All That Heaven Allows
In preparation for my Christmas film, White Reindeer, I watched this movie and wrote down a description of every single shot, including each camera move and change in blocking. Not only is Heaven Sirk’s most fully realized, subversive takedown of suburban hypocrisy, it’s also the best Christmas movie of all time, and such a marvel of style and camera direction that you barely notice how intricate its construction is until you force yourself to examine it. Sirk said that, in cinema, “motion is emotion,” and that ethos reaches its zenith in the zoom in on Jane Wyman’s reflection in a television screen. This is nothing less than the greatest dolly movie in cinema history. If anyone ever tells you irony and sincerity can’t coexist, tell them they are painfully, tragically wrong.
Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles
I first saw this movie on a third-generation bootleg without subtitles while I was making my first real movie, Modern Love Is Automatic. It changed the way I made that movie (there were pickup shots in Modern Love that were slated “Jeanne Dielman, take 1”) and the way I thought about movies, art, and time in general. This movie never gets enough credit for how funny and tense it is—it’s equal parts scathing satire and deconstruction/reinvention of the Hitchcockian thriller. Film financiers of the world, give all your money to twentysomething Belgian women.
The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant
Rainer Werner Fassbinder
“I hope to build a house with my films,” Fassbinder famously said. “Some of them are the cellar, some are the walls, and some are the windows. But I hope in time there will be a house.” For me, the front door to that house is The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. I first watched it when I was home from college one December, and my young and impressionable mind was instantly changed. The use of long takes, the meticulous, ever-moving camera direction, the outlandish costumes, the emotional cruelty, the wigs . . . Fassbinder finds beauty in despair, and despair in beauty, but ultimately knows that the real truth lies in the costume changes.
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
The most beautiful movie ever made. The face of an aging nun, photographed in an extreme close-up, has the same power and emotional weight as a lush landscape of the matte-painted mountains of India. Powell and Pressburger understand that both the face and the mountains are landscapes, interior and exterior. Erotic tension has never bubbled under the surface of a movie as well as it bubbles here. When it explodes, it is genuinely insane. Only Isabelle Adjani in Possession comes close to matching Kathleen Byron’s portrait of unhinged madness. To watch Black Narcissus is to know the limits of ecstasy.
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls
Russ Meyer’s magnum opus is a singular, nonstop whirlwind of a movie—and proof positive that the style of a work can also be its substance. Meyer was one of cinema’s most meticulous craftsmen and also one of the most innovative editors of the twentieth century. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is a beautiful, visceral movie, and it’s so far ahead of its time that we’re still catching up with it. Nothing here is accidental. This is capital-A Art. Anyone who thinks this movie is “so bad it’s good” has no sense of taste or style and is probably bad in bed.
Au hasard Balthazar
As the son of an Episcopal priest, I have a semi-complex relationship with religion. I’ve remained fairly agnostic throughout most of my life, but I admire the seed of the Christian myth—that there can exist in the world a love that gives and asks nothing in return. No movie crystallizes this idea better than Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar, which rips my heart out every time I watch it. The Christian ideal exists in humanity fleetingly, but by casting a donkey as his Christ surrogate, Bresson evokes the saintly disposition to which we should all aspire as effectively as (if not more so than) Roberto Rossellini does in The Flowers of St. Francis.
Tout va bien
Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin
I love this movie and its revisionist style and its radical politics, but most importantly there is no more punk-rock move in cinema history than having the opening credits be the checks that you’re writing to the cast and crew. Godard—the rich-kid film nerd to end all rich-kid film nerds—gets the machinations of the motion picture “industry” better than any of us. Contempt is masterful, Weekend is a lark, Tout va bien burns everything to the ground.
As a child, I wanted to grow up to be a professional cartoonist, and when I was about twelve or thirteen my father (right around the time he showed me The Rocky Horror Picture Show) handed me a Washington Post article about Robert Crumb and said, “Here, you might be interested in this.” And boy, was he right! Like finding out that the Cramps and Meet the Feebles existed, this was revelatory. I didn’t know you were allowed to make art like this. (And of course, in Crumb’s case, sometimes you’re not.) Zwigoff’s portrait-of-the-artist-as-nihilistic-misanthrope is one of the all-time great docs about creativity and the toll it can take (see Burden of Dreams for another one!), and on top of that, it’s caustically funny and soul-crushingly humane. Where have you gone, Terry Zwigoff? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.