This article appeared in the January 27, 2022 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writingSign up for the Letter here.

Joachim Trier. Courtesy of Neon.

I want to reflect on the term “guilty pleasure” a little bit. It intrigues me. What is a “guilty pleasure”? It can’t just be what has not been well-received by critics, because then—I’m being a bit polemical here—Vertigo would be on that list, or It’s a Wonderful Life. Movies that now, in the modern context, we all agree are masterpieces.

Then I think, is it about sexuality? I could go for the sexy Roger Vadim movies that I enjoy, or the tremendous number of B-movies I’ve watched, or erotic, grotesque, and fascinating slasher films from the ’70s. But then we go into cult movies, and that could be a list of its own.

Or do guilty pleasures just involve standing in opposition to what’s considered good taste? To champion films that are dear to you but which have not gotten the recognition they deserve, or maybe which belong to a different part of your life—you have a sense of growing up with these movies and feeling that other people didn’t bring the films along with them in the same way. I think that’s where I ultimately landed.

I must also say that my putting something on this list is purely out of respect. I love these films. I just feel that they may not have been given the same love by others.


Thinking back to films that meant a lot to me while growing up, I realize that if I put the soundtrack of the first title that comes to my mind on at a party, people would give me a strange look. That film is The Muppet Movie (1979) by Jim Henson. I saw it in theaters several times, and I owned the soundtrack, which was composed by Paul Williams. It’s just a beautiful story of Kermit going to Hollywood, sort of a prequel to how The Muppet Show happened. It has this late ’70s childhood vibe—that shameless musical naivete of something made for children. I still think it’s beautiful, even today. The track to go find is “Rainbow Connection,” with Kermit the Frog singing.

I got into hip hop when I was nine years old. I discovered Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash, that first wave of rap music, and it became important to me. Beat Street (1984), with music by Harry Belafonte, is the cred movie. That’s the one you want to show if you’re talking about that era. But there’s a film called Breakin’ (Joel Silberg, 1984), a breakdance movie from the same time, which had a follow-up called Electric Boogaloo a few years later. I remember going to the cinema to watch it with my mom, leaving the theater, looking at her and saying, “We have to go back in and watch it again now.” I’d never felt that way before. Not even with E.T., which I saw three times but not immediately. So we bought tickets for the next show of Breakin’ and went right back in. And then I bought the vinyl… it was just the thing.

As I grew older, I got into BMX and skateboarding, and I saw that there was a system in America for making films [about these subcultures]. One such movie is Rad (Hal Needham, 1986), about BMX bicycling. It has an amazing synth soundtrack. Also, Josh Brolin, as a very, very young man, did a film called Thrashin’ (David Winters, 1986), about skateboarding. These movies have a love story and a big competition at the end. It’s a formula, ripping off Rocky, about a guy from the outside who tries to win. As a skater or breakdancer, who cares about contests? But they were needed for dramaturgical reasons. And then there’s Flashdance (Adrian Lyne, 1983), about a stripper who wants to get into ballet school. All these films are about this meritocratic idea that to get anywhere in the world, you need to be the best. This was the American ’80s spirit. Growing up in a left-wing culture and family in Scandinavia, where it’s all about finding yourself regardless of competition and grades, and doing your own thing, this was something completely opposite for me. But I don’t think I would have my drive without those films. I wouldn’t be a filmmaker. I’m a child of the ’80s!

There are a lot of comedians and actors who came out of Saturday Night Live in the ’70s who were really important to me—people like Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, and Chevy Chase. Steve Martin and Bill Murray went on to make films that were perceived as more intellectual or respected, but I really like John Landis movies. Some of them, like Three Amigos! or The Blues Brothers, are not guilty pleasures; they’re classics. But National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) or Into the Night (1985)—these have a postmodern tongue-in-cheek silliness that derives from a new way of thinking about movies, in which characters can comment on being in the movie and wink at the camera. They’re playing around with genre cliches and pop culture, but they’re made with a spirit of punk or anarchism. I will add another, little-known film from that world to this list, called Doctor Detroit (Michael Pressman, 1983), with Dan Aykroyd. It’s the first film he made after John Belushi passed away. It’s got James Brown, and funk music, and Devo, the New Wave band. It’s one of those ’80s films with a cool synth soundtrack. I’ve never seen it since I saw it on VHS, but a bunch of us used to meet up and watch it, and there was this Doctor Detroit “anthem” that you could sing along to.

Eat Pray Love (Ryan Murphy, 2010) is a successful film, and Julia Roberts is a real star. I love several of her films. Notting Hill is a classic. I think Pretty Woman is the most aggressively politically incorrect erotic mainstream film ever made. I’m sure many, like me, have watched it with their mothers, which makes it perverse and fun. But Eat Pray Love is challenging in a different way because it takes a sincere, head-on approach to a character going on an existential journey and talking to an elephant to find love. And the fact of the matter is, I was very moved by it. I was thinking about it when I made The Worst Person in the World, because it’s a similar journey of a person trying to find self-acceptance. I’ve probably blown off half of the readers of Film Comment from wanting to see our film now! But I mean it—I have a different language, a different form, but I sympathize with the ideals and ambitions of Eat Pray Love.

I grew up with many types of action movies. I’ve been through my Hong Kong phase. But someone who I feel is not given due credit is Michael Bay. In Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009), there is a scene where Optimus Prime is killed in a birch forest. It’s a beautiful, melancholic action sequence with robots. We have a lot of birch in Northern Europe—you can see it in Tarkovsky. There’s something really moving about that scene, because Optimus Prime is a symbol for America. He’s one of these big trucks that we Europeans imagine are driving through the highways of America to get people what they need.

I used to have a poster of Luc Besson’s The Big Blue (1988) above my bed. It’s a film that I dearly love, but I realized that whenever I’ve been asked to talk about great French cinema, for some reason, I’ve never given him the love he deserves. It might be because he’s very pop. His films are glossy and elegant. But I find the beauty of his films to be marvelous, with their central perspective and wide-angle tracking shots. Going into the sea to create a love story between a man and the dolphin—some people will laugh at that. There’s a risk to his cinema. But I think it’s an allegory for the yearning for something transcendental—for a love of cinema that can take you away from real life.

film I’ve grown to understand more as I grow older is Risky Business (Paul Brickman, 1983) with Tom Cruise. When I look at it now, it’s a perfect allegory for what it was like to be young in the ’80s, of what capitalist society expected from you. It takes the teenage movie template of the guy who wants to hook up with the prostitute and drive a Porsche, and turns it on its head as a brilliant critique of a materialist society where it’s easy to get alienated. For those who want to go deep on this movie, it also has an alternative ending, with an almost Antonioni-esque sense of melancholy. Plus, it has one of the best film soundtracks of all time, by Tangerine Dream. I actually used the song “Love on a Real Train” for my film Louder Than Bombs. So I’ve used pieces of the Risky Business soundtrack in my own try at the American coming-of-age story.

Another filmmaker I want to pay respect to is the great Harmony Korine, who has a big following in Europe. I want to be inside his movies. The Beach Bum (2019) is a joyful story, with a wonderful performance by Matthew McConaughey. Open a bottle of wine, or do that other thing—do whatever you need to relax and watch the movie with people you love—and enjoy. It’s Jean Vigo meets Cheech & Chong. It’s a strange mixture of the possibility and energy of cinema with a trippy story. I think a lot of people were scared to see it and thought it might be more silly than it is—and it is silly, but in a very powerful and profound way.

As told to Devika Girish