TOH! Ranks the Films of Jim Jarmusch (TRAILERS)

TOH! Ranks the Films of Jim Jarmusch (TRAILERS)

When Ohio-born New Yorker Jim Jarmusch is good, he’s very very good, but some of his work can feel indulgent and thin (see “Limits of Control”)–and often sparks heated debate. But even this indie pioneer, who was among the first to raise backing for his idiosyncratic projects overseas, says that raising that financing hasn’t gotten any easier. “It’s getting more and more difficult for films that are maybe a little unusual or maybe not predictable or not satisfying people’s expectations of something,” he says, “which is the beauty of cinema: discovering new things of all forms.”

To coincide with the release of the indie auteur’s eleventh feature, “Only Lovers Left Alive” (April 11), we at TOH! have ranked his films from bottom to top.

11. “Night on Earth,” 1991 (**1/2). Five cities, five taxis, lives intersecting for moments on the meter and sometimes missing the connection – such was the conceit of Jarmusch’s 1991 omnibus “Night on Earth,” the natural successor to “Down by Law,” which had featured Roberto Benigni (and John Lurie and Tom Waits) and “Mystery Train,” which was a set of three successive stories taking place at a Memphis hotel. “Night” was apparently a movie done on the fly and it often shows — beginning in LA in early evening and ending at dawn in Helsinki, it’s as uneven as it is well-traveled: The opening vignette, featuring Winona Ryder and Gene Rowlands, doesn’t really work; neither does the episode featuring Beatrice Dalle as a blind woman in Paris. But the New York chapter, with Armin Mueller-Stahl, Giancarlo Esposito and Rosie Perez lurching their way toward Brooklyn, is warmly funny. The episode in Rome – in which a possessed Benigni kills a priest with his confession (about adultery, bestiality and pumpkin sex) — may be his best bit ever. And the closing vignette, featuring Kaurismaki regulars Matti Pellonpaa and Kari Vaananen and during which Jarmsuch connects with his inner Finn, is a redemptive moment for everyone. –John Anderson

10. “Permanent Vacation,” 1980 (***). “WTF” wasn’t common
parlance when Jarmusch unleashed this bomb on cinemagoers, but any attempt to
reconcile this moody mindbender with middle-brow movie expectations would have
been met with exclamations of outrage and befuddlement. Chris Parker plays
Jarmusch’s angel-headed ad-hoc urban archeologist with this fixation on another
Parker (Charlie) and a knack for running into madness in a every ruined corner
of New York. Director-to-be Tom DiCillo was the DP; real-life war vet and
Jarmusch regular Richard Boes is a deranged war vet living in the blasted
buildings of Roosevelt Island; longtime Jarmusch producer/partner Sara Driver
plays a nurse who walks like a runway model. John Zorn, who’d be one of the
leads in Jarmusch’s followup (“Stranger Than Paradise”) plays a fractured
atonal “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” which certainly captures the mood of the
movie but also punctuates the importance of sound to Jarmusch’s film. Here it’s
essential. So is the use of nonactors and out of the way places to capture the
sense of spontaneity that “Permanent Vacation” was all about. –John Anderson

9. “The Limits of Control,” 2009 (***). Rich in mood and vibrant visuals if short on emotional accessibility, Jarmusch’s tenth feature follows the Lone Man (Jarmusch regular Isaach De Bankole, here an emblem of impeccably dressed stoicism) as he makes his way through an arid Spain on a shadowy criminal mission. The film follows more of a dreamy episodic path than a conventional narrative, as the Lone Man meets up with one enigmatic personality after another (in the forms of a platinum blonde Tilda Swinton, a nude Paz De La Huerta, Gael Garcia Bernal as a swaggering cowboy, and Bill Murray, in CEO Prince of Darkness mode). Each, of course, has a little something to say and offer about Jarmusch’s favorite hipster fetishes: Art, film, literature, music and vintage guitars. A film-travelogue that keeps you at a distance, but entices you to return to its mysteries. –Beth Hanna

