In anticipation of the June 14th release of Jim Jarmusch’s fifteenth film The Dead Don’t Die, here is his entire filmography, ranked. It’s fascinating to see how many recurring elements appear throughout. Jarmusch often casts the same actors, sometimes even having them deliver the same dialogue from previous works, creating a quasi-shared universe when the films are viewed together. In terms of storytelling, he seems especially influenced by societal destruction and lawlessness. The characters he writes are meditative, elusive loners often stuck in a self-imposed rut. More often than not, they are covered with sweat, dirt, and cigarette ash. Even though he often presents a grimy and dangerous side of society, his films are almost always impeccably shot. They often feature inspired comedic performances and have soundtracks that are perfect for driving down dark city streets. While The Dead Don’t Die is not quite like any other film Jarmusch has made before, diving into the revered filmmaker’s past will definitely help audiences get the most out of his latest.
15. Permanent Vacation (1980)
Jarmusch’s career started with a $12,000 art film that was paid for with NYU scholarship money. Even in 1980, Jarmusch was laying the groundwork for themes and character archetypes that we would see throughout his career. Allie (Chris Parker) walks around a New York City that resembles the byproduct of Chantal Akerman’s News from Home and David Lynch’s Eraserhead. Permanent Vacation is very much a “student film” with amateur actors delivering dialogue in a somewhat halted way. It is hard to tell if Jarmusch was trying to make a dramatic story about a man who doesn’t feel he has a place in the world, or if he intended it as a bone-dry dark comedy about a man who lets his own self-mythos muddy his life’s direction. The score by Jarmusch and John Lurie is easily the best element of film and the cinematography of Tom DiCillo and James A. Lebovitz is shockingly good for such a low budget production. While Permanent Vacation may be a somewhat tedious and awkward film, all of the familiar elements associated with Jarmusch’s filmmaking are present, even from the very beginning.
14. Paterson (2016)
Adam Driver plays Paterson, a bus driver from Paterson, New Jersey, who writes poetry whenever he is able to pull himself away from work. Paterson is Jarmusch at his most accessible and also his blandest. Paterson is a calm and rather impenetrable character, which makes it hard to get fully invested in his story. Hearing him compose his poetry puts the viewers somewhere between a state of reflective meditation and a somewhat boring Creative Writing 101 class you need to complete your first semester of college. Paterson’s girlfriend, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), is less a real person and more of a variant on the Manic Pixie Dream Girl character Jarmusch had mostly avoided succumbing to throughout his career. While the film’s overly serendipitous coincidences feel a little goofy, they are in line with Jarmusch’s usual style, even if the rest seems foreign. It isn’t clear what we are supposed to make of either character, stopping this film from being a breezy slice-of-life story about finding solitude in art.
13. The Dead Don’t Die (2019)
Jarmusch’s latest might be a quirky love letter to the career of George A. Romero, or it might be a parody of the current landscape of indie horror films and their tropes. If viewed as the former, The Dead Don’t Die is a film that can’t quite figure out the tone it is striving for. Regardless, it still contains one of the best Bill Murray performances we’ve seen in a long time. If seen as a parody, the film is hilarious and plays as the closest Jarmusch will ever get to approaching Mel Brooks-like comedy. It won’t be everyone’s cup of brains, but it is definitely a departure from the usual Jarmusch formula.
12. Broken Flowers (2005)
Don Johnston (Bill Murray) is a womanizing bachelor whose life is shaken up when he receives an unsigned letter telling him that he has a son who is possibly looking for him. Don’s friend, Winston (Jeffrey Wright), is intrigued by the mystery of who wrote the letter, even if Don couldn’t care less. Winston plans an elaborate trip for Don to visit the women (Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, and Tilda Swinton) who might be the potential writer. The film’s characterization of women comes off as classist. The four women are from dramatically different socio-economic statuses and seem to exemplify the worst stereotypes from each. Worst of all, the film also comes off as sexist, with almost every female character being almost impossibly sexualized. Naming a seductive 18-year old “Lolita” is infinitely below Jarmusch. Even with this egregious misstep in writing, Broken Flowers has a clever premise which leads to Jarmusch using interesting storytelling techniques to keep the mystery alive. Murray gives a commendable performance and the film has a near perfect ending.
11. Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)
Eve (Tilda Swinton) and Adam (Tom Hiddleston) are lovers separated by geography but seemingly always linked. Adam is a reclusive musician living in Detroit who records music he never intends to release. She is in Tangier, spending time with her mentor Marlowe (John Hurt) and voraciously reading books. When Eve chooses to fly to Detroit to be with Adam, they must deal with her sister (Mia Wasikowska), who always seems to bring trouble with her. Oh, and they are all vampires. That last plot point is what makes this Jarmusch film unlike anything else he’d made, as it was the first fantastical story line he had produced. Only Lovers Left Alive is gorgeously stylized and is powered by Swinton’s enchanting performance.
10. Gimme Danger (2016)
Jarmusch profiles one of his favorite bands, The Stooges, in this documentary. As the film kicks off with the lowest point in the band’s career, the members seem like true underdogs, especially as we get to know more about them. This is much more of a straight-forward documentary than Year of the Horse and can be enjoyed even if you aren’t the biggest fan of the band. The film has only the occasional interview with bandmates other than Iggy, a fact that is all the more unfortunate as several members died during the creation of the documentary. Luckily, Iggy is an infinitely interesting and charismatic interviewee, and the film could have been an hour longer and still been completely captivating.
