best film:  I Am Cuba or Soy Cuba from Mikhail Kalatozov.  It took me a long time to get to Kalatozov’s I Am Cuba. I didn’t get to it until 2016 and when I did, I saw it again the next night I was so blown away. It is a landmark work of art in terms of camera movement. Its roots can be found in Murnau, Renoir and Ophuls—yet this is different—even more muscular– less about invisibility.  The film has had a long lasting influence- you can see it in contemporary cinema– directors like Iñárritu (specifically Birdman and The Revenant), PTA (I mean the pool scene in Boogie Nights) Chazelle (La La Land). In fact, it’s kind of wild how much Chazelle’s masterpiece is influenced by two different masterpieces and films of 1964: I Am Cuba and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Not trailing far behind (I had them in consecutive slots on my top 100 of the 1960’s list) Kalatozov’s film is Gertrud from Dreyer and Red Desert from Antonioni. Dreyer’s work is a miracle of meticulously designed mise-en-scene. I was wrong on it for years and that is readily apparent in the first 10 minutes of the film— this is one of the most assured artistic examples of mise-en-scene in cinema history. While praising a poet character in the film, the Gertrud character actually says “each sentence is well-constructed and considered”—that is describing Dreyer to a T.  Antonioni, like Bergman, Fellini, Kurosawa, Ozu and the other early masters who started in black and white, uses color like a weapon- expressive. Antonioni  actually painted part of the landscape here (red of course), goes for very bold primary, a blue shack, yellow smoke from the factory. Antonioni is wrapping up a five-year run (1960-1964) that includes four films easily in the top 10 of their respective years– in the most competitive/loaded stretch of films as far as top 10’s are concerned.

as if the roving camera weren’t enough- Kalatozov’s  frame design is downright expressionistic

canted angles- from I Am Cuba. It is reminiscent of Eisenstein’s work– and hear me out- it isn’t simply because they were both Russian/Soviet– that would be lazy.  But Eisenstein is known for his editing (and rightly so)- but throughout his work you can easily find immaculate frame after frame. Ditto for Kalatozov- who is primarily known for his camera movement– yet here we are above and below

…another from I Am Cuba

Red Desert – Antonioni’s auteuristic trademarks in theme—alienation, anxiety in the modern life and modern relationships, (influenced by surroundings) industrialized landscapes

Monica Vitti’s character deteriorates—at 110 minutes in she’s getting overtaken by the oppressive mise-en-scene like Lang’s Metropolis, von Sternberg’s mise-en-scene work or Welles’ The Trial

Antonioni and Vitti — achievements as part of the year’s best work together in 1960, 1961, 1962 and now 1964

yet another from Antonioni- the hazy soft-focus formal choice set up in the opening credits

 

 

most underrated:   There are  numerous options here for 1964 sadly. Both My Fair Lady and A Fistful Of Dollars are left off the TSPDT consensus top 1000 altogether. That’s a shame. But I had to single one out it would be Imamura again with Intentions of Murder – completely left off the TSPDT top 1000 as well and ranked slightly higher than Cukor and Leone’s film on my list.

  • Imamura isn’t undone by the longer running time which is pretty special—150 minutes—it’s almost unfathomable how he did this the year after The Insect Woman in 1963—this is long, detailed, and so carefully and beautifully crafted in nearly every frame
  • The lamp in the foreground during the robbery and rape—(there is where style and content break with Imamura being in the Ozu style)—this is seedy, brutal, ugly—typical Imamura
  • Imamura actually uses Welles’ low-angles with some foreground background work as well. Kô Nishimura in the foreground, Harukawa in the background tied up—we have the shoji door creating a frame and giving depth—and then a hanging light swinging back and forth in an otherwise dimly lit room giving occasional light to her
  • A dazzling overhead 360 camera movement shot of Harukawa in the aftermath of the crime
  • Sparsely used experimental score

Formal and stylistic bliss—the strongest effort from Imamura to date in 1964

 

most overrated:  I was not able to locate a decent enough copy to study it properly- but my recollection of Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew is that it is not deserving of #144 of all-time (current TSPDT ranking)—for now that may be the single most overrated film of 1964 though I look forward to finding it again and rewatching.

a great set piece from Kubrick’s Strangelove–  I am a great admirer of the film and have seen it a half-dozen times at least- but would be remiss if didn’t mention that the #46 ranking on TSPDT seems a little high (this is Kubrick’s #2 ranked film according to TSPDT—which is incorrect).

 

gems I want to spotlight:   Charulata from Satyajit Ray

  • Amongst Ray’s best work
  • Brilliant shot of camera attached to a swing to capture Madhabi Mukherjee’s face- this would be picked up by others including Truffaut and Wes Anderson

The finale is justifiably famous. It’s a series of freeze frames of open hands. It’s up there with (and of course echoes The 400 Blows).

