On Thursday Doc Films presents a screening of Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law, part of the “Prison Break!: Great Escape Films of the 20th Century” series. A stylish chronicler of cultural malaise and Americanized existentialism, Jarmusch has been making films about “hipsters” long before the word became an amorphously defined marketing phrase. In the spirit of beat literature and John Cassavetes, Jarmusch’s films center on characters firmly situated on the margins of society, outcasts defined by their isolation—self-imposed or otherwise—and fruitless intellectual pursuits. The people in his films are always richly conceived, the result of a unique preproduction process that finds the director rehearsing extensively with his actors, often going over scenes and situations that never make it in the finished script but help flesh out fully realized characters. That said, his films tend to lack conventional characterizations and structure; his characters and stories seem tangible, but not necessarily believable, creating a beautiful incongruity of dreamlike worlds presented plausibly and naturally. Below, you can find my five favorite Jarmusch films.
5. Dead Man (1991) Jarmusch chases Andre Bazin’s concept of the surwestern to its most delirious ends. Featuring Johnny Depp as the epitome of the director’s trademark “outsiders,” Dead Man is perhaps Jarmusch’s most effortlessly enjoyable film in addition to being one of his most formally and theoretically radical, a genre exercise that refuses to adhere to a generic construct—or any construct, for that matter.
4. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) It’s easy to address the similarities between this revisionist samurai film and its most obvious precursors: Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai and Seijun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill. More than just an intertextual genre mashup, Ghost Dog is an ultrastylish audiovisual essay that focuses on the director’s artistic and philosophical ethos. The RZA score is also extremely dope.
3. Night on Earth (1991) After his recent Only Lovers Left Alive, this might be Jarmusch’s most inventive film, in terms of both structure and characterization. The film transforms potentially mundane scenarios and conversations into engaging ruminations on life, happiness, ambition, and loss. The director’s use of character archetypes is particularly brilliant—the people in Night on Earth initially seem stereotypical and cliched, but as their behavior grows increasingly abstract, the nature of their existence broadens, as does our relation to them.
2. Coffee and Cigarettes (2003) Similar to Night on Earth in design and execution, this is Jarmusch’s absurdist masterpiece. The structure is admittedly rickety—some of the vignettes work far better than others, and there’s really no logical progression from one scenario to the next—but there’s something warming and welcoming about such looseness. It’s easy to get lost in the conversations, due in large part to Jarmusch’s measured, accessible framing. Even with minimal staging and presentation, he generously opens up this unique world.
1. Stranger Than Paradise (1984) A major landmark in American independent cinema, this unlikely commercial hit remains one of the best films of the 1980s, noted for its intense personal vision anchored by some remarkably easygoing humor and John Lurie’s great performance. Jarmusch’s casual approach to narrative remains one of his strongest virtues as a filmmaker. Stranger Than Paradise‘s leisurely pace and apparently lack of action open up the film’s hyperrealistic environment, giving the film an immersive experience akin to getting lost in a great book.