Jim Jarmusch's latest film, The Dead Don't Die, has arrived in theaters, but how does it rank compared to the director's other movies? Focusing on a group of residents and local law enforcement forced to fend for their lives when the dead rise up, Jarmusch has brought together a strong cast for The Dead Don't Die (including Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Chloe Sevigny, and more) and infused his own sensibilities into a genre many might feel is foreign to him.
But Jarmusch has always been a risk-taker of a director, even if those risks are necessarily pronounced or brash like other filmmakers. Over the course of more than 30 years in the business, Jarmusch has dominated the indie scene as a director concerned with the quotidian, the existential, the unusual, the confrontational, the bland, and all things in between. A typical Jarmusch plot presents as a logical, mild-mannered affair no matter how extraordinary the circumstances, choosing to focus on how the characters populating the film operate within the established rules of the world. As such, Jarmusch has emerged as a director who has been able to go from genre to genre, be it a crime thriller, comedy, or supernatural drama, infusing it with his own unique sensibilities.
With 13 feature films and two documentaries to his name (not to mention the large handful of short films), Jarmusch has crafted an astounding body of work since his first movie, Permanent Vacation, arrived on the scene at the beginning of the 1980s.
15. Permanent Vacation
It's not that Jarmusch's first film, 1980's Permanent Vacation, is a bad film. It's just that Permanent Vacation is clearly the roughly-hewn first film of a director with a vision attempting to navigate the demands of shooting a feature-length film for the first time. Made on a shoestring budget of $12,000, coming in at 75 minutes, shot on 16mm, and starring an unknown actor, Chris Parker, Permanent Vacation is an indie film in every sense of the word. Its aimless plot - a young man wandering around New York City in search of answers about the meaning of life - is the worst kind, where there's no value in the pondering or listless pace but actively believes it's achieving its goals. But where Permanent Vacation fails aesthetically and thematically, Jarmusch would return to these bases in future films to further unpack to a higher degree of success.
14. Gimme Danger
Gimme Danger (2016) focuses on the rise and fall of 1960s punk band The Stooges. Jarmusch has always been a director with an interest in music, either incorporating musicians into his films, leaving his imprint on a soundtrack, or, in the case of Gimme Danger, taking a break from fictional storytelling to go into the truth of something that actually happened. The subject matter of Gimme Danger may be interesting and in need of shining a light on in the present day, but Jarmusch seems to be on cruise control here. There's barely a whiff of Jarmusch's touches on this documentary, as if he's taking the standard route towards crafting a documentary without any auteur touches he's become known for by 2016.
13. Year of the Horse
A slightly better but still mostly boring documentary venture for Jarmusch was 1997's Year of the Horse. Jarmusch's documentation of Neil Young and Crazy Horse's 1996 tour comes complete with archival footage from the 1970s and 1980s, plus in-depth interviews with the band members. But where Jarmusch's attention to and appreciation for Young's music is felt in the attention to the depiction of its subject, Year of the Horse still feels like a rote, by-the-numbers documentary. Unless there is a fan out there whose interests in Jarmusch and Young happen to overlap, this is a skippable work in the former's body of work.
12. The Limits of Control
Jarmusch is well into his 30-year career by the time he brings 2013's The Limits of Control to the masses. In the film, a solitary gun-for-hire waits in Madrid for further instructions on a job. The film is opaque in the most alienating way, switching from the man's time spent in cafes, drinking espresso, and toying with matchboxes, to moving about the city and surrounding countryside on a job. The Limits of Control is a film which tries to meld populist plot devices (a quieter side of the criminal underworld with pulp coming out of its ears) and characters with more interior and contemplative actions (criminals with hearts-of-gold, looking for connection and meaning in their work), thus making for a messy, muddled, and often clumsily-executed film. This also wastes an otherwise stellar lineup of actors - including Issach de Bankole, Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray, John Hurt, Gael Garcia Bernal, and Paz de la Huerta - who are very much immersed in their roles.
