10 Sumptuous Period Movies To Transport You To The 60s

They’re often referred to as the “Swinging 60s” but the decade wasn’t all fun and games. The decade was marked by its counterculture, the pushback against established social norms. The revolution included negotiation of clothing, music, and drugs. It sought to expand views on human sexuality, women’s rights, and end racial segregation and white supremacy.

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The 1960s were also a wonderful time for movies: Lawrence of Arabia, Psycho, To Kill A Mockingbird, Night Of The Living Dead, and 2001: A Space Odyssey were just a few that made huge cultural impacts. However, there have since been many modern movies set in the 1960s that tell their own alluring stories. With the benefit of hindsight and tinged by nostalgia, period films set in the 60s have a unique vibe all their own.


‘Catch Me If You Can’ (2002)

When Frank Abagnale Jr.’s family experiences hard times, his decade of fraud begins. Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) gets his hands on a Pan Am pilot’s uniform, which allows him to impersonate a pilot and start cashing forged paychecks. Having traveled the skies and cashed fake checks all over the world, Frank then poses as a doctor to win over a bashful nurse (Amy Adams) and then as a lawyer to win over her father. Persistent FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) pursues him on a global manhunt, nearly always one step behind.

Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can is a fine example of 1960s style. Costume designer Mary Zophres had Leo in a uniform that gave him immediate social status. Italian knits in vibrant colors serve for a more casual but still put-together look, perfect for fondue parties where The Kinks play on the Hi-Fi, or intimate conversations in sunken living rooms, sipping on Nesbitt’s soda. The 1960s, also called the Golden Age of Flying, was the perfect time to pose as a pilot. Flying was considered glamorous, and pilots were like rock stars. Flight attendants looked like movie starlets, selected for their looks and obligated to remain single. A bar poured generous drinks, with roast beef carved fresh at the buffet and framed artwork on the walls, creating a cocktail party in the sky as long as you didn’t mind all the cigarette smoke.

‘Girl, Interrupted’ (1999)

Winona Ryder staring through a wire fence

Based on her memoirs, Girl, Interrupted tells the story of Susanna Kaysen (Winona Ryder) and her 18-month stay in a mental health facility during the late 1960s. Her own symptoms are mostly promiscuity and inappropriate attire, which is more than enough to have a young woman committed at the time. During her stay, she meets a childlike character with schizophrenia (Elisabeth Moss), a pathological liar (Clea DuVall), a victim of sexual abuse with OCD (Brittany Murphy), and a controlling sociopath (Angelina Jolie).

The film exposes how easily women could be committed at the time, and for very little reason. Among the patients are a character with anorexia and a lesbian, since at the time homosexuality was still considered a mental health condition. The ward is supervised by a clever and sympathetic nurse (Whoopi Goldberg) who was prevented from becoming a doctor because of her race. The standard for institutionalizing women was of course much lower than it was for men, and female patients weren’t granted even basic rights, Susanna’s doctor deeming it unnecessary to inform her of her own (misguided) diagnosis. Furthermore, Girl, Interrupted shows the period’s tendency to confuse nonconformity with insanity. Susanna doesn’t share her parents’ values, which is enough for them to question her mental health. The primary symptom for her diagnosis is uncertainty about life issues; rebellion and the refusal to conform were much riskier for women than for men.

‘That Thing You Do!’ (1996)

that thing you do tom hanks
Image via 20th Century Fox

Tom Hanks’ directorial debut tells the story of the meteoric rise and fall of a pop-rock band a year after the Beatles stormed America. Guy (Tom Everett Scott) is a last-minute substitution for a drummer with a broken arm. He turns lead singer Jimmy’s (Johnathon Schaech) ballad into something more upbeat by injecting it with a classic four/four rock beat. The crowd eats it up and the pop song rockets them into whirlwind success, at least for a while.

In 1964, the Beatles first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, watched by 75 million people, nearly half the American television viewing public, sparking Beatlemania. In the wake of the British Invasion, the popularity of surf music, folk music, Nashville country music, and pre-Motown girl groups waned, making way for rock and roll bands to rise. That Thing You Do! depicts America’s craving for snappy tunes and manufactured dreamboat characters. The band’s trajectory has many similarities to the Beatles but as their name (the Oneders/Wonders) suggests, like many acts that rushed to radio play, theirs was a one-hit-wonder.

‘Hidden Figures’ (2016)

Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures recounts the vital role played by brilliant female Black mathematicians Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) at NASA in the early years of the U.S. Space Program. The West Area Computing division, where the three women work along with many other Black women, is segregated from the rest of the Langley Research Center. They are NASA’s computers; at the time, computers, as they are known today, didn’t exist, and the math used to calculate space flight was done by hand by these very women.

When Katherine is assigned to the Space Task Group given her skills in analytic geometry, she becomes the first Black woman on the team in a room full of white men. Her head engineer refuses to allow her co-authorship on papers she helped write, and her boss admonishes her for lengthy breaks, ignorant to her half-mile trek to visit a colored bathroom in another building. Jackson must appeal to a judge just to take night classes at a whites-only high school. Hidden Figures takes these trailblazing women out of hiding and credits them for battling racism in pursuit of their ground-breaking work.

‘Moonrise Kingdom’ (2012)

Slow Motion Represented in Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom

Wes Anderson’s 2012 film Moonrise Kingdom is set on an island off the coast of New England in the 1960s, where a young boy and girl fall in love and run away together. Young Sam and Suzy, both twelve, have a 60s-style meet-cute at a church pageant; their courtship is conducted in secret, over pen and paper. It takes a while before Suzy’s parents notice that she is missing.

