Mike’s Top Ten of 1968
I always think of 1968 as the year where Hollywood dumped out all the old reserves before they could start anew, but that’s not really what it is. You look at the movies that came out — a lot of classics are in this year. Though admittedly, a lot of the below-the-line stuff are ‘old’ Hollywood kind of films.
Five of the most famous movies ever made came out this year. And I can say for sure two or three of my favorite 100 movies of all time are on this list. It’s a way better year than I usually consider it to be. Though I will say — a lot of the lower-tiered stuff is weaker this year than it is most others. Mostly it’s an oddball assortment of weird stuff I like because it’s totally unlike most other stuff.
Mike’s Top Ten of 1968
2001: A Space Odyssey
The Lion in Winter
Night of the Living Dead
The Odd Couple
Once Upon a Time in the West
Planet of the Apes
Romeo and Juliet
The Tomas Crown Affair
11-20: The Boston Strangler, Funny Girl, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Hell in the Pacific, Ice Station Zebra, Oliver!, Romeo and Juliet, The Shoes of the Fisherman, The Swimmer, Where Eagles Dare
Tier two: 5 Card Stud, Barbarella, Charly, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Faces, Finian’s Rainbow, Hang ‘Em High, Head, If…, Isadora, Live a Little Love a Little, Monterey Pop, The Party, Rachel Rachel, The Scalphunters, Star!, The Subject Was Roses, Sympathy for the Devil, Targets, Yellow Submarine
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1. The Producers
“How could this happen? I was so careful. I picked the wrong play, the wrong director, the wrong cast. Where did I go right?”
One of the ten funniest movies ever made. It’s a genius movie from start to finish. Mel Brooks made legitimately three of the ten or fifteen funniest movies ever made. Comedy genius does not even begin to describe it.
The film is about Max Bialystock, a producer who has fallen so low he wears a cardboard belt and is forced to swindle old ladies to produce his next in a long line of flops. One day, Leo Bloom, an accountant, comes by to perform an audit on Bialystock’s books, and while positing a hypothetical question he gives Bialystock an idea: if one were so inclined, they could make more money with a flop play than with a hit play. They’d need to raise a bunch of money, put it into a play doomed to fail, pocket half of it and then when the play fails, keep the money, since the investors wouldn’t be coming to collect their share of the profits. They then set out to do this. With a play called “Springtime for Hitler.”
I can almost quote this entire movie. It’s so goddamn hilarious. It is a perfect entity. This is one of those movies where if you don’t like it, we can’t be friends.
2. Once Upon a Time in the West
“Frank sent us.”
“Did you bring a horse for me?”
“Well… looks like we’re…looks like we’re shy one horse.”
“You brought two too many.”
I like when people say they think this is a better western than The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. It’s like when people say they prefer Godfather II to the first one. Because it’s like, “You do realize the two films we’re talking about, right?”
Probably the most epic western ever made, and yet… entirely intimate. Ultimately a simple story of revenge.
I’m not even gonna go over the plot, because there’s no way you got here without having seen it. It’s a perfect movie. Charles Bronson is amazing, Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, Claudia Cardinale — this is the peak of Sergio Leone. I love The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, but in a way, this is a greater achievement.
Also, Ennio Morricone, man:
3. 2001: A Space Odyssey
“Open the pod bay doors, HAL.”
“I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”
It’s 2001. We all know what a masterpiece this is. If you ever get the chance to see this in 70mm, take it. (And if you live in LA, it’s an annual tradition that they do screen it.)
This is one of those movies that you might think is overrated, but watch this shit on the big screen and you’ll see why that’s not true. Watch any Kubrick movie and you’ll see why that’s not true. I’ve never seen someone so good at making something that draws my attention and keeps me there until the movie’s over, and then I go, “Wait, that was 2 1/2 hours?”
This is one of those movies that’s so big everyone knows they must see it. It’s also one of those movies that’s so good that everyone also likes it. One of the 100 greatest films ever made, and I think you could make a case that it’s in the 25 all-time for American films in terms of importance.
Every space movie you’ve ever seen is copying either this or Alien. It’s one or the other or both. That’s just how it is.
