10 Movies Director Recommends – IndieWire
There’s no joint quite like a Spike Lee joint, but what other films does the director love?
Across four decades and 30 films, Brooklyn-raised Lee has established himself as the type of director whose work cannot be duplicated. The traits that make a Spike Lee joint a Spike Lee joint are easy to spot: the fiery and often political theme, the mix of humor and drama, those iconic floating dolly shots, and an approach that touches everything but the kitchen sink to stylistic experiments.
Lee’s fearlessness as a director makes for an intriguing blend of filmography. The author has at least three undeniable masterpieces under his belt: 1989’s Do the Right Thing, a searing drama about police brutality and racism; 1992’s “Malcolm X,” an epic starring Denzel Washington as the civil rights leader; and 2002’s 25th Hour, the greatest film portrait of life in post-9/11 New York. Depending on who you ask, many of his other films – She’s Gotta Have It, 4 Little Girls, Inside Man, BlacKKKlansman and Da 5 Bloods – are also considered great and negatively received films such as “Bamboozeled” and “School Daze” have since been re-evaluated and approved by critics.
Even Lee’s failures (and it’s hard to deny he has failures) are usually worth watching, whether it’s his “oldboy” remake or not. “She Hate Me” and “Girl 6” are undeniably raw, but they’re clearly personal works that only Lee could have done, and smaller titles like “Mo’ Better Blues” and “Chi-raq” have their strengths that make it are worth defending.
It’s unclear when Lee will return to theaters after his latest film, Da Five Bloods, hits Netflix in 2020. He has three projects in the series — hip-hop Romeo & Juliet, which retells Prince of Cats, Viagra creation musical Boner, and Broadway satire Da Understudy — but none have started filming , and the fate of ‘Da Understudy’ seems up in the air after star Jonathan Majors was arrested on domestic abuse charges. All that’s guaranteed is that when Lee makes his next film, it’s definitely going to be an event.
Unlike Martin Scorsese, for example, Lee is not the type of filmmaker who talks openly or often about his favorite films; He is one of the most acclaimed American directors not to have voted for Sight and Sound’s 2022 Greatest Movies poll. One of the most notable times he’s spoken publicly about what he considers excellent cinema of all time got him in hot water. In 2013, Lee published a list of 87 “essential” films that he makes available to his students at New York University’s film school each year; As many noted, exactly one film, City of God, was the work of a female director (Kátia Lund). Lee eventually apologized and added eight films by women filmmakers to the list, including Jane Campion’s The Piano and Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust.
Still, the films that Lee has discussed as his influences are truly great, and they offer an insight into the master’s approach to his craft. For example, it’s not shocking that a director as politically minded as Lee would be drawn to the films of Elia Kazan, whose “On the Waterfront” and “A Face in the Crowd” influenced his approach to form. Other movie favorites include widely respected staples like Rashomon and Lawrence of Arabia, cult classics like Ganja & Hess, and Sean Connery’s run as James Bond.
Here’s a list of just nine of Lee’s favorite films plus one fantastic TV show, compiled from interviews the director has given over the years. Entries are listed in no particular order.
“On the Waterfront” (Director: Elia Kazan, 1954)
Two of Lee’s film heroes are Elia Kazan, the Golden Age Hollywood filmmaker known for his bold, socially conscious work, and Kazan’s writing partner Budd Schulberg. In a 2018 interview for GQ, Lee spoke about his love for her film On the Waterfront, which stars Marlon Brando as an ex-boxer trying to stand up to the corrupt union bosses at his job as a longshoreman.
Lee, who became friends with Schulberg before the screenwriter’s death in 2009, praised the film for its great acting, cinematography, direction and script.
“A Face in the Crowd” (Director: Elia Kazan, 1957)
Another Kazan/Schulberg joint, A Face in the Crowd sees Andy Griffith make his film debut as a driving folk singer who becomes a TV celebrity and loses his soul in the process. Lee said in his GQ interview that Schulberg had a “crystal ball” when writing the film’s plot: “It’s really about the media, how it can be harmful, how it can be dangerous, how it can make people do it could believe anything.”
Mean Streets (1973) directed by Martin Scorsese
Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro rose to fame with Mean Streets, the director’s seedy detective story about petty criminals in New York. In his GQ interview, Lee said that he saw the film with his mother and that it was one of the first films that pushed him into filmmaking.
