A Woman Under the Influence
Next to The Wizard of Oz, it’s my favorite movie of all time. The most honest on-screen depiction of mental illness ever. Cassavetes perfectly nails the heartbreak and frustration that eclipses a family when a loved one’s sanity slips away. It’s at times both gut-wrenching and oddly hilarious, and Cassavetes manages to make gorgeous cinema with colors and composition. Besides the impeccable, monumental performances of Gena Rowlands and Peter Falk, the supporting cast is flawless, including both Cassavetes’s and Rowlands’s own real-life mothers, Katherine and Lady, and in particular George Dunn in his role as Mabel’s one-night stand Garson Cross. In any other film the character would be played as a cad the audience would be rooting against. Not so in a Cassavetes film, where the roles of hero and villain shift moment to moment.
Put this one and A Woman Under the Influence side by side and you have ample proof of my theory that Gena Rowlands is the greatest American actor or actress ever. Period. No prosthetics, no extreme weight gain or loss, no accents or limps . . . and yet has any other actor ever created two more distinct, honest, or complete human beings on-screen? Rowlands somehow simply shifts her center of gravity and transforms from Woman’s selfless and fragile Mabel Longhetti into Opening Night’s cunning and self-obsessed Broadway star Myrtle Gordon. Ben Gazzara is her director, Manny Victor, and the scene where he shares an intimate midnight moment with his neglected wife (the great Zohra Lampert), only to be interrupted by his leading lady, is priceless.
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie
Yes, Cassavetes again, and by now it’s a no-brainer as to who my favorite filmmaker is. This time he takes on the gangster/noir genre but does it in his own inimitable abstract-expressionist style, where time slows down or sometimes speeds up, so we never know exactly where we are in terms of a traditional story arc or act structures. We are in dreamland . . . an opium-induced reverie. This is a portrait of an artist in the guise of a strip club owner, and Ben Gazzara’s Cosmo Vitelli is a career-topping performance. The onstage burlesque routines are worth the price of admission, as is the one and only Mr. Sophistication, played by Meade Roberts.
“Serpentine!” The funniest movie ever made. A buddy comedy with unparalleled chemistry between the two leads, Peter Falk and Alan Arkin (and Cassavetes’s DNA is at work even beyond the Falk connection, as John would replace the director of the disappointing not-quite-a-sequel, 1986’s Big Trouble). Falk and Arkin are a mismatch made in heaven. Rumor has it this was Brando’s favorite movie and is the reason he signed on to The Freshman, which was written and directed by The In-Laws scribe Andrew Bergman. Richard Libertini almost manages to steal the film in the last act as an eccentric Central American dictator/ventriloquist/art-lover.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Fox and His Friends
One frame of Fassbinder is all you need to know you have entered his world and are in his hands. The director himself plays the Candide-like lead role, a simple-minded, innocent carnival worker who wins the lottery and becomes instantly wealthy. Longing for friendship and a sense of belonging, he is chewed up and spit out by his gay, bourgeois, status-conscious clique of “friends.” This movie is authentic, honest, and bleak, and Fassbinder portrays the seedy demimonde of Munich’s hustlers, drug dealers, and misfits as only he can. Both critical and sympathetic at the same time.
Pier Paolo Pasolini
Pier Paolo Pasolini’s affection and compassion for Rome’s cafoni, or peasant, class shines through in what is perhaps the most accessible of all his films. Anna Magnani plays an ex-hooker trying to escape her past while raising her troubled teenage son. Pasolini sets Magnani loose as the indomitable salt-of-the-earth mother. Her range of emotion and expression is unbridled, exuberant, and overflowing—a force of nature. Pay attention to the wedding scene and you’ll see Pasolini’s love of Renaissance art on display as he re-creates Da Vinci’s Last Supper, casting the denizens of Rome’s slums as the apostles.
Do the Right Thing
I saw this one on the evening of its release in New York City. The advance buzz spread fears that it would ignite racial friction and incite race riots. The tension in the audience before it began was nothing I had ever experienced before in a movie house. The melting pot of moviegoers sat in stillness and silence and finally stood up and applauded the screen as the end credits rolled. We walked out of the theater transformed, more united, tolerant, and together than we were two hours before. How many films have ever been able to do that?
The ultimate road movie, set along the stretch of 42nd Street known as “the Deuce.” I first saw this film way earlier than I should have and probably never recovered. New York City and Times Square in all their glorious (and now extinct) sleaze and seediness. As a time capsule and historical document it is fascinating, and as a story of exiles and outcasts finding love and friendship amid the rubble and rabble it is touching and powerful. Hoffman and Voight are as good as they will ever be, and Sylvia Miles, John McGiver, and Barnard Hughes add eccentricity and authenticity to John Schlesinger’s bold and brash filmmaking. Harry Nilsson sings the theme song and you will remember it forever.
Terry Gilliam’s masterpiece proves he is the only true heir to Fellini (and Salvador Dalì as well). Brazil is over-the-top, terrifying, funny, and moving. A hilarious and violent dystopian tale of the future using elements of the past, it strangely seems more and more like our present. Terrorism, surveillance, cosmetic surgery, hacking, and authoritarian control: Gilliam’s prescience is astounding. Ian Holm turns in one of cinema’s great supporting roles as Mr. Kurtzman, Jonathan Pryce’s sniveling and cowardly boss. And it has one of the most crushing and haunting endings in movie history.
Jules Dassin was an American filmmaker who moved to Paris to escape Joseph McCarthy, Roy Cohn, and the rest of the HUAC thugs. In the City of Lights he managed to make the most French gangster film and best heist movie ever. The actual break-in and robbery scene (based on a real burglary in Marseille at the turn of the century) happens over an astoundingly tense twenty-six minutes of silence. It is unforgettable. Dassin himself plays the role of the Italian safecracker Cesar under the pseudonym Perlo Vita and showed himself to be as adept in front of the camera as he was behind it.
Steve Buscemi’s Top 10
Steve Buscemi is an actor who has appeared in such films as Mystery Train, Fargo, Reservoir Dogs, and Armageddon. He also also directed such films as Trees Lounge, Animal Factory, and Interview.
Guy Maddin’s Top 10
Canadian filmmaker and writer Guy Maddin’s Brand Upon the Brain!, featuring Isabella Rossellini as the narrator, was released on DVD from the Criterion Collection in 2008. Maddin also contributed an essay on Kirk Douglas for our release of Billy Wi…
Tracy Letts’s Top 10
Tracy Letts is an American playwright, screenwriter, and actor. He received the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for drama for August: Osage County and a Tony Award for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?