The Dumb Waiter (Robert Altman)
After the box-office and critical disappointment of 1980’s Popeye, Altman spent the bulk of the ‘80s in a kind of cinematic wilderness, turning out mostly low-budget, independent adaptations of plays (like Streamers, Secret Honor, and Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean) for art houses and television. In what must have been his greatest sell job (and that’s saying something), Altman somehow convinced ABC to air Basements, a film adaptation of two Harold Pinter one-acts, as a TV movie; the better of the two is The Dumb Waiter, starring John Travolta and Tom Conti. Each film was released separately on VHS in the 1980s, so again, it’s hard not to imagine this one influencing Tarantino; it features Travolta as one half of a hit-man team, making idle conversation while waiting to do a job. It’s a little jarring to hear a Cockney accent coming out of the actor (and the accent itself is pretty dodgy), but he and Conti are quite good, and Altman — famous for his improvisational tendencies — sticks closely to Pinter’s text, coming up with one of the few adaptations that seems to capture the mood of his works.
Gerry (Gus Van Sant)
Hey, did you hear about the Van Sant/Damon/Affleck movie? No, the other one. When the iconoclastic filmmaker helmed the Oscar-friendly Good Will Hunting, some cried sellout, an accusation that Van Sant seemed to tackle head-on when he re-teamed with Hunting co-stars Matt Damon and Casey Affleck five years later to make this wildly experimental and occasionally impenetrable drama. Long sequences unfold with little or no dialogue, and no action more riveting than two guys walking (or, later, staggering). The dialogue, when it occurs, is pointedly absurd. The storytelling is sparse; we never find out what its heroes are seeking, or much of anything about them. But it’s a potent, riveting, and beautiful film, and an utterly uncompromising experiment.
Great Expectations (Alfonso Cuarón)
When Cuarón’s film was released in 1998 (in January, never a good sign) it was marketed — perhaps wisely — as a modernized take on an old classic in the style of the recent hit Romeo + Juliet. And then critics and audiences widely dismissed it as such. But this is more than a flashy, empty, Luhrmann-style update; working from a script co-written by David Mamet and Scrooged’s Mitch Glazer, Cuarón takes Dickens’s narrative and spins out an inventive, heartfelt, and achingly sexy portrait of young love. The cinematography, by his frequent collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki, is stunning, and the picture only improves on repeat visits; from this vantage point, it’s an invaluable bridge between the children’s film (A Little Princess) that preceded it, and the erotic drama (Y Tu Mama Tambien) that followed it.
New York Stories (Sofia Coppola)
Everyone knows that Sofia Coppola’s masterful directorial efforts followed a notably less successful stint in front of the camera, in Papa Francis’ The Godfather Part III. What is lesser known is that, even before that film, she co-wrote his entry in the 1989 anthology film New York Stories — and maybe that’s for the best, since it’s far and away the weakest entry in the film, a too-cute tale of a little rich girl in some kind of fantasy version of New York City (one that certainly bore no resemblance to the city at the time of the film’s 1989 release). So why is it on this list? Honestly, because I’ll take any excuse to point you towards “Life Lessons,” Martin Scorsese’s entry in the film, one of his richest and least appreciated films. And if that means I cheated a little, well, I’ll just have to live with that.