Like any year, 1963 proves to me to have its fair share of greatness. Unfortunately (at least from what I’ve seen), this seems to be one of the weaker years. Nonetheless, I find it of meriting in its own special ways. Without further ado, here’s my top ten of the year!
This short film is the winner of the Oscar for Animated Short Subjects of its year, and while it is short, sweet, and simple, I find it rather funny. Most of this is thanks to the narration of a fellow by the name of Mel Brooks (who is also its co-creator). Essentially, it is a short satire on art culture, and esoteric art film specifically. The voice of Brooks character – presumably an older gentleman – provides hilarious running commentary over a series of incomprehensible moving shapes, while annoyed audience mentions try to hush him up. It is, once again, rather simple, but it’s guaranteed quite a bit of laughs, despite its short run time. Watch it here! “This is nice…What the hell is it? Oh, I know what it is. It’s garbage, that’s what it is!”
9) Le Mépris (Contempt) – dir. Jean-Luc Godard
It seems that Godard always seems to make my lists in some way or another. Here, his sole collaboration with actress Brigitte Bardot makes my top ten of this year. While it’s rather unfortunate just how terrible of a person she’s become in recent years, I’ll always praise her for her ambition in her genuine attempts at carving a niche in every role she’s given (and being absolutely gorgeous in the meantime!. Bardot’s enigmatic performance alone is worth giving this film a go, but that’s not to say this film, in all its idiosyncrasy and perplexity – even for a Godard film! – isn’t unique by its own merits. This is a far cry from my favorite Godard (mostly because I’d need another viewing to even begin to drink in all its symbolism and weirdness), but its spot on this list is fully worthy!
8) Blood Feast – dir. Herschell Gordon Lewis
When discussing who should be among the individuals often named forefathers of the horror genre – e.g. Hitchcock, Bava, Romero, et. al. – Herschell Gordon Lewis is within the tops… or at least he should be! Especially considering the time it was made, Blood Feast was totally innovative in many ways, namely for its use of practical gore effects. I could only imagine how bewildered audiences were at the time of this film’s debut. All other technical aspects of this film are, undeniably, shoddy. The acting is wooden, the writing is absolutely horrendous, and at many points actor Mal Arnold is obviously reading his lines off the palm of his hand! Nevertheless, this is the kind of low-budget filmmaking that holds a special place in my heart, and for that, Blood Feast is legendary.
7) Lord of the Flies – dir. Peter Brook
I’m not sure how successful it would be to adequately film an adaptation of Golding’s novel that carries the same eerie punch that the novel, admittedly not one of my favorites, nonetheless possesses. While Peter Brook’s directorial effort falters in many ways, I think it’s about as close as we can get. With a cast that is entirely made up of young boys, it’s no surprise that the acting may be a little stilted; however, I think it may only help to heighten its overall effect of its surreal, haunting narrative. The descent into madness, while predictable, is effective by many means. While I’d hesitate to call it a horror film, certain elements are undoubtably present. It may be a rather shallow adaptation, but given the circumstances needed for a film of this nature to exist, I’d say it’s rather satisfyingly unpleasant.
6) Bye Bye Birdie – dir. George Sidney
Despite – or due to? – its unapologetic cheesiness, I really enjoy Bye Bye Birdie. I guess I’m a little biased since, with some exception, I always enjoy musicals at least to some extent. With the likes of Janet Leigh, Dick Van Dyke, and Ann-Margret, it’s evident that viewers are in for a fun time. My one complaint would have to be that, with one or two exceptions, the songs weren’t all that memorable. I like to have songs stuck in my head right after the viewing, but it just didn’t happen here! Still, I liked the film for its sense of biting satire toward media and consumers’ tendencies toward idolization. It’s pretty obvious that Elvis is the target here, and the 50s American rock ‘n’ roll vibe of the film is just so infectious! It’s nothing special in terms of acting, writing, etc. but it’s probably the most fun film to come out of this year.
5) The Birds – dir. Alfred Hitchcock
While I’m still trying to get over my traumatic viewing experience that was Birdemic: Shock and Terror (2010), I think back to the classic film it was trying (and failing) to emulate: Hitchcock’s wonderful The Birds. While I don’t love it as much as most and am still not sure if it would make my top ten Hitchcocks, there’s no denying its impact. While I’ve heard Hitchcock being considered a horror director, I’d say he directed more psychological dramas than actual horror; nonetheless, I’d say The Birds is his closest attempt at the genre. Sure the effects are dated, but the performance by lead actress Tippi Hedren captures the terror so effectively, its shortcomings are irrelevant. And while women are often scapegoated as a victim in many a horror film, Tippi’s character is strong and persevering, within both contexts of the birds’ invasion and her pesonal romantic tensions with Rod Taylor. In The Birds, the tranquil atmosphere of 1960s Americana gets turned on its head, and resolution remains uncertain.
4) Ivanovo detstvo (Ivan’s Childhood) – dir. Andrei Tarkovsky
I couldn’t imagine how difficult it must be to consistently, sympathetically portray the brutality of wartime amidst the plights and struggles of a young child. This involves an ambitious separation of the child performer from their essence of innocence, seemingly inherent of all children. Yet Tarkovsky and his young actor Nikolay Burlyaev do exactly this, and they do it tremendously. While not as great as some of the director’s work that is to come in later years, this is, undoubtably, an impressive debut. And although it’s often called his least abstract, there’s no denying that it’s still more abstract than most. The narrative is guided by strong images and motifs, rather than a smooth, concrete storyline. I like to lump Ivan’s Childhood – along with Ballad of a Soldier and The Cranes Are Flying – with a distinct category of Soviet cinema that criticizes war culture, aiding from strong emotional punches. And while this may go without saying, the cinematography here is excellent, with a particular hats-off to the final poignant scene at the river. As this scene defiantly outlines the devastation of conflict, Ivan’s Childhood, as an entity, signals more great things to come from a talented artist.
