To describe Jim Jarmusch as the chillest filmmaker working today may not sound like high praise, and yet, no other term seems right to cover his style. The master of American indie cinema has never been in a rush, not once in his career. When he finds an image he likes, he has no reservations about lingering on it for a few extra beats. He makes movies motivated by mood and abstract ideas, full of people sitting around (or walking around, or driving around) and revealing themselves through what appears to be idle conversation. Jarmusch traffics in esoterica; he likes literature and poetry, jazz and blues, vintage cinema and the analog technologies used to project it. He’s friends with Tom Waits and the Wu-Tang Clan. Jim Jarmusch is, by anyone’s account, one cool cat.
His latest project is Paterson, which stars Adam Driver as a New Jersey workingman who thinks about poetry and eavesdrops on the passengers in the bus he drives. In typically Jarmuschian fashion, there’s both not much more and worlds more to it than that. The constants of Jarmusch’s career come out in full force: The film’s got allusions by the bushel, very little plot, and a main character who feels out of joint with his place and time. That last one sounds awfully familiar, coming from an artist who’s made his obsession with the cultural detritus of the past abundantly clear.
The low-key profundity and conspicuous coolness of Jarmusch’s films make the act of ranking them feel even more arbitrary and toxically uncool than it has to be. But there’s still some value to the process. It’s hard not to project yourself onto Jarmusch’s idiosyncratic little worlds, to weigh his values and predilections against your own. All ranked lists are subjective, but this one is even more subjective than most; the difference between one slot and another could come down to a good soundtrack cut. But hairs were grown to be split, and god, does Jarmusch have great hair.
14. Gimme Danger (2016)
It’s not so much that this documentary on Iggy and the Stooges is a bad Jim Jarmusch movie; it’s that it hardly feels like he made it at all. An account of the messy, raw group’s tooth-gnashing rise can’t abide the formal flatness, and the uncharacteristic lack of imagination Jarmusch brings to his presentation makes it seem like he was working from a cookbook. One gets the sense that Iggy Pop is holding something back during his numerous talking-head segments that dot the film, that he chuckled off the really juicy anecdotes as a little something he’d keep to himself. There’s a good bit of backstory about the band’s humble origins as local shitkickers of the Michigan rock scene, but mostly, it’s the same stock rock gum-flapping that’s filled runtimes in lesser documentaries. For most other directors, it’d be a passable treatment, but Jarmusch has set his own bar far too high for this.
13. Permanent Vacation (1980)
Jarmusch’s first foray into feature filmmaking sees the artist getting his sea legs and figuring out what works. A 75-minute experiment shot for a paltry $12,000 on charmingly cruddy 16mm film, the movie applies an all-time low of direction to the life of a philosophizing burnout wandering around a bombed-out-looking New York City. Jarmusch’s early films stood out in their shaggy-dog plotting, but that aspect is in dire need of some fine-tuning here: Nonprofessional actor Chris Parker is barely present as Allie, a wayward teenage spirit in search of purpose and meaning — that his pursuit never takes on any more specificity makes the film a bit of a slog. Now best understood as an artifact of the bygone heyday of punk, this trial run was necessary prep for Jarmusch’s breakout, Stranger Than Paradise. After all, every Mulholland Drive needs its Lost Highway.
12. The Limits of Control (2009)
There’s inscrutable, and then there’s “inscrutable, even for Jarmusch.” One of the director’s harder-to-appreciate films, this odd deconstruction of pulp crime thrillers alienated viewers and critics alike with cryptic dialogue and a bizarre ritual repeated several times: Watching the gun-for-hire known only as “The Lone Man” (Isaach de Bankolé) order two espressos, meet with a person who asks “You don’t speak Spanish, right?” and then trades matchboxes has no more of an impact the first time as it does the third. This is the rare film that’s truly guilty of the most popular criticisms leveled at Jarmusch’s work — scattershot, a little too pleased with its own opaqueness, apparently made for nobody but him.
11. Year of the Horse (1997)
Roger Ebert notoriously slapped Jarmusch’s documentary about Neil Young and his backing band Crazy Horse with a one-star rating and declared it the worst film of 1997. (Thank god he didn’t live to see Gimme Danger.) But almost 20 years after the fact, it holds up alright. In an endearing touch, Jarmusch’s boyish music fandom comes through loud and clear in the montages juxtaposing the performances — a 1996 tour, intercut with concert footage from the ‘70s and ‘80s — with all the work that made them possible. What’s more, the dated mid-’90s fashions and DIY-ish 8mm photography underscores Young’s place in the lineage of grunge. Inessential but not unentertaining, it’s lived on mostly as a must for Young completists.
