When Ohio-born New Yorker Jim Jarmusch is good, he's very very good, but some of his work can feel indulgent and thin (see "Limits of Control")--and often sparks heated debate. But even this indie pioneer, who was among the first to raise backing for his idiosyncratic projects overseas, says that raising that financing hasn't gotten any easier. "It’s getting more and more difficult for films that are maybe a little unusual or maybe not predictable or not satisfying people’s expectations of something," he says, "which is the beauty of cinema: discovering new things of all forms."
To coincide with the release of the indie auteur's eleventh feature, "Only Lovers Left Alive" (April 11), we at TOH! have ranked his films from bottom to top.
11. "Night on Earth," 1991 (**1/2). Five cities, five taxis, lives intersecting for moments on the meter and sometimes missing the connection – such was the conceit of Jarmusch’s 1991 omnibus “Night on Earth,” the natural successor to “Down by Law,” which had featured Roberto Benigni (and John Lurie and Tom Waits) and “Mystery Train,” which was a set of three successive stories taking place at a Memphis hotel. “Night” was apparently a movie done on the fly and it often shows -- beginning in LA in early evening and ending at dawn in Helsinki, it’s as uneven as it is well-traveled: The opening vignette, featuring Winona Ryder and Gene Rowlands, doesn’t really work; neither does the episode featuring Beatrice Dalle as a blind woman in Paris. But the New York chapter, with Armin Mueller-Stahl, Giancarlo Esposito and Rosie Perez lurching their way toward Brooklyn, is warmly funny. The episode in Rome – in which a possessed Benigni kills a priest with his confession (about adultery, bestiality and pumpkin sex) -- may be his best bit ever. And the closing vignette, featuring Kaurismaki regulars Matti Pellonpaa and Kari Vaananen and during which Jarmsuch connects with his inner Finn, is a redemptive moment for everyone. --John Anderson
10. “Permanent Vacation,” 1980 (***). “WTF” wasn’t common parlance when Jarmusch unleashed this bomb on cinemagoers, but any attempt to reconcile this moody mindbender with middle-brow movie expectations would have been met with exclamations of outrage and befuddlement. Chris Parker plays Jarmusch’s angel-headed ad-hoc urban archeologist with this fixation on another Parker (Charlie) and a knack for running into madness in a every ruined corner of New York. Director-to-be Tom DiCillo was the DP; real-life war vet and Jarmusch regular Richard Boes is a deranged war vet living in the blasted buildings of Roosevelt Island; longtime Jarmusch producer/partner Sara Driver plays a nurse who walks like a runway model. John Zorn, who’d be one of the leads in Jarmusch’s followup (“Stranger Than Paradise”) plays a fractured atonal “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” which certainly captures the mood of the movie but also punctuates the importance of sound to Jarmusch’s film. Here it’s essential. So is the use of nonactors and out of the way places to capture the sense of spontaneity that “Permanent Vacation” was all about. --John Anderson
9. "The Limits of Control," 2009 (***). Rich in mood and vibrant visuals if short on emotional accessibility, Jarmusch’s tenth feature follows the Lone Man (Jarmusch regular Isaach De Bankole, here an emblem of impeccably dressed stoicism) as he makes his way through an arid Spain on a shadowy criminal mission. The film follows more of a dreamy episodic path than a conventional narrative, as the Lone Man meets up with one enigmatic personality after another (in the forms of a platinum blonde Tilda Swinton, a nude Paz De La Huerta, Gael Garcia Bernal as a swaggering cowboy, and Bill Murray, in CEO Prince of Darkness mode). Each, of course, has a little something to say and offer about Jarmusch’s favorite hipster fetishes: Art, film, literature, music and vintage guitars. A film-travelogue that keeps you at a distance, but entices you to return to its mysteries. --Beth Hanna
8. "Coffee and Cigarettes," 2003 (***). Always an episodic filmmaker, Jarmusch finally compiled the 11 black-and-white short films he had been shooting for 17 years into a semi-chronological concept album. The first three are the first he shot, but he juggles the rest, fiddling with characters and tone. The vignettes of varying success feature an ultracool mix of actors, artists and musicians playing twisted versions of their celebrity selves. The film starts off with the first short Jarmusch made in 1986 for "Saturday Night Live" with ace improvisers Roberto Benigni (discovered by the filmmaker in "Down by Law") and deadpan comedian Steve Wright. In fact, the most successful segments were written by Jarmusch and performed by acting pros like Cate Blanchett, playing opposite herself as a movie star confronted by her envious cousin, and Steve Coogan and Alfred Molina as dueling egomaniacs. Also great is 1992's "Somewhere in California" (which won the Cannes best short Palme D'Or) in which people-pleaser Iggy Pop ("Dead Man") and cranky Tom Waits ("Down by Law") meet in a dive bar. Other bits featuring Bill Murray and the Wu-Tang Clan and Meg and Jack White are less meaty and focused. “The fun for me was in getting a variety of people, not as a marketing device,” Jarmusch told me in 2003. “I didn’t write them until I knew who was going to be in them. They vary in how much they’re improvised. I call it constructed voyeurism. It’s not documentary; it’s not real.” --Anne Thompson
7. "Mystery Train," 1989 (***1/2). In Jarmusch's first color film -- and his first true anthology -- three stories collide at a Memphis hotel. What unites them? A bitchin' playlist of course (Elvis, Roy Orbison, Otis Redding), but also loneliness and longing. From the widow (Nicoletta Braschi) who has to bury her husband and a blues-loving Japanese couple (Youki Kudoh, Masatoshi Nagase) to a vindictive boozer (Joe Strummer, aka The Clash), everyone's looking to connect in the ineffably cool world of "Mystery Train." But its the director's formal invention and sense of whimsy that make these tales sing. --Ryan Lattanzio
6. "Down By Law," 1986 (***1/2). Is there any movie cooler than "Down By Law," a tripartite prison odyssey set in Louisiana and starring John Lurie, kooky Roberto Benigni and a gravelly Tom Waits? A pioneering example of Jarmusch's trademark beatnik-noir, and the followup to his "Strangers Than Paradise," the film firmly affixed its director to the indie film map. Patient editing, B&W images and Waits' soundtrack -- which even includes a cover of Roy Orbison -- elevate this hipster classic to almost insufferable levels of cooldom, with the characters played by Lurie and Waits literally in jail because they were too cavalier to care about being framed for crimes they had no hand in. Not much happens, but such is the sleepy, indifferent charm of quintessential Jarmusch. --Ryan Lattanzio