Back in the olden days, we had to stockpile “evergreen” stories for that period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, when not all that much news happened, but the papers were humongous because of all the ROP ads.
The tradition of doing “best-of” retrospectives on the year are sort of related to that phenomenon. And even now in the post-print world, when editors are no longer haunted by the physical “hole to fill” problem, the tradition continues.
I referred to that earlier. But on Dec. 28 (sorry I’m just getting to it), The Washington Post ran a variation on the genre: They gathered seven “film buffs” on their staff and got them to make their arguments as to which was the greatest year for film.
Which was kind of silly, and sort of had the effect of giving ALL the kids trophies. This, for instance, is an artificially democratic statement: “Eventually we found the best year in movies — all seven of them.” Yeah. Because everyone’s opinion is equally valid, right? Bull. What a pat on the head — you all tried so-o-o hard…
Basically, I think they tried a little too hard, and overcomplicated the subject. The proper question is sort of binary: Was 1939 the greatest year, or wasn’t it?
It was the moment of Peak Hollywood. The very idea of Hollywood has never had the grip on us it had then, before or after. We’re talking “Gone With the Wind.” “The Wizard of Oz.” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” None of which require any elaboration. “Stagecoach,” which launched John Wayne. “Wuthering Heights” (not any old “Wuthering Heights,” the one with Olivier as Heathcliff).
No other year touches it.
And the feature in the Post sorta acknowledged that truth by letting the lucky writer who got to represent 1939 go first. But then, to try to justify considering the other, lame years, the writer treats us to this:
It’s hard to view “Gone with the Wind” these days as anything but massively problematic. Slavery is presented in soft-focus. Rhett Butler carrying a struggling Scarlett O’Hara up the stairwell, intended to make the audience swoon, is now as likely to make them vomit. If it was never screened in public again, then frankly, my dear, I wouldn’t give a — well, you know.
Really? We’re going to dismiss a representative — excuse me, the representative cultural artifact of 80 years ago by current political standards? Yeah, we know: Slavery was bad. It was, in fact, our nation’s Original Sin. And the bodice-ripping genre leaves much to be desired. But, you know, this is Gone with the frickin’ Wind! We’re supposed to be made uncomfortable by, say, the role Mammy played in Scarlett’s world — while at the same time being impressed by Hattie McDaniel’s performance. Which, by the way, earned her the first Oscar ever won by a black performer.
As for the rest, though… really?
But all of this is to set up arguments that the greatest film year was actually… get ready for this… one of the following:
- 1946 — The evidence presented includes “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the masterful (but supremely depressing) “The Best Years of Our Lives,” and the development of film noir in general.
- 1955 — “Rebel Without a Cause.” After that, the examples are hardly worth mentioning.
- 1974 — “The Conversation,” yes — certainly. And “Young Frankenstein,” which sort of stands in a category of its own. (I’m far less impressed by Brooks’ bigger hit that year, “Blazing Saddles.” If you disagree, try watching it again.) But no, I do not agree with all the hype about “Godfather II” eclipsing the original. It’s just not so. It was an uneven film with some inspired sections in it (all the De Niro bits). The original was a perfect, glittering masterpiece of film-making.
- 1982 — The argument starts with “Tootsie.” “Porky’s” is also mentioned. Let’s move on.
- 1999 — “Fight Club?” OK. “Office Space?” Absolutely. “Being John Malkovich?” OK again. Ditto with “The Matrix.” But it’s still no 1939.
- 2007 — Yes, I was impressed by “Juno,” and “No Country for Old Men,” and “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” and was delighted by both “Superbad” and “Enchanted.” And a nice range of genres and subject matter there. But still, no cigar. Which is why the segment started with the words, “I was going to say 1939. Everybody says 1939.”
Yep. And with good reason. Sometimes, you see, when everybody says something, they’re right.
But OK, I can get into the spirit of this thing. I can go beyond the pat answer. So I’ll offer my own nominee for dethroning 1939. But first… please note that my embrace of ’39 is not a generational thing, like my preference for the ’60s-’80s in music. I know y’all think I’m old, but 1939 is WAY before my time — my parents were very young kids at the time. It’s more their parents’ time.
And “Gone With the Wind” isn’t even close to making any list of my favorite movies — not Top Five, not Top Ten, not Top Twenty. I’m not even sure it would make a Top 100, if I were to take the time to draw that up. But I recognize epic film-making. I recognize cultural significance. I recognize values other than my own, as a guy living in 2019. It’s not about me and what I like. It’s about the history of film, seen as a whole.
