I know, I know, it’s such a cliché for a director to like Fellini’s 8½, but it’s a great movie. To capture both stories and feelings from your youth and tell tales of how weird and nerve-racking it is to make a movie while at the same time being unbelievably entertaining is a true accomplishment. Whenever I’m in a bad mood, I just need to put on the music Saraghina dances to on the beach and I’m happy again.
Harold and Maude
I saw this movie in our local Michigan theater when it first came out. I was a teenager, and the only other people in there were a pair of teenage girls who were completely grossed out by the film and vocally disapproved of every scene. But for me, the movie was a revelation. The dark comedy, the amazing performances, and the soundtrack of Cat Stevens songs culminate in one of the most beautiful, emotional film endings ever, making this one of those movies I can and have watched more times than I can count.
Loves of a Blonde
This is such a simple and funny movie that tells what is at its core a very sad story about a young woman trapped in Communist Czechoslovakia. The actors and faces that Milos Forman cast in all the roles are fantastic and real, and the young piano player’s tired and fed-up parents are two of the funniest, most subtle characters I’ve ever seen in a movie. This is one of my favorite movies to turn people on to, since very few people have ever seen it.
Alberto Sordi, the star of several early Fellini films, is both hilarious and heartbreaking in this story of a well-intentioned man who gets caught up in a horrible situation while trying to do the right thing for his family and hometown. I love Italy anyway, and so the black-and-white cinematography of Sicily alone is worth the price of admission. It’s one of those comedies that stays with you long after you’ve watched it.
Two words: David Thewlis. He gives one of those performances that you can’t believe actually exist. He is an absolute force of nature in this film, playing what is essentially an extremely unlikable character that you can’t help but be completely compelled by. It’s the most verbal movie since His Girl Friday, and experiencing the nonstop dialogue that comes out of Thewlis’s mouth is like witnessing all of the world’s greatest jazz artists playing a euphoric two-hour concert at once.
Nights of Cabiria
Giulietta Masina is absolutely lovable and hilarious as a street-smart prostitute trying to find love in Rome. Just like she did in La strada, she creates an extreme yet real character that you want to befriend even as she frustrates the hell out of you. But it’s her sweet toughness that makes you both laugh and suffer with her. It’s really a delightful film.
It’s hard to pick which of Kurosawa’s films is my favorite, since they’re pretty much all top-ten worthy. But for sheer spectacle and beauty, Ran is pretty hard to beat. The cinematography is unreal, the acting heightened and emotional, and his use of music and sound (and the sometimes dramatic lack of it) shows a master at the top of his game. I’ve lived my life by the Kurosawa quote “An artist is one who never averts his eyes.” Make sure you don’t avert your eyes from this classic! (Yes, I just said that. You’re welcome, Criterion!)
Score by Philip Glass. Score by Philip Glass. Score by Philip Glass. Score by Philip Glass. Score by Philip Glass. Score by Philip Glass. Score by Philip Glass. Score by Philip Glass. That’s about all I have to say. Probably the greatest score for a movie ever. And it’s an amazing film with amazing cinematography to boot. But in case you didn’t hear me: score by Philip Glass.
Stranger Than Paradise
This movie came out when I was at film school, and everybody was talking about it. However, I resisted seeing it, because it sounded pretentious to me, the idea of a movie made up entirely of single-take scenes with black in between. It wasn’t until a couple years later that I saw it and realized it’s one of the oddest, most sincere and funny movies I’ve ever experienced. Entirely human and completely unique, it’s a movie I’m pretty sure I could watch every day of my life and still enjoy each time.
This Is Spinal Tap
The granddaddy of all modern comedies, Spinal Tap set the gold standard for the mock documentary. Just like with Stranger Than Paradise, I had an encounter with this film when I was in film school: I drove past the set one day in downtown L.A. and saw the band in their wardrobe walking to the set, and thought it looked like some dumb movie with crazy costumes. Little did I know I was so close to the set of one of the funniest movies ever made.
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.
Ricky Jay’s Top 10
Author, actor, and historian Ricky Jay first worked with director David Mamet on House of Games. They have since collaborated often, including on seven films, the TV show The Unit, the one-man Broadway show Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants, and Redbel…