City Lights makes my heart melt. Before I had watched Chaplin’s movies I used to think of him as a filmmaker from a distant era. I never thought his work could affect me on a deep level. City Lights proved me wrong.
To this day, I remember the feeling of watching it for the first time. It is a beautiful love letter to love—honest, pure, and unselfish love. The final scene is probably one of my favorite movie endings of all time.
It had such a big impact on me that the first short film I made at USC film school was inspired by Chaplin’s work. Something interesting I read once: you can like them both, but at the end of the day you’re either a Buster Keaton person or a Chaplin person. Well, City Lights is the main reason I’m a Chaplin guy.
My own four takes on Rashomon:
It’s universal storytelling.
It influenced so many other movies that came after it—they wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for Rashomon.
It’s a study of human behavior that shows how people will always have different views on the same subject.
It’s simplicity in its most complex form.
Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
It’s so hard to pick a favorite movie among Kubrick’s many masterpieces, but for me Dr. Strangelove is at the top of the list.
When I was a kid, I’d see the famous scene of Major Kong straddling the bomb as it falls and ask myself, why is he so happy? When I finally saw the whole movie for the first time, in my twenties, I was happy like Kong, laughing out loud by myself, watching this staggering comedy about power, masculinity, and war.
And what can even be said about Peter Sellers? He’s so perfect in all his roles that I didn’t even realize those characters were played by one person.
I also want to mention the font used in the opening credits of the movie. I know it might seem unimportant, but I almost feel like I can understand the whole identity of the movie just by reading those names over the airplane shots. A small detail, but I think for Kubrick even the smallest details are filled with story and personality.
The Seventh Seal
My brother was a big influence on me. He was a cinephile and always watched the work of great foreign directors. Inspired by him, I bought an Ingmar Bergman DVD box set with The Virgin Spring, Cries and Whispers, Wild Strawberries, and The Seventh Seal. Those movies opened my eyes to a different type of cinema. The Seventh Seal stayed with me in a particularly deep way.
I think a lot about death. I know it’s not always very healthy, but somehow this obsession has brought me closer to philosophical, existential questions. Bergman handles those weighty subjects with ease and elegance. Despite their depth, those themes never feel pretentious or too heavy in this work of art. They feel casual, even funny sometimes.
And what better way to face death? To fear it, sure, but also to be able to laugh with it and see it as something that makes us human and ultimately insignificant.
Wings of Desire
This movie had a big impact on my work and influenced me as I was writing and directing Nine Days. Its premise is fantastical, but the performances and the world Wenders created around them feel so real and human. We can feel the loneliness of the place and the characters who live in it. I also love how the protagonists of this movie are everyday people. The story is not about the chosen ones. For the angels watching them, everyone has a voice and is seen as privileged and important. Everyone is worthy of attention.
I think Wings of Desire is a beautiful poem about life. And as in a poem, the meaning is not definitive. The audience can read it the way they want, with the intonation they want. And even if they don’t read aloud, the angels will be listening.
RoboCop is one of the first movies that made me love movies. I was rewatching it recently—the previous time I saw it, I was eleven, I think—and it’s crazy how well I remember it. It almost feels like every frame of the movie is already inside of my brain, and I just need a trigger to remember it all.
Everything about RoboCop is iconic: the screenplay, the characters, the makeup, the visual effects, the sound design, the violence, the social criticism, the score . . . And how about those villains? I had so many nightmares about ED-209 and his terrifying voice. And then there’s Kurtwood Smith, whom I’ll probably fear for the rest of my life, even when he’s playing a funny guy in a TV sitcom.
Just one suggestion: if you’ve seen it already, try looking for a version dubbed in Brazilian Portuguese. I love Peter Weller, but I have to say that our Brazilian RoboCop is quite epic.
Being John Malkovich
Imagine a movie that teaches you that anything is possible. That rules can be broken. That something doesn’t need to be real to feel real. Being John Malkovich was that movie for me.
At first, I didn’t get it. I was quite young when I saw it for the first time, and it took me some years until I rewatched it and fell in love with it. Everything in this movie is so unexpected and satisfying. It redefined the way I understood storytelling and gave me a new perspective on visual expression. It’s also so immersive. You watch it and you feel like you’re inside someone else’s head. You feel like you’re seeing the world through their eyes. But unlike John Cusack’s character, I didn’t want to be John Malkovich. I just wanted to be like Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman.
I watched Hunger last year, at the beginning of quarantine. After being locked inside my house for several months, I think, in some ways, I started feeling more like a prisoner. I’m sure I would have loved the movie if I’d seen it before the pandemic, but seeing the world that Steve McQueen created at that time in my life made it feel even more claustrophobic and visceral to me.
McQueen is a master, and what impresses me most is that he’s been a master since his first movie. It’s hard to believe Hunger is his feature debut. Everything in this movie is so precise and intentional, but at the same time you never feel like his technical choices are limiting the actors’ performances or the spontaneity of the scenes. Somehow, he’s able to create characters as real as any subject in a documentary, and portray them as beautifully as figures in a painting.
Police Story 2
In my childhood there was no man I admired more than my father. So it was a very confusing feeling when I was introduced to Jackie Chan movies. In my head I was like: Is Jackie stronger than my dad? In a one-on-one fight, who would win?
Comparisons aside, I grew up with a huge admiration for Jackie that goes beyond movies. You watch him and you want to be like him. Every time I finished one of his movies, I’d see myself practicing that cool kick or that fancy jump he did in a scene I loved.
Police Story 2 is one of his best works. It also shows what human beings are capable of doing on camera. It’s bravery, genius, and craziness in motion. In fact, some of the action scenes are so bold and daring that I think even CGI actors would feel intimidated to replicate them. Someone once told me that CGI actors are going to replace real actors. I thought to myself, this guy definitely hasn’t seen Police Story 2.
The Virgin Suicides
Although Lost in Translation is my favorite Sofia Coppola movie—and one of my favorite movies ever—I think The Virgin Suicides is her boldest work. It’s one of the most distinctive directorial debuts I’ve seen.
Everything in this movie feels so fearless, unique, and personal. I remember watching it and being inspired by the way she created her own style unapologetically. The immersive and subjective narrative makes you feel like you’re inside some sort of dream or memory where plot is not the most important thing. The movie is more about feelings than about what is going to happen next.
A scene that has really stayed with me is the one where the boys call the girls and they exchange songs over the phone. How amazing is that moment! It’s such a “simple” scene, but it shows exactly what we need to know about the characters, and what they are feeling. I hope one day I can make a scene like that.
Ramin Bahrani’s Top 10
Iranian-American writer and director Ramin Bahrani’s feature films include: Man Push Cart (2005), Chop Shop (2007), Goodbye Solo (2009), 99 Homes (2014), and Fahrenheit 451 (2018).