Peter Kowalke

All-Time Favorite Movies List

Every Friday during my college years, I would attend an 8AM math class and then scour the video rental store for the latest independent and foreign films. Afterwards, I’d come home and watch a double feature before starting my weekend studies.

While I no longer have the luxury of watching movies on a Friday afternoon, I still love good cinema and have a reputation for picking memorable films.

One day after I am done traveling, I plan to curate a weekly film series. Until then, this is my virtual film festival.

Note that recent films I like are on my Recent Films Worth Watching list.

All-Time Favorites

Shoplifters (2018)

On the margins of Tokyo, a dysfunctional band of outsiders is united by fierce loyalty and a penchant for petty theft. When the young son is arrested, secrets are exposed that upend their tenuous, below-the-radar existence.

Timbuktu (2014)

Islamic militants occupy the ancient Malian city of Timbuktu, imposing a regime of terror. Not far from there, cattle herder Kidane lives peacefully in the dunes with his family.

Metro Manila (2014)

Oscar flees from a life of poverty and moves with his family to Manila. They fall victim to the hardened locals until Oscar finds work with an armoured car company.

Leila (1996)

Two months after meeting him, Leila (Leila Hatami) marries Reza (Ali Mosaffa). When they find out Leila is unable to conceive, they initially ignore Reza’s mother’s (Jamileh Sheikhi) insistence that he must take a second wife who can bear children. Determined to be a devoted Muslim spouse, Leila eventually becomes convinced that her mother-in-law is right and urges Reza to consider the idea. Reza reluctantly agrees to begin interviewing prospective brides, and their marriage soon deteriorates.

Picture Bride (1994)

After the father of Riyo (Youki Kudoh) dies, she becomes the arranged wife of Matsuji (Akira Takayama), a migrant worker in Hawaii. Riyo travels from Japan to the United States, but finds it difficult adapting to the hard life working on a sugar plantation and living with Matsuji. Riyo becomes friends with another woman, Kana (Tamlyn Tomita), who came over as a bride as well. Riyo begins saving money to return to Japan, but tragic events make her evaluate where she belongs.

The Go Masters (1982)

Young Chinese Kuang Yishan (Sun Daolin), an apt player of the ancient strategy game Go, is sent to Japan to study with one of its great masters, Rinsaku Matsunami (Rentarô Mikuni). Through Matsunami’s tutelage, the boy grows into a champion. But during World War II, he’s forced to swear allegiance to Japan. When his son with a local woman is killed in combat, he attempts to get revenge through the game, challenging his former master to a match that lasts for more than three decades.

Teddy Bear (2012)

A 38-year-old bodybuilder takes a trip to Thailand to find a woman to marry.

Normal (2003)

After a 25-year marriage to Irma (Jessica Lange), Roy Applewood (Tom Wilkinson) shocks his family when he reveals that he has a gender identity disorder. The Applewood family is further thrown into turmoil when Roy decides to have a sex change operation to relieve the pain of being trapped in a man’s body. Roy’s co-workers are baffled, his church rejects him and his son, Wayne (Joe Sikora), struggles with the humiliation of having a father who now goes by the name Ruth.

When Night is Falling (1995)

Camille (Pascale Bussières) is a mythology lecturer at a conservative Christian college. She’s engaged to be married and is on the path to a stable career. But, when her dog dies, Camille finds her life unraveling. At a low ebb, she crosses paths with fiery circus performer Petra (Rachael Crawford) in a laundromat, and sparks fly. With Petra pursuing her ardently, Camille experiences a sexual awakening and must confront the daunting prospect of changing her entire existence.

Jesus of Montreal (1989)

This unconventional Canadian film focuses on an acting troupe hired to stage a Passion play about the life of Jesus. Led by Daniel (Lothaire Bluteau), the actors, all struggling with their own issues, work on a bold interpretation of the Biblical tale that challenges accepted Christian thinking and brings a burst of outrage from the Roman Catholic priests who recruited them. As the story progresses, Daniel’s life starts to echo the trials of Jesus in unexpected and poignant ways.

Happiness (1998)

This dark ensemble-comedy is centered on the three Jordan sisters. Joy (Jane Adams) moves through lackluster jobs with no sense of purpose. Now employed teaching adults, she is dating a student, Russian taxi-driver Vlad (Jared Harris). Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle) is an esteemed poet who becomes amused by her perverted neighbor, Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman). And eldest sister Trish (Cynthia Stevenson) is married to Bill (Dylan Baker), a psychiatrist with a very disturbing secret life.

The Squid and the Whale (2005)

A pair of brothers living in Brooklyn are caught in the middle of, and deeply affected by, the divorce of their erudite parents, Bernard (Jeff Daniels) and Joan Berkman (Laura Linney). Older sibling Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) sides with dad and acts out at school, while younger brother Frank (Owen Kline) quietly backs up mom. The household tension rises further when Joan’s writing career takes off and surpasses the failed ambitions of her professor ex-husband.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)

Renowned oceanographer Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) has sworn vengeance upon the rare shark that devoured a member of his crew. In addition to his regular team, he is joined on his boat by Ned (Owen Wilson), a man who believes Zissou to be his father, and Jane (Cate Blanchett), a journalist pregnant by a married man. They travel the sea, all too often running into pirates and, perhaps more traumatically, various figures from Zissou’s past, including his estranged wife, Eleanor (Anjelica Huston).

