The first time I saw Wanda was at Film Forum in the mid-2000s, which was before there was a restoration. It was so exciting to see in a theater, and it felt so special because even though it was around the time when you were starting to be able to search for obscure films online, Wanda was still unavailable. Watching it and knowing it existed was so important for me, not just as a film lover but as a woman who writes, directs, and acts. It lifted a burden for me and made me see that I could write about really strange women without giving them any redeeming qualities. Even though it’s a very dark film, Barbara Loden’s performance is so sweet and funny and playful. At the same time, she didn’t feel the need to portray Wanda as a good person. Many of my favorite films are very masculine and have characters who are quite irredeemable, like Taxi Driver.
The other thing I appreciate about Wanda is how sly it is as a narrative. There’s an ease to it, and you don’t even realize you’re watching a plot-driven movie. You’re just experiencing this character, and then you suddenly realize it’s a crime story that’s been leading up to this horrific event at the end. My favorite writing sneaks in plot without people knowing that it’s there, and that’s something I try to do in my own work.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
I fell in love with The Umbrellas of Cherbourg when I first saw it about ten years ago. Aside from musicals of the fifties and sixties, I’m not a big musical person; it always feels very awkward for people to just break out into song and dance. But in Umbrellas, they sing the entire time, every single line. The absurdity of that is so bold and risky, and yet it’s like they find a new language just by singing “Bonjour!” Once you get into the rhythm of it, you forget that they’re singing. I find it to be kind of punk. It’s such a spectacle. I’m so blown away by the colors and the richness of the visuals—it’s like watching candy. Then of course there’s young Catherine Deneuve falling in love and losing love. There’s something so sad but so beautiful about it.
I first saw Purple Noon when I was living in Paris for a summer, about seven years ago. I hadn’t heard of the film or read anything about it, and it was playing in French without subtitles. I was watching and thought to myself, “Is this The Talented Mr. Ripley?” I didn’t know! I speak a little French, but I’m not fluent, so I was piecing together what was happening. I remember thinking that Jude Law took a lot of his performance from Maurice Ronet. The film captured a love of travel—it just makes you want to go away and be really wealthy and go to different European cities and live in fabulous villas. But there’s also the jealousy that Ripley feels because he wants that life, which I understand because I grew up poor. The fact that I was even able to have a summer in Paris at that point felt so luxurious, I almost felt guilty about it.
I think it’s pretty apparent in a lot of my work just how much this movie has influenced me. I love starting a film with the mystery of a person. Vagabond is a wonderful character study with an undercurrent of violence, and that’s something it shares in common with Wanda. That freeze frame at the end of Wanda, where it’s just her in the bar totally fucked up—I don’t know Barbara Loden’s impetus for writing the film, but I have a sneaking suspicion that she saw a woman like that in the world and thought, wait, how did she get here? And that’s the same way you see these wandering vagabonds in Varda’s film—I guess you’d call them crust punks or something. You’re fascinated by where they are coming from and where they’re going. They might seem okay in a given moment, but you can sense the danger ahead. My films Sun Don’t Shine and She Dies Tomorrow are also driven by this love of just watching people figure themselves out in a volatile environment.
Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles
Several of the films on this list, including this one, are important to me because they acknowledge the serious consequences of being a woman in the world. And by “consequences,” I mean the things that you have to endure that aren’t your fault, that you have no choice in.
There’s something extremely gratifying, for both viewers and filmmakers, about repetitiveness. It makes me pay attention to an idea and why we’re coming back to it. Jeanne Dielman is one of the best examples of this. You watch the protagonist go through her days, and you feel the pressure on her getting harder and harder. You see her go to the butcher shop and talk to her child; you see her go into her room with these men. But you’re not sure what’s going on, and you’re left in the dark for most of the movie.
The repetitiveness becomes a part of the violence. As you see her do these daily tasks over and over again, you feel her need for survival and the toll of being a mother, and that frustration is all part of watching the movie.
The American Friend
First, I have to mention The American Friend because my cinematographer Jay Keitel says he watches it every time he prepares to shoot something.
