I was reading some old AVClub articles earlier today and came across a series of articles published in 2008 in which several writers picked their favorite year in movies and wrote a summary of that year. I found this to be an interesting thought experiment and decided to pick a year of my own to explore. I fully admit that my choice of 1966 is an arbitrary one motivated largely by a sense of obligation to include Persona on any list which invokes my favorite films.
My Favorite Year in Film – 1966
1966 found worldwide cinema culture in flux. The Nouvelle Vague was now a global export, spawning legions of new filmmakers in every European nation, even as the French directors who gave birth to the movement began to abandon it for other fare. This is the year that brought use such arthouse classics as Godard’s Masculin Feminin and Made in USA, both abstract and experimental films which gesture towards the director’s complete abandonment of traditional narrative in the 70’s. Other classics of European cinema from ‘66 include Au Hasard Balthazar, The Battle of Algiers, Daisies, Juliet of the Spirits, and Yesterday Girl. That this is merely a sampling of the international films released demonstrates the high level of artistry in the cinema at this moment in time, buoyed by the counterculture movements of the day and film’s status as the artform of the revolutionary youths.
Turning our gaze stateside, a look at the highest grossing films of 1966 further reinforces the idea of a culture in flux, with holdovers from Hollywood’s Golden Age competing with filmmakers working in the auteurist mode of the European cineastes. Number 1 at the box-office was the bluntly titled The Bible: In the Beginning, tailed by the historical epic Hawaii, and Mike Nichol’s debut feature, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. That two of these films are hardly remembered while the third is an avowed classic which marked the beginning of hugely successful period for Mike Nichols suggests that the new class of baby boomer filmmakers are quickly overtaking their predecessors. However, theatre-goers who might be less attuned to the sensibilities of the younger generation would still have had plenty to watch with western classics such as Stagecoach, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, and El Dorado debuting in ‘66. Similarly, a steady stream of Cold War Thrillers continued in the mid-60’s with Alfred Hitchcock directing Julie Andrews and Paul Newman in Torn Curtain and the masterful adaptation of John le Carre’s novel of the same name in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. The disparate quality and content of Hollywood films in this period is indicative of the death of the studio system which created room for the New Hollywood movement which was still coalescing in ‘66.
I would be greatly remiss if I didn’t touch on some of the more cult offerings available to audiences in 1966 as this period was a particularly fertile one for outsider film artists, specifically those tapped into the youth culture of psychedelia, political activism, and general subversion. Movies which demonstrate this sensibility from the class ‘66 include such titles as The 10th Victim, a pulpy italian thriller featuring Marcello Mastroianni, the psych-feminist freakout of Vera Chytilova’s Daisies, and a one two-punch from Chytilova’s cohorts of the Czech New Wave in Closely Watched Trains and A Report on the Party and Guests. Other underseen gems from 1966 which are worthy of mention include Alexander Kluge’s Godardian experiment, Yesterday Girl, the Japanese noir classic Tokyo Drifter, and Roman Polanski’s Cul-de-sac.
Top 5 Favorite Films of 1966.
5.) Juliet of the Spirits, dir. Federico Fellini
While I personally don’t love Juliet of the Spirits as much as such Fellini films as La Strada or La Dolce Vita, it is undeniably one of the peak cinematic achievements of 1966. Fellini’s first feature to be photographed in color, the director uses this new element to great effect in creating a series of tableaus representing the troubled psyche of the titular character. Guilietta Masina, Fellini’s spouse and frequent collaborator, is in top form here as a meek woman who slowly gains self-awareness through exploring her own desires and examining her relationship with a philandering and domineering spouse. The importance of dreams had always been a focus in Fellini’s work and Juliet’s increasingly provocative visions rival famed sequences in 8 ½ and Roma in creativity and psychological complexity. The film is also augmented by Nino Rota’s score, one of the finest he compose for Fellini, which suggests themes of the carnivalesque in its use of calliope and saxophone. Overall, it signals a shift in Fellini’s work from his early classics which were universally beloved to his films of the late-60’s and 70’s which divided critics and challenged audiences with their elaborate set pieces and abstract narratives.
