With all the talk about 2007 as a singularly great year for movies, we at The A.V. Club have been discussing among ourselves what years we'd nominate as the best-of-the-best. For the next several weeks, The A.V. Club's regular film reviewers will offer our individual choices.
In the late-'50s and early-'60s, a group of French critics-turned-filmmakers kicked off what came to be known as the French New Wave, a school of filmmaking founded in reverence for classic Hollywood filmmaking and a determination to break all the rules of the films they loved. Neither Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless nor Francois Truffaut's Shoot The Piano Player could have been made without the hundreds of crime films that preceded them, but they had little interest in adhering to the genre's traditions. Instead they dwelled on their character's (and their creators') philosophical concerns, as the films unfolded with experimental flair—jump cuts, location shooting, unnerving editing, unexpected digressions, odd pacing that focused on details most films had previously elided over, and an ever-present self-awareness—that looked like nothing that had come before. The New Wave started to influence films around the world, either directly or with its restless spirit, pretty much from the first time the end credits of The 400 Blows rolled. By 1967, its influence became undeniable, even in Hollywood. It led to a very good year to go to the movies.
How good? Moviegoers didn't even have to be particularly adventurous to wind up seeing something daring. Anyone checking out the latest Paul Newman movie that November wound up with Cool Hand Luke, in which Newman plays a prisoner forever quarrelling with his oppressive bosses. It would take another couple of years for Hollywood films to offer explicit evidence of the late-'60s counter-culture, but a fair share of movies were already simpatico with its rebellious spirit. Not that it was a year without counter-culture films. Always the first responder for any new trend, Roger Corman produced and directed a Jack Nicholson screenplay called The Trip in which Peter Fonda stars as a man whose first experience with LSD leads to a lot of uncomfortable introspection while traveling from the Sunset Strip to a late-night Laundromat. The final shot offers a cracked homage, literally, to The 400 Blows. Even if the major studios were still trying to get by with World War II adventures and big-budget musicals, the on-the-fly low-budget folks had learned its lessons.
But the studios were starting to catch on. As with Truffaut and Godard's first efforts, directors working in Hollywood found it easiest to smuggle their most inventive ideas into a familiar genre. Adapting a novel by Donald Westlake's Richard Stark alter ego, British director John Boorman made Point Blank into a master class in experimental editing and jarring visuals. The New Wave's highest profile moment of arrival came, however, with the Arthur Penn-directed Bonnie And Clyde, which recast the true-life tale of lovers on the run as a fleet-footed, psychologically complex, romantic tragedy. Lambasted on arrival—in large part by Bosley Crowther's New York Times review, which decried its explicit violence—its fortunes were reversed, in part, by a glowing review from The New Yorker's Pauline Kael. (Critics do get it right once in a while, it turns out.)
The French New Wave's originators weren't exactly slacking, either. Not long before radical politics mostly supplanted his cinema lust, Godard made Week End. Beginning with a monologue sexually explicit enough to make a pornographer blush, it is justly famous for a seemingly endless tracking shot of a string of collided cars standing in for a world on the brink of falling apart. The spirit is less rebellious than apocalyptic. By Godard's reckoning the old order would soon be smashed; this was a preview of the coming chaos. The following year, his predictions seemed to come true, but despite the upheaval, that revolution never arrived in full. Movies, on the other hand, would be dealing with the fallout of 1967 for years.
An unsettling mix of fleet-footed comedy, mismatched romance, and casual, soul-sapping violence,
Bonnie And Clyde has lost none of its unsettling power. Penn and his star Warren Beatty had studied the New Wave well; their appreciation was apparent in their previous project, 1965's Mickey One, a paranoid comedy set in Chicago. Here they turned homage into the beginnings of a new American approach to film. It's the movie without which any of the maverick classics to come couldn't have happened, but its greatness is all its own. A box-office casualty upon release, Point Blank has an influence that stretches almost as far as Bonnie And Clyde's. Never engaging in experimentation for its own sake, its disorienting fractures serve the anger and confusion churning beneath star Lee Marvin's rarely stirred exterior.
Never a prolific filmmaker, and one happy to offer variations on the same theme each time out, Jacques Tati was a superb mime before he became a visually exacting director.