10. Night on Earth (1991)
Jarmusch is a man of many anthologies, a form that necessarily boils down to the count of vignettes that work versus those that don’t. Across Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Rome, and Helsinki, five chatty cabbies have chance encounters with customers that challenge or reaffirm their outlook on life. Grease monkey Winona Ryder happily passes up a chance at stardom from talent agent Gena Rowlands in the first and finest sketch, and a young Giancarlo Esposito takes the wheel from an inexperienced immigrant named Helmut (Armin Mueller-Stahl) in another standout. Of the duds: Italy’s energizer bunny Roberto Benigni prattles on and on while a priest has a health emergency in the backseat, limp slapstick that clashes with the more dialed-back segments. Elsewhere, a trio of Finnish desk jockeys enter an informal bum-out contest with their driver. Threads of introspection and personal crisis connect the disparate passages to form an uneven tapestry where the highs far outshine the lows.
9. Broken Flowers (2005)
Jarmusch’s authorial fingerprints are all over this one — a teen sexpot is named Lolita, which is a little obvious, but still so him — and even so, star Bill Murray is the focal point and key figure. As an eternal bachelor hoping to locate his lost son and make good with some of his exes, the actor grows into the logical conclusion of his “eternally sarcastic smart-aleck” persona. His hapless journey gradually turns into a hunt for some redeemable piece of himself as the fear mounts that he’s joked and screwed away his whole life. The addition of a little emotional honesty to Murray’s comedic shtick is fascinating enough on its own, and a stellar stable of mature actresses (including Julie Delpy, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, Tilda Swinton, and a surprisingly fragile Sharon Stone) enrich every scene as Murray’s former paramours. Jarmusch has always been an expert director of actors, and one of his minor films gave Murray a major entry to his late-phase comeback.
8. Dead Man (1995)
On the topic of actors shepherded to greatness by Jarmusch’s light hand — Johnny Depp’s fascination with First American heritage dovetails nicely with Jarmusch’s revisionist Western about a milquetoast accountant (named William Blake, natch) sent on a spirit quest across the Great Plains. Both men take an elemental, even mystical approach to the material, with Depp turning in a more subdued and naturalistic showing than he currently seems capable of, while Jarmusch blurs the lines between civilization and nature, this plane and the next. The interplay of the earthly and the mystic skirts the tired “Native Americans are magic” trope when Jarmusch integrates the troubled history of colonialism into the fabric of this existential folktale. The filmmaker passes in and out of genre like a ghost, using the preexisting narratives that interest him, and remolding the rest of it in his nonchalant image.
7. Mystery Train (1989)
Another anthology, this one structured as a triptych about strangers in Memphis’ Arcade Hotel. The parallels and dissonances between stories have a more lucid quality than in Jarmusch’s lesser vignette collections, offering loose variations on alienation. Detachment and communication breakdowns are the order of the day, with three sets of foreigners grasping for anything familiar: A pair of lovelorn Japanese teens take an informal tour of the city’s musical history, an Italian widow makes an unexpected friend and meets Elvis’s specter, and a jilted Englishman played by Joe Strummer hides out with his small-time crook buddies after a robbery goes bad. The international cast, along with the characters’ shared obsession with the mythology of blues and rock, makes this one of Jarmusch’s most quintessentially American films, a paean to the U.S. as a place where far-flung parts can fit together with unlikely ease.
6. Coffee and Cigarettes (2003)
It’s the liveliest of Jarmusch’s anthology films. It’s also the funniest, and the most reflective of his eclectic tastes (and the corollary belief that eclecticism can bring people together in unexpected, meaningful ways). Upping the number of sketches to 11, Jarmusch concocts bizarro premises — Cate Blanchett meets with her identical twin sister! An incognito Bill Murray serves RZA and GZA at a diner! The White Stripes explain Tesla coils! — and then moves right along once they’ve played themselves out. The omnivorous spirit of the enterprise affords Jarmusch the freedom to pinball between the many areas of his expertise, using his roster of oddballs as mouthpieces for his thoughts on Elvis trutherism, caffeine popsicles, the perils of celebrity, and Paris during the roaring twenties. Deadpan will always be Jarmusch’s most comfortable mode for comedy, but exquisitely cringeworthy moments dot the film as well — a café chat between earnest Alfred Molina and pompous Steve Coogan turns dead air deadly.
5. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)
Jarmusch’s recurring preoccupation with Eastern philosophy came to a head with this film, a multiracial mash-up that casts a black actor (Forest Whitaker, radiating Zen assuredness) as a Mafia hit man named Ghost Dog who strictly adheres to the principles of the Japanese warriors of old. Ever the pop magpie, the director cherry-picks scattered reference points that speak to the film’s boundary-blurring cultural makeup: Ghost Dog is a present-day update of the ultracool gunman of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï, the sample-heavy soundtrack (courtesy of RZA) conjures memories of ‘70s kung-fu flicks, and there are plenty of nods to Seijun Suzuki’s Japanese gangster classic Branded to Kill. All that would mean nothing if it wasn’t in service of a good story, but the film offers weighty meditations on mortality along with the most exciting plot Jarmusch has ever allowed. To top it off, there’s that magnificent sequence of Forest Whitaker practicing with a katana on a rooftop, a little moment of transcendence in a film heavy with strife.
4. Down by Law (1986)
Over the past few decades, the culture has left the stock figure of the jailbird behind. But of course, lifelong Elvis fanatic Jim Jarmusch holds a soft spot in his heart for Jailhouse Rock and other pictures about imprisoned heartthrobs. He filters that love through his own sparse sensibility for this bare-bones account of three inmates’ escape from a New Orleans prison. Jarmusch eschews the teenybopper roots for an entirely original jailbreak picture, shot in stark monochrome and more concerned with the dynamics between the prisoners than the logistics of their getaway. Regular collaborators Tom Waits, John Lurie, and Roberto Benigni form a three-sided study in opposites, their constant bickering almost obscuring their shared humanity and decency. Random acts of mercy dotting their flight from justice suggest an especially compassionate look at the hardships of regular folks, with a little less detached bemusement than is usual for Jarmusch. It’s a good look for him.
3. Paterson (2016)
The unending search for meaning and self-actualization links nearly all of Jarmusch’s creations, but the humble bus driver and amateur poet Paterson (Adam Driver, giving the best performance of his career) is the first who seems at peace with the unknowable rather than nagged by it. He finds pleasure in the sight of his sleeping lover (a warm Golshifteh Farahani) and the refreshment of a cold beer at the end of a long day. Even when minor change starts to encroach on his contented stasis, he remains filled with awe for life’s little marvels, from the blue tips on his matches to the freestyle raps he overhears at the laundromat. Both Paterson and Paterson offer the comforting notion that the repetitive banality of work and marriage can be sources of comfort, rather than suffocation. Glacial, gentle, and wise, it’s the sort of film you want to live inside.
2. Stranger Than Paradise (1984)
“A neo-realistic black comedy in the style of an imaginary Eastern European director obsessed with Ozu and The Honeymooners.” The man himself gave his breakout feature a hell of a logline, but those name-drops scarcely convey the film’s bone-dry hilarity and abiding loneliness. Hungarian expatriate Willie initially chafes at his bratty cousin Eva when she comes stateside for a visit, but develops a fondness for her in short order. Is it that affection that compels him to drive to see her after she relocates to Cleveland, or is that just another effort to stave off the ennui Jarmusch massages into every scene? It’s probably a little of both, and the director pulls his best absurdist punch line when Willie realizes that his restlessness and boredom have followed him to Ohio, and then to Florida. The film saw Jarmusch come into his own both as wry Beckettian storyteller and essentials-only stylist, and announced a new cinematic talent and made its creator the toast of the Cannes Film Festival.
1. Only Lovers Left Alive (2014)
Jarmusch makes it so damn tempting to compare him to his characters, and in the virtually perfect vampire romance Only Lovers Left Alive, the impulse is irresistible. He foregrounds the whole immortality trip as the key aspect of vampirism — elegant bloodsuckers Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston live outside of time, but are also trapped by it. They’ve taken advantage of the past few centuries to enrich themselves with the full breadth of art, literature, and scientific knowledge, or in Hiddleston’s case, attain reluctant cult-rock stardom. But the terrible curse of perspective also means that they’re damned to watch humanity consume itself, a process represented in the film through breathtaking shots of the urban decay of Detroit, a former musical hub. The central irony of the film is that eradicating death would inevitably drive one to suicide.
There are the loose wonders a critic would be remiss not to mention: the haunting avant-prog score, delectable supporting performances from Anton Yelchin as Hiddleston’s rangy-haired flunky and Mia Wasikowska as a reckless young vampire, the camera’s lurch onto the floor along with Wasikowska as a sip of blood hits her like a heroin rush. Beyond that, this is the film that has emerged as Jarmusch’s thesis statement, a comprehensive expression of his abiding melancholy and chilly sense of humor. What’s more, the celluloid fetishist also finds the time to mount an argument for the continued vitality of film, even as he confronts its decline. Between providing a statement of intent as an artist, eulogizing the cinema he calls home, sounding an existential call for help, and vacuum-packing in as many Biblical and classical allusions as will fit in the film’s 123 minutes, it amounts to the director’s most audacious effort. His enduring streak of inimitable cool comes from how effortless he makes it all look.