The whiplash, double-pronged CHUNGKING EXPRESS is one of the defining works of nineties cinema and the film that made Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai an instant icon. Two heartsick Hong Kong cops (Takeshi Kaneshiro and Tony Leung), both jilted by ex-lovers, cross paths at the Midnight Express take-out restaurant stand, where the ethereal pixie waitress Faye (Faye Wong) works. Anything goes in Wong’s gloriously shot and utterly unexpected charmer, which cemented the sex appeal of its gorgeous stars and forever turned canned pineapple and the Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin’” into tokens of romantic longing.

Aloof teenage Japanese tourists, a frazzled Italian widow, and a disgruntled British immigrant all converge in the city of dreams—which, in MYSTERY TRAIN, from Jim Jarmusch, is Memphis. Made with its director’s customary precision and wit, this triptych of stories pays playful tribute to the home of Stax Records, Sun Studio, Graceland, Carl Perkins, and, of course, the King, who presides over the film like a spirit. MYSTERY TRAIN is one of Jarmusch’s very best movies, a boozy and beautiful pilgrimage to an iconic American ghost town and a paean to the music it gave the world.

With DEAD MAN, his first period piece, Jim Jarmusch imagined the nineteenth-century American West as an existential wasteland, delivering a surreal reckoning with the ravages of industrialization, the country’s legacy of violence and prejudice, and the natural cycle of life and death. Accountant William Blake (Johnny Depp) has hardly arrived in the godforsaken outpost of Machine before he’s caught in the middle of a fatal lovers’ quarrel. Wounded and on the lam, Blake falls under the watch of the outcast Nobody (Gary Farmer), who guides his companion on a spiritual journey, teaching him to dispense poetic justice along the way. Featuring austerely beautiful black-and-white photography by Robby Müller and a live-wire score by Neil Young, DEAD MAN is a profound and unique revision of the western genre.

A few days ago I went to Baltimore and saw my old neighborhood in Station North, near Mount Vernon. Back when I lived there, it was a derelict wasteland and all the buildings were bombed out and crumbling and there was hardly anyone around. I liked Station North because it felt like the end of the world. And if you really wanted to be part of the living world again, you could just walk a few blocks towards Charles Street, and suddenly there were people everywhere, and good restaurants and bars and an arthouse movie theater, and on and on.

And somewhere between these two very different worlds was Penn Station, a sort of portal to many other worlds. I liked Penn Station. It was real classy inside, and old fashioned in a way only East Coast train stations tend to be. I could walk in on a whim and get a train ticket to DC that cost me all of five bucks. The ride took about twenty minutes and you got to see plenty of forests and little towns along the way.

Exactly ten years ago, when I was having a strange bad time for a variety of different reasons (some of them not unlike the ones I’m suffering through now), I would take that train to DC a few times a week just to have something to do. It meant escaping my soundproof apartment, where I lived alone and was slowly going insane. But mostly I liked the train ride itself. It was air-conditioned and I could look out the window and zone out and listen to music. And when I got to Union Station in DC, I would just putz around and visit all the museums by myself. After the sun went down, I’d make my way back over to Union and take the last train home to Baltimore. I did this dozens of times . . . did it till its effectiveness wore off on me. And then one day I just stopped going. I haven’t taken the train from Baltimore to DC since.

It’s so strange though, because when I was there the other day, I saw Penn Station and remembered the last time I ever rode that train, which was in August 2011. I remember that trip in particular because at one of the stops between DC and Baltimore, this girl about my age got on and sat down next to me. She had a bleach blonde pixie cut and was dressed in a sort of brown Peter Pan tunic with tall black boots. I don’t know! I thought she looked cool. I reckoned she lived in the Copycat Building, or at least went to MICA. She pointed to my iPod and I held it up to show her what I was listening to and she smiled. We never said anything to one another, though of course I wish I had. When the train terminated at Penn Station, we both got up and walked onto the platform. She waved and turned around and walked away.

I know this is so dumb . . . but I remember that girl! I remember her face exactly as it was that day. Why do I remember her specifically? I can recall that last train ride vividly. At the time I did not know it would be my last, and so maybe I have crystalized it in my mind since it holds the significance of being the end of something. It was the end of a lot of things for me back then. And because the pretty girl in the Peter Pan tunic was there at the end of it all, she is frozen in time now too.

Having a photographic memory feels like being haunted or cursed. And so when I see Penn Station and remember that girl I sat next to on a train at night in the summer ten years ago, I have to wonder what happened to her. I have thousands of tiny memories like that in my head, most of them containing friendly strangers who passed through my life very briefly. To remember their faces means wondering about them too. Really, it’s exhausting, and always a little sad because it means feeling time. I think maybe it is hurting me to feel that anymore.

After I left the station, I remember walking through the empty streets to get back to my building. There was an abandoned warehouse nearby, and as I passed it, I heard a band playing deep inside, though I couldn’t see them. I felt very lonely just then. I regretted not talking to the girl on the train. No one knew where I was and I had nowhere to be, so I stopped and listened to them play. If I had known that that was all soon to go away forever, that I would leave that neighborhood and that city and never see any of it again the way it was, I don’t know that it would have changed much. But I remember every bit of it just the same.

Director Jim Jarmusch followed up his brilliant breakout film STRANGER THAN PARADISE with another, equally beloved portrait of loners and misfits in the American landscape. When fate brings together three hapless men—an unemployed disc jockey (Tom Waits), a small-time pimp (John Lurie), and a strong-willed Italian tourist (Roberto Benigni)—in a Louisiana prison, a singular adventure ensues. Described by Jarmusch as a “neo-Beat noir comedy,” DOWN BY LAW is part nightmare and part fairy tale, featuring sterling performances and crisp black-and-white cinematography by the esteemed Robby Müller.

Did someone say “Afghanistan banana stand”? Robert Redford and George Segal team up in this breezily entertaining heist-comedy gem, in which the pair’s plan to steal a priceless diamond from the Brooklyn Museum goes spectacularly awry again . . . and again . . . and again. Based on Donald E. Westlake’s novel of the same name—the first in a series built around the recurring John Dortmunder character played by Redford—THE HOT ROCK features a colorful script by BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID screenwriter William Goldman, a funky avant-jazz score by Quincy Jones, and evocative use of 1970s New York City locales.

Catherine Deneuve’s porcelain perfection hides a cracked interior in one of the actress’s most iconic roles: Séverine, a Paris housewife who begins secretly spending her after­noon hours working in a bordello. This surreal and erotic late-sixties daydream from provocateur for the ages Luis Buñuel is an examination of desire and fetishistic pleasure (its characters’ and its viewers’), as well as a gently absurdist take on contemporary social mores and class divisions. Fantasy and reality commingle in this burst of cinematic transgression, which was one of Buñuel’s biggest hits.