Top 10 Films of the 1960s

This piece first appeared almost a year ago on the now defunct web journal The Samizdat. I realized in rereading it to post here that it omits one of my absolute favorites – The Cincinnati Kid. I’ll write about that one soon. Enjoy.

This month, as part of their ongoing History of Film Series, the excellent film site Movie Mezzanine is taking a look at the best films of the 1960s. They are currently accepting individual ballots in the comment section, so head on over if you want to be part of this. At the end of the month the top ten films will each be given a longer write-up. I’ve made my vote in their comment section, and below I am giving a brief explanation for my selections and omissions.

Full disclosure and mitigating information

Hard as it is to admit, there are in fact movies I have not seen, including a healthy number of very good ones. Classic films from the 1960s I haven’t caught up with yet (I’m working on it) that might very well have factored in this list if I had include Repulsion, Au Hasard Balthazar, Chimes at Midnight,The Leopard, and Andrei Rublev. I know.

Glaring omissions

There are a number of excellent movies that I recognize as some of the best of the decade but they just haven’t meant as much to me as my final choices have. This is a personal list, not one of cold analysis. Films like The Apartment, The Graduate, Lawrence of Arabia, and 2001: A Space Odyssey are masterful to be sure but haven’t affected me the way others have.

Participation trophies

You need to see Persona (and everything else Ingmar Bergman has ever made), but it wasn’t the Bergman I chose for my list. I love Francois Truffaut and you need to watch Jules et Jim very soon, but again, didn’t make the cut. Peeping Tom, Eyes Without a Face ,and Rosemary’s Baby are delightful psychological horror films, but didn’t make my list. The Exterminating Angel is one of my very favorite ideas for a film narrative, but never quite does what I want it to do for me. Last Year at Marienbad makes no damn sense, is absolutely riveting, and will sneak into your thoughts long after you’ve seen it, but it didn’t sneak onto my list. Breakfast at Tiffany’s might be light fare, but it was one of the first “old” movies I saw as a teenager and it played a role in hooking me into the fold.

The hardest cuts

These were the last five movies I trimmed off, and they hurt.

Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Such a brilliant piece of satire, and somehow it never ages into irrelevance.

Where Eagles Dare. Pure hammy pulp with almost no redeeming artistic merit whatsoever, and I love it and don’t care what you think.

Psycho. The first time I watched this was when I was 13. My sister lived several states away and we arranged to watch it simultaneously while on the phone. I set up the television in our creepy cellar because…because. I can’t watch this now without thinking about that cellar. Also, it’s really good.

Carnival of Souls. So filled with dread, so strange and moody, and that climax in the abandoned carnival is truly frightening.

The Battle of Algiers. As relevant as ever, and so ahead of its time in scope and theme.

My 10 favorite films of the 1960s

Still reading? Good. We’re finally to the actual list.

top 1
Monica Vitti in L’Avventura.

L’Avventura – A foreshadowing to the films of Sofia Coppola, Antonioni’s morose and stylish look at the emotional unravelling and ennui of some privileged twentysomethings can haunt me for days after I watch it. Should these characters find some bigger problems? There certainly are bigger problems in the world, if that’s what you mean, but confusion and depression and existential dread feel the same regardless of what your daddy does for a living. Monica Vitti’s face is devastating in its vacant melancholy, and the final scene always leaves me thinking.

Winter Light – The central theme of Winter Light, and so much of Bergman’s work, is the silence of God, and the torment of faith in the face of it. Toward the end of the film a character is talking to a priest about the sufferings of Jesus, about the brevity of his physical suffering relative to the personal betrayals he endured, and the ultimate silence of God in his greatest moment of need. The character asks, “Wasn’t God’s silence worse?” The priest answers that it was. And begins his service to a nearly empty chapel as the film ends. No director understood religious doubt and angst like Bergman.

La Dolce Vita – The movie Roger Ebert said (near the end of his life) was probably the film of his lifetime, La Dolce Vita is a bacchanalian orgy of indulgence, mixed with grace and poignancy. Fellini’s hand is sure here, and the film weaves through the valleys between frivolity, longing, regret, memory, and hope discarded. The ending, bittersweet on the surface, is devastating upon reflection.

8 ½ – This was one of the first truly great films I watched when I first got serious about classic cinema. Fellini’s directorial confessional is a three-ring circus of artistic frustration, relational foibles, and childhood fever dreams, all told as a love/hate letter to the vocation of filmmaking.

Bonnie and Clyde – So much fun. Slick and gritty and just plain cool. Modern audiences can miss how much of a shake-up this was when it was released in 1967, but even today it plays fresh and aggressive.

Splendor in the Grass – I don’t understand why this film doesn’t get more praise. Natalie Wood was no master of the method, but her performance here is the best of her career. She is heartbreakingly believable as a teen girl cracking under her society’s harmful and misogynistic denial of female desire. This is one of the greatest teen movies ever made, and deserves a wider audience today.

Breathless – It’s far from a perfect film, but Breathless doesn’t care. Neither do its protagonists, two young people who are not so much immoral as amoral, lacking any awareness or concern that what they’re doing might be wrong. Their cinematic kindred spirits can be found in The Ragman’s Daughter,Badlands, L’Enfant ,and even Bonnie and Clyde, but while a couple of those films may look more deeply into the wild young souls of their leads, none make them look cooler in the process than Breathless.

top 2
Catherine Deneuve in Belle du Jour.

Night of the Living Dead – My dad showed me Romero’s classic when I was nine years old. We lived in the country surrounded by cornfields. I might have slept that week. I don’t remember. This has long been part of the canon for horror fans, but it deserves wider recognition as a low-budget, independent film achievement when those descriptions didn’t really exist yet. They’re coming to get you, Barbara.

Belle du Jour – Lois Bunuel was a man who understood fetishes. He didn’t just know about them, or find them interesting. He didn’t read up on them so he could make a movie. He understood them intimately. No one who didn’t could have made this movie. He presents them here with neither pride nor shame, and made perhaps the greatest film ever made on sexual deviance.

Shoot the Piano Player – I have nothing intelligent to say here, but damn this one is cool. Perfectly shot, efficiently told, pitch-perfect in its blend of humor and pathos.

So there’s my list. Head on over to Movie Mezzanine to cast your own ballot!



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