Friday, May 22, 2015

The 12 Best Films of 1960

1960 was a spectacularly great year for cinema, with masterpieces being produced in Italy, France, Sweden, the United States, and the former Czechoslovakia. The American Production Code, as well as censorship codes elsewhere, were slowly starting to come apart at the seams, as filmmakers increasingly began to push the envelope and show films about sex and sexual violence, childbirth, (still repressed) alternative sexual identities, adultery, and increasingly graphic violence. Here are the twelve best films of the year:

The Apartment
Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, and Fred MacMurray give career best performances in this blackly bitter comedy co-written and directed by the legendary Billy Wilder. Lemmon plays a miserable paper pusher at an insurance company in a factory-like New York high-rise, who caters to his superiors by lending his apartment for their extra-marital liaisons. He finally takes a stand when his smarmy boss, played by the wickedly good MacMurray, leads on the girl of his dreams - the original pixie dream girl, MacLaine - and leaves Lemmon to clean up the mess when she attempts suicide. In this portrait of the smiling, sunny American dream's sordid underside, Wilder created one of the greatest American films of the decade.

Though I'm not a great fan of Michelangelo Antonioni, his first film with Monica Vitti, whose extraordinary blonde beauty immediately evokes the chill, industrialized Italy of the director's vision, is my favorite. The film's plot is slim - the boyfriend (Gabriele Ferzetti) and best friend (Vitti) of a girl who disappears (Lea Massari) on a boating trip continue searching for her as they fall in love - and all but inconsequential. An atmosphere of existential dread hangs over the film's sun-drenched cinematography by Aldo Scavarda, while each carefully composed frame wouldn't look out of place in a Milanese art gallery.

Eyes Without a Face (Les yeux sans visage)
This chilling and poetic French horror film is one of the greatest of the genre. Pierre Brasseur stars as a brilliant surgeon determined to perform a successful face transplant on his brutally disfigured daughter (Edith Scob), whether the donors are willing or not. The extraordinary Italian actress Alida Valli, famous for her performances in masterpieces such as Senso and The Third Man, plays a supporting role as the surgeon's slavish, sexually repressed assistant. Director Georges Franju forever altered the scope of horror cinema with this film; neither monsters nor murder are abandoned, but deeper, braver subtexts about love, sexuality, and cruelty elevate Eyes Without a Face above its contemporaries.

The Magnificent Seven
The Magnificent Seven holds a special place in my heart because it's the film that introduced me to westerns, now a favorite genre. Yul Brynner, ruggedly handsome and magnetic onscreen, stars as Chris Adams, a gunslinger who recognizes that he's one of a dying breed in the increasingly settled West. When a Mexican village begs for his help battling Eli Wallach's band of banditti, he assembles a posse of gunmen, including Charles Bronson, Steve McQueen, and James Coburn. Though the battle scenes are less spectacular than in the film's source material, Akira Kurosawa's masterpiece The Seven Samurai, the fun is to be had in watching these prickly, trigger-happy personalities spar against and compete with each other.

Peeping Tom
Another game-changing horror film, Michael Powell's Peeping Tom scandalized and sickened audiences at its release and it's held up remarkably well as a study of repressed sexual perversion, the fetishization of fear and power-seeking, and voyeurism. Carl Boehm stars as Mark Lewis, an aspring filmmaker making a buck on the side photographing soft pornography, whose rather unusual and clandestine artistic and sexual hobbies make him one of the most frightening head cases of 60s horror. Powell, always a cinematic innovator, uses hand-held cameras and virtuosic point-of-view shooting to impress upon the audience that, as people who watch films, we are all complicit voyeurs.

The greatest live action film ever produced by the Disney studio, Pollyanna is based on the treacly novel by Eleanor H. Porter, but in writer-director David Swift's hands, the unbearably sentimental story of the irrepressibly cheerful orphan girl who teaches a town to play the glad game becomes a rosy, but decidedly more complex examination of small town politics and class conflicts. The huge, star-studded cast is without exception excellent, including Agnes Moorehead as the cranky hypochondriac Mrs. Snow, Karl Malden as the fire-and-brimstone minister enthralled by class ambitions, Jane Wyman as the chilly pseudo-aristocratic who essentially rules from her mansion, and, of course, Hayley Mills as the pert heroine.

