Staff Selects: The Best of 1969

Midnight Cowboy may have won the Oscar for Best Picture, but you wont find it topping any of our lists. The Cinema Etc. staff discusses our favorite films of 1969:

Easy Rider

Long before the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a very different Captain America captivated audiences around the world. This Cap, Peter Fonda, played a drug smuggling, hippie motorcyclist in perhaps the greatest film of 1969. Dennis Hopper’s directorial debut, Easy Rider, is one of those cultural touchstones that has left its mark on so many films and television shows that even people who have never seen it are almost certainly familiar with it in some capacity. Depicting the counterculture of late 1960’s America, it struck a chord with audiences of the time and proved that low budget avant-garde films could indeed find great success, helping to usher in the New Hollywood era.

The film doesn’t often feel the need to burden itself with dialogue, instead opting for imagery and symbolism, and when it does, it is often ramblings apparently inspired by the actual use of drugs on set. A perfectly curated soundtrack, chosen because there was no money for a score, punctuates scenes capturing the freedom of the open road in ways that have rarely been matched. Today the film serves as a wonderful time capsule, but its dichotomy between the freedom sought by rebellious youth and the hardline establishment of the older generations remains potent as an ever-present part of our society. – Henry Baime

Salesman

Paul Brennan is a door-to-door bible salesman. He’s been doing it for years, but the shifting socioeconomic climate in America may have finally caught up with him, as he’s struggling to keep his sales up. Salesman is an engrossing documentary which follows Paul and three other salesmen as they travel across America, peddle their holy product in different lower/middle-class neighborhoods, compare sales techniques in hotel rooms, and attend a large sales conference that plays out like a dialed-down version of Alec Baldwin’s scene in Glengarry Glen Ross.

It’s perhaps most well-known for being a prime example of “direct cinema,” a style of documentary that strips away formalist flourishes, and instead focuses on naturalism in an attempt to more accurately and truthfully represent its subject. It’s the perfect approach for the film, allowing the narrative/emotional arc emerge organically through the real-life characters. Salesman offers plenty of academic value, but it’s also charming, candid, moving, and often hilarious. It’s a thoroughly entertaining documentary that also serves as a perfect encapsulation of late 60s America. – Kern Wheeling

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

A timeless classic, postmodernist western that plays like a buddy cop comedy. Thanks to this year’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, I feel confident that people may revisit or finally view Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. If you like DiCaprio & Pitt‘s electric chemistry, then you owe it to yourself to witness the original dynamic bromance of Paul Newman & Robert Redford. The latter of which who shares quite the stoic charm and rugged resemblance with Pitt. Butch & Sundance is the best and highest grossing film of 1969, and in my top 10 of all time. An immensely entertaining western that is guaranteed to either charm, captivate, or do both, the moment Newman’s baby blues set their affable gaze upon you. Bolstered with an immensely snarky script, it’s no wonder that the film won best original screenplay, especially coming from Aaron Sorkin‘s mentor, William Goldman. It is one of the most seamless and laid back scripts, igniting the plot as fast as Sundance clears leather. Filled to the brim with iconic quotes, homage influence, career-defining performances, George Roy Hill‘s film feels as if it could have been released last weekend.

Part of the 1960s New Hollywood counterculture wave, the film successfully challenged many western tropes, and established quite the infrastructure of future buddy films to come. It even set its score to the jazz/pop sounds of B.J. Thomas and the Swingle Singers. Butch & Sundance was nominated for six Academy Awards, taking home original screenplay, cinematography, original musical score, and best song. For my bank’s worth, it was more deserving of best direction and picture than John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy, as well as offering a superior western lead performance from Newman over True Grit‘s John Wayne. Like its excellent frozen-in-time closing shot, evading any certain permanent fate, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid remain framed in time not only as the best outlaw bandit duo in the Wild West, but as one of the best films put to screen. Its legacy as one of the best western films ever made is only preceded by introducing the world to the inevitable powerhouse that Robert Redford became, who in return established the namesake, Sundance Film Festival. – Lee

Funeral Parade of Roses

The 1960s was a decade defined by monumental cultural upheaval, with fringe society’s embrace of experimentation with sex, drugs, cinema, music and art bleeding into the mainstream. My pick of the film to close out this decade is one that still stands out as a truly transgressive work, even by today’s standards. When reflecting on bygone eras, it’s the art that pushes boundaries close to their breaking points that really stands out to me. Funeral Parade of Roses does just that, standing on the shoulders of the French New Wave’s giants to deliver an astounding piece of art that stands the test of time.

Matsumoto’s debut feature could be described as an avant-garde trip into 1960s Japanese counterculture, but words fall short of a truly accurate description. It’s something you really have to see for yourself. It’s on a disparate plane to the trashploitation fare of the same era that covered similar subject matter. A heady mix of experimental cinematic techniques and impeccable form; a fever-dream of sex, drugs, love and deterioration. You’re never quite sure where you stand, with the fractured narrative twisting and looping, melding fiction with faux fact, until eventually the cyclical nature of the decay consumes all and you’re left utterly devastated. – Chris Barnes

True Grit

As a kid, I remember being bored out of my mind when my dad would be surfing the channels, find a western, and let it sit for way too long. However, I found I took quite a liking to the genre with neo-Western entries like Bone Tomahawk and Logan. What a joy it’s been to visit one of the original classics.

True Grit has two very basic qualities that make it work so well. Dialogue that pops really well, and actors that make it pop. John Wayne and Kim Darby have so much chemistry together, and the way that the friendship between the two characters grow is really endearing. It also has a great climactic battle, the image of Rooster Cogburn holding a rifle in one hand and a revolver in the other still as compelling and iconic as it was in the movie’s heyday. For a film from a genre I used to incessantly despise, I never got bored of True Grit.Jen

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

Christ, this one’s bleak. Telling the story of a Depression-era contest where down-on-their-luck citizens dance continuously for weeks on end, goaded by an opportunistic and cruel entertainer, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is the rare film that rests its laurels squarely on pointlessness without sacrificing its emotional strength. Energetic, gripping, and painful to sit through, Sydney Pollack’s absurdist drama never forgets that the tragedy of its premise lies in real people, even as it sadly chuckles at their interpersonal quibbles.

To oversimplify it, the movie is basically Jane Fonda vs. Capitalism, as the showcase and spectacle of these poor people swaying themselves into oblivion sets the backdrop for a particularly horrid side of the human experience: that being less fortunate is fine if you’re looking at someone even less fortunate than you. In that way, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? becomes a bit of a timeless story, a movie whose commentary and purpose extends far past its setting and year of release. It takes a lot for me to like, let alone love, a movie this cynical nowadays, but when thinking about 1969, it’s hard to find a movie as harrowing and necessary as this. It’s definitely not the most fun movie of the year, and it may not even be the sharpest technically, but it’s the one film from 1969 that feels the most like a film from 2019, and that eternal power of a film two generations ago adapted from a novel a generation before that is something to be celebrated, commended, and remembered. – Davey Peppers

Staff Selects

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