4.) Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, dir. Mike Nichols
In retrospect, it’s baffling to me that a picture as acrid and cynical as this could have been a huge hit. However, it is perhaps merely a testimony to the enormous talents involved in the production of Virginia Woolf which ensured its success with contemporary audiences as well as its place in the pantheon of all-time great American films. Mike Nichol’s film betrays its roots as an Edward Albee stage play in its minimalistic set-dressing and utilization of a very limited cast. Instead of becoming a distraction, however, these dramatic choices highlight the claustrophobic nature of the relationship at the center of the film, that of Martha and George, portrayed by real-life couple Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. The film creates its conflict in the mind games these two play with each other, ensnaring an unsuspecting young couple in their web of loathing and emotional sadism. Perhaps the most profoundly shocking aspect of the film is the viewer’s eventual realization that the meltdown to which they are witness is not a singular moment of love’s disintegration but merely one skirmish in a lifelong war of contrition and abuse. With Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Nichols demonstrated himself to be one of the nation’s most promising filmmakers whose keen eye for human psychology enabled him to direct his actors to new heights of achievement on the screen.
3.) The Battle of Algiers, dir. Gillo Pontecorvo
Gillo Pontecorvo’s controversial masterpiece demonstrates both the capacity for film to act as effective political propaganda as well as a blending of narrative and documentary techniques. As such, The Battle of Algiers is as “real” a film as any, calling upon actual Algerian revolutionaries to restage their own violent uprising against the French colonial occupiers. Due to its staunch, anti-French stance, the film was censored at the time of its release, but it still found a receptive audience in the politically engaged youths of the day who would themselves take part in massive protests the following year. Clearly inspired by the Italian Neorealist school, Pontecorvo presents the eponymous battle using newsreel-style black and white photography which heightens the sense that one is witness to authentic historical events instead of a sanitized reenactment. Given the film’s sympathetic portrayal of the Algerian struggle for independence, it is not surprising that the film has been cited as an influence on groups such as The Black Panther Party, The Irish Republican Army, and Andreas Baader of the Baader-Meinhof Group. While the film does not actively campaign for the guerilla tactics employed by the Algerians against their oppressors, it clearly demonstrates the inherent inhumanity of colonization and suggests that the overthrowing of colonial powers by native populations is inevitable. Few films manage to present a political issue so clearly without regressing into didactic pedagoguery. This is a testament to the film’s many thrilling crowd sequences which depict the might of the people acting in collective resistance against imperial forces.
2.) Au Hasard Balthazar, dir. Robert Bresson
No director has ever used an animal as a character in a non-animated feature to as great an effect as Bresson in this film. The beatific donkey, Balthazar, is transformed from a lowly barnyard creature into a symbol of all that is innocent and all that is victimized in this world. This feat is achieved through the use of a parallel narrative structure which compares the experiences of Balthazar, an animal doomed to experience mistreatment at the hand of its various owners, with those of Marie, the only human who ever showed any degree of compassion toward the beast. Bresson’s trademark minimalism is on display here, denying the audience expected moments of pitched drama, instead opting for a slow-burning emotionality. The pace of this film might turn off viewers accustomed to more propulsive fare. However, if a viewer can becomes lost in the melancholic beauty of Bresson’s pastoral images, the experience of viewing Au Hasard Balthazar can be one of the most rewarding cinema has to offer. Even the staunchest skeptic, like myself, will not be able to help but be moved by the film’s breathtaking religious symbolism and its compassionate depiction of the suffering of the innocent at the hands of the callous and cruel.
1.) Persona, dir. Ingmar Bergman
I count myself proudly as a member of the Person(a)kult, a term coined by Swedish film critics to describe those who sang the praises of Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece in the late 1960’s. Legend has it that Ingmar Bergman conceived of the project after watching some experimental films by French directors and decided that he could do a much better job of crafting an avant-garde narrative which includes meta-cinematic elements suggesting a deconstruction of the artform itself. Few films demonstrate the level of artistry and daring originality on display in Persona. From the film’s jarring opening sequence featuring an erect phallus and images of a child clinging to projected images of Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson to its equally enigmatic conclusion, the images crafted by Bergman are unlike anything the cinema has seen before or sense. Though the film has had a clear influence on works such as Mullholland Dr., 3 Women, and Week-End, no other director can match the original for sheer inventiveness and fearless exploration of the darkest aspects of the human psyche.
