best film:  Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows is the dawning of a new era –The French New Wave– and it marks the arrival of a wunderkind (his debut, Truffaut was 27) in cinema. The shockwaves are still being felt as that gut-punch finale, the “FIN” open-ended, freeze-frame, zoom-in, still hangs in out there in space.

the most famous freeze-frame of all-time– from The 400 Blows

Jean-Pierre Léaud behind bars here– not dissimilar from Bresson’s use in Pickpocket- also from 1959

a stunner of a frame from the young prodigy Truffaut– he would make three masterpieces before the age of 30

most underrated:   Maybe it is Ozu-fatigue from the sheer abundance of riches coming from one auteur– or maybe there is some remake bias against it—but Ozu’s Floating Weeds is the most underrated film of 1959. Get used to seeing Ozu here because almost all of color films are woefully undervalued. Floating Weeds currently sits at #909 on the TSPDT consensus list and I have it nearly 700 slots higher.

  • It’s a remake of his stylistic breakthrough 1934 film A Story of Floating Weeds— it’s where he first started his cutaways/pillow shots. Ozu is almost always basically remaking his own films as far as both narratives and styles so I have zero problem with his 25-year-old update here in color
  • From Ebert: “Sooner or later, everyone who loves movies comes to Ozu.”
  • Ozu’s color compositions are stunningly beautiful—that opening is a highlight- the lighthouse and bottle in the foreground. Then he cuts to the boats in close-up blocking the mise-en-scene like von Sternberg (but beyond anything by von Sternberg) and then the red post office box. It’s the best opening of any Ozu film to date in 1959
  • Flowers galore from Ozu- we’ve seen it since he hit his color period- red red red here
  • Reds galore- flowers, jello, pen, umbrella, flags, bike in the foreground, watermelon—Ozu is picking food for his characters to eat based on color
  • We have Ozu’s trademark generational misconnect here- it rears its ugly head late
  • Even the wooden spikes at the train station have a red top—Ozu is a genius
  • No happy ending—it’s a return to form- continual bounding and floating—red light on the back of the train

The sea and lighthouse are characters in the film– cinematic paintings aplenty in Ozu’s Floating Weeds

It’s a remake of his stylistic breakthrough 1934 film A Story of Floating Weeds— it’s where he first started his cutaways/pillow shots. Ozu is almost always basically remaking his own films as far as both narratives and styles so I have zero problem with his 25-year-old update here in color

the opening is a highlight- the lighthouse and bottle in the foreground.

the glass color paneling scene here- a standout

different depths of field, every bottle, teapot and item in the frame placed to exact specifications

most overrated:  It is impeccably written and very very funny- but Some Like It Hot from Wilder at #26 on the consensus list is just wrong. I don’t have it in the top 26 of the 1950’s.

gems I want to spotlight:   Chabrol’s Les Cousins and Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour. This is the year of the French New Wave after all.  Les Cousins is a is a tremendous follow up to Chabrol’s 1958 Le Beau Serge debut. Resnais’ film is even better. The opening 16-minute montage medley is important to film history—lyrical– it is brilliant—this is the documentary section and Resnais fragments or flickers in the shots of the bodies of our two voices to ground you in a feature fiction film as the camera has rolling tracking shots (often establishing shots of a museum, hospital in Hiroshima). He’s melding this tragedy and these two characters and fusing the two cities (Nevers in France and Hiroshima in Japan where the film is mostly set) with these two embodiments of those cities in the form of these characters (Emmanuelle Riva and Elji Okada). The remaining 70-80 minutes of the film is told through them—a meditation on pain, trauma, memory— Resnais is a forerunner in the use (incredibly prevalent since 1959 when this film came out) jump-cut editing to carry us the viewers to the terrible lives of their tragedy via flashback (shot silently here carried by voice-over). I’d always sort of attributed this to Midnight Cowboy and the past of Jon Voight’s Joe Buck character and how Schlesinger uses it—but this is 10 year before. It also seems improbable that Godard didn’t see this film (the year before Breathless) – Breathless, of course, revolutionized the jump cut editing technique but I see it here. Lynn Ramsay’s hermetically-sealed, frozen characters in a post-trauma state seem influenced by this film as does Kiarostami’s melding of documentary and fiction and those lines blurring. The cutaway editing and those rhythms also feel like an influence of Ozu’s trademark pillow shots (pioneered long before Resnais).

from Hiroshima Mon Amour – a strong composition at 51 minutes– the two at the restaurant

