This is an amazing film, so visually stunning and strange and melancholic. It’s a good film to remind me of a time period that I was living at that time; it made me feel very heavy, you know, as a kid in 1985. I would have been twelve or thirteen, and it was just a formative time of existence. It affected me in a pretty intense way, just simply by its mood alone. Terry Gilliam’s imagination was so surreal and rich. And the propulsion of the story with the atmosphere in this world, and the gadgets and inventions and trials that all these characters have to go through, it’s a fantastic voyage of the mind.
Breathless is a film very much about passion and life lived solely by the fuel of passion, which is very French. I like the pacing of it, and I like that the lead actress is an American speaking French. It was nice to hear a character speaking French who still has an American accent. Generally it’s an American actor trying to do a French accent as though they were a French person speaking English, which is ridiculous. So it was kind of nice to see and hear this terrible French accent, which is only because she’s not a native speaker. The remaster is stunning—it looks so good on Blu-ray. It looks almost like it’s a modern film.
PlayTime is an incredible film. I just love the idea of staging scenes that look familiar but don’t function as the scenes we imagined them to be. And I like that he was fascinated with the mundane. So there’s an airport setting and there are people wearing uniforms and people that look like passengers waiting, and there are scenes occurring, but it’s just the form of a scene that you have seen in some way many times.
The way he mixed sounds, where the background noise was louder than the dialogue—having that buried in the background when people spoke is just really brilliant filmmaking. I love the recontextualization. And it’s a masterpiece, with long, huge, choreographed shots of all these entrances and exits and things happening in the background and foreground. So where you’re placing your attention has been subverted so you don’t quite know what you’re looking at or what to look at. And that is incredibly impressive and very inspirational.
Dazed and Confused
When I saw Dazed and Confused, it would have been the early ’90s. I remember I was in Seattle at the time, and I went to the $1.50 movie theater we had, the UA 150, which no longer exists. I’ve always been a fan of time travel and I remember going to Dazed and Confused and being transported to that time period. I just lost it. I really felt what it was to be in that time period because, although I’d been a small kid, I definitely remember the ’70s. It’s mostly a feeling, but that movie took me right back there. It was amazing, everything about it. It was only one day, an intense day, but at that age one day can mean everything. The archetypes and the way the high school was filmed, it just felt really grounded. I grew up in Great Falls, Montana, and I related to the setting and the people. Sociologically, it just nails human behavior. There’s nothing absurd about it. And Ben Affleck plays an asshole, which he’s perfect for.
I wouldn’t say this is one of my favorites, but it was definitely shocking—a very challenging film and a very delicate subject. It’s dark, psychological, and medical—which is not necessarily the best combo for, you know, a date movie. But there was nothing like it. There was nothing like it before and I don’t think anything really like it afterwards. To me it felt like a risk, and I enjoyed that aspect of it.
Fantastic Mr. Fox
I love Wes Anderson, and I can only compare his movies to other movies he’s made, because you can’t really compare them to other directors’ films. Obviously, Wes lives in a world that’s like his childhood, and he draws from a delicate, nerdy kind of etiquette-obsessed fairy-tale world in many different ways. There’s an elegance about what he does and an absurdity that’s almost otherworldly. His sensibility lies somewhere between the late ’50s and the late ’60s, with modern elements in there, but really it feels like an old storybook. So Fantastic Mr. Fox, I’m sure, is something he was dreaming of and you can really feel that. The casting was awesome—I love George Clooney, and I thought he was perfect for it. The pacing of Wes’s dialogue is perfect for animation—snappy, zippy, cartoonish, cute, but with an adult wink. It was incredibly well shot and the music was incredible. I just had a really good time. It was a very, very enjoyable film for any human being.
The Great Dictator
I saw this one as a kid on PBS, I think. It was weird timing for that movie when it came out, and it was perceived in many different ways. I think it was probably one of the boldest statements from Charlie Chaplin. And I remember as a kid being very confused because I was terrified of Hitler. My mother’s family, her aunt, went to Auschwitz and a couple other places. And she wasn’t Jewish, but she was captured and thrown in with everybody else and went through some pretty heavy shit. So all of the stories I had heard, and the symbol of that being Hitler, was terrifying. I knew what he was trying to do, which was show the absurdity of people who have so much power built off of insecurity and what they’re willing to do, and then just showing him as an imbecile.
