The 20 Best Movies Of The 1960s
By | August 30, 2022
From moment one of the 1960s, it was clear that something had changed, not just in film but in every aspect of common life. In the '60s, audiences went to the cinema to see their lives reflected back at them, but as the decade wore on those reflections became more oblique and surreal. In some cases, like with Alfred Hitchcock's genre-defining Psycho, the reflection was of our fears, while In The Heat of the Night projected our prejudices in technicolor across the silver screen.
There are so many groundbreaking and astonishing movies from the 1960s that it's hard to pick just one that defines the decade, but here are the 20 best movies from the Grooviest decade.
Released at the beginning of the decade, Psycho set the stage not only for every thriller and horror movie to come but for every movie that followed. Star director Alfred Hitchcock was working with a small budget and a scaled backed crew to tell the story of an unhinged murderer whiling away his days in an off-the-beaten-path motel.
This simple black and white film was not only a huge hit, but it inspired the style and tone of every slasher film that followed with its mix of violence and sexuality. While speaking about his intentions with Psycho, Hitchcock explained:
[Psycho] was intended to make people scream and yell and so forth. But no more than screaming and yelling on a switchback railway… so you mustn't go too far because you want them to get off the railway giggling with pleasure.
The action and spy genres as we know it wouldn't exist without Dr. No, the first of many adventures by British super spy James Bond. In 1962, he made his first film appearance in the guise of Sean Connery, a Scottish bodybuilder and actor who provided a visual distillation of the cool and calm spy who's always one step ahead of his enemies.
Dr. No was a major hit that set the template for the long-running franchise. Even today, audiences can see the pieces of Dr. No in the modern iterations of the 007 story. This may not be the best James Bond movie, but it started a franchise that's lasted more than 50 years.
In 1968, The Monkees starred in one of the strangest musical movies ever released. Head, directed by Bob Rafelson, and co-written by Jack Nicholson (yes that Jack Nicholson) is both an attempt by The Monkees and their production team to comment on the public's perception of them while giving the audience more of what they want.
Over the course of an hour and a half Davy Jones, Peter Tork, Micky Dolenz, and Mike Nesmith are turned into dandruff, chased off a bridge, and kept inside a large box all while breaking the fourth wall and breaking down what it means to be a TV star in the 1960s. Head was a failure at the box office, but its influence can be felt in the alt-comedy world to this day. Rafelson went on to say that the film was "so audacious that nobody saw the thing."
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is a satirical dark comedy that gets to the heart of America's fear and obsession with nuclear war. The film began its life as a thriller adapted by Red Alert, a thriller from 1958 about the mind boggling ease at which a world ending bomb can be fired off. Director Stanley Kubrick shepherded the film into the comedy zone during the initial script writing phase, and the addition of Peter Sellers only punctuates the bleak, nihilistic comedy onscreen.
Regardless of the fact that the film was shot in stark black and white and features German scientists and British sticks in the mud (all ably played by Sellers), this satire on the woeful state of politics remains prescient.
A Hard Day's Night
Once The Beatles were bonafide rock stars on the stage and radio they decided to take over the big screen as well. In 1964, A Hard Day's Night showed just how likable and genuinely funny the Lads from Liverpool could be. What should have been a lark for The Beatles turned out to be a wildly successful film that remains influential today.
Aside from the fact that A Hard Day's Night actually stands on its own as a feature film, it proves just how powerful rock n roll can be. What was seen as flash in the pan proved itself to be incredibly important for the rest of the decade and into the 21st century.
Director Richard Lester says that the hardest part about making this film was dealing with John Lennon, who was always ready to rip into him:
John was not known to suffer fools, and I probably fell into the fool category. He was always willing to skewer the pomposity around him, and I think there can’t be any more pompous person on a set than the director. So, I have wounds. But I have a huge, huge admiration for John.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Regarded as one of the most influential westerns ever made, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly proved that you don't need big budgets or big stars to make a good movie. Directed by Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone, this film (along with the rest of the Dollars Trilogy) created a visual language for Westerns that continues today.
Starring Clint Eastwood at the beginning of his upswing into film stardom, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly has him on the hunt for Confederate gold as he tries to outsmart his fellow scoundrels. Aside from the beautiful visuals and quiet tough guy appeal of Eastwood, the film introduced American audiences to the astounding music of Ennio Morricone, one of the greatest composers of the 20th century.