The opening 16 minute montage medley is important to film history—lyrical– it is brilliant

It starts with a distinct jazz score and dust, perhaps ash, poetically falling on posing naked bodies and then the dueling voice-overs come in with “you know nothing”, disorienting, conflicting— Resnais is going for sensation and mood here- not for coherence or traditional narrative


trends and notables:

  • We have liftoff with Truffaut and the French New Wave — again, some may use Varda earlier in the decade or Chabrol’s debut in 1958 as their starting point but 1959 is the true year here in my opinion. The 400 Blows is the giant film— Chabrol was under 30 (like Truffaut) and like Truffaut worked at Cahiers du cinema – Resnais isn’t as clean a fit- he worked on documentaries before, was older (he’s nearly 40), and had edited Varda’s La Pointe Courte. Either way, these are a series of strong debuts (or second films in Chabrol’s case—Varda still hasn’t made her sophomore effort) from France. And overall three of the top six films from 1959 are from France (though certainly Bresson isn’t New Wave)
  • It isn’t just the French in 1959- the veterans Ozu, Hawks and Hitchcock represent the year in a big way with each delivering one of their best four or five films. In 1958 I wrote about Hitchcock’s three-year run from 1958-60 with Vertigo, North By Northwest, Psycho but it is worthy pausing here to do it again. Hitchcock and Truffaut would be connected—teacher and student. It isn’t just because of the landmark 1966 book, but we also have the freeze frame, and these incredible runs during their careers that overlap despite the difference in language, age, and experience. Truffaut’s run, to begin his career nonetheless, from 1959-1962 (so four years instead of Hitchcock’s three) of The 400 Blows, Shoot the Piano Player, Jules and Jim (all in the top 73 of all-time) rivals Hitchcock’s.

if it isn’t Truffaut’s finale, Hitchcock has the best single frame of the year in here in North By Northwest

a pair of strong compositions from Hitchcock here…

… and here

the silent opening from Hawks’ Rio Bravo-– the low-angle shot of John Wayne from Dean Martin’s perspective

it isn’t just the young men from France in 1959– Hawks, Hitchcock and Ozu fill out the top 5– and this is actually from Good Morning–Ozu’s second entry of the year that just misses the top 10– look at the use of color

  • It is brought up at length in the “gems” section above but Resnais’ work is really a revolutionary film when talking about the history of film editing
  • It pales in comparison to the weight of the French New Wave but the Brits had their own New Wave- derived from the theater-based “angry young men” movement or kitchen sink realism. These were gritty black and white contemporary films, working class characters—again a backlash against the Cinemascope, colorized, big budget sword and sandal genre. Tony Richardson is a big part of this movement and he has his first archiveable film in 1959 with Look Back in Anger (which, ironically enough, uses THE original sword and sandal cinemascope star Richard Burton). For Richardson The Entertainer would come in 1960, A Taste of Honey in 1961, Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner in 62’—Jack Clayton is another big director figure here and Room at the Top is his debut here in 1959
  • 1959 would also mark the end of the Apu trilogy for Satyajit Ray. He wasn’t part of a larger movement like Truffaut (though I consider Ray part of the larger realism movement) but his stretch from 1955-1959 with the trilogy and The Music Room thrown in last year is sort of a one-man realism movement (or carrying the torch from the Italians as that mode had really run its course aside from De Sica’s Two Women)

1959 would also mark the end of the Apu trilogy for Satyajit Ray.

  • It has already been mentioned- but Truffaut and Resnais with their first archiveable films
  • Lastly, some great actors get their start in 1959. George C. Scott (wow what a start with a nom going toe to toe with Jimmy Stewart in Anatomy of a Murder), Ben Gazarra is in Anatomy as well in a smaller role, Sean Connery (Darby O’Gill and the Little Peoplea charming Disney live-action film), Dirk Bogarde in a duel role in Libel, and last but certainly not least, the previously mentioned Jean-Pierre Leaud in The 400 Blows

