best film: You couldn’t go wrong choosing either Last Year at Marienbad from Resnais or Ozu’s The End of Summer. A convincing case could be made for Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad to be called the most attractive work of cinema of all-time—a formal, stylistic, and visual sonic boom. As far as The End of Summer, during my Ozu study in 2018 I noted that visually it is the only film of his on par with Tokyo Story. If forced to choose I’ll trust my notes on Ozu’s films vs. recency bias (I saw Marienbad more recent in 2020) and go with Ozu’s work as the single greatest achievement of 1961.  

from Ozu’s The End of Summer– one of the Japanese master’s greatest single frames

Last Year at Marienbad – the key shot—one that could be cinema’s single finest (yes, all of cinema)—is the shot (often repeated in the film and variations on it after) of the meticulously manicured symmetrical gardens

Heavy use of mirrors in the formal visual design for Resnais–  a mirage (certainly tied to the story) –strong mirror work and widescreen work – almost like a split diopter shot

Art-museum quality frames galore including this stunner that could be from Pawel Pawlikowski or Cuaron’s Roma—perfect symmetry

 

most underrated:   The TSPDT consensus is about 900 slots off on Ozu’s The End of Summer (they have it at #959) so that’s the most underrated film. Shōhei Imamura work is also dreadfully underrated and left off the TSPDT top 1000 but I’ll save that for my gem section. Ozu’s work is a  meditation on marriage and remarriage—obligation to family and self-interest at odds.

the crowning achievement of Ozu’s color film period

 

most overrated:  Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass at #464 of all-time according to the consensus is the most overrated film of 1961.

gem I want to spotlight:   Pigs and Battleships from Imamura

  • Starts with a bang- a great backwards tracking shot during the opening credits of sailors stumbling around a crowded and lit-up Vegas-like Yokosuka strip
  • Like all of Imamura’s work it’s about the seedy underbelly of society, lower class or outcasts—there’s swearing, hitting, spitting and prostitution in the first 5 minutes- haha
  • Loaded mise-en-scenes… bottles like Ozu in the foreground. Later a fan
  • Drapes covering top 1/4 of a frame- inventive framing work
  • Uses the entire screen- he’s a depth of field master, von Sternberg

I couldn’t find anything official, but Imamura worked under Ozu— and most cinephiles like to note how different they are in their content—and that’s true. However, Imamura clearly is heavily influenced by Ozu stylistically—very apparent—he’s a gifted visual stylist

10+ individual wall-art shots like the saxophone player shot

Imamura is going to be near-permanent resident in the “underrated” section– he may be cinema’s most underrated auteur- the TSPDT consensus has him down at #185 currently on their all-time list of best directors 

marvelous frames like this all over the place

trends and notables:

  • Inevitably 1961 had to have a bit of a fall off after 1960 but that is a compliment to 1960, not an insult to 1961, and by any other realistic measure 1961 is an excellent year for cinema

Bunuel’s Last Supper tableau – his finest shot – from Viridiana

from Marienbad– Resnais’ second feature after Hiroshima Mon Amour in 1959— this one-two punch is lock-step (if not better) than Truffaut and Godard at the time

from Antonioni’s La Notte– oppressive modernity- a bold sequence where Moreau is just roaming the streets.– lost in modern architecture- crushed by it

  • It isn’t just the masterpieces and top 100 film drop-off from 1960 (and again 1961 still has at least two, maybe three in the top 100 all-time) but the overall number of archiveable films is down. 1961 is at 33 archieveable films currently- there are 46 from 1960—I think this is just an anomaly
  • Ozu’s color period – between 1958 and 1962 Ozu made a total of six color films—The End of Summer is the crowning achievement from this period. This is before Bergman, Fellini, Kurosawa, Antonioni, Godard would go on to experiment and excel in color. With another top five film himself, it is worth adding Kurosawa to the Ozu’s continued decade+ dominance, too. The two Japanese auteurs are two of the greats from this and any era

Ozu’s The End of Summer doesn’t have 10-15 gorgeous shots in two hours like some of his work (minor by comparison but stronger than almost anything else)- this is like Tokyo Story– it’s absolutely loaded with some of the best mise-en-scene set-ups  in cinema history—it’s a visual onslaught and if I could find them (and had room for them) there would be 50 pictures here on this page

Yojimbo– Kurosawa masterfully shoots with the telephoto lens—the wind is swirling and the town in ruins….pure genius.

