12 Angry Men
I’m grateful I saw this movie when I was twelve years old, without a scrap of cynicism. It was my first exposure to the anatomy of a sequestered jury. I remember I couldn’t wait to get my turn to serve, to be like Henry Fonda and repudiate bigotry once and for all. This was the American dream—not a Cadillac and a cigar but justice—righteousness and fair play that any child could understand.
Beauty and the Beast
If only all romances were like this. Until you love the Beast, and the Beast adores you, you have no idea what erotic yearning and sacrifice could amount to.
The Battle of Algiers
I suppose there is a theme to my puberty list that could be summed up as “Live Free or Die Trying.” There is no battle for liberation, no desperate struggle to be seen on your own terms, that does not owe a debt to this film. Such sentiment is delivered romantically, tragically, and with unbearable beauty in this grande bataille, the likes of which you can still feel all over France, all over the world.
Je tu il elle
I remember going to my first “gay” film festival in the ’70s, with its tiny newsprint program, folding chairs for the audience, a complete underground experience. I asked my companion, “When do we see a lesbian movie?” Chantal Akerman’s avant-garde jewel was my first. My God, talk about ahead of her time. A proto-punk dyke protagonist, a butch, a whore, an outlaw, the unrepentant seize-fiend of all she sees . . . We still fight for glimpses of such antiheroines in the movies. Julie/Chantal is, regretfully, still a woman on the edge of antipatriarchal time.
Harlan County USA
I found out in my thirties that Barbara Kopple’s effort is considered one of the greatest documentaries ever made. At the time of its release, I only knew that she had all but recorded my own life as a union organizer—the cold breaking dawn of the picket line each morning, sniper shots fired by company thugs, all completely unseen by the mainstream media.
I was in Detroit, Compton, Louisville—she was in Harlan. We both lived on scraps. I slept with a shotgun at my side, sang our strike songs until my voice was raw. The ’70s were the last great militant era of American labor, but back then, we were just amazed to be able to fight one more day.
Kopple’s characters were my comrades across the hollow, so to speak—and these Brookside women weren’t beauty pageant winners, either. They were the toughest leaders I’ve ever known. The most charismatic feminist icon of those years for me wasn’t Gloria Steinem—it was Lois Scott, a Brookside strike leader, drawing out a .38 from under her blouse, concealed in her bra.
The Harder They Come
I first saw this in Detroit— I was seventeen, it was 1975. We lit up our Colombian spliffs, along with everyone else in the theater, an all-smoking venue. I’d never listened to reggae before. I’d never seen a movie where the hero is last pictured in a rain of gunfire, still blasting his pistol, the immortal prince.
I hid my eyes from many of the scenes of cruelty: the sadistic pastor assigned to “care” for our young Ivan, the vicious corruption of the record companies, dope kingpins and government goons—who seem to be one and the same. When Ivan punctuates his overdue revenge strokes with a knife with “Don’t. Fuck. With. Me!”—I wondered if I’d draw another breath.
Mon oncle Antoine
I emigrated to Canada with my mother the year Mon oncle Antoine debuted, the same time that the U.S. was doing nuclear testing on Amchitka Island, off the coast of British Columbia. The FLQ (Front de libération du Québec) was flourishing. Canadian radio was given a mandate to stop playing American bubblegum round the clock.
In this era of radical identity building, along came a candle-lit holiday fable set in an undertaker’s home in rural Quebec. The nephew of Antoine is a young boy coming of age in a world that no one outside his cloistered family could imagine.
Mon oncle Antoine is about the sexual, material, and death’s-end taboos in a small village—and the taboo against anyone outside of it ever learning of such things.
Some people puzzle over why this film keeps being called Canada’s finest decades after its release, when so many other artists have surpassed its modest ambitions.
It is because of this: It was the beginning of saying, “We are not the back forty of the U.S.; we are not a trinket of the queen’s; our land and generations have given us a purchase of our own.” It was the beginning of remarkable Canadian filmmaking.
Pickup on South Street
I’m still trying to learn the pickpocket techniques demonstrated in this Sam Fuller classic. It was my introduction to film noir—a late-night-TV memory that wouldn’t let me go back to sleep.
I am still trying to be as brave and cocky as Thelma Ritter, or as wanton as Jean Peters in the clutch—“Sometimes you look for oil, you hit a gusher.”
And if I ever have as satisfying a bowl of chow fun as they do in South Street’s Chinatown . . . I’ll die happy.
This is supposed to be a little McCarthy-era rant against the Reds, but it’s really about “civilians” versus the lumpenproletariat, artists on the game, loyal to a code that the squares will never understand.
Scenes from a Marriage
“Why didn’t you marry?” I’ve often been asked.
Maybe it’s because my father took me to see Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, three hours long, when I was fourteen years old.
So this is what adults talk about when children are out of the room!
Little did I know that most searing breakups do not include lovers who are this articulate, this prescient.
Color me gone, baby.
I wouldn’t have seen this movie at twelve. I wouldn’t have understood anyone who didn’t have a mission, a point.
But at nineteen, my face was gravel from “points.” I was ready for a whole lot of steel nothing, an empty road at high speeds, an existential needle guiding my arms. I knew little or nothing about automobiles, but I fell in love with this road trip, and made a couple myself, LA to Detroit, Tijuana to Spokane, no sleep, all little white pills and mud coffee.
I never saw anyone as beautiful as James Taylor and Dennis Wilson passing me on the left, but I was ready to follow.
Iron and Wine’s Top 10
Samuel Beam is an American singer-songwriter (and former film studies professor!) better known by the stage name Iron and Wine. His last album was 2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog, and a follow-up is in the works.
Dick Cavett’s Top 10
One of the United States’ most beloved talk-show hosts of all time, Dick Cavett has been a presence on television since his first interview program, This Morning, debuted in 1968.
James Schamus’s Top 10
James Schamus is the former CEO of Focus Features; the producer of, among other films, Ride with the Devil (1999) and Brokeback Mountain (2005); the screenwriter and producer of The Ice Storm (1997); and a professor of professional practice at Columb…