One of my greatest joys over the years has been watching movies. I love all kinds of films – from foreign art films to schlocky horror movies, from the Hollywood classics of the 1930s and 40s to today’s latest releases, from big blockbusters to a movie about a couple of guys having dinner. That love of movies led me to teach film classes as an adjunct professor, to lead discussions at public screenings, to host a movie show on cable TV, and to spend countless hours researching and writing about film.
I got curious a few years ago when I realized that a couple of my favorite movies were released in 1962, the year I was born. I started compiling a list of my top ten movies made that year, and it was fun to see what other favorites had come out in ‘62. I then moved on to the next year, and the next. Some years it was hard to come up with 10, and some years it was a struggle to whittle it down. Regardless, it gave me a sense of just how much fun I’d had discovering these films. Of course, I didn’t see most of them until years after they were released, and the truth is these lists are organic, changing as I see new movies or my tastes change. Regardless, I thought that sharing these lists might be a way to tell you about a wide variety of films and give you some suggestions for your own viewing.
So for the next 52 weeks, I’m going to try to give you a list of my top ten movies from each year since I was born. I’ll post a different year, in sequence, each week, with a few comments. I hope you enjoy it.
Let’s start with one of my favorite years, 1962.
(1) To Kill a Mockingbird
This movie is beloved, not just by me, but by every member of my family. Part of the affection comes from the portrayal of a Southern family in a small town during the Depression. Growing up in a small Southern town in the 1960s and 70s, with a mother who lived through the Depression, I see things here that ring true to me personally. Atticus Finch was always one of my heroes, and I was thrilled when AFI selected him as the number one hero on its list of “100 Heroes and Villains.” This movie makes me weep uncontrollably, and the scene that makes me tear up the most is when Atticus leaves the courtroom, and the black preacher in the balcony tells Scout to “stand up. Your father’s passing.” (I’m getting verklempt just writing about it.) When I finally as an adult read the book, I understood even more deeply why this is one of the best American movies ever made. It portrays the best and the worst of our nation.
(2) Lawrence of Arabia
A restored version of this film was released in 1989, and I got the chance to see this 4 hour classic with my wife, not once but twice, at the Cinema 150 in Little Rock, a theater designed for showing wide screen pictures. I’d grown up seeing the faded pan-and-scan version on television, and while you could get the essence of its greatness, you couldn’t really appreciate how absolutely breathtaking it was until seeing it on the big screen, as it was meant to be seen. The best example is the scene at the well as Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) comes riding from deep in the background while Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) stands stunned in the foreground at the murder of his guide. Even on widescreen DVD versions seen on an HD television, you can’t match that spectacle. I would rate the viewing of this movie at that theater as one of the best moviegoing experiences of my life.
(3) Advise and Consent
I had a history teacher in high school who would tell us about important movies that were coming up on television and give us extra credit if we watched them and wrote a précis about them. Wow! Course credit for watching a movie? Unheard of. One of those films Mr. Offut suggested was Advise and Consent, about the confirmation hearings for a fictional president’s nominee for Secretary of State. The political intrigue and backroom negotiations still inform my opinion of what Washington politics are really like.
(4) The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
One of only two movies where a couple of Hollywood’s biggest stars, John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart, appeared on screen together. (The other was The Shootist, Wayne’s last picture. Both were in How the West Was Won, but did not appear in any scenes together.) This movie features one of my favorite, oft-quoted lines: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
(5) The Manchurian Candidate
One of those movies I grew up reading about but didn’t see until I was an adult. Angela Lansbury plays one of the most evil women in cinematic history, a mole for the Chinese government who allows her brainwashed son to become an assassin and kill a presidential candidate. Her incestuous scenes with her son are even creepier when you discover that Lansbury is only three years older than Laurence Harvey, who plays her son.
(6) Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
I loved this movie when I was a kid. It was a modern horror story, with real people rather than supernatural beings as the monsters. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were both struggling to find good parts for middle aged women during this time, and this disturbing story of two embattled siblings was the perfect vehicle, further empowered by the animosity the two screen legends held for each other off screen. And you’ll never forget seeing what Baby Jane has brought her sister for lunch!
(7) The Exterminating Angel
Another movie I grew up reading about but didn’t see until I got a subscription to Facets Video in the 1990s. Like most Luis Bunuel films, it’s a critique of the bourgeoisie, with a group of party-goers who can’t leave the host’s house and go home. They’re stuck there for days, maybe weeks, taking whatever means are needed to survive, including sacrificing their host because maybe he caused the whole thing. It’s beautifully surreal.
(8) Carnival of Souls
Made on the lowest of budgets, this film was barely even noticed when it first came out. Now it’s a cult classic. Its Twilight Zone-like story is okay, but it’s the creepy atmosphere that makes this movie more than just another low budget exploitation film.
(9) Birdman of Alcatraz
It’s one of my favorite Burt Lancaster performances as Robert Stroud, the convicted murderer who becomes an ornithology expert. What makes the performance so interesting is that you so much want to sympathize with Stroud because of his superior intellect, but Lancaster never lets you forget the emotions that put Stroud in federal prison in the first place.
(10) Ride the High Country
In the first few minutes of this western, Sam Peckinpah introduces the transition from the classic western of the 19th century to the revisionist western of the early 20th century, which would become the standard setting for his later films. We see policemen dressed like English bobbies, a horseless carriage, a popcorn machine, and a race between a horse and a camel. I use this clip to show students how genre films are a mix of “novelty and familiarity” – what you expect and what you don’t expect.
Some of the other great films from 1962: Lolita, Jules and Jim, Cape Fear, Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation, The Longest Day, Knife in the Water, How the West Was Won, and The Miracle Worker. (Maybe I should have done a top 20!)