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The 10 Best Movies of Gus Van Sant

24 February 2016 | Features, Film Lists | by Pedro Bento

Elephant (2003)

When we talk about Gus van Sant, we aren’t just talking about a director. The man is also a screenwriter, painter, musician and photographer (he was in advertising as well). All this versatility is present in his filmmaking and even in the way Van Sant flows easily into independent films and mainstream products.

Openly homosexual, his name is also strongly connected with subcultural topics and with the New Queer Cinema movement, where films like “Milk”, “Elephant” or “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues” became well known.

Unlike other big names of American cinema, Gus Van Sant is the perfect example of what it is “to do the whole route”. Starting with small-project independent films, Van Sant had to prove his value before seeing his name included at the Oscars, Cannes, Berlin Film Festival or even at the Independent Spirit Awards. Furthermore, he was also active into the music business, collaborating with names such as Red Hot Chili Peppers or the late David Bowie.

Aside from all his success and achievements, today Van Sant isn’t at his best. His last three efforts were redundant in his filmography and some believe his best times have already passed.

However, he is a great example of a name that is never ignored when a new work is about to come out, and is definitely a filmmaker with interesting content and surprising features to explore. In this list, you can find the 10 most important films he did up to today.


10. Gerry (2003)


“Gerry” is the first film of the famous Death Trilogy (“Elephant” is the second; “Last Days” is the third) and it’s about two friends going to the desert without food or water.

Starring Matt Damon and Casey Affleck, who were also involved in the writing the script, this is the kind of story you can easily relate with people you really know. The reason: the characters aren’t very solid (no heroes, no villains, no one really peculiar), so they could be anybody.

This could be a good thing, once you can imagine yourself in the story, doing the same thing the Gerrys do (the characters have the same name) or saying the same words they say. Truth be told, Gus Van Sant has this quality in almost all his films; the characters could be somebody else. I really don’t know if in this particular case it’s because of the actors, or is just the characters that are the “person-next-door”. In any case, you have to be really dumb to go to the desert without water and food.


9. Mala Noche (1986)


This was the first film where Gus Van Sant signed his name onto, and was almost like forethought about what he would do later with his other works.

“Mala Noche” is a simple story of wild love: Walt is crazy about Johnny, an illegal Mexican immigrant, but, despite him not speaking a word of English, Johnny doesn’t found Walt attractive or interesting. Nowadays, this debut film is seen by many as a simplified concept of the message Van Sant tried to send in later outputs.

“Mala Noche”, also known as “Bad Night”, is a short and humble story, but, considering the time it was made and the context, it’s a milestone in New Queer and Independent cinema. The film doesn’t have a big budget or the good performances we saw in some Van Sant films (Nicole Kidman, Matt Dillon, River Phoenix, etc.), but has the honesty and passion of a man who had something to say. Good effort.


8. Last Days (2005)

Last Days

“Last Days” is far from being an easy film. First, it can be considered an antithesis of “Gerry”; the acting is great (hail to Michael Pitt!), the directing is quite good, and you will not find common places in this film.

Second, knowing the story is related to Nirvana with noticing the similarities between Blake and Kurt Cobain, you will be expecting a story about drugs with drama and, to a certain point, action, like how Cobain lived his life. Nothing could be more wrong. The film is sluggish, detailed (lots of times about nothing important) and you can really feel the time passing by.

Blake doesn’t seem to do anything in his life, so there’s no evolution of the protagonist, and Van Sant gives us a big silence in form of cinema. It’s almost if you have a painting in front of you for 90 minutes.

In making this fictionalized story about the last days of Kurt Cobain’s life, Van Sant continues on a trail of minimalist filmmaking, where he tries to say big things by doing or saying nothing at all. In other words, he uses silence, like he did with “Gerry” and “Elephant”, the other films of the Death Trilogy.


7. Milk (2008)


Based on the life of the politician and gay rights activist Harvey Milk, this is a biopic that put a Gus Van Sant film again on Oscar trail (the first that happened was in 1998 with “Good Will Hunting”).

The film is worth your time at because of Sean Penn’s performance as Milk, and it was a major success inside the gay community and the mainstream public. It shows a completely ordinary man, who is ambitious and funny and is struggling for a better and fair world, and he happens to be homosexual.

In doing that, Van Sant was successful in creating an identification point between the character and the crowd, a fundamental aspect for the empathy generated in the film. It gives an impression that “Milk” had a huge hype because it was an American film/story, about an American citizen, launched in United States. Considering “Stranger by the Lake”, “Blue is the Warmest Color” or “Free Fall” as examples, we can assume “Milk” wouldn’t be such a big thing in Europe.


6. My Own Private Idaho (1991)


This is THE film that can actually prove River Phoenix would be one of the best, if not the best, actor of his generation.

