Nanook of the North
This was the first Flaherty film I ever saw, and maybe the most important one, as I realized that he had removed the glass wall separating us from the performers in a way that, I could see, allowed anyone to make a film in his backyard. That was a revelation that got me thinking about what was needed to do it.
How I loved this film. It was what I had always wanted a musical to be. Little bits of music woven through a romantic story. I thought it was perfect, and I even made a tape of the soundtrack, which I still have, somewhere in the archives. A great opening—which, by the way, I think is the case with most of my film loves—and, of course, the two- and three-line songs that inspired the Marx brothers as well as many others, myself included. But I don’t think anyone did it as well as Clair.
I Know Where I’m Going!
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
This was the first Powell film I ever saw. I saw it when it first came to New York, where it played for only a few days in its initial run, or so I figured when I tried to go back and see it again. I fell in love with that film, partly because of where it took place, partly because of who was in it, partly because of the way the music slipped in and out of it, and mostly because I could see that Michael Powell, whoever he was, was my leader. Years later, when I finally met him (I was trying to make The Riddle of the Sands with him, but couldn’t raise the money), I spent an entire lunch recalling all his lines from I Know Where I’m Going! In the face of my slavish foolishness, I remember he was most gracious.
The Horse’s Mouth
This is not only one of the funniest films ever made, but, as one who has spent time with a number of painters, I could see that it was really about painters and painting. And it was responsible for my first film—a short that ran for almost a year at the Paris Theater in New York. Of course, I’ll always love it. One of the lines I love is when the helper lady asks how you can tell when a picture is finished, and the painter hero looks at her quizzically and says, “You just know.” For me, that was movies.
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
This is a hugely underrated film, probably because it is so long and, coming so soon after the war, it got almost no distribution here. But it’s my second favorite Powell film, because he really gets under the skin of the government that ran England. Of course, it’s all about Churchill. An amazing film.
My first Fellini film, at the old Normandy theater, and though I got to love all the rest of his work, this one, like all first loves, has a special place in my heart. Watching Zampanò on the beach, howling like a lost wolf at the black star-filled night, has never left me. What a way to begin a Fellini career. And it was one of the films I remember that had a great beginning, which got almost forgotten by the end.
Jules and Jim
A miracle of discontinuity and absurd tomfoolery, but with the help of a fantastic music track and a great measure of talent from everyone connected—including the costume designer—it took off and never touched ground again. I first saw it in France, with no subtitles, and thought it was a wonderful story. When I saw it later with subtitles, I realized I’d gotten it all wrong. It was a completely different story. But it turned out not to matter. It’s simply a wild film ride. And the joke for me was that I thought I understood French.
I’ve come to appreciate all of Jean-Luc’s films, even the bad ones. They are all of a kind, and such a unique kind. He’s like a cat. If you drop him on the floor, he lands on his feet. A natural filmmaker. And having personally worked with him on One PM, I can say with authority that he doesn’t bother himself with all the nitty-gritty details I seem to have to carry around. He just flies, and the film follows.
James Schamus’s Top 10
James Schamus is the former CEO of Focus Features; the producer of, among other films, Ride with the Devil (1999) and Brokeback Mountain (2005); the screenwriter and producer of The Ice Storm (1997); and a professor of professional practice at Columb…