8. “Coffee and Cigarettes,” 2003 (***). Always an episodic filmmaker, Jarmusch finally compiled the 11 black-and-white short films he had been shooting for 17 years into a semi-chronological concept album. The first three are the first he shot, but he juggles the rest, fiddling with characters and tone. The vignettes of varying success feature an ultracool mix of actors, artists and musicians playing twisted versions of their celebrity selves. The film starts off with the first short Jarmusch made in 1986 for “Saturday Night Live” with ace improvisers Roberto Benigni (discovered by the filmmaker in “Down by Law”) and deadpan comedian Steve Wright. In fact, the most successful segments were written by Jarmusch and performed by acting pros like Cate Blanchett, playing opposite herself as a movie star confronted by her envious cousin, and Steve Coogan and Alfred Molina as dueling egomaniacs. Also great is 1992’s “Somewhere in California” (which won the Cannes best short Palme D’Or) in which people-pleaser Iggy Pop (“Dead Man”) and cranky Tom Waits (“Down by Law”) meet in a dive bar. Other bits featuring Bill Murray and the Wu-Tang Clan and Meg and Jack White are less meaty and focused. “The fun for me was in getting a variety of people, not as a marketing device,” Jarmusch told me in 2003. “I didn’t write them until I knew who was going to be in them. They vary in how much they’re improvised. I call it constructed voyeurism. It’s not documentary; it’s not real.” –Anne Thompson

7. “Mystery Train,” 1989 (***1/2).  In Jarmusch’s first color film — and his first true anthology — three stories collide at a Memphis hotel. What unites them? A bitchin’ playlist of course (Elvis, Roy Orbison, Otis Redding), but also loneliness and longing. From the widow (Nicoletta Braschi) who has to bury her husband and a blues-loving Japanese couple (Youki Kudoh, Masatoshi Nagase) to a vindictive boozer (Joe Strummer, aka The Clash), everyone’s looking to connect in the ineffably cool world of “Mystery Train.” But its the director’s formal invention and sense of whimsy that make these tales sing. –Ryan Lattanzio

6. “Down By Law,” 1986 (***1/2). Is there any movie
cooler than “Down By Law,” a tripartite prison odyssey set in
Louisiana and starring John Lurie, kooky Roberto Benigni and a gravelly Tom
Waits? A pioneering example of Jarmusch’s trademark beatnik-noir, and the
followup to his “Strangers Than
Paradise,” the film firmly affixed its director to the indie film map.
Patient editing, B&W images and Waits’ soundtrack — which even includes a
cover of Roy Orbison — elevate this hipster classic to almost insufferable
levels of cooldom, with the characters played by Lurie and Waits literally in
jail because they were too cavalier to care about being framed for crimes they
had no hand in. Not much happens, but such is the sleepy, indifferent charm of
quintessential Jarmusch. –Ryan Lattanzio

5. “Dead Man,” 1995 (****). Johnny Depp stars as
William Blake — but not that William Blake — in Jarmusch’s chillingly
lonesome, postmodern Western. Depp’s William Blake is an accountant on the lam
after murdering the jealous ex-boyfriend (Gabriel Byrne) of a prostitute. Robby
Muller shoots in mesmerizing black-and-white as Blake is taken in by Native
Americans, chased by an overzealous missionary (Alfred Molina), vicious bounty
hunters and a cast featuring Lance Henriksen, Jared Harris, Billy Bob Thornton,
Iggy Pop and John Hurt (now, also, in “Only Lovers Left Alive”). A
psychedelic, far-out oddity set against a dreary American frontier, “Dead
Man” is the weirdest portrait of the West this side of Jodorowsky’s
“El Topo” — and as a mid-90s indie vehicle for Depp, one of his best
performances, here among character actors who’re perfectly cast as lawless,
deadbeat lowlives. –Ryan Lattanzio

