For proof that Hollywood was no longer the dominant creative force in the movie business by 1959, look no further than the three French New Wave movies that make this list. Many people consider 1959 to be just the beginning of the New Wave, but if so, it hit the ground running. However, English-language cinema was not dead, it was just changing. Old-school epics from longstanding studio directors like William Wyler could still make waves, as the still-popular Best Picture-winner Ben-Hur proves, and Westerns remained a reliable staple, as attested by the success of Rio Bravo, but they had stiff competition in the form of genre movies. The low-budget horror House on Haunted Hill has, Flickcharters say, proven almost as interesting over the long run, as has the gender-bending comedy Some Like It Hot and the hard-boiled crime procedural Anatomy of a Murder. Looming over all, of course, is Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest, which took the thriller genre to literal new heights, but the Academy shut it out. Time has rewarded crowd-pleasers as well as the more cerebral fare from 1959, as we can see in this diverse list built by Flickchart users' collective rankings.
House on Haunted Hill strikes a rare balance between camp and genuine creepiness. Most films that attempt this balance are horror-comedies, but this William Castle-directed feature is intended to be straightforward horror. Acknowledging his technological limitations by winking without ever actually winking, Castle directs a chill-stirring classic haunted house flick with hints of ghosts, ghouls, and the most genuinely evil thing of all: people. The script deftly keeps surprises coming in a slightly over-the-top, yet still well-executed manner. And would it be a 50s horror classic without Vincent Price’s trademark smarmy snark? This one represents the best 50s horror has to offer and rightfully earns a place in the top 10 for the year. - Connor Adamson
Remakes are usually nothing to write glowing listicles about, but a director remaking their own film is a rare exception to the rule. Floating Weeds is Yasujiro Ozu's sound and color treatment of his silent, black-and-white movie from a quarter of a century earlier called A Story of Floating Weeds (global rank #4156). Unlike the vast majority of Japanese silents, that one survives today, so it's possible and very interesting to compare it to this more well-known version. Their stories are essentially the same: a traveling troupe of kabuki actors visits in a town where one of them has an illegitimate child. There's comedy and pathos and a lot of backbiting and resentment between the actors and their new and old lovers, while long-simmering secrets loom over all like a katana of Damocles. In the hands of a less restrained director, this situation might easily become shrill and melodramatic, but Ozu's famous gentleness is even more striking when his subjects are tearing themselves and each other to shreds. Star Ganjiro Nakamura worked with most the best directors of Japan's cinematic golden age — Ozu, Kurosawa, Ichikawa, Inagaki, Naruse, Imamura — but this is his highest-ranked film on Flickchart, and a supporting performance from Machiko Kyo (Rashomon, Ugetsu) shows why she was in demand both in Japan and Hollywood. - David Conrad
The Biblical sensibilities of William Wyler’s Ben-Hur may seem outdated in an increasingly secular world. Indeed, this film is often remembered largely for the chariot race scene, and maybe the rowing scene if you are a little more “deep-cut” inclined. Beyond those set-pieces it is largely spoken of as a bloated, overly-sentimental film. These sequences are indeed fantastic and defining marks of the film. But Ben-Hur maintains staying power because of Charlton Heston’s fantastic lead performance as Judah (not the Judas who betrays Christ, though the naming is likely intentional) and because of the thematic resonance of the character’s emotional journey. It is a truly faith-affirming film for those so inclined, and even those who are not can find its themes of perseverance, temperance, and humility endearing. It is also a bookened to the early era of Hollywood epics, as grandness on this scale became financially difficult in the decade after. By the end, you’ll feel as though you’ve struggled throughout every year of Judah’s life, and that's not a bad thing. Was it the right choice for Best Picture? Maybe not in retrospect, but it still deserves to be in the conversation. - Connor
Opening on an intertitle that articulates a subtext more grand than any subtext should be for a film that has yet to begin, Robert Bresson guides the attention of the audience to the plot points that he cares most about and to a meaning that could easily be ignored. Bresson’s intent is clear: he intends to make a film about destiny, and about how two unlikely individuals are brought together not by mere chance but by a power beyond themselves. At least for the purposes of Pickpocket, that power is Bresson himself, one of the great masters of economical film language. Not only does Bresson guide the audience toward a particular interpretation of the drama, but he allows the audience to experience that drama in a pared-down aesthetic manner that guides the audience further toward a single resolution. As a film about a pickpocket, the camera hones in on the gestures of the act. Each movement is presented as an isolated moment — fingers undoing buttons, billfolds falling into an always-ready hand. In a similar fashion, the drama all falls into place.
