An early sixties, black and white British gem from John Schlesinger. Tom Courtenay plays a dreamer who wants to bust out of his small town with the help of Julie Christie. One of the saddest endings to a comedy I’ve ever seen. I saw John Schlesinger give a Q&A after a special screening at the Film Forum, and he said he didn’t feel that the ending was sad at all, just appropriate to Billy’s character.
I watched this 1947 stark, black and white, noirish prison drama as part of research for a film I directed called Animal Factory, written by novelist and ex-convict Eddie Bunker. For years I thought director Jules Dassin was a Frenchman working in the U.S. I was surprised to learn he was an American (Russian Jew) from Connecticut who fled the U.S. during the red scare of the fifties. He ended up in Paris and made the wonderful French film Rififi, which added to my confusion. The Naked City (1948) by Dassin is also a classic, shot on gloriously gritty locations in New York City.
The Honeymoon Killers
I guess I’m a sucker for black and white. This 1970 independent classic is from writer/director Leonard Kastle, who took over after Martin Scorsese was let go. Shirley Stoler is funny and heartbreaking as the homicidal, jealous companion of scam artist Tony Lo Bianco. Based on a true story, it held particular interest for me because the killers at one point decide to retire to suburban Valley Stream, Long Island, the town where I primarily grew up and directed my first film, Trees Lounge. I once worked with Tony on an episode of the TV series Homicide and excitedly told him he had one of my favorite lines in one of my favorite movies. After sizing me up for a few seconds, he replied, “Well, that would have to be the Honeymoon Killers, and the line of course is, ‘Valley Stream. Valley Stream. What a joke!’”
Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, and Benoit Poelvoorde
Man Bites Dog
Another black and white, this one from Belgium, 1992. I think I saw it at the Toronto Film Festival with Quentin Tarantino. It’s a hilariously dark, fake documentary about a serial killer and his concerned friends and family. It’s not for everybody, but it genuinely shocked me while I laughed my ass off. Kudos to directors Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, and Benoît Poelvoorde.
Gus Van Sant
My Own Private Idaho
It’s hard to pick a favorite Gus Van Sant film, but this one has my favorite River Phoenix performance. It took me a while to warm up to the story while watching it, but by the end I was loving it. I like when movies sneak up on you that way. And hey, it’s in color!
David Maysles, Albert Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin
Okay, back to black and white, a (real) documentary from the talented Maysles Brothers and Charlotte Zwerin about door-to-door Bible sellers. I probably shouldn’t say this, but Richard Linklater sent me a bootleg copy he made when he screened it at the Austin Film Society in the late eighties. I loved the handheld camera work and how each salesman is depicted as a nuanced, dramatic character. Deeply moving, but not without a sense of humor.
What can I say? Robert Altman interprets Raymond Carver with an amazing cast of characters. Look at any of Altman’s films and you’ll find they are among the finest examples of collaborative efforts, yet unmistakably and uniquely his own. I was lucky enough to get to work with him on Kansas City, and briefly on Tanner on Tanner, and will always be inspired by his vision, independence, and generosity of spirit. About Kansas City he once said to me, “I don’t care if this film makes a nickel—I want it to be successful on my terms.” Then gesturing toward himself and me, he added, “Our terms.” We’ll miss you forever, Bob.
Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Two Takes by William Greaves
This title never comes through the spell check unscathed. I love director William Greaves’s bravery for making this outrageously fascinating experimental feature that pushes the boundaries of what’s traditionally accepted in film. There are actually two films here. The first one, which he made in the late sixties, was somehow denied a proper release, and the sequel (of sorts) he made over thirty-five years later. Part one was my favorite discovery at Sundance 1992, and I was proud and honored to have worked on the second installment. More to come, Bill?
This Dutch director George Sluizer is actually a Frenchman, or born in France anyway. This creepy 1988 thriller about a woman abducted and the torment her kidnapper puts her boyfriend through was remade by the director as an American film in 1993. But check out this original and see if you don’t have nightmares.
A Woman Under the Influence
I have been under the influence of John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands and their extended family in film ever since I saw a retrospective of Cassavetes’s movies at MoMA soon after he died. I could have listed any number of his films: Faces with Seymour Cassel and Lynn Carlin, Opening Night with Rowlands and Ben Gazzara, or Husbands with Peter Falk . . . it doesn’t matter. Each film is made with a love, passion, and style unique to John, and inspiring to the rest of us.
Ramin Bahrani’s Top 10
Iranian-American writer and director Ramin Bahrani’s feature films include: Man Push Cart (2005), Chop Shop (2007), Goodbye Solo (2009), 99 Homes (2014), and Fahrenheit 451 (2018).