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The Top 10 Jim Jarmusch Films

By Conor Walsh · January 29, 2015

A cult figure in the Independent world, Jarmusch is famous for his use of dry wit and his realist take on awkward human interactions. From the casting, to the scripts, to the near perfect soundtracks, Jarmusch has established a style for himself over the years and created his own world within his filmography. It’s a stylized world that divides the opinions of viewers constantly, frustrating some and leaving others in complete harmony. With a perfect combination of real life influence and cinematic pastiche, Jarmusch finds a balance that has kept us entertained for over two decades; a true storyteller.

 

10. Coffee & Cigarettes (2003)

Structured in the same episodic manner as Night On Earth, Coffee & Cigarettes has a premise just as simple, if not simpler: celebrities playing themselves and conversing awkwardly over, you guessed it, coffee and cigarettes.

Like Night On Earth, its simplicity adds to its brilliance. There’s wit and charm as we’re taken into awkward exchanges between Jarmusch regulars like Iggy Pop and the legendary Tom Waits, Isaach De Bankole and Alex Descas, Roberto Benigni and Steven Wright, and the best of them all, Bill Murray, RZA and GZA. There are three more vignettes on top of all that, one of them containing a stunning situation with Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan.

9. Broken Flowers (2005)

The legendary Bill Murray plays Don Johnston, an old bachelor who seems distant to the outside world. That is until he receives an unsigned letter from who he suspects is a former lover telling him that he has a son who is searching for him. Of course, being distant, Don’s curiosity is barely aroused. But pushed by his friend Winston, father of the Ethiopian family next door and fanatic of mystery novels, Don traverses the country in order to discover the identity of the sender.

Of course, Bill Murray puts in a great performance. However, for me the best thing about this film is the soundtrack. From Marvin Gaye to Dengue Fever, the music truly stands out. Not that this isn’t expected in a Jarmusch film, and not to take anything away from the film either; it’s an enjoyable journey that, despite there being no clear conclusion, has the viewer very much aware of Don Johnston’s character development from generally distant to emotionally present.

8. Mystery Train (1989)

Memphis, Tennessee is the setting for the three interlocking stories told in Jarmusch’s first color film. There is no ultimate end, only whatever it is that happens within this 24-hour period in which the characters, in all three of the stories, end up in the same place; a dingy old Motel run by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.

A Japanese couple visit for the city’s musical history, the girl obsessed with Elvis, the boy with Carl Perkins; an Italian woman, recently widowed, drifts alone without purpose; and a British man recently fired and left by his wife gets he and his friends into a spot of bother with regards to a loaded gun.

The stories are well told and once again, in terms of structure and style, we feel like we are watching something innovative. The interactions are natural and flowing and the performances are pretty much spot on all round. You get the same pleasure watching this as you do reading a novella. A relaxed, short and sweet watch.

7. Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

Like all followers of Jarmusch’s work, I had waited a long time for the release of this movie. Set mostly in Detroit and a little in Tangiers, Only Lovers Left Alive is a story of two Vampires who have been married for centuries, living through generation to generation. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is a depressed recluse. He sits in his derelict home in Detroit making dark and ominous music, hiding from his young ‘zombie’ fans (zombies being what he calls the inferior human race), and longing for his wife, Eve (Tilda Swinton). Eve, a freer spirit than Adam, moves back to Detroit to comfort her husband, but a series of events challenge even her sanity.

I love this film. The way it’s shot is stunningly beautiful, even without the consideration that it’s set in Detroit. As always there’s wit and fluidity in both story and dialogue; a classic script from Jarmusch once again that also contains some beautiful lines of philosophy.

Hiddleston and Swinton’s performances are riveting. On top of the performances, we see from John Hurt’s dying old vampire, Marlowe; Mia Wasikowska’s performance as Eve’s liability of a kid sister; Ava, and Anton Yelchin’s stoner-like fanboy, Ian. The performances are dazzling and true to form. The soundtrack is absolutely magnificent as well.

6. Stranger Than Paradise (1984)

Willie (John Lurie), a gambling slacker from New York, receives a surprise visit from his young, impulsive cousin from Budapest, Eva (Eszter Balint). Her stay begins in a hostile environment, but her quiet charm eventually wins Willie and his friend Eddie (Richard Edson) over, and takes them on a journey, to the tune of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, through snow covered Cleveland and the paradise that is Florida.

A classic film and a must watch for all aspiring filmmakers. The way the shots are framed and put together is seemingly so simple, but infinitely effective to the viewer.  There’s awkward human interaction, typical Jarmusch scenes in which we are put into a room with two people who say nothing at all, and a large number of static shots. However, for me at least, these things make the film the showpiece that it is. As a viewer I’m not bored or impatient. I’m charmed. It’s beautifully shot in a mixture of noir and minimalist styles, and really well put together in a series of short scenes.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MwefGellnhk]

 

Trailer Credit

5. Permanent Vacation (1980)

Aloysius (Chris Parker), a young New York hipster type, drifts from place to place meeting all sorts of characters the city has to offer. With no ambitions to march to, Allie goes where the drift takes him. If it takes him away from the city he loves, then so be it.