In many ways though, the film is about loneliness, in the tangible world and in an existential sense as well, and the prison that our souls inhabit for the sins we enjoy. - Grant Douglas Bromley
Hiroshima, mon amour was the first feature film from director Alain Resnais, who had previously earned accolades for his innovative short documentary Night and Fog (1956, global ranked #572). In that movie his camera had wandered the overgrown ruins of Nazi concentration camps searching for answers. In this one, he moves to the location of another wartime atrocity, Hiroshima, Japan, to imagine how the experience of the atomic bombing might color the perspective of a survivor years later. The scattered approach of the narrative — very short flashbacks, snippets of conversation, sterile shots of mundane cityscapes separating scenes of passion — makes it appropriately difficult to piece together a clear answer to Resnais's unanswerable questions about subjectivity and memory. Eiji Okada plays a Japanese architect and Emmanuelle Riva plays a French actress. Their brief affair and its sudden end can, like the atomic bombing, only be understood, and even then only imperfectly, by those who were part of it. The challenging structure of the movie mirrors the inaccessible inner experiences of the characters and had a galvanizing effect on the emerging French New Wave, particularly on directors Jean-Luc Godard and Eric Rohmer. - David
In recent years, there have been more and more concerns about telling stories that feature characters of one gender disguising themselves as another. And rightly so, as they are infrequently intelligent or empathetic. Billy Wilder's absurd comedy about two men disguising themselves as women to get a much-needed job as musicians in an all-female jazz band could sit very, very poorly. And yet, to me, it still feels surprisingly fresh and funny rather than mean-spirited or exclusionary. Much of that is due to how few jokes center on the concept of "Isn't it hilarious if a man doesn't seem masculine?" or "Aren't women ridiculous?", which are never strong comedic themes, and instead play up the comedy and suspense inherent in keeping secrets. The strength of the actual female lead also does a lot to help this film work today. Marilyn Monroe was an excellent comedic actress and definitely uses those chops here, but she also taps into some unexpected pathos as someone whose optimism about her future is always teetering on the edge of despair. Watching this film I always feel a sense of dread that her hope is misplaced, and I finally breathe a sigh of relief when the film ends with her finding something she wants, even if it wasn't her initial dream of marrying into a yacht kind of family. Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon's wacky farcical antics play beautifully around the emotional core that is her character, but even though they take up most of the movie, at the end of the day it's Sugar's face I see when I think of this film. - Hannah Keefer
As much as he is rightfully known for being a provocateur during the 1950s, there is plenty of what would be considered restraint in Anatomy of a Murder, one of Otto Preminger’s best movies. The subject matter alone, a rape followed by a revenge murder, could certainly be considered shocking for those supposedly staid times. But also consider that both acts, the latter committed by Lt. Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara) in revenge for the rape of his wife Laura (Lee Remick), happen off-screen. That leaves small-town Upper Peninsula Michigan lawyer Paul Biegler (James Stewart) scrambling for an insanity defense in a case that gets more complicated the more he learns as he faces off against big city prosecutor Claude Dancer (George C. Scott).
