This was my grandfather’s first cinematic gift to me. He was a filmmaker who made commercials in Italy in the sixties, seventies, and eighties, and he loved Visconti, who was always his favorite. So he would make me watch films regularly, and this was one of the few that could have felt like homework but didn’t. I love where the film comes from, in terms of the evolution of Visconti’s career. I like that he started off making this pretty dogmatic neorealism and then went on to make this operatic film. The difference between the two approaches is a really beautiful manifestation of his ability to grow as an artist and also to just do multiple things. His cinematic language changed based on the people who populated his frames, and this movie feels grand because it’s got cinema royalty in it, like Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon, and Claudia Cardinale. The frame feels like it’s the right size and scope and weight for people of that stature.
This is another film my grandfather showed me at a very young age. It was one of the first times I ever saw reality unfold like that on-screen. The more I watch it, the more that different things pop out. When I was young, this was the first time I ever saw an interaction between an African American and a young Italian kid—and that was big for me, because when I was in Italy my mother was always the only African American around and I was this young Italian kid. So seeing both these cultures represented, and seeing the way they’re represented, made me realize cinema could reflect life—that it’s not just about entertainment, that it can be about something very real.
When you really think about the postwar years, the image of Italy was very much constructed through Rossellini films. In the era of Fascism, people like Rossellini and the partisan movement were silenced, so it’s not that they didn’t exist—it’s just that they weren’t allowed to be as vocal because their lives were at stake. The fact that he gave a voice to this movement, showing that Italy did in fact have this fiercely anti-Fascist side that suffered as much as anyone, I think was very important for how Italy has been seen in the postwar years. It’s one of those rare moments when a director has this deeply personal film to make that also coincides with one of the biggest events in world history. I’m definitely drawn to this tradition of filmmaking because I grew up on these films as much as I grew up on Disney.
I was lucky enough to work with Joan Tewkesbury, who wrote Nashville, and the process that she used to make the film is something that I find to be very helpful. She went to Nashville and wrote about the people she encountered when she was there. So in that way, the film was born out of the place. It wasn’t a film that tried to encapsulate the place but a film that tried to grow out of it. There’s so much realness there. For people who didn’t live in that time, that’s the image we now have of Nashville then, in the same way that Paisan created that image of Italy.
When you see A Constant Forge, you realize that Cassavetes was living his films at all times. That’s something I definitely tried to do with my past two films—I wasn’t just going somewhere to make a film, I was really living it and making it a lifestyle. There’s sort of an inherent sloppiness that comes with that, but I love it because it feels like the result of just trying to capture what’s happening as opposed to constructing what has happened. I love Cassavetes in general, but Faces in particular has to be one of his most honest and real films, and it definitely feels like it has a maturity to it that you don’t find as much in Shadows, even though Shadowsis incredible. Rossellini always said the shot doesn’t need to be pretty, that for him the first thing is to keep the audience close to the characters and to follow the characters. And in Faces, there are a ton of out-of-focus shots, and it’s anything but pretty. It’s not a film that strikes people because of the magnitude and beauty of its images. It’s more about the relationships and the real life that you feel in it.
Army of Shadows
To me, these are the two best resistance films ever made. And each is its director’s best film. I saw them very early, and they were very formative for me. They really show the complex nature of resistance, glorifying it but also showing the compromises you have to make when you’re in wartime.
I love that The Battle of Algiers starts off with that line: “None of this is documentary footage.” What audacity to be like: this is going to feel and look so real that you’re going to think this is a documentary, so I need to tell you that it’s not. It’s a way of setting the bar so high, and then the film lives up to it and surpasses it! You feel the ambition in all of it. It’s just spectacular in every sense of the word.
Army of Shadows is similar, though obviously it’s much more in Melville’s cinematic language. Something that has always struck me is that by the end of the film everyone does exactly what you would expect them to do, what they’re supposed to do, but it still just leads to fucked-up situations. It’s this real mess of an ending, but it’s all grounded in very real decisions that I can sympathize with across the board. It’s rare to see a film that gets to the humanity of every decision, to the point where they’re lived-in, not just plot points.
