Back before Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith were even working in video stores, writer/director/New Yorker Jim Jarmusch established the cool wing of the American film industry. Combining evocative cinematography and leisurely narrative rhythms of European art cinema with the deadpan wit of alternative comedy, there was never an American filmmaker quite like Jarmusch when he slid onto screens in the 1980s. In the decades since, he’s never had a crossover hit to introduce him to the mainstream, but he remains a beloved cult figure on the sidelines; shooting in black and white, casting musicians instead of actors, dealing with serious themes in comedic ways, and generally avoiding all contemporary cinematic trends except for the ones he creates. The man was so far ahead of his time that even his hair turned white prematurely, perhaps in self-defense. Yet despite all of the loyal film buffs, snobs, and geeks (The Criterion Collection among them) who sing his praises, the man never quite seems to get the broad reaching appreciation he deserves.
The TIFF Bell Lightbox is making it a summer project to right this wrong. From July 24 to August 16, the Lightbox will host a full and comprehensive retrospective of the director’s entire career, dubbed Strange Paradise: The Cinema Of Jim Jarmusch. He’s one of those filmmakers whose failures are even fascinating in their own bizarre way, so it’s worth screening Jarmusch’s entire catalogue from his student film turned feature debut Permanent Vacation (July 24th, 8:45pm) to his most recent effort, the bizarrely brilliant vampires-as-hipsters deadpan horror comedy Only Lovers Left Alive (August 16th, 7:00pm). In celebration of all things Jarmusch, we thought we’d countdown a list of our five favorite Jim Jarmusch joints. Make no mistake, every film that the silver-haired proto hipster has made is well worth a look. But, if you’re a Jarmusch virgin unsure of where to start when flicking through the Lightbox’s lineup, these five films will do you no wrong.
Mystery Train (1989) (July 29th, 9:00pm)
Five years before Pulp Fiction, Jarmusch released his own candy-colored triptych with interlocking stories and mismatched chronology. The structure of the two movies is strikingly similar, but aside from that Jarmusch’s fourth feature is about as far from Tarantino as possible. It’s a Memphis set story about a collection of drifters, lowlifes, locals, and eccentrics bumping into and around each other in the city. Plots involve a pair of super cool Japanese tourists, an Italian widow taking her husband’s coffin back to Italy, and Joe Strummer and Steve Buesemi’s drunken night out. Though unique amongst Jarmusch’s films in structure, it’s another of his studies of lost outsiders whose lives ping-pong from comedy to tragedy even when they’re up to nothing. The film never jumps out at the audience demanding attention, but weaves together a few broken souls in such amusing and poignant ways that it sticks in the mind nonetheless. Plus, it’s the only movie on this list in color, so it’ll fill the bill for anti-black-and-white viewers (who probably have no place at a Jarmusch retrospective to be honest, but all are welcome).
Coffee and Cigarettes (2003) (August 1st, 6:30pm)
Only Jim Jarmusch could make an anthology film comprised of short films about people discussing random topics and have it qualify as his most purely enjoyable movie. The main reason is simple: the movie in question is an ode to the director’s two greatest passions: coffee and cigarettes. This project was one Jarmusch worked on for almost 20 years. It began as a short for SNL that cast Roberto Benigni and Steven Wright opposite each other and ended up being a work of comedic genius thanks to a perfect casting of contrasts. From there, Jarmush would return every few years and bring an eclectic group of actors together for an improvisatory conversation held over the world’s finest caffeine and nicotine delivery systems. Like all anthology films, some shorts work and others don’t. Some are philosophical, some are purely silly. However, Jarmusch and his various casts land enough big hits for the movie to be the easiest entry point to the eclectic director’s filmography. After all, love or loath Jarmusch, it’s pretty well impossible not to be entertained by watching a surly Tom Waits get passive aggressive with Iggy Pop or look on in awe as Bill Murry and the Rza and the Gza somehow share the screen together. An absolute delight.
Stranger Than Paradise (1984) (July 26th, 6:45pm)
Even all these years later, Jim Jarmusch’s breakout movie remains one his best. Made with the loose ends of leftover filmstock donated by Wim Wenders, Stranger Than Paradise is a model of minimalist filmmaking efficiency. Every scene is staged in a single (often static) shot and each of those shots ends in a blackout. Between the blackouts, Jarmusch weaves a strange and surprisingly moving story about a pair of wayward New York hipsters (John Lurie and Richard Edson), one Hungarian immigrant (Eszter Balint), and a series of lost moments and loose conversations that somehow add up to more. It’s a movie that Jarmusch described at the time as The Honeymooners meets Ozu and not only is that an apt description, but if you find the statement funny and intriguing you’ll know whether or not Jarmusch is for you as a whole. Simply put, Stranger Than Paradise is one of the most important independent American movies ever made and one of the few that lives up to its reputation.
Down By Law (1986) (July 27th, 8:00pm, introduced by film scholar Mark Cauchi)
Stranger Than Paradise may have established Jim Jarmusch’s voice, but his follow up Down By Law firmed up his house style and locked him in as a major American filmmaker. Thanks to working with cinematographer Robby Muller for the first time, Down By Law is an absolutely beautiful movie that transformers 80s era New Orleans into an almost alien and certainly iconic landscape in black and white. The film follows Jarmusch’s first muse John Lurie, the compulsively watchable Tom Waits, and the Italian ball of insanity Roberto Benigni as a trio of guys who end up locked in a New Orleans prison cell together only to break out to enjoy a vaguely existential adventure. It’s an absolutely hilarious movie that plays like a comedy, looks like a film noir, and adds up to a poetic art film by the time the credits roll. It would be a completely unique movie in the history cinema were it not for the rest of Jarmusch’s career and remains easily one of his most impressive works.
Dead Man (1995) (August 9th, 7:00pm, with Skype intro from actor Gary Farmer)
If Jim Jarmusch has made only a single masterpiece, then it’s probably Dead Man. Produced on a larger scale than anything else in the director’s career thanks to being made at the peak of the American indie film movement, Dead Man is best described as an acid Western. Johnny Depp stars as a hopeless accountant sent out to a nightmare vision of the old West on a fool’s errand, only to end up shot before spending the rest of the movie slowly dying while a Native American man takes him on a spiritual quest. Though filled with many amusing diversions (particularly a jaw-dropper of a what-the-fuck sequence involving a bullet resistant Billy Bob Thornton and Iggy Pop in a dress), it’s the closest thing to a narrative film that Jarmusch has ever made. The film is laced with dark violence critical of 90s Hollywood’s obsession with gunfire, features the finest performance of Lance Hendrickson’s career as an impossibly evil villain, and quietly transforms into one of the most intriguing and sensitive portrayals of Native American culture in the history of the genre. No one could have possibly guessed that the decidedly urban director would ever make a Western, yet he made one of the greatest and certainly one of the most unique. Jarmusch would go one to dabble in other genre movie fare like an assassin picture (Ghost Dog) and a slice of vampire horror (Only Lovers Left Alive) and each one certainly benefited from his decidedly unique take on the material. That said, his further genre experiments never reached the heights of Dead Man, nor have any of his movies for that matter. A brilliant bit of filmmaking that even those who don’t otherwise care for Jim Jarmusch should sample.