American Beauty (2000)

A telesales operative becomes disillusioned with his existence and begins to hunger for fresh excitement in his life. As he experiences a new awakening of the senses, his wife and daughter also undergo changes that seriously affect their family.

Last of the Mohicans (1992)

The last members of a dying Native American tribe, the Mohicans — Uncas (Eric Schweig), his father Chingachgook (Russell Means), and his adopted half-white brother Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis) — live in peace alongside British colonists. But when the daughters (Madeleine Stowe, Jodhi May) of a British colonel are kidnapped by a traitorous scout, Hawkeye and Uncas must rescue them in the crossfire of a gruesome military conflict of which they wanted no part: the French and Indian War.

Gangs of New York (2002)

Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a young Irish immigrant released from prison. He returns to the Five Points seeking revenge against his father’s killer, William Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis), a powerful anti-immigrant gang leader. He knows that revenge can only be attained by infiltrating Cutting’s inner circle. Amsterdam’s journey becomes a fight for personal survival and to find a place for the Irish people in 1860’s New York.

Deadwood (HBO TV series)

As the residents of Deadwood gather to commemorate Dakota’s statehood in 1889, saloon owner Al Swearengen clashes with Sheriff Seth Bullock.

The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey (1988)

In Cumbria, England, in the year 1348, a village prepares for the dreadful onslaught of the Black Plague. Their only hope comes from an unlikely source — Griffin (Hamish McFarlane), a boy who envisions salvation by journeying on a quest into another world. With his brother (Bruce Lyons) and four companions, Griffin leads them into a time portal to the 20th century. Suddenly, they find themselves in New Zealand in 1988, facing challenges even more frightening than the world they know.

Grown Without Schooling (2001)

Accompany 10 grown homeschoolers from around the U.S., ranging in age from 19 to 31, as they explore and candidly discuss the lasting influence home education has had on their lives. Produced and edited for the homeschooling community by a lifelong homeschooler, Grown Without Schooling is a frank and often illuminating portrait of the triumphs and struggles homeschoolers face as children, teens and adults.

Honorable Mention

Roma (2018)

Cleo is one of two domestic workers who help Antonio and Sofía take care of their four children in 1970s Mexico City. Complications soon arise when Antonio suddenly runs away with his mistress and Cleo finds out that she’s pregnant. When Sofía decides to take the kids on vacation, she invites Cleo for a much-needed getaway to clear her mind and bond with the family.

Samaritan Girl (2004)

A police officer confronts his teenage daughter while they are on holiday together after learning she is moonlighting as a prostitute with the help of a friend.

XXY (2007)

Alex, a 15-year-old girl with both male and female sexual organs, begins to explore her sexuality. Her mother invites friends from Buenos Aires and their 16-year-old son Alvaro to visit them at their house on the gorgeous Uruguayan shore. Alex is immediately attracted to the young man, which adds yet another level of complexity to her personal search for identity and forces both families to face their worst fears.

Same Same But Different (2009)

Benjamin (David Kross), a German high school student, is a backpacker on his first major tour. In a nightclub in Phnom Penh, he meets a young local girl, Sreykeo (played by Apinya Sakuljaroensuk), and rapidly falls in love with her. Ben opts for this love, even though Sreykeo turns out to be HIV positive and seems to be a prostitute.

Lagaan (2001)

The year is 1893 and India is under British occupation. In a small village, the tyrannical Captain Russell (Paul Blackthorne) has imposed an unprecedented land tax on its citizens. Outraged, Bhuvan (Aamir Khan), a rebellious farmer, rallies the villagers to publicly oppose the tax. Russell offers a novel way to settle the dispute: he challenges Bhuvan and his men to a game of cricket, a sport completely foreign to India. If Bhuvan and his men can defeat Russell’s team, the tax will be repealed.

Caterpillar (2010)

After serving his country in the Second Sino-Japanese War, hardened soldier Lt. Kyuzo Kurokawa (Shima Ônishi) returns home a changed man. Since he lost his arms and legs in battle, his wife, Shigeko (Shinobu Terajima), contemplates putting him out of his misery until she discovers he still has the will to live. But, despite welcoming the prominence that comes with being the loving caretaker of the village war hero, Shigeko quietly begins to take her revenge for Kyuzo’s past transgressions.

Thérèse (1986)

In this true story of a 19th-century nun who achieved sainthood, Thérèse Martin (Catherine Mouchet) hopes to follow in the footsteps of her two older sisters, who became members of the Carmelite order of nuns. Although the church resists initially because of her age, Thérèse stubbornly continues her quest to serve God, and even lobbies Pope Leo XIII (Armand Meppiel). Her wish is granted at age 15, when she joins the order and performs extraordinary works in a life abbreviated by illness.

