For one of the weirder and more opaque viewing experiences out there, watch Alphaville. It’s just such a strange movie, and yet it conjures a future world that somehow makes sense. The weird jump cuts when intergalactic detective Lemmy Caution fights bad guys are hilarious. And deeply strange. And hilarious.
It’s so lovingly conceived, every frame packed chock-full of beauty. Bill Murray is hilarious and tragic. Jason Schwartzman is a revelation. But the moment Miss Cross tells off Max Fischer, asking him what he thinks he’s specifically going to do with her if they get together, is one of the more chilling scenes put on film. After establishing a beautiful, borderline precious world where a precocious kid rules a storybook school, shit suddenly becomes real.
James L. Brooks
I watch this film once a year. I’ve studied it. I’ve graphed it out. After hundreds of years of love triangles, to have resolved one in such an original way is truly astounding. The moment William Hurt deceives Holly Hunter with the fake crying is just heartbreaking. Not to mention the sweating set piece, which is among the great comedy bits. It also introduces our three main characters with startling economy and humor, a feat that is near impossible.
When I was a kid, the ending of this movie, where Kevin’s parents touch pure evil and explode, scared the shit out of me. I know Brazil is technically the more mature of Terry Gilliam’s films, and yet this is the one I go back to again and again. I’ve watched it many, many times since then, and I still don’t understand how it works. Gilliam creates an entirely plausible alternate universe with its own unspoken internal rules. It’s nightmarish and yet taps into what every kid desires/fears . . . the need for life beyond the yoke of one’s family. That last moment—which I’m sure was just a goofy set joke—was my first taste of existentialism. It freaked me out. I still don’t cerebrally understand why that moment ends the film. And yet it somehow works. I have yet to introduce this film to my daughter. Not sure when/if I will.
Monty Python’s Life of Brian
After I saw this film and began quoting it every chance I got, my adolescent virginity was sealed. In addition, it’s one of the best films ever made about religion.
The Ice Storm
The tragedy of this movie strikes out of nowhere and yet remains completely inevitable, which is the best sort of storytelling. It captures how sex is dangerous in a visceral gut punch. Even though this is very much a period piece, the themes remain timelessly disturbing. And the haunting sound design of the clinking ice-covered branches stayed with me long after the film ended.
As a screenwriter first and foremost (and a director with little to no innate visual sense), I tend to prize narrative and story over most other elements in film. Amarcord arguably has neither. And yet I love it. I want to live in this town, wander among these streets, live with these characters. It also has an oddly casual sense of horny humor that remains surprisingly shocking. A throwaway moment of a car full of teenage boys masturbating never fails to make me laugh out loud. It also revels in odd details—a priest smelling his fingers, for example. It’s so gross. And yet so awesome.
Scenes from a Marriage
When I saw this, I remember thinking, Oh, so this is what everyone has been ripping off. Watching Marianne and Johann’s marriage dissolve is terrifying and hilarious and chilling. Watch the long TV version. Make sure to have Prozac handy.
Paths of Glory
What starts as a seemingly normal black-and-white war movie becomes a tense hellscape only Kubrick could conceive of. Devoid of sentiment, this perfectly captures the nightmare of war, and World War I in particular. I made the mistake of picking this one for date night. My wife has yet to forgive me.
Being John Malkovich
I didn’t know you could just do this. Seriously, you can just do this?
This Is Spinal Tap
Do I really need to elaborate on this one?
Michael Atkinson’s Top 10
Michael Atkinson writes film criticism for IFC.com, Sight & Sound, and Moving Image Source. His books include Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood and the novel Hemingway Deadlights.