Ranked: Roman Polanski Films from Worst to Best

In tribute to Carnage, we reassess the director of Chinatown and The Pianist.


by Austin Duerst

Roman Polanski made a name for himself at a young age with his keen and original insight into the dark recesses of the human psyche. His films, with their grim, unflinching depictions of injustice, helped open the doors for future filmmakers to pursue dark subject matter without fear of censorship. With the release of his nineteenth feature film, Carnage, we take a look back at the films of one of cinema's greatest directors. 

19. Pirates (1986)

Long before pirate fever swept the world with Disney's Caribbean series, a lot of other pirate movies earned their place shipwrecked along the shores of cinematic history. Roman Polanski's Pirates is one of them. The idea must've seemed promising in its initial stages (after all, someone coughed up $40 million dollars to make it), but instead of delivering memorable swashbuckling, Polanski gave audiences two-hours of asinine turnovers and cheesy slapstick that are as contrived as star Walter Matthau's horrible pirate accent.

18. The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967)

This macabre fairy-tale centers on two vampire hunters who come across more like props than flesh-and-blood characters. All the ingredients are here for a choice satire of early vampire pictures, but the film's over-the-top, cartoonish quality makes it all feel kind of dumb. Critics have showered praise on the film for its beautiful sets, but they're not enough to redeem the limp comedy.

17. What? (1972)

Narrowly avoiding a rape while traveling in Italy, a young woman escapes into a decadent villa. What? earns points (sort of) for originality and some funny moments, but Polanski seems to have made it out of sheer feckless randiness. Tip-toeing topless through scenes of cooking, fucking, and ping-pong, Sydne Rome's protagonist is more sex doll than Alice in Wonderland. If this screwball Salo has any underlying significance, it's all but lost in the film's meta-twist ending, which will having you repeating the title in disappointment even after the credits roll. 

16. Oliver Twist (2005)

Given his own history as an orphan, Polanski should have been a perfect match for the classic story of Oliver Twist. Like many of Polanski's previous works, the film concerns the struggle of innocents in a world of corruption. The acting, both by the cast of children and by Ben Kingsley as the manipulative Fagin, is top-notch. The problem is that other than touching on some of the director's favorite themes, there's no real indication that Twist was made by Polanski. He seems to be holding back. 

15. Macbeth (1971)

While Macbeth's film adaptations have been hit-and-miss, Polanski's version is arguably the most faithful. (In other words, there are no machine guns.) Polanski never flinches in displaying the extreme lengths its key players will go for power, and the surrealist touch the director brings to Macbeth's various guilt-ridden, sleep-deprived hallucinations make many of the scenes memorable. But these scenes make up only a third of the two-plus-hour movie. For the rest of the time, something boring this way comes.

14. The Ninth Gate (1999)

In The Ninth Gate, Johnny Depp stars as Dean Corso, a sleazy rare-books dealer hired to authenticate a manuscript that was allegedly written by the Devil. But Depp's underwhelming performance pales in comparison to Frank Langella's menacing portrayal of bibliophile Boris Balkan. Unfortunately, Langella's scenes are few, and while there are moments of noirish humor and charm, the film is unsatisfying. Its failure at the box office has been blamed on the inevitable comparisons to Rosemary's Baby, but The Ninth Gate is slow and underdeveloped even on its own terms.

13. The Ghost Writer (2010)

Hired to take over the writing of a former British Prime Minister's memoir after the previous author dies mysteriously, successful scribe Ewan McGregor finds himself enmeshed in a web of political intrigue. The Ghost Writer is more subdued than Polanski's previous films, which is not necessarily a criticism. The film's deliberately-paced unraveling of clues is one of its more engaging qualities, a testament to its writing and editing. But ultimately, the actors don't manage to invest the film with much deeper meaning; it's the mystery that keeps you watching.

 12. Bitter Moon (1992)

A look into the personal hell of a dysfunctional relationship, Bitter Moon plays like two different films in one. The intriguing half concerns the sadistic disintegration of the love between characters Oscar and Mimi, told mostly in flashbacks. This half of Bitter Moon is a well-crafted free-fall, exhibiting Polanski's fearlessness in exploring the very depths of perversion. But the other half is the tale of a boring British couple who seem to be here only to make the rest seem more interesting by contrast.   

11. Tess (1979)

After years of macabre thrillers, Polanski took on Tess with the goal of "making something beautiful." In that respect, the film's successful; its beautifully rendered landscapes won it an Academy Award for Best Cinematography. But its film's pace is unrelentingly slow. Tess's questions regarding familial identity are interesting, and Nastassja Kinski delivers a nuanced performance as the naive but strong-willed title character. But I suspect the praise this film received had more to do with a critical fondness for watery period-pieces than anything else.  

Commentarium (37 Comments)

Dec 15 11 - 2:02am
Weary

"Rosemary's Baby" does not belong ahead of "Chinatown," "The Pianist," and "Knife in the Water," three masterpieces. Seeing "Rosemary's Baby" recently, all I thought was "jeez, all these old folks are really being mean to Mia."
I haven't seen every film on this list but it's hard to believe any of them could be worse than "Bitter Moon."

Dec 15 11 - 1:02pm
Leery

"jeez, all these old folks are really being mean to Mia." Maybe because they're SATANISTS!

Dec 15 11 - 2:16pm
Will

"HAIL ADRIAN! HAIL SATAN!"

Dec 16 11 - 4:32pm
Satan

HAIL TO ME!

Dec 26 11 - 5:52pm
John Son

I hail thee, oh great mystical seer and lord of my life.