The Battle of Algiers
I saw this when I was very young. It was the first Fellini film I ever saw, and it is without a doubt my favorite Fellini film. There’s so much pathos in it. I love Nights of Cabiria, but for me this is Giulietta Masina at her best. Casting her as a clown—with her expressiveness and over-the-top facial expressions still feeling so grounded—combines realism and spectacle in one person. To me, that makes her one of the greatest of all time. When I can’t get to sleep at night and I don’t want to start a new book, I’ll put this on, and if I stay awake for the whole thing until five o’clock in the morning, I’ll be okay being tired the next day, knowing that I watched it.
The Secret of the Grain
I’m as influenced by contemporary filmmakers as I am by past filmmakers, so for me it was important to put two of them on here. The two films that my crew, my cinematographer, and I talk about when we’re going out to shoot are The Secret of the Grain and Fish Tank. They’re reference points for us.
The lived-in intimacy of The Secret of the Grain and those two dinner sequences! The story is great, it’s fun, it’s engaging, but those dinner scenes are moments that have touched me very much. I felt, for the first time, that I was truly living with people I didn’t know. The film has these ongoing dialogue scenes that just feel so natural, even though they’re constructed, and those kinds of scenes set the bar for what cinema can do.
Fish Tank I love because I love Andrea Arnold, and I can relate to this young protagonist who isn’t so goal-oriented. It’s not like she’s got a mission. She’s just trying to grow up, and she’s as confused about her life situation as anyone else. And it leads her to make some bad decisions, but ultimately we really like her because we know what she’s going through. She’s never presented as someone who we need to decide whether or not she’s likable. There’s an ambiguity to her presentation—you’re just letting her be herself. To me, it’s one of the great examples in modern cinema where a director casts someone and lets the person take over the role, as opposed to tailoring the person to the role as written. I think the movie benefits from that, and everyone around her just falls into her world. Michael Fassbender—you’ve never seen him like that, not because he’s better than he’s ever been, but because he’s forced to deal with the energy of this girl who’s just being herself. So this is just one of those movies I have to keep showing to people who haven’t seen it and have to keep watching to remember that representation of that girl, which is as good as anything I’ve seen in modern cinema.
Pier Paolo Pasolini
For me this is Anna Magnani’s best performance. She’s unbelievable in it. Just seeing this woman put herself in this situation and work the way she has to work—though we never doubt why—creates an unbelievable amount of empathy. There’s empathy in that world, and also poetry. That long shot where she’s walking on the outskirts of Rome and there are those lights behind her and she’s owning the fact that she does what she does—it’s not portraying her as this pathetic, sad woman who is forced to do this because life is so hard. It’s still celebrating her life. She’s not living in her own tragedy. There’s a connection that Pasolini always had to his characters that was inspiring, and he was never going to judge people with a normal ideological or moral compass.
Salvatore Giuliano was my first introduction to Rosi’s work and today remains my absolute favorite of his films. It is the film that taught me that historical and political films don’t necessarily need to be didactic and lacking in tension and narrative energy. It is a film that explores the many shades of an incredibly important moment in Italian history, without judgment and without an overt agenda, and that is something I have always valued in cinema. Among the writers on the film is Suso Cecchi D’Amico, who coauthored some of my favorite films, including The Leopard, Bicycle Thieves, and Rocco and His Brothers. She is also credited on a film I hope Criterion will release in the future, Scorsese’s My Voyage to Italy.
Do the Right Thing
Love, love, love it. I just recently saw it again in Palermo, and it was a new experience for me to watch it without Americans. People certainly laughed at different things and found different things fascinating. But the idea of letting a predominantly white audience into this block works. It’s a way of opening doors and being like, this is what it’s like on my block. There are obviously some didactic moments and caricatures, but at the same time the dynamics still feel real today. I still think it’s Spike’s best film, and he knocked it out of the park. It’s probably his best performance as well.
Michael Barker’s Top 10
Michael Barker and his copresidents at Sony Pictures Classics, Tom Bernard and Marcie Bloom, have brought out some of the best and most successful independent and international films of the last two decades, from Women on the Verge of a Nervous Break…