4. Rosemary’s Baby
“You’re trying to get me to be his mother.”
“Aren’t you his mother?”
One of the greatest horror films of all time. So good I don’t even know if it’s a horror movie or just a psychological thriller. Either way, it’s one of Roman Polanski’s two or three best films. It’s incredible.
This is a movie about an actor willing to go the extra mile to get a part.
But isn’t it?
Stars Mia Farrow as a woman who may or not be pregnant with the child of satan. You know, like all the great rom coms.
What I love about this movie is how utterly normal it is for the first half or so. There’s one crazy scene but we still don’t know whether that’s actually happening or not or if it’s all part of the paranoia of our protagonist. And then shit gets nuts in the latter half of the movie and it’s one of the most harrowing things you’ll ever see. This movie lulls you in and before you realize it, there’s no getting out.
This is a masterpiece in just about every conceivable way, and you can show this to anyone and they’ll be completely affected by it.
5. Planet of the Apes
“Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!”
Sci fi masterpiece. This movie still holds up. Even if everyone knows the twist (which I don’t even care if I’m spoiling. If you’re alive, you know this movie’s twist). The real joy of the movie isn’t getting to the twist, it’s seeing how good it is outside of it. It doesn’t even need the twist to be good.
Everyone knows the story — Charlton Heston is an astronaut whose ship crashes on a planet where talking apes rule and the humans are prisoners.
Great movie. Though admittedly not as great as the musical it spawned:
“Frank, we must all compromise.”
Steve motherfuckin’ McQueen. Possibly the coolest actor that ever lived.
McQueen plays a San Francisco cop who is tasked with protecting a witness about to testify against the mob. When the witness dies on his watch, he sets out to find who did it. Perhaps the greatest car chase in the history of film ensues, along with other cool shit.
I’m partial to the French Connection chase myself, but there’s no denying how amazing the Bullitt chase is. Also, the film looks great, because it’s all shot on location in San Francisco.
Truly one of the most badass films of all time, and not the only McQueen movie on this list.
7. Night of the Living Dead
“They’re coming to get you, Barbara!”
Crazy how this movie became as historically important as it is. And it’s all due to a mistake. They forgot to put a copyright notice on the title card, so the movie immediately fell into the public domain. And as such, that meant a lot of TV channels were able to show it whenever they wanted. So to fill time, they aired it a bunch. Which meant a lot of people grew up watching it on TV and it soon rose to the status of cult classic and then straight up classic.
And even on its own, the movie pioneered an entire genre. It revolutionized the horror genre and created the zombie movie. And, on top of that, it’s loaded with social commentary! The only sane and capable person in the movie is the black guy. (And then there’s the ending…)
It’s a really fantastic movie. You have to understand how little a budget it was made for, but even despite that, it still works really well. It actually has tense and scary moments.
8. The Lion in Winter
“I adored you. I still do.”
“Of all the lies you’ve told, that is the most terrible.”
“I know. That’s why I’ve saved it up until now.”
Incredible film. Part of the British historical drama run of the 60s, after Becket and A Man for All Seasons. This one has Peter O’Toole playing the same character he played in Becket, only much older. The film details his attempt to pick a successor among his three sons as he gathers his family (even his wife, Eleanor, who he keeps locked in a tower most of the year) for the holidays. A lot of family drama and infighting ensue, and it’s just great.
O’Toole is incredible, and I still don’t get how he didn’t win an Oscar for this role. Katharine Hepburn did win an Oscar for her performance. Also you have young Anthony Hopkins and Timothy Dalton.
This is a classic. If you’re gonna see any of these historical dramas (and you should see all of them), this and A Man for All Seasons are the best. This is a real showcase for the actors and the movie is scintillating.
9. The Odd Couple
“I can’t take it anymore, Felix, I’m cracking up. Everything you do irritates me. And when you’re not here, the things I know you’re gonna do when you come in irritate me. You leave me little notes on my pillow. Told you 158 times I can’t stand little notes on my pillow. ‘We’re all out of cornflakes. F.U.’ Took me three hours to figure out F.U. was Felix Ungar!”
