The 44 Times 30 or So: Filling In the Gaps

Fact: I watch an awful lot of movies.

Fact #2: I watch an awful lot of awful movies.

Because of my long-standing fascination with the horror, science-fiction and fantasy genres, I get exposed to far more films of a commonly considered low quality than of high. This is a given, though it is perhaps the more extreme nature of these genres that allows the dross to be far more noticeable than in other, less special effects-heavy genres. So, if you were to peer at a list of the last 75 films I have watched, you would likely notice the bevy (and great majority) of slasher and monster films almost immediately over the handful of pure dramatic or comedic films. That the genre efforts comprise about 3/4 of the list would also stand out. One thing is clear: I definitely have a clear target area.

Why not change that for a while? Why not mix things up for myself for a change?

I was reading George MacDonald Fraser's excellent and very personalized book titled A Hollywood History of the World (William Morrow/Beech Tree, 1988) the other day, and aside from revisiting an old favorite volume, I also sensed a sincere problem with myself, or rather, with my accumulated cinema knowledge. As I poured through a chapter rich with comparisons between actual history and a handful of epic war films released in the '60s, it struck me that my current self had not gathered much more in the way of experience regarding films of this stripe than I had when I first bought and read this book in the late '80s. While one might not consider it a necessary thing to have watched most of the major films within one's lifetime, it suddenly seemed very important to me. Who was I to toss about opinions and engage in film trivia if I hadn't seen so many of the most famous films involved?

While I have seen thousands of films, edging close to 10,000, in my 44 years, have I seen Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf at all? Have I actually seen all of Patton? No and no. Here's a shocker: I love Sidney Poitier, but I have never seen In the Heat of the Night or To Sir, With Love. I am a huge Polanski fan, to the extent that I have seen Knife on the Water three times and all of his films from The Fearless Vampire Hunters to the present, but I have somehow missed out on Repulsion and Cul-de-Sac, two of his highly acclaimed early films. Not that I need to see all of these films to feel that I have a fairly good grip on film history, but simply just renting and catching up on them would take so little effort on my part.

Oh, I have seen many of the major films of the span of years in my brief existence beginning in 1964, and am perhaps overly familiar with a certain batch of them. I have seen all of the Beatles films, most of Blake Edwards' and Richard Lester's oeuvres, but there are sincere gaps in my viewing collection. Watching Richard Burton's fairly obnoxious but often stylistically interesting horror experiment, Doctor Faustus, the other day, I was really struck by the fact that the sum total of my experience with Sir Richard hails largely from Becket and Where Eagles Dare, and two more disparate films you couldn't find. Jumping back to In the Heat of the Night, most of what I know of Rod Steiger is negligible, built mostly from bit parts from the last twenty years of his career, included his turn in a crappy vigilante horror quickie called Guilty As Charged that he did in the late '80s.

Cracking another book a few days ago gave me an idea. The book is Danny Peary's Alternate Oscars, wherein the daring Mr. Peary decides to take the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to task for laziness and playing politics, and does a retro-fitting of then-65 years of Oscar history. Peary hands out awards to those that he feels are truly deserving of gold, slipping the statuettes to underrated classics that we now fully honor, and sometimes even rewards some surprising cult choices. The 1956 Best Picture award leaves the dopey but fun Around the World in 80 Days coughing in the dust as the train zips past, and delivers it straight into the hands of John Ford's The Searchers, clearly where it should have been from the start. (The Searchers, perhaps the greatest film of that decade, was not even nominated for Best Picture.) Welles' Touch of Evil defeats Gigi in 1958, and Some Like It Hot not only wrests awards from Ben-Hur and Chuck Heston in 1959, but also gets Marilyn a Best Actress win as well. He even sees fit to get Boris Karloff in the game, giving away Ray Milland's 1945 Oscar for The Lost Weekend to Karloff's breathless performance as the sinister but layered and sympathetic Mr. Gray in Val Lewton's The Body Snatcher.

Alternate Oscars is a fun and mind-warping read, even if it really doesn't matter which rich and famous people collect trophies over other rich and famous people. And Peary does take full advantage of his Monday-morning quarterbacking, giving awards to certain actors with the certain knowledge that he will award one to those snubbed farther down the line. It's something that the real Oscars cannot do (at least not as far as we know), and so the entire affair truly does read as a full alternate history of ultimate Hollywood success. Several of Mr. Peary's books line a shelf in my library, and I would be lying were I say that his style of writing has not influenced me greatly over the years. Likewise, I have used his film choices as a guideline for my own adventures in that time. (His trilogy of Cult Movies books are absolutely vital to any film buff's library. Seek them out at all costs.)

As I read the Peary book in concert with the Fraser book the other day, it hit me that what I really should do is go back to the year of my birth, and concentrate on all of the major films that I have yet to see since 1964. It's a colossal project, and would likely take years to complete (or perhaps, would never be complete, owing both to the constant upgrading of the list each year, and to the fact that many films may never come out on disc), but I felt it a worthier base for film viewing than simply knocking about on Netflix going, "Oooh, that looks interesting..." (A favorite pastime, mind you, but I am sorely in need of some direction right now.)

This is what I have decided to do: Starting with 1964 and up through 1970 (thus far), I initially grabbed the Oscar nominees (not just winners) from these categories in each year: Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, and Director. This gave me my foundation. Since Peary's book only gives his alternate choices for Picture, Actor and Actress, I mixed in his choices, which do not jibe at all with most of Oscar history, and then also mixed in his alternate nominees for those categories (some of which he never finds a single worthy nominee, harsh that he often is in this degree). At this point, each year had around 15 to 20 solid films from which to begin my new adventures, but I still wasn't satisfied with the mix.

