Can anything possibly be better than Dead Man?
Over his career, Jim Jarmusch has created some of the most innovative and idiosyncratic films of the late 20th and early 21st century, cementing himself as one of the greatest, absurd filmmakers of our time. Throughout the years he's won just about everything at Cannes, (The Grand Prix, Palme d'Or – Short Film, Best Artistic Contribution, and The Golden Camera), except the Palme d'Or, although he's been nominated six times. His latest film, Only Lovers Left Alive, which just premiered at Cannes, is an unconventional love story and vampire epic starring Tilda Swinton (so, of course we can't wait to see it). To commemorate this, we decided to look back on the whole Jarmusch oeuvre—the good, the laconic, and the RZA-ridden.
10. Permanent Vacation (1980)
This is the story of a young man wandering the streets of New York and the interesting characters he meets. I imagine if you made a movie of The Catcher in the Rye without any sort of monologues or voice-overs expressing Holden Caulfield's thought process, it would look something like this. Shot shortly after Jarmusch dropped out of film school, Permanent Vacation is often credited with being the beginning of Jarmusch's unique style that would soon revolutionize the indie film world. Despite its influence, it only scratched the surface of what lay ahead in Jim's career, so I'll have to go with the number 10 spot on this list. If you're looking to find this semi-forgotten gem it's available as an extra on certain DVD releases of Jarmusch's 2nd film, Stranger than Paradise.
9. Coffee & Cigarettes (2003)
A film that is about exactly what its titled suggests; Coffee and Cigarettes. Broken up into 11 vignettes of various actors and actresses, often playing themselves, this film showcases the most frequent byproduct of those two vices–-conversations. If this film were made up of only its two strongest scenes–Iggy Pop and Tom Waits having cigarettes to celebrate quitting smoking (which won the 1993 Cannes Short Film Palme d'Or) and the scene in which RZA and GZA are served midnight coffee by Bill Murray–well, then it would be fighting for number one. Unfortunately it's not, and some scenes fall dead flat. Jack and Meg White discussing Tesla? Who thought Meg White could be a worse actress than drummer. Even with a few less-than-stellar scenes, when GZA says, “Bill Groundhog Day Ghost-Bustin' Ass Murray. Who you gonna call?” I lose my mind laughing.
8. The Limits of Control (2009)
Jarmusch's most recent film was also one of his least well received. After his more commercial turn in Broken Flowers, he created something totally different and much less accessible. A story about a man going from person to person, receiving his next orders written on matchbooks, The Limits of Control, didn't connect well with audiences. That being said, I liked it. It's minimalistic, odd, with beautiful cinematography-–typical Jarmusch. So why is it ranked so low? The pacing is to slow. However, I do award bonus points for Isaach De Bankole's first leading role in a Jarmusch film (after appearing in three of his previous works).
7. Night on Earth (1991)
Taxis, taxis and more taxis. This film takes place entirely within cabs and explores the bond created between driver and passenger, two strangers in close quarters caught in one moment of time. An adventurous film, each scene is told in a different language, spanning five in all. Told in vignettes, it's a beautiful film, yet it still hangs lower on the Jarmusch totem pole. The soundtrack was recorded as an almost completely instrumental album by Tom Waits.
6. Stranger Than Paradise (1984)
Although this was Jim's second film, it debuted as his first at the 1984 Cannes Festival in Directors' Fortnight, winning the Camera d'Or. A black and white sparse film shot with non-actors–notably jazz musician John Lurie and former Sonic Youth Drummer Richard Edson–is often considered Jarmusch's most influential film. Its bare necessities style has been mimicked by low-budget indie film-makers repeatedly over the following two decades. Historical importance aside, outside the cult of Jarmusch and the indie diehards, many people find the plot slow-moving and boring.
5. Mystery Train (1989)
Jarmusch's first film to use color is also possibly his most off-beat. Its three intertwining stories take place in and around a hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. Intriguing characters and a starring role by Joe Strummer of the Clash make this a must see for any indie-fan. The second greatest film of Jim's early years, Mystery Train, provides a crossroads in his film-making style. Blending elements of his long-standing minimalistic approach with color and more intricate plot lines gives the viewer a taste of two sides of Jarmusch. Unfortunately, his greatest works are achieved when he's firmly set his stance on either one of those two sides.
4. Dead Man (1995)
This one is the "trendy" pick for favorite Jarmusch film by many enthusiasts. His most researched? Yes. His most nuanced? Probably. Dead Man gained high praise for it's unsubtitled dialogue in both the Cree and the Blackfoot languages, including inside jokes specifically for Native American viewers. A psychedelic western, starring Johnny Depp as William Blake (no relation to the poet, though there are several references to Blake's work in the film) is fantastic. Native Canadian actor Gary Farmer plays Nobody, the strong, misunderstood, helping-hand perfectly. While Dead Man is a great film, at times it feels like it's trying too hard to be socially responsible.
3. Broken Flowers (2005)
Bill Murray, an aging Don Juan (named Don) who has become newly rich off the internet, receives an unmarked letter. It's from a past fling informing him he has a 19-year-old son who has disappeared and may be looking for him. Arguably, Jarmusch's most mainstream release is also one of his best. Each of his past lovers represent a different phase of Don's journey throughout life, eventually leading him to a crossroads. At times heart-wrenching, others comical, in Broken Flowers, Jarmusch was able to bring his unique vision, depth, and style to the masses. Received extremely well by critics and fans alike, it won the second highest award given at Cannes, The Grand Prix. To date, it's the closest Jarmusch has come to the elusive Palme d'Or.
2. Down By Law (1986)
Maybe I'm a sucker for Tom Waits (not maybe–I am a sucker for Tom Waits), but if you make a black and white movie about Waits breaking out of prison with Roberto Benigni and John Lurie, then I'm gonna love it. The plot is hilarious and dark; it's early Benigni at his nervous and confused best. And the dialogue between Waits and Lurie as they fall in and out of friendship is more than sharp:
Lurie: This is how you dressed before you were in the joint, right? Sort of garbage man on parade?
Waits: You, uh, planin' on doin' a little squirrel huntin, Jack?
It is the greatest of Jarmusch's early work and the touchstone of a style he created.
1. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)
Forest Whitaker as a streetwise assassin living by Hagakure, the code of the Japanese Samurai, is number one on my list. Why? Maybe it's because I have a copy of the Hagakure in my bathroom, or perhaps it's because it was RZA's first fully produced score (my love for Wu-Tang creates certain prejudices). But, even beyond these particular biases, I do believe it is his best work. It's a well held together film with dynamic characters; it blends beautiful dialogue, intense wordless periods, and action. A gangster-samurai hybrid, the enigmatic Ghost Dog will go down in time as one of the greatest films in both those genres. Like Kill Bill, Ghost Dog is a homage to the great cinema of the past. Yet it doesn't get lost in that history–it's not repetition but reinvention. A must see for any fan of film: it's Jarmusch's greatest work.