Probably the most beloved Neil Simon play/film. Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon are amazing here, and the film is hilarious. Spawned at least two TV series’ based on the play and remains a classic story.
It’s about two mismatched roommates, one a neat freak, the other a slob. Both are divorced and they decide to live together despite their personality differences. And hilarity ensues.
It’s one of the funniest movies ever made and is just an all-time classic.
10. The Thomas Crown Affair
LOVE this movie. Great title song, too, “The Windmills of Your Mind.”
Directed by Norman Jewison, which normally gets overlooked because it stars Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway. He plays a millionaire who commits the perfect crime: hiring men to rob a bank who don’t know one another. They drop the money off at a nondescript location, then he picks it up and deposits it slowly into an offshore bank so as not to draw attention. He doesn’t need the money, it’s just fun for him. However, enter Dunaway, the insurance investigator assigned to get the money back. As incentive, she’ll get a percentage of it if she does. She immediately pegs him as the suspect and tries to get proof that he’s the one behind the robbery. There’s a wonderful cat and mouse game that ensues, especially since they start sleeping together soon after. It’s so good.
It’s one of those movies that just exudes cool and sexy. And a movie that needs to be seen, because so often do people only know the remake of this movie (which is fun in its own way, but nowhere near this one, quality-wise).
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The Boston Strangler — Love this movie. It’s beautifully structured. The first half is a straight procedural. Three old women are found strangled and Henry Fonda is put on the case. He tries to find leads and figure out who might be committing these crimes. Then, about halfway through the movie, it shifts focus. We meet the killer. Tony Curtis shows up as the Boston Strangler. And we see the two stories run parallel until an eventual confrontation. It’s really strong. Directed by Richard Fleischer, too. Another hidden gem from a filmmaker with a stronger resume than most people would think.
Funny Girl — “Hello, gorgeous.” This movie launched Barbra Streisand to superstardom. She leaps off the screen and just owns this movie. It’s a perfect role for her and it’s one of the most auspicious film debuts of all time. She won an Oscar for it, she’s so good in it. The film is a biopic of Fanny Brice, the vaudeville comedian, exploring her roots, her success on the stage in Ziegfeld’s Follies, and her marriage to a gambler. It’s fantastic. Directed by William Wyler in his penultimate film. It’s a good movie that’s made almost great by Streisand’s performance.
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter — Based on a Carson McCullers novel (other McCullers adaptations are The Member of the Wedding and Reflections in a Golden Eye), it’s a bit of a weird set up, but it somehow works. Alan Arkin is a mute whose best friend is a much bigger, mentally handicapped man (it’s an Of Mice and Men situation). The friend ends up getting arrested and put in an institution because of his handicap. Arkin moves closer to the place to be near him. He takes up in the home of a family looking to rent out a room. There, he strikes up a friendship with the family’s oldest daughter, Sondra Locke, a teenager coming into her own who feels like no one really understands her and who has dreams bigger than her small town. Arkin also befriends a black doctor. The film is just sort of about the lives of these people, and it’s really good. Arkin was nominated for his performance (making his two Best Actor nominations unique in the fact that in one, he speaks entirely in Russian and in the second he plays a mute and does not speak at all) as was Locke. These McCullers adaptations are really solid dramas that I like a lot.
Hell in the Pacific — One of the great movie setups of all time, with great casting choices. An American soldier and a Japanese soldier get marooned on a small island in the Pacific. That’s it. You don’t need more than that. Oh, and it stars Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune. It’s dope. John Boorman directed it, and it’s fun as shit. Neither can understand the other, so it’s just two people on opposite sides of a conflict stuck together on an island. The best part is that you had no idea this even existed. And how awesome does it sound?
Ice Station Zebra — This movie is awesome. Howard Hughes allegedly watched this movie 150 times on a continuous loop during his shut-in years. This was shot in 70mm too. A nuclear sub is sent to rescue the stranded members of a weather station on a moving ice drift. However, as we soon learn, that mission is actually a cover for something else, and there may be some saboteurs aboard trying to thwart the mission. Stars Rock Hudson, Ernest Borgnine and Jim Brown, and was directed by John Sturges. It’s so much fun.
