If you were to choose a favourite year for film, when would it be and why?
Since the birth of moving pictures at the close of the 19th century, each decade has stamped it’s own cinematic fingerprint on it’s audience and in turn shaped the creative landscape for those that followed.
Personally speaking, I have to go with 1959.
By the late 50’s Hollywood boasted more than a handful of skilled screenwriters, directors and producers, a good number of these having left Europe after the 2nd World War. Many of these talented artists had already generated much admiration and respect in their native countries with classic films under their belt. Suffice to say however, that the McCarthyism era had also taken it’s toll on many in the industry and these were also bleak times for the art form.
The year of ‘59 saw the release of such genre-defining films as Otto Preminger’s ‘Anatomy Of A Murder’ and Billy Wilder’s ‘Some Like It Hot’, both widely acclaimed and commercially successful in their own right. Audiences were also first introduced to the uncharacteristically dark animation ‘Sleeping Beauty’…my personal favourite of the many Walt Disney films.
Below are 5 of my most recommended worldwide films from the year 1959…
The greatest film made by the most highly regarded and prolific French filmmaker after Jean Renoir, Robert Bresson’s ‘Pickpocket’ is also the first original screenplay he wrote and directed in a long and influential career that lasted for half a century… American screenwriter and director Paul Schrader describes it ‘as close to perfect as there can be’ and it has since been paraphrased by several other filmmakers. The fluid camera work and rich story painted through moving visuals is why this film stands out so much and was such a major influence on the French New Wave.
4. ‘Orpheu Negro’ (Black Orpheus)
Winner of both the Academy Award for best foreign-language film and the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or, Marcel Camus’ ‘Orpheu Negro’ takes the classic tale from Ancient Greece and throws it into the colourful pot that is Carnival in Brazil. Much of the film was shot in and around the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, incorporating drama and dance, cinema and song. Several songs from the original soundtrack became Bossa Nova classics and brought the genre to a worldwide audience. The film stands out even today for costume and set design alone.
A forerunner in the heralded push for American Independent cinema, actor John Cassavetes’ directorial debut captures the era of the Beat Generation, shot on location in New York City using a 16mm handheld camera. It’s mix of methodist acting and improvised drama gives the film a free-flowing feel, not unlike the jazz contributions to the score by saxophonist Shafi Hadi. Most of the cast and crew were classmates or volunteers from the methodist drama school that Cassavetes had set up in New York. The film boldly dealt with such taboo subjects at the time as interracial relationships and racism. ‘Shadows’ was also winner of the Critics Award at the Venice Film Festival in 1960.
2. ‘La Dolce Vita’
Federico Fellini’s much loved film ‘following a week in the life of a philandering paparazzo journalist (Marcello Mastroianni) living in Rome’ (IMDB) is a seminal work of art and indeed a classic in every sense of the word. Winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1960 and an Oscar the same year for best costume, on the surface it can be perceived as a glamorous film depicting the high society of a Rome rebuilding itself in the early post-war period. Upon closer examination Fellini layers his art rich with subtext and symbolism. Perceived by the Catholic Church as a parody of Christ’s second coming, it was subsequently condemned by the Vatican and banned in Spain until 1975 after the death of Franco. To many whom are fond of classic European cinema, the Trevi Fountain scene is more famous than the subway scene with Marilyn Monroe in ‘The Seven Year Itch’ (1955).
1. ‘Le Quatre Cents Coups’ (The 400 Blows)
One of the defining films of the French New Wave, Francois Truffaut’s debut film is the penultimate story of misunderstood adolescence. Winner of the Best Director’s award at The Cannes Film Festival and nominated for the Palme d’Or in 1959, ‘The 400 Blows’ was also nominated for an Academy Award for best writing in 1960. It follows 14 year old protagonist Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) who is consistently misunderstood as a troublemaker at home and in school. Very much a character study of Parisian youth and juvenile offenders, Truffaut manages to resonate his story through a signature style of directing that has made him so influential to future generations of filmmakers. Such masters as Akira Kurosawa, Luis Buñuel, Satyajit Ray, Jean Cocteau and Carl Theodor Dreyer have cited ‘The 400 Blows’ as one of their favourite movies of all time.
Somewhere between the end of the 2nd World War and the Cold War comes cinematic magic. 1959 ushered in a wave of magnificent filmmakers from Europe to Asia, and independent film was sprouting in the United States in places outside of the Hollywood establishment. Whatever the medium, expression within art had taken to new and exciting heights and filmmakers were drawing influence from jazz music to painting, the beat generation to institutionalised religion. I may have been born some 20 years after, but 1959 was indeed a great year.