  • A long gorgeous tracking shot going up from the ground to Charulata’s unblinking eye which turns into a long dissolve montage mix of her getting ideas to write her great article
  • The film doesn’t have the devastating form and symmetry of The Music Room
  • Ray does his own music—which is wonderful and re-used in Darjeeling Limited from Wes Anderson

 

Blood and Black Lace from Bava is another one to highlight from 1964

  • Mario Bava’s work is a fascinating blend of high and low art. The script is putrid, and the acting is just straight bad, but Bava’s gliding camera, and especially his use of color, is a major artistic achievement
  • He often uses neon lighting and heavy shadow work in the same mise-en-scene. It’s gorgeous
  • Heavy neon with posing characters for the intro title montage—jazz score—it’s a very inspired opening
  • The story is a slasher and a who-done-it set in the fashion industry (which gives Bava plenty of excuses to go nuts (and I love it) with the décor
  • Flashing neon green from Vertigo
  • The film is proof a good director can make an archiveable film from any source material
  • The fast motion photography sequences are unfortunate choices
  • The second murder set piece, about 20 minutes in, is the main spectacular sequence- it’s about five minutes—there’s another one at the end with a superb tracking shot long take through a neon lit house filled with colorful mannequins… if these sequences had been more than 15 minutes of the 90 minutes or so we could’ve been talking about a top 5 film of 1964—its about ratio here and there are 20 minute chunks here and there where it’s a really weak movie filled with bad acting—even without the dubbing—some of the bad dubbing, simple genre story stuff with spectacular visuals remind me of John Woo’s work

Clearly influences Argento, mainly Suspiria- and a precursor to Refn’s Neon Demon and Only God Forgives, and Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover

 

trends and notables:

  • If we’re tracking stylistic cinematic moments- I Am Cuba is one of the most important 5-10 films to discuss when talking about camera movement—and Gertrud does the same on the mise-en-scene side
  • With The Umbrellas of Cherbourg below this marks the fifth straight year we have a French New Wave film in the top five of the year. In 1959 it was #1, in 1960 it was #2 and #5, in 1961 it was #2, in 1962 it was #2, and in 1963 it was #4. As you can see it would continue below at #4 and for a quick preview of 1965—the streak will continue.

1964 is a Dreyer year and every year Dreyer has a film released (1955, 1943, 1932 and so on) is important—this is Dreyer’s final film (and certainly one of his best). He would pass away in 1968 at the age of 79

  • I mention it above but Antonioni experimenting in color is worthy of noting— he certainly isn’t alone. Demy’s Umbrellas is a color-bomb—spectacular. Bava’s use of neon is important, Hitchcock is very color-focused in Marnie.

a color explosion in Demy’s masterwork

whether it is yellow, or red- Hitchcock uses color as very important tool in Marnie

A Fistful of Dollars is not only a great film, and an inspired remake of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, but it gave us the birth of Sergio Leone, Ennio Morricone, Clint Eastwood (first archiveable film for all three– Morricone worked on Bertolucci’s Before the Revolution as well in 1964) and the arrival of the spaghetti western

The Beatles and Richard Lester had major impact on 1964 and beyond with A Hard Day’s Night (cameo for first time actor Charlotte Rampling). Performance, Blackboard Jungle and others have some claim over the birth of the music video but certainly Lester’s film has a claim as well

  • From a political/global standpoint- the threat of an atomic bomb is clearly having an impact on cinema with both Dr. Strangelove and Lumet’s Fail Safe
  • It does feel like sort of the end of an era for Hitchcock- this is his final top 10 of the year film– his final film with DP Robert Burks (Rear Window, Vertigo, North By Northwest, The Birds) and final film with the great Bernard Herrmann
  • It is worth observing that this is really the beginning of a 35-year run for Kubrick which ends in his death in 1999– Paths of Glory is genius, but then Spartacus and Lolita are a little less exceptional (certainly in comparison with what is to come from Kubrick). But starting in 1964 with Dr. Strangelove Kubrick (with often long gestation periods between) goes MP, MP, MP, MP, MP, MS, MP
  • It was also a very big year for acting firsts (which makes me think the lack of them in 1963 was just happenstance). We have Catherine Deneuve in Umbrellas, Gene Hackman in Lilith, and the great Michael Caine in Zulu. Perhaps with not quite that level of impact, we also have the first archiveable film for Maggie Smith who would go on to be in at least one archiveable film in six straight decades. This may be a record it if weren’t for Caine himself who with Tenet has his count extended to seven consecutive decades

 

best performance male:   Peter Sellers gives the best male acting performance of the year in Dr. Strangelove. Of course, he actually gives three performances in the film (playing three different characters) and they’re all perfect. Morphing into roles like this isn’t new– Lon Chaney back in the silent era– even Alec Guinness had been doing it for a long time— but none of Guinness’ vehicles were quite to this level. Sellers has A Shot in the Dark as well- and there’s paper to be written comparing Sellers (portrayal of a Frenchman) being a big hit in the US/UK and Jerry Lewis being a smash in France (sort of portraying a buffoonish American). One of the major competitors for this top slot in 1964 is Strangelove co-star George C. Scott who steals every scene he’s in. He usually plays a straight actor so to see him cut loose like this is a treat to see. Rex Harrison gives the best performance of his career in My Fair Lady. Also worthy of recognition here in 1964 is Sean Connery in both Marnie and Goldfinger.  Goldfinger (along with maybe Skyfall about fifty years later) is peak Bond. I also have to tip the cap to Eastwood with his striking work in the first leg of the man with no name trilogy. Lastly, and again I don’t like to dip to HR-level films or lower, but Rod Steiger gives the performance of his career (his work in On the Waterfront is right there) in The Pawnbroker. It’s a tragic and devastating performance and film. Steiger didn’t get a mention in 1954 for Waterfront and he’s also fantastic in 1965’s Zhivago so I feel good about getting him at least one mention here among the best performers of the year.