Oliver! — Carol Reed’s musical version of Oliver Twist. Won Best Picture and a long overdue Best Director Oscar for Reed. It’s not as bloated as the other 60s musicals, and it’s solid. Jack Wild is good as The Artful Dodger and Ron Moody is great as Fagin. And the songs are good too.
Romeo and Juliet — It’s the best theatrical version of perhaps the greatest story ever written. In another year, this probably wouldn’t make the top ten, but there’s really not a whole bunch else I like that much for 1968. Plus, this movie is pretty great. Franco Zeffirelli directs, and honestly, while more people see the Baz Luhrmann version, this is the best of the lot. Just class all around.
The Shoes of the Fisherman — Could not have guessed that I was gonna really like this one. Anthony Quinn is an Archbishop who spent 20 years in a Siberian prison camp. He returns to Rome and is made Cardinal. Not long after, the Pope dies. And by sheer luck, he is elected the new Pope. So now he’s gotta deal with his struggle with the new position, the troubles of one of the other cardinals who has become his friend, and international incidents that require his guidance. It’s really good. Anthony Quinn is incredible here (as per usual), and the film also has Laurence Olivier, Oskar Werner, Vittorio De Sica and John Gielgud. Oh, and Michael Anderson (who made Around the World in 80 Days) directed it. You guys know how much I normally hate religious movies. But this is kinda like The Young Pope in that it’s a behind the scenes look of a guy struggling with his position more so than dealing with the usual religious shit. I really enjoyed this one.
The Swimmer — Frank Perry again. Three movies, three gems. After David and Lisa and Ladybug Ladybug, he returns with this film, which sounds weird. I will admit that when you first hear about this, you go, “What?” But trust me, it’s great. Burt Lancaster plays a guy swimming at his neighbor’s pool. He just got back into town after being gone for the past few months. As he gets ready to leave, he notices that all his neighbor’s pools span the entire valley back to his house. He realizes he can basically ‘swim’ his way back home, by jogging from house to house, swimming in their pools, and then getting back home at the end. So he does. The film is mostly about his interactions with the people he encounters. And slowly, along the way, we begin to learn more about him, why he was gone, and what’s actually going on. And it’s just fantastic. One of those gems I love showing to people because Frank Perry is a guy who made these interesting movies that have become lost to time. And they’re great.
Where Eagles Dare — One of the most badass war movies ever made. Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton. A U.S. general is kidnapped by the Nazis and held at a fortified castle in the Alps. Eastwood and Burton are there to break him out. Yeah, boy! There is a GREAT scene once they get into the castle (you’ll know what it is when you see it). Also, crazy high body count in this movie. It’s so awesome. One of my favorite films of the 60s. Everyone needs to see this.
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- 5 Card Stud
- Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
- Finian’s Rainbow
- Hang ‘Em High
- Live a Little, Love a Little
- Monterey Pop
- The Party
- Rachel, Rachel
- The Scalphunters
- The Subject Was Roses
- Sympathy for the Devil
- Yellow Submarine
Monterey Pop is a documentary about the famous music festival that launched the careers of several major musicians. It’s only an 80 minute documentary, but here’s some of the stuff that’s in it: Scott McKenzie doing San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair),” which was written for the festival; The Mamas & the Papas doing “Creeque Alley” and “California Dreamin'”; Simon & Garfunkel doing “The 59th Street Bridge Song”; Big Brother and the Holding Company doing “Ball and Chain,” a performance that launched Janice Joplin (there’s the famous clip in here of Mama Cass watching Janis Joplin and clearly going, “Oh, wow”; Eric Burdon and the Animals doing “Paint it Black”; a little band called The Who doing “My Generation”; Otis Redding doing “Shake” and “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”; and Jimi Hendrix (this really launched him) doing “Wild Thing.” It’s great. One of the ten best concert films ever made and something everyone needs to see.
