I once lived above a used-record store.
This was a couple of decades ago, before COVID-19, before 9/11. It wasn’t an apartment, really—it was the kitchen in a toymaker’s studio. He worked in the main room during the day, making toys. I lived in the kitchen.
It was a little weird.
I had no money then (why I was living in a toymaker’s kitchen above a record store), but I did have a television with a built-in VCR. And across the street was another store that, like the record store, no longer exists: a video rental store. And it was one of those cool, artsy, Greenwich Village video stores, clerked by old film-buff dudes and NYU grad students who made a sport of out-weirding each other with their movie recommendations.
Many a broke evening I spent browsing the walls of videotapes, then walking back across the street to watch a movie, after the toymaker had gone home for the night.
All those nights in meant that I could occasionally afford to go out, and one night I must have found myself at the bar at Keens, where we would sometimes go and drink scotch and order the burger, which made us feel big-time. The bar had these little pads of paper that said “notes taken at Keens” on every page—they still have them—and one night I wrote down a couple of movies someone recommended.
I was always asking for movie recommendations, because I was burning through the inventory at the place across the street on all the nights I couldn’t afford to go to Keens or anywhere else. So that first night I wrote down House of Games, White Squall, and two others that have since become clouds of purple ink on the page, rubbed out by spilled drinks and time.
I am remembering all of this because I was cleaning out my sock drawer the other day—like, actually, no-joke, cleaning out my sock drawer, because deadly pandemic—and I found the piece of paper in an old wallet. “notes taken at Keens.” I kept it in my wallet for years, and I would add to it whenever someone in the conversation began a sentence with “Have you ever seen…”.
Many of the titles are crossed out now—the ones I watched. I should have written down who recommended what (although sometimes it was a stranger at the next table), because then I could thank someone for imploring me to watch Fitzcarraldo, the Werner Herzog movie about a guy trying to build an opera house in a jungle, which is life-changing. And Lone Star: early McConaughey, and a powerful Elizabeth Pena, directed by John Sayles, killer soundtrack. And I remember sitting in the toymaker’s apartment, drinking cold beer on a hot, sticky night, watching Robert Mitchum in the bootlegger thriller Thunder Road.
And, my god, Save the Tiger! A devastating, deeply affecting film about a middle-aged man unraveling. Up for the best actor Oscar that year: Pacino, Nicholson, Brando, Redford…and Jack Lemmon, the surprise winner, for Save the Tiger, the performance of a lifetime.
Some I apparently watched but don’t remember so well—House of Games didn’t make much of an impression.
The good news in all of this, of course, is that the paper has been stuffed in an old wallet for who knows how long, which means there are lots of movies on there I haven’t watched, which means that I have plenty of movies to watch during the deadly pandemic. Which is great because I don’t know what kind of algorithm they’re using to generate the “Recommended For You” bar on my local streaming services (why Daddy’s Home 2 what?), so now I can simply refer to my list—the same list I used to unfold at the video store on 8th Street—and search for “prisoner of 2nd avenue” or “a safe place” or “high noon” (how have I never seen that?) and be reasonably certain of a worthwhile two hours.
Why did I save it? I have no idea. Probably by accident. I’m sure I meant to watch all these, but then at some point I switched wallets, moved to a new house, and, well…
Here’s the other reason I’m glad I found this smudged piece of paper: Like you, I want comfort right now. I want to feel good. And you know what felt really good? Spending a few bucks cash on a video rental, waving to the guys at the record shop on my way upstairs, and sitting on my bed in that shabby kitchen watching that old TV, with a cold beer in my hand and, just for those couple hours, not a care in the world.
The List of Movies Recommended Over the Years to Ryan D’Agostino (Side One of the Piece of Paper)
For the ones I’ve seen, I’ve written what I remember. For the ones I haven’t, I referred to the Internet and my vague recollections of peoples’ impassioned recommendations twenty years ago.
House of Games (1987)
David Mamet. Joe Mantagna. Something about a gambler. A little fuzzy.
White Squall (1996)
I think Ridley Scott directed this. Jeff Bridges as a boat captain, with kids. Sad. Great.
Thunder Road (1958)
From the poster: “Robert Mitchum roars down the hottest highway on earth!” Sucks you in.
