For those unaware of my Top Ten By Year column; I pick years that are weak for me re: quantity of films seen. I’m using listmaking as a motivation to see more films and revisit others in a structured way. And I always make sure to point out that my lists are based on ‘favorites’ not any notion of an objective ‘best’.
Back, way back, into the yesteryear of December, I cannonballed into 1965. I had easily seen the least amount of films from that year out of the entire decade (16). At first glance it looked like a bit of a barren wasteland, particularly when looking to Hollywood. They were right on the precipice of major crumblings and new beginnings; bloated seemed like the surface term of choice for the time being. Bigger is better was the mantra, sometimes striking very expensive gold, often striking out. Always searching for that new aspect ratio that would stretch the limits even more. Trying to come up with draws to combat the titillating European imports. Of course there were major New Waves happening many places from France to Japan to Czechoslovakia. Britain was in a transitional spot, shifting from their recent Wave towards a more escapist centrality. Basically what I’m saying is that in my mind I’d foolishly already sized up 1965 before I started. It didn’t look like there was too much I wanted to see in addition to what I was already familiar with. I’m never blind enough to follow suit with reductive historical thinking, yet I can’t say I was overly enthused with what the year had to offer at first glance.
Going into any year in film to this kind of ‘nth’ degree, you come out of it with a new understanding. The new understanding is the concrete evidence from concentrated film viewings that the written-in-stone overview of anything historical always masks endless subtleties, exceptions to the rule, the fact that most things are overlooked, and that nothing is ever what it seems. Bigger, bigger, bigger may have been the mantra in Hollywood, with Britain following suit with escapism and epic adaptations (Help!, Doctor Zhivago), but an electric underground streak of exploitation and a bolder acknowledgment of social changes (The Party’s Over, Who Killed Teddy Bear, Repulsion, Faster Pussycat Kill Kill!) was very much present in both countries. These weren’t ‘issue’ films created under a structure; the transgression was the text. For every goofy played-out genre smacking (Beach Blanket Bingo, The 10th Victim) and epic race-themed comedy (Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines, The Great Race) someone in Hollywood or Britain did something bold or confrontational in form, story or tone (The Train, Bunny Lake is Missing, The Loved One, The Pawnbroker, The War Game).
The pedestal ‘canon’ films, the mammoths, both previously seen and unseen, provided a wide range of responses from straight-up unimpressed (Juliet of the Spirits, Alphaville, Come Drink with Me) or unengaged to yes-this-is-just-that-great (Repulsion, Loves of a Blonde, Red Beard). And the ever-present middle ground of ‘like/like a lot with reservations’. In that category falls Chimes at Midnight; a towering patchwork creation in both making-of and content but subject to long bouts of slobbery tomfoolery which left me behind. Pierrot le Fou; invaluable from an auteurist perspective and a key work in every way, but Godard’s hyper-aware deconstructions often make his films, all rewards aside, feel ponderous on a basic and inescapable level for me. That being said, I liked Pierrot le Fou. It just won’t appear on the list. Doctor Zhivago; a production for the ages with unforgettably photographed winter, but tepid in its central love story. The Sound of Music; watchable and lively, but not a film I’ve ever considered even a casual favorite (indeed I never feel the need to see it again).
More than 1935 and 1983 (the two other years I’ve completed), 1965 introduced me to an array of underappreciated (in some cases barely discovered!) gems. We’re talking underappreciated even within the online film community (lack of availability for a few of these titles surely to blame).All of those will be either on the Honorable Mentions list or the actual list.
I figured I’d have a solid top ten by the end of this. A top ten I could stand by like the proud lover of film I am. But, just like 1983, 1965 made my job excruciating within the realms of listmaking. I cannot stress enough that the ten films, and the five I’ve highlighted as honorable mentions, are all films I loved.
Now to pay tribute to five films that did not make my final cut, but have surely left their marks. Of the five, Bunny Lake is Missing is comfortably nuzzled into place. The other four shine a light on the closeness and flimsiness of compartmentalized listmaking because each may as well be on the list alongside the chosen ten.