4. “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai,” 1989 (***1/2). Forrest Whitaker carries one of Jarmusch’s more taut and sustained narratives with an intense, charismatic performance as a mystical, melancholy, isolated hitman who communes with rooftop carrier pigeons and never violates his strict Samurai code. Henry Silva and Isaach de Bankole (who plays another lonely hitman in “Limits of Control”) co-star as Whitaker’s Ghost Dog becomes a target when a job goes wrong. Leaning on gangster genre tropes helps to keep Jarmusch from meandering off course, but he adds his characteristic touches, from gleaming Robby Muller visuals to a driving hip hop score.  –Anne Thompson

3. “Broken Flowers,” 2005 (****). Bill Murray is the master of soulful deadpan, and “Broken Flowers” may be the crowning achievement of his influential acting style. He plays perennial bachelor Don Johnston, whose life of luxury and casual heartbreak is interrupted when he receives a pink, anonymous letter saying an illegitimate son may be trying to locate him. Egged on by his amateur detective neighbor (Jeffrey Wright), Don sets out to find the would-be mother of his child. Each ex-girlfriend he visits (among them Sharon Stone, Jessica Lange and Tilda Swinton) has taken a very different path since their days with Don, which Jarmusch examines with quiet sympathy and humor. Look out for one of the best closing sequences of the past decade — with Bill Murray’s real-life son Homer making an unforgettable cameo. –Beth Hanna

2. “Stranger Than Paradise,” 1984 (****). “Quality
You Can Trust” reads the legend on the gas station in the pre-gentrified Lower
East Side of Jarmusch’s second feature, and it was clearly an omen. An
almost perfectly modulated three-act exercise in bittersweetness and drollery,
the film which stars John Lurie and Richard Edson as a couple of low-rent
gamblers named Willie and Eddie and Hungarian import Eszter Baltint as Willie’s
cousin Eva, who arrives in New York en route to Cleveland, stopping over with
the unspeakable unwelcoming Willie, who then can’t stand to see her go.
Jarmusch’s irony rich, observational take on hipster inertia and a kind of
general American stasis was likely a befuddlement to audiences in 1984, when
“Ghostbusters,” “Beverly Hills Cop” and “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”
were raking in the multimillions. But whereas those films (and plenty more) now
look like the creaky artifacts they are, “STP” remains sharp, focused and
infused with melancholy. Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ (“I Put a Spell on You”)
provides some of the soundtrack; Lurie provides the rest; Balint is perfect;
the ending leaves you in a heap. –John Anderson

1. “Only Lovers Left Alive,” 2014 (****). This $7 million festival hit fires on all cylinders. (It’s at 76 on Metacritic.) The timeless romance stars Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton as exquisitely cool ancient vampires still in love after centuries–perhaps because they live on different continents. He morosely cruises the ghostly streets of a ruined, deserted Detroit (an inspired location), creates lush electronic music and collects vintage instruments provided by his discreet local dealer (Anton Yelchin). She roams the narrow lanes of Tangier to meet her beloved quality blood supplier (John Hurt) before flying through the night to meet her lover in Detroit, where they are joined for a time by her mischievous sister (Mia Wasikowska). In this mood piece, Jarmusch combines many of his favorite things– actors with attitude in lonely urban environments, arcane music, literary references, delirious visuals– in one deliciously entertaining film. –Anne Thompson

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I found Only Lovers Left Alive to be stylishly and sensually enjoyable but utterly obnoxious in its treatment of character and theme. All of the literary references seemed like the name-dropping of vapid hipsters. And the interactions between Eve and Adam were frequently like that of a mother chiding her mopey teenage son.


Only Lovers Left Alive would have to be amazing for it to unseat Stranger Than Paradise as #1 on my list. So I'll remain skeptical until I do. Especially since The Limits of Control was a misfire.

Nathan Duke

I'd rank them (without yet having seen "Only Lovers Left Alive"):
11. Year of the Horse 10. Permanent Vacation 9. Coffee and Cigarettes 8. Night on Earth
7. Ghost Dog 6. The Limits of Control 5. Down by Law 4. Mystery Train 3. Dead Man
2. Broken Flowers 1. Stranger Than Paradise

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