a great crane shot from Budd Boetticher’s Ride Lonesome

Boetticher’s 1959 film is his crowning achievement

best performance male:   Unlike 1956 with John Wayne or 1958 with Stewart there is no clear #1 for 1959. I think you could give it to either Cary Grant or Leaud. If forced to pick one male performance for 1959 I’m going to go with Cary Grant in North By Northwest. He’s the epitome of style and the film and performance are a precursor to some of the great action films and performances to come later (notably James Bond and then by influencing Bond, influencing Indiana Jones). This forever links Grant with both comedy and action/suspense.  This is far from Grant’s first foray into the genre (as far back as George Stevens’ Gunga Din, Grant proves he couldn’t been Errol Flynn if he wanted to). Jean-Pierre Leaud may give the best child acting performance of all-time. Behind Grant and Leaud in 1959, it would again be Jimmy Stewart in Anatomy of a Murder leading the way in one of cinema’s greatest courtroom dramas- it feels like Stewart gets mentioned every year. It may not quite be up to Emmanuelle Riva’s achievement- but Elji Okada is certainly worthy of a mention in Hiroshima Mon Amour. Dean Martin gives the performance of his career in Hawks’ Rio Bravo. He’s not even the lead, Wayne is, or the comic foil (Walter Brennen), but Martin shows range, pain, and nuance. He’s not a talented actor- this is closer to the acknowledgement a few years ago for Rock Hudson—but Charlton Heston deserves something for being in both Touch of Evil in 1958 and Ben Hur in 1959. Lastly, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis sort of split a mention here for their stellar work in Wilder’s hilarious Some Like It Hot.


best performance female: Emmanuelle Riva levitates in Hiroshima Mon Amour– she gives the best performance of the year. At the 59-minute mark she delivers a long monologue— the tale of the death of her first love, devastating, impressive acting. We’d get another display by Riva at 71-minutes with her confession in the mirror. The confession isn’t to her husband, but to her lost love during the war and it is not for cheating, it is for telling her story which she considers much more important. Marilyn Monroe is the runner-up to Riva in 1959. Monroe, like Lemmon and Curtis, was a talented comedian and this is her at her artistic peak. Angie Dickson gives one of the great trademark Howard Hawks’ strong female performances in Rio Bravo– fitting maybe that we’re 20 years removed from Jean Arthur in Only Angels Have Wings. For the last two slots of the year we have Juanita Moore and Lana Turner in Sirk’s Imitation of Life—sadly this is the end for Sirk- his last feature and archiveable film.

Lana Turner and Sandra Dee here in Imitation of Life-– a beautiful frame- sadly this is the end for Sirk- his last feature and archiveable film.

top 10

  1. The 400 Blows
  2. North By Northwest
  3. Rio Bravo
  4. Pickpocket
  5. Floating Weeds
  6. Hiroshima Mon Amour
  7. Some Like It Hot
  8. Anatomy of a Murder
  9. The World of Apu
  10. Ben-Hur

the chariot race in Wyler’s Ben-Hur earns its reputation as one of 1959’s greatest scenes

one of the greatest uses of 65/70mm this side of Lawrence of Arabia and 2001

Bresson has always been fixated on cutaways to details like hands- a perfect fit for Pickpocket

undoubtedly one of the French master’s greatest works


Archives, Directors, and Grades

Al Capone – Wilson R/HR
Anatomy of a Murder- Preminger MS
Ben-Hur- Wyler MS
Darby O’Gill and the Little People- Stevenson R
Floating Weeds – Ozu MS/MP
Good Morning – Ozu R/HR
Hiroshima Mon Amour – Resnais MS/MP
Il Generale Della Rovere- Rossellini HR
Imitation of Life – Sirk MS
Last Train From Gun Hill – J. Sturges R
Les Cousins- Charbrol HR
Libel – Asquith R
Look Back in Anger- Richardson R
Never So Few – J. Sturges R
North By Northwest- Hitchcock MP
Odds Against Tomorrow-Wise R
On the Beach- Kramer R
Operation Petticoat- Edwards R
Our Man In Havana- Reed R
Pickpocket- Bresson MP
Pillow Talk- Gordon HR
Ride Lonesome- Boetticher HR/MS
Rio Bravo- Hawks MP
Room at the Top – Clayton R/HR
Sleeping Beauty – Geronimi, R
Some Like It Hot- Wilder MS/MP
Suddenly Last Summer- Mankiewicz R
The 400 Blows- Truffaut MP
The Crimson Kimono – Fuller R
The Diary of Anne Frank- Stevens R
The Ghost of Yotsuya  – Nakagawa HR
The Hanging Tree-Daves R
The Horse Soldiers – Ford R
The Hound of the Baskervilles- Fisher R
The Indian Tomb- Lang R
The Mouse that Roared- J. Arnold R
The Nun’s Story- Zinnemann R
Warlock-Dmytryk R
World of Apu- S. Ray MS



*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