Five Favorite Films

Five Favorite Films with Derek Cianfrance

The writer-director of The Place Beyond the Pines on his all-time favorite movies.

by | March 28, 2013 | Comments

Derek Cianfrance’s 2010 drama Blue Valentine earned strong reviews and confirmed stars Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling as among the best actors of their generation. For his follow-up, the filmmaker has again enlisted Gosling, together with Bradley Cooper and Eva Mendes, as part of an ambitious, three-part drama on the legacy of troubled fathers and sons. It’s called The Place Beyond the Pines, and it opens in select theaters across the country this week. Here, we talk with Cianfrance about his favorite movies.

GoodFellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990; 97% Tomatometer)

First one I’d say is GoodFellas. When I was a teenager I slept underneath a picture of Martin Scorsese. I think GoodFellas is just a perfect film. From an efficiency of storytelling standpoint, from an entertainment standpoint, from a performance standpoint, from a use of music standpoint, from a cinematography and editing standpoint — to me it’s just a perfect movie. That’s a movie I saw when I was 16 years old, when I watched it in a theater 30 times. A perfect movie.

You must have been happy to have Ray Liotta in The Place Beyond the Pines.

I was. When I first met with my co-writer, Ben Coccio, I found out that his favorite movie was GoodFellas, too — so we said, “Hey, why don’t we write a movie together and let’s write a role for Ray Liotta in it.” And then five years later there I was sitting in an audition room with Ray Liotta — it was like, you know, dreams really do come true.

Did you tell him how many times you saw his movie?

Yeah. And he said, “Oh, I only saw it once.” [Laughs] Someday, I think they’re gonna carve his face into a mountaintop.

The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1964; 94% Tomatometer)

Next choice I’d say would be The Gospel According to St. Matthew, by Pasolini. I saw that movie for the first time when I was 23 years old. I’d gone to church every Sunday and catechism every week for my whole childhood, but I never paid attention; I was always daydreaming in church — and all of a sudden I went to go see this movie, and I knew everything in the movie. I guess all of my Catholic upbringing I had absorbed through some sort of osmosis. Here was this movie which was this Biblical story which was told so beautifully: the cinema was so simple and so beautiful. He had, you know, Odetta playing “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child” as the three wise men found Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus. It was, you know… I started sweating while I was watching the movie. The whole left side of my body went numb while I was watching, and I was sure that I was having a heart attack. It was all that I could do — you know, I didn’t want to because it was the greatest movie I’d ever seen — but it was all I could do to crawl out of the movie theater and knock on the projectionist’s door and ask him if I could call my girlfriend. I called my girlfriend and told her I thought I was dying, ’cause I was seeing the greatest movie I’d ever seen, and she showed up. I remember it had been snowing in Colorado and she had all this dirty snow on the roof of her car and I was eating all this dirty snow because my mouth was just parched. And I remember being in the emergency room and thinking that when the doctor walks through, if he looked like Jesus from The Gospel According to St. Matthew, I knew that meant I was dead. Fortunately the guy didn’t look anything like Jesus.

Gimme Shelter (Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin, 1970; 100% Tomatometer)

Another one of my five favorite films would be Gimme Shelter, by the Maysles brothers. I spent many years making documentary films between my first film and my second film, Blue Valentine, and I learned to really embrace, and be humbled by life, and by telling a story where you’re telling someone else’s story. And there’s something about the Maysles brothers, and especially that movie, where they were able to witness these moments. Especially with Gimme Shelter, you know, these moments of American history — this concert at Altamont that turned into kind of the bad trip of Woodstock. And I love how they frame it with the band, the Stones, watching the footage, watching their memories; this document, this witness to this incredible time in American life — and this crime, this real crime in America. Also, for nothing else than the moment where Mick Jagger has to watch Tina Turner. Again, like watching the Scorsese movie — and the Pasolini movie — their use of music, you know, is to watch a real rock and roll movie in the theater, with that sound. It’s great.

Contempt (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963; 93% Tomatometer)

Next one would be Contempt by Godard. The first time I ever saw it, on a VHS copy 25 years ago, I thought it was the worst movie I’d ever seen. Actually, every Godard film I’ve ever seen I’ve hated the first time. But it got re-released a number of years back and I was in New York and saw it at the Film Forum, and I felt like I was seeing Halley’s Comet, you know — I couldn’t believe how wrong I was; how much I’d despised this film the first time I saw it and how much my second viewing was completely the polar opposite reaction. I think the performances, from Bardot and Piccoli to Jack Palance, to, you know, Cotard’s photography and Delerue’s amazing repetitive score… to me it’s one of those Godard movies where it’s a perfect balance between heart and mind, you know? Oftentimes his films are extremely heavy, but this film was not only heavy — you could forever gaze into it on repeated viewings, as it appeals to your intelligence — but it also appealed to your soul. It was a huge, huge inspiration for Blue Valentine, especially the middle section of Contempt, where it feels like this 45-minute sequence where this couple is in their apartment.

A Woman Under the Influence (John Cassavetes, 1974; 94% Tomatometer)

The last film I would say — and I could pick many of his films, but I will choose Woman Under the Influence, by Cassavetes. I could also have said Faces, or I could have said The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, or Husbands, or Minnie and Moskowitz, or I could have said Love Streams, but — today it will be Woman Under the Influence. I love the structure of it; its two-part structure — it really feels like a film in two movements. Arguably the two greatest performances of all time, between Peter Falk and Gena Rowlands. You know, it’s a home movie, and everything I’ve been trying to make are home movies — movies that take place inside the house and the family. I love the spirit of Cassavetes’ films, in that he’s casting his wife and his best friend in the roles, and his mother and her mother are in it, and the kids. To me it’s a movie that changes, too, throughtout the course of my life. I know the movie isn’t changing, I’m changing; but when I watch it the movie seems to shape-shift. I remember the first time I ever saw it I thought she was crazy; I remember on the 50th time I watched it I thought she was the only sane person in the movie and everyone else was crazy. I love that about movies that are made with a certain openness — that the audience can kind of participate in the imagination of the characters, you know; of their lives and of the story.

The Place Beyond the Pines is in select theaters this week.