I first encountered Alex Cox’s sci-fi slamdance when I was a sullen, unworldly, unformed teenager—which is the perfect time to find a movie both as rageful and as hopeful as Repo Man. So much of the film’s DNA has been Brundlefly’d with my own—from its hardcore-punk soundtrack to its corporate-conspiracy mindset—that I rewatch it at least once a year, just to make sure I can still connect with Otto and his legion of goons. And the cover artwork, by the great Jay Shaw, is absolutely my favorite bit of Criterion edition art (I’m still trying to track down a poster on eBay).
The Asphalt Jungle
In a year filled with epochal films—Sunset Boulevard, All About Eve, the great In a Lonely Place—this 1950 noir may have secretly had the greatest impact. Every heist film or let’s-get-a-team-together caper of the last seventy years owes a huge debt to Huston’s twisting and intense thriller, whose delightful ensemble cast features a bright-eyed Marilyn Monroe (then just about to take over Hollywood) and a grizzled Sterling Hayden (who was already looking to leave the industry altogether). The final moment is a genuine heartbreaker—as is the documentary about Hayden on the Criterion edition, which finds the great actor living on a boat, seemingly set adrift from society.
All That Jazz
Two of the best big-screen showbiz memoirs ever made, both capturing the anxiety, euphoria, and sheer manic-nirvana of creation, and featuring endlessly catchy musical numbers: All That Jazz’s sweat-sheened “Take Off with Us” sequence and Head’s dreamy “Porpoise Song” psych-montage have nothing in common, save for the fact that both have stayed with me for decades.
The Third Man
What’s left to be said about The Third Man? Quite a bit, actually—as evidenced by the multiple Criterion commentaries on this edition, one featuring filmmakers Steven Soderbergh and Tony Gilroy, the other with historian Dana Polan. I could watch this movie, and its supplements, on a loop for days without going cuckoo.
In the early ’80s, Seidelman made two of the coolest movies ever made back-to-back. First came this urgent, spiky punk-rock fable—with its striving outsiders and crazy rhythms—and then the great Desperately Seeking Susan. Both present a vision of Manhattan as a broken, semi-lawless amusement park in deep decline—a version of New York City that was long gone by the time I arrived there in 1999. Watching Smithereens is like being teleported to a far-off planet that’s about to be colonized.
Do the Right Thing
As with Repo Man, I first saw Do the Right Thing at a time when the right movie could take up residence in your brain for decades afterward. Thirty years later, it remains one of the most jubilant, colorful, singularly electrifying films made in my lifetime. To paraphrase Da Mayor: Always Do the Right Thing.
The American Friend
A fantastic adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s captivating Ripley books, with the action shifting to New York City and Hamburg (both filmed beautifully by Repo Man’s Robby Müller). Come for the seventies-noir setting, the art-world intrigue, the cameos from the likes of Nicholas Ray; stay for the entertaining Wenders interviews on the Criterion edition, in which he regales us with how he managed to tame both Dennis Hopper and the late, great Bruno Ganz.
Being John Malkovich
Granted, it’s a little shameless for the guy who wrote a book on 1999 movies to include a pair of entries from that year on his list. But whenever I made a top ten for that year, these are the two films that constantly duked it out for the number one and number two slots. One’s a tightly structured, egalitarian high-school-set comedy that’s as wise about the nightmares of adolescence as it is about the doldrums of middle age; the other’s a happily absurd fable of reinvention that’s part sci-fi, part broad comedy, part media satire. But both are remarkably kind to their flawed heroes, and each one wrestles with the kinds of social and cultural dilemmas—from identity theft to burn-it-all-down political posturing—we’d be dealing with two decades later.
Last year’s Minding the Gap was a reminder of just how deeply impactful James’s slow-burning, immersive sports tale has been on the world of modern documentary. It’s a perfect example of big-screen nonfiction storytelling: intimate, highly detailed, and shaped by no greater editor than life itself.
Mikey and Nicky
In which Peter Falk and John Cassavetes play two broken goons who bond, bicker, and ultimately level each other during one rough night in Philadelphia. May made this just a few years after The Heartbreak Kid—a perfect movie, and one that I hope Criterion can add to its catalog someday!—and while the two films couldn’t be more different in terms of tone, they both zero in on a kind of self-defeating, self-aggrandizing male psychology that’s a little too relatable at times. And Falk and Cassavetes are so remarkable here that you can’t help but wonder which two modern actors would play these roles today.
Movies it killed me to cut: 8½, Midnight Cowboy, Z, The Seventh Seal, Broadcast News, Dazed & Confused, The Night of the Hunter, Stagecoach, Before Sunset, and dozens more . . .
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.
Matt Dentler’s Top 10
Matt Dentler is the producer of the South by Southwest Film Conference & Festival, in Austin, Texas (sxsw.com), as well as a curator for American distributor Film Movement and Canadian distributor Films We Like. He also hosts the weekly local PBS ser…