Kurosawa continues (though not on quite the same level as 1960’s The Bad Sleep Well) the masterful use of Tohoscope widescreen, strong depths of field compositions aplenty

Kurosawa is rightly known first for his trio of films between 1950-1954– but his start to the 1960’s doesn’t lag far behind

 

  • The top 10 is absent of Godard and Truffaut in 1961 (remedied again in 1962) but Resnais continues the representation of the French (not to mention Demy’s top 10 in an actual debut) at or near the top. Marienbad is Resnais’ second feature after Hiroshima Mon Amour in 1959— this one-two punch is lock-step (if not better) than Truffaut and Godard at the time
  • I mentioned Demy (Lola) with his debut—but 1961 has a few other big ones— Pasolini’s Accattone is a bold and assured first feature (Pasolini came out fully formed here)—a variation on the neorealists. Rivette’s Paris Belongs To Us drops in 1961 as well.

from Jacques Demy’s Lola— making for the second debut film (Pasolini’s Accattone) to make the 1961 top 10

  • As for acting firsts, Anna Karina in A Woman is a Woman is the biggest story of 1961. Karina would be Godard’s main muse in most artistically fertile period from 1961 to 1965. Warren Beatty gave us his first archveible film in Splendor in the Grass. It’s a great role and Beatty is up for it. I guess when you’re Shirley MacLaine’s younger brother, look like Beatty does, you get to star in a Kazan (another Kazan acting debut—the guy was the best with actors) film opposite Natalie Wood. Another young Brando-imitator would show up in The Guns of the Navarone– Richard Harris.

As for acting firsts, Anna Karina in A Woman is a Woman is the biggest story of 1961. Karina would be Godard’s main muse in most artistically fertile period from 1961 to 1965

  • Speaking of Brando- I think it is worth a mention that the one and only film he directed is here for 1961—One-Eyed Jacks—it is a very good film- even if it doesn’t quite make Brando Charles Laughton with The Night of the Hunter
  • We’re already halfway into the Stanley Kramer-era but with Judgement at Nuremberg here and all the stars attached, it is worth pausing on 1961 to discuss Kramer. Kramer made some very popular “important” socially conscious cinema that, artistically, fell woefully short of what was going on in Europe during this era. His films weren’t totally worthless though as they offered us strong performances by big stars (Spencer Tracy in three of them). He made seven archiveable films from 1958-1967 including The Defiant Ones, Inherit the Wind, It’s a Mad, Mad Mad, Mad World, and Guess Who Is Coming to Dinner.
  • I also feel like I have to mention Huston’s The Misfits. It’s not an overly exceptional film, it’s very good, in the archives, with solid performances all around, but I’m mentioning here because it has the odd distinction of being the last film for both Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable. It would also be the last archivable film for Montgomery Clift who would pass away five years later in 1966. All of them passed away far too early. Clift was 45 when he passed, Gable was 59, and, tragically, Monroe was only 36.

a great shot from John Huston’s The Misfits— it would be the last archiveable film for Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, and Montgomery Clift

best performance male:   Like 1957 on the ladies’ side, 1961 is dominated by international cinema when it comes to the best acting performances of 1961. There is really a three-way tie at the very top here. Mifune continues his dazzling work with Kurosawa in Yojimbo. Mifune has such confidence and swagger- a nonchalance almost that he absolutely can pull off. This is an action hero performance that would influence just about everyone working in the genre in the back-half of the 20th century and beyond.  Paul Newman in The Hustler is his big coming out party. He’s a little out-acted by Liz Taylor in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Exodus doesn’t quite gel—it isn’t until 1961 that Newman truly finds his stride. The third actor splitting the vote at the top of 1961 is Franco Citti in Accattone. Accattone It isn’t just a triumph for Pasolini—Franco Citti is incredible as Accattone or Vittorio. Citti is in every scene of the film. This is not the suit-wearing suave Marcello Mastroianni characters from Fellini or the affluent ennui of Antonioni in the early 1960’s Italian cinema. Accattone is rough, gambling, spitting—he has an edge. He’s a pimp, wearing a chain and the trademark white sweater. Speaking of Mastroianni, he’s fourth here for this work in Antonioni’s La Notte. I think it is an important role for Mastroianni to get a top actor of the year mention when he’s not working with Fellini—it builds his resume. Lastly, he isn’t on screen as much as the others listed above but Fernando Rey deserves some love for his work as Don Jaime in Bunuel’s masterpiece.

