Thursday, November 18, 2010

Year in Review: 1969

I’ll admit it – I ran out of time. When I started this series, I thought I’d be done by the end of the summer, which was perfect because from the Toronto Film Festival on, I pretty much spend my movie watching time catching up with as many films as I can from the current year. But it didn’t happen that way. This is perhaps the weakest list I have done, and that’s only because I didn’t have enough time to catch up with some of the movies I have missed from this year. Still, having said that, aside from number 10 – which is still a wonderful little movie – having to bump any of the top 9 out would have been hard – and I find it next to impossible to believe that anything could dethrone my number 1 film – which is one of my all time favorites.

10. Take the Money and Run (Woody Allen)
Take the Money and Run is the first real film directed by Woody Allen – after his strange redubbing work on What’s Up Tiger Lily? It is one of the films that Allen would later reference in Stardust Memories when he had people repeatedly come up to him and tell him that they liked his earlier, funnier films. Take the Money and Run is almost pure slapstick, with Allen great in the role of a bungling thief and his various escapades. The film is very early mockumentary, one of the first really, showing that Allen, even early in his career, was not adverse to taking chances. The film is hilarious pretty much from start to finish. No, I do not consider it to be one of Allen’s best films, but it’s a great comedy nonetheless.

9. Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper)
You could make the case that if you wanted to include just one movie that encapsulates the 1960s, that Easy Rider should be that movie. It has certainly aged quite a bit in the 40 years since it was released, yet if you watch it in the spirit in which it was intended, it is still quite effective. Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda pretty much did this themselves - they wrote the screenplay together, Hopper directed and they play the two hippie bikers on their cross country journey trying to complete a drug deal. They get a nice assist from Jack Nicholson, in his first great performance, as a young lawyer who admires them and their dropping out. The film has a wonderful visual flair - perfectly suited for the material, especially in that extended graveyard sequence. The two may not quite seem like the innocent, martyred heroes they did in the 1960s (they are drug dealers after all), but the film is still an excellent example of its era.

8. The Damned (Luchino Visconti)
Luchino Visconti’s The Damned looks at Germany during the rise of the Nazis as a country already diseased – the Nazis just gave them excuse to come out of the closet as it were. It concentrates on a wealthy industrial family, whose patriarch openly detests the Nazis – although he is quickly killed and his son framed for the crime so that a distant relative – pro-Nazi – can come in and run the company the way he sees fit. Visconti’s films always had an undercurrent of homoeroticism, but here he lets it run wild – with its portrayal of the sexual deviant and child molester by Helmet Berger, and of course the infamous Night of the Long Knives sequence, with devolves into a homosexual orgy, and blood bath. Visconti, once he abandoned his neo-realist roots – was a fan of over the top movies like this one, and here he revels in decadence and moral decay. It may not be his best film, but it is one you are likely never to forget once you’ve seen it.

7. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Ronald Neame)
The British boarding school drama has been a staple of English cinema pretty much since its infancy – with lots of great examples from the earliest year’s right up to this year’s Never Let Me Go. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is one of the best, and one of the most original, of the group. Maggie Smith delivers an excellent performance – perhaps her best – in the title role as a woman who loves her “girls” and has already mapped out their futures for them before they even have a chance to decide for themselves. But not all of these girls are willing to go along with her plans – some of which involve one of the girls to become a lover of an older artist. Pamela Franklin gives a performance almost the equal of Smith’s as the most fiery and independent of the films, even though what she really longs for is for Miss Brodie to see her the way she sees another of her classmates. The ending packs an emotional wallop in this wonderful little film.

6. They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (Sydney Pollack)
I can’t think of another film quite like Sydney Pollack’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? It is a film set during the great depression, but it had resonance in the 1960s, and perhaps even more so today. The film is about a marathon dance competition that goes on for weeks on end, where the dancers have to keep dancing for 50 minutes every hour. The last couple standing will share $1,500. Gradually, we get to know the contestants – the miserable Jane Fonda, the sympathetic Michael Sarrazin, the upbeat Red Buttons, the diva Susannah York and the farmhand Bruce Dern among them. They are presided over by the excellent Gig Young, who acts as emcee, as mercilessly mocks the contestants, and holds up their weaknesses for ridicule. This is a fascinating film – sometimes funny, but ultimately quite tragic – especially at the end when the title snaps into focus.

5. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill)
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is one of the most entertaining Westerns you are probably ever going to see. The film coasts along on the charms of its stars – Paul Newman and Robert Redford, not the mention Katherine Ross. Butch is the leader of his ragtag group of outlaws that rob trains in the West, and Sundance is his right hand man – a kid yes, but quicker on the draw than anyone else. When Ross is introduced, as Sundance’s girlfriend, the movie really gets moving – as the three of them have such a natural chemistry together that is impossible not get swept along with them. The screenplay, by William Goldman, is witty and funny all the way through, and Newman and Redford make the most of their roles – from the moment up on that cliff when they have to jump, to the finale when they go out in a blaze of glory. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is not a deep film in any way – it’s pure cinematic pleasure, and on that level it is one of the best ever made.

4. Midnight Cowboy (John Scheslinger)
Midnight Cowboy was seen as quite daring back in 1969 - because of its sexual content it was rated X. Watching it today, it seems fairly tame - and the film has certainly dated a little bit. But the film is still a wonderful one, about the strange relationship in New York between two unlikely friends. Jon Voight plays the small town, Texas boy who comes to New York with the hope of becoming a gigolo. Dustin Hoffman is the inventively named Ratso Rizzo, the streetwise veteran, who takes Voight in. Together, they move through New York city, both full of false bravado and confidence, but really quite sad, lonely and pathetic. By the end of the movie, they realize all they have Is each other - and on that bus, heading for Florida and the hope of a better life, you can’t help but hope they’ll make it - the whole time knowing full well that they don’t have a chance.

3. If… (Lindsay Anderson)
I remarked that earlier that The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is one of my favorite British Boarding school dramas – Lindsay Anderson’s If, which is a completely different film on every level, may just be my favorite. It stars Malcolm McDowell in his first screen role, gives an excellent performance as the films antihero – one of the few boys in his class who rebels against the norm at his school, which constantly gets him in trouble. McDowell, and his friends, are constantly beaten down by authority, until the almost surreal finale – in which they find a cache of automatic weapons, and decide to fight back. Anderson was always a daring, innovative filmmaker, and you can see that in the way he shoots this film – which is completely unexpected (although it was later revealed some of the stylistic innovations and transgressions had more to do with money than anything else, they work brilliantly in the movie). If is a strange film – a film very much of its time and place – and yet one that still resonates today, more than 40 years later.

2. Army of Shadows (Jean Pierre Melville)
It took nearly 40 years for Jean Pierre Melville’s masterpiece about the French resistance to get a North American release – but it was worth the wait and it truly is the master filmmakers greatest achievement. The film is a stark, honest and exciting view of the French resistance during WWII – somehow portraying the members as heroes, but not making their lives seem glamorous. The performances in the movie are excellent, especially considering how stoic the actors have to be – the standout being Simone Signoiret’s great work, which ends with a scene that is tragic, and perhaps a little pathetic. But the real star of the film is Melville and his direction, and he keeps his complex story moving along at a brisk pace, never letting up for more than two hours. Melville, the great filmmaker behind such films as Bob La Flambeur and Le Samorai, made his best film with this one.

1. The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah)
The Wild Bunch may just be the greatest Western ever made - and it came at the perfect time. The classic Western can become stagnate and rather dull, and although Leone had tried something new with the spaghetti western, we needed a film like The Wild Bunch- which finalized de-romanticized the Western completely. This is not a film with good guys and bad guys - everyone is rotten to the core, and in that final gun battle - the greatest in screen history without a doubt - everyone is shot - women, children - it doesn’t matter. Bullets don’t discriminate. Sam Peckinpah is perhaps the best of all directors in dealing with violence, and here he makes his masterpiece. He is aided greatly by his cast of aging Hollywood stars - particularly William Holden as the leader of the Bunch, and Robert Ryan as a former member who realizes before the rest of them that their time has passed, and switches side - and because of it, at the end of the movie, he is all by himself - a man who has outlived his friends, and his time. This is an absolute masterpiece.

