5 Best Movies to Watch by Victor Argo

Staff & contributors

Director Jim Jarmusch audaciously combined the DNA of French noir classics with that of samurai and mafia movies to produce this utterly original film. As advised by the ancient Japanese manual it often quotes, though, Jarmusch’s movie also “makes the best” out of its own generation by adding hip-hop into its wry genre blend. The results are more than the sum of their parts, especially because the film is so eccentric: no matter how au fait with its inspirations you are, you still won’t see “Forest Whitaker plays a lonely hitman who wields and whooshes his silencer pistol like a samurai sword, lovingly tends pigeons, and can’t even speak the same language as his best friend” coming.

Ghost Dog’s strangeness is never jarring, though, thanks to Whitaker’s cool, collected performance, an atmospheric score by Wu-Tang Clan's RZA, and the cinematography’s tendency to use smooth double exposures for scene transitions. It almost feels like we’re in another world: Jarmusch zooms in on the Bushido code obsessions of Whitaker’s single-minded character and the mafiosos’ dying laws, blurring out everything else so the movie becomes a meditation on the impulse to moralize one’s misdoings by subscribing to rigid definitions of “honor.” Not an exercise in surface style, then, but a bone-deep reflective masterpiece.

Genre: Crime, Drama

Actor: Alfred Nittoli, Angel Caban, Camille Winbush, Chuck Jeffreys, Clebert Ford, Cliff Gorman, Damon Whitaker, Forest Whitaker, Frank Adonis, Frank Minucci, Gano Grills, Gary Farmer, Gene Ruffini, Harry Shearer, Henry Silva, Isaach De Bankolé, Jamie Hector, Jerry Todisco, John Tormey, Jonathan Teague Cook, José Rabelo, Joseph Rigano, Paul Diomede, Renee Bluestone, Richard Portnow, Roberto Lopez, RZA, Scott Bryce, Sharon Angela, Tony Rigo, Tracy Howe, Tricia Vessey, Victor Argo, Vince Viverito, Vinny Vella

Director: Jim Jarmusch

Rating: R

, 1995

Like a long, slow drag of a cigar, Smoke is a patient pleasure. Adam Holender’s leisurely lingering camera and the film’s relaxed editing allow us to savor the actors’ performances and the thoughtful script uninterrupted, trusting in their ability to captivate us. And captivate us is exactly what novelist Paul Auster’s screenplay and the film’s superlative ensemble do.

The film kicks off in Auggie Wren’s (Harvey Keitel) Brooklyn smoke shop, where myriad customers linger to chat and unexpected friendships form. The serendipitous network around which Smoke revolves unfurls gradually, like a curling wisp of smoke: Auggie’s patron Paul (William Hurt), a writer's block-struck novelist grieving the violent death of his pregnant wife some years ago, has his life saved by Harold Perrineau’s Rashid, the estranged 17-year-old son of a struggling mechanic (Forest Whitaker). Ashley Judd and Stockard Channing also feature in Auggie’s portion of the film, one of its five loose vignettes (although the film flows much more fluidly than a chapterized structure suggests). Auster’s contemplative, dialogue-driven screenplay — along with the film’s unhurried editing and luxuriating cinematography — make Smoke a gorgeous example of the art of savoring, which is exactly what you want to do with this wonderful movie.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Ashley Judd, Baxter Harris, Clarice Taylor, Deirdre OConnell, Erica Gimpel, Forest Whitaker, Giancarlo Esposito, Harold Perrineau, Harvey Keitel, Jared Harris, José Zúñiga, Malik Yoba, Mary B. Ward, Mel Gorham, Michelle Hurst, Murray Moston, Stephen Gevedon, Stockard Channing, Victor Argo, William Hurt

Director: Wayne Wang

Rating: R

Martin Scorsese had just spent a year prepping for The Last Temptation of Christ when Paramount Pictures unceremoniously pulled the plug on the movie just one month before production was due to start. After Hours was Scorsese’s way of exorcising all that disappointment and frustration, and you can feel it: this black comedy vibrates with manic intensity as it charts a night from hell in the life of Paul (Griffin Dunne), a somewhat scuzzy yuppie living in ‘80s New York City.

In keeping with its title — which suggests the movie is suspended in temporal limbo — After Hours feels like it takes place in some mythological hellscape, a demonic underworld in which everyone Paul meets has been sent forth with the express mission to make his life more miserable. Surreal coincidences pile up, deepening his paranoia and turning his simple goal of returning home into a labyrinthine quest for survival on the deserted, rain-soaked streets of SoHo. It’s the kind of celluloid nightmare that terrorizes and thrills you at the same time (a la the Safdie brothers’ best works, which draw inspiration from After Hours). Only a director of Scorsese’s caliber could turn profound professional disappointment into such a win as this.