“I didn’t want to be a filmmaker at the time. I didn’t even know people made films,” Lee said. “You just went to the cinema. But this movie really [made] an effect on me.”
Lee later met Scorsese when the director was showing After Hours at NYU and introduced himself to his future boyfriend by sharing the story of how Mean Streets inspired him.
“The Night of the Hunter” (Director: Charles Laughton, 1955)
The Night of the Huntsman is the only film from acclaimed director Charles Laughton, but its gloriously dark tale about a serial-killing preacher is considered one of the most important films in cinema today. In his GQ interview, Lee said he fell in love with film while attending film school. He played a famous tribute to Robert Mitchum’s character in Do the Right Thing, where Bill Nunns Radio wears Raheem Love and Hate knuckle rings identical to Mitchum’s tattoos and gives a speech about the duality between the two concepts.
“Very, very scary movie. I love it,” Lee said. “Robert Mitchum, this character he’s playing? Terrible.”
“Lawrence of Arabia” (Director: David Lean, 1962)
When making Malcolm X, Lee wanted the film to feel huge. In his GQ interview, he said he turned to the films of British filmmaker David Lean, known for his large-scale epics. He and his cinematographer, Ernest Dickerson, studied Lean’s films, particularly Lawrence of Arabia, and saw a restored version of the film at the Ziegfeld Theatre.
“It was just amazing,” Lee said. “It had a new push, it reworked the sound and the color and then it definitely influenced us.”
“Rashomon” (Director: Akira Kurosawa, 1950)
Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, which tells the story of a samurai’s murder through numerous conflicting accounts, is arguably the Japanese director’s most influential work and paved the way for other films that experiment with linearity and perspective. In an interview with Vulture in 2015, Lee said his first film, She’s Gotta Have It, was inspired by Kurosawa’s multi-angle story.
“The whole story of ‘Rashomon,’ where there’s a rape and a murder and you get witnesses — everyone gives their own version of what happened and the audience has to choose,” Lee said. “Well, that’s the same thing in ‘She’s Gotta Have It,’ where you have these three men who are in love with Nola Darling and they’re doing their version of Nola.”
Dog Day Afternoon (1975), directed by Sidney Lumet
As one of New York’s leading directors, it’s no surprise that Lee loves a film for how it captures the city. One of his favorites is Dog Day Afternoon: Sidney Lumet’s film about a botched bank robbery set against the backdrop of the hottest day of the year.
“It’s a different kind of bank robbery, but it’s really New York City, and it’s a great movie,” Lee told Vulture. In Inside Man, Lee paid homage to the film by having actress Marcia Jean Kurtz reprise her role as one of the hostages from Dog Day.
“Ganja & Hess” (Director: Bill Gunn, 1973)
In 2014, Lee released Da Sweet Blood of Jesus: a horror film and remake of Bill Gunn’s ’70s flick Ganja & Hess. Lee followed the original’s story of an anthropologist-turned-vampire and his doomed romance with a mortal woman closely enough that Gunn, who died in 1986, was credited as co-writer of the remake.
In an interview with Vulture, Lee called the original film a “huge cult classic” and said he first saw it at NYU’s Graduate Film School; He also described his remake as an attempt to “pay homage” to the late Gunn.
Sean Connery’s James Bond Films (1962-1971)
In 2018, at a BlacKkKlansman screening, Lee revealed that his first love on screen was James Bond. Growing up in particular, Lee had an affinity for the six films that starred the first Bond Sean Connery: “Dr. No”, “From Russia With Love”, “Goldfinger”, “Thunderball”, “You Only Live Twice” and “Diamonds are Forever”.
When Connery died in 2020, Lee paid tribute to the Scot on Instagram: “Some of [my] My earliest memories of my late mother (Jacqueline Shelton Lee) taking me to the movies were James Bond grounds. Several times mothers had to cover my eyes,” he wrote. “No disrespect to the other actors who went on to play 007 but to me Sean is my type, he kicked ass a lot and took names, all the fine ladies, weight machines and had JOKE TOO.”
“The Wire” (HBO, 2002-2008)
No, this is not a film, this is television. But HBO’s acclaimed prestige drama about police officers, drug dealers, government employees, school teachers, journalists and other Baltimore citizens has the honor of being one of the few small screen projects Lee has praised throughout his career.
“It’s epic, you know,” Lee said in a 2015 Vulture interview. “Five years, great storytelling, the whole package was very complex.”