Lightly based on Shakespearean works, “My Own Private Idaho” is a bittersweet poem about life on the streets and one the best films Gus Van Sant ever made. Mike and Scott are two best friends living as hustlers and this is their story of friendship, loneliness, fear and sexuality.

River Phoenix does an amazing job as Mike Waters, helping Keanu Reeves to shine as well. The main idea expressed in the film is the opposite of what we learn watching Batman; it’s not what you do that defines you, but who you really are. Summing up, these boys work as hustlers, but they are much more than that. Dealing with Van Sant’s fetish topics, this is certainly one of the most important titles in the director’s career.



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  • Klaus Dannick

    Great list! I love Van Sant’s work, though I’d have placed Idaho and Milk at the top of this list with Good Will Hunting placing at around number 5. Nice to see a list of his work nonetheless.

  • Juan Carlos Ojano

    “How dare you not put My Own Private Idaho in the top 3!” – Karen Lustanas

  • Emin Azeroglu

    Psycho? Anyone? :/

  • Sats Van Brand

    Psycho, the best

    • Indira Iman

      Lol even when Van Sant replicated Hitchcock frame by frame it’s nowhere near Hitch’s Psycho. Imo i wouldn’t dare to make a remake of a legendary director’s most well-known work in the first place.

  • This list is fucking lame. Here’s my list:

    It’s better and more representative of his work.

    • Pedro Bento

      Your list is a crap.

      • Really, and you have a better one pendejo?

        • Pedro Bento

          No need for insults.
          I see you have a problem with opinions. I just think your list is a total piece of dung.

          • And you can do better? Show me cabron.

          • Pedro Bento

            If yours is shit, certainly I have a far superior one.
            I don’t think you deserve a share of my knowledge, pinche puta.

          • Really? Prove it! I can back that shit up with my reviews. What about you puta madre? Madicon?

          • Pedro Bento

            Dude, I’m just trolling you.
            You can put your reviews in the same place of that shitlist, por el culo. ahahahahh

          • Well troll on some other cunt you faggot.

          • Pedro Bento

            Such a noob.

          • At least I’m not some fucking cunt who worships Adam Sandler.

          • Pedro Bento

            Adam Sandler is the best actor alive. Never doubt about it ahahha

  • Jacob Lyon Goddard

    My Own Private Idaho will always be my number one.
    And not just of Van Sant movies.

  • Jacob Lyon Goddard

    Good Will Hunting was sell out Oscar bait.
    It’s the prequel to Finding Forrester.