Blow-Up, dir. Michelangelo Antonioni
Based on the same Julio Cortazar short story that would later inspire Brian De Palma’s Blow-Out, this film marries Hitchcockian suspense to psychedelic visuals inflected with Antonioni’s trademark sense of alienation and absurdity. Far less concerned with its central mystery than the aforementioned De Palma picture, Blow-Up is a portrait of London in the Swinging 60’s, complete with hip Herbie Hancock score and a protagonist whose career as a high-fashion photographer brings him into proximity with remarkably glamorous women and the city’s burgeoning rock scene. One of the film’s most interesting sequences is an early concert by the Yardbird featuring various British rock luminaries who would soon rocket to superstardom. Remarkably, this plotless, drug-addled movie was an enormous box office success whose critical and popular appeal perturbed censors who attempted to stop the film from screening in America.
Masculin Feminin, dir. Jean-Luc Godard
Along with Made in the USA which was also released in ’66, Masculin Feminin marks the end of what is normally considered Godard’s Nouvelle Vague period, though its arguable that he broke with the movement far earlier. Regardless, this is the last of Godard’s films with a strong narrative focus until he returns to commercial filmmaking in the late 80’s. Exploring the dialectic relationship between France’s ye-ye teen culture and the Marxist politics which were gaining popularity with Parisian youth, this snapshot of Paris in the 60’s both foreshadows the events of May ’68. Masculin Feminin is perhaps best evoked by an intertitle which appears in the film and has since become one of the most famous Godardisms: “This film could be called The Children of Marx and Coca-Cola.” This tension between capitalist culture, indexed in the film as the various cultural exports, and the radical politics which had become a key aspect of the French counterculture is echoed even in the casting which pairs Jean-Pierre Leaud, the single actor most identified with the Nouvelle Vague, and Chantal Goya, a teen-pop idol in her own right. Fans of Godard’s early films will find plenty to love here, even if it skirts the line between traditional, narrative filmmaking and the didactic essay-style which Godard would soon embrace.
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, dir. Sergio Leone
This epic tale of greed and vengeance could be pointed to as the pinnacle of achievement in the Spaghetti Western genre. It evinces all of the trademarks of the genre, and Leone’s trademark extravagance is on display here with the film playing out over nearly 3 hours of tense rising action before a climactic showdown in the desert. Clint Eastwood returns to his legendary Man With No Name character, smoldering with cool intellect and a subdued benevolence. The contrast between his portrayal of Blondie and Lee Van Cleef’s turn as the sadistic and amoral Angel Eyes is such a compelling dynamic that it buoys the film through its more languid passages. Though other westerns are more exciting or genre-defying, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly remains a key piece in both Eastwood’s lengthy career as well as the course of western films in general following their heyday in the 40’s.
I Knew Her Well, dir. Antonio Pietrangeli
This beautifully photographed, black & white film depicts the glamorous life of the cosmopolitan classes inhabiting Rome during the period of the post-war Economic Miracle. Reminiscent of the work of Antonioni and Fellini from just a few years earlier, Pietrangeli also captures the ennui of the rich and aimless, though his picture does lack the sense of existential angst which turns a film like La Dolce Vita from a stylistic experiment into a gripping psychological study. There is something about the hyper-modernity of Rome in this period with its culture of decadence and frivolity that has always fascinated me. Though I Knew Her Well is less accomplished than the better known Italian classics, it is still worth seeking out for those who have seen and enjoyed those films.
Andrei Rublev, dir. Andrei Tarkovsky
Tarkovsky’s painstaking study of 15th century Russian life is hardly a faithful biopic of its titular subject. However, it is among the most moving and engrossing visions of The Middle Ages ever portrayed on the screen. Andrei Rublev abounds with Christian imagery, foregrounding this aspect of Russian culture as central to the nation’s historical development, a stance which would have put Tarkovsky at odds with Soviet censors. Similarly, the director portrays Rublev as a character of world-historic importance who struggles against political censorship and authoritarianism during the period in which the tsardom was established. This is a film which insists upon the dignity and the autonomy of the artist, suggesting that transcendent artistic achievement is only possible when the artist is able to overcome the limitations imposed by society. As such, it can be read as Tarkovsky’s mission statement, a promise to live in defiance of the dehumanizing bureaucracy which had rendered the USSR as oppressive as any medieval fiefdom.
A few other films from ’66 that I’ve seen and love:
Django, The Servant, Chelsea Girls, Chappaqua, The Sword of Doom, Who Are You Polly Maggoo?, How to Steal a Million, Seconds, A Bullet for the General, Chimes at Midnight, The Face of Another, The Hawks and The Sparrows, Young Torless