I first saw The Celebration in film school, and it knocked my socks off. It was hilarious and heartbreaking and ugly and unpredictable. I was thrilled by it because it made me realize that real entertainment isn’t necessarily explosions and car chases—it can be shocking forms of human behavior that show how far characters are willing to go to humiliate themselves and everyone around them in an attempt to hold on to something they think they need. The Celebration takes the dysfunctional-family drama to a new level of volatility in the most exciting way.
Sometimes you see something that makes you immediately feel, this is what I love. Maybe it’s not something you knew before, but it’s something you felt inside. A lot of the films on this list are ones that hit me on this level when I saw them in film school or shortly after. They showed me what’s possible and gave me the inspiration and the drive to push myself.
Scenes from a Marriage
Scenes from a Marriage is the Bergman film that struck the strongest chord for me. I’m attracted to films about relationships and the lengths two people will go to destroy each other, and this is emotional warfare on a level I’ve never seen before. It’s heartbreaking and shocking but absolutely captivating. I couldn’t believe how many times these characters kept coming back to each other. They’re addicted to sharing a life of pain, and yet we understand that there is still love there. The idea that love is a sickness was very exciting to me when I saw this.
Lars von Trier
Breaking the Waves
What was thrilling for me the first time I saw Breaking the Waves was the way it shows how a character’s obsession can drive a plot. I realized that these were the kinds of characters I want to write about: people who will go to any length to prove their worth, who put everything into getting what they want, and, when they’re not able to attain it, feel that failure says something about who they are. This movie conveys that in a shocking and horrifying way. Emily Watson’s performance as Bess is amazing.
It’s a film that taught me so much about editing and the power of what a filmmaker chooses to show and not show. There’s one cut that changed the way I thought about storytelling. At the end of the film, when Bess goes back to the boat during the day, you’d expect to see what happens right after her return. But instead, the film cuts to a wide shot at night, and it’s difficult to make out what’s in the frame. Then you see something being passed around, and you realize it’s Bess’s body, and you’re like, holy shit. The power of that cut was game-changing for me as a filmmaker.
A Woman Under the Influence
Gena Rowlands gives one of the best performances ever. This was the first time I had seen someone so beautiful be so fearless in playing so ugly. When I was starting out and trying to make my own short films, this film opened my eyes to what’s possible in performance. I love the freedom that John Cassavetes gave to his actors and how he encouraged them to go places even they weren’t expecting to go to.
The story is so heartbreaking. It’s tragic and profound how, even though Peter Falk’s character has broken the thing inside his wife that he loved, he tries to pull it back in and get her to become the person he’s been criticizing the whole time.
I love how debauched Faces is. It captures a night of ugliness during which the characters go off and spiral into their own wild experience, but in the morning, they have to come back to reality and face their romantic partners.
I find it incredibly powerful when the final moments of a film can speak to the whole. In Faces, you watch these characters who are so filled with disappointment—and yet they get up, light a cigarette, start cleaning, and go about their day, because that’s just what you did in that time. They’re stuck to each other and have accepted their dissatisfaction and pain.
Days of Heaven
This is one of the most beautiful films ever shot. I love how audacious Terrence Malick was in wanting to shoot mainly during magic hour, and the fact that the studio went along with it. That would never happen now. Aside from that, this is a classic love story that continues to break my heart.
Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne
The Kid with a Bike
The Kid with a Bike is about what a boy is willing to do for his father’s love. It immediately pierced something in me, and I was gutted by it. The Dardenne brothers have figured out a formula, and each of their films is so distinct and specific to the characters and situations they’ve created. They’re masters of setting up their characters’ emotional needs and obsessions and allowing their unpredictable natures to drive the plot.
This small, human story shows a character digging his own grave because of something he feels he can’t live without. This is another film that made me recognize I wanted to tell stories with characters who are experiencing extreme obsession and desire.
12 Angry Men
One of the hardest things you can do as a filmmaker is make a film that is set in one location—and make it not only interesting but profound. 12 Angry Men achieves this; it’s incredibly cinematic, and you’re compelled by it from beginning to end. The camera is always exactly where it needs to be, and you’re never exhausted by the frame. You’re so caught up in the performances and the writing, and Sidney Lumet elevates those elements through his lens. He’s one of the greatest directors ever—certainly my favorite.
Election is one of the greatest comedies. I’ve seen it about fifty times. It’s quirky, dark, and sick, and it’s so fun to watch at the same time. The tone and style are so specific to Alexander Payne’s voice as a director.
Every character is flawed in an idiosyncratic yet relatable way. Again, this is a film in which the characters are destroying each other. In a way, Matthew Broderick’s Jim McAllister is so genuine in the beginning, but once everything is taken from him, he sinks his teeth into Tracy Flick, and all of his frustrations get funneled into obliterating her.
In the commentary on the Criterion edition, Payne talks about how everything in each frame was put there for a reason—down to even the smallest details, like the sharp lines of Tracy’s desk. He describes her as being all about lines, while Jim is all about circles, but their shapes get disrupted over the course of the film.
Thelma & Louise
In the context of Hollywood, the feminism of Thelma & Louise was way ahead of its time, even though the film was directed by a man. You’re watching these two women fight against misogyny and assault—but it’s not a heavy movie. It’s a story of sisterhood that is fun and engages with the tropes of different genres.
It’s a rare example of a great popcorn movie that has something meaningful to say. It has everything you could want: excellent writing, plenty of action, amazing performances, humor, and sadness. And of course, it has one of the most iconic final shots of all time.
People don’t make these kinds of movies anymore—or if they do, they don’t put much money into them. Thelma & Louise belongs to a time when dramas like this could get made with a decent budget, a time when filmmakers took more risks than they do today.
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?