This is a film about two young lovers on the run, based on the true story of an ill-fated killing spree in the fifties. It was Terrence Malick’s first feature—the precursor to his golden-hour-lit Days of Heaven—and every frame is pure poetry. I love the sound of Sissy Spacek’s voice-over, which has an endearing, languid ASMR quality that’s often in contrast with the violence she’s describing. There’s never been an official release of the soundtrack, but the film features such musical moments as Musik für Kinder by Carl Orff, Mickey & Sylvia’s “Love Is Strange,” and Nat King Cole’s “A Blossom Fell.” Legendary production designer and director Jack Fisk was the art director on the film, and this is where his lifelong romance with Sissy began. Martin Sheen embodies his character’s apathy and penchant for nonchalant violence to a shocking degree. You can see how this movie paved the way for films like True Romance and Natural Born Killers.
The Double Life of Véronique
Doppelgängers and twins are a point of fascination for me, and Krzysztof Kieślowski approaches this subject with great romanticism. The film’s leitmotif, Zbigniew Preisner’s “Concerto in E Minor,” is very haunting and transports us deeper into the world of the story. A recording of the concerto recently appeared in a special episode of Euphoria, which I designed the costumes for, and highlights how far-reaching its influence has been. Playing the two main characters, Irène Jacob delivers a nuanced performance that won her the Best Actress award at Cannes. By using dream logic as his means of storytelling, Kieślowski leads us through impressionist visual landscapes and the psychic experience of his protagonists—not to find the answers to her story, but to experience her journey.
David Lynch’s neonoir surrealist mood piece was a turning point in cinema and remains one of his greatest achievements. My older sister, whom I look up to, was a dedicated Lynch fan and had Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, and Wild at Heart posters on her bedroom wall when she was a teenager. This was my first window into what would become a lifelong admiration for all things Lynchian. Blue Velvet opens with the perfect McGuffin: a decomposing ear. As the director once said, “I don’t know why it had to be an ear. Except it needed to be an opening of a part of the body, a hole into something else . . . The ear sits on the head and goes right into the mind, so it felt perfect.” The score, by maestro Angelo Badalamenti, is a masterpiece. I had the great honor of working with Lynch on Inland Empire, and there are similar themes at play there. What I take away from these films is that darkness and light are inextricable—one cannot exist without the other. This is a common theme for Lynch, and it often comes up when he discusses his approach to his devoted transcendental meditation practice. His book Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity explores this even further.
Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon is an intensely visual film with interiors lit only by candlelight and exteriors that evoke eighteenth-century landscape paintings. Milena Canonero’s sumptuous costumes are extraordinary and are a precursor to her work with Sofia Coppola for Marie Antoinette. While the latter was a dive into redefining eighteenth-century costumes in a contemporary, cotton-candy light, Canonero’s work in Barry Lyndon is pure historical decadence that inspired me to want to design costumes. The camera falls in love with Ryan O’Neal and Marisa Berenson in this character study that proves not all great characters must be likable. It remains one of Kubrick’s greatest and most underrated films. A master class.
The Gleaners and I
In our contemporary world, where environmental sustainability has become an issue of increased urgency, the sentiment behind Agnès Varda’s documentary The Gleaners and I resonates more than ever. She has a beautiful way of humanizing the most overlooked and underprivileged people, approaching her subjects with respect and even admiration. Shooting on a flyweight digital camera, Varda uses gleaning as a topic to look at all things forgotten and left behind. It’s a theme she started exploring fifteen years prior with Vagabond, which is a great, albeit sobering, narrative companion to Gleaners, about a woman trying to define her life outside the confines of capitalism and what most would consider “normal.”
La haine is what made me want to make films. It’s a love letter to the neglected castaways of the Parisian tower blocks in the banlieues, and its characters are full of raw emotion. The film was America’s introduction to a young force of nature, Vincent Cassel, and the rest of the cast are so authentic in their portrayal of these characters that at times it feels like a documentary. But the stylized black-and-white cinematography, dolly zooms, and the way the camera becomes its own character reminds us that we’re watching a story from the vision of Mathieu Kassovitz, who brings our attention to the depravity of police bavures (slipups) and the racial and economic divisions in 1990s Paris. The film’s content is more relevant than ever in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other people who have died at the hands of police.
Is Terry Gilliam’s Brazil a hyper-surreal sci-fi fantasy or a dystopian black comedy—or both? What it is for sure is a mind-bending exploration of what it means to dream boundlessly as a director and let no one tell you how to make your film. The combination of retro-future set design and the mixed-bag score by Ary Barroso gives this searing satire a feeling of strange nostalgia, and inspired the steampunk style movement. I admire Gilliam’s determination to make the film his way and not bow to the studio’s demands. A great companion read is The Battle of “Brazil”: Terry Gilliam v. Universal Pictures in the Fight to the Final Cut, by Jack Mathews.
A dreamy Montgomery Clift and a flawless Olivia de Havilland make William Wyler’s adaptation of Henry James’s Washington Square worth revisiting time and time again. I was excited to learn that the Greek Revival row houses featured in the film are still located on Washington Square North in Manhattan’s West Village, only a few blocks from where I lived for some time. Under Wyler’s direction, de Havilland is magnificent, and she won the Academy Award for her performance, as did Edith Head, for her stunning costumes. The bittersweet meaning of the ending has been the subject of much debate, and without giving away any spoilers . . . I find de Havilland’s Catherine to be inspiring as a first-wave feminist, triumphant and empowered.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller
Watching Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller for the first time became a seminal moment for me as I discovered the music of Leonard Cohen. The intoxicating score has become synonymous with this revisionist western. The sound throughout the film is heightened by Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography and his use of both available light and a “flashing” technique, which gives an underexposed, grainy quality reminiscent of old daguerreotypes. The visuals are seared in my mind like a memory from a past life. I remember reading about the making of the film after first seeing it and learning that Altman shot most of it sequentially and had the crew dress in costume so that while they were building the sets, he could film them as extras. They also lived in the sets for the duration of the shoot. I think that kind of Method approach contributes so much to the overall success of the film. It’s worth watching for the discipline of its unique approach, as well as for the lead performances by Warren Beatty and Julie Christie.
Gus Van Sant
My Own Private Idaho
I first saw Gus Van Sant’s sublime ode to male hustlers at the Biograph Theatre in Georgetown in Washington, D.C. I was fifteen years old and remember the vivid thrill of seeing something so original. It’s Van Sant’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, and it’s been said that he initially wrote it as three separate stories, then blended them together using the cut-up technique made famous by William S. Burroughs. This is made all the more beautifully fragmented by his documentarylike interviews with real hustlers in his hometown of Portland, which he intersperses throughout the film. The movie features River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves in their prime and has great supporting performances by the indelible Flea and Udo Kier. I find it inspiring that Van Sant approaches his filmmaking in such a collaborative way and credits Phoenix for much of the improv in the film and for writing the pivotal campfire scene.