Friday, October 3, 2008

The Top Ten Films of the Decade - The 1960s

We've reached the 1960s, a chaotic time in both the world and cinema.

The 1960s

10 - If.... - Directed by Lindsay Anderson - Set in an English public school, If.... is both a savage satire of the British class system and also an attack against all forms of dehumanizing conformity. Surreal, wildly experimental, often unsettling and brilliantly funny, the film has since become a staple of the counterculture movement. Some of the film's offbeat stylistic choices, such as the switching from black & white to colour and back again, have been studied for meaning; ironically, this misses the purely anarchic intent of Anderson. He shot in black & white for some scenes simply because it was easier to light certain sets that way. That he didn't care what effect this would have on the audience is perfectly in keeping with the film's naked contempt for anything conventional or repressive.

9 - Persona - Directed by Ingmar Bergman - Without a doubt, Persona is one of the most impenetrable films ever made, but this seeming barrier only serves to render it open to endless interpretation. After a strange and somewhat disturbing montage opens the film, the narrative begins, focusing on an actress rendered mute after a performance of Elektra, and the nurse who cares for her. Bergman long considered this be his most important film, and many critics refer to it as his unique take on the iconography of the horror film. Whether you subscribe to the interpretation that the nurse and the actress are aspects of the same person, or the interpretation that film is about humanity's incapability of reacting authentically to great suffering without constructing illusions, there is no doubt that watching it provokes a visceral response. A masterpiece by a true genius of film.

8 - Dr. Strangleove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb - Directed by Stanley Kubrick - It may be the most beloved black comedy of all time, being about an insane Air Force officer who orders his nuclear bombers to attack the Soviet Union. Featuring the incomparable Peter Sellers in three roles, aided by a wacky George C. Scott and with equally inspired turns by Sterling Hayden and Slim Pickens, Strangelove is perhaps the perfect cold war movie. Why does it represent that dangerous time so well? Precisely because of its absurdity. When Kubrick decided to make a film about the nuclear arms race and the dangers of Mutually Assured Destruction, he soon realized that the ideology and procedures behind them were so ridiculous that the film could only work as a comedy. Never has an apocalyptic vision been depicted so side-splittingly hysterically.

7 - La Dolce Vita - Directed by Federico Fellini - Marcello Mastroianni portrays a sleazy journalist in post-war Italy in Fellini's early masterpiece. The film is not one story per se, but rather a series of episodic moments linked through the central character. Fellini is using the muckraker's journey to illustrate the moral decay of the post-war world, as we are treated to ever-increasing displays of debauchery and a growing sense of the disparity between the way life is and the dreams or desires we have for what life could be.

6 - Lawrence of Arabia - Directed by David Lean - It may be the definitive epic film, with its long run time, sweeping visual scope and huge canvas of battles and varying peoples. What makes it so unusual is that all of that epic trapping is put in service of a story that illuminates one complex and incredibly conflicted man. Throughout, TE Lawrence struggles with his sense of identity, loyalty and his attitude toward the violence he encounters while serving in Arabia during the WWI. It might be one of the most visually influential films ever made.

5 - Jules et Jim - Directed by Francois Truffaut - Truffaut's masterful film chronicles 20 years in the lives and friendship of three people, beginning just before WWI and ending just before WWII. While the story came from an old novel, the film embodied all that was fresh, new and relevatory about the French New Wave. It is literally bursting with energy and momentum, shot in an entirely new style of whip pans, exuberant tracking shots and a wild pace. But more importantly, it's about the innocence of youthful love crashing into the reality of adult romance. Though Jules and Jim share the title, the film is truly about Catherine, the object of their obsessive love and how the disappointment of that love unravels her.

4 - Breathless - Directed by Jean-Luc Godard - It was the film that introduced the world to the French New Wave, and as such, it more than deserves its immortality. However, its stylistic innovations are not its only merits. It also tells an engrossing story of a young hoodlum on the run and the ambivalent object of his affections. It's an existential film that concerns itself with living in the moment and the amoral behaviour of its characters. It's one of those rare films that changed and influenced whole generations of films and filmmakers.

3 - 8 1/2 - Directed by Federico Fellini - It's the best film ever made about filmmaking and the creative process, bar none. A film director, completely exhausted and creatively empty, tries to rekindle his passion and rescue his shambles of a life while simultaneously attempting to finish his latest film. The film mixes reality and fantasy as the director struggles to wrangle his foibles, failings, fantasies and creativity into something that could resemble art.

2 - Psycho - Directed by Alfred Hitchcock - Hitchcock described his job as "the assembly of pieces of film to create fright" and Psycho is the purest expression of his central belief and artistic vision. It's been lauded so much we are almost blase to its riches, but it deserves every one of its accolades. It's a triumph of pure cinema, even though it's based on Robert Bloch's book; a film that works because it is a perfect combination of the disparate elements of filmmaking. From the opening shot to the final, chilling frame, Hitch never made a film that took hold of the viewer with such absolute authority.

1 - 2001 : A Space Odyssey - Directed by Stanley Kubrick - American film has often had a problem in making films that deal with great human themes. Whereas other countries have often tackled the great philosophical questions, American film has mostly concerned itself with entertainment, or at the very least, smuggling great themes within entertainment. 2001 is an exception. It's about spirituality without being at all religious. It's about the history and future of humanity, our capacity for greatness and almost infinite adaptability. It's about the danger of allowing technology to overwhelm what connects us to each other. It's the best science fiction film ever made, but it is so much more than a science fiction film. It's a film made by an artist who had finally stopped caring at all about what audiences conventionally "like" and instead wanted to give them his vision.

See you soon for the 1950s!

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