There are no helicopter parents in the 1960s, and Sam and Suzy seem to enjoy the freedom to explore. Sam’s survival skills prove not only helpful, but attractive to Suzy. Though the kids both seem precocious, their time together is rather innocent, a real tribute to the kind of childhood that no longer exists.

‘Mermaids’ (1990)

Cher and Winona Ryder in Mermaids bathtub scene

Cher plays Rachel, an eccentric, sexy single mother ahead of her time in small town Massachusetts, circa 1963. Sixteen-year-old Charlotte (Winona Ryder) is embarrassed by her mother and obsessed with religion, set on becoming a nun, at least until she meets hunky Joe and has her own sexual awakening. Little sister Kate (Christina Ricci) swims like a fish and sees the positive in both her unpredictable mother and her neurotic older sister.

Since the Divorce Reform Act had not yet passed, single mothers were basically a source of shame, especially an unapologetic one like Rachel. Kate’s father was a one-night stand, and Rachel has recently ended an affair with her married boss: she’s a walking scandal. Though Rachel develops a healthier relationship during the film, she still refuses to marry him, which might legitimize her family. Certainly, daughter Charlotte years for a more conventional family, perhaps like the more wholesome mother on The Donna Reed Show. Their family would likely have been ostracized at the time, especially in a small-minded small town.

‘Down With Love’ (2003)

Image via 20th Century Fox

Barbara Novak’s (Renée Zellweger) best-selling book ‘Down With Love’ instructs women to enjoy no-strings sex like men – without falling in love. Meanwhile, playboy journalist Catcher Block (Ewan McGregor), finding himself portrayed as the worst kind of man, is suddenly unable to pursue the kind of affairs he’s used to. Thus motivated, he goes undercover to prove that Barbara is susceptible to love and seduce her back to conventional gender roles.

Down With Love is a sex farce and shrewd send-up to the 1960s sex comedies starring Rock Hudson and Doris Day. It’s bold, colorful, and chock-full of references to familiar screwball comedies, including split-screen telephone calls and dialogue dripping in double-entendres. Everything from the cinematography to the opening credits is carefully designed to mimic the 1960s style of filmmaking. Costume designer Daniel Orlandi created hundreds of fun looks, and the set designers went all out, indulging every trend. Sarah Paulson recreated a perfect staccato rhythm for her 1960s banter and a young Zachary Quinto makes a very brief appearance as a beatnik poet.

‘A Single Man’ (2009)

Image via The Weinstein Company

George (Colin Firth) is a single and solitary man, still grieving the loss of his partner, Jim (Matthew Goode). George has decided that today will be the last day of his life. While reminiscing about his romance, he gets his affairs in order, fastidiously preparing every detail. Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), a student, compliments his rather impassioned class that day. Sensing the professor’s depression, he keeps an eye on him. George shares dinner with his old friend Charley (Julianne Moore) and goes to the beach with Kenny for one last bit of joy.

A Single Man is both bleak and beautiful. George’s life feels dull and colorless without Jim in it. George is clearly grieving, but there’s no way for him to do it publicly in the 1960s – Jim’s family didn’t even acknowledge him despite their 16-year relationship, wouldn’t have notified him of his death, and didn’t allow him to attend the funeral. George’s last day coincidentally takes place on the eve of the Cuban missile crisis. His impressive last lecture was on fear, which clearly meant different things to different people. Director Tom Ford taps into George’s fear, and his bravery – but George is tired of being brave.

‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ (2013)


Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a young singer trying to navigate the Greenwich Village folk scene in the early 1960s. His musical partner has recently died by suicide and Llewyn’s solo album isn’t selling. He’s desperate and couch-surfing, quickly running out of goodwill. He visits friends Jean and Jim, where Jean (Carey Mulligan) quietly asks him for money for an abortion, fearing her baby is his and not her husband’s. Strapped for cash, Llewyn agrees to appear anonymously on a novelty song with Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Al (Adam Driver) before heading off to Chicago with a beat poet (Garret Hedlund) and a jazz musician (John Goodman) for a last chance at success.

The Coen Brothers reframe the vibrant, romantic folk scene through the eyes of a man who seems diametrically opposed to it. Llewyn is melancholy, cynical, and too proud to compromise. The cinematography reflects Llewyn’s frame of mind, painting New York in brown slush. Inside Llewyn Davis looks beyond the timeless folk song and gets to know the struggling artists behind them. Llewyn is penniless and partnerless, Jim sells out, and Jean is pressured to sleep with club managers just to get a spot to perform. It wasn’t all daisies and peace signs, but even in failure, there is beauty. Oscar Isaac is excellent as a moody, unlikable man who, guitar in hand, sits on a stool and pours his heart out through his song and his soulful brown eyes.

‘One Night in Miami’ (2020)

Image via Amazon Studios

One Night in Miami is a fictional but authentic-feeling account of the night of February 25, 1964, on which Muhammad Ali (Eli Goree) emerges from the Miami Beach Convention Center the new heavyweight boxing champion of the world. He celebrates with three close friends: Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), and Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge). They spend the night discussing their roles in the civil rights movement, empowering Black people and moving white people toward equality.

While spectators of the match celebrated on Miami Beach, Ali was unable to stay on the island due to Jim Crow segregation laws. Instead, he retreated with friends to the Hampton House Motel. Malcolm X and singer Sam Cooke had cheered on Ali in ringside seats; football player Brown had provided sports commentary. Although the actual conversation shared is lost to history, the four would certainly have touched on politics, race, religion, and their own roles in the Pre-Black Power Movement. Director Regina King‘s vision of this conversation between Black icons has particular significance given Ali shared with the world that he was Muslim the next day, the friendship between Ali and Malcolm X was soon fractured, and Malcolm X and Cooke were both killed less than a year later.

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