Bunny Lake is Missing (UK, Preminger) for its potentially feminist reading, a Hall-of-Fame level assortment of eccentric British supporting players, and a macabre display of updated Gothic tropes.
Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (USA, Meyer) in which Tura Satana gives us an iconic rough-and-tumble Class A Bitch in Varla. Varla is Satana. Satana is Varla. She takes ownership of the film and its gaze. All of her life experience, her defenses, her attitude make up this cult classic’s DNA. She twists dialogue into seething barking camp gold (I don’t beat clocks, just people! Wanna try me?) She’s the primo example of essence sometimes meaning more than traceable talent. Despite a lack of evidential acting skills, she possesses the oxymoron of not only convincing us through her stilted rawness, but being more watchable than 99% of people who have ever graced the silver screen.
The Shop on Main Street (Czechoslovakia, Kadar & Klos) which would be my #11. Sneakily broaches its subject by bringing the fledgling everyman, not the heroic everyman, into the systematic erasure of his Jewish neighbors. Flirts with comic sensibilities with its plucky nightmare strings which in fact are building to an agonizing pressure-cooker last act where cowardice flips to bravery flips to drunken cowardice flips to really drunken cowardice flips to Holy-Fuck-Tell-Me-That-Did-Not-Just-Happen. Josef Kroner is bravura, a kind of sad sack Bob Denver.
Tokyo Olympiad (Japan, Ichikawa) where momentous national pride is paired with a worldly look at physical human strength and feat; what the human body can do and where it can go. What starts as evenly distributed straightforward coverage begins to take many different forms as we move from sport to sport. Fish-eye masters, slow-motion recaps, shaky mediums. Narration often disappears. What is left is something for everybody. With the outcome rarely at the center, athlete and spectator participate to break records and to marvel at human will.
Yoyo (France, Etiax) for its elegant light of touch coupled with startling ambition rooted in comedic slapstick traditions. Uniquely traditional, especially considering the time and place, yet progressively playful. Remains fresh, even when seen today.
Biggest Disappointments (from the new-to-me viewings):
Planet of the Vampires
The 10th Victim
The Saragossa Manuscript
The Loved One
Blind Spots (not exhaustive):
Darling, In Harm’s Way, Cat Ballou, The Family Jewels, The Hill, Inside Daisy Clover, Die! Die! My Darling, Lord Jim, Mickey One, Ship of Fools, Sword of the Beast, A Thousand Clowns, Thunderball, Ride in the Whirlwind, Samurai
Complete List of 1965 Films Seen: Alphaville, Bad Girls Go to Hell, Beach Blanket Bingo, Le Bonheur, Bunny Lake is Missing, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Chimes at Midnight, Come Drink with Me, Doctor Zhivago, The Dot and the Line, Faster Pussycat Kill Kill!, Fists in the Pocket, Flight of the Phoenix, For a Few Dollars More, Help!, I Saw What You Did, Juliet of the Spirits, The Loves Goddesses, The Loved One, Loves of a Blonde, The Nanny,The Party’s Over, A Patch of Blue, The Pawnbroker, Pierrot le Fou, Planet of the Vampires, Pleasures of the Flesh, Rapture, Repulsion, The Saragossa Manuscript, Simon of the Desert, The Shop on Main Street, The Sound of Music, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Story of a Prostitute, The 10th Victim, Those Magnificent Men and their Flying Machines, Tokyo Olympiad, The Train, The War Game, What’s New Pussycat?, Who Killed Teddy Bear, Yoyo
10. Fists in the Pocket (Italy, Bellocchio)
Next-level dysfunctional family films are kind of my bag. Marco Bellocchio’s debut upends Catholic devotion and the ways they come in hand with family priorities, bonds and loyalties. On the surface, nothing about the film is subtle, but there are actually some nice narrative slight-of-hands played on the audience without fanfare and through slow unfolding. They don’t even play directly into narrative developments, instead significantly adding to it as a character piece.