By comparison, A Time to Kill (Joel Schumacher's 1996 movie) has an on-screen rape followed by an epic conversation about revenge killing and then a depiction of the act itself. It’s not that the 1950s world of Anatomy of a Murder is sanitized to any degree, it’s just that the point of the movie is not to pass judgment on the Manions (or anyone else for that matter), who have a rather complicated relationship. In the case presided over by Judge Weaver, played artfully by Joseph N. Welch, who will always be best known not for his acting but for being the man to ask Senator McCarthy if he had no decency during the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954. The answer to that, of course, was no. Answers aren't nearly as easy in Anatomy of a Murder. - Walter J. Montie
Rio Bravo does two seemingly contradictory things, and does them almost as well as any Western has ever done them. First, it is a ticking clock movie, like 1952's High Noon (which it almost openly mocks) and 1957's 3:10 to Yuma. The sheriff, the deputy, and their assistants have to keep a murderer locked up in the rinky-dink town jail until the stagecoach arrives to transport him to a real prison. Second, it is a hangout movie in which nothing is so urgent that it can't be put on hold for a song, a card game, another song, and a little romance. The songs come courtesy of Dean Martin, who trades on his tippler reputation as the alcoholic deputy "Dude," and Ricky Nelson, the heartthrob rock 'n roller who plays gunslinger "Colorado." The romance and card games come courtesy of Feathers (Angie Dickinson) and her saloon. Feathers isn't just a decorative name on a pretty frame — more than once she takes it upon herself to protect John Wayne's character, which of course doesn't sit well with the Duke, but she doesn't care. She has a job to do and poker games to win, just like the boys. OK, it's not quite as egalitarian as I'm making it sound, but the story was conceived by a woman, none other than director Howard Hawks's daughter. Rio Bravo felt like a breath of fresh air to 1959's audiences and critics because of its breezy approach to the familiar story of outlaws, lawmen, and no-account boozers. This hybrid tone had few precedents, though there are always some if you look, like the Western comedyDestry Rides Again, which featured in our Best of 1939 post. - David
Throughout the 1950s, film critics at the Cahièrs du cinéma had been developing a critical resistance to so-called “cinema of quality,” a type of literary period films that dominated French cinema at the time. They had a preference for Hollywood studio era films, Italian Neorealism, and their supposedly auteur directors. By 1959 the time had come for these critics to put their ideas to the test and make their own films, with François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows one of the first out of the gate. The title is meaningless in English, but an idiom in French, “faire les quatres cents coups,” meaning something like “sowing one’s wild oats” or “raising hell”. That said, protagonist Antoine Doinel spends most of his time doing relatively innocuous things like playing jokes on his teacher (an authoritarian straight out of Dickens) and playing hooky to go to the amusement park. Yet his teacher and parents are convinced that he’s a bad kid. The beauty of the film is its simplicity — a setup that seems ripe for social commentary but actually preaches not at all, merely letting us hang out with Antoine and his friends enough to care about them, and culminating in a heartbreakingly simple final shot, a freeze-frame because young actor Jean-Pierre Léaud hit the expression Truffaut wanted only for a second. This kind of distanced yet poignant look at an ordinary individual in contemporary Paris is exactly what the cinema of quality lacked, and it’s one thread of what became the New Wave. When Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless was released in 1960, it showed another way to be New Wave — a hipper, more aggressive way. But more on that when we get to 1960. - Jandy Hardesty
For many Hitchcock fans, this film represents "peak Hitchcock." Gone are the English music hall jokes of Trouble With Harry, the music-less experimentation of Rear Window is in the past, the overbearing American seriousness of Vertigo is out of his system. North By Northwest is the first film that attempts to wed the best parts of these hallmarks in proper proportion with the form that would become synonymous with Hitchcock plots: the double chase. The energy of the film comes from the fact that Thornhill is being pursued by intelligence agencies from two countries while simultaneously trying to track down the MacGuffin himself, this time not an object but rather a fictional identity created by an evil foreign power. But what has made this film endure is the boldness and originality of the set pieces: the shootout atop Mount Rushmore, the insanely sexy dinner in the dining car, and, of course, the crop duster attack on Cary Grant. The crop duster scene is a rare silent sequence in a film featuring arguably Bernard Herrmann's best score. The scene efficiently and effectively raises the stakes of the entire film, demonstrating the hallucinatory lengths of violence to which the antagonists will go to end Thornhill's life. It is gripping, thrilling cinema, a notable pinnacle of the marriage of storytelling and film technology that (regardless of some scenes whose paces have maybe not aged so well) elevates the film overall and signifies a new high bar for Hitchcock's work and the genre overall. - Doug Van Hollen
