10 Essential Movies From The 1960s

The Graduate1 10 Essential Movies From The 1960s

If the 1970s were a sort of renaissance for movies, the 1960s laid the groundwork. There was so much going on in that decade that it would be virtually impossible for a reflective medium like film to not show signs of the times. But, since movies are large undertakings that require a significant amount of time to actually make, the cultural shifts of this period in history were represented far more towards the end of the decade, particularly its final three years. When it comes to the concept of the “New Hollywood” that is most commonly identified with the work of guys like Spielberg, Coppola, and Scorsese in the 70s, its actual year of birth is probably 1967, when subversive movies finally found the converging point of a) getting made, and b) being popular enough to be a lucrative endeavor.

American society was going through a period of upheaval, with the hippie generation and its countercultural movement influencing the country’s sensibilities whether they liked it or not. Cinema itself was in a state of transition as well, with the Hollywood studio system coming apart and the growing interest in the art cinema in places like France attracting the attention of cinephiles and art aficionados alike. It was the beginning of the rise of the whole idea of a filmmaker, of one person being ultimately responsible for the end product of a movie, analogous to the way a novelist is responsible for the outcome of a novel. It was the 60s, so the fact that this was hopelessly reductive didn’t matter all that much. The way movies were being made, and who was making them, was all starting to change at once.

Here are 10 movies that paint a picture of the kind of decade that the 1960s were for Hollywood cinema.

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1) Psycho

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It would be difficult to overstate the immense influence Psycho has had on movies and moviegoing since its release in 1960. On one hand, director Alfred Hitchcock was one of the first auteurs, gaining prominence as a visionary filmmaker before the concept was even conceived. The idea that one person could have such influence on the artistry of a motion picture inspired people around the world, most notably a bunch of folks in France who thought it was high time for a New Wave of moviemaking.

Psycho raised the bar for what movies could do, and how they would be seen. To the latter point, its promotion, at the insistence of Hitchcock himself, urged viewers to actually watch the beginning of the movie. The common practice of the time was for people to arrive at movie events fashionably late, or go to the movies at any given time of day and just walk into a screening regardless of what point of the film was actually being shown when they arrived. It’s bizarre to think about today.

Screenings of Psycho wouldn’t let in people who arrived late, and once they watched, they saw why: the dude went and killed off his star in the first act of the movie in the most shocking and upsetting way imaginable at the time. The film is bold and aesthetically rich, providing a reason to watch it more than once; it’s actually probably even better once the shock has worn off.

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2) West Side Story

West Side Story 10 Essential Movies From The 1960s

When one thinks of 1960s movie musicals, usually the ones that come to mind are the ones now considered classics, like The Music Man, My Fair Lady, Oklahoma, and The Sound of Music. What these examples all have in common, possibly with the exception of The Sound of Music, is that they have not aged well. Or maybe they were never that great to begin with. I’d go so far as to say that they’re among the biggest reasons when most people hear “musical” they think of a lame, corny, sentimental love story supported by music that’s now painfully cliché. In short, they’ve created a limited image in people’s minds of what musicals are capable of, which is unfortunate.

West Side Story is different because it seems to know how ridiculous it is. It depicts a story about two rival gangs, and because attempting any sort of realism with the type of restrictions that would be imposed on an early 1960s film, it goes full-on absurd, figurative ballet in its story.

Arrested Development captured perfectly what it would be like for a gang of the type of gay dancers we see in this movie to actually step up to another gang in real life. But once you get over the absurdity, the music and dancing are quite gorgeous, the story a sweet re-imagining of the Romeo and Juliet narrative, and the look and experience of the whole film is pure fun. It even slips in some risqué stuff that showed it didn’t quite want to be like the other mainstream musicals of the 50s and 60s.

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3) A Hard Day’s Night

A Hard Days Night 10 Essential Movies From The 1960s

Like almost every other aspect of pop music today, when it comes to films establishing a music group’s identity and style, The Beatles did it first, and did it best. Much of the credit surely belongs to the director Richard Lester, who took the exuberance and playfulness of John, Paul, George and Ringo and made it into cinematic gold: the movie explodes with weird humor, inside jokes, whimsical montages and pure freedom. That was as much the freedom conveyed by the Beatles’ 1960s attitude of anti-authority and anti-establishment sensibilities signified by their unkempt hairstyles and dismissal of press questioning as it was the freedom from traditional cinematic convention that required a story and linear editing and classical shot progression.