Seamless and jarring scene transitions keep everything slightly askew. Behavior is in a generally regressive state of play. There is an emphasis on hands. Most importantly is the focus on spontaneous gesture, on communicating with jolts of the body.
Lou Cassell is explosive. Everything at once. Inner child, killer, dependent, impulsive, hesitant, inept, depressed, operatic. The finale is borne out of an attack that positions those body-driven moments as the climax.
The snowy mountainous landscape is gorgeous and isolated. Ennio Morricone’s dirge-like score sounds like a siren calling from the deep. It is echoing and mocking. It is a challenging work in terms of character motivations and dynamics. Surface level regression is a show. It’s an empty banquet. The reality is off in the corner, and we never quite get to see it, though the film’s aggression makes us think we do.
9. Loves of a Blonde (Czechoslovakia, Forman)
A coming-of-age triptych built on a naive clutch for escapism via romance. There is a constant back-and-forth between characters who criss-cross within comic setpieces, trekking through social and domestic debacles with a wry tracking observation. The first sequence in particular has the camera functioning almost as a sports announcer, catching increasingly lumbering developments from all sides. What impressed me most about it was how Forman’s second work has a quick-witted touch, laced w/ Czech pop music and a kind of farcical comedy-of-errors, but there’s a sincere sadness underneath it all that may or may not be reconcilable.
8. For a Few Dollars More (Italy, Leone)
Trumps The Good, the Bad and the Ugly for me. I just find it more consistently engaging on a storytelling level, specifically the set-up of Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef as rival bounty killers who tenuously team up to take down El Indio. They tiptoe around each other for a bit; we are introduced to each via their disparate work strategies. With their first meeting, communication comes in boot-crunching, silent assessments and, in a patient bit of comedy with a matched pay-off, hat shooting. In fact the entire film is littered with pay-offs, most notably the finale (big shocker) which had me cheering out loud during a solo viewing for the first time in forever. Those kinds of moments don’t come around often; it’s always affirming to be swept off one’s feet, roused to such a degree and so firmly in a character’s corner as I was the moment Manco shows up with that timepiece.
When Ennio Morricone and Sergio Leone get together, music becomes a tent under which the entire production gathers. In both For a Few Dollars More and Once Upon a Time in the West, non-diegetic and diegetic sound merge and inform each other with one common element. In For a Few Dollars More it’s the timepiece. In Once Upon a Time in the West it’s the harmonica. The music is a direct outgrowth of the story. Part of the fabric, its essence you could say, gallantly taking off in grander operatic directions.
This is also the most potent I’ve found Clint Eastwood’s presence as iconic figure. All fluidity in his essential movements; ever-watchful and unwavering. Waiting for opportunities to present themselves. Co-lead Lee Van Cleef is best in show as Colonel Mortimer. Persistent weariness and endearing conviction. All three lead players compliment and elevate each other.
Leone continues to perfect frame-filling studies of the masculine face and the vastness around them. Sure enough, the soundtrack has already joined the rest my Morricone on the iPod to be listened to on endless repeat.
7. The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics (USA, Jones & Noble) (short)
Chuck Jones adapting a Norton Juster book combines two of my favorite people in one fell swoop. Well, problem is, Jones’ other adaptation of Juster’s work, his 1966 animated feature The Phantom Tollbooth, is purely disappointing fare. Luckily, this slightly earlier, much shorter work by Chuck Jones from a much shorter (picture book short) work by Norton Juster is just the opposite. With reliably droll narration from dependable character actor Robert Morley, Jones combines abstraction and flexible wit to make one of my favorite animated shorts of all time.
It presents a tale as old as time story of boy-meets-girl, girl-shuns-boy, boy-eventually-wins-over-girl in a new way; as a fable with geometric shapes. The third part of this romantic triangle is a Squiggle beatnik, a very snap-snap of-the-time threat. It’s a slow-and-steady wins the race kind of message. What may seem boring and stolid is actually something else entirely. What may seem adventurous and hip can actually be anarchic and slippery. Its fable-ness makes it quite conservative, but it’s a lovely story in the way it shows the flipside of perception, turning negatives into pluses. Look a little deeper it says. And there’s a sly little critique of its own message at the very end in that they love “if not happily ever after, at least reasonably so”.