  • V.C. Privitera

    Okay…this list is absurd!
    I know, I know…’s one of those:
    “Well, that’s like you’re opinion…”
    And while this is just this Article’s Author’s view….There’s something crucially off by this list being published on this very website.
    – this is without a doubt one of the BIGGEST waste of Talent & Time. I get the whole point is dealing with a realistic “Road” Movie, that not everything needs to be a direct narrative, even when you have two Mainstream Hollywood Actors literally & physically behind the wheel.
    It’s one of those films that you come across by accident, you’re shocked that you’ve never even heard of it; being that you have this Collaborative Effort by Van Sant (Check), starring Damon & Affleck (Double Check!)……curiously, how would seemingly a film like this go under the radar without even any mention or heads-up….simple:
    Spoiler Alert (Just the Opening Sequence) :
    The opening Sequence is seriously just one LONNNGGGGG Shot of NOTHINGNESS!
    Just plainly Damon & Affleck driving in for, if I recall, up to 20 Minutes, without any dialogue exchange or anything at all….just a one frame shot of the two, driving a long stretch of road in the desert.
    I stopped just after they finally start talking….whether or not this was amd most likely is to go against the expected set standards of Hollywood, making an Artisitc Expression utilizing Realism by orchestrating what it’s really like with practically Everybody in the same everyday situation; honestly, Who Cares!?
    If I wanted to watch a film with a movie star driving around not saying anything… tell you the truth, I wouldn’t, cause I can’t even stand Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive,” but at least that film has “something” more than just a whole lot of “nothing.”
    There’s a difference between “Art-House” & just plain “Waste of Time,” and this film takes the cake for the latter.
    So watch at your own discretion!
    “Last Days”
    – Thankfully, I was never much into Nirvana growing up as a kid when Grunge made its mark within Mainstream Music. I remember when Kurt Kobain died, the wide range affect his death had on his fans and the Industry. I can usually put my personal taste aside to see & understand why and what makes an Artist(s) as immensely popular as Kobain had become in the early 90s.
    That being said, when this film had been released, I guess I just expected this to be what it basically is Marketed as, being the “Last Days” of Kurt Cobain’s life.
    Of course I didn’t expect this film to be a staunch explatory examination of Cobain’s life, a Biography of sorts, or even a drug-fueled raging addicted suicidal viewpoint of what Kobain had been like by the end of his life….
    BUT! I definitely didn’t expect this to be Van Sant’s result of tackling such a prominent musical icon within days of committing suicide.
    Just like “Gerry,” the whole film feels like a failed experiment, a supposive realistic take on the realities of everything ranging from Depression, Addiction, Casualty-of-Stardom, etc. etc. And just like “Gerry,” the film doesn’t offer anything of any real worth or value. Wasting the audiences time with a mumbling stumbling buffoon basically doing NOTHING is not only a waste of time, but MONEY! And I’m not talking about the Viewers money, I’m talking about the idiot Financiers that actually thought this was a good idea to invest in….I could careless about these films being abstract for Artistic & Realistic sake, cause there comes a time when a Filmmaker is just making an asshole out of not just himself, but to the Audience themselves.
    When I said I wasn’t a fan of Nirvana or Cobain’s earlier, I said that not because I didn’t like the film for that fact, but as a matter of how much it must suck for the actual “Fans” that probably assumed this was gonna be something of maybe closure or even answers for themselves and the whole situation of the time itself.
    The film and Van Sant himself, tries to imply the whole plot & main character isn’t directly Cobain himself, but a Fictional Characterization of Conain: whatever that means, either way this film is pointless boredom that deserves a mention on lists of “Films That Are A Complete Waste of Time!”….along with “Gerry.” 🙂
    – This is just one of a very short-list of reasons why I can’t even rely on even Cannes Film Festival anymore, but even more sadly, the fact this film won the prestigious Palm d’Or Award from the most famous International Film Festival, just goes to show how even a well-acclaimed film (internationally) doesn’t really receive the same domestically.
    By all means, the whole plot/story is NOT an easy tale to tell….it takes a ton of risk of anyone to be able to even approach this sort of an all, but brutal reality in today’s America.
    While “Elephant” came out in 2003, which obviously was 5 years after the dawn & spark of School Shooting Massacres that plagues recent Modern America, that started with Columbine. Tragically, it’s become all too normal now for these sick vicious events to occur…….and that’s what I think secured this film for Critics, especially abroad, since this “was” at a time when majority of other Countries, particularly European, such as France whom had critically debated their distaste against America’s Gun Laws…this was also during the early stages of the Iraq War or “invasion” of Iraq (sorry, but it’s true), not to mention Michael Moore had received world-wide acclaim & praise for his spotlight on America’s Gun Related problems with “Bowling for Columbine,” all this was all too a Hot-Topic Conversation & Conflict.
    So, here we have a film that seemingly tries to pin-point the essential “making-of” a mass murderer, specifically that of High School Teenagers.
    While, I would say that what sets this film differently as to that of “Gerry” mad “Last Days,” is purely Subject Matter, since all three films are similar in structure by NOT being a straight-forward Narrative, but instead another “realistic” viewpoint in the lives of 2 young adolescent teenagers in their daily routine just days before their violent massacre upon their school.
    Of course, no one would go into this with a sense of any entertainment, especially pertaining to the subject matter, and while it does have a feel of a Larry Clark film, like his film “Bully,” since we’re dealing with outcast-loners on the break of murderous rage, it’s all a matter of really watching these two doing nothing and waiting for the inevitable….whether this is what the writer & director had intended, this just felt like a LONG Short Story that really isn’t anything worth any of the time consumed.
    I guess you could rate this one under, “well, somebody had to do this kind of film, so whatever…”
    Again, this film isn’t as even as remotely boring as “Gerry” or “Last Days,” but it’s still one of those films that leaves you feeling like you didn’t get anything from what could’ve been an insight or a slight learning tool for what sets off these tragic events.


    All this being said, these films should NOT even be mentioned.
    “My Own Private Idaho” is wayyyy to up in the list, and for any Van Sant fan, it’s considered blasphemy rating the film behind….well….every film marked ahead of its position.
    I’m sure most, if not all would agree, “My Own Private Idaho” would be #1…without any debate or doubt.
    I mean, seriously, “Last Days” ahead of “My Own Private Idaho,” wow, just wow!

    >>>Personally, my favorite is “To Die For,” I think it’s one hell of a film, great Cast & Performances, especially by Nicole Kidman, whom pulls all the punches in making the audience hate her character, along with the early performances of Joaquin Phoenix and Casey Affleck.
    It’s truly one great thriller that’s like a Major Studio “Lifetime” Movie of a Dateline Episode….if that makes any sense.
    “Drugstore Cowboy” is also another phenomenal film in it’s own right.

  • Rollyn Stafford

    Good list. I look forward to his next movie.

  • Rowsdower!

    Interesting, I’d no idea Gus directed To Die For.

  • Rollyn Stafford

    Loved Elephant!