Speaking of music documentaries — this one’s not one of the greatest ever made, but it’s interesting as fuck. Sympathy for the Devil is, as the title suggests, a documentary about the Rolling Stones. The entire film is structured around the writing and recording of the titular song. But, here’s the kicker: it was directed by Jean-Luc Godard. Right? The film shows them for long stretches of time in the studio, working on the lyrics, slowly coming up with melodies and recording all the different parts, culminating in the recording of the actual track heard on the album. And let me tell you, when the song you know so well starts playing, it’s an amazing feeling. Because you saw them working on it bit by bit over the rest of the film. You see them record the instrumentals, and it’s just genius. My favorite is when they’re doing the vocals, and a bunch of people are standing in a circle doing the “woo, woo” parts. It makes you realize just how much goes into a song like that. Also, this was done right around the time Brian Jones was about to be kicked out of the band, and the documentary even shows that. Oh, but I should also mention the other part — this is Godard, so there is some weird shit that’s also a part of it. The movie, when not in the studio, cuts away to staged scenes of the Black Panthers reading revolutionary texts and performing ‘executions’ of white women. I know. But just go with it. It’s weird but fascinating. Overall, I liked this one a lot, and I don’t think people quite know how interesting and weird this one is. Hell, Godard made a Stones documentary. How does that not make you want to see it?
Faces is a great John Cassavetes film. Took me a while to come around to loving this one, but man, is it great. It’s a movie that feels almost entirely improvised. John Marley is a businessman who comes home to his wife one night and, after what seems like a regular night, tells her he’s leaving her for another woman. And the rest of the night plays out with him going off to see the woman in question, and her going out with some friends. It’s incredibly realistic and bleak. But that’s Cassavetes. He was a master at taking all the little, difficult things about life that no one wanted to talk about and making them the focal point of his films. This is one of his best. Isadora is a Vanessa Redgrave-starring biopic of Isadora Duncan, the famous dancer. Redgrave is incredible in the film, and that’s the main selling point for it. It also has Jason Robards and James Fox in it as well, but man, is Redgrave incredible here. I recommend this for her performance. Head is a crazy musical starring The Monkees. If you think you knew the Monkees based on their music and their show, wait til you get a hold of this movie. I can’t explain the plot and I can’t begin to try to explain what this movie is except — watch it. It’s trippy, it’s crazy, and if you’re in an altered state while watching it, that may not be the worst thing in the world.
Barbarella is one of the great camp films of all time. The opening credits are Jane Fonda floating in zero gravity, stripping out of her space suit. This movie knows what it is and is trying to be. I have no idea what the plot is — she’s gotta save the world or something. All I remember is that she fucks a lot of people. That’s part of the character. It’s absolutely nuts, and wonderful at the same time. I cannot recommend this movie highly enough because it’s so crazy it’s almost impossible not to love it. Hang ‘Em High is a dope western with Clint Eastwood. He plays a guy who survives a lynching who comes back to take revenge on all the guys that did it. A classic western. Highly recommended if you like Eastwood westerns. The Party is one of the seminal American comedies. Blake Edwards directs and Peter Sellers stars. There’s no real story here, owing to Sellers pretty much doing what he wants. He plays an Indian actor invited to a Hollywood party. Crazy shit happens. It’s great. And it’s so different, structurally, from just about any comedy you’ve seen.
Everyone knows Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, right? Do I need to say anything about it? It’s a classic. It’s amazing. You need to see it. Charly is Flowers for Algernon. That’s what this is, despite the generic title. Cliff Robertson (who won an Oscar for his performance) plays a developmentally disabled guy who is given a drug tested on mice to make them smarter. He takes it and becomes a genius. And we see how his life changes, etc. But then the effects of the drug start to wear off, and he’s forced to know that he’s gonna end up back the way he used to be, unable to do anything about it. It’s a great story. (They — and this is a testament to how great they are and were — did a great version of this story on that episode of The Simpsons where Homer has the crayon stuck in his head.) The film is good, but it’s so 60s. It takes a weird turn about 2/3 of the way through, where he goes off and becomes a biker and the film goes psychedelic. It makes the whole thing incredibly dated. Star! is a biopic of Gertrude Lawrence, an actress almost no one remembers. Directed by Robert Wise, it’s got a lot of interesting stuff in it, even if the film itself is too long and too bloated. Daniel Massey is awesome as Noel Coward. Julie Andrews is committed as Lawrence and delivers a great performance. It’s uneven but definitely has stuff to like.