Notable Films Missed: Antonio Das Mortes (Glauber Rocha), The Color of Pomengranite (Sergei Parajanov), Days and Nights in the Forest (Sayajit Ray), Hello Dolly (Gene Kelly), The Milky Way (Luis Bunel), My Night at Mauds (Erich Rohmer), The Passion of Anna (Ingmar Bergman), Satyricon (Federico Fellini), Tom Tom the Piper’s Son (Ken Jacobs), The Wild Child (Francois Truffaut), Z (Costa-Gravas).

Oscar Winner – Picture & Director: Midnight Cowboy (John Scheslinger)
What a daring choice this was in 1969. This was the first, and still only, film ever to be Rated X to win the Best Picture Oscar. Perhaps the previous year’s winner – the lumbering, dull giant that was Oliver – made the Academy realize how out of date they were, so this year to assert their relevancy, they picked a popular critics movie, but a new generation filmmaker starring two up and coming stars. Out of the nominees, it certainly was the best. I feel kind of sad that Midnight Cowboy has aged a bit – even in the decade it has been since I have first seen the film – because it was such a daring film in 1969 – and remains one of my favorite winners – even if it isn’t necessary one of the best.

Oscar Winner – Actor: John Wayne, True Grit
I have been known to insult True Grit, but the truth is, it is a pretty solid B Western. It is nothing all that special – and the little girl in it annoys me to no end – but what it does, it does fairly well. If John Wayne had not won an Oscar for the film, then it would be largely forgotten today. But Wayne did win. It is clear that it was a sympathy win – he had just been diagnosed with cancer, and the Academy had only nominated him once before, despite the fact that he was biggest star in Hollywood. Wayne deserved an Oscar – his performances in films like Red River, The Searchers and Rio Bravo can attest to that. True Grit is nowhere near a great movie, but it’s pretty decent. There is a great movie lurking in that source material though – so let’s hope the Coen’s pull it off in the remake later this year.

Oscar Winner – Actress: Maggie Smith, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Maggie Smith really is quite excellent in this film. She is prim and proper, the perfect school teacher for an all girls school, who is really quite a bit more warped then anyone suspects. She thinks she knows everything, maps out her girls futures for them, and then is somewhat shocked when they do not all want to follow her plan blindly. I have seen many British Boarding school movies, but The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie remains one of my favorites – and the principle reason for that is Smith’s excellent performance in the lead role.

Oscar Winner – Supporting Actor: Gig Young, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
Gig Young is excellent as the evil emcee who delights in poking fun at all the contestants in his marathon dance competition. They are nothing to him, beneath his dignity, so he lets go a tirade of insults at them. He is dripping with evil, and yet this is not just an one dimensional performance. Young never lets his guard down, but he allows his character to show us more than perhaps he wants to. A great character actor, in one of his best performances.

Oscar Winner – Supporting Actress: Goldie Hawn, Cactus Flower
Cactus Flower was not an original movie even back in 1969. It was a warmed over story about a middle aged dentist (Walter Matthau) who tells his young hottie girlfriend (Goldie Hawn) that he’s married in the hopes of keeping their relationship casual. It doesn’t work, and he finds he needs to get a fake wife to get rid of Hawn – so he enlists the help of his nurse, Ingrid Bergman. It is a classic comedy of errors, and not one that is overly terrific – but it is made immensely enjoyable because of the three leads, all of whom are wonderful. Goldie Hawn is the classic supporting actress winner – young, hot, funny – and so she won an Oscar for her gloriously ditzy performance, while the other two, who are equally as good, didn’t even get nominated. Oh well. I can’t say this is one of the best Oscar wins in history, but Hawn is enjoyable in the film, so I won’t complain too much.

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