Bonnie and Clyde
It's hard to fathom the look and feel of modern American films if Bonnie and Clyde had never been released. Starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty as the titular characters, Bonnie and Clyde both glamorize the violent lifestyle of its protagonists while showing that, in the end, crime doesn't pay.
Before its release, distributor Warner Bros. was ready to pull the plug due to the onscreen mix of sensuality and violence. Luckily the film played as scheduled and it went on to not only become a huge hit but an inspiration to filmmakers who followed. There would be no Taxi Driver if it weren't for Bonnie and Clyde.
Planet Of The Apes
Who knew that a movie about Charlton Heston crash landing on a planet governed by talking apes would turn out to be such a stone-cold classic? Planet of the Apes is a science fiction movie that's firing on all cylinders. Not only is there social commentary, amazing special effects, and a twist ending that still hits hard today, but the downer of an ending influenced the following decade of science fiction.
Even if Planet of the Apes didn't spawn a bevy of insane sequels, a TV series, cartoons, and a prequel series in the 2010s, it still remains one of the most influential films of the 1960s.
2001: A Space Odyssey
What can be said about 2001: A Space Odyssey that hasn't already been said? Four years after the release of Dr. Strangelove, Stanley Kubrick doubled down on his ambition and released a film that traces human evolution from the moment that our ancestors figured out how to use weapons to a hopeful and terrifying dimension-hopping future.
Audiences still debate the meaning behind 2001 and its mind-bending finale, but in a rare interview Kubrick explained that as ahead of its time as the movie is it all goes back to ancient mythology:
The idea was supposed to be that he is taken in by god-like entities, creatures of pure energy and intelligence with no shape or form and they put him in what I suppose you could describe as a human zoo to study him, and his whole life passes from that point on in that room and he has no sense of time, it just seems to happen as it does in the film... When they get finished with him, as happens in so many myths of all cultures in the world, he is transformed into some kind of superbeing and sent back to earth… It is the pattern of a great deal of mythology, that was what we were trying to suggest.
Night of the Living Dead
There would be no Walking Dead, no Shaun of the Dead, and definitely no Army of the Dead if it weren't for George A Romero's Night of the Living Dead. This independent horror movie that has been bootlegged again and again didn't just change horror movies forever, but it changed filmmaking as we know it.
Aside from introducing audiences to an incredibly disturbing vision of modern America that unfortunately still holds up, he also made the then-stunning decision to cast black actor Duane Jones as the film's heroic lead. Speaking out the casting of Jones in 2017, director Jordan Peele (Get Out, Us, Nope) explained why it matters that the lead of Night of the Living Dead is a black man:
Theoretically, their racial perspective is the very skill that helps them. You could write an interesting essay about how the lead in “Night of the Living Dead” is a man living in fear every day, so this is a challenge he is more equipped to take on than the white women living in the house.
Reverberations of Night of the Living Dead can still be felt today in everything from Peele's work, to the tense house standoff film The Strangers.
It's impossible to state the importance of Easy Rider, the first low-budget movie that did absolute gangbusters at the American box office. Starring Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda as a pair of drugged-out bikers making their way across America, Easy Rider took Roger Corman's sensibilities and ran them through the filter of European cinema, singlehandedly creating a template for directors in the New Hollywood of the 1970s.
Easy Rider didn't just change the game in regards to what was onscreen, but what was heard in the theater as well. Long before MTV and music videos, Easy Rider worked on songs that were actually on the radio. That sounds ho-hum now, but at the time it was a completely new concept. Hopper explained:
I think Easy Rider might have been the first time that someone made a film using found music instead of an orchestral score. No one had really used found music in a movie before, except to play on radios or when someone was singing in a scene. But I wanted Easy Rider to be kind of a time capsule for that period, so while I was editing the film I would listen to the radio. That’s where I got 'Born to Be Wild' and 'The Pusher' and all those songs.
Lawrence of Arabia
Directed by David Lean, Lawrence of Arabia is not only a sweeping war epic, it's a tale of how one person can inspire people to become their best selves. Every shot of the desert vistas in this film is breathtaking, but the storytelling proved that not every film in the '60s had to be about flower power or some form of groovy hedonism.