Live a Little, Love a Little is an Elvis movie. Somewhat screwball, though I don’t think he was capable of doing a true screwball movie. He’s a photographer who ends up working two full-time jobs: one for an advertising company, the other for (essentially) Playboy. Both jobs are in the same building, and the film is about him trying to balance both without being caught by either. And he’s seeing a woman who constantly changes her name. That’s also part of it. It’s fun. Also right around the time he was making his comeback and before he started getting all bloated. This is the film that introduced the world to “A Little Less Conversation.”
Rachel, Rachel is Paul Newman’s directorial debut. It was nominated for Best Picture this year, not that anyone remembers it. Joanne Woodward stars as a spinster schoolteacher living at home with her mother. She’s lonely and never really been in a relationship (she may be a virgin still, I don’t remember). The film is about her meeting a friend from college and starting a relationship with him. And how her life changes over the course of the summer. There’s a lot of interesting twists and turns here that I don’t want to spoil. But it’s good. It’s engaging and it’s a nice little drama that today would be a solidly regarded indie with a great lead performance. Targets is Peter Bogdanovich’s first movie and Boris Karloff’s last. Karloff plays, essentially, himself, an aging horror icon doing an appearance at a drive-in. Meanwhile, there’s a crazy war vet who decides to go on a killing spree. So he just starts murdering people all around the town. It’s a solid movie. The Subject Was Roses is basically a play on film. But it has Martin Sheen, Patricia Neal and Jack Albertson as its entire cast, and the play is good, so it’s fine. Sheen is a guy coming back from the war (WW II, though it could just as easily be Vietnam) who suddenly realizes the idyllic home life he used to think he had is not what it appeared to be. He’s now witness to their constant fights and sees that his dad is inattentive and cheating on his mother. The performances are all great. Albertson (who you know as Grandpa Joe) won an Oscar for his role.
5 Card Stud is a western mystery movie with Dean Martin and Robert Mitchum. At the beginning of the movie, Martin is part of a card game where one of the players is caught cheating. The rest of the men all take the offender out to lynch him. Martin protests but is unsuccessful in stopping them. Not long after, Martin finds out that someone is going around murdering all the men in the card game, one by one. He comes back to town to figure out who the one doing it is. Mitchum plays a preacher with a gun who helps Martin try to figure out who the murderer is. It’s fun. How many westerns are also murder mysteries? The Scalphunters is a western comedy with Burt Lancaster and Ossie Davis. Lancaster is a fur trapper who gets robbed by some natives just as he’s about to head home with a full load of furs. What could have held him over for a year or more is now gone in an instant. In return, they give him Davis, an educated slave, as trade. The pair set out to steal the furs back to get even. Things go comically awry along the way. It’s a fun movie. Sydney Pollack directed it (his third film), and that’s a trend you’ll notice a lot of going forward. Just about every film Pollack directed is worthy of being mentioned as one of the better, if not best, films of their respective years. (Just wait til we get to next year’s film.)
Finian’s Rainbow is not only a film directed by Francis Ford Coppola, but it’s also Fred Astaire’s final musical. This is the last time he’d dance on screen. He plays a guy who steals a leprechaun’s pot of gold and comes to America with his daughter. The leprechaun follows, and pretty soon there’s a conflict with the landowners and a senator, and all sorts of hijinks (and dancing) ensue. It’s not a perfect film, but you get Astaire in his final musical (he’s still got it at 67!) being directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Why would you not want to check that out? Oh, also, the female lead (Astaire’s daughter in the film) is played by Petula Clark, famous for the song “Downtown.” There’s a lot here of random interest. It’s a good movie to have in your arsenal to bust out to make people go, “I have no idea what that is but it sounds fascinating.” Yellow Submarine is the unofficial third Beatles film. They don’t star in it, but it’s based around the music. It’s all animated and structured around their album. I enjoy the shit out of this movie. It’s trippy as fuck, and best viewed while under the influence of some substances.
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