6. Who Killed Teddy Bear (USA, Cates)
This hit all my check boxes for cult curios with a rare kind of verve. It revels in its simple ‘Peeping Tom’ plot and is largely made up of the threat of transgression and threatening-to-boil-over sexual energy. The body is constantly eroticized; male and female alike in the forms of Sal Mineo and Juliet Prowse.
The location footage captures Times Square and Manhattan as peep show haven. A place you can stroll to your crotch’s desire. All proto-Taxi Driver comparisons are apt. Mineo seethes with self-hate, both at his unquenchable thirst and an inability to separate himself from what he sees as the gutter. It’s too preoccupied with deviancy to function as an on-the-level release at the time. It’s also too much of a rehash story to be truly outre. So it lies between with its underground renegade spirit and endless streaks of art-sleaze stopping by way of kitsch.
You’ve got Sal Mineo with his chiseled bod, and a perfectly repressed performance, complete with gym workout montage! There’s Juliet Prowse who is so engaging and gorgeous. There’s Elaine Stritch as a lesbian discotheque manager! There’s a detective obsessed with fetishists whose daughter is stuck overhearing victim’s detailed case interviews and being surrounded by smutty mags lying around the apartment. Outdated in its hilarious blanket definition of ‘perverse’ and yet progressive in its voyeuristic fixation on and acknowledgment of different types of sexuality and urges (both healthy and harmful) that society largely ignored(s). Comes complete with an almost too-catchy title song and contains quite possibly the greatest scene in the history of film. Oh yes. I’m talking about the Sal Mineo/Juliet Prowse dancing scene.
5. Red Beard (Japan, Kurosawa)
Couple this with Ikiru, and you’ve got Akira Kurosawa’s two most humanistic films (of the 11 I’ve seen). All about empathy and the human experience, Red Beard has an edge of sentimentality to it, a do-unto-others quality that could have easily felt naive or saccharine but is instead intensely sincere and beautifully observed. Perfectly paced, with each character having their own story, their own beaten down struggles which we are made privy to.
His last black-and-white film, and generally a major transitional marker in his career, Kurosawa makes exquisite use of depth perception and the 2.35:1 aspect ratio. His use of horizontal planes and angles make for compositions that fiddle with distance and closeness, cramming people together and forcing them apart in equal measure. The enormous contained sets make the tragedies feel more resonant and the victories that much more radiant. And it even manages to sneak in a healthy dose of Toshiro Mifune Kicking Ass when he beats the tar out of a group of petty criminals.
4. Repulsion (France, Polanski) From the bottled-up tension on the open seas in his debut Knife in the Water, Roman Polanski then moved to France to create an even more claustrophobic endeavor with this his second feature. Repulsion is elemental, using psychological horror to depict a mental break defined by aberrant tinglings everywhere. An experience that exists in the mind but that you feel in the gut. The sound design repeats itself in screeches and ticks and thundering cracks. And in frantic uncontrollable jazz courtesy of the great Krzysztof Komeda.
Polanski uses Deneuve’s rimy veneer to present a dichotomy. Carole is a cipher, closed off to us; not even the camera can get to her brain. So what the camera does do is present an enigma to us at face value, while using the art of film to gradually depict her nightmarish disintegration. The burgeoning insanity reveals itself by bleeding into the everyday. The cracks in the wall appear as miniscule and hardened cracks in dried-up facial cream applied on a woman’s face in the salon. We get a red herring kind of skeleton key, in the form of a beyond eerie childhood photograph, in relation to how Carole has come to this stunted and grisly place where everything is threatening and sex equals horror. As the rabbit rots, as the apartment devolves into a decrepit wasteland, and as the bodies pile up, we get a portrait of low-budget crumbling isolated insanity. Gilbert Taylor channels Val Lewton kinds of penny-pinching dread, while using it for fallout too, to maximum effect. Repulsion is an inescapable putrefaction about a woman made prisoner to herself. Polanski’s willingness to try stuff out and see what sticks, or rather what comes further unhinged, is in large part why Repulsion is considered a rightful classic.
