Over his career, Jim Jarmusch has created some of the most innovative and idiosyncratic films of the late 20th and early 21st century, cementing himself as one of the greatest, absurd filmmakers of our time. With his latest, Only Lovers Left Alive – a beautifully solemn and relaxing film, with great performances from Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton – out now on DVD, I look at Jim Jarmusch's best films.
Stranger than Paradise is an ironic and weird tale of emptiness and boredom by Jim Jarmusch, filmed in black and white (I wrote about it for Colour Me Disinterested) and divided in three acts. Jim Jarmusch does an excellent job of capturing the existential quandary of his characters through careful choice of locations and aesthetics. His camera tends to be still and his shots tend to be long; in fact the characters almost seemed to be trapped within the camera frame in many shots. Perhaps his most notable accomplishment in Stranger Than Paradise is his ability to capture locations that give a sense of disparate geography but still maintain a coldly similar atmosphere consistently. With only his second feature film Jarmusch was already beginning to find his own cinematic voice.
Jim Jarmusch has this odd way with films, where they vaguely resemble some genre but not really, and then become something else... some call it genre-undermining, but it's not really that, nor do I want to say that he delightfully rends them to pieces or pastes them together... it's just as if he starts out by saying, "I'm going to make a prison break movie" and ends by saying, "but it'll be a fairytale set in Louisiana." The closest comparison I can get to is O Brother, Where art Thou? It is hard to compare Down By Lay to any other movie, except another movie by Jarmusch. It is similar in style to the film-noir movies of Jean Luc Goddard or perhaps Orson Welles. I guess if you like Bande a Part, you would like Down By Law.
Heading towards a metalworks factory at the edge of the known universe, a pristine, young accountant named William Blake steps into the ungodly, mechanical hell that is the town of Machine. And so begins this man's descent into purgatory...in the wrong place, at a point where time itself is nonexistent. In these aspects - the premise, the cinematic device, and the endless attention to narrative and metaphoric detail - the film is simply brilliant. Watching Johnny Depp's character transformation amidst Jim Jarmusch's artistic direction of both beauty and brutality is simply exceptional, despite any problems the film may contain. A feeling of purgatorial confinement is truly achieved as humor is mixed with suspense, and uneasiness blends with inevitability. This is definitely one of the few movies that strangely seizes the disposition, toying with it until sufficiently queasy.
Barely dramatic, thematic but enigmatic, that's Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers. His Stranger than Paradise was exactly that, a Cleveland road trip to existential uncertainty. In Broken Flowers, Bill Murray as Don Johnston is also on a trip, but more certain of his goal than anyone in Stranger, for he seeks out his alleged son by visiting former lovers, one of whom anonymously wrote that she had borne him a child 19 years ago. You'll have to be patient, as Jarmusch tells his story very slowly, and nearly all of Don's interaction with others is ponderously awkward. But the movie slowly begins to fascinate, and you find yourself watching the faces of the women he visits (and examining the visible details of their lives) much in the same way that Don is himself, looking for the slightest hint that she might be the one who sent that fateful letter. A very fine film, poignant and sad in a rather obscure way, and one that stays in your mind for a while after seeing it.