3) Nattvardsgästerna (Winter Light) – dir. Ingmar Bergman
Few things can capture the discrete sadness encapsulated in the tragedy of a self-proclaimed “man of God” teetering at the brink of complete loss of spiritual faith. This crisis experienced in Winter Light by our protagonist pastor (played by Gunnar Björnstrand) feels very true-to-life, and perhaps eerily so. Of course, this is nothing unusual for Bergman. Winter Light is the middle chapter of his dreary Trilogy of Faith; I’ve yet to watch The Silence, and while Through a Glass Darkly remains my personal favorite of the two I have seen, there’s no denying this film’s unrelenting power. This is certainly one of the more bleaker films of Bergman’s repertoire, which is certainly saying something. Through its duration, we are enveloped in this unrelenting desperation experienced by the pastor, but also by an anxiety-ridden churchgoer (Max Von Sydow) and a schoolteacher (Ingrid Thulin), whom he is engaged in a loveless relationship with. These three performers have much to deal with and do so brilliantly, with the help of the gorgeous cinematography and brooding dialogue. Having experienced a sort of a loss of faith myself (though I’ll admit in not nearly as devastating sort of way), I’d say that Bergman perfectly illustrates this unmatchable brand of isolation, also seen in Through a Glass Darkly. However, what makes this so universal is that the themes are drawn out in a way that isn’t so strictly religious; the crisis of a film is also an existential one that even the faithless could confide in. The film is bleak and dreary, yet somehow also works as a kind of strange therapy, at least for me, since I’ve found some solace can be sought out of witnessing such personal phenomena on a screen.
2) The Haunting – dir. Robert Wise
I would love to see more horror movies of today take a few pointers from Wise’s The Haunting. Sure, we have The Conjuring, one of the better horror from this year that largely relied on its unsettling atmosphere to get its audience’s hearts pounding. The Haunting, however, is a film that I’ve just only saw for the first time very recently, and one that completely succeeded in blowing me away. I love it because it takes on the same approach that was seen in 1961’s The innocents, itself adapted from Henry James’ novel The Turn of the Screw. This approach being that while we, the audience, can witness the strange happenings that our protagonist encounters, there is full reason to believe that they are all only figments of her imagination, stemmed from insanity. However, whether or not this is the one aspect that makes this film so terrifying is an entirely different question. I’ve seen horror films of all types, ranging from camp to gore to just plain twisted perversity. Yet there is significantly less physical evidence here that could explain in a concrete manner why this is so scary (and I’m certainly not the only one to think so either). The psychological response that such mysterious circumstances invokes is uncanny. This film has some of the best cinematography I’ve seen in such a closed-in area; thus, the feeling that something is always lurking around the corner is always present. All in all, it’s the perfect type of film for a sheerly spooky Halloween night. It’s simplistic enough to be universally seen as generally well-made, yet unsettling enough to satisfy the cravings of horror buffs. This film is the perfect example of the notion that, indeed, sometimes less is more.
1) 8½ – dir. Federico Fellini
Strangely (and unfortunately), I always seem to undermine the importance that Fellini’s 8½ holds for me as a cinephile. While I do love the director, it’s mainly for his two early masterpieces La Strada and Nights of Cabiria, starring his perky, ambitious wife Giulietta Masina. However, despite the lengths I’ve explored and the hurdles I’ve crossed over the years, my mind always returns back to about 4-5 years ago, as a budding explorer of cinema. At this time, I had never seen much black & white cinema outside of Chaplin, even less so in a different language; regardless, my Netflix account seemed to think I would enjoy 8½. Thus, I complied. And through this viewing experience, I realized that this was something I was vastly familiar with – and became enormously fascinated. Marcello Mastroianni glowed with an unmistakeable, inexplicable presence that seemed to lure me in from the very first minutes of the film. Although I may not have been cultured enough at the time to fully understand, there were vastly obscure camera angles and methods of editing being demonstrated; the likes of which I was immensely unfamiliar with in the conventional Hollywood cinema I was used to. Even the way the story progressed was entirely new, as different women came and went by and fantasy began to blur with reality to the point of almost incomprehension. It was quite the surreal experience. It still continues to be even after a few years and a few more viewings, but that first viewing was something special. It opened my eyes to the endless possibilities that can erupt from filmmaking. Common narrative arcs, character development, and other technical aspects aren’t quite as necessary as I had initially took for granted.
Over time, I began to understand some of the more important thematic elements that guided this film along, and someday I hope to write a more detailed piece on this work of art. Yet, it all goes back to that one first viewing. In retrospect, Fellini’s 8½ is one of the most important facets of my development into adulthood, as it helped me realize that everything assumed natural should be questioned the hell out of. It’s a philosophy I still hold true to this very day. It’s a film that I often take for granted, shamefully, but during the writing process of this very section of this list, it’s just hit me how close to my heart I hold this film. I couldn’t think of a better reason to mark this down as one of the all-time greats.