Gregory Nava received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay for his film El Norte. He has also directed such movies as Selena, Bordertown, Mi Familia and more. Join Gregory this Friday, Nov. 20, for a program of unique home movies curated by the Academy Film Archive.
It is so difficult to make a list of favorite films or even most influential films because these things are always changing. This is a list of what I call “milestone” films—films that when I first saw them profoundly influenced my journey as a filmmaker.
The Ten Commandments
As a little boy—I think I was 4 years old—I saw this film in the theater with my whole family. It had a filmed introduction by director C.B. DeMille and when I saw him on the screen talking about his film, I realized, for the first time, that movies were not just magical dreams that appeared in the dark, but that someone made them. The scenes of the exodus, Pharaoh’s chariots and the parting of the Red Sea overwhelmed me and I thought to myself, “I want to do what he does.” From that moment, I wanted to be a filmmaker. I remember when I was on the set for the Houston Astrodome concert in Selena, I looked up at the 35,000 extras and I thought to myself, “I made it, C.B.”
The Apu Trilogy
When I was in high school, I made the trek to an art house theater to see this trilogy by Satyajit Ray. I was profoundly moved by this story of a boy from Bengal growing to manhood surviving horrific poverty and tragedy. I’m not Bengali, and yet I felt for this boy as if he were my brother and his village seemed like my own. I realized that film had the power to bring the universality of the human experience to the world, and as I walked out of the theater, I thought to myself, “This is what I want to dedicate my life to—to making films with compassion and empathy that deal profoundly with the human experience.” I realized if you tell the story of your village, you tell the story of the world.
The Apu Trilogy was meticulously reconstructed by the Academy Film Archive, Criterion Collection and L’Immagine Ritrovata after the original negatives were burned in a fire. Take a look at the restoration process here.
We used to get Mexican TV from Tijuana and I would watch Mexican movies with my abuelita (grandmother). That’s when I first saw this classic directed by Luis Buñuel. Although set in the world of the ciudades perdidas (lost cities) of Mexico City, I knew this world because I was raised on the U.S.-Mexico border and the same slums exist there. I was devastated by this film, and it made me realize that our Latinx stories are just as powerful and just as important as any others. I was deeply affected by its powerful weaving of dream imagery with harsh social reality because it was so unusual and yet so natural to my Hispanic culture. It pointed the way for me to develop the “dream realist” style of my films. The ending of this film was brutally honest, with no attempt to give any kind of “positive” spin to its tragic story. It showed me that you have to have the courage to tell the truth, no matter how difficult or raw. This film was profoundly influential on El Norte.
I was a student at the UCLA Film School when I saw the films of Yasujiro Ozu and, until then, I thought that “movies” had to be about big, dramatic things. Suddenly, here were films about families, where nothing more happens than what happens in everyday life, and yet they were among the most moving films I had ever seen. The story of Late Spring is simple: A daughter has to make the difficult decision to leave her father and get married; yet by the end, I was in tears. Ozu taught me the power of everyday life and how important it is to truly understand families. Since families are at the heart of my films, I’ve always tried to bring the power of everyday life to all my films, especially in Mi Familia and my television series, American Family.
I was in the audience at the Shrine Auditorium in 1981 to see the restoration of Abel Gance’s 1927 silent epic with a full, live orchestra. I think every filmmaker in Los Angeles was there. This old, four-hour, “silent” film was a revelation. There were three standing ovations over the course of the film and the standing ovation at the end was the loudest and most thunderous I have ever heard. The technique was dazzling—the rapid cutting, the multiple screens, the dynamic camera moves and the spectacular “triptych” finale, which required three projectors and the largest screen in the history of cinema. None of these techniques were arbitrary, however. It was always done to put the spectator more deeply and emotionally into the scenes. Napoleon inspired me, and I think every filmmaker there, to see beyond conventional cinema and to use our imaginations to find new, more exciting ways to bring emotion to the screen. This film is liberating. The famous triptych finale of Selena is inspired by this film. All power to the imagination!