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James Ponsoldt: 5 Films (and One Short) That Influenced My Directing
James Ponsoldt
James Ponsoldt

In some way, James Ponsoldt was destined to become a director before he even realized he wanted to be a filmmaker. At age 11, he was already a fan of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. "I remember seeing City Lights with my mom as a kid and being really affected by the end of that," he reflects.

He was greatly inspired by his grandfather, who painted foreign movie posters and Agatha Christie book covers. "He was super funny. He had my mom or my sister or his neighbor pose in bathtubs with their throat slashed or hanging from trees," the director recalls. The experience instilled in him a love of "the fantastic and the horrific, which can be funny all at the same time," that would continue as he discovered Frankenstein and other classic monster movies.

In his own work, Ponsoldt has leaned more towards coming-of-age dramas. He broke onto the indie scene with the Sundance standout Smashed in 2012, followed by The Spectacular Now in 2014. His latest is Summering, about a group of young friends navigating growing pains and the dead body they find in the woods.

Below, Ponsoldt shares with A.frame the five movies and one short film that have most influenced him as a filmmaker.

The Spirit of the Beehive
The Spirit of the Beehive

Where to Watch: The Criterion Channel

Directed by: Victor Erice | Written by: Ángel Fernández Santos and Victor Erice

By the time I got to high school, I knew I wanted to make films. I'd heard about The Spirit of the Beehive, and the name was the first thing that fascinated me. I was hearing the English translation, obviously, and it felt like a mysterious film to me. I wondered for so long, "What would the vibe of this movie be? Is this a horror movie? Is this a nature documentary?"

And then when I saw it, I was so moved. I rented it from the public library, and the idea of processing trauma through horror and imagination for kids who are at an age where they can't yet articulate themselves was really meaningful to me. It's just an absolutely gorgeous film. There are so many images from it that are burned into my brain, whether it is the beehives or just children running into the distance, running away from the camera, running away from us the viewer, running away from childhood. It's always stuck with me. I've seen this film at least a dozen times at this point, and there's a pleasure in recommending it.

Killer of Sheep
Killer of Sheep

Where to Watch: Kanopy

Directed and written by: Charles Burnett

In college, there were three movies that I remember the cool photography professors would share with us that were bootlegged, because you couldn't actually get your hands on them. One was C—ksucker Blues, the Robert Frank film about the Rolling Stones. One was Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, the Todd Haynes film that he made with Barbie dolls. And then there was Killer of Sheep, which is very different movie.

Charles Burnett made it as a thesis film at UCLA in the early '70s. I don't think it ever got a proper release. It was just essentially an amazing student film. What struck me about it was this portrait of everyday life — in this case, a community of Black families in South L.A. — and about everyday issues like dealing with your siblings, going to work. And it's the black-and-white cinematography feels both neorealist and out of time. It's a portrait of Los Angeles that doesn't totally exist anymore.

I was lucky enough to interview Charles when the film was rereleased. He's a hero to me, and he talked about Basil Wright, an old British documentarian who was a mentor to him at UCLA. I asked if there was anything that he remembers that Basil had said to him when he was a student, and, as I remember it, he said the biggest piece of advice was don't judge. Don't ever judge your characters.

Old Joy
Old Joy

Where to Watch: The Criterion Channel

Directed by: Kelly Reichardt | Written by: Jonathan Raymond and Kelly Reichardt

I remember seeing Old Joy at Sundance when I had my first film there. I had seen Kelly Reichardt's first film, River of Grass, which I loved, and I was like, "I think this movie might be for me." Then when I watched it, with every second of it, I felt like I am the exact audience for this movie. I loved it so much and every heartbeat of that film, every bit of conversation, every sense of losing something, of losing a friendship, of losing your youth, of losing a way of life, a feeling of being angry and wistful and melancholic and in love with a past that never quite existed — I just had shivers at the end of it.

She's one of my favorite filmmakers. I just felt like that film understood male relationships and a lot of men's inabilities and struggles to talk about their emotions. It explores that in a way that I feel is deeply true and it continues to resonate with me. I've seen it a lot. I'm due to rewatch it.

Nothing But A Man
Nothing But a Man

Directed by: Michael Roemer | Written by: Michael Roemer and Robert M. Young

Nothing But a Man is personal in a different way. Michael Roemer was a mentor of mine in college. I took a film production class with him, and he was amazing. I don't know that his films are as celebrated or as understood as they should be. Nothing but a Man is an American neorealist film set in the American South in the 1960s, a love story between two Black characters. It's about systemic racism. It's about characters wrestling emotionally with the psychic inheritance of an alcoholic father. It's a film that is so true and gorgeous and beautiful. I think it belongs in conversation with the best of John Cassavetes, and certainly many of the French filmmakers of the same era.

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Directed by: René Clément | Written by: Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost

It's a film that I saw when I was in film school, and I was interested in stories about young people and violence and trauma and families breaking apart. What I love about it is that it's about the death games that children play that don't always make sense to adults. It's about kids in France who are being bombed by Germans during WWII. When you meet Paulette, her family has just been killed, and her dog has been killed and she needs to bury it. She meets another kid and they bury it together, and then they start stealing crosses to create a graveyard for other dead animals — all while they have dead siblings and dead parents around them. Yet, they take very seriously the lives and deaths of these pets.

It resonates to me because I think kids process trauma in a different way than adults. As adults, we accept the status quo and get cynical and normalize the trauma and horrors of life. But kids haven't been conditioned yet, they haven't been worn down. Things that seem unjust still make them really angry and rock their hearts. When you're a child and you lose a pet for the first time or you lose a parent for the first time, what you feel exists out of time. There's a truism to that.


Where to Watch: The Criterion Channel

Directed and written by: Andrea Arnold

To this day, Wasp might be the single greatest short film I've ever seen in my entire life. It's a story about a mom with four kids trying to go on a date, while dealing with issues related to class and being alone and kids. And then the trauma of the natural world — like a wasp stinging your child — creeps into it. It just packed the most insane wallop on me when I saw it. I think it's a perfect short film. It's 26 minutes long, but I'm still grateful for the way that it made me feel. Every second of that film is true and real and is to me the definition of great art and real humanism.

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