Recently, my uncle -- a film buff to put most other film buffs to shame -- sent me a clipping from the Seattle Times, in which critic John Hartl celebrated the greatest movie year of all time. Not 1939, as is generally accepted, but 1959. And I have to agree with him. It was an amazing time when the old Hollywood guard was winding down and creating their final masterpieces, new upstarts were coming in with fresh new films and the most outrageously artistic of European cinema was getting released (and being watched) in America. Not taking into account any weird release patterns -- such as the fact that Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries (1957) was released here in 1959 -- and based on the IMDB's list of 1959 movies, here's my top ten list for that great year.
1. Rio Bravo. On most days, this is my favorite Western, with its combination of breathless suspense sequences and easy camaraderie among its bizarre, almost deliberately mismatched cast (and especially for Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson's duet). Howard Hawks directs with fluid grace, but best of all is that exchange of dialogue between Ward Bond and John Wayne. Bond: "A game-legged old man and a drunk. That's all you got?" Wayne: "That's what I got."
2. Good Morning. This is Yasujiro Ozu's lightest, warmest and funniest film, about two boys who -- fed up with the polite, meaningless conversation of adults -- take a vow of silence until their father buys them a television set. Their father refuses, having heard that television will produce "100 million idiots." (He may have been right.) Even if you don't like this one, Ozu also delivered the equally great Floating Weeds the same year.
3. Ride Lonesome. Another of my favorite Westerns, starring Randolph Scott and directed by Budd Boetticher for a fraction of the budget. It's faster and leaner, and more richly psychological than even Rio Bravo. If you don't like this one, Boetticher and Scott also made Westbound the same year.
4. Pickpocket. Arguably Robert Bresson's most accessible film combines gripping sequences of suspense with Dostoevskian questions of responsibility, as a pickpocket wrestles with his intellectual place in the world.
5. North by Northwest. Arguably Alfred Hitchcock's biggest film -- with the most expansive locations and set-pieces -- and simultaneously the lightest. Cary Grant gives the movie a perfect lift as the constantly bemused hero, who very simply winds up in the wrong place at the wrong time, with near-fatal results.
6. The 400 Blows. Francois Truffaut's feature debut is the greatest coming-of-age story ever filmed, perfectly tapping into the helplessness and powerlessness of childhood, as well as a few precious moments of hope.
7. Some Like It Hot. Billy Wilder's comedy was once daring, and now it's just brilliantly funny -- and still sexy.
8. Nazarín. The great Luis Buñuel constantly wrestled with and questioned religion in his films, and this one about a former priest is one of his most pointed, filmed at ground-level.
9. The Tiger of Eschnapur/The Indian Tomb. Fritz Lang returned to Germany for the first time in three decades for this weightless, but smooth, exciting two-part adventure film that probably influenced Indiana Jones.
10. Anatomy of a Murder. Otto Preminger's film was once considered a taboo-breaker, but now it's just a superb courtroom drama with some outstanding performances (notably by James Stewart and the ripe Lee Remick) and an honest-to-goodness score by Duke Ellington.
A few worthy runners-up include Samuel Fuller's The Crimson Kimono, Satyajit Ray's The World of Apu, Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life and John Cassavetes' Shadows.