This has to be number one because it’s the film that opened the door to foreign cinema for me. I first saw it at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1967. I was stunned by the playful mix of romance, jazz, gangsters, and Paris. I must have seen it fifteen times since. In 1976, I played the lead in an homage to Breathless, Amos Poe’s Unmade Beds—though my connection to Belmondo sadly ends there.
The Soft Skin
It’s impossible to pick just one Truffaut, but I keep going back to this, partly for the luminous performance by the late Françoise Dorléac. Truffaut’s adoration of his leading ladies always translated beautifully to film. The story is of the adulterous-homicidal type that Simenon favored.
This film is another touchstone for me, and I have based several paintings on it (as well as on many other films on my list). Toulouse, France, during the German occupation. A very odd romance blooms between the mismatched young couple. Aurore Clément is fabulous. Pierre Blais died soon after. Great Django Reinhardt soundtrack.
I Knew Her Well
A cautionary tale of a sexy girl on the go in swinging Rome. Nineteen-year-old Stefania Sandrelli imbues her bubbly ingenue with undertones of desolation. The camera stays very close to her and records every nuance of her passing moods in a palpable way, as she is exploited over and over while managing to maintain a fragile dignity.
The 39 Steps
This classic adaptation of John Buchan’s book is one of Hitchcock’s last British features and is filled with brilliant and funny set pieces. Dapper Robert Donat and plucky blonde Madeleine Carroll on the run from the good guys and the bad guys, moving from London to the Scottish highlands.
This film knocked me out. A quiet tale of a likable young Englishman, it charts his course from signing up for the army to participating in the Allied invasion on D-Day. His story is brilliantly intercut with footage of the actual war in Europe from the Imperial War Museums’ archives. Devastating.
No Criterion ten-best list would be complete without an Antonioni. L’eclisse has his signature combination of modern and ancient Italy, architecture, desire, sports cars, and alienation, and perhaps the most photogenic of all screen couples, Monica Vitti and Alain Delon. Accompanied by a fragile bit of music by Giovanni Fusco, the last few minutes are almost Japanese in their Zen-like minimalism.
Jonathan Lethem’s Top 10
Winner of a 2005 MacArthur Foundation Fellows Program genius grant, Jonathan Lethem is one of America's premier contemporary writers. His works include the novels The Fortress of Solitude and Motherless Brooklyn.