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The Top Ten Films of the 1960s

As the ’60s began, we elected John F. Kennedy, a man who might as well have been a movie star, as President. His mistress was a movie star and even his campaign against Nixon was rolled out like the PR blitz for a summer blockbuster. His assassination in 1963, would become one of the most mulled-over events in cinematic culture, second perhaps only to the Holocaust.

As conspiracies and mysteries grew to outlandish size, so did our interest in the enigmatic and the challenging at the cinema. The concept of the arthouse stemmed from a hunger at colleges and big cities for existential fever dreams (Antonioni, Resnais), surreal thrillers (Chabrol, Polanski), and some lunatic who peeked at an apocalyptic world overrun by the living dead. At home, it was the arrival of hot-tempered brainchild Stanley Kubrick that excited a generation of critics and filmmakers as the avant garde found its unlikely Che Guevera in bearded beatnik Stan Brakhage. Guevera was killed in 1967, right as the slow-motion shooting that ended Bonnie and Clyde left audiences’ mouths agape and minds awakened to the power of onscreen violence. As Guevera would become the figurehead for faux politicos and independent party candidates alike, Brakhage, Penn and dozens of other ’60s filmmakers and films would lay the groundwork for both today’s most original auteurs and the age of the remake. Here are our picks for the 10 best.

1. Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
The film that pushed along Stanley Kubrick’s reputation as an immensely detailed perfectionist is also his sharpest — and most wonderfully ridiculous. One of the greatest war satires ever made, Dr. Strangelove was released some 14 months after the Cuban Missile Crisis, adding an especially pungent flavor to its sardonic tone. Warmongers, government heavies, clueless leaders: Kubrick nails it all, with the remarkable Peter Sellers leading the way in three roles, including the wacked-out, wheelchair-bound title character. The film’s full irony was realized later in 1964… when Sidney Lumet’s Fail-Safe hit theaters. – NS

2. Psycho
Arguably Hitchcock’s most popularly recognized film and certainly his most ripped-off, Psycho announced a far darker side to the Hollywood Hitchcock; the next logical step from the perverse schisms of Vertigo. The scenes are all benchmarks now — the shower, the stairs, the peephole, and the rocking chair — but it’s the ending that really casts the die. Whereas horror and thrillers up to that point had ostensibly tucked the monster back under the bed, Hitchcock leaves the film with that completely unnerving voice-over and Anthony Perkins’ smile, which could make a spring rose turn tire-tread black. His next film, The Birds, still rates as his darkest and most apocalyptic work, and it’s hard not to connect the two, as Bernard Herrmann’s wicked scores add extra snaps to the synapses. But Psycho remains the blueprint for both the serial killer thrillers and horror films of today. Whether to celebrate or bemoan this is really a matter of perspective. – CC

3. 2001: A Space Odyssey
There are a hundred ways to interpret Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi masterpiece, as it yields new rewards and remains utterly relevant no matter how many times you watch it. Perhaps the ultimate question the movie posits is this: What does it mean to be human? To answer it, we go back in time to see our ape ancestors discover weapons and warfare and then go forward in time to see man face off with a machine he has created to think in a human way. And then we go back, and forward and back again, until we find ourselves riding on a mind-bending, hallucinatory rollercoaster shaped like the infinity symbol. The end is the beginning, which is the end, and it’s full of stars. People used to joke that you needed to be high to watch 2001. Quite the contrary: The movie itself will alter your consciousness.–DW

4. The Manchurian Candidate
With a hypnotic score by David Amram that suggests mental dislocation, a riddling script by George Axelrod (adapted from a Richard Condon novel) and a cast featuring Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh, Angela Lansbury, and Henry Silva (as Chunjin, the spooky Manchurian thug), director John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate radically satirized the character assassination tactics of McCarthy and Hoover, turning the Red Scare into a seizing, paranoid conspiracy thriller. In exposing the manipulation of vulnerable minds, The Manchurian Candidate created a tension so viscerally electrifying and timely that it not only shook up the genres of political intrigue and the psychological thriller, but foreshadowed FBI surveillance of the civil rights movement and Vietnam-era anti-war demonstrations. Today, the aftershocks of Frankenheimer’s vision can be seen in the Patriot Act and the torture methods revealed at Guantanamo Bay. -JB

5. Blow-Up
Italian legend Michelangelo Antonioni made the leap to the English language with Blow-Up, a film that ranks among his very best. It follows a London photographer (David Hemmings) through a single day as — in the midst of shoots both planned and improvisational — he snaps a picture of a murder in Maryon Park. Though ostensibly a thriller, its taut moments and existential reveries evenly mixed, Blow-Up thrives mainly on its detached sense of the surreal, which Antonioni captures through copious use of long takes. The film caused a stir for its frank depiction of female nudity, and its perfect encapsulation of mod sensibilities would later be skewered by the Austin Powers movies. And yet Blow-Up remains a curiously sad tale, revealing a man so obsessed with capturing images that he never bothers to notice what he’s shooting. -RV

6. The Producers
A blaring starting pistol for one of the most unrivaled comedy careers in history, The Producers is at once Mel Brooks’ most straightforward narrative and his most absurd upending of the boring old concepts of good taste and normalcy. Panned outright by the New York Times, Pauline Kael, and Andrew Sarris upon its release, the legend goes that the film was to be sealed in the Embassy Pictures vault forever until Peter Sellers screened it and took a huge ad out in Variety demanding its release. But mythology and reception are, in the end, peanuts to the product: Rarely has there been as expert a comedic pairing as Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel, but even more mind-blowing is the caliber of the flamboyantly offensive gut-buster they were placed in, written and directed by first-timer Brooks. Its canonical moments — ‘Springtime for Hitler,’ ‘My blanket!,’ and Little Old Lady Land are near the top — could be seen as the early rumblings of the banzai brilliance of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. -CC

7. Lawrence of Arabia
1962’s Best Picture serves today to remind us that they sure don’t make epics like they used to. David Lean’s three-and-a-half hour tour de force, shot in 70mm Super Panavision, is an unending feast for the eyes, and, with its memorable score, a feast for the ears as well. Peter O’Toole (and his dazzlingly blue eyes) makes a dashing T.E. Lawrence, whose desert adventures during World War I are fascinating and fast-paced. Will he be able to use his unique intellect, incredible stamina, and prodigious courage to bring together diverse Arab tribes for a showdown with the advancing Turks? We’ll see camel-train journeys across vast deserts, sword fights, bloody battles, dynamite, and torture before the job is done. What a man, what a life, and what a cinematic banquet. -DW

8. 8 1/2
The lunacy of making films remains a sprawling breeding ground for satire, drama, and arthouse fare worldwide. Some of it has been good, even triumphant on occasion, but nothing has yet compared to the grandiose madhouse of emotions that is Federico Fellini’s landmark 8 1/2. A sumptuous celebration of the sheer life of (and love for) the cinema, 8 1/2 places Fellini’s perennial proxy Marcello Mastroianni in the role of a director desperately trying to finish his film while dealing with a screenwriter, producers, performers, family, and a revolving cast of women. As in Amarcord, 8 1/2 has certain gothic and carnivalesque tendencies that help give this self-reflexive epic a bigger-than-life aesthetic. Even so, the director famously said that even if he set out to make a film depicting a piece of fish that it would still be about him. With 8 1/2, he is at his most honest emotionally and at his most playful creatively. Put plainly, it is life put through the kaleidoscopic filter known as cinema. -CC

9. Breathless
Breathless is a film that influenced the filmmaking landscape for the next 50 years and will likely continue to influence said landscape for 50 more. Amoral killer Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) doubles as a fraudulent poser who is chasing after the Bogart look. Patricia (Jean Seberg) wants to get a classical education at the Sorbonne, yet she gets more satisfaction out of observing Michel’s gangster ruse than she does any educational pursuits. Together they drift through Paris on a spree of ambivalent fantasy, driven by nothing more than their own selfishness. Jean-Luc Godard’s turn-of-the-decade masterpiece is a movie that truly takes its title to heart — it is the most briskly paced, frantically edited, marvelously infuriating film of its time. The New Wave auteur’s famous creation of the ‘jump cut’ coupled with the fascinating narcissism of his characters and the hypnotic tension of his story make Breathless one of the defining films of its generation, both stylistically and psychologically. -JM

10. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Using the plains, railroads, and towns of the old west as their personal rumpus room, Paul Newman and Robert Redford lavished a barrelful of comedic energy and mythic character upon the flagging western as the titular tandem in George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The close sharing of dangers and triumphs between these antiheroes was such that a good case could be made that the actual bond between the actors made the relationship more fertile for laughs and satire. In any case, it allowed two of their generation’s most charismatic gentlemen of the screen to amuse a dead-serious Vietnam era that was in dire need of just this sort of whimsy and audacious behavior. That they did it while sharing Katherine Ross’s affections without tempting the censor’s shears may just reflect the flower-child currents flowing through American society in the late ’60s. And, if it was screenwriter William Goldman’s (All the President’s Men) intention to score a bulls-eye with every line, he couldn’t have shot up his target any more unforgettably. -JB

Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order)
The Apartment
The Birds
Bonnie and Clyde
Cool Hand Luke
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
The Graduate
Night of the Living Dead
Rosemary’s Baby
The Wild Bunch
Yojimbo

See also:
Top Ten Films of the 1950s

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