It’s one of the reasons the One Direction documentary from this year works: it’s the closest of all the recent pop docs that have been released lately to achieving again the excitement not only of following a new musical group from show to show but of actually being in and among the weird and distinctive personalities of the members of such a group. But you can’t beat the real thing. It helps that The Beatles would go on to create some of the most important music of the century. Without that extra bit of credibility behind them, their personalities in A Hard Day’s Night may not be quite so endearing.

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4) The Graduate

The Graduate 10 Essential Movies From The 1960s

This is my favorite movie on this list. When I watched it for the first time ten years ago, I didn’t connect with it at all. Now, I find it one of the most poignant and relevant movies I’ve ever seen, which probably says more about me than about the movie itself, though that is neither here nor there, so let’s move on.

There’s something deeply relatable about the character director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Buck Henry were able to put on screen, with the help of a career-making performance by a young Dustin Hoffman. Benjamin Braddock is one of the great characters in movie history that is really doing most of the work internally, and doesn’t allow many people to know what’s going on inside his head. In fact, he is constantly trying to get people to leave him alone, seemingly crippled by the external pressures from an older generation that doesn’t seem to understand the challenges he faces. It’s a character who hails from a rising generation that wants to define themselves in their own terms rather than simply adhering to the expectations of their parents.

Even folks like Benjamin who aren’t the countercultural clichés who got most of the attention in the 1960s want to find a way to somehow rebel, to find their own identity. He just happens to learn things about his identity while banging his parents’ friend. The terrific insight by the end of it is that even though these younger adults find what they think is their own identity and their own path, they’re not ultimately satisfied. There’s something seemingly hollow to this pursuit they’ve put so much energy into, even though it seems like it was still supremely important. Whether any of it was worth it is the defining question.

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5) Cool Hand Luke

Cool Hand Luke 10 Essential Movies From The 1960s

Since seeing Cool Hand Luke I’ve been racking my brain trying to think of a modern-day equivalent of Paul Newman. The film proves that sometimes all a story needs is someone at the center of it who is so compelling and so effortlessly interesting and cool that any weaknesses in the form of other characters or uninspired sequences quickly disappear out of mind and all you’re left with is the impression left on you by the star.

Like Benjamin Braddock, Luke is a rebel. Unlike Benjamin, he’s smooth, knows who he is, and what he wants, even if what he wants is relatively unattainable. The movie ultimately rests on the charisma of Newman, whose defiance is emblematic of a certain push at this point in the decade, but instead of the hostile rebelliousness of guys like James Dean and Marlon Brando, his is almost a gentle, pleasant determination. Others will act like complete jerks to them, and he’ll smile at them in amusement while not backing down an inch. It’s mesmerizing to watch, and very, very cool. The closest equivalent I can think of today is Newman’s incidental namesake, Paul Rudd. But more than anything that shows there can only be one Paul Newman.

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6) Bonnie and Clyde

Bonnie and Clyde 10 Essential Movies From The 1960s

There is something so beautifully simple and innocent about Bonnie and Clyde, yet at the same time so incredibly contemporary and aware. A precursor to Terrence Malick’s first feature, Badlands, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway star as the titular criminal couple, characters who are paradoxical and irresistible from the moment we meet each of them. They are mysterious to us and to each other, and that’s part of the allure. All we know is that they’re both feisty and brash and attractive and weird and seemingly bored, all ingredients that have a way of adding up to hijinks and shenanigans and possibly death. It’s a fascinating look at the blurring distinction between notoriety and celebrity.

That’s something that almost makes the film more relevant today than during the time it was made; there are numerous connections today between the anti-heroic fame monster that individual celebrities and wannabe celebrities are willing to take up with and the criminal infamy sought out by gangsters in the Depression Era United States. What makes this especially troubling is how damn likeable Bonnie and Clyde both are, how intoxicating their quest for amusement and excitement is, and how alive the movie feels when they’re out causing trouble. They don’t even seem to understand what it is they’re doing. Our era of Disney stars gone bad surely finds some resonance in this.

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7) 2001: A Space Odyssey

2001 A Space Odyssey1 10 Essential Movies From The 1960s

It could be said that the 1960s were cinematically owned by Stanley Kubrick. An eleventh entry on this list would probably have to go to Dr. Strangelove, an amazing satirical take on the nuclear scare of the Cold War era. It’s worth mentioning not only for its status as one of the most important films of the decade, but also to emphasize how much of a departure 2001: A Space Odyssey was not only for cinema as a whole but for Stanley Kubrick himself at this point in his directorial career.

