Persona is just a perfect movie. I first saw it in P. Adams Sitney’s film class when I was at Princeton, and it stuck with me for a million reasons. Bergman’s use of framing is eerie and fascinating. The film has an incredibly strong structure but still operates with the logic of a poem. I’ve often shared the opening montage with editors and asked, can we do this? It’s funny how when you make movies you don’t always realize what you’re drawing from, but I think with Butter on the Latch this was a pretty big influence—this story about a woman becoming another woman, the confusion of who is who. In my movies, I end up taking most of the dialogue out and just having the characters move and exist in a space. You can say so much without saying anything, and I love how Bergman does that in this movie. It’s the kind of film that gives you permission to really go there.
Band of Outsiders
Lars von Trier
Breaking the Waves
I’ve only ever seen Band of Outsiders once, at Film Forum in my twenties, and I thought it was the best movie. A lot of my favorite films I actually try to see only once because I want them to live in my mind as perfect, so it’s difficult to remember exactly why I liked it. It’s so many genres in one, and so playful. Godard uses the body in such an exciting way and so many of the actions in the film are told through the body, which is something that I connected to. And Anna Karina—she’s what stays with you. Her performance is so haunting. There’s both a helplessness and a power in her, and although she’s so shaped by the two men, it’s her vulnerability and authenticity that you remember.
And oh my God, Breaking the Waves—it’s just in another universe! It’s poetry, it’s documentary . . . Lars von Trier took apart cinematic form and made something new and groundbreaking. It’s definitely had an influence on me. It’s funny to be a woman and put this so high on the list, but both this film and Band of Outsiders are about women who are subjugated by the men around them and yet are powerhouses exploding off the screen. It’s complicated, but the filmmaking is so good. When von Trier talks about making the film, he describes it as ugly, but it doesn’t feel ugly at all. There’s so much love in the way it’s shot. It feels like everything is happening right in front of you, from all of the parties to her self-destruction. There’s a documentary feeling to it but also these musical interludes that are just so painterly and sublime.
Being John Malkovich
I love this movie. I think it captures a particularly American approach to surrealism. There are a few films that opened up a cultural conversation during my lifetime about what cinema could be, and that’s something I lived through with this movie. A whole generation of filmmakers grew up seeing Being John Malkovich as a seminal part of their discovery of film. One of the most haunting things about the movie is that there’s a logic to the madness and to how its world works, and that’s very different from the poetic logic you find in Bergman or Tarkovsky. I’m not good at mathematical logic, so I don’t know if I’ll ever make a movie like this.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Je tu il elle, but when I first saw it in college it really affected me. I remember the nudity and the lesbian sex scene, and at the time, I don’t know if I’d ever seen that in a movie. It’s also just so casual in the way it’s shot, and the attraction between the women feels so simple and plain. Obviously, the movie itself is doing something a lot more complex, but it’s not filled with a bunch of close-ups of a hand touching an arm and stuff like that. A lot of it is just wide shots of these two women. It also made me think about what it means to be sensual and what it means for a woman to view bodies. I ended up writing an essay about it called “Nudity on Film,” about how Chantal captured the nakedness of the art form. The film is punctuated by these black blocks that mark each section, and that felt very revealing of the tools of filmmaking. I was interested in this meta aspect.
As for Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Céline Sciamma is a goddess. This is just a perfect movie. It’s so visceral and photographically perfect, and there’s a tenderness to it. Noémie Merlant has such a powerful vulnerability. You just breathe into her, and there’s so much responsiveness on her face. You feel so deeply for her and through her. I think I’ll just see her face forever.
Harold and Maude
I love Harold and Maude so much. There’s something so life-affirming about it. I must have seen it for the first time when I was around thirteen—just the right time to be blown away by it. It’s so funny and beautiful and bizarre. I think it also has something in common with Being John Malkovich—that dark, dry, ridiculous sense of humor. The morbidity and the beauty of Maude are so special. Hal Ashby was a genius. He was an editor first, and that’s something that I relate to, because I’ve always worked on the editing of all of my films. When you’re an editor and you make your own work, you can be playful with how the editing is also part of the storytelling, and I love that.
