9. “Velvet Goldmine” (1998)
“Velvet Goldmine” is the most dazzling David Bowie biopic never made, and it’s pretty miraculous how much of the film stills registers on an emotional level considering just how many setbacks Haynes faced in pre-production. Not only did Bowie make it impossible for the director to use his songs, but he also sued the production over the script’s similarities to his actual life. Throw in The Weinstein Company’s hunger for creative control, and the final product plays as if Haynes’ distinct vision got reduced to a Bowie cover band. Framed “Citizen Kane”-style around a journalist investigating the downfall of the once iconic Brian Slade (an enthralling Jonathan Rhys Meyers), the movie uses flashback vignettes to chronicle his life story, from his family’s reaction to his sexuality to several relationships. Music binds each chapter, as the glam rock scene throws Slade into self-exploration and expressionism. Despite Haynes’ visual flourishes and Sandy Powell’s knockout costumes, the script can’t find its footing, reducing the mystery of Slade’s existence into a conventional breakdown that exposes the dark underbelly of fame and fortune. For such a thematically provocative filmmaker, “Goldmine” is Haynes at his safest.
8. “Dottie Gets Spanked” (1993)
Never one to let length dictate emotional impact (see “Superstar” below), “Dottie Gets Spanked” packs a wallop of personal growth in a mere 45 minutes. Evan Bonifant brings a universal naturalism to protagonist Stevie, a young boy obsessed with an “I Love Lucy”-style television show who wins a contest to visit the set. Haynes is a master at understanding and depicting how the human subconscious reacts to the world around us in ways beyond our control, and here he delightfully explores the impressionable minds of young children. After Stevie overhears a neighbor mention the word “spanking,” he becomes fixated on the act, a condition made worse after he visits the set and the episode being filmed is centered around the topic. The collision of Stevie’s odd obsessions results in expressionistic dream sequences that are still some of the most inventive narrative breaks in Haynes’ career. By the end, Stevie is a ghost of Haynes’ past — a young boy with an idiosyncratic spirit that fits outside the normative world.
7. “Mildred Pierce” (2011)
Despite airing on HBO as a miniseries, Haynes’ evocative adaptation of James M. Cain’s “Mildred Pierce” is truly a five-hour plus movie, one that utilizes its format to take its time in the ordinary triumphs and errors of its leading heroine. Taking “Far From Heaven” and “Carol” into consideration, it’s safe to say Haynes is completely enraptured with the decade and its imprint on sexuality and gender, and he’s been careful enough to make each film set during this period as distinct in tone as they are in theme. All three call back to the great melodramas of Hollywood’s heyday, but Haynes brings a quiet naturalism to the proceedings in “Pierce” that rids the genre’s tone and emotional subtext of any grandeur. Kate Winslet’s character never stops being ordinary — she finds success and failure in work, sensuality in falling into the arms of a new man and strife in the increasingly combative relationship with her daughte — but none of Mildred’s battles are particularly unique, something Haynes is well aware of. He crafts a universal tale of highs and lows with an emotional precision that is startlingly effective.
6. “Poison” (1991)
Haynes’ first feature length film is considered a landmark of the New Queer Cinema movement, and it proved instrumental in defining the challenging narrative risks that make him one of the boldest filmmakers in the business. Still one of Haynes’ most experimental works, “Poison” intercuts three separate stories — Hero,” “Horror” and “Homo” — that all deal with the ramifications of sexuality, each brought to life with varying degrees of aesthetic expression on Haynes’ part. Filmed like a tabloid news episode, “Hero” tells the story of a seven-year-old boy who runs from home after shooting his father, while “Horror” harkens back to the atmosphere of 1960’s chillers to bring to life the tale of a scientist turned murderous leprechaun after he drinks an entire vile of “human sexuality.” The stories all work as potent metaphors on their own — “Homo” is the most direct, centering on two prisoners falling in love — but the way Haynes intercuts them creates a stimulating triptych puzzle about how we find, explore and react to our own sexuality.
