This has got to be one of my very favorite top ten lists I’ve had to do, mainly because 1962 is a year that I found to be particularly filled with such cinematic quality. Several of my all-time favorites have come out of this year, and while it is objectively no better than any other year within the realms of film history, I find this one to be particularly special to me.Without further ado, here we go!
10) Jules et Jim (Jules and Jim) – dir. François Truffaut
The Nouvelle Vague strikes again. Jules and Jim has to be one of my very favorite films by Truffaut, thoroughly pleasant in every crease and crevice of its existence. It just shines with a certain kind of liveliness that, despite its overlay of inventive cinematic method, feels completely natural and humanistic. It’s really hard to conceive such a method of storytelling without coming off as artificial, but Truffaut produces it perfectly. The three leads also pack a mean punch, with Oskar Werner and Henri Serre playing the titular characters marvelously, and Jeanne Moreau who just plain glows with charisma. The highlight of the film is the scene where Jeanne Moreau sings along to guitar; this is probably my personal favorite moment in French New Wave as a whole.
9) Days of Wine and Roses – dir. Blake Edwards
One of the most terrifying, tragic films of the era, Days of Wine and Roses really resonated with me from the very first time I saw it. It’s the earliest film I can think of (I’m sure I’m incorrect in assuming it was the first) to show the devastation of alcoholism in such a profound light. Watching these two charismatic characters hit rock bottom is such a sad thing to watch, and the film itself does a great job at humanizing their unfortunate circumstances, without being just plain hateful. I have a special place in my heart for Jack Lemmon, but his role here as the troubled protagonist really shows off how versatile he could be. Lee Remick marvelously plays off the other half of this couple, whose pitiful narratives are, nonetheless, brutal and heart-shattering.
8) Carnival of Souls – dir. Herk Harvey
Before I was ever as obsessed with horror cinema as I am now, I was reeled in by the psychological thrillers in the ilk of Hitchcock. Carnival of Souls, however, would be the one film I would note for triggering my fascination with B-horror films. It was made on a menial budget, and many elements make this noticeable; however, I do think that its not-so-glossy quality works to the film’s advantage. The organ score provides a profound sense of eeriness that is only aided by its distinct lack of special effects. As a result, the psychological elements come off as splendidly nightmarish, so much that it feels unsettlingly realistic. That alone is really creepy, and I think that makes this flick very special. Also, Candace Hilligoss is just really great in this. It’s such a shame that the film (and thus her career) never took off very well at its initial release. However, I am glad that it is much more appreciated now.
7) Cléo de 5 à 7 (Cléo From 5 to 7) – dir. Agnès Varda
Agnès Varda is one of the many filmmakers whom I am absolutely ashamed to have not seen much of their work. The extent to my knowledge of Varda comes with the brilliant film Cléo From 5 to 7, which outlines, in real time, a couple hours in a day of our titular character. Something about the way this film unfolds is so mesmerizing, despite its consistent simplicity. Perhaps this has to do with Corinne Marchand’s performance as our protagonist who, while initially portrayed as self-absorbed, we begin to care for and sympathize with as time goes by. Or perhaps it has to do with the combination of neorealist tendency in narrative, experimental cinematography, and poetic, existential language that convey the fact that, indeed, this film is gorgeous – and it also has a scene where Marchand sings a gorgeous song in French! 1962 was a great year for ladies singing in film.
6) The Manchurian Candidate – dir. John Frankenheimer
I have a special thing for Cold War-themed cinema, especially if the film was made as a reflection of the current situation of its time of production. The Manchurian Candidate was released around the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and somehow that just adds an extra layer of charm to it. However, it doesn’t stop there. For one thing, the cast is marvelous! Along with The Man With the Golden Arm (which came earlier), this flick proves that there’s much more to Frank Sinatra than his blue-eyed crooner persona; his dramatic timing and precision is tops here. But Angela Lansbury! Her depth of talent at playing such a compelling villain is brilliant. Besides these high points, however, the film works terrifically as a slick Cold War thriller, completely compelling through its entirety. It doubles as a suave political thriller, and also a satire of the brainwashing tendencies of our society, filtered through the new-at-the-time communicatory media. Both of these facets work marvelously, and truly resonate well up to the present day.
5) The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance – dir. John Ford
I’ll be the first to confess that, outside of Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy, I’m just not the biggest fan of westerns. Moreover, I’ve never been the biggest fan of John Wayne; the general personality of his characters just never appealed to me. I do, however, love James Stewart and quite a few films by Ford, which compelled me to give this a shot. As a result, it’s now one of the very finest films of its type I have seen thus far. Wayne’s character, Ransom Stoddard, is a rather complex figure, whose through-the-years pessimism clashes harshly with the young optimist, played by Stewart. What could have evolved in a rather typical, straight-forward fashion unfolds in the most fascinating ways. A tale of redemption and sadness is uncovered, and the film becomes progressively darker as it goes on. In other words, it takes a general narrative relying on opposite personalities to prolong interest, and guides it through paths that are typified in much more cynical types of films. Basically, the performances, pacing, and writing are what make this film so very worthwhile. And sometimes, that’s all you really need.
