Stephen Sondheim’s 40 Favorite Films

A true cineaste, a friend once told me, will have the most eclec­tic “best of” list, forged from a deep love of cin­e­ma and an absolute con­fi­dence in their choic­es. There will be no look­ing at a Great Movies book, no con­sid­er­a­tion of pub­lic taste. They have not a care for lega­cies or film schools. That’s why this recent­ly unearthed list of Stephen Sondheim’s favorite films is such a fas­ci­nat­ing read.

The com­pos­er passed away last month at 91, hav­ing changed Broad­way musi­cals from big and brassy pop­u­lar fare into some­thing that could tack­le strange and exper­i­men­tal themes and sto­ries yet be just as suc­cess­ful. He pro­vid­ed the lyrics for West Side Sto­ry and Gyp­sy, and then went on to a string of chal­leng­ing hits: Com­pa­ny, Fol­lies, A Lit­tle Night Music, Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, Assas­sins.

The sub­ject mat­ters he tack­led were often dark and com­plex. He watched many of his musi­cals get the Hol­ly­wood treat­ment, occa­sion­al­ly wrote songs for cin­e­ma, and toyed with adapt­ing sev­er­al films for the stage, includ­ing Being There and Sun­set Boule­vard. So what must his film list be like?

Real­ly odd, is the answer. The pub­lished list is in alpha­bet­i­cal order, and there are very few clas­sics in there—Welles’ Cit­i­zen Kane, Bergman’s Smiles on a Sum­mer Night, Bresson’s Au Hasard Balt­haz­ar, and Kurosawa’s High and Low.

Con­spic­u­ous­ly miss­ing: oth­er musi­cals.

“The only kind of movie that held no inter­est for me what­so­ev­er was musi­cal,” he told the New York Times in 2003. ”We’re talk­ing about from the age of 10 to the age of 25. I knew the musi­cals because I would hear the songs, but I nev­er went out of my way to see them. Not the fab­u­lous Arthur Freed MGM unit, and it’s not that I thought they were bad. It’s what I loved were west­erns. Melo­dra­mas, even roman­tic come­dies. High dra­ma.’’

The inter­view sug­gests a method to the list—these were films Sond­heim loved but most had not seen; he would insist friends and col­lab­o­ra­tors watch them. That’s how he describes 1980’s The Con­tract, direct­ed by Krzysztof Zanus­si, a “movie of his I find so extra­or­di­nary, I want to share it with every­body,’’ he said.

Born in 1930, Sondheim’s favorite decade (by movie count) is his teenage years, from the fan­ta­sy of Michael Powell’s The Thief of Bag­dad to the hor­ror of Dead of Night. Lat­er years are more scat­ter­shot, with Lynch’s The Ele­phant Man and Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap being stand-out choic­es. His 1990s selec­tions, right up through the mid-2000s show his con­tin­u­ing inter­est in dark themes (Gus Van Zant’s school shoot­ing mood piece Ele­phant), large nov­el­is­tic inter­twin­ing nar­ra­tives (John Sayles’ Lone Star) and com­pli­cat­ed fam­i­ly dra­mas (Denys Arcand’s The Bar­bar­ian Inva­sions).

Sond­heim fans will find much to chew over on this list, that is, if they’ve even seen most of them. My per­cent­age is admit­ted­ly low, let us know yours in the com­ments.

via @j_fassler

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch Stephen Sond­heim (RIP) Teach a Kid How to Sing “Send In the Clowns”

James Tay­lor Teach­es You to Play “Car­oli­na in My Mind,” “Fire and Rain” & Oth­er Clas­sics on the Gui­tar

Mar­tin Scors­ese Names His Top 10 Films in the Cri­te­ri­on Col­lec­tion

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the Notes from the Shed pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

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Comments (3)
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  • Jack says:

    Love Sond­heim nut this list is dis­ap­point­ing.

  • Fernanda says:

    Very sur­prised (and proud) there is a film from my coun­try, Argenti­na. A dra­ma based in real sto­ries from a very dark peri­od of our his­to­ry. (The offi­cial sto­ry). It did won an Oscar, but still.

  • Laura Smith says:

    This list is legit. I’ve always felt some­what alone in my con­vic­tion that there’s some­thing spe­cial about The More the Mer­ri­er, and The Clockb Dead of Night and The Offi­cial Sto­ry are movies I’ve seen once but that real­ly stayed with me. Excel­lent!

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