1964 Ten Best Movies

Among the films released in 1964 is The Three Lives of Thomasina, which has no great significance (apologies to Thomasina devotees) beyond being the first movie I saw in a theater. It is not on my list of 1964’s best movies, although in some strange sense it could have been, because these lists are not intended as a coldly objective rendering of the unequivocal Best, but as a personal account of film history.

That's an in-joke, you know.

That's an in-joke, you know.

And there is definitely nothing cold about the best film of 1964. A Hard Day’s Night catches joy in a true lightning-strike of combined events: the still-wet arrival of the Beatles, a New Wave in movies, the bursting talent of a young filmmaker, and the unfettered personalities of four musicians. I go on about it here. It just outpoints Dr. Strangelove, another film heralding change — as did the Godard and other films that year. 1964’s ten best:

1. A Hard Day’s Night (Richard Lester)

2. Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick)

3. Bande a part (Jean-Luc Godard)

4. Marnie (Alfred Hitchcock)

5. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Jacques Demy)

6. Charulata (Satyajit Ray)

7. The Naked Kiss (Samuel Fuller)

8. Red Desert (Michelangelo Antonioni) and Masque of the Red Death (Roger Corman)

9. Seven Days in May (John Frankenheimer) and Fail-Safe (Sidney Lumet)

10. Kiss Me, Stupid (Billy Wilder)

It’s totally bogus to pack on extra movies, and the numbering should be all off with the ties. But this list changed as I was typing it up, and I couldn’t resist the color experiments of Antonioni and Corman, or the tense exercises in political suspense from two TV veterans, Frankenheimer and Lumet. Kiss Me, Stupid is one of Wilder’s weirdest projects, and one that changes each time I watch it, but it finally slipped in ahead of such worthies as Woman in the Dunes and Night of the Iguana (which among other things has a Richard Burton performance that justifies a lot of lazy movie acting). I also would’ve loved a slot for a certain moment in film slapstick comedy, repped by three colorful directors: Blake Edwards (The Pink Panther and A Shot in the Dark), Jerry Lewis (The Patsy), and Frank Tashlin (The Disorderly Orderly). And A Fistful of Dollars, the crazed style of I am Cuba, the tough-mindedness of Michael Roemer’s Nothing But a Man…and Mary Poppins. It’s tough narrowing it down, even when you cheat.

Next week: 2005.

A Hard Day’s Night

Here’s a piece written for a 2000 DVD release of A Hard Day’s Night, for Film.com — thus the topical references in the first paragraph. AHDN is my #1 movie of 1964; for full list, click here.

A Happy Masterpiece, by Robert Horton

It should be noted for the record that A Hard Day’s Night is being re-released in 2000 to showcase a minty-fresh print and a digitally restored soundtrack — and, presumably, to garner publicity for DVD sales. It looks and sounds just fine, thank you. Now that that’s out of the way, we can get to the business of extolling A Hard Day’s Night as the happy masterpiece it is.

harddays5And always has been. Unlike its splendid but critically under-appreciated successor, Help! (a brilliant and wonderful movie with a reputation in need of rehab), A Hard Day’s Night has been acclaimed from the moment it hit movie screens in the summer of 1964. Not only did audiences adore it, but serious critics paused in their decoding of the latest Alain Resnais or Ingmar Bergman conundrum to perform handstands, even if they couldn’t tell the mop tops apart. Alun Owen’s inspired screenplay follows the Fab Four through a typical crazed day at the height of Beatlemania, keying on the Liverpudlian rhythms of the lads’ own speech patterns.

It’s arranged like a record album, with different “tracks.” The magnificent songs are part of this, of course, but the comedy scenes go by in their own rhythm, too: a frenzied mob rush, Ringo’s melancholy ramble snapping pictures, George bemused by fashion designers, and John’s mysterious, Samuel Beckett-like encounter in a hallway with a woman who is certain she recognizes him but then decides he looks nothing like what she thought. The giddiness of tone is sustained throughout, including the way the Beatles occasionally send up their own dialogue – Lennon: “Hey, he’s readin’ The Queen. That’s an in-joke, you know.”

Speaking as someone who has made a pilgrimage to the train station from the beginning of the film and spent a couple of nights in Liverpool at a tender age, I pretend no impartiality on the subject. Still, The Beatles are glorious in A Hard Day’s Night, with all the exuberance of their early fame and a little of the residual hunger of Liverpool, too. It must be said that, seen from a distance, A Hard Day’s Night looks even more like Richard Lester’s movie. Lester, the Philadelphia-born “British” director, is in every frame, from the herky-jerky momentum to the documentary-style lighting to the drop-dead surrealism. Working on the fly with cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, Lester gives his camera a life of its own. Sometimes it expresses the energy of The Beatles (soaring above them in the “Can’t Buy Me Love” sequence), sometimes it finds a new angle just for the sheer reason that, by God, nobody’s ever shot a band like this before.

In other words, A Hard Day’s Night conveys not just a joy in music and The Beatles, but a joy in cinema. This movie declares the arrival of Something New, in music and in movies, and Lester was one of the messengers. (Lester, who now appears to be definitively retired, created some marvelous films in the aftermath of A Hard Day’s Night, and is sorely deserving of re-discovery.) One scene in A Hard Day’s Night ends with the camera turning away from the action to watch a pair of dancers walk down a hallway, their ridiculously tall headdresses brushing a hanging light fixture as they walk beneath it. There is no reason for this moment to be in the movie, except that somehow Lester noticed it happening, and it was absurd, funny, vaguely haunting. Suddenly, at this moment in film history, you could stick this kind of thing into a movie just for its own sake. It still feels liberating.