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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.