A film this iconic hardly needs further accolades; all I can add is that Psycho is worthy of its reputation. Anthony Perkins's career-defining performance as Norman Bates, the hotel manager with a doozy of a mother complex, the screeching, pounding score by Bernard Herrmann, the virtuosic editing, especially in that famous shower scene, by George Tomasini, and of course Alfred Hitchcock's trademark wit are merely a few of the elements that make this film one of the greatest of all horror films, if not the absolute greatest. This film proved the turning point for the genre in the United States.

Rocco and His Brothers (Rocco e i suoi fratelli)
Recently screened at Cannes with two tiny clips that Italian censors insisted on removing, Luchino Visconti's Rocco and His Brothers marries neorealist style and politics with an operatic grandiosity to produce one of the defining Italian films of all time. The impoverished Parondi family transfers from Lucania in the south of Italy to industrialized Milan, where the long-suffering mother (Katina Paxinou) hopes her five sons will find better lives. Few American viewers are aware of the prejudices migrants from the south experienced (and frankly, sometimes still experience) in the north and this film retains the ability to shock. The cast includes Alain Delon, Annie Girardot, and Renato Salvatori.

Romeo, Juliet, and Darkness (Romeo, Julie a tma)
Though it requires a significant effort to track down a copy of this obscure Czech film, it's a worthwhile endeavor. Filmmaker Jiri Weiss modernizes Shakespeare's iconic play, setting it in Prague under the Nazi occupation. In this version, Romeo, renamed Pavel, (Ivan Mistrik) hides his Jewish lover Hanka (Daniela Smutna) in his tiny apartment, hoping to elude the Gestapo. Weiss, himself of Jewish descent, escaped to England before the occupation and was a fighter pilot in a Czechoslovak RAF unit; thus, his sensitive and heart-breaking treatment of love under oppression has a rare personal quality.

Spartacus is the very finest sword-and-sandals epic ever produced by a Hollywood studio. Starring Kirk Douglas as the gladiatorial slave who leads a revolution against imperial Rome, Peter Ustinov as his oily master, Laurence Olivier as a Roman general who hankers after his slave played by Tony Curtis, and Jean Simmons as the beautiful slave who bears Spartacus his child, the film was written by black-listed writer Dalton Trumbo and directed by Stanley Kubrick, while composer Alex North's love theme for this film is one of the loveliest pieces he ever wrote. This film is in many ways the ultimate protest against McCarthyism and Cold War paranoia with its rallying cry, "I'm Spartacus!"

Swiss Family Robinson
A thrill-packed adventure film on the old Hollywood model, this live action Disney feature stars John Mills, Dorothy McGuire, James MacArthur, Tommy Kirk, and Kevin "Moochie" Corcoran as the shipwrecked Swiss family who create a tropical paradise. The ingenuity of the film is reflected in the extraordinary production design, which includes a tree house with running water and a DIY cooler, a veritable zoo of exotic animals, and a cheerful willingness to toss out the stern Calvinist gloom of Wyss's original moralizing novel in favor of a jaunty, fast-paced, and suspenseful narrative of survival in the wilderness and resistance against a villainous pirate.

The Virgin Spring (Jungfrukallan)
This heart-breaking religious fable set in Medieval Sweden by director Ingmar Bergman starts as a darkly tinged pastoral idyll and gives way to a brutally unsettling depiction of rape, only to end in a transcendently inexplicable miracle. Spoiled young Karin (Birgitta Petterssen) is raped and murdered on her way to light candles to the Virgin Mary. When her family discovers what has happened, her father (Max von Sydow) exacts a cruel revenge, only to be awed by a miracle. Like The Seventh Seal, this film is deeply religious, exploring the rich visual Christian and Pagan subtexts of both divine power and beauty and demonic trickery, but Bergman doesn't shy from a forthright portrayal of existential doubt and despair.

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