Did you know that Sharon Stone made a movie with Chazz Palmenteri?
After Hours (1985)
Weird Scorsese. Better than The Irishman.
In a Lonely Place (1950)
Boagie in a whodunit. Classic.
Stranger On the Third Floor (1940)
Here’s what IMDB has to say: “An aspiring reporter is the key witness at the murder trial of a young man accused of cutting a café owner’s throat and is soon accused of a similar crime himself.” I’m in.
Johnny Stecchino (1991)
Written and directed by Roberto Benigni, the Life Is Beautiful guy.
Il Mostro (1994)
Also from Benigni: a decent-looking murder-sex-comedy.
The War of the Roses (1989)
Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner get violently divorced, directed by Danny DeVito.
All of Me (1984)
Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin, body-swapping. Good fun.
She’s So Lovely (1997)
Sean Penn, Robin Wright, John Travolta, with Nick Cassavetes directing. It works!
Miller’s Crossing (1990)
Early Coen brothers, with the great Gabriel Byrne.
Mystery Train (1989)
Jim Jarmusch crime drama, in Memphis, with an unexpected cast.
Hard 8 (1996)
The first feature directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, featuring Gwyneth Paltrow, John C. Reilly, Philip Baker Hall, and gambling. Moody and great.
The height of Robert Altman.
The Third Man (1949)
Classic post-war murder mystery, with Orson Welles. God, the ending!
Before Sunrise (1995)
The first in the magical trilogy with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, conceived and directed by the awesome Richard Linklater.
Guy tries to build an opera house in the jungle, via Werner Herzog. Inspiring. Inspiring!
Damage (Fatale) (1992)
From the legendary director Louis Malle, a sexy political thriller with Jeremy Irons.
A drug-deal comedy, this was director Doug Liman’s follow-up to Swingers.
Blue Sky (1994)
Jessica Lange gets wrapped up in some nuclear secrets. Plus: Tommy Lee Jones!
Lone Star (1996)
Early Matthew McConaughey. Directed by John Sayles, who weaves a story between past and present. With a killer soundtrack.
I must have been having drinks with a big John Sayles fan one night.
The Boxer (1997)
Daniel Day-Lewis in his prime, in Belfast.
The soundtrack alone…
Keeping the Faith (2000)
Edward Norton’s directorial debut, involving a priest, a rabbi, and the woman they both love. Maybe?
David Strathairn and Mary Elizabeth Matroantonio end up in the Alaska wilderness in a thriller.
Ethan, Uma, sci-fi.
Flesh and Bone (1993)
Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan, both really good, in a disturbing movie.
You Can Count On Me (2000)
As a writer and director, Kenneth Lonergan is not prolific, but he knows how to pull out your emotions with the best of them.
The Getaway (1972)
The original, directed by Sam Peckinpaugh and starring Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw. Not the remake with Alec Baldwin (due respect) and Kim Bassinger.
Days of Wine and Roses (1962)
Jack Lemmon, alcoholic.
The Odd Couple (1968)
The original: Two pals share an apartment. It doesn’t work.
The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1975)
Jack Lemmon, everyman. From the Neil Simon play.
Save the Tiger (1973)
Jack Lemmon, conscience of a generation.
The Front Page (1974)
Another Lemmon-Matthau comedy, this time from the great director Billy Wilder.
An anti-political correctness movie that is fascinating to watch post-#metoo.
Death Wish (1974)
Charles Bronson goes vigilante against the New York underbelly.
My Left Foot (1989)
Ladies and gentlemen: Daniel Day-Lewis, best actor.
The Great Santini (1979)
Father-of-the-year Robert Duvall.
Prizzi’s Honor (1985)
Jack Nicholson, Kathleen Turner, John Huston directing—what’s not to love?
A Safe Place (1971)
This was a weird one. But it’s got Jack Nicholson and Orson Welles, so worth the time.
The Naked City (1948)
Only one of the most influential examples of film noir ever made. And damn suspenseful.
The Apartment (1960)
Jack Lemmon tries to get a promotion by letting executives at his company use his apartment to have affairs. And then he falls in love. This movie would never get made today.
The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984)
Mickey Rourke, Daryl Hannah, and the mafia.
Night on Earth (1991)
Five cab rides in five different cities on the same night, via Jim Jarmusch. Totally captivating.