Andrew Sarris Picks the Best Films of 1969


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January 15, 1970, Vol. XV, No. 3

Films in Focus
by Andrew Sarris

Every year about this time a large number of critics make up 10 best lists, an a smaller number write boring articles attacking 10 best lists. You do or you don’t, I suppose, and if 10 bests lists were good enough for the late James Agee, they’re good enough for me. It’s a game, a ritual, a reminder that I’ve come through another year with enough optimism about the future to look back on the past, or perhaps with enough pleasure from the past to be complacent about the future. If they stopped making movies right now, I could spend the next decade, quite happily, catching up with the classical heritage of the past seven decades. If people want to yell “No More Masterpieces,” I’ll go them one better and yell “No More Movies.” Why not a moratorium on all new art and entertainment.

Of course, there’s no chance we’ll be so lucky. There’ll be lots more of everything in the ’70s, and we critics will have to trot behind to keep it all in some sort of perspective. But there is no need to exhort all this new art into being. It will come of its own volition. There were close to 300 regular releases in 1969, and I would estimate about as many more hard-core sexploitation attractions although the latter figure might be even higher. Actually, the bottom is creeping up to the top these days insofar as production values are concerned. Hollywood has all but ceased to exist as a production center, and the old days of studio trademarks are gone forever. Still, the movie beat remains busy enough to endure that in any given year there will be critical slippage and slippage. And so if there are any great masterpieces that have eluded my year-end summary we may have to pick them up in later years. By the same token, my 10-best list this year is made up largely of films insufficiently honored by the critical slippage and slippage of the ’50s and ’60s:

“Lola Montes” (Max Ophuls), “The Bailiff” (Kenji Mizoguchi), “La Femme Infidele” (Claude Chabrol), “Simon of the Desert” (Luis Bunuel), “La Ronde” (Max Ophuls), “Pierrot Le Fou” (Jean-Luc Godard), “Stolen Kisses” (Francois Truffaut), “Topaz” (Alfred Hitchcock), “Once Upon a Time in the West” (Sergio Leone), “Intimate Lighting” (Ivan Passer).

The logic of the above list is so blindingly unassailable that I will pass on to other diversions of the year. Ousmane Sembene’s “Black Girl” was the first black African film of any consequence to play in New York, and it stays in my mind. I remember laughing more than I should have at “Decline and Fall of a Bird Watcher.” Jerzy Skolimowski’s “Identification Marks: None” and “Walkover” deserved more attention than they received, but somehow Skolimowski seems a lost cause. I may have underrated John Boorman’s “Hell in the Pacific” and I may have overrated Orson Welles’s “The Immortal Story,” but I still prefer the Welles if only as an idea or a movie. Andre De Toth’s “Play Dirty” is my candidate for the sleeper of 1969, and despite my pan earlier in the year, I would place it 11th on my list.

Of the American classicists and semi-classicists, I have a specially soft spot in my heart this year for George Cukor (“Justine”), John Frankenheimer (“Gypsy Moths”), Elia Kazan (“The Arrangement”), Otto Preminger (“Skidoo”), John Huston (“A Walk With Love and Death”), and I don’t care if they’re relevant or not.

Of the Now pictures, Arthur Penn’s “Alice’s Restaurant,” Dennis Hopper’s “Easy Rider,” John Schlesinger’s “Midnight Cowboy,” and Lindsay Anderson’s “If…” seemed the most effective entertainments. Robert Downey’s “Putney Swope,” Barbet Schroeder’s “More,” Vilgot Sjoman’s “I Am Curious (Yellow),” and Haskell Wexler’s “Medium Cool” struck me as all wind-up and no delivery. Luchino Viconti’s “The Damned,” Abraham Polonsky’s “Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here,” and Costa-Gavras’s “Z” seemed to have gotten their raves, rightly or wrongly, solely for blasting the bad guys in the political shooting gallery.

I had more fun with neglected flicks like “Baby Love,” “That Cold Day in the Park,” “Thank You All Very Much,” “The Big Bounce,” “Marlowe,” “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” “La Chamade,” “The Gay Deceivers,” “Where Eagles Dare,” “The Gunfighter,” “Pendulum,” “The Mad Room,” “More Dead than Alive,” “The Night of the Following Day,” “The Last Adventure,” “The Vixens” (“Friends and Lovers”), and Russ Meyer’s “Vixen.”

I respected Bo Widerberg’s “Adalen 31,” Jean-Daniel Simon’s “Adelade,” Clive Donner’s “Alfred the Great,” Jean Eustace’s “Bad Company,” Richard Lester’s “The Bed Sitting Room,” Jean-Marie Straub’s “The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Back,” Susan Sontag’s “Duet for Cannibals,” Emile de Antonio’s “In the Year of the Pig,” Vatroslav Mimica’s ‘Kaya, I’ll Kill You,” Alain Robbe-Grillet’s “L’Immortelle,” Agnes Varda’s “Lions, Love,” Karel Reisz’s “Isadora,” Claude Berri’s “Marry Me! Marry Me!” and even Jacques Demy’s “The Model Shop,” the saddest failure of the year.

I could see what other people saw in “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “Downhill Racer,” “Goodbye Columbus,” “Last Summer,” “Monterey Pop,” “Oh! What a Lovely War,” “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” “Take the Money and Run,” “True Grit,” and “The Wild Bunch,” and I can’t say I suffered by sitting through any of these movies…

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