This is my favorite film. By all accounts, the making of Godard’s first commercial movie was a nightmare for him, and you can see his own contempt written all over it. First he tells us that what we are about to see is fake, and then he proceeds to mock the commercial film industry for the rest of the movie. Some moments in the dialogue seem intentionally ludicrous, like when Paul describes his relationship with Camille through a heavy-handed interpretation of the Odysseus/Penelope myth. The stream of visual absurdities (Prokosch’s tiny book, Paul typing with two fingers, even the final car crash) discourages us from ever taking anything too seriously. Yet because Godard never tries to make us buy into a bunch of psychological hoopty-hoo, this film is devastating and feels realer as a depiction of a crumbling relationship than anything else I’ve ever seen. We’ve all known this couple: after the first flush of romance, the woman finds herself financially dependent on some self-centered, brutish mediocrity with a roving eye. We watch Camille vacillate between the horns of her dilemma in a totally believable way before making the decision to leave Paul and go back to being a typist. As the only non-cartoon character, with her convincing mix of youthful insecurity and defiant self-regard, Camille becomes the whole world of the film. The cinematography and score are perfect, and the final shot of the Mediterranean destroys me every time.
Vittorio De Sica
People often talk about this film’s main character, Antonio Ricci, as if he’s some kind of allegorical everyman at the mercy of his circumstances. In fact, he is heartbreakingly specific. He almost misses out on the poster-hanging job because he’s dawdling behind the other men waiting for job announcements. He fails to notice his wife struggling with two heavy water buckets before he helps her out. He’s careless with his bike and does a lousy job of pasting up his first poster, leaving it full of lumps. He often takes off running without looking back for his son Bruno. He doesn’t notice when Bruno falls down in the busy street and at one point leaves him in the market to be preyed on by a pedophile. Bruno, on the other hand, shuts an open window to protect his baby sibling sleeping nearby. He shoves a priest out of the way who stands in front of him. He cuts in line when visiting the fortune-teller La Santona, fetches the cop when the thief is found, and saves his father from prison. These moments of characterization build and build to the point where seeing Bruno see his father’s hat on the ground is almost unbearable. When the distraught Bruno takes Antonio’s disgraced hand in the end, what we feel for them is overwhelming.
Nights of Cabiria
This is my favorite Fellini film because it’s the one I identify with the most. On the surface, Cabiria has her act together. She insists on working for herself. She owns her own house and has savings. Even when she’s feeling awed by a big movie star, she stands up for herself and yells at him when he orders her around. But the instant she’s alone, vulnerability and self-doubt are written all over her face, and she is at the world’s mercy. Throughout the film, you feel everything Cabiria feels. For me, one of the most horrifying shots of all time is one in which Cabiria is sitting in a restaurant displaying her gigantic bundle of money to the man who is going to steal it. When I showed the film to my mother, she was traumatized by that image as well and kept saying, “I couldn’t stand to see her holding that huge money!”
This film has one of the best endings I’ve ever seen, starting with the sword fight as remembered by the woodcutter. Up until this point, the fights have looked the way fights usually look in movies. But here, from the moment we see the samurai and bandit’s two sword tips enter the frame, trembling in their shaky hands, we’re in a much more believable world, where people are afraid to kill and be killed. And then there’s this conversation between the priest and the commoner:
The priest: It’s horrifying. If men don’t trust each other, this earth might as well be hell.
The commoner: That’s right. This world is hell.
The priest: No, I believe in men. [Pressing himself against the wall in anguish.] I don’t want this place to be hell.
That moment when the priest presses himself against the wall and says “I don’t want this place to be hell” sums up pretty much everything I’ve ever tried to express in my own work. The happy ending, where the woodcutter walks off with the abandoned baby as the sun comes out, always makes me cry.
Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
I love Stanley Kubrick so much that the mere mention of his name is enough to make me smile involuntarily. This is not my favorite Kubrick film, but it’s terrific. Peter Sellers. The war room. The Coke machine. The way each plot element triggers the next like falling dominoes. It’s a perfect machine. There are so many funny and absurd lines: “Now look, Col. Bat Guano, if that really is your name” and “Of course it’s a friendly call. Listen, if it wasn’t friendly, you probably wouldn’t have even got it.” As always, I love Kubrick’s bureaucratic, non-psychological language. His persistent return to flat, transactional dialogue provides the perfect banal foil to his wilder, more imaginative moments.
I love, love, love this film. From the opening credits, with the sunflowers and jump cuts, to the sociopathically ruthless ending, Varda keeps me on her hook. This film represents my worst nightmare vision of the world. Its characters are, for me, the most terrifying types in existence: people so saturated with complacency and narcissism that they are blithely amoral in their pursuit of more and more joy. At the end, when François and his new wife/childcare-provider walk off in their matching autumn-colored sweaters, I’m on the floor in a fetal position. There are a lot of little gifts in the film to help counteract the trauma: the dissolves to primary colors, the jump cuts, the woman in a red dress kissing the man hello in the café, the bright green drink on the table. The Renoir-inspired design and peppy Mozart score make the nightmare pop in an unsettling way.
My favorite Tarkovksy film is Stalker, and it would have been number two on my list if it were part of the Criterion Collection. But Solaris is great, too. Its main characters have no qualities that interest me, and some elements in the film seem purposely absurd. The clumsy pseudo-scientific dialogue, for example, or Kelvin’s ridiculous “futuristic” outfit with its unflattering yellow mesh shirt. And yet somehow I find myself absorbed into the world of these people I don’t want to care about. The images and pacing have a hypnotic effect that causes me to be like, “Oh no, Kelvin feels bad!” even though I don’t like Kelvin. You know that old saying about how a good actor can read the phone book and make it sound interesting? I feel like Tarkovsky could make a compelling film out of the phone book.
Djibril Diop Mambéty
In general, I’m not a big fan of French New Wave films, and Touki bouki is clearly inspired by their characteristic fragmented, slow-moving, alienating quality. But the world of Touki bouki is so beautiful and engrossing that it sucks you right in. When the cows come toward the camera in the opening shot, you know immediately that these cows have been color-coordinated to within an inch of their lives. I love this kind of super-deliberate film where each frame could stand on its own. Even the piles of garbage are perfectly composed. Mambéty’s visual sense of humor is terrific: the man trying to break up a fight between two women only to get beaten up himself, the taxi driver running away in his yellow socks, Mory in the paddleboat with the lecherous Charlie. The main characters, Mory and Anta, never ask for our sympathy, because they are too cool for us.
For me, Eraserhead is all about when Henry goes to visit Mary’s family. Those scenes hit the sweet spot of surreal absurdism, which is something I never really see in film, although it happens often in experimental theater. In film, the weirdness is usually either too grounded in narrative, which makes it too normal, or not grounded enough, which makes you stop caring. At Mary’s parents’ house, the squeaking puppies, Mrs. X brushing Mary’s hair when she starts to freak out, Mr. X’s non sequiturs, the catatonic grandmother being made to mix the salad—it all walks the knife-edge between craziness and normalcy in a way that’s both hilarious and disturbing. The scene where Henry starts to cut the chicken and everything goes bonkers is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. I think the dialogue in this film is great—I wish there were more of it.
I can’t forget the well-known facts surrounding Polanski’s flight from the U.S. in 1977, or excuse some of the things he’s said since about women, but somehow this man has made one of my favorite female-driven films. For me, its power lies in the meticulous way it unspools Rosemary’s inevitable undoing. It’s a near-perfect metaphor for the hell that is a woman’s life when she loses her rights over her own body. Rosemary fights as hard as she can to defeat the satanic forces stacked against her, and the tragic futility of that fight reflects a world that is as familiar as it is frightening.
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.
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