Since I love foreign films, and have been desperate to catch up in that area as well, I grabbed the Best Foreign Language nominees from each year, and then grabbed six more key categories: Editing, Visual Effects (to keep genre films alive on the list at least a little bit), both Screenplay categories, and finally both Music Score categories, since I felt musicals were not well represented at that point, and I feel for a true snapshot of any period, one must see the popular musicals as well. (I left off Cinematography, at least for the '60s, since all of the nominees were already represented on the lists. I may expand this going through the '70s, if only because I am more familiar with the cameramen of that era and don't want to miss a step.) Each year now stands at around 30-35 films per year, which I feel will give me a decent start from which to work.

1964 is a surprise to me, for out of the 32 films on the list, I have actually seen 17 of them and own nine of those on DVD (A Hard Day's Night, Mary Poppins, The Fall of the Roman Empire, Goldfinger, Dr. Strangelove, Man's Favorite Sport?, The Pink Panther, and its superior follow-up, A Shot in the Dark, released just a few months later), and I owned a handful more of those already seen, once upon a time, on VHS. Here is the list for 1964:

Best Man, The
Chalk Garden, The
Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Fall of the Roman Empire, The
Father Goose
Hard Day's Night, A
Hush, Hush… Sweet Charlotte
Man's Favorite Sport?
Marriage Italian Style
Mary Poppins
My Fair Lady
Night of the Iguana, The
One Potato, Two Potato
Organizer, The [I compagni] (1963)
Pink Panther, The
Pumpkin Eater, The
Raven's End [Kvarteret Korpen]
Robin and the 7 Hoods
Séance on a Wet Afternoon
Servant, The
7 Faces of Dr. Lao, The
Seven Days in May
Shot in the Dark, A
That Man From Rio [L'homme de Rio]
Umbrellas of Cherbourg, The
Unsinkable Molly Brown, The
Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow
Zorba the Greek

But I am not going to half-ass this project. If I haven't seen any of these films within the last year, then I have to watch them again. Even though I often write with a nostalgic viewpoint, I always base anything I construct upon fresh showings of any given film. For the purposes of opening this project, I am probably going to revisit every film upon it that I have already seen. I am nothing if not meticulous (or maybe a little OCD... which wouldn't surprise my brothers.) However, making things difficult is the fact that a quarter of these films (or just over half of the ones I have never watched before) are current unavailable on DVD. Of course, this doesn't mean they won't get released in the near future, and I know that a couple of them have appeared in the cable listings now and then.

A sad realization, though, is that due to the limited sources I have used for creating these annual lists, many genres are not particularly well represented, such as Westerns or horror, and certain well-known entertainments of the period of the type not prone to being critical darlings or award gatherers get passed over completely. And filmmakers considered prime examples of the period get shorted, too: Sergio Leone only gets on the lists because of Peary's adoration of Once Upon A Time in the West, and were I making lists of the most influential films of the time period from 1964-1970, all four of his amazing Westerns would make it without a moment's hesitation. Foreign films of all nations get short shrift on here as well, Jean-Pierre Melville does not announce himself on the lists for even a single film, Truffaut only near the end of the decade, and Godard not at all. Which is unfortunate, since their inclusion would most certainly allow me to automatically indulge myself in their works. Not that I can't anyway, but I like nudges.

Which brings me to my final note. I am not going to add to these lists, even if I feel a film got left off. These annual film lists are only for my guidance, and are not meant to represent the best films of each year, just ones with which to begin filling in my cinematic educational gaps. For instance, I adore Richard Lester's Help! and The Knack... and How To Get It and also own copies of each of them, but just because they are not on the 1965 list does not mean I am going to add them. Conversely, I have a great childhood-held passion for The Great Race, and while no critic of any worth (save myself) would ever include Blake Edwards' epic farce on a best films list for 1965, it is only through the lucky happenstance of it being nominated for a music Oscar that it appears on that year's roster.

So, that is my new focus, though I will still be watching films from all over the place, and even in my preferred genres. I just needed something to mix things up a bit. It had just become monotonous waiting for the next 8 Films to Die For flick to show up, and then one after the other. If not that, just another in a long line of J-horror films that grew increasingly similar to one another. (Honestly, long black hair, attached to a ghost or not, does not frighten me for a second. Unless it is in my soup.)

Once I hit 1993, though, I will have to find another source besides Peary to round out the annual lists, since Alternate Oscars ends with 1992 and the triumph of The Silence of the Lambs. However, I suspect that once I hit the 1980s, when I earnestly sought to begin my movie education, there will be less and less films annually for me to track down and watch. The bulk of the work is going to involve the '60s and '70s, but I am not going to complain at all. It's about time that I got around to watching some of these films.

But, it doesn't mean that I will stop watching an awful lot of awful movies. An awful lot of movies get overrated by critics and the Oscars every year, and I am sure there is plenty of time-wasting and teeth-clenching rubbish hidden within every single one of these annual lists. And if that's the case, well, then I haven't really mixed things up as much as I would have liked. Some things are just not meant to be changed, I guess...


I look forward to reading the results of this project. I've been thinking of doing something similar(IE: adding guidance to my random viewing), but hadn't really come up with anything worthy. I've just been randomly filling in blanks when opportunity arises, which is how I view almost every movie I see; filling in the blanks.

I keep hearing about Peary, and I think it's high time I track down one of his books. Have you been reading the AV Club's New Cult Canon feature? It's the attempt of one of their writers to continue the tradition of Peary's books.

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