4) El ángel exterminador (The Exterminating Angel) – dir. Luis Buñuel
Leave it to Buñuel to produce two absurd, darkly humorous masterpieces within a year of each other. While his Viridiana made it to the top spot of my top ten of 1961, this film proves to be nearly as successful at producing sharp criticism in such unique ways. Here, the bourgeoisie culture is the subject, as a group of wealthy socialites find themselves at a dinner party, unable to find the will or opportunity to leave. This evaluation of the upper-class is both strangely surreal and delightfully satirical, traits that few filmmakers could combine as well as this artist has. The plot treads dangerously close to incoherency, though this is greatly made up for with its smart dialogue and (more than anything) a flurry of memorable, surreal imagery, often bordering on the ludicrous. There’s something inexplicably satisfying in seeing a group of well-dressed, hoity-toity individuals slowly start to break down under an incapacitating environment and atmosphere. The superficiality of the event progressively unravels under the hostility and strain of their situation. But why couldn’t they just leave? Frankly, there’s no logic answer to that question – which, somehow, shows just how much of a genius Buñuel truly was.
3) Nóż w wodzie (Knife in the Water) – dir. Roman Polanski
Nearly a third of the way into my initial viewing of Knife in the Water, I was growing really impatient. I wasn’t getting anything from these three empty characters holding trivial conversation on a boat out in the sea. Suddenly, like a bolt in the blue, I finally got the film; I discovered from certain mild, humble gestures that there really is more than meets the eye here. By capturing these three characters – two men, one woman – on such an isolated terrain of existence, Polanski was also uncovering the dark depths of humanity itself. The constant – yet oh so subtle – fight for intellectual and sexual dominance is both intriguing and disturbing. After observing such plain individuals for quite a period of time, one becomes almost tied to them, accomplishing the uncomfortable role of voyeur and observer of these actions. The amount of tension that just builds and builds is tremendous; however, it is, once again, extremely subtle, and could be missed by anyone who fails to notice these dimensions. I think that itself is incredibly amazing and makes for one-of-a-kind cinema. Moreover, while there are no sweeping camera movements that move beyond these characters’ depths of field, the cinematography is somehow just so breath-taking. Overall, this is just the kind of film that urges its viewers to descend below the surface, to uncover a world of knowledge that lies beneath the immediate external.
2) What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? – dir. Robert Aldrich
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is a film that practically seethes with animosity. Though the work we are seeing is obviously a work of fiction, the years and years of envy and spite these two characters – sisters Jane and Blanche – have built up toward each other feels clear as crystal, as genuine as any actual feud. Of course, this film does feature the prestigious acting talents of real-life rivals Bette Davis and Joan Crawford; therefore, if the sniveling comments and mockery seem to carry a particular weight to them, chance are they probably do. From this note alone, I’d say that this film, in essence, is very special. But it doesn’t stop there. While Bette Davis set up a career essentially playing sharp-tongued, unsympathetic characters, I think her role as “Baby” Jane Hudson really takes the cake. I would argue that over time this film has come off as more campy and satirical than creepy and threatening; that’s what age can do to a flick. However, there’s something particularly unsettling about Jane that just really sticks to me as one of the more menacing villains in all of cinematic history. The exposition of her story practically yearns for the sympathy of others – but that certainly does not excuse her actions of psychopathic abuse toward her crippled sister. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is a look inside the mind of an individual who has remained child-like, in all the most un-cute ways. On a personal note, I would really love to see more films today led by talented female actors over the age of 50 or 60. I continue to wonder if anyone in Hollywood these days could pull off as grisly and ugly of a character with such seamless flair.
1) Lawrence of Arabia – dir. David Lean
I had been debating whether I should place longtime favorite Baby Jane or the newly-watched-and-loved Lawrence of Arabia. After some contemplation, Lean, O’Toole, and friends ended up taking the spot – and deservedly so. While it is completely by coincidence that Lawrence of Arabia is the only film from my 1962 list to have been shot in color, it’s no lie that it is certainly some of the most color cinematography I have ever laid eyes on. From the sprawling shots of the Arabian desert plains (as shown above), to the expertly crafted shots of the magnificent interior settings, to those impeccable close-ups of Peter O’Toole, highlighting his baby blues, Freddie Young was at the top of his game here. It was only relatively recently that I saw this film for the first time, it being held at the Castro Theatre in 70mm. I’m usually not so strict with these things, but I honestly can only figure that an at-home viewing would be significantly less resonate. This really is the one of those “theatre viewings only” types of films. Its cinematography is one of the major reasons for this, but the magnificent score by Maurice Jarre deserves just as much praise. Its sweeping, dramatic elements so perfectly highlight the images and actions that march along the screen, and it being loudly played on huge speakers really elevates this mood. I just love it so much. Every member of the ensemble cast is amazing too: O’Toole, Alex Guiness, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, Omar Sharif, among others. This film is just the very definition of “epic”. Its detailing of the events that lead up to the gradual uprising of a peculiar everyman result in a film that is never boring; its nearly-three-hour length just flies right by. And its the fact that its tale conjures up such universal, humanistic themes in an unmatchably beautiful way make it superbly relevant today. David Lean has crafted a truly impeccable work of art, with a personable aura that every filmmaker nowadays wishes to encapsulate. This film has very quickly become an all-time favorite; I just haven’t seen anything else that’s even matched its prowess in, well, just about every aspect of its being. It goes to show that they just don’t make ’em like they used to.