High and Low
I love Kurosawa’s crime movies. The first half of High and Low is so well told, paced, acted, and shot—and it’s all in one room! Then you get into this fascinating police procedural where Toshiro Mifune and his family vanish and the cops take over. I mean, this movie has the “guy unloading crates while being questioned by the cops” scene that is in every Law and Order episode. Kurosawa’s influence is always being felt!
The first lines of Stray Dog are Mifune’s cop reporting that his gun has been stolen. It really grabs you. You immediately know this guy is in deep shit, and because it’s Mifune, you want to see him get that gun back. And then Takashi Shimura shows up, and you’re off and running. By the end of this movie, you’ll have the AC cranked!
Ozu! One of my wife’s favorite movies. Good Morning is a sweet and simple story about two Japanese boys who refuse to speak after their parents won’t buy them a television set. It also has a lot of fart jokes.
David Gordon Green
When I first saw David Green’s George Washington, I was completely blown away by it. The scene where George saves the white kid in the pool, despite his head injury, always makes me cry. Thanks for that, Daaaaave!
Stephen Frears’s The Hit is John Hurt (in a truly frightening performance) and a young, punked-out, Chinese-star-throwing Tim Roth (ditto) as two hit men transporting stool pigeon Terence Stamp (what a fucking cast!) from Spain to Paris to meet retribution from the crime boss he put away. Add seductive Laura del Sol and music by Roger Waters and Eric Clapton and you have one of my favorite British crime movies ever.
When I first saw Mona Lisa, I had no idea who Bob Hoskins was (I was eight). I honestly thought they paid some low-rent criminal money to be in this movie. He was so believable that when I saw Who Framed Roger Rabbit, I was like “Hey, that guy really turned his life around. This movie is huge. Good for him.”
Dazed and Confused
I first saw Dazed and Confused the day I got my driver’s license. It was like an instruction film on what was in store for me. I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma. They were in Texas. This movie was my exact high school experience if you just replace Kiss with Phish.
Bottle Rocket remains my favorite Wes Anderson movie—and I love all of his movies. Dignan was a character I felt I knew from my life but had never seen in a movie, much less as the lead of a movie. “How did an asshole like Bob get such a nice kitchen?” is one of my favorite lines . . . and it’s offscreen.
I read about Repulsion in a book about horror movies when I was thirteen. I smuggled it out of my local Blockbuster when they wouldn’t rent it to me (I switched its box with Father of the Bride). Watching it late at night and feeling I was getting away with something while being scared shitless was an experience I’ll never forget.
Brian De Palma
I love early Brian De Palma thrillers, and this is one of the best. Margot Kidder and Jennifer Salt are great. What Psycho did for taking a shower this movie did for giving a birthday cake to your girlfriend. And where Charles Durning’s character ends up is hilarious.
The Earrings of Madame de . . .
Thanks to Criterion, I could finally see the Max Ophuls movies I’d been reading about for years. The story of Madame de . . . on paper doesn’t really interest me, but in the hands of Ophuls, Danielle Darrieux, Charles Boyer, and the great Vittorio De Sica (who’s not only a fantastic director and one of the fathers of neorealism, he’s also damn suave), it’s a movie that truly amazed me. I could watch those dancing scenes for hours.
Le plaisir is probably my favorite Ophuls movie. It’s three stories by Guy de Maupassant. The camera work in this movie (as in all of Ophuls’s movies) is astounding. The masked figure dancing in the first story is incredibly haunting. Then there are the tracking shots from window to window at the bordello in the second story. And there’s a camera move in the third story that, given the equipment of the time, has to be one of the best in film history (I can’t say what it is or it’ll ruin the story—you’ll know it when you see it).
Down by Law
When I was seventeen, I dressed like John Lurie and Tom Waits in Down by Law. They were the apex of cool in my book. This is my favorite Jim Jarmusch movie. The “I scream. You scream. We all scream for ice cream” scene is classic.
I’d read Scorsese, Tarantino, and Jarmusch raving about Jean-Pierre Melville for years. Then I read how Paul Thomas Anderson’s brilliant first movie, Hard Eight, was an homage to Melville’s Bob le flambeur. I had to see one of his movies but couldn’t track them down at my local Tulsa video store. My first night in L.A., I walked down to the newly opened Cinephile video store and rented all of them! Le doulos is my favorite. It’s one tough-guy movie. Great ending!
Ace in the Hole
I like Billy Wilder best when he’s nasty. Five Graves to Cairo (especially that ending), Double Indemnity, but nothing, nothing, beats Ace in the Hole. Kirk Douglas is so despicable, but you understand why he’s doing what he’s doing. You oddly feel for him at times. I love that Wilder takes us there.
Sullivan’s Travels, along with The Miracle at Morgan’s Creek and Unfaithfully Yours, is my favorite Preston Sturges movie. I love how you can never guess where this story is headed. Then, when the ending and the message reveal themselves, it’s hilarious, ironic, and moving. And the documentary on Sturges on the Criterion DVD is priceless.
The Thin Red Line
The Thin Red Line is extraordinary. It’s war seen from the POV of God or something. There’s a spirituality that you don’t see in a lot of war films. The battle for the hill is amazing. Ben Chaplin receiving the letter from his wife is heartbreaking. And the music is great. I was so happy Terrence Malick decided to make another movie after twenty years.
The Steel Helmet
I discovered Sam Fuller’s films when I was twenty, after seeing The Typewriter, the Rifle & the Movie Camera on IFC. I love how tough and authentic this movie feels. Gene Evans is so scary. The way he eats that cantaloupe and says “That man’s nothing but a corpse. Nobody cares who he is now,” is truly frightening.
Monty Python’s Life of Brian
Life of Brian is the one Monty Python movie that really works as a movie (they’re all funny). The hardest I ever saw my dad laugh is when it cuts to the Sermon on the Mount and the camera slowly zooms back to reveal a huge crowd of people listening and finally settles on Terry Jones, playing Brian’s mother, at the very back, and he shouts “Speak up!” One of the best comedies ever.
This Is Spinal Tap
I first saw This Is Spinal Tap when I was seven or eight, and it totally changed my life. This was comedy. This was how you performed comedy. It gave me a leg up at an early age. The Criterion disc is a must because they do commentary out of character. Listening to those three guys talking about how they created and related to these characters, how they approached scenes, and where the inspiration for each scene came from taught me a lot. Thanks, Criterion!
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.