For me, Criterion was an entry point for Asian cinema, which was really awesome. I started picking out films like Good Morning. Ozu is so beautiful. You look at the colors he’s working with, the stillness, the beauty. I tried not to put another Ozu on this list, but I had to include Tokyo Story also. I remember watching it for the first time and was like, man, so little happened but so much happened, and there’s such a wise grace. I hope we can see more films like this again.
I love Kore-eda; I can’t wait to watch Shoplifters. This film feels like a natural extension of Ozu, which is wonderful. As an Asian American person, you look for ways to justify and explain and understand why your family dynamic is the way it is, despite the fact that you’re in this country where everybody’s family dynamic seems very different. Then you get these glimpses and you’re like, oh, I can see the connection there.
I think this one speaks for itself. I saw this after I saw Poetry. I wish more of Lee Chang-dong’s films were on Criterion. Song Kang-ho in Secret Sunshine is not the central performance, but he’s just so honest and raw and true. He’s this man who wants to be loved so badly. It’s heartbreaking. Director Lee really turns a mirror on you. I was raised very Christian, and somehow this film echoes the things buzzing in the back of my head. It’s nice to have someone make you not feel crazy.
Wong Kar Wai
It’s so good—so subtle, truthful, and simple. This movie allows you to just look at human beings as human beings for a second. Wong Kar-wai is a master, and I have an admiration for his ability to direct your attention to certain things but not in an obvious way. I got to see Asian people as real people who could be flawed and make choices that are selfish and don’t take into account social graces all the time. Being raised in a very Christian, traditional Korean household, you’re kind of just seeing the surface and what you’re supposed to be at all times. I remember growing up thinking all Korean people were church deacons, and then you see a Korean man driving a taxi and all of a sudden you’re like, what’s going on? This doesn’t make sense to me! Wong’s films are like traveling to Hong Kong without going to Hong Kong.
Fantastic Mr. Fox
All of Wes’s stuff is great, but I really love this one because it was the first time Wes found Wes 2.0. It was like, oh, you’ve unlocked another way of shooting for yourself, which you now see manifested in films like Moonrise Kingdom. His style is now wider than ever.
The Princess Bride
I want these kinds of movies back. This was such a formative one in my life. It straddles that line between the adult world and the child world and gives you both angles.
Paul Thomas Anderson
P. T. is awesome. I grew up watching Adam Sandler, but this performance lured me into another side of him and blew me away. You’ve just watched Happy Gilmore and then you’re like, I’m going to watch another Adam Sandler movie, and then you see this and you’re like, whoa, brilliant. I realize these selections are all emotional movies for me!
Being John Malkovich
Mulholland Dr. was probably the nerdiest experience I’ve had. Just watching the film and then thinking about it, listening to commentaries, then researching online what other connections I missed and seeing all these deeper themes and meanings, I realized that’s how you can make a film!
This was the first Lynch film I ever saw. That Naomi Watts performance, and the performance within the performance, still haunts me. The movie felt like it was just kind of fucking with me, and I really enjoyed that.
Being John Malkovich was another one of those formative films that expanded my horizons on what film can be, what it can comment on, how many layers you can attach, and how meta it can get. Mulholland Dr. and Being John Malkovich came out around the time when I had already cemented in my mind what a movie was. Then for all that to just blow up in my face was really awesome.
RoboCop fucked me up when I first saw it. It’s set in Detroit, where I’m from, and it’s just so brutal. The first movie I ever saw was Terminator 2, when I was five—my parents clearly weren’t checking what I was watching at that age. With RoboCop, you’re getting the truth, but you have no idea that what it’s telling you is actually the truth.
Hoop Dreams is, again, someone telling you the truth. This time, it’s about the glamorized, flashy, perfectly packaged machine that is basketball. You think, this is cool, this is what it’s supposed to be, I’m sure all these people are living great lives. Then you see this is what the grind is, and it mirrors your own upbringing in some way. You understand that everybody starts from somewhere and everybody’s got a journey and it doesn’t always work out the way you intended.
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.