Dark Intimacies: Lisa Cholodenko's DVD Picks

Faye Dunaway i i

Director Lisa Cholodenko lauded Chinatown for its late plot twists, citing scenes that emphatically capture the Faye Dunaway character's shock and anguish at a famous revelation. Paramount Pictures/Photofest hide caption

itoggle caption Paramount Pictures/Photofest
Faye Dunaway

Director Lisa Cholodenko lauded Chinatown for its late plot twists, citing scenes that emphatically capture the Faye Dunaway character's shock and anguish at a famous revelation.

Paramount Pictures/Photofest

The Kids Are All Right, which is up for four Oscars this year, is a funny, heartwarming family story. The movies director Lisa Cholodenko recommends as must-sees for Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep and NPR listeners? Not so much.

"Those films all have one thing in common," she says. "I think they're all quite aggressive. Maybe a little pessimistic."

Cholodenko confesses that she drew up the list for us "from my sickbed — I had a horrible flu."

Nonetheless, she stands by her dark selections, starting with Ordinary People.

"I probably would've had that on my list regardless," Cholodenko says. "I think it was one of those movies that made me want to make movies. I saw something in [Mary Tyler Moore's] performance that struck me as completely out of the box."

In the movie, Moore — better known, perhaps, for her comedic roles — plays a mother whose son has died.

"She's suffering and struggling," Cholodenko says. "She thinks she's doing it silently and with dignity, but she's really kind of oozing out all over the place. It's this whole sort of psychodrama between the three surviving members of the family."

One particular scene stuck in Cholodenko's mind.

From 'Ordinary People'

"The son [Conrad, played by Timothy Hutton] is sitting in the kitchen trying to act normal, and she comes in and serves him a big plate of French toast," Cholodenko describes. "He's nauseous and bereft and picks at it. Then, she picks up the plate and shoves the French toast in the garbage disposal. What really touched me about it was, it was just a perfect film moment of passive aggression."

It's Moore's body language — a silent expression of her character's frustration and grief — that Cholodenko admires.

"It's the dialogue that's not there," she explains. "It's really what's expressed physically that conveys what's not [being] said."

Next Up: 'Chinatown'

"I was thinking about all these films that gave me that burst of unexpected pain or emotion," she says. "I do recall ... where the revelation happens between Faye Dunaway and Jack Nicholson, having this jolt of sadness and empathy and surprise."

From 'Chinatown'

Note: Contains a spoiler.

Cholodenko says she tends to dislike movies that demand an intellectual attack, but she's still drawn to Chinatown.

"I tend not to be so attracted to films that force me into an intellectual place over an emotional one," she says. "I'm more interested in those that strike a different balance, so that I'm not thinking too much — I'm just kind of with it, if you know what I mean."

Number 3: 'Gimme Shelter'

The musical documentary Gimme Shelter famously follows the Rolling Stones through the tail end of the band's 1969 U.S. tour and the infamous Altamont Speedway Free Festival — a kind of "Woodstock West" that went wrong. Four people lost their lives; one of them, as the Village Voice reported then, was "kicked and stabbed to death before thousands of impassive spectators during a brawl involving the Hell's Angels," who'd been hired to work security.

Cholodenko says the film's record of "a fractured American culture" is powerful. She points to a scene that follows the Stones as their helicopter arrives into the concert grounds — a "completely foreboding, menacing moment," she explains, that captures the surreal vibe surrounding the event.

"You're [watching] from the point of view of this band going into this concert that everybody knows is off-kilter," Cholodenko describes. "There's something not right about it — the location isn't right, the time isn't right, the Hell's Angels aren't right. And you look down from the point of view of this helicopter, onto the road where masses of people are walking for miles and miles and miles in the sun to get to this free concert. It just looks like a weird, creepy pilgrimage. It's just a completely synesthetic moment — I can still conjure it, and I haven't seen the film in quite a while."

Diego Luna, Gael Garcia Bernal i i

Alfonso Cuaron's Y Tu Mama Tambien made Cholodenko's list for its touching portrayal of the relationship of Tenoch (Diego Luna, left) and Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal). IFC Films/Photofest hide caption

itoggle caption IFC Films/Photofest
Diego Luna, Gael Garcia Bernal

Alfonso Cuaron's Y Tu Mama Tambien made Cholodenko's list for its touching portrayal of the relationship of Tenoch (Diego Luna, left) and Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal).

IFC Films/Photofest

Fourth Course: 'Y Tu Mama Tambien'

It doesn't seem as grim as her other choices, but Cholodenko says her final pick, the sensual Y Tu Mama Tambien, belongs on the list for its daring narrative.

From 'Y Tu Mama Tambien'

"I adore that movie in so many ways," she says. "There was a freedom ... with the camera, with the color."

It's unapologetically sexual. And it's emotional. Two teenage boys, lifelong friends, go on a road trip with a 20-something woman who unbeknownst to them is gravely ill.

But "that isn't the part of the film that got to me," Cholodenko says, "as much as the end: There's this moment of the three of them coming together — and there's this intoxicated, tequila-drenched threesome that happens. It's sort of fun and playful and tender and inevitable.

"I don't have a lot of experiences where I remember at the end of a film crying in that complete joy-marries-the-sorrow kind of way," Cholodenko says. "I thought that was a real triumph, for the filmmaker and the film."

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