3. A Charlie Brown Christmas (USA, Melendez) (short)
In all honesty this should probably be number 1 but I wanted to make room for a couple of new all-time favorites. I’ve never tried to put into words why A Charlie Brown Christmas remains an inarguable classic. I still don’t even think I can. I cherish the purity that emits from certain childhood outings. This is one of them. I’ve seen it more times than I could ever count but it’s not a Christmas-themed work (unlike A Christmas Story which appeared on my 1983 list) I will ever tire of. At this stage in life it offers a comfort. I love the Peanuts and I love these characters. This special gets at why more than any other animated outing of theirs.
Charlie Brown finally gets a chance to fit in, to please others, but he botches it. His so-called friends, and even his dog, are pretty uniformly cruel here. The cruelty doesn’t equate badness; just a form of regular childhood behavior that can turn and be erased at the drop of a hat. And then Linus comes in and reminds everyone of the true meaning of Christmas. That true meaning of Christmas doesn’t hold clout with me personally, and yet the world seems to quietly stop as Linus takes center stage. It never fails to move me to my core. Sincerity doesn’t come in a better package. It gets at the innocence of the whole production, from the uncut glory of having unpolished children lend their voices to the way the characters come together at the end and quietly vocalize in harmony.
And Vince Guaraldi’s music, man. There’s nothing like it. Its wintry ways sooth and its perkiness acts as a concrete musical representation of joy.
2. The Party’s Over (UK, Hamilton)
The Party’s Over is a pulsating time-capsule piece. It portrays British youth on the cusp of Swinging London (it was shot in 1963) as mostly privileged folk who wish to deaden themselves. There’s nothing really bubbly or freeing about the film. The parties are shown with a messy frankness. But the film isn’t didactic. It doesn’t condemn. It just looks on with wariness on anyone who gets tunnel vision from fully committing to an extreme whether on one end or the other. The film had major issues with the BBFC in order to get a release. By the time the cuts and changes had been carried out, Guy Hamilton asked for his name to be removed from the film and it was released with the ‘X’ rating.
The film begins with Oliver Reed smoking, drinking, pouring alcohol on a dude’s head and jumping out a window. I kid you not.
Silly me, I unforgivably forgot that Oliver Reed was probably the most magnetic actor who ever was. His was a genuinely dangerous presence. His slinky bedroom eyes constantly harbor carnal secrecies. The character and performance go a long way in establishing this as a personal canon film. His Moise reveals unexpected depths. We assume he is the leader, the villain, the one most capable of damage. But Reed as Moise fools everyone. Turns out he is in fact most capable of change, and a desire to move on. Guy Hamilton tracks an environment where tragedy isn’t led by crime, but from a level of bacchanal self-absorption that renders death unnoticed yet unknowingly mocked and play-acted, while the real thing festers underneath their noses.
1. Rapture (France/USA, Guillerman)
The definition of an undiscovered jewel. Patricia Gozzi, looking like a gamine teenage Juliette Binoche, is uncut, honest, and raw as the troubled Agnes. This is a highly fractured fairy tale; delusional, grand, and run-down. Played out on an isolated farm with scarecrows and manhunts. Rapture is keyed into French New Wave sensibilities but isn’t led by them. The isolation and family dynamics sit somewhere above us, slightly inexplicable and unconventional but visible all the same.Dean Stockwell is sort of impossibly good-looking in the 60’s, something I wasn’t aware of until now. I urge everyone to seek this out when you can. It’s sumptuous, troubling, and off-kilter in equal measure. And its placement on this list should indicate just how strongly I feel about it.