Kubrick’s work will always be polarizing, and that’s one of the best things about it. It earns the designations of “challenging,” “poetic,” “artistic,” and “transcendent” with all the annoying connotations that accompany such descriptors. Surely 2001 is his defining work. It embodies everything about the Kubrick oeuvre (even the way a person has to describe his work is slightly annoying!).

Its contribution to the science fiction genre is immense, and its incredibly bold vision as for what a film can do artistically was as shocking and revolutionary as such things can get in cinema. But it also doesn’t make a lot of sense to a lot of people, myself included at this point in my moviegoing life, having only watched it once. For a movie to confidently announce itself on the grandest stage possible as 2001 did back in 1968 and not be afraid of not making sense, trusting its audience to make sense of it for themselves, is not only impressive but critical in the history of film as an art form.

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8) The Wild Bunch

The Wild Bunch 10 Essential Movies From The 1960s

1967 is most often acknowledged as the beginning of the new age of American cinema (with titles like Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate), an era that extended to the end of the 1970s. If 1967 was the catalyst year, 1969 was the year this new style of movies really began to take off, and Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch was at the forefront of this bold new world.

The legacy of the movie focuses primarily on its violent images, especially in its concluding moments, but this is largely indicative of the drive of the entire movie, which is fascinated by presenting the unsavory parts of the Western cinematic and historical landscape that was glossed over by classical, perhaps somewhat sugarcoated takes on the genre in the past.

Of the important movies of the 60s, this one may be one of the more dated, its aesthetic qualities feeling more like those of the decades preceding it than the more contemporary feels of some others on this list. And yet its influence on movies by Quentin Tarantino other 90s directors who pushed the boundaries of popular cinematic violence is abundantly clear.

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9) Midnight Cowboy

Midnight Cowboy 10 Essential Movies From The 1960s

It’s crazy to think of an X-rated movie winning the Academy Award for Best Picture, and crazier still that such a movie received an X-rating essentially for gay stuff. But its story holds up, and is anchored by two rather incredible performances by its leading men, a young, virtually unrecognizable Jon Voight, and a smooth talking, limp walking Dustin Hoffman.

Something about the pure aesthetic quality of the Texan countryman moving to big old New York City in hopes of fulfilling some vague dream about making it rich brims with all the naïveté of Bonnie and Clyde but with far less actual success. In terms of pushing sexual and narrative boundaries, Midnight Cowboy is quite remarkable. It’s almost become a cliché for indie movies today to center on a protagonist trying to get laid, whether it’s for the learning experience, the money, a last ditch effort being going to college, or in the face of impending death. Filmmakers are almost cavalier about this plot now, and it’s because of movies like Midnight Cowboy that paved the road to exploring sexual situations in earnest ways on film.

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10) Easy Rider

Easy Rider 10 Essential Movies From The 1960s

It may be the most important movie of the 1960s, but it’s also possibly the one I enjoy the least. Still, I can’t help but appreciate Easy Rider for the incredible influence it’s had despite the issues I have with the experience of watching it. Its experiments have varying success. Some of the dialogical exchanges seem pointless, as do some of its visual effects and editing methods. Although one of its most endearing characteristics is its utter lack of polish, and slickness, allowing the heart of Dennis Hopper to be visible in the raw. It’s just that Dennis Hopper is hard to take sometimes.

There’s a wide range of what movies were able and willing to do in the 1960s, whether it was technical experimentation with hallucinogenic sequences, or narrative experimentation with difficult and complicated subjects and characters. But despite the many failed experiments, there were plenty that proved overwhelmingly successful, and inspirational for a number of young, impressionable artists who were discovering a new way to tell stories they felt were important.

With conditions on the ground changing in terms of the cultural shifts in the country and the logistical production studio upheaval in Hollywood, the door was open for people to try new things. The familiar and dependable methods of the 40s and 50s were becoming less available and less appreciated. Audiences craved the new. The result was a slight awkward phase that saw full potential finally realized in the 1970s and the formation of New Hollywood.

Seeing the early stages of this monumental era in cinematic history in 1960s movies, however, is nearly as fascinating and enjoyable as the golden decade that followed.

Any movies from the 1960s that you think are crucial to understanding what the decade was all about? Share your picks in the comment section below.

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  • Rick

    The good, the bad and the ugly ? Where is it???