5. “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story” (1987)
While an MFA student at Bard College, Todd Haynes made a 43-minute film that sent shockwaves through the independent film world. Using only Barbies, Haynes created an astonishingly believable and downright devastating biopic of the eponymous singer of the Carpenters. Set to a slew of Burt Bacharach-penned Carpenters tunes unauthorized for use, “Superstar” chronicles the wholesome singer’s rise to stardom, her struggle with anorexia and her tragically young death. Within mere minutes, Haynes has the viewer forget he/she is watching dolls, and the result is a genuinely horrifying portrait of the dark side of fame. As Karen’s condition worsens and her body deteriorates, her doll is modified accordingly by Haynes in shocking fashion in anticipation of its harrowing conclusion. After Haynes lost a copyrights infringement lawsuit filed by Karen’s brother and collaborator, Richard Carpenter, “Superstar” has since spawned a cult following as a brilliant banned film.
4. “I’m Not There” (2007)
With “I’m Not There,” Haynes upended the conventions of the biopic genre by crafting a memorable ode not merely to Bob Dylan, but also to the legends that surround the man and form our disparate perceptions of him. Rather than making a singular portrait of a famously mercurial artist, Haynes cast six actors in the role of Dylan. From a Greenwich Village folk singer to a born-again Christian, each of these different incarnations of Dylan presents a unique identity seemingly unmotivated by the others. Still, as fresh as the experiment of “I’m Not There” is, Haynes’ audacious film would not work nearly as well as it does without excellent performances from its kaleidoscopic cast of Dylans, played by Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Richard Gere, Ben Whishaw, Marcus Carl Franklin and a standout Cate Blanchett.
3. “Carol” (2015)
Though “Carol” is a measured, faithful adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 lesbian romance “The Price of Salt,” there’s no mistaking its connection to Haynes’ other work. Since his early days, Haynes has developed sophisticated narratives out of existing cultural reference points. With “Carol,” that approach stems from the text itself, which Haynes enriches by delivering a mannered, classical romance that replaces the original pulp identity of the novel with an extremely gentle two-hander. Starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in top form as a pair of women drawn together in spite of the intrusive men around them, “Carol” undeniably marks Haynes’ most contained work, funneling his thematic oeuvre into a nuanced tale of mutual attraction that reflects a filmmaker and cast operating at the height of their powers, rendering complex circumstances in strikingly personal terms. Told entirely through intoxicating gestures and glances, “Carol” paints the silent, unassuming exchanges between lovers with the earth-shattering subjectivity they deserve. Few romances are this sublime and pitch perfect from beginning to end.
2. “Far From Heaven” (2002)
Despite making films for over a decade, “Far From Heaven” was the first time Haynes captured the hearts of mainstream audiences, and for good measure, too. Relishing in the atmosphere and stylizations of the great melodramas by Douglas Sirk, Haynes finds the contemporary edge of a nostalgic era in this truly ravishing drama about a picture-perfect couple (Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid) undone by the husband’s closeted homosexuality and the wife’s yearning for their black gardener. Whereas Sirk had to be discrete and unassuming in his social commentary, Haynes doesn’t hold back one bit, skillfully holding a magnifying glass up to the issues of the film that strike a definitive chord between the past and the present. With thematic and aesthetic contributions walking diligently between eras both distant and present, Haynes achieves a rare balancing act that is as much a commentary on the progression of societal values (or lack thereof) as it is on the genre of melodrama itself. Such self-reflexivness gives “Far From Heaven” a daring dramatic nerve and makes the final product irresistible for even the most well-worn cinephile.
1. “Safe” (1995)
Todd Haynes’ remarkable second feature filters late ’80s hyper-consumerism through the eyes of Carol White, played with unraveling nerve by Julianne Moore in what might be her best performance of all time. Settled firmly in her uninspired marriage and her day-to-day housewife routine — gardening, dry cleaning, attending aerobics class and the hair salon — Carol slowly develops an unusual illness she believes is due to an allergic reaction to chemicals found in everyday consumer products. Her doctors diagnose no such medical issue, but with each passing day Carol’s symptoms get more violent and panic-stricken. The ambiguity over the cause of Carol’s deteriorating health — is it an actual disease or just her own self-delusional emotions? — creates a subversive psychological thriller, and the effective duet between star and director capitalizes on the sinister edge of the dramatic social commentary. While Moore goes to dizzying extremes in her unshakeable performance, Haynes keeps the camera tediously controlled and static, trapping Carol in menacing long distance shots that engulf her in her materialistic surroundings. Thanks to these two, “Safe” isn’t just the best film Haynes has ever made, it’s also one of the most might effective horror movies of all time.
You can watch all the films of Todd Haynes at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s currently running retrospective series.