Luc Dardenne and Jean-Pierre Dardenne
The Dardennes always have a way of getting inside a world that feels so incredibly real. I almost thought of including Two Days, One Night on this list too, which is another favorite of mine. I’ve heard that they spend months rehearsing and doing improvisations in those communities before they shoot, which is the dream of how I’d love to create. The character work is so good, and it makes me want to make more movies. I would love to be a fly on the wall watching the Dardennes make something. I’d be curious to see if they come with an outline and then do the improv, or if they’re discovering script material from the improvisation.
Me and You and Everyone We Know
Me and You and Everyone We Know blew me away. It’s another one that has its own logic yet is so completely illogical. I love Miranda’s overall aesthetic as an artist so much, and how she writes these women who are so uniquely themselves. When we were working together on Madeline’s Madeline, we actually did a lot of improv. She’s such a great writer and so hilarious.
And Andrea Arnold—my God, what a storyteller. Her work is so visceral and so immediate. She’s probably my favorite filmmaker working today. The way she uses the camera and the performances she gets from her actors allow her to achieve an authenticity that’s so vulnerable and profound. She’s such a physical creator, and she chooses stories about bodies and spaces. I know that one of her inspirations for Fish Tank was the image of a girl peeing on someone else’s floor. She thought, okay, how does she get there? And then she organized the movie around that. That’s kind of how I approach work. In Madeline’s Madeline, I saw this opening of a sea turtle and a woman pretending to be one in an acting class, and I thought about the layers of performance and what that film could really be about.
Guillermo del Toro
This movie has been a big influence on everything I’ve done. The images and monsters that Guillermo created were so physical and unforgettable. This mix of horror and drama and fairy tale is something I’m very attracted to. If I had my dream career, I would make twenty films that were like Pan’s Labyrinth. It’s a kid’s movie for adults—and I spent ten years working on a script in that vein. I actually got into film because I wanted to make kid’s movies, but then I kept making violent, sexual movies. Pan’s Labyrinth is all of that in one!
I think Blue Velvet and Contempt have something in common. Their images are so painterly. I feel like I can still envision all of Blue Velvet because the images are so strong and resonant.
I was introduced to Contempt by my boyfriend at the time, and I thought it was fascinating. It could be seen as misogynistic, but it’s ultimately about the male character getting broken up with and the woman having all the power—and how quickly that switch between love and contempt can flip. There’s a madness and a truth to that, especially at a young age, when you’re young and you’re in love with someone and then all the sudden you’re not and you just don’t want to look at them ever again.
The Last Temptation of Christ
Jules and Jim
The Last Temptation of Christ—what a bizarre movie. This and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore are probably my favorite Scorsese films. I saw this when I was a teenager and I remember at the time being like, “I’m watching great cinema.” If you were Eve and you were going for that apple—that’s how this whole fucking movie feels: like you’re about to come upon this coveted information, and it’s terrifying and glorious because you feel the joy of wrecking your whole world. Getting to know Scorsese a little bit, I realized even more how much love goes into his work. Part of why everyone loves his work so much is that it gives you the darkest and the lightest moments of life, and sometimes those things are side by side. Last Temptation is about religion, which is something very close to his heart, so you see the wonder and horror of that in the texture of the movie.
The mood of Jules and Jim is opposite from the darkness in Last Temptation. Truffaut captures the pure joy of what cinema can do.
Neil LaBute’s Top 10
Neil LaBute, director of In the Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbors, and Nurse Betty, has contributed supplemental interviews to two Criterion DVD editions: Mike Leigh’s Naked and Eric Rohmer’s Love in the Afternoon, the latter available i…
Michael Atkinson’s Top 10
Michael Atkinson writes film criticism for IFC.com, Sight & Sound, and Moving Image Source. His books include Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood and the novel Hemingway Deadlights.