Polarizing political rhetoric, culture wars, fiercely divided opinions about the moral fiber of the president, troops dying far from home in a war most citizens question, debates about racial and gender equality… Anything sound familiar?
Welcome to 1969, a chaotic year when the evolution of film reflected a rapidly fracturing societal landscape… a year that in many ways mirrors 2019.
On the 50th anniversary of this watershed year for cinema, we take another look at nine seminal films that shaped America’s cinematic future. (Of course, we couldn’t capture all the worthy films in this limited list. Could-have-been-included films include Z, The Sorrow and the Pity, Army of Shadows, among others.)
What’s notably missing from our list are happy endings. At least one protagonist dies in six of our nine films—including both protagonists in the “feel-good” Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In the other three, a broken child’s pet is killed, a broken salesman is on the edge of an existential abyss, and, in the only comedy, the inept criminal protagonist is sentenced to 800 years in prison.
The zeitgeist seems to have been a rather dark place.
What these films do share is innovation. For starters, they expanded what could be put on a screen (Midnight Cowboy); created new ways to tell stories (Salesman and Medium Cool); reimagined tired genres (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,The Wild Bunch); and compellingly showed the cost of economic despair and inequality (Kes, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?).
Here is a look at films that continue to resonate and influence—films worth celebrating on their 50th birthdays.
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