Omar Shariff explained why he thinks Lawrence of Arabia stands the test of time to The Guardian in 2012:
It's extraordinary – when I made this film I thought: 'This is a crazy thing. There are no girls, no very famous actors at that time, only men and no action, not a lot of action. Not a lot of fights, not a lot of ...' It was so good because the director was a brilliant man. That's the truth. David Lean was a great, great man. Great man.
Holy cow, where would horror movies be today without Rosemary's Baby? Every few years there's talk of "prestige horror," but it's rare that a film, regardless of genre, has such an engrossing quality as Roman Polanski's break-out American film. Following a truly unhinged relationship between a New York couple who finds themselves locked in a Satanic battle for the soul of their child, this film is horrifying on a myriad of levels.
More than just telling a story about fighting the Devil, Rosemary's Baby is a film about the terror of motherhood and the horror of seeing your body and that of your partner's changing right in front of your eyes.
The work of Akira Kurosawa continues to inspire directors to this day, but his samurai epic Yojimbo is easily one of the most influential films that have ever been made. This film has been remade, repurposed, and straight up ripped off so many times that we've lost count, but that's okay because the original film is always here waiting for us.
Aside from creating a template for films that followed, Yojimbo proved that an action film can be more than a series of fight scenes. This is a movie that means something, and that has an almost spiritual effect every time it plays.
Breakfast At Tiffany's
Released in 1961, Breakfast at Tiffany's stars Audrey Hepburn in her most iconic role as the aloof and quixotic New York City gal about town Holly Golightly. The movie became an instant classic upon its release, and even though everything with Mickey Rooney has aged like ice cream in the sun (i.e poorly), this is still a touchstone for romantic comedies to this day.
Hepburn is what makes this movie work so well, but Truman Capote (who wrote the story that the film was based on) really hated that she was cast. He said:
Paramount double-crossed me in every way and cast Audrey.
It's as if no one realized that young people could be depressed until The Graduate was released in 1967. This film that follows a college graduate played by Dustin Hoffman starting an affair with an older woman while pining for her age-appropriate daughter isn't really about that at all. Subtextually, the film asks the audience to think about how miserable it is to be faced with an ocean of possibilities.
The film's use of Simon & Garfunkel is another daring choice that makes The Graduate more than the sum of its parts. The existential drift is the point of the film, and it's never more clear than the final scene where Hoffman has achieved his goal of winning over the girl he loves and realizes that he has no idea what to do next.
In The Heat Of The Night
One of the most important films of the '60s was a deceptively simple police drama. In The Heat of the Night stars Sidney Poitier as a black detective who travels to the south to solve a murder. The film itself is absolutely astonishing. From the immersive and innovative score by Quincy Jones to the straightforward direction by Norman Jewison, In The Heat of the Night announces itself as a film that's to be reckoned with.
It was clear that the film was a phenomenon from the moment it was released, but when it won the Academy Award for Best Picture it was a sign that Hollywood not only accepted a film that reckoned with the racial injustice of the 1960s but felt that it was paramount to moving into a new era.
Without Jean-Luc Godard, there would be no Quentin Tarantino, no Robert Rodriguez, and definitely no Richard Linklater. Breathless is Godard at his most playful and powerful. The film is both a character study of a down-on-his-luck criminal who's obsessed with American gangster pictures and a study of filmmaking in and of itself.
Breathless doesn't just break the fourth wall, it goes about its business as if the fourth wall never even existed. This movie shows audiences that there's not a right or wrong way to make a movie, the only thing that matters is if it hits you in the gut.
The 1960s were an amazing time for film. Directors were trying out new visual and editing techniques, and it suddenly felt like no story was too taboo for the big screen. Midnight Cowboy follows a cowboy played by Jon Voight as he falls into the seedy underbelly of New York City and winds up at the bottom of a long ladder of people who want to use and abuse him.
This is a classic film about fighting against a capitalist system and not only losing, but losing big time. It's a nihilistic look at the American dream that only grows more prescient as the years go on.
Michelangelo Antonioni's English language debut is an absolutely stunning work of cinema that infuses an arthouse sensibility into American genre filmmaking. Told through a series of vignettes, Blow-Up follows a London fashion photographer who believes that he accidentally captured evidence of a murder on film.
Featuring music by The Yardbirds and essentially inventing editing techniques that were jostling as they are breathtaking, Blow-Up inspired young American filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola and Brian De Palma to take chances and forge their own path in Hollywood.