Max Mon Amour (1986)

A British diplomat (Anthony Higgins) in Paris learns his chic wife (Charlotte Rampling) is monkeying around with a chimpanzee.

Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East? (1989)

Kibong (Won-Sop Sin), a young Buddhist monk on a quest to achieve peace and enlightenment, ventures to a monastery in the mountains of South Korea to commune with the elderly and reclusive Hyegok (Pan-Yong Yi) in hopes of gaining the answers he craves. With the aid of Haejin (Hae-Jin Huang), the young orphan who lives with him, Hyegok attempts to impart his wisdom onto Kibong. Yet, the young man still feels torn between his old life in the city and the path toward inner peace. 

Romero (1989)

Archbishop Óscar Romero (Raul Julia) is reluctant to get involved in a war that rages on between the military elite and guerrilla Marxists in his country of El Salvador. As conditions worsen and more churches are desecrated, however, he finds he cannot remain an observer. So Romero resorts to what he knows best: making speeches. The tenets he preaches are simply freedom and justice, but even so, he is seen as dangerous by the government and they are ready to retaliate.

A River Runs Through It (1992)

The Maclean brothers, Paul (Brad Pitt) and Norman (Craig Sheffer), live a relatively idyllic life in rural Montana, spending much of their time fly fishing. The sons of a minister (Tom Skerritt), the boys eventually part company when Norman moves east to attend college, leaving his rebellious brother to find trouble back home. When Norman finally returns, the siblings resume their fishing outings, and assess both where they’ve been and where they’re going.

Madrid, 1987 (2002)

Two characters: old and young; teacher and pupil; man and woman. Four walls within which they conjure intellectualism, relive the profession (journalism), explore politics and discover each other.

Irréversible (2002)

A woman’s (Monica Bellucci) lover (Vincent Cassel) and her former boyfriend (Albert Dupontel) take justice into their own hands after she becomes the victim of a rapist.

Piprabidya (2014)

After realizing his stolen phone belongs to a famous actress, a scheming daydreamer uses the opportunity to blackmail her into posing as his fiancee.

Basquiat (1996)

Despite living a life of extreme poverty in Brooklyn, graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (Jeffrey Wright) strives to rise up through the heady New York art scene of the 1970s and 1980s. He becomes the brightest star of neo-Expressionist painting and one of the most successful painters of his time, and even develops a friendship with Andy Warhol (David Bowie). But Basquiat’s tumultuous life, specifically his addiction to heroin, overshadows his rise to fame, threatening all.

Matrubhoomi (2003)

A village is left without women due to their practice of female infanticide. When Ramsharan finally finds a young woman to marry his son, his entire village lusts after the only available woman.

Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)

Lovable Englishman Charles (Hugh Grant) and his group of friends seem to be unlucky in love. When Charles meets a beautiful American named Carrie (Andie MacDowell) at a wedding, he thinks his luck may have changed. But, after one magical night, Carrie returns to the States, ending what might have been. As Charles and Carrie’s paths continue to cross — over a handful of nuptials and one funeral — he comes to believe they are meant to be together, even if their timing always seems to be off.

Pi (1998)

Numbers whiz Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) is stunted by psychological delusions of paranoia and debilitating headaches. He lives in a messy Chinatown apartment, where he tinkers with equations and his homemade, super-advanced computer. One day, however, Cohen encounters a mysterious number. Soon after reporting his discovery to his mentor (Mark Margolis) and to a religious friend (Ben Shenkman), he finds himself the target of ill-intentioned Wall Street agents bent on using the number for profit.

Memento (2000)

Leonard (Guy Pearce) is tracking down the man who raped and murdered his wife. The difficulty, however, of locating his wife’s killer is compounded by the fact that he suffers from a rare, untreatable form of memory loss. Although he can recall details of life before his accident, Leonard cannot remember what happened fifteen minutes ago, where he’s going, or why.

Trainspotting (1996)

Heroin addict Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) stumbles through bad ideas and sobriety attempts with his unreliable friends — Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), Begbie (Robert Carlyle), Spud (Ewen Bremner) and Tommy (Kevin McKidd). He also has an underage girlfriend, Diane (Kelly Macdonald), along for the ride. After cleaning up and moving from Edinburgh to London, Mark finds he can’t escape the life he left behind when Begbie shows up at his front door on the lam, and a scheming Sick Boy follows.

Bandit Queen (1994)

This lauded Indian drama focuses on the life of Phoolan Devi (Seema Biswas), a revered criminal who eventually went on to become a politician. The film details the hardships that Phoolan faced in her youth as a female member of a lower caste. Subject to sexual abuse at the hands of numerous men, Phoolan isn’t treated with respect until she falls in with a gang led by Vikram Mallah (Nirmal Pandey). Later, Phoolan forms her own gang and gains a remarkable level of notoriety across India.

The Naked Director (Netflix TV series)

The Naked Director follows the story of Muranishi’s unusual and dramatic life filled with big ambitions as well as spectacular setbacks in his attempt to turn Japan’s porn industry on its head.