The 400 Blows
For every lonely, mixed-up kid like I was, the great François Truffaut’s universal classic can still move and enthrall. Heartbreakingly sensitive without ever being sentimental. I believe Mr. Truffaut created the freeze-frame ending with this film, which has the effect of letting us consider what happens at turning points, and not just in Antoine’s life. And best puppet show ever in a movie.
Burden of Dreams
I recently made a documentary about going to Moscow to try to help turn Everybody Loves Raymond into a Russian sitcom. And I had some problems. But this, this was nuts. It’s the ultimate nightmare and the wildest making-of movie. One of the all-time great metaphors for art, or life, dragging a steamship up and over a mountain was Fitzcarraldo’s burden. And so it was of the filmmaker, the great and possibly crazy Werner Herzog. Among the beautiful insights here are his rants against nature. That’s what keeps me inside watching movies.
Harold and Maude
A hilarious, twisted, gorgeous love story between a teenager, Bud Cort, and an old lady, the magnificent Ruth Gordon. Indelibly directed by Hal Ashby, it features one of the best soundtracks ever—all classic Cat Stevens. Still can’t hear “Trouble” without seeing a hearse drive off a cliff.
The Lady Eve
Preston Sturges at his best. This was the first of his films I ever saw, in a revival at the Regency in New York, and it was a revelation. You’ve never heard dialogue so funny or move so fast. Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda are hysterical, and it has maybe my favorite line ever in a movie—Fonda asks a fancy old society lady at a dinner party if he’s missed anything. She says, “The fish was a poem.”
The Last Temptation of Christ
This is real passion, compelling enough to make an atheist think about things. I’d put it up with Scorsese’s best. It’s obvious he put his heart into this moving, very human, modern depiction of a very old story.
The Night of the Hunter
When I first came to town, in 1989, I was hired to work on a sitcom starring Robert Mitchum. Yes, really. And at the first writers’ meeting, I mentioned to the more senior staff members that I was kind of excited to meet him. Well, most of the other writers had never seen Mitchum in anything, so I invited them over to watch a video of The Night of the Hunter, arguably one of the great pieces of art in movie history. It’s somewhat surreal and heightened and theatrical, and they laughed at it. I knew then I was in a world of trouble. It’s the only movie directed by Charles Laughton and one of the only screenplays written by James Agee. Mitchum is an evil “religious” fraud, and Lillian Gish is the embodiment of good. The movie scares you, then makes you cry at how beautiful it is. The sitcom was cancelled after seven episodes.
Hitchcock’s best movie? It certainly is as close to perfect as you can get. Brains—the story, dialogue, and direction. Beauty—Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant. Plus, thrills, romance, uranium, and Nazis. And another laugh line I’ll never forget, from Claude Rains’s mother to him: “Luckily, we were protected by the enormity of your stupidity.”
The Red Balloon
If you were ever bullied, as I was, you probably dreamed of being a little French boy who had a magical red balloon that, together with all the other balloons in Paris, would pick you up for a trip above the city to a place far away. You didn’t? I didn’t really either. I actually wanted a gun, but this nice little movie was a safer fantasy. If you are being bullied, by the way, it’s clearly a mistake to hold on to your balloon.
For most of the movie, you’re laughing and wondering, How could Preston Sturges not be as famous a funny filmmaker as Billy Wilder or Woody Allen? And then a turn in the third act seriously raises the stakes and the movie becomes a harrowing drama. If you haven’t seen it, I won’t ruin the end, but if you’ve ever tried to make anyone laugh, or found laughing your favorite sound in life, this is your movie.
Sweet Smell of Success
The ultimate film noir that’s not about violent crime, it’s just character assassination at its most brutal. Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster are beyond iconic in their performances; they become the embodiments of a rancid spirit that can sometimes be found in New York, in show business, in every business everywhere, where money talks and I’ll walk over your body to get some. “I’d hate to take a bite outta you, Sidney—you’re a cookie full of arsenic.” I like to say that to my wife.
Tracy Letts’s Top 10
Tracy Letts is an American playwright, screenwriter, and actor. He received the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for drama for August: Osage County and a Tony Award for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?