Dec 15 11 - 12:08pm
really

Rosemary's Baby #1? Ahead of Chinatown??? I assume this is a joke.

Dec 15 11 - 12:44pm
I am Rosemary's Baby

We're your friends, Really. There's nothing to be scared about. Honest and truly there isn't!

Dec 15 11 - 12:12pm
James Taylor

I fell asleep twice watching Chinatown. Just saying...

Dec 15 11 - 12:15pm
NG

My own personal favorite is Repulsion, but I also didn't think Oliver Twist was so bad.

Dec 16 11 - 4:33pm
chimichonga

yeah I thought repulsion was really good too. oliver twist sucks.

Dec 15 11 - 12:54pm
Arnold

Knife in the Water is the single most boringly thrilling movie. Like a sleepy car chase.

Dec 15 11 - 2:20pm
JohnWatersFan

Or like drowning in a sweet cup of chamomile tea

Dec 15 11 - 2:54pm
Buscemi's Eyeball

Or like arson with cinnamon scented candles

Dec 16 11 - 10:23pm
JackedONPOPPERS

Knife in the Water should have been called 'Banana in a Boat', where the discarded peel creates an hour and a half of tension.

Dec 15 11 - 1:11pm
Twist

Ben Kingsley as Fagin was perfection, needs to be in the top 10!

Dec 26 11 - 6:02pm
John Son

Oh... I thought his name was Fagit.

Dec 15 11 - 2:02pm
Boges

First off, I can get behind this list. Secondly, who thinks the Roman Polanski documentary is actually #1? Craziest and most interesting story is his own life.

Dec 15 11 - 2:22pm
BORGES

Craziest and most interesting story goes to his penis, I think.

Dec 15 11 - 2:35pm
Boges

Ga-ross!
Future biopic staring Martin Wuttke as Hitler, Johnny Depp as Charles Manson and Dakota Fanning

Dec 15 11 - 2:28pm
MeeMeeMeow

(Little) Ladies Love Cool R

Dec 15 11 - 3:14pm
fishstix

Didn't he direct Lolita?

Dec 15 11 - 3:44pm
HipHop Hippo

That's Kubrick.

Dec 15 11 - 4:40pm
Alan Coffee

My own theory about The Tenant is Polanski's character is really the girl who killed herself in purgatory. Either that, or he ate some really bad sushi.

Dec 26 11 - 6:03pm
Alan Coffee

Well, then again, it may also have been some really crazy grass.

Dec 15 11 - 6:47pm
m-m-m

I'm super impressed that Nerve went with Rosemary's Baby. Not because I think it's better than Chinatown (it isn't) but because that's a bold choice. So good on you Nerve for both being wrong and bold.

Dec 15 11 - 7:49pm
Nathan W

I have a strong suspicion this writer hasn't even seen Polanski's Oliver Twist. The description is too vague and the criticism off-base--it's directed in a style that is clearly RP's.

Oh, and that photo isn't the right movie.

Dec 15 11 - 9:51pm
Jeffrey

"The Fearless Vampire Killers'" No. 18 is seriously below the belt. Duerst, that hurts.

Dec 16 11 - 10:15pm
Tres

Chinatown is a noir picture like any other noir picture except that it has Jack Nicholson in it. Rosemary's Baby has the creative edge.

Dec 16 11 - 10:20pm
Patti

How did such a good director make so many shitty movies?

Dec 24 11 - 12:20pm
Mark

Having your pregnant wife and many of your friends slaughtered by the Manson "family", then being considered a suspect by the idiotic LAPD, and finally being hounded into exile by a publicity drunk "judge" just might have had something to do with it. Also, cocaine didn't help.

Dec 25 11 - 4:18pm
Chuckles

He's lucky he was only "Hounded into exile" after he drugged and raped a little girl. Funny you don't mention that .

Dec 26 11 - 6:05pm
Alan Coffee

I believe that was the "being considered a suspect by the idiotic LAPD" part. Hey, there are many versions of reality. Maybe that drugged up little girl was just asking for it.

Dec 27 11 - 3:54am
Chuckles

Well as long as children want to be drugged and sodomized, we should just go along with it, right? He was the real victim apparently. Poor guy lived in a mansion for years! I can't even imagine.

youre one of those types who tells rape victims that they shouldn't have been wearing provocative clothing, aren't you?

Dec 18 11 - 5:39pm
Scott

Frantic was terrible, and there's no way that it should be ahead of Oliver Twist, Macbeth or Cul-de-Sac.

And Macbeth especially should be way higher. It's a fantastic adaptation.

Dec 24 11 - 12:09pm
Mark

The Ghost Writer deserves to be in the top ten. It's a master class in directing - there's not a wasted shot or line, and every scene moves the story forward. Excellent performances, unexpected twists, a title character whose actual name is never mentioned. This is a film which will live long beyond the Tony Blair references.

Dec 28 11 - 6:21pm
Willis McPhyllis

The Ninth Gate is one of the most underrated films I have ever seen. It's brilliant. Not his best but certainly my favourite Polanski film. I will defend it until I douse myself in petrol and set myself on fire because I thought I was immortal, but wait, it starts to burn my eye balls. Terrifying!

Jun 23 12 - 4:29pm
Allie

There is something about a Polanski film that I just cannot explain except to say that I am a great fan of his work. In his films he creates an atmosphere an ambiance that draws you into the story and he has done this again with Carnage. The script is good as we know from the writer's earlier play 'Art' but without Polanski's casting and directing talent it would not have been such a successful film and how clever to put it all together in a short film with four strong actors. I can't wait to see what Polanski will do next.