Stranger Than Paradise
I could’ve flipped a coin to choose between Stranger Than Paradise and Down by Law, but Stranger was the first Jarmusch I’d seen, and it completely changed the way I wanted to make movies. Up until then, I’d never seen a narrative film so slow and intentional with its tone. Jarmusch took what I loved about Andy Warhol and turned it into storytelling. I consider myself lucky to have been so moved by Jarmusch’s early films, because I’d be living a disappointing existence if I were trying to copy Star Wars.
This was my first Haneke. I distinctly remember my body jolting up and getting a huge grin on my face as soon as John Zorn’s jazz metal exploded during the opening credits. I immediately began to vibe with its rhythm. Like many others on this list, it changed me as a filmmaker.
I bought If.... from the discount VHS bin at a video store when I was eighteen. For a guy just starting to get deep into film-films, not just movie-movies, it was perfect. It had boarding schoolers with machine guns to keep me locked in, but it also had sequences in black and white, and it blurred the lines between reality and fantasy in a way that showed me how to break convention. If anything good comes out of me writing this list, it’ll be reminding Criterion that they still haven’t released Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man!
Beastie Boys Video Anthology
So many of the music videos from Paul’s Boutique were my first introductions to lo-fi film and video art. Adam Yauch makes it look so easy. Then Spike Jonze made it look impossible. The impact of “Sabotage” on me and a billion other ’90s teenagers was monstrous. Before then, we were mostly shown rock stars as serious, angry, and damaged people. We didn’t realize they could be goofy. And, although I didn’t realize it back then, these videos are big lessons in irony. My four-year-old son spent all last year watching the “Intergalactic” video over and over and over. These little films are cross-generational. The Beasties got style for miles.
The Phantom of Liberty
Again, I could’ve flipped a coin—either The Phantom of Liberty or The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Or The Exterminating Angel. (I have a Buñuel-approved three-headed coin.) The most surreal aspect of Buñuel’s films is the way he grounds them. They’re shot in an almost conventional style. But no one in his films thinks it’s strange to sit on the toilet and discuss pooping among friends. Python took this approach, but winked. Buñuel didn’t wink. I’ve never liked jokes. Instead, I like situations. I try to steal a lot from Buñuel.
In the late ’80s, a popular shirt around Michigan read: “Detroit: Where the weak are killed and eaten.” RoboCop feels like that shirt, fully realized. When I first watched it as a kid, all I cared about were the robots with guns, the blood, the swearing, and the dude who starts melting from toxic waste and gets pummeled by a car before getting his head ripped off. Later on, I started to see its layers and its commentary on authoritarianism and consumerism. RoboCop has everything. Now I wonder if there’s another Criterion release that has action figures. A cartoon series?
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls
I first saw this after a great VHS trade with someone on the internet somewhere—Beyond the Valley for a Crispin Glover compilation I had made. “This is my happening and it freaks me out!” Rarely has a better line of dialogue been written. Some people call it a parody or spoof of the original Valley of the Dolls, but I don’t see it that way. Satire, maybe. Camp, sure. But who cares. It’s happening. I’m not fully in tune with most Russ Meyer films, but this is a vision. (Shout-out to the screenwriter, who is none other than Roger Ebert. The Roger Ebert.)
I could’ve put just about any Kurosawa on this list. I wish I could download one of those translation tools from The Matrix into my brain, so that I could understand the nuances of the language in his films. I remember watching Pulp Fiction in a theater in Prague. Samuel L. Jackson takes a bite of the Big Kahuna burger and says, “This is a tasty burger!” With the little Czech I knew, I could easily read the subtitles: “Good burger.” As much as Kurosawa is a visual storyteller, sometimes I feel like I’m just eating a “good burger” when I watch his films.
How to Get Ahead in Advertising
I saw this one at a young age, and it warped my taste in the best way possible. I loved the bland corporate setting and its surreal twist. There are a lot of filmmakers who talk about wild ideas and come up with absurd story concepts, and that’s as far as it gets. Just talk. I’m so happy there are filmmakers like Bruce Robinson who not only write screenplays like this but actually have the conviction to execute them. I wish I had written this one. It’s simple, gross, absurd, over-the-top, dark, and fun. It’s got something to say. It’s got guts.
If high-school Joel were to see this movie on this list, he’d be afraid for his future. And maybe he should be. When my friends and I first rented it, we thought it was literally the worst movie ever made. There’s no story! These people aren’t even actors! It’s just dudes hanging out! Did anyone edit this thing?! We thought, if this Richard Linklater guy living in Texas can do it, we can do it in Michigan. We filmed ourselves hanging out and talking about nothing. We called it “Jerk.” It was never finished. Years later I read that Slacker was a touchstone in independent film, and an important part of the early-’90s aesthetic. I’ve rewatched it and those hip critics and art-house kids were onto something. It’s beautiful, loose, liberating, and it doesn’t play by the rules. Sometimes the worst movies are the best sources of inspiration. This film gave me permission to make a feature. I have no idea where to find the lone copy of “Jerk,” but it’s likely the worst movie ever made.
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?