The Bank Dick
I wish young actors and actresses were better versed in the work of Fields, Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, and even lower-brow comics like the Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, Jerry Lewis. Actors can partly cultivate a sense of humor from observing and mimicking our forebears. W. C. Fields makes me laugh more than any other film actor. His performances seem effortless, as if Fields is just doing Fields, but he deserves more credit than that. He constructed and honed his character over a twenty-year stage career. That character, known in The Bank Dick as Egbert Sousé, is the cinematic progenitor of a comic archetype: the lazy, drunken misanthrope. Fields wasn’t the innovator that Chaplin or Keaton was, of course, and in fact, his movies are not great. They’re flimsy vehicles for his routines. But I’ve also come to believe that’s part of the joke. “Can you believe they made a whole movie about this guy?” The Bank Dick also features several great comic character actors, such as Franklin Pangborn, Grady Sutton (as Og Oggilby), and Shemp Howard. I wanted to put Contempt on my list but Godard never put Shemp in a movie, know what I’m saying?
Cries and Whispers
I could have easily filled this list with ten Bergman movies. (Cries and Whispers, Fanny and Alexander, The Magician, Persona, Sawdust and Tinsel, The Seventh Seal, Smiles of a Summer Night, Through a Glass Darkly, The Virgin Spring, Wild Strawberries—there, I did it anyway.) His filmic artistry, his seriousness of purpose, his love of actors, and, above all, his literate examinations of the human condition never fail to inspire me. I think I’ve stolen more from Bergman than any other writer. Cries and Whispers is a masterpiece. Visual storytelling, a lean narrative, exacting characterization, formal experimentation—all in the service of painful, honest humanity.
La dolce vita
My favorite Fellini movie changes as I age. At various times in my life, I might have cited 8½, The White Sheik, Amarcord, even Casanova or City of Women. The movies don’t change, of course. The viewer changes. And now La dolce vita speaks to me in its sweep and totality. As a younger man, I probably only responded to the higher-energy scenes, the orgy, the press corps, Ekberg. But now, at fifty-two, I’m flooded with sadness by the visit from Marcello’s father, and the Steiner storyline and the final moments provoke existential dread. The title used to seem like a winking joke to me. Now it feels more like a punch in the stomach. La dolce vita is forever.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle
My dad took me to a drive-in to see this when I was eight years old. It was badass then. It’s badass now. The great George V. Higgins contributed a tough but artful new authenticity to American crime writing. David Mamet, among others, owes a lot to Mr. Higgins. And Christ, Mitchum is fantastic.
The Gold Rush
One of the movies that teach you what movies are. Even if you have no interest in The Gold Rush’s innovations, it’s still funny, suspenseful, moving. Try watching it with the sound completely off—it still works.
The Last Picture Show
It’s hard to believe a movie like this was once considered not only culturally impactful but mainstream. If The Last Picture Show could even get made today, I’m sure it would make a hundred dollars at art houses in New York and Los Angeles before going to Netflix in a month. I grew up in a small town in Oklahoma, not far from the setting of The Last Picture Show. Though I lived there in the seventies and early eighties and not the early fifties . . . though my town was in color and not black-and-white . . . Bogdanovich and Larry McMurtry evoke the way life felt for me. I knew some Sam the Lions, was closely related to some of them. As the movie suggests, they are now extinct. Every element of this film succeeds, and yet it is bigger than the sum of its parts. A profound film about the vanishing of character in America.
Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence
A story about compassion and forgiveness set in a World War II Japanese prison camp, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence seems to improve with age and repeated viewings. The screenplay, by Nagisa Oshima and Paul Mayersberg, based on a book by Laurens van der Post, is oblique, brutal, poignant. Tom Conti, David Bowie, and Takeshi Kitano all give first-rate performances, and Ryuichi Sakamoto’s score is heartbreaking. The last five minutes never fail to destroy me.
Are L’avventura and L’eclisse considered the superior films in Antonioni’s unofficial trilogy? I prefer La notte. The details of the lives of the Pontanos give La notte humanity and universality. I identify with Giovanni’s vanity and insecurity, and I identify with Lidia’s melancholy. The story, by Antonioni, Ennio Flaiano, and Tonino Guerra, makes the abstractions specific and the specifics abstract. A work of art.
Owns a spot on the Mt. Rushmore of Foundational Westerns (with, oh, let’s say Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine, and Shane). Everybody involved worked at the height of their powers: Borden Chase and Charles Schnee, two of the best screenwriters of their era, wrote challenging, complex characters; John Wayne was at his best when he played a son of a bitch (also, The Searchers); Montgomery Clift, taking the baton from John Garfield, was preparing to pass it to Brando and Dean; Dmitri Tiomkin composed an iconic score; Hawks synthesized all.
“He was in Luther and Nobody Loves an Albatross.” “Ectopic pregnancy.” “Chalky under-taste.” “Tannis root.” “All of them witches.” “What have done to his eyes?” “He has his father’s eyes!” “The Year is One!” And that’s just off the top of my head. Movies are rarely as quotable as Rosemary’s Baby, and no other horror movie comes close. Of course, those quotes come from a screenplay, written by Roman Polanski, who was faithful to the novel by Ira Levin. The whole enterprise is both hilarious and unnerving, a combination that is hard to pull off. It’s one of those movies, should you stumble upon it while flipping channels, you just can’t turn off.
James Schamus’s Top 10
James Schamus is the former CEO of Focus Features; the producer of, among other films, Ride with the Devil (1999) and Brokeback Mountain (2005); the screenwriter and producer of The Ice Storm (1997); and a professor of professional practice at Columb…