Paul Newman goes from being a talented actor (potential but hasn’t achieved) to one of the greats in 1961’s The Hustler

Franco Citti here- Citti wouldn’t be a mainstay in the category like Newman, Mifune or Mastroianni– but he’s every bit as good for at least one year in Pasolini’s debut– a key shot to the film and Pasolini’s entire oeuvre here

best performance female: Deborah Kerr was nominated for six Oscars and never won (she won an honorary one in 1994). She wasn’t even nominated in 1961 for Jack Clayton’s The Innocents and I think it’s the best performance of the year, probably from either sex, and therefore, a huge oversight by the academy. More modern viewers will recognize pieces of it in Nicole Kidman’s stellar work in The Others (2001). Kerr’s is a superb central performance in one of the better films the horror genre would produce. The End of Summer is yet another major accomplishment for Ozu’s muse Setsuko Hara. La Notte features not only Jeanne Moreau opposite of Mastroianni but Monica Vitti as well- both deserve mention. Monica Vitti shows up 70-minutes in and takes over. She’s absolutely hypnotic. Anouk Aimée is next as Demy’s titular lead in Lola and she’s followed closely by Delphine Seyrid and Silvia Pinal in Last Year in Marienbad and Viridiana respectively. Lastly, though she doesn’t sing in it, her work in West Side Story is reason to recognize Natalie Wood’s talents and stellar work. As iconic as she is as a child actor in Miracle on 34th Street and growing up in The Searchers, this is the work she should be remembered for- it’s her best performance. If you needed any more reason to add her to this distinguished list in 1961—she’s also in Splendor in the Grass.

proof “elevated horror” isn’t a 21st century cinema invention– this from Jack Clayton’s The Innocents starring Deborah Kerr

Kerr is sublime in the lead

The Innocents has literally a dozen or more of these to choose from

the trio from Antonioni’s La Notte – Vitti probably gives the best performance of the three if you’re talking on a per-minute average, she doesn’t show up until the 70-minute mark

top 10

  1. The End of Summer
  2. Last Year at Marienbad
  3. Viridiana
  4. Yojimbo
  5. La Notte
  6. West Side Story
  7. Accattone
  8. The Innocents
  9. Pigs and Battleships
  10. Lola

just one of the bravado visual sequences from Robert Wise’s West Side Story

another absolute jaw-dropper from West Side Story here– this could be La La Land- a compliment to both films

a Bergman “off”-year in 1961 (tongue-in-cheek)– minimalist perfection here in this cinematic painting from Through A Glass Darkly

I couldn’t pass up this show-off shot and composition from Antonioni– his stretch of work from 1960-1964 is a main reason this era is cinema’s finest

 

Archives, Directors, and Grades

A Raisin in the Sun – Petrie R
A Taste of Honey- Richardson
A Woman Is a Woman- Godard HR
Accattone – Pasolini MS/MP
Breakfast at Tiffany’s- Edwards
Divorce Italian Style- Germi R/HR
El Cid- A. Mann
Fanny- Logan R
Judgment At Nuremberg- Kramer R
La Notte – Antonioni MS/MP
Last Year at Marienbad – Resnais MP
Leon Morin, Priest- Melville
Lola- Demy MS
One Hundred and One Dalmatians – Geronimi, Luske, Reitherman R
One, Two, Three- Wilder R
One-Eyed Jacks – Brando R
Paris Belongs to Us – Rivette R
Pigs and Battleships – Imamura MS
Pit and the Pendulum- Corman R
Splendor in the Grass- Kazan HR
The Comancheros- Curtiz
The End of Summer – Ozu MP
The Guns of the Navarone- Thompson R
The Hustler- Rossen MS
The Innocents- Clayton MS
The Ladies Man- Jer. Lewis R
The Misfits- J. Huston R
Through a Glass Darkly- Bergman R/HR
Underworld USA – Fuller R
Victim  -Dearden R
Viridana- Bunuel MP
West Side Story- Wise MS/MP
Yojimbo– Kurosawa MS/MP

 

 

*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film

MS is Must-See- top 5-6 quality of the year film

HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film

R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives