Five Favorite Films

Five Favorite Films with Joe Swanberg

The director of Drinking Buddies and this week's 24 Exposures shares his love for the early 1970s.

by | January 24, 2014 | Comments

You could make a case that Joe Swanberg is the hardest working man in indie cinema. In 2013, he acted in four films (most notably the Certified Fresh slasher flick You’re Next) and directed two more: the critically-acclaimed comedy Drinking Buddies, starring Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson, and a low-key dramedy about an aging actress (All the Light in the Sky). His latest, 24 Exposures, hit theaters this week, and it’s a dark thriller about a fetish photographer who becomes the target of an investigation when a model is murdered. Given his thematic range, it’s no surprise that Swanberg has diverse taste in movies, as he demonstrated in an interview with RT.

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (Paul Mazursky, 1969; 91% Tomatometer)

That’s probably my favorite film right now. Drinking Buddies was very inspired by this movie. I just love how it managed to be a real successful mainstream Hollywood comedy but it’s really complicated. The characters in this film are married, they have children, they’re still talking about open sexual relationships, and doing drugs, it just… it feels real to me, is how it feels. I’m very impressed by it, not only for its sense of humor which I think is spot on, but also for its sort of willingness to dip into dramatic elements and to have central characters who are not necessarily likeable all the time, who are, you know, sort of confused and behaving in very human realistic ways.

The Heartbreak Kid (Elaine May, 1972; 90% Tomatometer)

I think it’s one of the funniest movies ever made. I think Charles Grodin is hugely underrated as a comedic actor. I think he’s brilliant. Jeannie Berlin who recently got a lot of attention again because of Kenneth Lonergan’s movie Margaret is amazing in this movie — she was actually nominated for an Oscar for it. Cybill Shepherd is great. I just love it, I love how what a s— the central character is, he’s really totally selfish and also really confused, in a great way. I also love that a lot of the comedy typically in movies like this, with sort of high concept plots, the comedy and the drama are driven by the central character lying to the people around them. But weirdly in The Heartbreak Kid, most of the drama comes from him telling the truth, he’s sort of excessively honest and straight forward, and it still manages to complicate these situations and cause a lot of tension and hurt feelings, but I just love Elaine May, I like all of her movies.

Even Ishtar?

Even Ishtar. I think the first 20 minutes of Ishtar is some of the best filmmaking of the 1980s, certainly some of the best comic filmmaking I’ve ever seen. The movie loses steam for me when they get to Ishtar, and I’ve seen that movies 15 times, I have a lot of theories about why it stops working as well, but it’s never bad even when it sort of slows down, but the first 20 minutes I think are genius.

That’s the funny thing about movies that have a toxic reputation — I remember watching Heaven’s Gate and thinking, why did everyone think this is bad?

A lot of these stories leak out before the movie’s finished and they really paint the way people end up watching the thing. Ishtar is great, Mikey and Nicky‘s great, I think she’s really, one of the biggest tragedies of modern filmmaking that we don’t have more movies from her. Ishtar stopped her career right when it was getting great. If she had worked more, we would have several more masterpieces from her.

Stop Making Sense (Jonathan Demme, 1984; 97% Tomatometer)

It’s one of the movies I’ve probably seen the most number of times. It’s almost perfect. It’s really, just beautiful to look at. The music’s incredible, I’m a big David Byrne/ Talking Heads fan. The show that they put on is great. I love the way that it sort of builds over the course of this film and starts with this very simple set, and at the end is this elaborate rock concert. Jonathan Demme does an amazing job pointing the camera at the right things all the time and not making a big deal about it, letting the performers sort of be the center of the action. It’s got a great sense of humor, but it’s also serious, and kind of captures that band at the height of what they were doing. [David Byrne’s] presence in that movie, he’s a movie star. As the lead of that movie even though it’s a concert movie, I think he’s so amazing.

Nashville (Robert Altman, 1975; 95% Tomatometer)

You seem to really like the early 1970s, don’t you?

Yeah, it’s maybe a problem.

Not at all, they made great movies then.

I do like movies from other time periods, by the way. There is something, it’s sort of a sweet spot for me — societally, culturally, artistically, whatever sort of groove they hit right there — that appeals to my sensibilities. Nashville is endlessly inspiring to me, everything that I do is aiming for that sort of mixture of casualness and kind of amazing f— it sort of attitude, but combined with these incredible performances and story and structure. It’s probably been the single biggest influence, since the first time I saw it, over how I approach movies. That movie fills me with a tremendous sense of freedom when I come into a new project, that I can do whatever I want. There aren’t rules for how to make movies and I also love that Altman was like 50 when he made that movie. That’s inspiring to me as well, that we sort of live in a culture that values, like, people’s first films or first books or first record, fully formed right out of the gate, or whatever. Most of my favorite filmmakers didn’t have careers that looked like that. They sort of kept challenging themselves and trying new things. And for me, Nashville is this amazing thing, whenever I feel pressure that my career should maybe look different than it looks right now. I’m 32 years old right now. Altman made Nashville when he was 50. I have time to keep getting better and pushing towards this stuff. The best is yet to come. So that’s great. Beyond that, I love the music, I love the way it looks, it’s just a great movie.

Crumb (Terry Zwigoff, 1995; 95% Tomatometer)

It’s in my top five list of best films ever made. I just think it’s perfect. It’s an amazing portrait of an artist, an amazing portrait of a family, Crumb is an incredible central character. I feel like whenever I watch that movie — I sort of watch it every couple years — I start talking like him afterwards. I mean he really infects me in a way that totally changes the way that I look at the world. All great artists have that sort of ability. When I read some of my favorite novelists after I put down one of their books, I’m thinking in their words. I’m seeing the world through their eyes and it’s the same with Crumb. I’m a big fan of his comics, but that film does such an amazing job putting you kind of in his headspace. It also looks amazing, it’s shot on film, Zwigoff does an incredible job framing Crumb’s world, and the Jazz music. it’s just great, I just think it’s great. I think the movie’s a pleasure to watch. I mean, his brother Charles is f—ing incredible, man. Like, the idea that this family produced not one great artist, three great artists. And that Crumb was actually the one who was political enough and sophisticated enough and just barely enough of a people person that his art got seen. But, you know, Charles and Matt also were like really pushing the boundaries of the stuff and also hugely influential on Crumb’s stuff. You don’t get Robert without Charles. You just never sort of have access to those stories the way that this documentary has access to that family. It’s a lot to think about, the artwork that we end up getting as a culture, you know, often times is less about what’s better, and more about how savvy the artist is and how able they are to kind of be in the right place at the right time so that there’s an audience for the work.

I love that you said R. Crumb is more of a “people person.”

Barely, barely. Barely, but just enough. I watched that movie and even though he’s, like, a completely selfish, misogynistic piece of s—, I wanna’ be near him, you know, he’s got whatever that sort of quality is. And it is his intelligence and his talent and his sense of humor and all that stuff, but it’s also he’s incredibly self-aware and self-analytical. It’s not that he’s this kind of idiot savant guy who’s socially awkward or whatever. He really has a very clear-eyed view of himself that’s actually worth striving for, I feel like, as a person, to sort of be that comfortable with yourself and unashamed. In a really healthy way, in a way that feels really healthy.

24 Exposures opens in limited release this weekend.