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An introduction to film per decade: the 1960s

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Nostalgia is a theme that's all but part and parcel with cinema, particularly within the last few years.

The success of reference-driven films like Ready Player One and Isle of Dogs, on top of the endless slew of remakes and reboots on our plate show that studios and audiences alike aren't quite ready to let go of the past. Indeed, you'd be hard pressed to find a recent box office success that doesn't flirt with the idea of the past, whether directly or indirectly. 

With that in mind, we're taking a look back at cinema's own past, starting with perhaps the most seminal period that paved the way for film to finally be recognised as a true art form: the 1960s. 

1. Psycho (1960)

Psycho isn’t considered one of the most iconic films of all time just for its score. Right from the opening scene of two half-naked lovers sharing a bed, it set a new precedent for how previously taboo imagery could be shown in a Hollywood film. Even a shot of a toilet being flushed was considered daring. Then, of course, there’s the shower scene, in which (spoiler!) our leading lady is brutally stabbed to death before we’ve even reached the halfway point. For an audience used to a more classic structural model, this was unheard of. Some therefore call it the first true slasher, as well as the the ‘first psychoanalytical thriller’ due to the disturbing relationship between Norman Bates and his mother.

2. (1963)

The title comes from the film being Federico Fellini’s eighth and a half feature film. While the Italian director had already made his international mark with the likes of La Strada and La Dolce Vita, went on to influence the likes of David Lynch, François Truffaut, Terry Gilliam, and even inspired a Broadway musical. The film centres around Guido Anselmi, an Italian film director suffering from a creative block while preparing to shoot an epic sci-fi, though really it’s a comedically surrealist exploration in finding happiness and acceptance through the people in your life. 

3. Dr. Strangelove (1964)

Stanley Kubrick’s political black comedy satirises the nuclear anxieties of the Cold War, and follows the U.S. President, his advisers and an RAF officer, as they desperately try to reverse the orders of an attack on the Soviet Union by a rogue Air Force general. It is not the most comical of situations but the razor-sharp script, as well as the central three performances from Peter Sellers (one of which includes the titular Dr. Strangelove, a wheelchair-using nuclear expert and ex-Nazi) make it one of the funniest and most memorable films of the decade.

4. Pierrot le Fou (1965)

Pierrot le Fou (or "Pierrot the madman”) is a quintessential example of French New Wave, a movement from the 1950s and 60s which sought to reject the status quo of French filmmaking and to experiment with the traditional cinematic form. As such, the film features disjointed, unconventional editing choices and characters breaking the fourth wall. It follows a bored young man who abandons his family in order to go on the run with an ex-girlfriend, making various references to art, literature and mass culture along the way. However, it’s the visual aesthetic which makes it such a timeless treat: vibrant primary colours splash every shot, like a live action pop art exhibition.

5. The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966)

The third and final instalment in Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy is considered one of the most influential Western films ever made, though critics at the time were dismissive due to it being labelled a ‘Spaghetti Western’ (a subgenre of low-budget westerns made by Italian filmmakers). Revolving around three gunfighters racing to find a buried fortune in the midst of the American Civil War, the film is notable for its sweeping use of landscape in its cinematography, its exaggerated, tension-based depiction of violence, and of course its famous score, all of which helped to reinvigorate enthusiasm for the waning genre.

6. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

It's another Stanley Kubrick film, but it’s hard to talk about film in the 60s without mentioning one of the most groundbreaking cinematic achievements of the decade. Even if you haven’t seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, you’ll have heard some mention of it elsewhere. Dealing with existentialist themes such as human evolution and artificial intelligence, the film follows a quest to Jupiter to find a mysterious black monolith that appears to hold a connection to humanity’s evolution. The dialogue is kept to a minimum, with classical music dominating most of the film’s sound, but it’s the cryptic, otherwordly imagery and pioneering special effects that give the film its cherished reputation.

7. Night of the Living Dead (1968)

George A. Romero’s independent horror was a game changer in subverting the ‘monster movie’. It attracted a fair number of children in its audience, but even the adults could not be prepared for the sheer bleakness that was about to unfold. Despite never actually using the word, it’s considered to be one of the foundations of the modern zombie movie, focusing on seven people trapped in a farmhouse surrounded by the cannibalistic undead. Though harshly derided at the time for its graphic gore, the film is now regarded as a cult classic that implicitly critiques 1960s American society, particularly the war in Vietnam, and domestic anti-black racism.

8. Midnight Cowboy (1969)

Not only was Midnight Cowboy the first and only X-rated film to ever win Best Picture, it was also the first to directly deal with the theme of homosexuality. Based on the book of the same name, Jon Voight plays a young Texan who travels to New York in hopes of becoming a prostitute for wealthy socialites. Things don't quite work out however, and he ends up living with a sickly con-man with whom he develops a close bond. A devastating exploration of loneliness and seedy behaviour in urban America, it was one of several films in the late 60s to kickstart the ‘New Hollywood’ movement, which saw a new generation of innovative young directors change the manner in which Hollywood studios approached filmmaking.

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