Few directors have had a greater impact on modern horror or arthouse thrillers than Roman Polanski. His films range from the sprawl of "Chinatown" to the deep claustrophobia of "Repulsion," but almost all of them retain the same fractured worldview, the same darkly absurdist sense of humor, and the same focus on power plays. The controversy about Polanski's real-life crimes sometimes overshadow his films, but he remains a vital and important director in his sixth decade as a filmmaker. In anticipation of his latest, "Venus in Fur," which opens this Friday, here's a ranking of his films, from worst to best.
20. "What?" (1972)
Indiewire's own Eric Kohn made a pretty good case for "What?" as something other than a sickening id upchuck. I wish I could do the same. Filmed in Italy after producer Carlo Ponti gave Polanski a carte blanche and a beautiful Italian villa to work with, "What?" is posited as a sexy riff on "Alice in Wonderland" by way of Fellini. That makes it sound more coherent than it is, however, and doesn't prepare for the film's rampant misogyny. Opening with an attempted gang rape that's played for laughs (not a good sign), the film sees a scantily-clad Synde Rome in a state of perpetual sexual abuse by the likes of Marcello Mastroianni (in a bit of sad self-parody) and Polanski himself. Where earlier Polanski efforts featured a certain amount of empathy for the women used by men, "What?" has no real perspective on the ugliness on display, playing like a queasy bit of foreshadowing on how Polanski's decadent style and lifestyle had curdled into something nasty.
19. "Pirates" (1986)
Released after a seven-year absence from filmmaking, "Pirates," Polanski’s attempt at blockbuster filmmaking, suggests that the director was a little rusty. The misconception of the film starts with the surreal miscasting of Walter Matthau as a pirate, which sees the eminently likable character actor buried under loads of hair and makeup, his recognizable voice traded for a horrendous pirate accent. What's worse, "Pirates" doesn't have the kind of narrative throughline that best serves the director’s absurdist sense of humor, instead consisting of a bunch of thrown-together scenes that Polanski thought would be funny. And while there are impressive moments of pure spectacle, most notably the full-scale galleon built for production, the action scenes are choppy and difficult to follow, making the film's selling points a slog to sit through.
18. "Oliver Twist" (2006)
Considering Polanski's own tumultuous childhood, it's easy to see how adapting Charles Dickens's "Oliver Twist" might have been a tempting proposition. But Polanski's take on Twist isn’t particularly distinguished, adopting the same drab visual palette that worked on "The Pianist" without the earlier film’s gradual drain of color that made the choice effective. The film otherwise lifelessly covers the same plot points seen in previous adaptations of the novel, with Ben Kingsley's hammy Fagin providing the only point of energy. It's not a terrible film, but it's too damn familiar to stand out next to David Lean's indelible 1948 version or Carol Reed's bloated but charming film of the musical "Oliver!"
17. "Death and the Maiden" (1994)
Few directors get more mileage out of limiting films to one location than Roman Polanski, but he sometimes has trouble when adapting plays. "Death and the Maiden" has an ingenious set-up: a former revolutionary (Sigourney Weaver) suffering from PTSD believes she's found the man (Ben Kingsley) who tortured and raped her years ago and takes him hostage; her husband (Stuart Wilson) is less certain. The trouble is that the play's insularity feels contrived on screen, and it’s far too on-the-nose with its points about power, madness, and paranoia. The cast is uneven, too: Kingsley is excellent as the sometimes sympathetic, sometimes nebulous hostage, but Wilson doesn't make much of an impression and Weaver is uncharacteristically overheated, which undermines an already shaky script that pivots on the ambiguity of whether or not she's right.
16. "Carnage" (2011)
Polanski had more luck opening up "Carnage," an adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s acrid play "God of Carnage," in which two couples separated by class meet to discuss an incident between their children and wind up tearing at each other’s throats. Polanski plays the couples' inability to leave the apartment and just let it go as a terrific absurdist joke, letting the actors take control of the screen. But only half of the cast is up to task: where Christoph Waltz is hilariously condescending and Kate Winslet simultaneously irritating and sympathetic, Jodie Foster overplays her shrill character, while John C. Reilly can't sell his everyman’s sudden shift to boorishness. And even if the cast was on the same page, "God of Carnage" is, Tony Award be damned, not a very good play, a low-rent Edward Albee wannabe that thinks the idea of people hiding their misanthropy under a facade of civility is new and insightful rather than well-worn and played out.
