David Maysles, Albert Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin
The age of innocence that was the sixties ended, it is often said, at Altamont Speedway, miles from the peace and love of San Francisco, one cold fall evening in 1969. The Rolling Stones, frustrated to have missed out on the Woodstock festival weeks earlier, chose this location to stage their own festival, and taking advice from Jerry Garcia, brought in local Hells Angels chapters to handle security, paying them with as much beer as they could drink. The concert was a disaster, and ended with manslaughter. The documentarian brothers Albert and David Maysles were there to film the run-up to the event, the performance itself, and the aftermath. Mick Jagger has never looked so lost onstage, nor would he be quite so out of control again. Strangely, it seemed only to fuel the Stones’ rise to power—but then, the Beatles were about to call it a day. Essential viewing for anyone who loves contemporary music and the culture that surrounds it.
D. A. Pennebaker
Take great care with this documentary film of an all-day concert staged by John Phillips in small-town Monterey, California, for it holds within it the greatest single performance by any electric-music instrumentalist you have ever seen, or are likely to: the U.S. debut of the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Known as the man who revolutionized the electric guitar, Jimi Hendrix appears onstage in this film a man possessed. As David Bowie sang in “Ziggy Stardust”: “He could lick ’em by smiling/ He could leave ’em to hang/ They came on so loaded, man/ Well hung and snow-white tan/ . . . He was the nazz/ With God-given ass/ He took it all too far/ But boy could he play guitar.” Never will you see a performance so sensual. There are many great films to be found of Jimi playing, but none to rival this. In Monterey Pop, there are many performances worth watching, seminal, even—Janis Joplin, Otis Redding among them—but they are all just warm-up acts to Jimi, the greatest rock-and-roll star to ever tread the boards.
The 39 Steps
This was the first thriller I ever saw—on our eleven-inch black-and-white TV set in the small living room of my parents’ home in the suburbs of Birmingham. It was the most romantic and exciting thing I had ever seen, and I can still get lost in it today. The 39 Steps is the blueprint for all the classic Hitchcock films that would follow. Sexy stars, fantastic locations, and quirky cliff-hanger scenes that you want to watch over and over. In this film, it is the Mr. Memory scene that I look forward to most, and every time I see it, it still makes me jump!
In 1985, I was taking meetings in Hollywood, looking for film work. An agent at Universal said to me, “Come back tonight, I want to show you a film we need help with, and we’d like your take on it.” I dutifully showed up at the Hitchcock Theater on the Universal lot and was granted an exclusive screening of this film, Brazil. Within minutes, my mouth was dry. I knew I was viewing a masterpiece, and yet they wanted my input on it. Of course, I had so many ideas, I would have said anything to get a chance to be a part of it, whatever it was (I had not been told anything about it). I called my friend Russell Mulcahy and told him, “I’ve just seen the most extraordinary film, and Universal want some music ideas from me.” “Don’t touch it!” said Russell. “That’s Terry Gillam’s film. He’s in a battle with Universal over it.” With some disappointment, I knew whose side I had to take. But I did get two pneumatic tapes of the film in the mail for my trouble. For months, I played it on my first flat-screen TV, just freezing on shot after shot for days on end. Weirdly perfect.
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
Quintessential Englishness and the quivering heart that beats beneath the stiff upper lip. This is a most wonderful story about love and friendship, and how duty can get in the way of both. Perfect performances by Anton Walbrook and Deborah Kerr, and Roger Livesey as the colonel. When Theo, played by Walbrook, the colonel’s adversary in wartime but now his friend, announces to him that Edith (Kerr) and he are to be married, both the colonel and Edith realize that his stiff upper lip has gotten in the way of their chance at real love. The directors capture this moment so tenderly and beautifully it is impossible not to cry. Set against the backdrop of forty years of twentieth-century war, it is a very sad film that is also both exciting and hilarious. Churchill decided it was negative propaganda and banned it. Michael Powell proposed marriage to Miss Kerr in Hyde Park, opposite the entrance to the Dorchester hotel. She declined. A movie about broken hearts.
Smiles of a Summer Night
My favorite of Ingmar Bergman’s many great films. Funny, romantic, and profound, it is the most perfect period costume dramedy. “Love is the perpetual juggling of three balls: heart, mind, and body,” says Eva Dahlbeck as the aptly named actress Desirée Armfeldt. Tell me about it! Gunnar Björnstrand is great as the unbearable lawyer Egerman, playing against the delightful trio of Swedish actresses Harriet Andersson (beyond cute), the aforementioned Dahlberg, and Ulla Jacobsson. A good entry into the world of Bergman for anyone who is expecting dark meditations on mortality.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
Before Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy there was the bleaker, 1960s John le Carré, who wrote the novel upon which this film is based when the cold war was at its coolest. This meditation on spy-craft by Martin Ritt is Brit-noir at its finest. Richard Burton as the alcoholic Alec Leamas oozes arrogance and desperation in equal measure, and with wonderful performances by Claire Bloom and the always interesting Oskar Werner, this is a spy movie Bergman could have made. An unusual saxophone-driven score of terrific atmosphere—I once chased all over London to find it, returning home to find the album disappointingly did not feature the best cues.
Wings of Desire
The film that restored grace and poetry to Berlin and the German language after forty years of stereotypical war movies featuring stereotypical German actors playing the parts of stereotypical Germans. The fog of war had settled over Birmingham when I came along in 1960, and there was no moving it for some time. Nothing about Germany was to be trusted, as even its postwar art was tainted by the events surrounding the Holocaust, unsurprisingly. But I was glad when this movie came along, despite the awful history of the twentieth century, as it allowed me to love Germany for what it is now, its language, the sound of its spoken word and all its formidable arts. Wim Wenders must surely be Germany’s greatest living director.
The Silence of the Lambs
I went to see this on opening night at a Los Angeles cinema, having no idea what the heck it was about or what to expect. The room was sold out and I had to sit (with Gary Kemp) in the front row. Holy shit! After several scenes with Anthony Hopkins’s Hannibal Lecter, I turned to Gary and said, “He’s going to be on the cover of People magazine next week.” One could feel the audience adjusting to what they were watching, as the stakes were being raised, scene by scene. It was perhaps the most visceral cinema-going experience I have ever had. And it wasn’t just opening-night thrills. It’s a beautifully made drama, with the most fabulous production design (by Kristi Zea), that happens to double as a horror film. Like with all of my favorite films, I am happy to watch it once a year. The Silence of the Lambs raised the bar for contemporary popular filmmaking. Somewhat like Pulp Fiction or Jaws, it changed everything.
Robert Altman turns his multilevel, multidimensional auteur’s eye on the short stories of Raymond Carver, and creates one grim portrayal of Los Angeles culture that will leave you breathless. Many of the stories that make up Short Cuts could have spun off into TV series, so well drawn are the characters. Released after Altman’s smash hit The Player, Short Cuts came across as a disappointment, but after a recent viewing, I feel Short Cuts to be the superior and more lasting success. A killer cast that never gets in the way of the material has to be an all-time favorite of mine. With Tim Robbins, Julianne Moore, Robert Downey, Jack Lemmon, and Jennifer Jason Leigh.
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.