"It's interesting how we're all introduced to things," muses Steve McQueen. The London-born filmmaker vividly remembers falling in love with cinema as a boy, not only recalling the movies that most impacted him but exactly where he saw them. "I even know the year I saw them."
"Half the story of going to see the movie is how you get there, what happens after you leave, and what it brings up," he reflects. "It was beautiful jumping on the bus, going here and there, like Scala and the Ritzy. It was a great time for repertory cinema in London in the late 1980s and early 1990s."
Although his first course of study was painting, McQueen eventually pivoted to pursue film at Goldsmiths' College in London and then New York University. "I was one of those people who would buy Time Out on a Thursday, or whichever day it came out, and my then-girlfriend and I would mark all the things we wanted to see," he says. "We were mad about cinema. We would travel to see whatever was showing wherever and whenever."
McQueen made his own feature debut with 2008's Hunger, which he co-wrote and directed, followed by 2011's Shame. For 2013's 12 Years a Slave, he was nominated for Best Director and won the Best Picture Oscar. He became the first Black producer to do so.
The filmmaker's latest effort is his first feature documentary, Occupied City, an exploration of Nazi-occupied Amsterdam based on the nonfiction book Atlas of an Occupied City: Amsterdam 1940-1945 by McQueen's wife, the journalist and filmmaker Bianca Stigter. "All narrative film, all feature film, all documentary, is of a type," he says. "Occupied City happens to be classified as a documentary."
Below, McQueen shares with A.frame five films that have stirred something within him, as well as what he recalls about where and when he saw them.
Directed by: Gillo Pontecorvo | Written by: Franco Solinas
It was one of those movies that just touched me. It was a powerful picture. I loved what it was saying and how it was saying it. It's a fantastic picture, and is actually the last film to be shown at the Lumiere Cinema in London. That was an extraordinary cinema. You walked in downstairs, and it was like the stomach of a whale, like with these ribs. It was just a gorgeous cinema. Unfortunately, it's a gym now, but it was a really wonderful time when I saw films as they should be seen.
Directed by: Yasujirō Ozu | Written by: Kogo Noda and Yasujirō Ozu
Tokyo Story is an amazing picture that seeps into you. It hurts so good. It's like the blues. It's a beautiful film about this aging couple who travel to Tokyo to visit their grown children, and it's all about the undercurrent. It's incredible, and it is considered one of the greatest films of all time.
Written and Directed by: Jean Vigo
It's a movie about children in a boarding school. I remember seeing it for the first time in 1992 and falling in love with it. I saw it at the Riverside Studios Cinema in Hammersmith in London. It struck a chord with me even though it's only 41 minutes long. It was just extraordinary. Another movie I saw at the same place was Jean-Luc Godard's film, Contempt. That is extraordinary, too. It has an incredible cast — like, Brigitte Bardot and Michel Piccoli — and again, it's all about the undercurrent.
Directed by: Andy Warhol
I think I saw Andy Warhol's Couch the same week as Zéro de conduite. It was another short movie. Warhol did a series of short films with all these people on a couch, put them together, and called it Couch. It was a camera just looking at people on a couch, which was really very strong. I still remember seeing it for the first time. There was a guy who had brought a 16mm projector with him when I was in art school at Goldsmiths'. I believe he showed it at 18 frames per second, exactly how it was meant to be projected. It was just below the rate of a heartbeat, so it was a pulsating image. I was grateful, because I was very privileged to see these pictures as they should have been.
Written and Directed by: Spike Lee
I saw that in 1989 when it first came out, and it's one of those films that was about 'now' and was so present-day at the time. Do the Right Thing was so relevant and impactful that, similar to The Battle of Algiers, it gave the audience the feeling that they could do something. It was a call to arms.