As a kid that was an important thing to see, because it took the mickey out of something that was incredibly terrifying. I don’t think any other film can really touch what he did, and I don’t think you can really do that again. It was a first in a way, and there is not really a comparable thing in history that’s so singular that you could make fun of. So I think for me, as a kid, it was nice to know that you could disarm something so terrible. I was a huge Charlie Chaplin fan, and I loved seeing all of his slapstick comedy, but that one did me in.
The Ice Storm
Another time travel movie, as I call it. I love the pacing of the film and how strange it was. When I saw it I just fell into the reality of the movie, just seeing him get on the train and head out to this place that he’s not excited about going to, and then getting there and being trapped by the forces of nature. Again, for me, some films just have an immersive atmosphere—and the music, and all the shots, the period that’s it’s in, and the casting, it just really transported me to that time period. And I love Sigourney Weaver. I’ve seen other things that she’s been in, but for the most part I think of her as the, you know, Alien. So to see her in something that I was excited about, and just as a character, that was great.
But it was a very transporting movie. If a piece is going to take place in the past, I want it to feel like that, whatever that means. If the details aren’t right, it will take me out of the movie. And with The Ice Storm I just fell into that reality so hard-core. I just remember it being like, “Oh my god.” I think I saw it twice because I worked in the movie theater at that time and saw it for free.
It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World
It’s a mad movie. It’s just insane. This was the first movie I remember having so many stars that I loved. My favorite scene is when the older woman realizes that her son-in-law lives close to the treasure, so she calls him up. I remember the phone ringing and ringing, and when they cut to her son, he’s with a girl in a bikini doing the twist to some song. And she has this disaffected look on her face, just staring into nothing. The son is in a ’50s-style bathing suit just jumping around her going, “Yeah. Go.” That moment is something I’ve put in theater pieces, and even when I go out and I’m on the dance floor, I think of that scene. So if that movie gave me anything, aside from the excitement of seeing all these awesome comedic actors, it was that moment. I love that old-style humor, you know, like Some Like It Hot, just over the top. I think comedy was done with a lot more class back then. And that was a crossover period. It’s hard to get that these days. Now it has to be cool. Back then it just had to be crazy and zany. That movie should be listed next to the definition of “zany” in the dictionary. “What is zany?” “Watch this movie.”
I just recently saw Slacker, actually, within maybe the last year and a half. It definitely marked a certain bracket of youth at that time—and more specifically, Austin. But I love the way he captured this lackadaisical, lethargic driftiness, and conversations and characters and life. I love that trick where people are just talking and walking down the street, and then suddenly someone walks out to get something from the mailbox or something and the camera just stays with them and it becomes their story for a moment. That structure totally fascinated me. Even when I was in Seattle in the ’90s, that idea of people just hanging out, and you don’t even know what you’re doing, you’re just spending time with people and talking philosophy, but it’s not really going anywhere. You’re just talking about things to talk about things, and I really identified with that. I’m surprised I didn’t see it back then.
I’ve walked around Austin and done nothing and just had some random conversations with strangers and that spirit still exists there, to a certain extent. It’s not what people who are productive members of society would say is a good way to spend time, but I actually think nowadays that’s kind of a premium. I would like more of that in my life at this point, because just the overstimulation and how much information is pouring in constantly is ridiculous and also kind of false. There’s this sense of urgency and importance that we have with time. And a lot of it has to do with technology and the culture that builds around that. But I think a movie like Slacker is hard for people to watch these days. Their attention spans are much shorter, and Slacker is the antithesis. Many of the movies in the Criterion Collection are atmospheric, and sometimes people are like, “I don’t know what to do with this.” But to relax into it and use that as an example of another way of existing, I think, is important. So Slacker both reminded me of a time period and also kind of reminded me of the importance of that way of being.
Johnnie To’s Top 10
Prolific Hong Kong filmmaker Johnnie To has directed more than forty films, including Election, Exiled, and Mad Detective. His latest, Vengeance, is currently in some North American theaters, from IFC Films.
Michael Barker’s Top 10
Michael Barker and his copresidents at Sony Pictures Classics, Tom Bernard and Marcie Bloom, have brought out some of the best and most successful independent and international films of the last two decades, from Women on the Verge of a Nervous Break…