"I love just talking about movies I like, so let's go!"
It might be more accurate to say that Patton Oswalt just loves movies — period — so much so that he self-diagnosed as an addict with his memoir, Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life From an Addiction to Film. Cinema has served as the lens through which the comedian and actor views his life, but also, his life is a measure of the changing landscape of Hollywood and the film industry at large.
Oswalt is a film buff's film buff, which is to say he has both great taste in the movies he watches and the movies he stars in — if only because he stars in the movies that he would want to see anyway. His latest work on the big screen is reflective of that: Last year, he popped up as Pip the Troll in Chloé Zhao's superhero-sized Eternals, and then went on to star in I Love My Dad, an R-rated indie comedy that won the Jury Prize and Audience Award during this year's South by Southwest Film Festival.
And so, the films that have had the biggest impact on him not only tell the story of a boy from Virginia who discovered the magic of movies, but also of a medium whose magic has and will continue to endure.
"I'm going to go through the ones that affected me, for better or worse," Oswalt says. "I'm not going to necessarily do the five best movies. These are the movies that hit me with the biggest impact."
Below, he shares with A.frame those films.
Directed by: F.W. Murnau | Written by: Henrik Galeen
The first one is Nosferatu, which I saw when I was five years old. I was f--king five years old! They had a Halloween activity day at my local library and the parents, with no malice, thought, "We'll make ghost cutouts and pumpkin cookies and we'll show them an old silent movie!" We were in this little activity room, they blocked out the curtains, and this is before VHS, back when you could rent 8mm films. And they showed us f--king Nosferatu.
I'm not judging anyone, this was the '70s. They hit play on that projector and they went out in the parking lot and had cigarettes and talked to each other and then came in when it was over. That was the classic 1970s benign, neglectful parenting. You were f--king on your own. It was Lord of the Flies. I've seen the movie 10 times since then, because I don't truly trust my five-year-old recollection. That movie f--ked me up so hard.
Nosferatu operates in this non-linear, dream logic that, when you're five years old, that is how you view the world and how you view scary things. It is non-linear! There is no logic to it! So, watching it horrified me. I've never been that scared, but it also made me want to be in movies or be in entertainment. Because I couldn't believe that this tiny, little square of light was making a whole room of kids scream! And some of them were screaming, "Turn it off," but they didn't stop watching it. I thought, "Oh wow, I didn't know that this was a whole thing."
Directed and written by: John Waters
From Nosferatu, there were years of watching movies on TV, going to movies, seeing big movies that blew me away — obviously, stuff like Star Wars and Raiders [of the Lost Ark] — but there was also this book, Midnight Movies, by J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum. And they covered movies that I was not privy to living in the suburbs of Virginia. But in the book, I saw the still photographs, so I had this whole vision of what this other area of cinema was that I didn't even know existed, this whole other murky underworld.
So, my number two thing is these handmade, very weird, very personal films that I call The Midnight Five: El Topo, Eraserhead, The Harder They Come, Night of the Living Dead and Pink Flamingos. And the one that really pulled me into the world once they started renting videotapes and I could get my hands on stuff was Pink Flamingos. Because watching Pink Flamingos, for me, was the same as a lot of rock and roll bands now talking about the first time they saw the Ramones. In the time the Ramones came along, they were like, "You've got to have ice machines and lasers and this massive stage." And then the Ramones came along and were like, "No, you can plug in one f--king amp and just go."
With John Waters, yes, as edgy and filthy as the movie is, there's such an undercurrent of joy. These are a bunch of friends getting together and f--king around and barely keeping their composure on camera, because they can't believe they're getting away with it! And I was like, "Oh, moviemaking is fun! You can just get your friends together and f--king do anything!" I got better at seeing movies where you could see the fun they were having doing it. You can never fake that energy. I think that's what makes classic movies classic. If you watch His Girl Friday or Young Frankenstein or even not a quote-unquote great film like D.C. Cab, the energy of the making of the movie comes through and it's so pleasant to watch.
Directed by: Tim Burton | Written by: Phil Hartman, Paul Reubens and Michael Varhol
This is going to be a tie for number three, because this happened two separate times. I guess when you're living in the Virginia suburbs, that's where they go to market test films. So, I had gone to see a film and at the end, somebody came out and said, "We would like to preview a new film and get you guys' reaction on it." The first time that happened was with Pee-wee's Big Adventure. I've been in movies where people have talked and reacted and screamed and yelled, but that was the movie where people were not only talking and reacting and screaming and yelling, but they totally got the tone of the movie.
