6 Great Films of the American New Wave on Netflix:
In the middle of the 1960s, Hollywood was going through difficulties. The times were changing and the heads of the studios (a system of huge corporations which controlled all aspects of moviemaking) did not understand what younger audiences wanted and, therefore, could not satisfy them. New films coming from Europe - especially the ones linked to the French movement known as Nouvelle Vague - were beginning to influence younger directors and writers all over the world. Those French films, although far from homogeneous, with directors of various and distinct styles, shared some important overall characteristics: the narrative was looser; the focus was more on character than plot; the use of innovative techniques (such a jump cuts, which look as though there were mistakes in the edition, as there is no continuity in time or space between juxtaposed shots; or the fact that spoken lines from different characters could overlap, like in real life); they were also usually less commercial, having more artistic concerns; and there was a general sense of freedom and irreverence to the films.
Besides the European influence, an old Hollywood code of movie production conduct, which had been in place since the 1930s, restricting themes, storylines and what could actually be shown on screen, was finally lifted. As a consequence, an important movement started to be articulated in the US, in which the focus of filmmaking shifted from producers to directors. This idea of directors as auteurs, artists in charge of their own oeuvres, took over the industry, and the New Hollywood, or the American New Wave, was born. The movement was officially kicked off by the launch of two seminal films in 1967: Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and Mike Nichols's The Graduate in 1967.
The following decade constituted one of the most fertile and productive periods of the American cinema. Now, with the convenience of streaming video services, such as Netflix, we have the opportunity to watch some of the classic movies of this landmark era from the comfort of our own couch. Here’s a list of 6 of my favorites:
1. Midnight Cowboy, directed by John Schlesinger (1969).
This powerful and haunting film was released as an X-rated movie in the US when it came out in 1969 – that’s the classification used for porno movies. The mistake was corrected after the film, which tells the story of the bond forged by two outcasts, tossed around by the harsh and unforgiving reality of a big city, won Oscars for best picture and best male performance: Jon Voight steals the show in the role of Joe Buck, a naïve and charismatic redneck who leaves his job as a dishwasher in a small town in Texas to become a gigolo in New York. His performance remains impressive to this day. The poignancy of the iconic initial scene, showing Joe Buck, dressed as a cowboy, saying goodbye to his old friends and taking the Greyhound bus to NY to the strains of the song Everybody’s Talkin' remains forever in the viewer’s memory. The city turns out to be a nightmare, where Buck gets conned by both male and female clients, until he meets and bonds with sick artist Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman, in another breathtaking performance). As the winter is coming, Joe moves in with Ratso, who lives in a hole of an apartment in a semi-demolished building. While Joe unsuccessfully continues to try to hustle and Ratso keeps stealing wallets to make a living, they dream of going off to live the good life under the sun in Florida.
2. M*A*S*H, directed by Robert Altman (1970).
The title stands for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital and the film is a scathing satire on wars in general and the Vietnam war in particular. Although the film is set in Korea, we all know it’s really about Vietnam. The iconoclastic nature of the movie does not spare anything, ridiculing religion, violence, pain, feminism, the armed forces and showing no respect for healthcare professionals. The outrageously funny behavior of army doctors who perform bloody operations during the day (shown in graphic detail) and party wildly at night, resonated deeply with young audiences all over the world at the time, solidifying the careers of Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould as movie stars. The movie was so popular it generated a long-running TV series based on it.
3. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, directed by Milos Forman (1975).
Thirteen years after Kirk Douglas acquired the film rights to Ken Kesey's book, the movie was produced by his son, Michael. The time lapse benefited the project, which could then count on the participation of Jack Nicholson in the leading role of the convict Randle McMurphy, who feigns madness to get transferred from prison to a hospital in Oregon. The book anticipated the counterculture movement of the late sixties and early seventies, with its metaphors against the limitations and brutality imposed on people by the Establishment – represented by McMurphy’s nemesis, the rigid Nurse Ratched (a role for which Louise Fletcher won an Oscar). It’s a great cinematic experience to watch the battle between Nicholson’s and Fletcher’s characters to win over the hearts and minds of the other patients in the psychiatric ward. A jewel of a movie, which won 5 Oscars.
4. Taxi Driver, directed by Martin Scorsese (1976).
An unsettling view into the mental world of a psychopath set against the backdrop of a hellish New York’s, with steam coming out of its street manholes at night, Taxi Driver was scandalously ahead of its time when it first came out. If you see it now, you’ll have to keep in mind that its innovative style and subject matter have been copied so many times over the years that it’s kind of hard to dig into all the plagiarizing you have seen in other movies and get to the original that lies underneath. You need to understand that it all started there. Of course, much of the success of the movie relies on Robert De Niro’s disturbing performance and on the uniqueness of the character: an unstable Vietnam war veteran, Trevis Bickle, with a serious lack of social skills; a loner, pill-popping insomniac who decides to take a night job as a cab driver to run away from his somber and self-destructive ruminations.
5. Network, directed by Sidney Lumet (1976).
A satire on the television industry which upset many of its executives at the time, Network today is even more sobering and relevant than it was when first released in the seventies. Television has, after all, become even more ruthless and ratings-oriented. Reality shows set the tone. In a way, Network anticipates the fierce and unethical battles for ratings of contemporary television, which has to compete with DVDs, cable, and streaming services. What was dismissed by some critics as tasteless fictional exaggeration at the time does not seem so distant from the reality of tabloid TV today. Packed with great performances and acerbic dialogue, Network is a pleasure to watch. My favorite character is undoubtedly Faye Dunaway’s chilly Diana Christensen, a ruthless TV programmer, cold, aggressive and incapable of any real feelings: the personification of the medium.
6. Annie Hall, directed by Woody Allen (1977).
Legend has it that the movie started off as a series of humorous vignettes that did not quite link together as a story. Only as an afterthought did Woody Allen decide to reedit the raw footage and turn it into a consistent romantic story. This was certainly a wise decision, as one cannot remember Anny Hall as anything but a bittersweet story between two smart and charismatic people who fall in love with each other but slowly drift apart as time moves on, due to the fact that Annie (Diane Keaton) grows more mature and independent than Alvin (Woody Allen). The movie features some of the funniest, yet thought-provoking, one-liners in film history. A favorite is always: "A relationship, I think, is like a shark. You know? It has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark". And it concludes with another insightful joke that leaves the audiences reflecting on it long after the movie is over: “It reminds me of that old joke- you know, a guy walks into a psychiatrist's office and says, hey doc, my brother's crazy! He thinks he's a chicken. Then the doc says, why don't you turn him in? Then the guy says, I would but I need the eggs. I guess that's how I feel about relationships. They're totally crazy, irrational, and absurd, but we keep going through it because we need the eggs.”