Animation has sometimes had difficulty being seen as a serious artistic pursuit, but I can't imagine watching Sleeping Beauty and thinking it's just for children. This film is a work of art from beginning to end, from the stylistically stunning backgrounds to the beautiful use of Tchaikovsky's "Sleeping Beauty" ballet in the score to the terrifying character design of Maleficent, who is such a strong antagonist that it's no surprise at all that she's risen to the top of many ranked Disney villains lists. It's hard to imagine anyone else matching her — she's just so obviously the ultimate Disney villain. The three good fairies provide enough light good humor to keep the kids interested, and the writers wisely give Aurora and Philip more chemistry and a stronger love story than any previous Disney couple. The film certainly works on a simple narrative level for younger viewers, but as I rewatch it as an adult, I'm captivated by the film's style and tone and find new things to love about it every time. - Hannah
Like so many before me, I came to Plan 9 with irony in my heart. I'm not proud of it; we should come to art with at least a willingness to share in the experience or we should not come at all. (The 80s poisoned us in so many ways.) But in the years since that first fateful hatewatch, I have learned to love this little film that the world loves to hate. It is, undoubtedly, inept, full of technical failings and with bizarre disregard for typical conventions of continuity. But there is an irresistible joy that pervades every corner of the movie, an excitement that cannot be quenched by considerations of budget or story or logic, a joy that is somehow made more charming in a shabby and ill-conceived context. In addition, there are aspects of the story which have a legitimately original stickiness: extraterrestrials reanimating the dead to conquer the Earth? a bomb which can ignite the rays of the sun? eight or more other, never-stated plans? I urge everyone who only knows this film by its malodorous reputation to peel the the crusty cynicism from their eyes and try it one more time. Ed Wood is America, the stupid dreamer who doesn't know when to quit, and every once in a while he really makes you smile. - Doug
Black Orpheus has one of the best openings of any movie, full stop (see above). A still shot of a classical relief of the mythical musician Orpheus and his beloved Eurydice, whose soul he descended into Hades to rescue but instead condemned forever through mischance, suddenly SHATTERS and is replaced by the joyful image of Brazilians dancing to bossa nova. Clearly, Marcel Camus' Portuguese-language version of the Greek tragedy is going to be non-traditional. It's also going to be jammin'. The all-black cast is stacked deep with triple threats, people who can act and sing and dance, and they do it all with a fervor appropriate to the atmosphere of Carnaval. The musical tragedy takes place in a favela, but Black Orpheus is not City of God, and this is not poverty porn. The people here are poor in money but rich and happy in their relationships. The side characters Serafina and her boyfriend Chico make a colorful impression as they prepare Serafina's citified cousin Eurydice for her first and last Carnaval, and the samba queen Mira makes a brilliant foil until she is upstaged by the mysterious figure of Death incarnate, but the last act belongs to the demigod-like guitarist Orfeu and his anguished journey from the exuberance of a street parade to a Terry Gilliam-like Office of Missing Persons to a secret Macumba ritual where the line between the living and the dead becomes blurred. Spectacular on-location shooting, authentic performances from first-time actors, and music you can't sit still to won Black Orpheus the Palme d'Or, the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film, and a place just outside the Flickchart top 10 for 1959. Watch it, love it, rank it, and help it climb higher! - David
Global rank: 1607
349 users have ranked it
Wins 52% of matchups
2 users have it at #1
8 have it in their top 20
David has a Ph.D. in history from the University of Texas at Austin. He loves foreign films, westerns, war flicks, and has read nearly every word J.R.R. Tolkien ever wrote. David lived in Japan for three years and is always eager to talk about it. Follow him on Twitter at @davidaconrad or email him at email@example.com.