I’m a sucker for dystopian sci-fi films set in the near future, especially when they’re absurd or have a sense of humor—that’s why I love Brazil. Gilliam’s roots are in Monty Python, and he uses that to bring an up-tempo flow to the film. But the real star is the musical theme. It almost tricks the audience into feeling like everything will be okay. Brazil is still plenty harsh, which is most evident in the final sequence—one of my favorite endings in a sci-fi film, or any film for that matter.
David Maysles, Albert Maysles, Ellen Hovde, and Muffie Meyer
I’m a huge fan of the Maysles brothers’ documentaries, so it’s hard for me to pick one, but I guess I would have to say that Grey Gardens is the ultimate. Documentaries can take many different forms, and I wouldn’t say I have a favorite style of documentary filmmaking. That’s like saying there’s a “best” way to sing or play an instrument—not true! But as far as characters in a documentary go, the Beales are up there at the very top. And the influence of this documentary—and the Maysles’ filmmaking in general—on the history of film and television is massive.
Brian De Palma
I just love the use of sound in Blow Out. More films need to use sound as a driving force of the plot. In Blow Out, sound is put under a sonic magnifying glass, so to speak. Maybe I’m extra sensitive to it, but it’s a lot of fun. There is a whole emotional and visceral universe that can be tapped into with the right sound design, and this film does a great job of forcing the audience to listen to things differently. There’s a lot of sonic space in it. The film also has one of the most ridiculous endings ever. The first time I saw it I let out an audible “what?!” It’s absurd.
David Cronenberg is one of my favorite directors. In his sci-fi years, he was the master of practical effects, which is a truly lost art if you ask me. I love this film for many reasons, but it made my list because of one scene in particular—the infamous head-exploding scene. Wow. Also worth mentioning are the great sound design and the throbbing synth, which make me feel like my head is going to explode, or that it probably should.
The Last Waltz
The Band was one of the greatest bands of all time. Their story is fascinating, the members’ dynamic is complex, and their first two records are classics. As a music junkie I think this documentary is essential just because you get to watch them play. (Levon Helm is my favorite.) There are parts that feel like music videos, and it’s completely different from, let’s say, a fly-on-the-wall, Dont Look Back–style documentary that follows a musician over a period of time. The Last Waltz is a great example of blending more traditional documentary elements with the staged performances of a concert film. Side note: One of my dogs is named Fanny, which I took from “The Weight.”
This Is Spinal Tap
This choice is a little on the nose, but I had to include it. I’m a touring musician, so it’s a must. This Is Spinal Tap is one of the funniest movies ever. Christopher Guest and his crew have a great track record of hilarity, and it started here. And the music is actually pretty great. I was just on tour and experienced a similar lost-backstage situation. Though it’s a mockumentary, I’d venture to say it’s one of the greatest rock docs of all time.
I guess my list has a bit of a theme: sound design. Eraserhead is all about the sound. The images are terrifying and wild, but the sound design is by far the most interesting part. I was lucky enough to see it in a giant movie theater with very loud speakers, and it was one of the most intense and interesting auditory experiences I’ve had while watching a film. This must have been one of my earliest introductions to noise or ambient music that isn’t incessantly aggressive. Very wild stuff.
I have vivid memories of watching this when I was about twenty and becoming completely engulfed in it. It’s technically an experimental documentary in that there is no obvious plot, but to me Koyaanisqatsi paints a clear picture of society and our unbreakable relationship with technology. It’s brutal, beautiful, and relentless. The film also turned me on to Philip Glass, whose score dominates the senses. I don’t know how this film would feel without his “music with repetitive structures,” though I’m 100 percent certain that it would be a lesser one. Greatest documentary score of all time?
This is a great, trippy animated film about giants on an alien planet who keep humans as pets. The visuals are amazing, but it made my list because of the soundtrack. It’s pretty much one musical theme played fifteen different ways, which is a cool exercise. I would love to do a score like this one day. The music and sounds are also sampled a lot—Quasimoto, anyone?
Sometimes I just need a ridiculous distraction from whatever is going on in my life, and that’s the point of this film: entertainment, and a chance to exist in a different universe than the one you live in. It’s also probably one of the reasons I got into movies in the first place, and probably why I got into records as well. A bit of a break from reality can make reality and the way you exist in it a little better.
Sonic Youth’s Top 10
Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo, Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon, and Steve Shelley ganged up for this Criterion top ten—or twelve, as it turned out. The New York–based no wavers have been making music together since 1981. Their albums include Daydream Na…
Ricky Jay’s Top 10
Author, actor, and historian Ricky Jay first worked with director David Mamet on House of Games. They have since collaborated often, including on seven films, the TV show The Unit, the one-man Broadway show Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants, and Redbel…