1959 Ten Best Movies

This is no good. We're on top of the monument.

Ranking movies within years is compulsive behavior; ranking the years themselves is quite another level of crazy. However, if one were to do such a thing, and I’m not saying I would, 1959 would be at the top or very near the top of such a list. It has three films, any one of which on any given day could be cited as my favorite movie (you know – “of all time,” as they say).

There’s a reason for that. North by Northwest and Some Like It Hot I found on late-night TV in adolescence, and both movies are about an abrupt shift from ordinary real life to a heightened experience, like a doorway opening onto a waking dream. Hitchcock’s film, in particular, is a metaphor for the movie-watching act itself: one minute you’re a man in a gray-flannel suit living a dull life, the next minute you’re at Mount Rushmore hanging off Lincoln’s nose. (Or dodging a crop duster – thanks for the blog title.)

The other movie, Rio Bravo, is one of Howard Hawks’s visions of Eden, where the good people dig each other instantly and a style of behavior-as-play can be extended indefinitely. All these movies are not quite what they seem: North by Northwest is not a thriller, but a transformation; Some Like it Hot is not a comedy, but a romance (in which every cog in the plot mechanism is inextricably connected to theme, i.e., the rebuke of Don Juanism); Rio Bravo is not a western, but a relationship comedy. And the year’s got some pretty good titles down the line, too. The best movies of 1959:

1. North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock)

2. Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks)

3. Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder)

4. The 400 Blows (Francois Truffaut)

5. Pickpocket (Robert Bresson)

6. Ride Lonesome (Budd Boetticher)

7. Nazarin (Luis Buñuel)

8. Anatomy of a Murder (Otto Preminger)

9. The Crimson Kimono (Samuel Fuller)/Imitation of Life (Douglas Sirk)

10. The Letter Never Sent (Mikhail Kalatozov)

A bunch of good stuff left off. So much that I had to cheat with #9, but both movies are about race, after all, even if their directors take temperamentally different approaches. Ride Lonesome is one of the best of Boetticher’s great run of westerns with Randolph Scott, and at the last minute I had to give it an edge over Buñuel’s scathing classic. #10 is an eye-popping piece (undoubtedly you know it under its Russian title, Neotpravlennoye pismo) from the director of I Am Cuba, and although I only saw it once 15 years ago or so, it contains a few of the most amazing sequences I’ve ever seen.

The Nun’s Story is a slow, quiet, two-and-a-half-hour look at a nun (Audrey Hepburn), a perfect subject for the scrupulous style of Fred Zinnemann. And it was a box-office smash. As the French New Wave geared up, ’59 was also the year of Hiroshima, Mon Amour (Alain Resnais), Les Cousins (Claude Chabrol), and The Sign of the Lion (Eric Rohmer), the latter of which I have a strange soft spot for even if it rarely gets mentioned in the director’s work. Plus two from Ozu, Ohayu and Floating Weeds, and Satyajit Ray rounded off his trilogy with The World of Apu. Samuel Fuller also had Verboten! that year, and on the WWII front, William Witney’s Paratroop Command is an admirable addition to that genre.

William Wyler’s Ben-Hur won the Oscar, and it has various kinds of appeal for me, even if it grinds to a halt with regularity. All things considered, I think I prefer A Summer Place (Delmer Daves), but both movies have good music. Pillow Talk (Michael Gordon) gives one side of American life at the time; for a more Beat perspective, look to Shadows (John Cassavetes), Pull My Daisy (Robert Frank/Alfred Leslie), and A Bucket of Blood (Roger Corman). 1959 was also the year of Edward D. Wood Jr.’s Plan 9 from Outer Space, which among its other accomplishments, makes one intensely curious about what the other eight plans were.

3 Responses

  1. I’ve also noticed that 1959 was an unusually great year in cinema, and for a while I was wondering if you were saving it for your last Ten Best post. Guess not.

    You covered the big guns. A few more next-tier titles: North West Frontier, Tiger Bay, The Mouse That Roared, and I’m All Right Jack. The last is one of the great 50s British political satires. Watching it as the second half of a double bill with Eisenstein’s Strike would be, I’d imagine, a wonderfully strange experience.

    Then there’s Sleeping Beauty, which marks the beginning of a new era for Disney animation. Its bold, hard-edged look was a huge stylistic leap of innovation for the studio, which had used softer, more realistic forms previously. It was also the first filmed in 70mm and the first to use such a wide aspect ratio.

    The next one, 101 Dalmatians, wasn’t as much of a spectacle, but it followed Sleeping Beauty’s example and pushed the visuals to one more level of abstraction. Subsequent budget cuts prevented further exploration of this new style, which is too bad. But Sleeping Beauty ranks high in my esteem for finding a new way to do what Disney animation was so good at.

  2. Great list, as usual! Thank you for also giving mentions to Cassavetes’ SHADOWS and Corman’s A BUCKET OF BLOOD! I saw the Corman when I was about 13 and haven’t been the same since.

  3. This is certainly my favourite year. One of the things I like about it is the number of last hurrahs from old masters with decade best work coming from Hitchcock (arguably), Hawks, Wilder, Bresson, Bunuel, Losey (CHANCE MEETING) Capra (A HOLE IN THE HEAD) and Milestone (PORK CHOP HILL). It is the year of LEDA and BLACK ORPHEUS from France and ROOM AT THE TOP ushering in a new era in Britain. I also like some lesser films like THE HORSE SOLDIERS, ASK ANY GIRL, THE ROOTS OF HEAVEN and LAST TRAIN FROM GUN HILL. None of these would be on my ten best but the now forgotten WONDERFUL COUNTRY would find its way in.

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