Zombies, space sagas and age ratings: fifty years ago, cinema was changed forever.
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. Follow us on Twitter to place your votes on Saturday, April 7.
For me, a big part of the appeal of movies is how they reflect the anxieties, attitudes and social mores of their day; I like to think of them as a rich cultural time capsule, capturing and transmitting how people felt, thought, and lived in a particular part of the world during a particular moment in history. A good year in cinema, then, should be full of movies that convey the spirit of their context – and if films can do that during an especially momentous or atmospheric twelve months, then it’s a great year in movies. The best year, however, will do all of that and more: it will engage with the zeitgeist of the day in imaginative and inventive ways never seen before, leaving an impact on the world that will continue to reverberate across the decades. 1968 is that year.
It was, by all accounts, a tumultuous twelve months. Smack bang in the middle of America’s counterculture period – approximately 1964 to 1972 – there wasn’t a month that went by without an event of ground-shaking political gravity or seismic cultural importance taking place. This was the year when student-led protests brought the world to a standstill: from Paris in May to Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Brazil, Mexico and Chicago, the site of that year’s Democratic National Convention. The assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy stoked already-blazing fires, while the Tet Offensive dealt a fatal blow to American prospects in the Vietnam War, and to the country’s overall self-confidence.
Far from being insulated from all this chaos, cinema in 1968 was entirely steeped in the rebellious atmosphere of its time (this was, after all, the year they canceled Cannes). The central thesis statement of that year – a revolutionary cry against the status quo – was carried through in the films it gave us, from 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes to Yellow Submarine and The Night of the Living Dead.
Sci-fi, in particular, enjoyed a colossal watershed moment with the release of 2001, Stanley Kubrick’s visionary classic, and the allegorical Planet of the Apes. Both releases came at a time when sci-fi was considered the stuff of B movies: schlock to be watched by the dorky few, rather than the many. With its image of a world marred by nuclear war, McCarthyism and non-secular government, Planet proved the opposite was true: it showed that, if done right, sci-fi could be an unparalleled addition to the cinematic canon, a genre that tells us as much about ourselves as it does the fantastical worlds it imagines. That Planet has had such a great influence on the future of the genre and continued to spawn a phenomenally successful franchise of similarly introspective films (up until 2017) is testament to the timelessness of its concept, the efficiency of its method, and the dependency of modern society on 1968’s greatest genre gift to us.
2001 was perhaps an even greater moment of cinematic revolution: this was the film that established the space saga as a mainstream staple – we have Kubrick to thank for our yearly Star Wars instalments – and that practically birthed the movie-explainer industry: critical and fan theories on the meaning of the monolith continue to abound, 50 years on. Not to mention that its ahead-of-its-time visual and sound components mean you could probably convince virgin viewers that 2001 was a new release.
Another film, this time from another genre, also demonstrates that 1968 was the most influential – and thus the best – year in film. The ancestor of every modern zombie movie – from 28 Days Later to Shaun of the Dead and beyond – George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead invented an entire sub-genre and set the standard for every cash-strapped filmmaker of the future. Made on a shoestring budget and cast with many non-professionals, Romero’s masterpiece blended social consciousness about race with never-before-seen spooky sights, proving (as Jordan Peele’s Get Out reminded us in 2017) that horror, like sci-fi, is about more than cheap thrills.
1968 wasn’t just about cinematic invention, though: this was also the year for innovation. The revisionist Western trend hit a high point with Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, the similarly allegorical Spaghetti Western The Great Silence and the Clint Eastwood-starrers Hang ‘Em High and Coogan’s Bluff, the latter of which transplants Eastwood’s surly cowboy to an NYC full of hippies. While Eastwood was busy perfecting the Clint Squint, Steve McQueen was at work establishing his King of Cool anti-hero persona in 1968, with two starring roles in The Thomas Crown Affair and Bullitt, both of which would also cement his reputation as the greatest onscreen driver in Hollywood (The Great Escape having been released five years earlier). McQueen and new kids on the block like Eastwood co-existed with the old set from Hollywood’s Golden Age – such as Burt Lancaster and Richard Burton – who had themselves begun to shed old skins for new ones by experimenting with type-breaking roles: Lancaster in the strangely beautiful cult favorite The Swimmer; Burton in the WW2-set rescue movie Where Eagles Dare.
The musical underwent a dramatic makeover, too, although you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise, with the Best Picture-winning Oliver! and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang seemingly affirming that the genre was a kids’ only space; notable in a year when New York Times critic Renata Adler thought it “seemed highly doubtful that children ought to go to the movies at all”. But the release of the Barbra Streisand-starrer Funny Girl and Mel Brooks’ The Producers, which had originally premiered the year before, reclaimed the musical-movie as mature entertainment. Without their existence (and their success at the 1969 Oscars), it’s arguable that subsequent adult-themed musical-movie classics like Cabaret, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Chicago would never have made the transition from stage to screen.
Just as fans of musicals should be extolling the virtues of 1968, animation enthusiasts ought to take up its banner, too: it was The Beatles’ musical Yellow Submarine, after all, that broke Disney’s spell over the genre. Its surreal, LSD-inspired aesthetics and Monty Python-esque wit empowered grown-up audiences to see a cartoon movie and feel perfectly natural doing so. That it could also pass as kid-friendly, too, gave it a duality of appeal that would pave the way for the likes of Pixar’s parent- and child-pleasers.
For fans of historical drama and literary adaptation, 1968 was no less a seminal year. The Lion in Winter proved there were still new heights to be reached in traditional genres with a script and cast that dripped prestige (it also introduced us to a young actor named Anthony Hopkins, a gift we can never cherish too much). Legendary theatre director Peter Hall brought his Royal Shakespeare Company – including future stars Judi Dench, Helen Mirren and Diana Rigg – to the screen with a modern retelling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, complete with zippy Nouvelle Vague-inspired editing, while Franco Zefferelli’s opulent, romantic rendition of Romeo and Juliet established itself as the gold standard for Shakespeare adaptations and a staple of English Literature classrooms for decades to come.
Looking at its output, it’s no wonder that MPAA age ratings were introduced in 1968: this was the year when cinema truly came of age. Reflecting the youthful politics of its time, it matured alongside its audiences, pushing boundaries, questioning the status quo, and unearthing new styles – and genres! – in the process. Without it, it’s unlikely we’d ever have Star Wars or Blade Runner; The Incredibles or Toy Story; White Walkers or Walking Dead zombies. Unless you’re comfortable living in a world without these cultural touchstones and more, then you have to admit: 1968 was the best year in film.