact as it transfers from experience to memory, as if Fellini has found a way to sprinkle his personal shifting thoughts, emotions and memories into those of the people who take in his work. 8 1/2 seems most at home in the softening reality of recollection. That is a movie magic act that I truly believe only Fellini could have ever performed.

Top Fifty Films of the 60s — Number Fourteen

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#14 — Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, 1969)
Periodically as I track through these decade-centered countdowns, I feel compelled to offer the reminder that I arrived at the order by combining critical assessments of aesthetic value with acknowledgement of those films that I have to helplessly slot into the category of “Favorites.” This isn’t because I feel some of these cinematic offerings are legitimately less worthy–I stand by the quality of every film I’ve included–but rather I have to concede that sometimes my main criterion for celebrating a film is that I simply can’t turn it off any time I encounter it, that is is so compulsively watchable. I’ve got plenty of praise to heap on George Roy Hill’s anachronistic western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but the bottom line is that I immensely enjoy it, helplessly so, each and every time I see it.

The Oscar-winning screenplay by William Goldman was only his third work to make it to the screen, and it’s undoubtedly the one that established him for the remainder of his career as a pure master of the craft, they kind of guy who could be brought in to enliven any piece of writing. There’s certainly an effortless quality to the words he crafted for Butch and Sundance, the famed outlaws of the Wild West. As opposed to other films of the era that were trying to reinvent the western through weathered solemnity and deconstructionist nihilism, Goldman’s script opted for gracefulness and humor, cowboy boots used to deliver a soft shoe routine. If other westerns were in love with vistas and frontier justice, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is thrillingly enamored with words and banter. When Butch barks out, “Next time I say, ‘Let’s go someplace like Bolivia,” let’s go someplace like Bolivia,” Goldman has perhaps flicked his fingertip against the first domino that leads to the worst indulgences of Aaron Sorkin and his ilk, but he’s also delivered a pretty fantastic line of dialogue that is both incongruous and perfectly suited to the film. The words fly like bullets, and in a time and place where there are no rules in a knife fight, that sort of deliberate tomfoolery seems perfectly fine.

George Roy Hill was probably the perfect director to realize this for the screen. Famously cantankerous, Hill had no evident interest in romanticizing the West or any films that had come before. He brought a terseness of thought to the film that helps the dialogue feel sharper, lessens the risk that it becomes a contrivance. The no-nonsense quality is present in the acting of the two leads as well, with Paul Newman looking like he’s having as much as he ever has onscreen as the grumpy Butch while Robert Redford’s natural surface charms and undercurrent informed by worries of inadequacy were ideal for the comparative upstart in the partnership. The whole creative team gives the film the pleasing contrast between invigorating looseness and disciplined control. It’s playful, but creative professionals are clearly in control, making sure it never explodes off the rails into nothing more than goofing around of the sort that’s far more enjoyable on the set than on the screen. Yes, I can’t stop watching it when it’s on, but there are reasons. There are reasons.