In the 1960s, the world blew up. Or at least that’s what it felt like. Everything seemed to be changing, and at a blistering pace. The historic European colonial powers saw their empires collapsing, racial inequalities that had been allowed to fester for centuries began to be challenged (and partially—partially—defeated). Everything was being rethought: fashions, music, gender roles, the environment, war, and peace.
Well, everywhere but Hollywood.
In looking at the movies of this decade, there is a clear difference between the best American films and the best foreign films. Hollywood made some great movies in the 1960s, no question, but it stayed with traditional stories, traditionally told. The US film industry continued to crank out a huge number of westerns and war pictures. They had a different tone to them and featured a rebellious quality that prior generations of American films didn’t have, but the really innovative filmmaking was outside of the US. Directors and screenwriters mainly in Europe turned out a series of incredibly inventive and unconventional films that continue to impact moviemaking today.
So, today, we will look at both the top American films and the top foreign films from the 1960s.
My Favorite American Films of the 1960s
Billy Wilder’s masterpiece. For those of you only familiar with Fred MacMurray as the kindly, patient, widowed father on the sitcom My Three Sons, his role here as a slimy corporate bigwig who uses Jack Lemmon’s apartment to carry on an affair with Shirley MacLaine is a bracing and surprising experience. This movie appears to have the form of a traditional romantic comedy, but it is anything but.
Lemmon plays a meek corporate nobody who is pressured to allow the various men at the top of the corporate food chain to use his apartment for their extramarital trysts. Lemmon is finally convinced to be a mensch and stand up to these men, particularly McMurray, and deny them this privilege after his mistress (McLaine) attempts suicide. This is a dark and brilliant comedy, and remains relevant today, particularly in the era of the #MeToo movement.
Steve McQueen is the coolest man ever in the history of the movies. Here he tries to escape a Nazi prisoner of war camp on a motorcycle. I really don’t need to tell you more than that. Oh, and he wears a black turtleneck. I could watch this movie any day, any time. It’s that fabulous.
This really was the transformational comedy of the decade. Dustin Hoffman plays a recent college graduate from an upper-middle-class family in Pasadena who can’t quite seem to figure out what to do with his life. He gets a piece of advice: “Plastics.” He ends up having an affair with the neighbor’s wife (Anne Bancroft is spectacular) and then runs off with their daughter at her wedding, jumping on a city bus of all things. Music by Simon and Garfunkel. The demarcation between the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boomers was explicitly and emphatically delivered in this film, which has held up surprisingly well.
This is a great movie. Well, maybe it isn’t, but I love it. In the 1960s, the Italian director Sergio Leone made a series of Westerns that he shot mainly in Spain. Known as “spaghetti westerns,” these films feature an outrageously out-sized Italian view of the American West in the post-Civil War era. And this is the best one of the batch. Starring Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach, it tells a long and rollicking tale of adventure and revenge. There are so many plot twists and story developments, it sometimes gets a little head-spinning. It’s one of my favorite movies of all time.
A prison drama starring Paul Newman at his incandescent best. (Man, those eyes are blue.) This movie was viewed at the time—and still is today, although with less resonance—as a story about defiance of the establishment. That was a resonant theme at the time, as the Baby Boomers rose up to challenge the foreign policy of the US government and later just about everything our society did. Newman is a petty criminal sent to prison that is run by a cruel warden (Strother Martin) and a brutish leader of the prisoners (George Kennedy, in an Oscar-winning performance). The script is a bit ham-fisted at times, but the acting is peerless and the movie is worth a rental.
This film is a masterclass in how to breath new life into a tired form. Hollywood made hundreds and hundreds of Westerns (film and television) during the 1950s and 1960s, and things were getting a little dreary. Director Sam Peckinpah brought a shocking and dazzling new verve and energy to the form with this movie. It tells the tale of an aging bunch of outlaws trying to cope with the increasingly settled ways of 1913 Texas.
The film was sensationally controversial at the time of its release for its graphic depiction of violence and the nihilist view of human existence. Using a variety of techniques not seen before (quick cuts of multiple angles, slow-motion imagery, etc.), Peckinpah used the Western to point a mirror on the violent and terrifying era America was going through in the late 1960s. It’s brilliant.
My Favorite Foreign Films of the 1960s
One day about twenty years ago, I went over to my friend Misha’s house in the morning. We were going to run errands and had a lot to do. I came in and he was watching the opening credits to this Michelangelo Antonioni film. “Let’s just watch this for a few minutes before we head out,” he said. I sat down with him and we were gripped. And I can’t explain why. We watched the whole movie and then blew off the errands to discuss the movie for a couple more hours over coffee… and then got in trouble with our wives for failing to complete our assigned tasks.
It’s the story of a party of people on a boat in the Mediterranean. They go ashore on a rocky island and one of the members of the party disappears, so they spend the rest of the movie looking for her. Sort of. It’s not a thriller or a murder mystery. Other than the initial compelling premise, it has none of the elements that normally draw you in… and yet you can’t stop watching. Give this one a try. And remember: “But I ended up watching ‘L’Avventura’” is not an acceptable excuse for failing to complete your assigned errands for the day (although it should be).
One of Italian director Federico Fellini’s finest, this story of the superficial and vaguely decadent cafe society that sits atop the ruins of post-war Italy is amusing, bewildering, disturbing, and charming all at once. Of course it is. It stars the suave Marcello Mastroianni. There’s no traditional storytelling going on here. It’s episodic and disconnected and ironic. A wonderful movie.
This is the movie for the hipster in your life. One of the best examples of the French New Wave films, this film by Jean-Luc Godard is a sexy and visually stunning gangster film. Lots of jump cuts and moodiness, with everyone incredibly well dressed and sharp-looking, wearing sunglasses, smoking unfiltered French cigarettes, flashing pistols, and looking about as cool as humanly possible. Starring Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo.
A man goes to a luxury resort to meet a woman with whom he may or may not have had an affair a year earlier. She may or may not know him, and also may or may not be married to another man. And that’s about all the story you’re gonna get with this crazy/brilliant movie by Alain Resnais from a script by the French novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet. Here’s your challenge: watch this movie and see if you can figure out what the heck is going on. Write me with your ideas. I’ve watched this movie three times now. I have a few ideas, but I’d like to hear yours. And have fun!
Catherine Deneuve is the most beautiful woman ever in film. End of discussion. You can’t convince me otherwise. Here she plays a thoroughly respectable middle-class housewife who enjoys kinky sex during the daytime, working as a prostitute—all the while being married to a thoroughly respectable husband (a doctor, no less). Directed by the Spanish filmmaker Luis Bunuel, this French film is at once incredibly sexy and incredibly disturbing.
This is, I think, the single best movie of the 1960s. This Italian-Algerian co-production directed by Gillo Pontecorvo is about the uprising in Algeria between 1954 and 1962 against the French colonial masters. It’s one of the best war pictures of all time, and certainly the starkest portrayal of urban guerilla warfare. Shot to appear to be a documentary, it feels intensely real and terrifying. There are no good guys in this movie. Just a bitter, intractable, and bloody conflict that inflicts most of its casualties on innocent victims. If you opt to watch only one movie on this list (and I think you should watch or rewatch all of them), this is the movie to choose.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.