 

best performance female: 1964 is a big year for female led films and strong female characters. Monica Vitti is sublime wandering through Antonioni’s Red Desert in a post-traumatic (think of every Lynne Ramsay film) haze. This is Vitti’s fourth mention in five years in this category and this is her finest single performance. Madhabi Mukherjee in Charulata is next- I mean all three leads in the film are good but Mukherjee in particular gives a spectacular performance- there many standout scenes—but when she realizes that she loves her cousin-in-law and she is in trouble—very fine acting. Catherine Deneuve is an instant star in Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.  Anna Karina is here for the second time in three years with Band of Outsiders and though it is a very different performance that takes some adjusting (and is the boiler plate for every Roy Andersson film)- I’m giving a mention to Nina Pens Rode in as Gertrud in Gertrud. Next, I have Audrey Hepburn and Julie Andrews in My Fair Lady and Mary Poppins respectively. Those two roles will always be tied together because Hepburn got the role everyone thought should’ve gone to Andrews (I think she played Eliza on stage) and Andrews ended up winning the Oscar for Poppins to get the last laugh. The last mention is for Tippi Hedren in Hitchcock’s Marnie. Hedren isn’t an overly talented actress (and she is green- Hitchcock scooped her up—this is only her second real performance after The Birds in 1963) and no- she’s not Grace Kelly- but she certainly deserves a combined mention here for being the central role in the last two last great Hitchcock films.

Vitti in Red Desert- a highlight shot (amongst a seemingly endless series of them in this film) is the camera from behind Vitti’s head showing her POV and everything is in soft focus like the opening credits

Madhabi Mukherjee as Charulata

the Catherine Deneuve-era begins in 1964

Nina Pens Rode in Dreyer’s final film

Anna Karina in Band of Outsiders

top 10

  1. I Am Cuba
  2. Gertrud
  3. Red Desert
  4. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
  5. Intentions of Murder
  6. Dr. Strangelove
  7. My Fair Lady
  8. Charulata
  9. A Fistful of Dollars
  10. Marnie

 

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors– Parajanov throws the kitchen sink at it so to speak stylistically—it doesn’t all land, you don’t always feel like you’re watching a cohesive whole. However, the cinematic ambition on display is flabbergasting and worthy of study and praise

Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan— phenomenal diorama landscapes…

…. another one here– there are no shortage of these from Kwaidan

a beautiful cinematic painting from Mary Poppins

Cukor’s 65mm triumph– décor and costume (this is the ascot horse race scene) in pristine large format photography

from Onibaba— director Kaneto Shindô

 

Archives, Directors, and Grades

A Fistful of Dollars- Leone MS
A Hard Day’s Night- Lester R/HR
A Shot in the Dark- Edwards R
Band of Outsiders- Godard HR/MS
Becket- Glenville R
Before the Revolution- Bertolucci R
Black God, White Devil – Rocha
Blood and Black Lace – Bava HR
Charulata – S. Ray MS
Diary of a Chambermaid- Bunuel R
Dr. Strangelove – Kubrick MP
Fail-Safe- Lumet R
Gertrud – Dreyer MP
Goldfinger – Hamilton HR/MS
Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte- Aldrich R
I Am Cuba- Kalatozov MP
Intentions of Murder – Imamura MP
Kwaidan- Kobayashi HR
Lilith- Rossen R
Marnie- Hitchcock HR/MS
Marriage, Italian Style- De Sica R
Mary Poppins- Stevenson HR
My Fair Lady- Cukor MP
Onibaba – Shindô HR
Red Desert – Antonioni MP
Robin and the 7 Hoods- Douglas R
Seven Days in May- Frankenheimer R
Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors – Parajanov HR/MS
The Americanization of Emily- Hiller R
The Best Man- Schaffner R
The Carpetbaggers-Dmytryk R
The Gospel According to St. Matthew- Pasolini HR
The Man From Rio – de Broca R
The Naked Kiss – Fuller R
The Night of the Iguana- J. Huston R
The Pawnbroker- Lumet HR
The Pumpkin Eater – J. Clayton R/HR
The Tomb of Ligeia- Corman R
The Train- Frankenheimer
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg- Demy MP
Topkapi- Dassin R
Woman in the Dunes – Teshigahara HR
Zorba the Greek- Cacoyannis R
Zulu- Endfield R

 

 

*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