Play Time is Tati's fourth directorial feature and the third in which he starred as the bumbling, well-meaning, dialogue-averse Monsieur Hulot. The film brought Tati's precisely choreographed comic chaos to a grand scale. In an oversized Paris of glass and gadgets—we see the city's most famous landmarks only in reflection—Hulot finds himself befuddled by the modern age. Tati was nearly 60 when Play Time saw release, and there's considerable melancholy beneath the humor. He's saying goodbye to a disappearing Paris, and a disappearing sort of Parisian. Unwilling to commit to a plan, then driven half-mad when he does make a commitment, Dustin Hoffman drifts through the The Graduate to the hazy accompaniment of Simon And Garfunkel. He's a stand-in for a generation that didn't want their parents' world, but hadn't figured out what it wanted instead.
It wasn't just the up-and-coming directors exploring the territory opened up by the French New Wave. Stanley Donen already had a dozen or so classics under his belt—
Singin' In The Rain, Charade, and Funny Face among them—when he made Two For The Road, a film as challenging as Point Blank and Bonnie And Clyde thanks to its fractured chronology and a refusal to commit to the expectations of the romantic-comedy genre. It's also as heartbreaking a film as you'll ever see. Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn star as a young couple that meet, fall in love, get married, and drift apart. It's an old story, but the non-linear storytelling in which the juxtaposition of out-of-time scenes foreshadows the young lovers' eventual alienation (and possible reconciliation), gives the film an emotional depth impossible with a more traditional approach.
With the revivals of Bob Le Flambeur, Le Cercle Rouge, and Army Of Shadows, French director Jean-Pierre Melville has had a well-deserved (if sadly posthumous) revitalization in recent years. Alain Delon stars in Melville's Le Samourai as a hired killer whose isolation and perfectionism has made him the best at what he does. The suspense here comes largely from silent tension as Delon goes about fulfilling his most recent job only to find himself potentially undone by double-crosses and the unexpected demands of his own humanity. In America, its cult existed largely underground thanks to a botched release that kept the original cut out of circulation for decades. But anyone looking for the secret source of John Woo, Quentin Tarantino, and good stretches of the Coens' No Country For Old Men need look no further.
Elsewhere, the dark comedy The President's Analyst, starring James Coburn (and his amazing teeth) as the title character, flopped on release, but its vision of Cold War paranoia taken to its absurd extreme has rightly gained it a cult following. The Hammer Films-produced Quatermass And The Pit, in which an unspeakable horror is unearthed beneath London, is the best cinematic example of the queasily polite strand of British science fiction that elsewhere produced Dr. Who.
More notable films from 1967:
Belle De Jour: If I were doing a "Top 6" this would be on it.
The Young Girls Of Rochefort: Jacques Demy's ebullient musical is nice companion piece to The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg, my favorite film of all time.
Don't Make Waves: "Interesting," might be a better word than "notable," but this does feature Tony Curtis as a man whose midlife crisis makes him fall in with some surfers and choose between the affections of Sharon Tate and Claudia Cardinale.
The Jungle Book: The last animated film with which Walt Disney was directly involved falls short of the early classics but has a free-spirited energy all its own.
You Only Live Twice: This is one of the worst of the Connery Bond movies, but it's still a Connery Bond.
How I Won The War: Richard Lester's WWII satire doesn't quite hit the mark, but it's still an audacious pacifist comedy.
In Like Flint: James Coburn was all over the place in 1967, including this stupidly enjoyable sequel to the '66 Bond send-up Our Man Flint.
I'm almost ashamed to share the 1967 films I've yet to see that would probably make a fine list on their own. Among them: Scorsese's debut, Who's The Knocking At My Door; The Dirty Dozen; Bedazzled (Donen's other film that year); Wait Until Dark (Hepburn's other film that year); Far From The Madding Crowd; Poor Cow; Two Or Three Things I Know About Her (Godard's other film that year); To Sir, With Love; In The Heat Of The Night; Guess Who's Coming To Dinner?; The Fox; and The Stranger. (Do I lose my license?)
The thirtysomething fanboy in me was extremely tempted by 1982, which Ain't It Cool News earlier this year dubbed "The Best Genre Year Ever." Don't believe it? Here's the list: E.T., Blade Runner, Poltergeist, Conan The Barbarian, Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan, The Thing, and Fast Times At Ridgemont High. Also nothing the sneeze at: The World According To Garp, Fanny And Alexander, Tootsie, and The Verdict. Also in the running: 1942. How can you deny a year that brought us Cat People and Bambi? Casablanca and The Palm Beach Story? Pride Of The Yankees and The Magnificent Ambersons? Etc.
Next week: Nathan Rabin on 1994
Click here to read Noel Murray's thoughts on 1974