1965 Ten Best Movies

The #1 box-office movie of 1965 is The Sound of Music, that giant canvas of nunneries, the Alps, and humorless Nazis. The movie does too much reverent genuflecting and most of the children are nauseatingly indulged, but I am able to watch and enjoy it (I could hardly say otherwise, having once taken the Sound of Music van tour in Salzburg, which is much less grand than it sounds, even if it doesn’t sound that grand). But what’s striking about the movie is its slowness and its unembarrassed size – despite that ol’ sobersides Robert Wise trying to jazz things up with the now-here-now-there location cutting on “Do-Re-Mi.”

"These are a few of my favorite things..." Belmondo and Karina in Pierrot le fou

Slowness and size mark a number of 1965’s films, as though film history had pointed the way there. Not just the big hits of David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago or Blake Edwards’ Great Race, two epics by good directors that seem affected by the expansiveness of the era (although Zhivago is still a lush experience in many ways – see here for more – and The Great Race would have been high on my list if I’d made out a “best movies” tally in 1965), but the make-it-large impulse also expressed itself as far afield as Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits and Kurosawa’s Red Beard, so something must have been in the air. Maybe the future of film would turn out to be this: inspired by spectacle and widescreen and family-protected safeness, pictures would just keep getting slower and larger and more official.

It didn’t happen, because already by 1965 the termites were chewing away at the foundations of this tendency, and a couple of years later the whole thing would collapse under the assault of Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider and all that. But maybe ’65 feels like a shallow year for great ones because of the top-heavy nature of the mainstream.

One of the most influential termites was Jean-Luc Godard, who was then busily re-making the rules of the cinema (and who, as I write this, is still irritating people, as his latest film at Cannes 2010 is causing short-fused critics to scratch their middlebrows). In my listings thus far Godard has been getting repeatedly denied – he’s got the #2 slot in ’62 and ’63, and #3 in ’60 and ’64. But it’s hard to deny Pierrot le fou, which is both a quintessential movie and also against movies in its restless, divided way. Every arts-besotted person should fall in love with this movie at the age of 21; you’re missing something urgent if you don’t.

The films of another 1960s termite, Richard Lester, were also chipping away. Help! was the Beatles movie that came after the acknowledged joy of A Hard Day’s Night, and it suffers accordingly in the conventional wisdom. To which one can only say, if you needed further proof that conventional wisdom is always wrong, this is it. Help! is glorious. (And Lester also knocked out The Knack that year, blithely announcing that certain people were at the height of their powers.)

The center couldn’t hold for much longer after this. The best movies of 1965:

1. Pierrot le fou (Jean-Luc Godard)

2. Help! (Richard Lester)

3. Repulsion (Roman Polanski)

4. For a Few Dollars More (Sergio Leone)

5. Major Dundee (Sam Peckinpah)

6. Alphaville (Jean-Luc Godard)

7. The Knack…and How to Get It (Richard Lester)

8. In Harm’s Way and Bunny Lake is Missing (Otto Preminger)

10. Ride in the Whirlwind (Monte Hellman)

Leone’s spaghetti helping is even better than his first Eastwood picture; and if Peckinpah was working in a more traditional Western format, he nevertheless made Major Dundee feel like something new and exciting. Hellman’s B-movie quickie, written by Jack Nicholson, is in the same genre, but with its own distinctive breath and mood. As for Repulsion, more at length here.

Also-ran-wise: I do like Doctor Zhivago, mostly, and The Collector (William Wyler) is special, too. Mickey One (Arthur Penn) is a daring little U.S. effort at something different, The War Game (Peter Watkins) is a once-seen-never-forgotten experience, and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (Martin Ritt) a genuinely brisk, bleak adaptation of John Le Carre.

Oddities: the only film (I think) shot in Esperanto, Incubus, stars William Shatner in an oddly Bergmanesque scenario. Tony Richardson’s film of The Loved One is never as funny or outrageous as you want it to be, despite some moments. The Rabbit is Me (Kurt Maetzig) and Born in ’45 (Jurgen Bottcher) are intriguing artifacts from the East German cinema. And it must be said, sympathetically but firmly, that Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill! (Russ Meyer) does not actually live up to its title, as much as one would wish it to – though the title does point us away from the stately style of the year’s box-office champ.

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One Response

  1. This might be the weakest year in cinema history for me. Or it might be that I just haven’t caught up with the particular films of 1965 that I’d like. But so far, Repulsion is the only one I’d readily call a bona fide masterpiece.

    Also not a masterpiece but a whole lot of fun is “Mirage,” a Hitchcockian amnesia thriller with Gregory Peck, though a little more Charade than Spellbound.

    You’re so right about how the year feels. It’s like everybody knew an era in Hollywood was over, but nobody’d quite figured out what the new one was going to be.

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