9. Year of the Horse (1997)
Jim Jarmusch uses Super 8, 16mm, and Hi-8 video to film portions of a Neil Young and Crazy Horse tour. The film often looks just awful with the low quality sometimes looking worse than most bootleg recordings. Luckily, the music sounds fantastic. Although Jarmusch’s documentaries don’t feel much like his fictional films, one scene where Young and the director discuss the differences between the Old Testament and the New Testament is a thoroughly Jarmuschian moment. The performances are completely spine-tingling, with the “Like a Hurricane” finale dropping jaws. If you aren’t already a fan of Neil Young’s work with Crazy Horse, Year of the Horse isn’t likely going to change that. If you do enjoy the band, it is definitely worth watching while you stomp around the house doing your best Young impersonation.
8. Coffee and Cigarettes (2003)
A lot of Jarmusch’s works feel like short films tied together by a thin plot. It only makes sense that he would eventually weave together an anthology of vignettes with a commonality holding together the quirkiness. Shot in black-and-white over the course of 17 years, Coffee and Cigarettes is one of Jarmusch’s most straightforward and entertaining films. Only one of the shorts is underwhelming (“Renée”), with all of them ranging from fun (“Jack Shows Meg His Tesla Coil”, “Cousins”, and “Delirium”) to simply fantastic and even poignant (“Champagne” and “Somewhere in California”).
7. Mystery Train (1989)
Jarmusch connects three stories that take place in a dilapidated Memphis hotel run by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. With Hawkins’s absolutely amazing comedic timing, it’s a shame we didn’t see him in more movies. The first story, “Far from Yokohama,” is the strongest and most interesting of the three. It follows a young couple (Youki Kudoh and Masatoshi Nagase) who travel from Japan to see Sun Records recording studio and Graceland. This clever and charming segment is one of the most perfectly distilled examples of Jarmusch writing self-serious men and the strong female characters who follow them. The whole film is worth watching for Hawkins alone.
6. Night on Earth (1991)
Jarmusch went from telling three stories in Mystery Train to telling five stories in Night on Earth. The stories follow taxi drivers picking up riders in Los Angeles, New York City, Paris, Rome, and Helsinki. The Los Angeles segment, featuring Gena Rowlands as a casting agent and Winona Ryder as a chain-smoking cab driver, is the best of the five. It is refreshing to see Ryder in a role that is such a departure from almost all her other roles, and their interaction is wonderfully sweet. The Rome segment, where Roberto Benigni confesses disturbing things to a man who he mistakes as a bishop, is the most immature work Jarmusch has ever filmed. Nonetheless, you can’t help but laugh at Benigni’s maniacal energy. Night on Earth might be the apex of Jarmusch’s ability to weave multiple stories together that are based on one common element.
5. Stranger Than Paradise (1984)
Stranger Than Paradise might be the quintessential example of what Jarmusch is known for. It should likely be the starting point for anyone who wants to get into his work. It has all the mainstays: gorgeous black-and-white cinematography, mood-establishing music, and oddballs who live their lives like nobody else. Eva (Eszter Balint), a Hungarian woman who loves Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, might be the best character in any Jarmusch film. Stranger Than Paradise is a prime example of Jarmusch’s sense of humor, as well as his ability to pull interesting and endearing performances from his cast. He would continue to refine and improve on the strengths of this film throughout the rest of his career.
4. Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai (1999)
Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai is a total departure from anything Jarmusch had made before it. Forest Whitaker plays Ghost Dog, an aspiring samurai who is the hitman of choice for a mobster. While action sequences are not necessarily Jarmusch’s strength, there is a touch of gun fu that works well here. The film has genuinely exciting action scenes, surprisingly big laughs, and a pulsing soundtrack by RZA. Although it emulates the films of Jean-Pierre Melville and Seijun Suzuki, Ghost Dog is still one of the most interesting and original films of Jarmusch’s career.
3. The Limits of Control (2009)
Many critics dismissed The Limits of Control as “pretentious” and “tedious.” It came and went in 2009 with scathing reviews and not much fanfare. However, the film deserves to be reassessed, as it is an inspired mix of Alfred Hitchcock and David Lynch. Isaach De Bankolé plays an unnamed man who is slowly given intelligence about a mysterious task he must complete. The film is delightfully elusive and effortlessly gorgeous. The Limits of Control might be Jarmusch’s best-looking film, no doubt helped by cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Every frame of this movie could be displayed as art in Madrid’s Reina Sofia museum, which features prominently in the film. In many ways, The Limits of Control is Jarmusch at his most daring and interesting. It was a risky and challenging film that will hopefully get reevaluation in the coming years.
2. Down by Law (1988)
Tom Waits, John Laurie, and Roberto Benigni make up what is likely Jarmusch’s best cast. Mixing the high-energy Benigni with the controlled grumbles of Waits and Laurie is comedic gold. This story about three convicts breaking out of prison is always entertaining, funny, and, in moments, surprisingly touching. If you’ve only seen Benigni in Life is Beautiful or his infamous Oscar acceptance speech, definitely watch Down by Law, as it might be his best performance. It has stunning black-and-white cinematography, making the Louisiana swamps look especially striking.
1. Dead Man (1995)
In many ways, Dead Man is the most accomplished and best presentation of everything Jarmusch offers as a filmmaker. Johnny Depp plays William Blake, an accountant who flees into the woods after murdering a man. To say that Dead Man is a beautiful film is almost selling it short. There are long stretches where the black-and-white cinematography by Robby Müller and Neil Young’s hypnotizing score seem to cause time to stand still like few films have accomplished before. Depp’s performance is one of his best, embodying a bookish man whose actions have caused him to disassociate from society and venture into a spiritual world. Dead Man redefined the Western genre and continues to reveal new layers with each viewing.
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