1968 facts and figures:
Top 5 Money-Makers (US):
The Odd Couple
The Love Bug
Planet of the Apes
Best Film Oscar: Oliver!
Best Actor Oscar: Cliff Robertson, Charly
Best Actress Oscar (tie): Katharine Hepburn, The Lion in Winter and Barbra Streisand, Funny Girl
Cannes Festival ‘Golden Palm’: No awards given
You think things are turbulent now? 50 years ago, about halfway through the Cannes film festival, directors Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard got up onstage to announce that the festival would be closing down, in solidarity with the workers and students who were protesting all across France. This was a year of revolution – political, sexual, you name it – though films seemed to be torn between going with the flow and holding on to the old order.
Hollywood skewed conservative, with stodgy biopics like Funny Girl and Star! winning Oscar nominations – though even Romeo and Juliet, another Oscar movie (and big hit), was mildly revolutionary in casting actual teens as the star-crossed lovers. Then again, the year’s nominations also included two seminal envelope-pushers: John Cassavetes’ Faces, exposing the middle class in all its neurotic glory, and of course Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, by far the most famous film of 1968.
World cinema was in fine fettle, indeed it was having its moment. Bergman made two films, Shame and Hour of the Wolf. Truffaut revisited his alter ego Antoine Doinel. Resnais made Je t’aime, je t’aime, a new species of fragmented narrative. Cuba was suddenly a force to be reckoned with. Over in Japan, Oshima and Imamura were churning out classics. In Germany, 25-year-old Werner Herzog made Signs of Life, his debut. Godard started to go off the rails – but did make Sympathy for the Devil, blending the Rolling Stones and the Black Panthers (the ultimate 1968 combination). Fortunately there was also Peter Sellers, talking “birdie num-nums” in The Party – and of course Walt Disney, serving up a Volkswagen Beetle with a mind of its own in The Love Bug.
Here’s our Top 10, along with 15 other films that marked the year:
1. 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. Where to begin? The cut from a bone to a spaceship? The futuristic detail that’s now reality? The psychedelic Star Child finale? “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that”? A masterpiece, not because it has all the answers – above all to the question ‘What makes us, and uniquely us, human?’ – but precisely because it doesn’t.
2. MEMORIES OF UNDERDEVELOPMENT. “My life is like a monstrous plant, with enormous leaves and no fruit”. A sentiment we can all identify with, especially those of us living on a smallish, dysfunctional island (sound familiar?); a humane political drama of a snobby bourgeois struggling to adjust to post-revolutionary Cuba that’s poignant, incisive, and full of fizzy energy.
3. HEAD. If you have drugs, prepare to use them now – though this astonishing, post-modern pop comedy, starring The Monkees as themselves (and co-written by Jack Nicholson!), is a riot either way. Musical highlights include the double exposures and Vietnam inserts of ‘Circle Sky’ and the ingenious white-on-black/black-on-white editing of ‘Daddy’s Song’; check them out on YouTube, and gape.
4. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. “They’re coming to get you, Barbara!” Turns out they were – and the world would never be the same. Still a smart, grainy wonder, 50 years on.
5. OLIVER!. Everyone resents this, because it won Best Picture over 2001 – but everyone is wrong, because this musical Victoriana is delightful (if occasionally cheesy) in its own right. “If you don’t mind havin’ to deal with Fagin, it’s a fine life! / Though diseased rats threaten to bring the plague in, it’s a fine life!” Dickens only wishes he’d written that.
6. RACHEL, RACHEL. Joanne Woodward is Rachel, a pinched, lonely spinster looking at her “last ascending summer” before the slow downward slide to the grave. A wonderfully complex study (directed by Woodward’s husband, Paul Newman) of a foolish, morbid, not entirely sympathetic woman.
7. SYMBIOPSYCHOTAXIPLASM: TAKE ONE. The title sounds like some weird avant-garde doodle. The film is a sharp, funny, thoroughly enjoyable quasi-documentary about the crew taking over on a movie shoot. Power to the People!
8. THE PRODUCERS. “Springtime for Hitler, and Germany / Winter for Poland and Fra-a-a-nce…” Brash impresario Zero Mostel and timid accountant Gene Wilder team up to produce the worst show of all time in Mel Brooks’ patchy but magnificent comedy.
9. TARGETS. A horror-movie icon (played by horror-movie icon Boris Karloff) juxtaposed with a young psycho killer; a film of two halves – one old-fashioned, the other chillingly modern – to reflect its changing times. Terrific, and still underrated.
10. ROSEMARY’S BABY. Mia Farrow is pale, pregnant Rosemary, increasingly afraid that the baby she’s carrying… but no, it couldn’t be. Every woman’s nightmare in Roman Polanski’s sadistic but brilliantly crafted horror drama, culminating in the most quietly chilling ending of 1968.
15 OTHER MUST-SEE FILMS FROM 1968:
BULLITT (Peter Yates)
DEATH BY HANGING (Nagisa Oshima)
FACES (John Cassavetes)
IF… (Lindsay Anderson)
THE LION IN WINTER (Anthony Harvey)
THE ODD COUPLE (Gene Saks)
ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (Sergio Leone)
THE PARTY (Blake Edwards)
PETULIA (Richard Lester)
PLANET OF THE APES (Franklin J. Schaffner)
ROMEO AND JULIET (Franco Zeffirelli)
SHAME (Ingmar Bergman)
STOLEN KISSES (Francois Truffaut)
TEOREMA (Pier Paolo Pasolini)
YELLOW SUBMARINE (George Dunning)