The Best Year In Movies Was 1962

The studio system was collapsing, the French New Wave was on the rise, and Gregory Peck was cinema’s greatest dad. 
lolita 1962 movies

Welcome to Debate Week, the first of what we hope to be many weeks in which we open up a topic of a discussion to our entire team. This week: What was the best year in movies, ever? Throughout the week, our team will each make the case for their chosen year. In this entry, Anna Swanson argues for the movies of 1962.

Citing one year as the best year for movies is a difficult task. There are legendary films from every year going back over a century. There are, of course, questions of objective quality vs. personal preference. There are also national cinemas to account for that might not be as popular as Hollywood, but are just as important. Picking one year isn’t easy, so it helps to have a clear standout: 1962.

By 1962, the era of film known as Classical Hollywood was on the decline. Studios were losing their monopolies, independent producers were finding success, and television was keeping audiences entertained in the comfort of their homes. Cinephile spectators were also being wooed by international art-house flicks that turned them away from Hollywood. In response, popular cinema confronted some uncomfortable and taboo topics, turned out a true epic in every sense of the word, and launched one of the most successful franchises of all time.

Changes in Hollywood

Hollywood’s obsession with youth, glamour, success, and legacies came to a head in 1962 with the release of Robert Aldrich’s What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? The film brought together Bette Davis and Joan Crawford to play acting sisters Baby Jane and Blanche Hudson, who, like the stars that portrayed them, had been locked in a fierce rivalry for most of their careers. The film is grotesque and horrifying in its story about abuse and murder. But Baby Jane, and especially Davis’ performance, is ultimately sympathetic towards its characters and the ways they have suffered from working in the industry. The film was a box office hit, received critical acclaim, and launched the psycho-biddy horror subgenre. Decades later, Baby Jane is vital to understanding Hollywood’s obsession with itself. Plus, it also gave Ryan Murphy some decent miniseries fodder.

Baby Jane explored abuse and mental illness, and it certainly wasn’t the only 1962 film to confront uncomfortable topics. ’62 also gave us one of Stanley Kubrick’s best films: LolitaThough MPAA restrictions held Kubrick back from 100% faithfully adapting Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel about 40-something professor Humbert Humbert and his obsession with the eponymous pre-teen character, Lolita is a daring and controversial film that can still shock audiences today. As its poster asks, “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?”  The reception wasn’t exceptionally positive at the time, but Lolita is now rightfully regarded as a bold piece of filmmaking from a true master.

While Lolita isn’t a conventional Hollywood film in any way, there were some tried and true traditions that succeeded on the big screen in ’62. Namely, the biopic. One of the greatest of these is David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, based on the life of T. E. Lawrence and starring Peter O’Toole. At nearly 4 hours long, the film is a magnificent chronicle of Lawrence’s time as a British officer in the Arabian Peninsula during World War I. Shot in breathtaking Technicolor and using Super Panavision technology, the film is a wonder to behold. Lawrence of Arabia is certainly enjoyable when watched at home, but it’s meant for the big screen and every cinephile deserves to see it in that format at least once. While modern CGI-heavy films boast of the theatrical experiences they create, for my money nothing can beat the glory of Lawrence of Arabia.

As any fan of Lawrence of Arabia (or Ridley Scott’s Prometheus) can tell you, “Big things have small beginnings.” That certainly rings true for the relatively humble beginnings of the James Bond franchise. In 1962, Dr. No was released. It was made for just over a million dollars and was reportedly scraped together as cheaply as possible, with shortcuts being taken at every opportunity. Producers Harry Saltzman and Cubby Broccoli struggled to come up with the funds for the film and many studios passed on Bond, apparently considering the series to be “too British.” But Dr. No did eventually get made, its success led to a sequel being greenlit, and the rest, as they say, is history.

French New Wave

After beginning in the late 1950s, the French New Wave had really taken off by 1962. That year, François Truffaut released one of his best films, the romantic-drama Jules and Jim. Beginning pre-World War I, the films follows its eponymous characters, best friends who fall in love with the same woman and must contend with this love triangle through WWI and in the years that follow. It also has one of the greatest film scores courtesy of legendary French composer Georges Delerue (and if you don’t believe me on that, TIME makes a good case for it, too). 1962 also saw Jean-Luc Godard turn out his fourth feature film, Vivre Sa Vie. Like Jules and Jim, it was a success with audiences and critics and is a quintessential example of the French New Wave.

