Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
I would like to go on record as saying that creating a top ten list is a living nightmare and I don’t know how anyone does it. That being said, let’s come out of the gate, straddling a bomb, with Dr. Strangelove. It’s perhaps an overstatement to say this movie shaped my entire conception of comedy, but it’s not that much of an understatement either. So: a statement. To me, this is the best Kubrick film. I think of the line “Don’t say that you’re more sorry than I am, because I’m capable of being just as sorry as you are” all the time.
Fanny and Alexander: Theatrical Version
This is generally known as Bergman’s most personal film, a complete masterpiece and triumphant study of childhood and the human condition, but I came to it by accident. This is a bit embarrassing, but I was about fifteen and I thought it was the movie adaptation of Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. To a highly untrained teenager’s eye, there are just enough similarities—like messed-up bourgeois family dynamics as seen through the prism of siblings—that I must have thought, “Well, I guess the whole thing just takes place over Christmas now. And they changed the names. And everyone’s Swedish.” Best cinematic mix-up of my life. Even better than that time in college when I drunkenly watched the second disc of Magnolia first and thought it made total sense.
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
The Red Shoes
This is the finest movie ever made about art and the romantic choices made by artists. I blame it only for the total crap it’s spawned on the same subject, some very recent. It’s almost too beautiful and too heartbreaking to think about, which only makes me want to stop typing and see it again. I know nothing about ballet or cinematography, but even I can tell when a movie is not merely a movie but an indelible imagination tattoo.
Do the Right Thing
So, actually, 25th Hour is my favorite Spike Lee movie for a whole bunch of reasons irrelevant for our purposes. But there’s no denying the power, the heat, and the energy—the perfection, really—of Do the Right Thing. And the cultural impact of it alone is worth the price of admission. It’s also one of my favorite New York movies. And one of my favorite modern fables. It’s stupid that I’m still typing. I don’t have to sell anyone on Do the Right Thing.
James L. Brooks
Sweet Smell of Success
These are my three favorites for pure entertainment. I’ve lumped them together under “professional comedy.” And these are the best. Though, if you want to crack into journalism or daytime television after watching them, perhaps you should watch them again. Broadcast News and Tootsie make me put my hand to my heart, just thinking about them. I can’t think of a single thing I’ve ever written in any book that doesn’t aim to have that ideal blend of humor and heart, that pacing. Sweet Smell of Success is more of a perfect script than a perfect movie, but it’s phenomenal. “I’d hate to take a bite outta you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.” Who says these things?
Dazed and Confused
Kicking and Screaming
To prove that I mean it when I say “four-way tie,” I’ll start with the last one, Kicking and Screaming, a movie I can recite from start to finish. You know, in case you’re ever in the mood for an hour-long party trick. Actually, I wrote an essay about my love for it for the New York Observer when the Criterion Collection released the DVD and raced to fill out the crossword puzzle like a regular dork. Two words: Broken glass. Meanwhile, Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan is a seminal movie for me and a whole bunch of other people of my generation. Speaking of party tricks, evoking empathy for Upper East Side WASPs is a good one. Same with Barcelona. The reason these four are grouped together is because of their supreme ability to capture the cadence of youth and young adulthood. They display floundering without being floundering. This is the hardest thing to achieve, in any format, and Linklater makes it look easy.
Harold and Maude
Another dark comedy that was not so much influential to me (because I saw it late) as it was—and is—magnificent. The humor was ahead of its time, and it’s now the ultimate rom-com. Like the Lucy of rom-coms.
A Woman Under the Influence
My introduction to Cassvettes. It’s an opus. I liked it but I did not love it the first time I saw it. The movie takes patience but then you realize that’s the genius of it, the imitative way it puts the audience in a kind of narrative stupor. And once you’re there, it runs you through every emotion. So good luck with that. Also, Gena Rowlands is a goddess who walks among us. Of all the tributes to Cassavetes, this is surely the most minor but . . . my cat is named Mabel. Similar behavior.
Days of Heaven
Every man I’ve ever gotten close to has loved this movie to the point where I am less interested in a guy’s astrological sign than the degree of his obsession with Days of Heaven. So I was a little resistant to the whole Malick canon. Which is nonsense because this is the greatest film of a great director. It’s so stunning and genuinely suspenseful, which is a rare combination. It’s a classic but not in the way that some classics can feel like taking your medicine. Like Do the Right Thing, no one needs me to be the one to introduce them to Days of Heaven. So maybe I’ll just describe the order of images that pop into our collective heads when we think of this film: Wheat, wheat, wheat, wheat, Sam Shepard, wheat, wheat . . .
This Is Spinal Tap
I mean . . . you can’t really dust for vomit.
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…