15. "The Ninth Gate" (1999)
"The Ninth Gate" is a stupid movie, yet there's something perversely entertaining about it. Sure, the plot, about a hunt for a book that’s literally written by the devil, is ridiculous, and the film ends with a huge thud where the mysterious villain (Frank Langella) suddenly starts acting like an idiot. But it hardly matters in the early going, which sees Polanski mixing creepy classicism with an arch tone to intoxicating effect. It helps that Johnny Depp, back in the "actually trying" phase of his career, brings the right note of skepticism and slyness for the film's "Chinatown" meets "Rosemary’s Baby" set-up. As drama, it's unsatisfying and more than a little goofy. As a stylistic exercise, it's a blast.
14. "Frantic" (1988)
"Frantic" is the most straightforward film Polanski ever made, a lightweight imitation of a Hitchcockian thriller with a weak macguffin, unmemorable villains and a blank performance by Polanski's future-wife Emmanuelle Seigner as the mysterious woman who helps Harrison Ford save his kidnapped wife. But Polanski gets strong work out of bleary-eyed and increasingly exasperated Ford as he deals with ineffectual bureaucracies and mounting exhaustion. Polanski also pulls off some dynamite set-pieces, including one where Ford has to avoid being seen or heard on Seigner’s rooftop. It's a disposable film, but hardly a bad one.
13. "Tess" (1979)
Conceived as a comeback for Polanski following his exile from America, "Tess," an adaptation of Thomas Hardy's "Tess of the D'Urbevilles," saw the director briefly back on top of his game, earning him his second Best Director nomination. It’s a film of many pleasures, from Geoffrey Unsworth and Ghislain Cloquet’s gorgeous, hazy cinematography to Nastassja Kinski’s beautifully tentative performance, and Polanski’s deeply sympathetic look at Tess's dehumanization plays as a welcome addition to Polanski’s ongoing fascination with power and unfair worlds. But "Tess" moves at a snail's pace, often feeling like a richly imagined but essentially shapeless book on film, and Polanski is better-suited to films of ever-present dread and danger than he is to quaint period pieces. It's an admirable film, but not always a gripping one.
12. "The Ghost Writer" (2010)
For a short time, it looked like "The Ghost Writer” might be Polanski's final film, as the director was nearly extradited to the U.S. for his 1977 rape of an underage girl. It was not to be, but it wouldn't have been a bad film to end on. Opening with an elegant move worthy of Hitchcock – a car doesn't leave the ferry, and a body washes ashore – Polanski maintains a mood of quietly-simmering dread that never lets up. Polanski doesn’t have much interest in the political implications of Pierce Brosnan's Tony Blair-surrogate, but he gets great work from his cast (particularly a mysterious Olivia Williams), and his mastery of limited perspective makes for some great misdirection an a sense of isolation for a protagonist who's a man with no existence, a man who can easily disappear or be controlled.
11. "Cul-de-sac" (1966)
Dwarfed by Polanski's other 60s films and unavailable until Criterion released it a few years ago, "Cul-de-sac" is a transitional film for Polanski, but a memorable effort in its own right. A sort of "Waiting for Godot" meets "Little Caesar," the film is a power-play between brash American gangster Lionel Stander, who’s waiting for a colleague that never shows, and ineffectual Brit Donald Pleasence, whose castle Stander stumbles upon. Stander dominates and emasculates Pleasence in front of his oversexed wife (Francoise Dorleac) as Polanski uses the castle to striking effect, turning an battle of wits into an outsized look at male dominance. If the final moments of this black comedy are more disturbing than funny, it's because it's comedic in the nastiest sense of the word, pushing Polanski’s bleak worldview to its most jaundiced.
10. "Venus in Fur" (2013)
While the film's two-person act would likely benefit from seeing the actors in the flesh, "Venus in Fur" never feels like canned theater, with Polanski's subtle shifts in lighting and off-kilter compositions perfectly suiting this delightfully lurid psychodrama. The subject's perfect for him, too, distilling his takes on sex and power in art into a concentrated dose and featuring a career-best performance from Emmanuelle Seigner as an actress who constantly shifts from actress to character, submissive to dominant, manipulative to…more manipulative.