After directing his debut feature, Four Letter Words, in 2000, Sean Baker has become a 21st-century champion of independent filmmaking. Although he enjoyed moderate success through the 2000s, Baker gained international recognition with Tangerine, shot entirely on three iPhone 5S cameras.
The 2015 film follows a transgender sex worker, Sin-Dee Rella, who embarks on a journey to find her cheating pimp boyfriend, Chester, who has been sleeping with a cisgender woman. Tangerine gives an honest and raw look at the lives of real inhabitants of Los Angeles, mainly using non-actors to provide the film with an authentic feel. Baker’s film was critically praised, leading to his 2017 feature and perhaps his most successful film to date, The Florida Project.
The movie featured Willem Dafoe alongside a cast of non-actors, with his performance earning him Academy Award and BAFTA nominations. The tender film, set at a cheap motel on the outskirts of Disney World, shone an insightful light on the issue of American class disparity, further cementing Baker as a key voice in contemporary cinema. He followed it with his 2021 effort Red Rocket, depicting the controversial relationship between an adult male porn star and a teenage girl.
Baker was once asked by the Criterion Collection to pick out ten movies that have shaped his work. Never one to shy away from talking about his love of cinema, Baker technically picked 20 films, with some of his picks involving multiple films from one director. Baker chose five John Cassavettes movies, putting them at joint first place on his list, including Opening Night, A Woman Under the Influence and The Killing of A Chinese Bookie.
Cassavettes aided the early development of independent cinema with his movies, so it’s no surprise that Baker harnesses intense admiration for his films. He also put Charles Kiselyak’s documentary about the director, A Constant Forge, in joint first place, explaining: “I find his way of making films just as fascinating and inspirational as the films themselves.”
Baker included Mike Leigh’s Naked in his list, describing it as “an exhausting odyssey that never gets the characters (or the viewer) home again.” He also lauded the dialogue, writing, “‘Tell me, love, are you aware of the effect you have on the average mammalian, Mancunian, XY-ly chromosome, slavering, lusty male member of the species?’ Now, that’s dialogue!”
Another essential filmmaker for Baker is Maurice Pialet, picking out his 1983 drama, À nos amours. “The complexity of the family dynamic is like nothing I’ve ever seen before on film,” writes Baker, adding, “Maurice Pialat doesn’t get the same attention here in the States as his contemporary Cassavetes. But I feel he deserves just as much.”
Baker also cites Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales series, which includes movies such as Love in the Afternoon and Claire’s Knee, as a massive source of inspiration on his work. “It’s really about Claire’s Knee for me. Not only do I consider it the best of this series, but it was my introduction to La Nouvelle Vague while in my teens.”
Other highlights of Baker’s list include Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From A Marriage: “When people tell me I should get married, I ask, ‘Have you seen Scenes from a Marriage?’” and Hal Ashby’s “perfect” Harold and Maude.
Check out his complete list of picks below.
Sean Baker 20 favourite arthouse movies:
- John Cassavettes collection:
- Shadows (1959)
- Faces (1968)
- A Woman Under the Influence (1974)
- The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)
- Opening Night (1977)
- A Constant Forge (Charles Kiselyak, 2000)
- Naked (Mike Leigh, 1993)
- À nos amours (Maurice Pialet, 1983)
- Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales:
- Bakery Girl of Monceau (1963)
- Suzanne’s Career (1963)
- La Collectioneuse (1967)
- My Night at Maud’s (1969)
- Claire’s Knee (1970)
- Love in the Afternoon (1972)
- Secret Sunshine (Lee Chang-Dong, 2007)
- Harold and Maude (Hal Ashby, 1971)
- RoboCop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987)
- Scenes From A Marriage (Ingmar Bergman, 1974)
- Rosetta (Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, 1999)
- Breaking the Waves (Lars von Trier, 1996)