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The Best Discoveries of 2020: The 1960s

Updated: Dec 12, 2020

Nobody will be more surprised at this than me: One of the longest lists in my Best of 2020 viewing comes from a decade that typically isn’t one of my favorites: the 1960s. I may have to change my thinking on this…


Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) Robert Bresson (Criterion Channel)

How do I give a quick synopsis of a movie that’s so profound and moving? I can’t. Saying it’s a movie that follows a donkey named Balthazar around the French countryside is like saying Citizen Kane is about a guy who owned a newspaper. This is a tremendous film that I’ll be thinking about for the rest of my life.

Bedazzled (1967) Stanley Donen (Twilight Time Blu-ray)

Dudley Moore stars as a short-order cook who asks the devil (Peter Cook) to grant him seven wishes in order to make a waitress named Margaret (Eleanor Bron) fall in love with him. I need to give this one another chance, since I unfairly watched it after two challenging movies and probably didn’t fully appreciate some of the gags. I enjoyed it, but I’ll definitely revisit this one.

Billy Liar (1963) John Schlesinger (Criterion Channel; Kino Lorber Blu-ray)

Tom Courtenay plays Billy, a young working class man who lies as easily as he breathes. Courtenay is wonderful, but is this a comedy, tragedy, fantasy, or something else? I can’t decide whether the film’s ending is a cheat or simply inevitable.

Dark of the Sun (1968) Jack Cardiff (Warner Archive Blu-ray)

I was expecting nothing more than a testosterone-filled action/adventure flick starring Rod Taylor and Jim Brown as mercenaries taking a train through the Congo to snag millions of dollars in uncut diamonds, but by the time I got to the end, I was gobsmacked. The next time they have a 4 for $44 sale at Warner Archive, make sure you include this one. Or just buy it now. It’s worth it.

Fail Safe (1964) Sidney Lumet (Criterion Channel)

A system malfunction during the Cold War sets the stage for a white-knuckle drama with the future of the world at stake. Still a stunning film with powerhouse performances from Walter Matthau, Henry Fonda, Dan O’Herlihy, Larry Hagman, Fritz Weaver, Frank Overton, and more. The film’s most terrifying line: “Our economy depends on this.”

The Firemen’s Ball (1967) Miloš Forman (Criterion Channel)

Everything that could go wrong does go wrong at a firemen’s ball in a small Czechoslovakian town as the local firemen seek to honor a retiree, hold a large-scale raffle, and organize a beauty contest. The film works as straight comedy, a satire on Communism, or both.

Hatari! (1962) Howard Hawks (borrowed from a friend)

The animal action footage in this John Wayne movie is still impressive today. The film runs too long at 157 minutes, but I didn’t mind spending a little extra time with these characters, which is part of the fun in watching any Howard Hawks film.

How to Steal a Million (1966) William Wyler (Twilight Time Blu-ray)

A heist movie with the adorable Audrey Hepburn and the delightful Peter O’Toole set in the art world certainly appeals to me, but the film is far too long at 123 minutes when it should’ve been 90. Still, there’s plenty to like here.

The Ipcress File (1965) Sidney J. Furie (Network UK Blu-ray)

Michael Caine is wonderful in this espionage thriller based on a novel by Len Deighton. Caine’s Harry Palmer is nothing like James Bond, although the character would like to be. He’s arrogant where Bond is cool, reckless where Bond is careful; nice contrasts. This one is also on Blu-ray domestically from Kino Lorber.

King and Country (1964) Joseph Losey (VCI DVD; Kanopy)

Powerful anti-war film from blacklisted director Joseph Losey working in England. This WWI film, based on a play, remains potent, but goes a bit too far in its metaphorical territory. A shame no one watches or discusses this one anymore.

Mississippi Mermaid (1969) François Truffaut (Criterion Channel)

“I don’t see evil everywhere. It is everywhere.” Based on the Cornell Woolrich novel Waltz into Darkness (1947), Mississippi Mermaid may be the most fascinating, unconventional femme fatale story I’ve ever seen (which almost caused me to place it on my film noir list). Wealthy tobacco plantation owner Jean-Paul Belmondo purchases a mail-order-bride (Catherine Deneuve), finding her an enormous challenge to live with. Yet he’s completely in love with her, despite the ruin she causes him. I must see this again soon.

Model Shop (1969) Jacques Demy (borrowed from a friend)

Perhaps it's hard to believe, but this is my first Jacques Demy film. George (Gary Lockwood) studied to be an architect, but he’s going nowhere in Los Angeles. His girlfriend (Alexandra Hay) can’t get him motivated to look for work, his car’s about to be repossessed, and even though some of his friends are also struggling, they’re much better off than George. After borrowing $100 from one of his friends (one of the members of the band Spirit, who appear in the film and perform the soundtrack), George follows a beautiful young woman (Anouk Aimée) into a model shop, a photography “studio” where customers can take erotic (although they're very tame) pictures of the models. Model Shop is a solid entry in the ‘60s disaffected youth subgenre and is worth seeking out. (Harrison Ford was considered for the role, but the studio thought Gary Lockwood - especially after the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey - was more recognizable and bankable.)

Pretty Poison (1968) Noel Black (Twilight Time Blu-ray)

Anthony Perkins plays Dennis, a man on parole who can’t stop spinning lies from the outrageous fantasies constantly playing in his mind. When Dennis falls for a high school drum majorette named Sue Ann (Tuesday Weld), she not only believes his story that he’s a CIA agent, but her reality proves to be far more dangerous than his fantasies. A stunning film. Why is this one not talked about more?

Return from the Ashes (1965) J. Lee Thompson (Kino Lorber Blu-ray)

Shortly after the liberation of France from Nazi occupation, an unfortunate tragedy occurs aboard a train. Only one passenger seems completely unconcerned, a mysterious woman whose heartlessness earns the ire of the other passengers. In a flashback, we learn that the woman was once known as Michele Wolff (Ingrid Thulin), a wealthy Jewish widow and concentration camp survivor. During this flashback, Michele meets an unscrupulous chess player named Stanislaus Pilgrin (Maximilian Schell) who marries her, intending to siphon off her money. Michele’s friend Dr. Charles Bovard (Herbert Lom) isn’t happy about her new marriage, and for good reason. And it’s not long before Pilgrin becomes interested in Michele’s stepdaughter Fabienne (Samantha Eggar). You could certainly call this film noir, but I include it here. Based on the 1961 Hubert Monteihet novel Le Retour des cendres (as was Christian Petzold’s excellent 2014 film Phoenix), Return from the Ashes is compelling, containing tremendous performances. More people should know about this one.

School for Scoundrels (1960) Hal E. Chester, Robert Hamer, Cyril Frankel (uncredited) (Alastair Sim’s School for Laughter: 4 Classic Comedies Blu-ray Box set, Film Movement)

Many thanks to my friend Dave A. for recommending this delightful film about a man (Ian Carmichael) who enrolls in the “School of Lifemanship,” run by Alastair Sim, helping men in the game of one-upsmanship in all areas of life. This is the time of year when many will watch Sim's outstanding performance in A Christmas Carol (1951), but know that he did much, much more than this.

Next time: The 1970s

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