Jarmusch’s first film is excellently shot in some incredible New York locations. The demolished building in which our protagonist talks with a Vietnam war veteran who lives amongst the rubble; The mental institution in which Aloysius visits his mother; the small apartment that seems to be the closest thing to home for Allie; even the streets themselves, beautifully filthy with garbage and debris, offer a view of a very fascinating side to New York during that period. At times it really does look like a warzone.

Throughout, there is something quite haunting and surreal about the film. There’s the singing woman sat in an alley wearing a nighty, her face smeared with lipstick, and Allie’s mother’s roomy who seems to laugh at everything that’s said. It seems most of the characters we meet should be in the institution with her. However, it’s probably the music that’s most haunting for me. A church bell melody, mixed with an enthralling jazz sax version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” that for some reason reminded me of The Shining.

We have the usual awkward human interaction expected of a Jarmusch film, but instead of their usual feeling of realism, here they add perfectly to the surreal. The dialogue itself is really quite poetic and ties this dreamy debut up quite nicely.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lMd-lGUINAY]

 

Trailer Credit

4. Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai (1999)

It’s hard to order the films of an artist you so admire. To me they’re all just as good as each other, as they’re all seemingly part of the same world and emanate the same style familiar throughout Jarmusch’s work.

Ghost Dog, like Dead Man, plays on a classic genre in cinema; the Kung Fu Movie. Ghost Dog (Forrest Whitaker) is a hitman for the Italian Mob. The best. He has an obsession with ‘The Way of the Samurai.’ He models himself after the rules set out for the Samurai, and remains anonymous to all but one, a made man that once saved Ghost Dog from a racial attack. That is until a hit goes wrong, leaving a witness alive and the mob out for Ghost Dog’s blood.

Scored by RZA of the Wu Tang Clan, this is once again a classic. The Hip Hop mixes well with the Urban Samurai vibe and Italian mobster cliché’s, and sets the gritty New York scene up perfectly. There’s humor as always, there’s action, there’s splendid music and a splendid script; exactly what you would expect from the one and only Jim Jarmusch.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fRMu7RytXyE]

 

Trailer Credit

3. Down By Law (1986)

Definitely one of his funniest films, Down By Law is the story of a prison escape. Radio DJ, Zach, (Tom Waits) and small time pimp, Jack (John Lurie), both set up for different crimes, are bunked up with an eccentric Italian, Bob (Roberto Benigni), who learns of an escape route and tells his two cell mates. Of course, a journey to complete freedom ensues.

The script is gripping, capturing the boredom and isolation of prison and adding humor to it. The black and white coloring works perfectly; and who wouldn’t want to see two of the coolest men at the time sharing the screen with one of the funniest men on the planet?

 

2. Night On Earth (1991)

Another masterstroke from the world of Jarmusch, Night On Earth is basically five short films rolled up together into a feature. Of course, the subject and setting is universal for each sequence: eccentric and brilliant cab drivers and their just as eccentric and brilliant cab fares.

These sequences take place in Los Angeles (Winona Tyder and Gena Rownlands); New York (Armin Mueller-Stahl, Giancarlo Esposito and Rosie Perez); Paris (Isaach De Bankole and Beatrice Dalle); Rome (Roberto Benigni and Paolo Bonocelli), and Helsinki (Matti Pelonpaa and three fellas whose names I’d rather not try and spell.)

Like most of Jarmusch’s movies, with every watch you feel like you are witnessing something extremely unique and innovative. I, for one, had never seen anything like this structurally. Not only that, but the stories are so beautifully real, regardless of what emotion they emit; be it laughter or sadness or even a mixture of both. In terms of his wit and awkward realism, Jarmusch doesn’t get any better than this. Just watch Roberto Benigni in action and you’ll agree.

1. Dead Man (1995)

William Blake (Johnny Depp) takes the train to the end of the line; a town called Machine, where he has acquired a job at the metal works as an accountant. Whilst in this God-awful town, William Blake finds that his position has already been filled and so he takes to drinking; until a situation with a prostitute and her ex-boyfriend turns ugly and leaves William Blake on the run for murder. On his journey he meets a Native American called Nobody (My Name Is Nobody, 1973, a clear reference here), who thinks our protagonist is a reincarnation of the poet William Blake. He therefore offers to take him to the ocean where he can continue on his journey to the spirit realm – all the while being swiftly pursued by hired bounty hunters.

It’s quirky, it’s visual, and it’s iconic. This is a masterpiece from Jarmusch in my opinion. From the script and its recurring references to the poet William Blake, to the appearances of Billy Bob Thornton and Iggy Pop, Dead Man (1995) truly is a cult classic.