11. Night on Earth
Throughout Jarmusch's career, he's long been a fan of the vignette structure and he's created a handful of films with this structure, allowing for big casts to come together in a variety of stories all bound by a common thread. 1991's Night on Earth brings together Winona Ryder, Gena Rowlands, Giancarlo Esposito, Rosie Perez, and Roberto Benigni (one of Jarmusch's most frequent collaborators) to play a series of international cab drivers and their fares, all connecting over the course of their short time together. Jarmusch does what he often does best, bring together a set of eclectic characters and train the camera on them as the personalities collide, but the claustrophobic nature of setting the majority of each vignette within a cab and filling it with combustible encounters is too much of a risk to feel like a rewarding watch.
10. Mystery Train
Mystery Train (1989) begins Jarmusch's appreciation of the vignette-as-anthology format which has popped up across his career. However, where future installments in this format become sprawling, Jarmusch is laser-focused in Mystery Train, bringing together three stories all set in Memphis with characters bound by their tenancy in the same hotel and love of Elvis Presley. One story follows two Japanese teenagers who have a big love for Presley and wander around the city hoping to retrace his steps; another follows an Italian widow who makes an unexpected friend and encounters Presley's ghost, and the final story follows an Englishman hiding out in Memphis' dives bars as he waits out the trouble from a robbery gone bad. Jarmusch makes the disparate and divided feel connected and coherent, filtering his love of Americana and mid-century nostalgia through three sets of international eyes, all to a curiously stirring effect.
9. Dead Man
Dead Man (1995) is a notable moment in Jarmusch's career, serving as the first of many roles in a young Johnny Depp's career as well, wherein he tries to break the mold of late '80s teen heartthrob and plant himself inside odd, goth, contemplative characters. Dead Man follows Depp's William Blake, a mild-mannered accountant sent across the American Great Plains on a vision quest after murdering a man. Depp's performance is a memorable one, establishing him as the '90s and '00s character he is poised to become at the time of this film. Jarmusch utilizes Depp's atypical instincts in performance well, setting them against the spiritual, mystical elements of a story where a man is compelled to complete a quest by a Native America spirit. Sure, Jarmusch toes the line of problematically deploying tired tropes around magical minorities, only appearing to serve white characters, but he manages to thread his own narrative needle while not diving too far into that touchy territory.
8. Stranger Than Paradise
Jarmusch's second film, 1984's Stranger Than Paradise, contains the seeds of what would become familiar narrative ground for the director: examining the culture clashes of the international with the American through potentially uncomfortable but often amusing circumstances. In Stranger Than Paradise, a New York hipster is unexpectedly visited by his cousin from Budapest. The two are wary, if not somewhat hostile towards one another during their initial moments together but eventually find common ground as they are taken across the city, encountering unusual folks along the way. The film was a thesis statement for Jarmusch, confirming he was a director interested in trying to translate the interior to the exterior, melding the more philosophical aspects of life with characters who were just as caught between the world and their own minds and picking through the small absurdities and mysteries of their daily lives.
7. Down By Law
Starring Benigni, Tom Waits (another longtime Jarmusch collaborator), and John Lurie, Down By Law is another ode to Elvis Presley while also using Presley's film, Jailhouse Rock, as a kind of foundation for his own jailbreak movie. Benigni, Waits, and Lurie's characters are three criminals who manage to escape from the confines of their jail cells, going on the lam and trying their hardest not to get caught. Jarmusch's affection for characters studies over action-driven narrative comes in big time here, looking at how these three characters' personalities attract and repel one another amidst the high-stakes nature of a jailbreak.
6. Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai
Jarmusch admittedly treads back into the touchy territory of co-opting another non-white culture for a story not focused on that culture (see the aforementioned Dead Man for more). But Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai's depiction of a mafia hitman, Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker), who lives (and expects to die) by the ancient codes of samurai warriors neatly juxtaposes the existential questions posed by the moral code of a samurai with Ghost Dog's own lifestyle choices and ensuing predicament of being targeted by mafia members. Jarmusch is arguably at his most populist with Ghost Dog, refusing to get lost too deeply in the contemplative weeds with his plot with still remaining true to his roots. For any entry-level Jarmusch fans out there, consider Ghost Dog as the next stepping stone to a new level in the director's body of work.
