Monday, April 22, 2019

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Top Ten of 1961

One of the more difficult Top Tens I've ever had to make. When push came to shove, I thought about what's close to my heart: the films I think about randomly or bring up in conversation; that changed or helped me better articulate my views on something; whose images moved me beyond words.

Honorable Mentions: Bachelor in Paradise, The Ballad of Narayama, Immortal Love, The Innocents and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.

The Top Ten - in alphabetical order - after the jump....

Angel Baby
dir: Paul Wendkos
pr: Thomas F. Woods
scr: Orin Borsten / Paul Mason / Samuel Roeca
adapted from: the novel Jenny Angel by Elsie Oakes Barber
cin: Jack A. Marta / Haskell Wexler

Great movie about faith that avoids easy answers or cynicism. Here, miracles can happen, but that does not mean that the faithful are without agenda, that does not mean that there are not false prophets abusing His Word, that does not mean that His prophets are sinless. A B-picture that neatly sidesteps luridness in favor of thoughtfulness. Also, it was filmed in South Florida, so I have to root-root-root for the home team.

Ballad of a Soldier
dir: Grigoriy Chukhray
pr: M. Chernova
scr: Grigoriy Chukhray / Valentin Ezhov
cin: Vladimir Nikolayev / Era Savelyeva

While the film stacks the deck in favor of the dutiful young soldier of the title, it is by no means pro-war. Through the eyes of that beautiful young man, that mama's boy, that youth, we see the devastation wrought by conflict - to people, to community, to land. War robs us of our security, destroys families, makes men (and women) brutal. But it is not without hope: at the center is a tender love story about two innocents. They are the best of what we are and what the world could be. It all tugs at your heart...and offers a sumptuous feast for the eyes.

Claudelle Inglish
dir: Gordon Douglas
pr/scr: Leonard Freeman
adapted from: the novel by Erskine Caldwell
cin: Ralph Woolsey

A B-picture that does not sidestep luridness in favor of thoughtfulness - and oh, how delicious that is! It's glorious trash from beginning to end, but do I detect more on its mind than a need to punish wicked women? Is it not established from the very beginning how Claudelle is objectified by every male around her, young and old sniffing at her whatever the season, however modestly or immodestly she's adorned? Don't they even describe her own behavior as hurting not herself, but humiliating the men in town? Good for her, I say! Take 'em all down!

La Dolce Vita
dir: Federico Fellini
pr: Giuseppe Amato / Angelo Rizzoli
scr: Fedrico Fellini & Ennio Flaiano & Tulio Pinelli, contributions from Brunello Rondi, story by Fellini & Falaino & Pinelli
cin: Otello Martelli

I know how I felt after watching this movie, but how to put it into words? Devastated, perhaps? Moved to tears? Awestruck? A spiritual experience, truly.

Flower Drum Song
dir: Henry Koster
pr: Ross Hunter
scr: Joseph Fields
adapted from: the musical with book by Oscar Hammerstein II & Joseph Fields, the novel by C.Y. Lee
cin: Russell Metty

A sincere movie musical exploring the good and bad of assimilation, the opportunity to write your own destiny, the blending of Chinese tradition and American lack thereof to create a new culture. It may end in happily ever after, but no character is compromised: the parents get the weddings they want, while the happy couples end up with the ones they truly love, all thanks to the ingenuity of an undocumented immigrant! I'm not going to pretend it's not dated and sometimes problematic, but it's a fantastic, one-of-a-kind showcase for underused talents. And the songs!

The Human Condition: Road to Eternity
dir: Masaki Kobayashi
pr: Masaki Kobayashi / Shigeru Wakatsuki
scr: ZenzĂ´ Matsuyama & Masaki Kobayashi
adapted from: the novel by Junpei Gomikawa
cin: Yoshio Miyajima

The continued punishment of Kachi, who tries to maintain his humanism as a soldier in the Japanese army - all the more difficult than it was in the previous volume, since his actions have given him the reputation of being a Communist sympathizer, his pleas for mercy and justice dismissed as weakness. A much tougher sit than No Greater Love, starting even with the opening credits against a booming, doom-laden score. War is brutal, y'all, and as damaging as the enemy can be, the cruelty of "friendly" fire destroys your soul first.

Judgment at Nuremberg
dir/pr: Stanley Kramer
scr: Abby Mann
adapted from: his "Playhouse 90" teleplay
cin: Ernest Laszlo

Perhaps what I love most about this movie is that it doesn't let the intended audience get away scot-free - look what happens when we trade our humanity for some malformed idea of patriotism, see how easy it is to make excuses for people who look and think like you, witness the monstrous evil we inflict on each other. And you think this a fluke? No, no, no - it can happen here, it will happen here, it does happen here!

A Raisin in the Sun
dir: Daniel Petrie
pr: Ronald H. Gilbert / Philip Rose / David Susskind
scr: Lorraine Hansberry
adapted from: her play
cin: Charles Lawton, Jr.

Working-class family tries to better their situation against seemingly insurmountable odds so that they might realize the American Dream? Yeah, that's universal! Let us be clear, though: A Raisin in the Sun is unapologetically Black and doesn't care if the white audience is uncomfortable - it's not about them! This is about a black family proclaiming their right to Be, a right that is not earned nor given, but simply Is. It is powerful, it is funny, it is full of incredible female characters. And young Ivan Dixon is a dish.

The Seventh Commandment
dir/pr: Irvin Berwick
scr: Irvin Berwick / Jack Kevan
cin: Robert C. Jessup 

Similar to Angel Baby, the miracle maker at the heart of the story is the genuine article, but that does not make them any more impervious to temptation. But Seventh Commandment is mostly concerned with the conflict between redemption and reputation - that is, whether or not you've been saved and reinvented yourself, can you face the ghosts of past transgressions? Pulpy and serious, it also does a great job of not dismissing faith while criticizing the commercialization of it.

West Side Story
dir: Jerome Robbins / Robert Wise
pr: Robert Wise
scr: Ernest Lehman
adapted from: the musical play with book by Arthur Laurents from a concept by Jerome Robbins inspired by William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet 
cin: Daniel L. Fapp

A perfect musical, a perfect movie, and therefore a perfect movie musical. Bruised and beautiful, romantic and realistic, every edit, dance step, finger-snap, exchanged glance full of purpose. I can't imagine anyone watching this movie not being gutted by that ending - I've seen it several times over the years and it still gets me.

Tomorrow: the nominees for the 1961 Retro Hollmann Awards.

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