But what other year comes close? Here, I am going to go with one from my own lifetime: 1967. If 1939 was the peak year of Hollywood’s Golden Age, 1967 was the year that the revolution arrived — all over the place, everywhere you looked, in every possible genre.
- “The Graduate.” Here, we are talking about what I like. Any Top Five list of mine would include this, “The Godfather,” “Casablanca” and “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and the fifth will be negotiable. And among those, “The Graduate” is the most original, the most distinctive. Seriously, into what genre would you place it? “Satire” tends to be where most end up, but that’s still inadequate. Everybody was at peak in this, doing the most brilliant work of their lives — Mike Nichols, Buck Henry (especially as writer, but also as the desk clerk), Dustin Hoffman certainly (even if he’d done nothing more than come up with that beautifully weird little noise he made in Ben’s more stressful moments). Simon and Garfunkel at the very peak of their powers. And I believe Anne Bancroft IS Mrs. Robinson (and she scares me)! To say nothing of the Alfa Romeo! And… I’m not sure how to put this… Hollywood has caused us guys to fall in love with scores, hundreds, thousands of beautiful women over the decades, but Katharine Ross? She makes it work, just by looking the way she does and knowing what to do with it, in a minimalist way. If you say, “A guy falls in love with the daughter of the woman with whom he’s having a tawdry, soul-devouring affair,” you say “That’s sick!” and don’t believe it. But then you see Katharine Ross, and you can see how this would happen, to Benjamin or almost any other guy. Wanting to marry her is NOT a half-baked idea. It’s completely baked.
- “Cool Hand Luke.” OK, so I went a bit overboard on “The Graduate.” I’ll try to hold myself in on this one. But it’s another that shattered conventions, that holds up over time, and would definitely make my Top Twenty. “Taking it off, boss.” “Any man loses his spoon spends a night in the box.” “Gonna be some world-shakin’.” And after my lack of discipline re Katharine Ross, I’m not going to mention Lucilllle. Nor am I going to get all deep about Luke as a Christ figure, or anything like that. But if 1967 is the best year, this is one of the ones that puts it over the top.
- “Bonnie and Clyde.” There’s a lot in this one that kind of gives me the creeps, but wow. It’s original, it’s fresh, it’s groundbreaking, it smacks you in the face, and it works. And this film gave us Gene Hackman, which on its own would cover a multitude of sins.
- “The Dirty Dozen.” I almost didn’t include this. I loved it at the time (I was 13). But it doesn’t hold up. It inspired me to read the novel at 14 (which was a little young, on account of the dirty parts, which I practically memorized), and I was impressed then and remain impressed now at what a missed opportunity the film was. The novel was really a great story, well told, and the characters were 10 times as interesting as the ones on the screen… with the possible exception of Victor Franko — Cassavetes pretty much brought him to life. He must have read the book. But, all of that said… flaws and all, this is a landmark film of the action genre. It’s not for nothing that in “Sleepless in Seattle,” Tom Hanks holds it up as meaning to men what “An Affair to Remember” means to many women. And it’s hard to imagine it being made before 1967.
- “In the Heat of the Night.” I watched this again just this week on Amazon. You should go and do likewise. And always remember to call him MISTER Tibbs…
- “To Sir, with Love.” Poitier again. And speaking of him, I could as easily cite “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” — also 1967, and also something hard to imagine in any other year. But “Sir” is another personal fave. It is, without question, the absolute best of the whole “lovable teacher who wins the hearts of the snotty punks he teaches” genre. Streets ahead of the rest. OK, Lulu — hit it!
- “Blow-Up.” I’m cheating a bit here because it was technically released in the U.S. at the end of 1966, but I think of this as essentially a British/Italian film in sensibility, and it wasn’t released in those countries until ’67. It can be a bit of a hoot to watch now — see how cool this guy is; he has a phone in his car! — but talk about your cultural artifacts! Definitely a good candidate to put in a time capsule and tell people what the 60s were like. Or would have been like, were you an in-demand fashion photographer in Swingin’ London. Which is why Austin Powers takes the time to do an homage to it.
I’ll stop there. I’m interested to see what year y’all would pick. I just hope it wouldn’t be a year as lame as 1982…