1969. Peace, love, and... a lot of Westerns, apparently! There are three true Westerns in Flickchart's 10 highest-ranked films for the year, plus a non-Western with "Cowboy" in the title, plus a period piece set in California, which almost counts, and a hippie motorcycle movie that has a lot in common with the genre. These Westerns and near-Westerns are joined by an unusual James Bond movie, a Woody Allen movie, and two great European flicks about war and revolt, making this list not entirely well-rounded but at least interesting.
Remember, you can always influence the global rankings by logging in to Flickchart to rank every movie from this year or any year.
Of all the venerable James Bond movies, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is not only one of the best, but also perhaps the only one that can claim to be truly unique. This is true stylistically, being director Peter Hunt’s sole entry in the franchise, and also in content, since it relies much more on romance than intrigue or adventure. There is still plenty of the latter, and here the full James Bond theme is reserved for the climactic action sequence rather than being used almost at random as it had been in earlier Bond films. Yet the emphasis here is decidedly on quieter moments, and this is possible first and foremost because of George Lazenby. Sean Connery has never been the most vulnerable of actors, so Lazenby makes a better Bond for this change of pace entry, and not just because he is closer in age to the movie’s true star — Diana Rigg.
OHMSS is one of the Bond movies that it is least faithful to its source material, with a more international scope and a major change to a late exchange between M and Bond. The book is the second part of a trilogy that includes Thunderball and You Only Live Twice, and this is reflected somewhat in the fact that this movie's story is a fairly strong bridge between You Only Live Twice and Diamonds Are Forever.
This is the last movie appearance of iconic criminal organization SPECTRE until just a few years ago (though SMERSH would be mentioned in The Living Daylights.) After Blofeld (here played by Telly Savalas) sees his vaunted organization demolished during the events of You Only Live Twice, he and one remaining assistant, a middle-aged German woman named Irma Bunt (Ilse Steppat), hatch one last mad scheme involving a mountaintop allergy clinic. Bond's search for him goes through Marc-Ange Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti, playing the kind of neutral criminal rogue that Bond movies could use more of), whose wayward daughter Tracy (Rigg) becomes the central character of the film and ultimately the central character of Bond's life. - Walter J. Montie
Depending on how you define the genre, and depending where you set the box office threshold for mainstream acceptance, Take the Money And Run is the first popular film that a modern audience would recognize as a mockumentary. It is difficult for us to remember that fiction and non-fiction cinema used to be completely distinct styles, easily differentiated at a glance, and each conforming to their own syntactic and tropic rules. This film is worth recognizing for its groundbreaking meta foresight, though its comedic sensibilities have perhaps not aged as well as could be hoped. The datedness is to be expected, for Woody Allen was attempting to parody documentary conventions of the time with which we are no longer familiar. Nevertheless, this first bold and unusual attempt by Allen in his soon-to-be usual writer-director-star position is a remarkable catalog of neo-vaudevillian antics that, in context, have some of the freshest hilarity of Allen's early career. - Doug Van Hollen
America’s experience in the global Great Depression of the 1930s is often considered a blip, a glitch in the nation’s otherwise upward trajectory, a brief stretch of time when being hardworking and staying out of trouble wasn’t enough to ensure a subsistence living or better. The reality is much grimmer. The Great Depression is better understood as a moment when the middle class suddenly realized what poor people had known all along: that staying alive means hustling every day, and the poorer you are the harder the hustle. America in the Great Depression is America all the time, just without the frills. It might be that no movie ever communicated that fact more starkly than They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, which uses the setting of the Depression to explore what “ordinary” people are capable of when motivated by desperation and by pity. At a dance hall in southern California, refuge of Dust Bowl expats, people put their bodies on the line in a radio-era reality show where the last couple to drop out of a grueling, non-stop, days-long dance marathon wins some cash. Red Buttons is an older man out of his depth but also out of options. Bruce Dern and Bonnie Bedelia are a young couple expecting a baby. Jane Fonda is a hardened drifter who’s expected to perform off the dance floor as well as on it. It’s one thing for these characters to risk their own lives for money, but it’s another calculation entirely for them to take their feeling for their fellow sufferers to its logical conclusion. The way the movie addresses the implications of its title is surprising and unforgettable, and the contrast between its clinical approach in that moment and the agonizing dance sequences that precede it is still provocative. - David Conrad