5. Coffee And Cigarettes
The most accessible of Jarmusch's vignette film is Coffee and Cigarettes, bringing together in glorious black and white Alfred Molina, Steve Coogan, Cate Blanchett, Iggy Pop, rappers GZA and RZA, and frequent Jarmusch collaborators Waits, Benigni and Murray. Jarmusch turns three previous short films - 1986's Coffee and Cigarettes, 1989's Coffee and Cigarettes II, and 1993's Coffee and Cigarettes III - into a feature-length film focusing on pairings or groups of characters all communing over a cup of coffee and a cigarette. The most lighthearted of the anthology films and the easiest to unpack, each vignette offers small character studies and big existential questions - the preferred territories of Jarmusch. It remains an esoteric work but one of the most accessible, making it a perfect Jarmusch work for newcomers to his world.
4. Broken Flowers
Part of the most commercial corner of Jarmusch's body of work is 2005's Broken Flowers. He comes together yet again with Hollywood veteran and godfather of sardonic comedic actors, Bill Murray, to tell the story of a withdrawn man, Don Johnston (Murray), who is left by one lover only to receive a letter from another lover informing him they had a son together. Don's journey to meet his now-grown son comes with lots of awkward run-ins and reunions as Don's path takes him on a tour of his past loves. The familiar premise, wry comedy of Murray's performance, and a standout female cast including Julie Delpy, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, Tilda Swinton, and Sharon Stone firing on all cylinders makes Broken Flowers deeply enjoyable.
3. The Dead Don't Die
Jarmusch's most recent film, The Dead Don't Die, is his take on the zombie genre. Much like a new cook in a well-established kitchen, Jarmusch is cooking with the familiar ingredients of the genre - set in a small town, focused on a coterie of colorful characters experiencing the outbreak in interesting ways, showing how the undead have come back to life - while arranging them into a new recipe and delivering something wholly fresh and invigorating. Dead Don't Die reminds viewers of the macabre side Jarmusch, shown in previous films like Dead Man, which is obsessed with death and the way it infiltrates the lives of the living. But this film also brings to the forefront his sense of humor, as dry as the Sahara desert delivered as deadpan as possible, making for a fun, inventive take on a genre which has, in recent years, been experiencing serious fatigue.
Paterson is Jarmusch slowing down to a snail's pace and going as inward as possible while also telling the story of a Paterson, New Jersey bus driver (Adam Driver) who spends spare moments during his shift and evenings writing poetry. Driver is the perfect avatar for Jarmusch, expressing the gentleness and sweet melancholy of past characters created by the director but channeling it into a character many of us interact with but fail to really interact with. If viewers want to dip their toes into the more still but very deep waters of Jarmusch's psyche, Paterson is the way to do it.
1. Only Lovers Left Alive
Only Lovers Left Alive is, to put it mildly, a triumph. It brings together every part of Jarmusch's established self as a director, melding his interests in the esoteric with the existential with the macabre. Starring Swinton and Tom Hiddleston as a centuries-old vampire couple who come together after spending many years apart and find themselves looking for some meaning in their existence as vampires. The film wanders in the best way for a Jarmusch film, showing the couple living in a world where vampires are pop culture fodder rather than feared creatures and finding blood that satisfies their cravings is getting harder as humans pollute their bodies with strange new substances. Jarmusch's love of rock music and the shadowy, all-encompassing specters of love and death envelop Only Lovers. Paired with stellar performances from Swinton, Hiddleston, and supporting cast members Mia Wasikowska, Anton Yelchin, John Hurt, and Jeffrey Wright, Only Lovers is Jarmusch as his most essential and enjoyable.