You’re seeing a theme here for me in these movies: mysterious characters wandering through a landscape. In Paris, Texas, you spend so much time with a man who seems so sweet and magnificent, but then when you finally get to the moment where he’s speaking to the wife he’s lost, you realize what he’s describing is so violent. (If you haven’t seen the film, don’t read on . . .). It’s such a gut punch, because you wanted him to find her so badly. At first, you’re feeling that it must be so traumatic for him to see her working in this peep booth, but then you realize, no, this is horrifically tragic for her!
The choice to shoot that peep booth scene like a romance is so fascinating to me, but it makes sense because there’s something both characters are wanting from each other. She wants an apology. He kind of gives it to her, but he does it in the third person, as if it’s abstracted from them. It’s like he’s narrating the movie at that point; he can’t deal with it, so he has to talk about it in this other way. It’s so emotional. I’ve gone back to that specific scene a lot when thinking about how to shoot monologues. There are obvious ways to do it, but you want to make it interesting, and my style is to be subversive with it. This scene is such a perfect example of how the way something is shot can add a whole new layer.
I watched this for the first time when I was living in San Francisco in my early twenties. I lived in this house with eighteen people, which was quite intense. A friend who was an animator showed me Fantastic Planet. Until that moment I hadn’t explored animation as something that could be experimental or adult. The movie broke my brain open. I loved the way it so unabashedly talked about life and death and metamorphosis—and just how weird it got. It’s a visual and sonic playground, and it taught me a lot about what I could get away with even in a live-action film—how to make something so arresting but not tied to reality. It gets away with so much and is so entertaining and wild and completely fulfilling. I hadn’t experienced anything like it in animation before.
The Man Who Fell to Earth
I’ve seen The Man Who Fell to Earth so many times at different points in my life. I don’t think I understood it as a child, but you always love aliens at that age, and everyone is obsessed with David Bowie. I feel like musicians understand and can inhabit this weird way of performing where they just don’t care as much because they have this other career. At the same time, they also understand that performances don’t have to be so literal. Bowie’s performance in this is so controlled but so relentlessly strange in the best way. The whole film is also amazing visually and sometimes verges on being a B-movie. It doesn’t withhold the fun element of an alien movie. But it’s so emotional because it’s about this character who doesn’t know how to be a person and is trying to learn what humanity is. There’s a playfulness to it but also so much darkness underneath.
In The Man Who Fell to Earth, Walkabout, and a lot of other films by Nicolas Roeg, there’s an exploration of isolation that I enjoy and find inspiring. In terms of the editing, he has these moments where you’re going along with something and then the movie abruptly cuts, like now we’re here. There are so many things you can be taught about the rules of editing and how to tell a story, but it’s fun when someone has the confidence to take you to a different place. In my own work, I want the audience to follow along with an idea and always stay on their toes.
Belle de jour
In my brain I keep Godard and Buñuel in the same space. There’s a sense of absurdity and surrealism in their work and their rejection of Hollywood form. They also have this super masculine way of approaching films. For me, if you’re going to begin watching their films and want to feel how weird the times were, Alphaville is a good start. Then I’d probably move on to Weekend and Band of Outsiders and then all the fun stuff, like Breathless.
With Buñuel, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is a really good exploration of class—specifically the upper class—making fun of it and showing the monotony of it. And I love Belle de jour, about the inner life of a housewife who fantasizes about being a prostitute. I think that’s probably my favorite of his films. But I would just say to anyone who hasn’t, watch all of Godard and Buñuel!
These two films give me a nostalgia for the seventies, even though I wasn’t alive then. They heavily inspired Sun Don’t Shine, but they also opened me up to masculine movies that have a softer side. In Two-Lane, you have these men racing their muscle cars, but you also have this soft-spoken James Taylor character. And in Badlands, you have the sweet Sissy Spacek matched with an unhinged Martin Sheen. There’s also this very seventies renegade feeling to them. And they’re very American; I don’t think they could have been made anywhere else. Two-Lane is the closest thing you could get to a James Benning movie in commercial cinema.
Whit Stillman’s Top 10
“In trying to come up with a ten best list from the Criterion Collection I thought first of Trouble in Paradise and decided to go online to find the rest. But after only seven pages of Criterion’s online list I already had more than enough for te…