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.

1958 Ten Best Movies

Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo is frequently referred to as a box-office failure, although it was #21 on the list of highest-grossing films of 1958, which seems like a respectable enough showing. If it was considered a financial disappointment, you can hardly blame audiences for not flocking to it as they did to other Hitchcocks of the era, such as Rear Window or To Catch a Thief. “Fun” is not the way to describe Vertigo, but its story of obsession is one of Hitchcock’s most stunningly realized works, and a somewhat easy choice as best film of the year.

But not entirely easy, because of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, a brilliant example of directing prowess creating something powerful out of potentially forgettable material. It’s a good year beyond those two, with a number of Hollywood pictures suggesting disenchantment with the era and foreign films suggesting disenchantment with the world. And here is a list of the ten best movies of 1958.

1. Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock)

2. Touch of Evil (Orson Welles)

3. Nazarin (Luis Bunuel)

4. Some Came Running (Vincente Minnelli)

5. Ashes and Diamonds (Andzrej Wajda)

6. The Tarnished Angels (Douglas Sirk)

7. Bitter Victory (Nicholas Ray)

8. Bonjour Tristesse (Otto Preminger)

9. The Music Room (Satyajit Ray)

10. Equinox Flower (Yasujiro Ozu)

Almost gave the tenth slot to a short, Roman Polanski’s Two Men and a Wardrobe, which is superb. And it seems there should be room for Mon Oncle (Tati), The Last Hurrah (Ford), Man of the West (Mann), or Night of the Demon (Tourneur). Buchanan Rides Alone is a good entry (but not the best) in the Budd Boetticher-Randolph Scott cycle of Westerns, and Irving Lerner’s Murder by Contract is a highly original low-budget noir.

Among the scruffier realms of movie-making, I hold a soft spot for The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, a delightful platform for Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion monsters, and The Thing that Couldn’t Die, a Universal cheapie that can’t be justified in any way.

1960 Ten Best Movies

A good year in the cinema, especially for a new kind of European movie that would not only change the way we think about film but also the way we think about the director. The stars of the arthouse (Truffaut, Fellini, Godard, Antonioni) come through with gems, even if La dolce vita would not become a phenomenon in the U.S. for another year. Nothing could be the same after the jump-cuts of Breathless and the ennui of L’avventura.

psycho3

Twelve cabins, twelve vacancies.

But at the top is an American film that truly goes all the way. Nothing has withered Psycho‘s power over the years; in fact it’s a movie that, far from relying on its immediate twists for its effect, actually becomes more troubling the more you look at it. In its final direct-to-camera confrontation with its main character (Anthony Perkins gives one of the great performances), Hitchcock completes the breakdown of the usual viewer-to-movie relationship. It still brings on a shiver.

A link to more on Psycho below. The ten best movies of 1960:

1. Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock)

2. L’avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni)

3. A bout de souffle (Breathless) (Jean-Luc Godard)

4. Shoot the Piano Player (Francois Truffaut)

5. Rocco and His Brothers (Luchino Visconti)

6. La dolce vita (Federico Fellini)

7. Peeping Tom (Michael Powell)

8. The Apartment (Billy Wilder)

9. When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (Mikio Naruse)

10. Comanche Station (Budd Boetticher)

Some Fellini fans might be surprised at the relatively low spot for La dolce vita, and maybe I’ll re-evaluate when I see it again. Along with its merits as a movie, I cherish the adolescent memory of watching it on the Canadian TV station and trying to figure out what the hell it was all about. But I don’t quite love it, at least not in the way I love the Truffaut and Visconti titles, and Breathless has to be up there because every minute of it bristles with the announcement that things are going to be very, very different from now on.

The also-rans include strong but not 10-worthy titles (Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well, Bergman’s Virgin Spring, Satyajit Ray’s Devi), and also a few Hollywood pictures that are unusually satisfying entertainment: Spartacus (Kubrick working for The Man), The Magnificent Seven (John Sturges), and Elmer Gantry, Richard Brooks’s intelligent adaptation of the Sinclair Lewis novel. In the latter category would also be Vincente Minnelli’s Home from the Hill and Fred Zinnemann’s The Sundowners, two deliberate pictures that quietly express the personalities of their directors. And Jerry Lewis made The Bellboy, his debut as a director and a distinctive, inventive movie.

I go on about Psycho here.

Next week: 1989.

Psycho

Psycho, by Robert Horton

What good came from Gus Van Sant’s 1998 remake of Psycho? Well, it was nice to hear Bernard Herrmann’s music throbbing out of Dolby stereo theater speakers. The color design confirmed Van Sant’s talent as an inventive art director. Anne Heche was alert and vulnerable in the birdlike role Janet Leigh had played in the original version of the movie.

Other than that, Van Sant’s faithful-but-flat update mainly served as an inadvertent testament to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece, simply by reminding Psycho fans of how good Hitchcock’s film was in the first place. Psycho has withstood critical disdain (upon its first release, anyway), three sequels and a remake, frequent lampooning, slavish imitations, and thousands of shower jokes. Its survival gives ample evidence of its status as an American classic.

One other aspect of Van Sant’s full-color, visually handsome remake is worth mentioning: its sheen throws the cheapness of the Hitchcock film into focus. Crucial to Psycho’s power is its drab, black-and-white, quietly depressed ambiance. Hitchcock’s technical mastery was not in doubt at this point, the director having just finished the impeccably-produced Vertigo and North by Northwest, so his decision to shoot the film with his TV-series collaborators, rather than his regular crew, is fascinating and defining. Supposedly Hitchcock was being a good businessman; he saw the rewards being reaped by low-budget producers of the drive-in era, and saw a chance to make a bundle on a small investment (which he did, since Psycho became an enormous hit). Another motivating factor was studio nervousness about the dreadful subject matter. Psycho was adapted from a horror novel by Robert Bloch, who based his book on the saga of Ed Gein, the Wisconsin madman whose misadventures would later inspire the Texas Chainsaw Massacre movies.

Not a subject in the classy Hitchcock vein, to be sure—so, yes, the producer-director was hedging his bets with a low-budget production. But I wonder if Hitchcock also instinctively understood the perfect match of budget and story. Psycho’s world, captured in the flat light of John L. Russell’s camera (he was a regular DP for the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV series), is one of small apartments and shitty jobs and drab motel rooms, a series of private traps for sorry people. The movie turns a light, in a particularly merciless way, on the empty corners of the human soul; everywhere you look, it is a spiritual Phoenix, Arizona. Continue reading