“I wanted a man with grit,” says 14-year-old Mattie about the elderly John Wayne when she explains why she wants to hire him to get the man who killed her pa. Whatever grit is, to look at him you’d think he had it, and to look at her you’d think she needed it. But what the story proves to us is that grit isn’t something you show on the outside, or that you can acquire only through long years of experience. It’s something even you can have — OK, maybe not you, couch potato, but a hypothetical version of you living on the Great Plains in the late 1800s when you lose your father to frontier town violence and swear revenge in defiance of the limitations society puts on you because of your youth and gender. This adaptation of Charles Portis’s story isn’t quite as dark, dare I say gritty, as the original novel or the 2010 remake by the Coens (global rank: 637), but it still has its moments, like the scene in the shack with Dennis Hopper or Robert Duvall’s menacing turn as the skeevy Ned Pepper. It also has a particularly stirring performance from John Wayne in one of his most complex roles, which he would reprise six years later in the sequel Rooster Cogburn (global rank: 3324). The movie’s commitment to looking beyond the surface at what’s really in a person’s character makes True Grit a Western classic from late in the genre’s heyday, and along with The Wild Bunch (see below on this list) it is a tribute to all that’s stubborn, ornery, and truly gritty about the American spirit. - David
It's always tempting to compare Easy Rider to Westerns because of their rugged landscapes, their interest in searching for a "real" America, and the ease with which you can mentally substitute horses for hogs. Instead, though, consider Easy Rider in comparison to some of its imitators. Movies like Vanishing Point (1971), Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), and Death Race 2000 (1975) are, crucially, movies about cars rather than motorcycles, but in other respects they owe a great deal to the example set by Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper. They're more or less buddy movies, they have a tendency to use their characters' handles rather than their given names, and they embrace a certain nihilism by killing their characters. And, once again, they're quite obvious about being set in the American West. Almost invariably that's the way the action in these movies flows — from the east to the west, like the European settlement of the continent. Perhaps what sets Easy Rider apart from the pack, whether you define its pack as cowboy movies or gearhead movies, is that its characters move in the opposite direction from most everybody else. They start at the Pacific and move in retrograde, heading nearly due east towards the very old (by American standards) city of New Orleans. Easy Rider's quest is not a voyage of discovery, but of return. Along the way they meet other people trying to return to a simpler state, back-to-the-landers and commune-dwellers. And it is not a futuristic dystopia that puts an end to our heroes (see the trail of bodies in Death Race 2000), nor the inexorable march of time (see the fading heroes of many a revisionist Western), nor having reached the end of the road (see the abrupt finale of Vanishing Point), but unreconstructed primitives who resent any intrusion into their time capsule world. Heavy stuff, man. But on the other hand, there's Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) and Smokey and the Bandit (1977), which move west to east and don't result in any death at all, so I'm going to shut up and let Dennis Hopper's Billy have the last word:
"Well, you know something, man? I think, you want to know what I think? I think this is a crackpot idea! That's what I think. How 'bout that? How 'bout a little of that? I think it's a crackpot idea!"
Thanks, Billy. You're probably right. - David
Assassinations, student-led protest movements, and mass demonstrations were as quintessentially 1960s as The Monkees, miniskirts, and Star Trek. And they weren't just American phenomena; Europe experienced a wave of political and social upheaval as well. In France in 1968, student and worker strikes practically brought the functioning of the country to a halt for two months, and there were similar demonstrations in the U.K., Italy, West Germany, Soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia, and other countries. The movie Z, which is in the French language but directed by the Greece-born Costa-Gavras and based on an event in Greece, isn't necessarily about any one of these experiences specifically, but it is about all of them in spirit. In it, a right-wing government uses its military and hired thugs to target a left-wing politician (Yves Montand) for harassment and assassination. The nameless politician inspires anti-nuclear and anti-capitalist radicals with his speeches and rallies, but he and his advisers and supporters are no match for the dirty tricks and violence the state deploys to stop him. Like 1966's The Battle of Algiers (global rank: 199), the movie uses a procedural, pseudo-guerilla-filmmaking approach tell a story of political stasis and resistance in which no one victory or defeat is final. The movie is also broad-minded enough not to pretend that its would-be revolutionaries are perfect — the politician isn't much of a husband, and Greek actress Irene Pappas is a scene-stealer as his estranged wife. The revolutions of 1968 did not succeed, and Z is too faithful to its moment to imagine that they did, but it also knows that the struggle will go on. 50 years later, it still does. - David
