The White Sheik
Nights of Cabiria
No other filmmaker’s movies have reached me as directly and deeply as Fellini’s. I’m very familiar with the criticisms that have been leveled at Fellini’s work—and they hold no sway over me. There’s far too much to say about the films on my list, so here are a few random things I love. The White Sheik: Alberto Sordi’s hilarious faux suavity while trying to seduce a naive provincial woman. I vitelloni: Franco Fabrizi’s pathetic lothario, Leopoldo Trieste’s deluded would-be writer, Alberto Sordi’s sad, daydreaming freeloader—Fellini sees all of these aimless young men with great honesty and tenderness. Nights of Cabiria: the heartbreaking final scene, a woman stripped of all physical and spiritual worth yet somehow still able to find consolation in the very innocence and joy that have been denied her. 8½: I can’t think of another black-and-white movie that has so much white. The high-contrast cinematography is breathtaking. In one flashback to childhood, Guido is being bathed and cared for by various aunts. It’s a child’s experience of maternal love that cannot be re-created in adult life—as Fellini later illustrates with a twisted version of the same scene in Guido’s absurd harem fantasy. Fellini always claimed the movie was a comedy, and I tend to agree. Amarcord: Fellini revisits the same territory as I vitelloni but in his later, color-saturated, theatrical style. It is provincial life described by a highly unreliable narrator, where the mundane transforms into the magical. A few indelible images: lonesome boys waltzing to music from a nearby grand hotel, townspeople carting their old furniture to the square for a massive bonfire, the immense luxury liner Rex, Gradisca’s sad little wedding, the floating dandelion puffs that mark the return of spring . . .
Fanny and Alexander: Theatrical Version
Through a Glass Darkly and The Silence strike me as two of the most psychological films ever made. The former dramatizes madness, and it doesn’t shy away from the despair and horror of the subject. It is equally fascinated by the way that lives are halted, turned, and redirected by tragedy. The Silence is possibly the most Freudian film ever made, a fever dream about the short journey from sexual ecstasy to absolute despair. Fanny and Alexander was Bergman’s Amarcord, a melancholy epic punctuated by moments of unexpected joy. It’s an incredibly rich film, a culmination of a life spent mastering film and theater. All three of these movies were shot by the great Sven Nykvist.
Vittorio De Sica
I once took a girlfriend to see this movie, after which she complained that it was the most depressing film she’d ever seen. I should’ve known right then and there that our relationship was doomed. It depicts the harsh toll of loneliness, humiliation, and indifference to the suffering of others; what it’s like to live in a world where empathy is in short supply (which is usually the case).
The Last Picture Show
Youthful optimism and sexuality are thwarted by the bitterness of a crumbling town in Peter Bogdanovich’s lovely film of Larry McMurtry’s novel. One can feel the influence of John Ford and Orson Welles in both the deep focus compositions and the unexpected bursts of volatility. For example: there’s a fantastic scene where an argument between Jeff Bridges and Timothy Bottoms escalates into a fistfight—the shots start to come faster and faster, almost every new shot from a different camera angle, culminating in a shocking moment of violence.
Chaplin’s great satire on the American fantasy of infinite progress. For a movie about the plight of the dispossessed, it is overflowing with hilarity. Perhaps my favorite visual gag in any movie: a flag falls off the back of a passing truck. Chaplin picks it up and waves it exuberantly at the driver—just as a mob of protest marchers come up the street behind him, causing the police to mistake the Little Tramp for a radical leader.
Aside from being suspenseful, inventive, and ridiculously entertaining, it contains the single greatest kissing scene in cinema. Also, the final ten minutes are perfect. This movie is a master class on how to imply something truly erotic without showing it.
The Third Man
Much has been written on this great film—I would just say that I am always struck by how perfect Joseph Cotten is as a foil to Orson Welles (not for the first time, of course). Cotten flawlessly captures Graham Greene’s cynical view of American naïveté on matters of international affairs and the mysteries of human behavior.
Sweet Smell of Success
Tony Curtis as a terrible man and Burt Lancaster as something even worse, in one of the greatest showbiz movies ever made. James Wong Howe’s gorgeous cinematography and Elmer Bernstein’s jazzy score (with an assist from the great Chico Hamilton Quintet) all contribute to the alluring nocturnal Manhattan ambience. Alexander Mackendrick also directed great Ealing comedies, including The Ladykillers and The Man in the White Suit.
Stranger Than Paradise
I was an undergraduate art student when this film came out, and it was the reason I decided to apply to graduate film school. I find it hard to imagine the independent film movement without Stranger Than Paradise. It is entirely personal and impossible to copy —the kind of movie I hope for all the time.
I love Mike Leigh, and this is one of his best. A brutal character study, it’s a journey into the psyche of a man at war with himself and the world. Bleak, hilarious, and uncompromising. Also, the DVD includes Mike Leigh’s wonderful, demented short film The Short and Curlies (featuring another great performance by David Thewlis).
Jonathan Lethem’s Top 10
Winner of a 2005 MacArthur Foundation Fellows Program genius grant, Jonathan Lethem is one of America's premier contemporary writers. His works include the novels The Fortress of Solitude and Motherless Brooklyn.
Georgia Hubley’s Top 10
Georgia Hubley is one of the founding members of the Hoboken, New Jersey, band Yo La Tengo, whose The Sounds of Science, a score to eight Jean Painlevé shorts, is available on Criterion’s DVD set Science Is Fiction: 23 Films by Jean Painlevé.