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Thriller

Actor: Bronson Pinchot, Catherine O'Hara, Charles Scorsese, Cheech Marin, Clarence Felder, Dick Miller, Frank Aquilino, Griffin Dunne, Henry Judd Baker, John Heard, Larry Block, Linda Fiorentino, Margo Winkler, Martin Scorsese, Murray Moston, Paula Raflo, Robin Johnson, Rocco Sisto, Rockets Redglare, Rosanna Arquette, Teri Garr, Tommy Chong, Verna Bloom, Victor Argo, Victor Bumbalo, Victor Magnotta, Will Patton

Director: Martin Scorsese

Rating: R

Bad Lieutenant is no misnomer: Harvey Keitel’s policeman really is one of NYPD’s worst. Already corrupt, abrasive, and abusive at the film’s outset, the movie chronicles his coked-out descent into total depravity after he’s called to investigate a heinous crime amid rapidly worsening personal circumstances. The brilliance of Bad Lieutenant is therefore a counterintuitive one: as awful as the Lieutenant is, we can’t help but feel emotionally involved because, in Keitel’s bravura performance, we can see the glint of pain — and thus of a person — within.

Always one for provocation, director Abel Ferrara pushes our empathy to — and maybe even beyond — its natural limits, only to break with the film’s hitherto unrelenting grit and dangle the glinting possibility of transcendent redemption in front of us. Anyone familiar with Catholic guilt cinema (movies like Martin Scorsese’s Who’s That Knocking At My Door and Mean Streets) will instantly recognize the same undercurrent running through Bad Lieutenant — even if Ferrara takes the idea of juxtaposing the profane with the sacred to the extreme here.

Genre: Crime, Drama

Actor: Bianca Hunter, Bo Dietl, Bob Murphy, Brian McElroy, Dana Dee, Darryl Strawberry, Ed Kovens, Eddie Daniels, Frank Adonis, Frankie Acciarito, Frankie Thorn, G. Elvis Phillips, Gene Canfield, Harvey Keitel, Heather Bracken, Iraida Polanco, Jaime Sánchez, John Steven Jones, Larry Mullane, Leonard L. Thomas, Minnie Gentry, Nicholas De Cegli, Paul Calderon, Paul Hipp, Peggy Gormley, Penelope Allen, Phil Neilson, Robin Burrows, Stella Keitel, Stephen Chen, Victor Argo, Victoria Bastel, Vincent Laresca, Zoë Lund

Director: Abel Ferrara

True Romance is a wildly entertaining and twistedly enjoyable crime film, directed by Tony Scott (Top Gun) and written by a young Quentin Tarantino. It stars Christian Slater as a young nebbish comic book store employee named Clarence who falls in love with a prostitute named Alabama (Patricia Arquette), and sets his mind to rid her of her indebtedness to a volatile pimp named Drexel (Gary Oldman). The story eventually finds them absconding to California with a suitcase full of cocaine, with the intention of selling off their illicit cache to a Hollywood bigwig in order to pursue their dreams of freedom and opportunity. Replete with a remarkable cast of famous names and familiar faces (including Brad Pitt, Christopher Walken and even Val Kilmer as the ghost of Elvis), True Romance is a true 90’s-era classic. It showcases Tarantino’s trademark witty dialogue throughout, enmeshed with the savage humor and jarring violence that he has become so well known for. It’s very much an homage to Hollywood classics such as Bonnie and Clyde and Badlands (including a rousing score by Hans Zimmer inspired by George Tipton’s score for Badlands), and ultimately serves as one of Tarantino’s most underrated career accomplishments.

Genre: Action, Crime, Romance, Thriller

Actor: Anna Levine, Anna Levine Thomson, Anna Thomson, April Freeman, Brad Pitt, Bronson Pinchot, Chris Penn, Christian Slater, Christopher Walken, Conchata Ferrell, Dennis Garber, Dennis Hopper, Ed Lauter, Enzo Rossi, Eric Allan Kramer, Frank Adonis, Gary Oldman, Gregory Sporleder, Hilary Klym, Jack Black, James Gandolfini, Joe D'Angerio, John Bower, John Cenatiempo, Kevin Corrigan, Laurence Mason, Maria Pitillo, Michael Beach, Michael Rapaport, Nancy Young, Patricia Arquette, Patrick John Hurley, Paul Bates, Paul Ben-Victor, Said Faraj, Samuel L. Jackson, Saul Rubinek, Steve Gonzales, Tom Sizemore, Tony Scott, Val Kilmer, Victor Argo

Director: Tony Scott

Rating: R