Similar to but still distinct from the New Wave are French Left Bank filmmakers such as Agnès Varda and Chris Marker. In ’62, Varda released her second feature film and her most well known, Cléo from 5 to 7. The film is a cornerstone of feminist cinema as it chronicles the real-time events of its eponymous character as she goes about her day while waiting to receive word from her doctor about a potential cancer diagnosis. Dealing with themes of mortality and female identity, Cléo remains as essential today as it was in ’62, and considering it helped launch Varda’s career, we should all be very grateful it exists.

Fellow Left Bank director Chris Marker also found success in 1962 with the release of his short film La Jetée. The film tells the story of an experiment in time travel that takes place after nuclear war has ravaged the world. Though only 28 minutes long, the film has a considerable legacy in the sci-fi genre, with movies such as Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys being indebted to it.

International Cinema Elsewhere

Foreign film fans have a lot to appreciate about 1962, and not just because of French cinema. Before going on to create masterpieces such as Solaris and Stalker, Andrei Tarkovsky made his mark on cinema with his debut feature film Ivan’s Childhood. Winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in ’62, the film uses a non-linear structure to follow the life of its young eponymous protagonist as his childhood is corrupted by World War II. Even early in Tarkovsky’s career, this anti-war film reveals his ability to construct tender and meaningful images that contrast with the grim reality of the subject matter.

1962 also saw the release of Harakiri, Masaki Kobayashi’s film about a 17th-century Japanese warrior. This emotional and devastating epic is frequently cited as not only one of the best Japanese films but one of the greatest films of all time.

1962’s MVP

1962 brought success to renowned directors and featured career-best work from stars like Bette Davis and Peter O’Toole. But if there was one person who stood out in 1962, it was Gregory Peck. His first film of the year was Cape Fear. Though there’s an argument to be made that Scorsese’s 1991 remake improved on the original, the 1962 Cape Fear is still an undeniably powerful thriller. It follows Peck as Sam Bowden, a morally upstanding lawyer and family man whose life is thrown into chaos when an ex-con he testified against (Robert Mitchum in a terrifyingly perfect performance) is released from prison and seeks revenge. Mitchum’s Max Cady, and the legacy of the character that would also benefit from the future casting of Robert De Niro is one of the best movie villains according to the American Film Institute. Also appearing on that AFI villain list is fellow ’62er Bette Davis as Baby Jane Hudson.

But as good as the villains of 1962 were, the heroes were better. For proof, look no further than AFI’s number one spot: Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in Robert Mulligan’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Adapted from the novel by Harper Lee, the film chronicles the childhood of Scout Finch (Mary Badham) in Alabama during the 1930s and the events that occur when her father, Atticus, defends Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), a black man falsely accused of rape. The film won three of the eight Academy Awards it was nominated for, including Gregory Peck’s one Oscar win. Peck’s performance as Atticus remains a testament to the power of empathy and understanding in the face of injustice. In a 1997 interview, he stated: “Hardly a day passes that I don’t think how lucky I was to be cast in that film.” Any lover of film should also consider themselves lucky Peck was cast. No other actor could have been a better Atticus.

Other notable ’62 releases include The Manchurian Candidate, the Italian anthology film Boccaccio ’70, Akira Kurosawa’s Sanjuro, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Yasujirō Ozu’s An Autumn Afternoon, The Miracle Worker, The Longest Day, the horror classic Carnival of Souls, Mondo Cane, and Sidney Lumet’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. 

Across genres and national cinemas, the films of 1962 stand out as movies that propelled cinema forward. They confronted difficult subjects, paired notorious rivals together, and gave us some of cinema’s greatest characters, from Cléo to James Bond, to Atticus Finch. If all of that doesn’t make for the best year in movies, I don’t know what does.

Anna Swanson: Anna Swanson is a Senior Contributor who hails from Toronto. She can usually be found at the nearest rep screening of a Brian De Palma film.