I remember so clearly when EG Daily is saying, "I'm sure Chuck could get you a discount on another bike." And Pee-wee goes, "I don't want some other crappy bike!" That's the only curse word in the film, the word "crappy." And the whole audience went, "Whoooaaaa!" And then they started laughing, because that's what the joke is. Pee-wee's really serious because he just said the word "crappy." And I've just never seen an audience so f--king on board for a movie like that. I remember imagining how gratifying that must have felt. Because that was a very, very weird film.
People forget how odd that was. Pee-wee Herman was a niche fringe act. People saw him on Letterman and it was funny, and he had a little show in L.A. that was very popular. But is this going to be a big movie? Can this work? And then yes, everyone absolutely got it. It's one of those movies that is so tonally perfect. But to see the moment where it broke through to the suburbs and I was present for it, that's a big f--king deal.
Directed by: Sam Raimi | Written by: Sam Raimi and Scott Spiegel
The same thing happened a couple years later, where we went to see a movie and a guy came out and said, "We're going to preview a movie, if everyone wants to stay." They start showing Evil Dead II. Now, my friends and I had all seen Evil Dead, and we all remembered how f--king scary it was and how great it was. Oh my god. Then they start showing Evil Dead II, which starts off really scary and it took us a while to realize, "Oh, he's satirizing his own movie! This is a parody." Instead of trying to top himself scary-wise, he's now making fun of everything that happened in the first movie. And the audience, I guess they were all Evil Dead fans, because they were so happy. They were yelling and screaming and loving every second of it, because they couldn't believe the audacity of what this filmmaker was doing. We all had that sense of looking around going, "I can't f--king believe he's doing this with his own movie!" Just to get to experience that with an audience was amazing.
Directed by: H. Bruce Humberstone | Written by: Dwight Taylor
Number four is I Wake Up Screaming, which is a film noir from the '40s. It stars a character actor named Laird Cregar, who was this tragic figure. He was a huge hulking guy with an amazing voice — one of the best actors doing Method stuff before there was Method [acting] — but he wanted to lose weight and become a leading man. And he took a 1940s amphetamines diet and his heart exploded. So, he died very, very young.
I was used to watching classic films on videotape, but I had moved to San Francisco at this point and I discovered repertory theaters and going to see classic movies with present-day audiences. I got very, very addicted to that. People with the contemporary 21st-century goggles we wear watching a movie made in the '40s is very, very fascinating to me. And that movie especially was what started me down that road. Then a year later when I moved to Los Angeles, the double feature of Sunset Boulevard and Ace in the Hole on a May afternoon in L.A., that sealed it. I Wake Up Screaming was the first taste, and then that double feature was the, "Well, now I'm hooked. Now I'm in. I'm going every week!" Seeing old movies with modern audiences is so beyond a pleasure. I just f--king love it.
Directed by: Michael Curtiz | Written by: Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch
I think it was '97. It was a rainy Friday night in L.A. and I went to the New Beverly to go see Casablanca for the 90th time, because why not? We're all watching it and right as Rick is saying goodbye to Ilsa on the runway, right when that famous speech starts, the film broke. And everyone in the theater [gasped], and then they all started laughing because of course! What a time for the film to break! They didn't turn the lights back up, but I could hear Sherman Torgan up in the booth trying to repair it and cursing and yelling. And all of us, maybe 40 people — 40 strangers on a rainy Friday night — we all started whistling "As Time Goes By" while we waited for the movie to get fixed. It was so goddamn beautiful. It is one of the most beautiful moments of my life — just people whistling in the dark and just waiting, waiting for the movie to come back on.
That's why every time someone's like, "I think movies are dead. I think that experience is gone," I'm like, right now we are whistling in the dark. This has happened before when TV came along. "Oh f--k, movies are dead!" When VHS came along, it was, "Well, who's going to go see it in a movie theater?" Now it's happening with streaming. We're whistling in the dark. Movies will always come out that people will go, "Look, I'm sure you have a nice home theater set up, but this is worth going to a movie theater for." It'll never go away. But sometimes we're going to have to whistle in the dark while we wait.