When I was in my early twenties, I worked as an usher at London’s National Film Theatre. They showed L’avventura with an earphone commentary instead of subtitles, but because I was working I couldn’t listen to the translation. Of course, it didn’t matter that I couldn’t understand a word of Italian—it blew me away regardless. The power of the compositions, the rhythm of the editing, the tone that is established from the opening frames. I decided for a while that if I was going to make films, they should all feel like Antonioni’s. I soon realized I wasn’t up to that challenge.
Five Easy Pieces
I’m also a big fan of Head and The King of Marvin Gardens, but this is my favorite of Bob Rafelson’s films. It is also one of the greatest ever about the solitude that comes from feeling adrift and morally alone in the world. I think Rafelson is oddly underappreciated, especially seeing as he made a succession of films that pretty much summed up the mood of seventies. I’m also determined to make a film with Karen Black.
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
For me, this is the greatest of Powell and Pressburger’s films. The lipstick, the bell ringing, the repressed sexuality—maybe it’s because I was once an altar boy, but I find this incredible film hard to get out of my mind. It’s like a strange, feverish dream.
Fanny and Alexander: Theatrical Version
Cries and Whispers
I was doing an assistant editor job in Prague for three months, and I brought with me about fifteen Bergman DVDs. Bizarrely, I was working on Shanghai Knights with Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson during the day and coming home to Persona in the evening. It was not necessarily good for my state of mind, but it was an amazing cinematic education. It’s virtually impossible to choose a favorite from his films, so I’ll choose two. I do think, though, that Cries and Whispers sums up what it means to be human—the moment when Agnes screams out in agony to her sisters as they stand by her deathbed “Can anyone help me?” and of course they can’t, or they won’t. Holy fuck.
Au revoir les enfants
I saw this in the late eighties in the cinema, and it was probably the first art-house film I ever saw. I can’t really remember much about it now and really should see it again, but I do remember crying for about a week.
When I was starting to think about making my own films, it was always Lynne Ramsay who I would turn to. I think she is an incredible filmmaker and one of the greatest we’ve ever had in the UK. I would watch this film endlessly, amazed by the composition, the sound design, the naturalistic acting. It is also beautifully emotional. I still put it on in the background when I write, in the hope of some inspiration. I met her briefly at an awards party last year, and I was stupidly overexcited.
The Last Picture Show
This is such a beautiful, sad movie. A film about the fifties infused with the disappointment of the seventies that, when watched now, simply seems to be about the disappointment inherent in all of our lives. Like all incredible films, it seems to burn itself into your mind like memories of your own life. Jeff Bridges is also really hot in it.
Cléo from 5 to 7
I only saw this a few years ago, and I think it’s become my favorite of the French New Wave. I think it’s virtually impossible to make a film about complex ideas and yet at the same time make it feel as light as air. It’s a thrilling film that feels very much of its period but also completely timeless.
The Man Who Fell to Earth
Along with Lynne Ramsey, Nic Roeg is one of my favorite British directors, and he had a brilliant run of incredible, kaleidoscopic films. Don’t Look Now is one of my all-time favorites, but I love this too. It really gets to the heart of feeling alone in the universe. It’s like Five Easy Pieces, but with an alien. It’s also completely bonkers.
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?