Midnight Cowboy is showing its age in every character, plot point, and song, and that ought to make it feel less relevant now than when it won the Best Picture Oscar half a century ago. I mean, 2018's winner, Green Book, was outdated before it even premiered. Weirdly, though, Midnight Cowboy still seems to have something to teach us. On average, we've come a long way in the process of destigmatizing sex work and non-normative sexuality in the last 50 years, so the whole premise of Midnight Cowboy might require some historical context for younger first-time viewers in 2019. But even if you discount the shock value of Joe Buck (Jon Voight)'s male prostitution and Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman)'s repressed homosexuality, two foreground features of the movie that earned it the MPAA's most mature rating possible, what's left is a treatment of poverty and friendship that feels squarely aimed at our 21st-century rediscovery of class consciousness and our much-observed tendencies toward alienation and emotional dysfunction. The party scene, so edgy in 1969, now seems almost tame, and is certainly quaint in comparison to the imaginary club scenes recently conjured by Bill Hader's SNL character Stefon. But while scenes like that have lost the power to dazzle and discombobulate, try not to feel anguish at Rizzo's tragic arc, outrage at the way people treat Joe, and longing for something better for both of them. And hey, Harry Nillson's "Everybody's Talkin'" may date the movie and be irreparably compromised by endless parody, but it's still pretty dang catchy. - David
Nazis damn near took over the world, and it took a hell of lot to stop them, most importantly the VERY large armies of the Soviet Union AND the United States. But not all of the action took place between the superpowers on the eastern and western fronts. Throughout World War II, the Nazis also had to contend with unofficial, poorly supplied, but bitterly determined armies inside its own conquered territory — armies of shadow. Partisans with everything to fight for and nothing to lose but their lives cropped up in the fields of western Russia and the streets Warsaw, but the most romanticized are the patriots who fought in the French Resistance after their government surrendered to Germany in June 1940. Perhaps the most popular movie of all time, Casablanca (global rank: 17), deals with a nascent resistance in Nazi-occupied French North Africa. Army of Shadows by Jean-Pierre Melville, however, is set right in the thick of the fight, following the leader of a Parisian resistance cell as he struggles to keep the movement alive amid arrests, betrayals, and logistical headaches. It is a thriller full of derring-do and narrow escapes, but its protagonist is not some cocky adventurer cut from war hero cloth. He is an unprepossessing, middle-aged man with glasses, a receding hairline, and an expanding paunch. He puts the "home" in "home front" — if it weren't for the war, he might be at a breakfast table with his coffee reading the financial news. But a war there is, so a warrior he must be, and the scene where he parachutes out of a plane after meeting the leader of the Free French Forces across the English Channel is one of the most white-knuckle, you're-really-there moments in the war movie canon. Many of the vignettes in Army of Shadows are based on the experiences of real-life Resistance fighters, and this gives the movie an authenticity that challenges our romantic vision of WWII guerrillas even as it proves once again their incredible courage. - David
Sam Peckinpah knew how to make an entrance and an exit. The end of The Wild Bunch is legendary for the amount of fake blood it spills, but its opening is just as memorably grotesque, featuring a group of children who watch insects tear each other apart. Themes of violence animate the film but also reach beyond it into the audience, daring us to admit to being entertained or disgusted by what we see, or both. The movie was controversial, even with members of its own cast like William Holden who supposedly found it in poor taste. Roger Ebert, who called the film a masterpiece when other critics didn't get it, admitted that its contents were "not very pleasant." And that's what Peckinpah, a WWII veteran, was aiming for with his WWI-era story of bad outlaws and bad lawmen careening towards conflict in a world defined by factionalism and violence. His use of stone-faced actors from many a Western and war picture, like Holden and Robert Ryan and Ben Johnson, makes us wonder whether The Wild Bunch represents something new in movies or something very old indeed. This amount of on-screen violence was something novel in 1969, but weren't the older pictures just as violent, only not as honest about it? - David
If The Wild Bunch has a polar opposite, it's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Both are Western outlaw movies set in the latest part of the Old West era, and both end with iconic gunfights, but where The Wild Bunch tries to be as nasty as possible, Butch is a work of gentle nostalgia. It's a comedy driven by the dazzling white smile of Robert Redford, the permanent wink of Paul Newman, and the buddy-like chemistry between them that recalls Hope and Crosby, Martin and Sinatra, and Clooney and Pitt. Screenwriter William Goldman creates a sharp one-liner for the heroes to use during their run from the law — "Who are those guys?" — and as their escapes get narrower the line gets funnier. Their interactions with Katharine Ross, whose character they're both courting, could have been handled very differently if the film had wanted to push buttons, but instead they play like something out of a musical comedy. Despite the fact that Butch and Sundance are professional robbers and skilled with weapons, it's not until the last act that Butch actually shoots anyone; the movie's concerns are with friendship and adventure, not violence. And that lighthearted approach is what makes the end of Butch so powerful and memorable, even more so than The Wild Bunch's ending, which is simply the inevitable culmination of the themes it began with. Without even showing what happens to Butch and Sundance, the movie sums up in a single freeze-frame and a neat bit of sound design both the facts and the myths about these particular outlaws, and of the Old West generally. From a year that showcased John Wayne's true grit and spotlighted a wild bunch's bitter end, our most enduring collective memory is of the thing that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid didn't show. - David
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.