5. To Die For (1995)
Knowing the roles Nicole Kidman accepts these days, few would believe she could give such an astonishing and holistic performance like she did in 1995 in “To Die For”.
It’s not certain if this was the role that impressed Stanley Kubrick to the point of inviting Kidman to star in “Eyes Wide Shut” (Eva Herzigova was the first choice), but this was a performance that at least deserved an Oscar nomination. While Matt Dillon is a little bit unimproved, Joaquin Phoenix is quite good in this film.
This indie film is a tragic-comic story about Suzanne Stone, a woman obsessed with fame, reminiscent of Sara Goldfarb in “Requiem for a Dream”. I don’t know if we can call “To Die For” a mockumentary, but Van Sant directed it like a documentary film, where some characters tell their stories in front of the camera.
Everything about this film is wrapped in irony and sarcasm, like a black comedy must be, showing the sense of humor that Van Sant wanted for this specific film.
4. Paranoid Park (2007)
“Paranoid Park” is maybe the most underrated film by Gus Van Sant. It’s not quite known in the crowd, didn’t win relevant prizes and it’s not usually seen as an important piece of Van Sant’s legacy.
What makes it so amazing is the fact that is revisits older features; youth and death meet again; there is punishment, repressed emotions and conventions; amateur actors; high school and “talking silence” characteristic of Van Sant; even some traumas are revisited with scenes taken from “Psycho” (the shower scene).
“Paranoid Park” is about Alex, a skateboarder, who gets involved in the accidental death of a security guard. That event will bring consequences to his life.
The film is highly compared to “Elephant”, because of his teenage actors and subjects, but while the Palme d’Or winner is a mute and lethargic art-film, “Paranoid Park” is a broken-structured “talkative” piece of cinema with lots of things to say.
3. Drugstore Cowboy (1989)
“Drugstore Cowboy” is a film with lots of faces; it’s a black comedy, a road movie, a drug film and, if you want, an unsentimental love story. You can’t describe it with just one of those labels, but the best part is the film is great in all of those genres.
In this time, Van Sant was looked at as one of the most promising directors appearing and this film, which wasn’t a massive success, had a big impact and is today considered a cult film.
In fact, Roger Ebert compared “Drugstore Cowboy” with other films of the American outlaw road film tradition, such as “Bonnie and Clyde”, “Badlands” or “Easy Rider”, saying “Drugstore Cowboy” was one of the best films ever made in the US. For such an ambitious project by Van Sant, there are some flaws, but it’s still arguably one of the most important things Gus Van Sant ever done in cinema.
2. Elephant (2003)
It features a high school in Portland, on a day that’s apparently normal, and two students are at home playing violent video games. These are the main ingredients for the second film of the Trilogy of Death by Gus Van Sant.
Inspired by the Columbine High School massacre, the film is more a poetic and subliminal notion than a documentary about what happened in 1999. The interesting part is how Van Sant talks about some of his clichéd topics, such as media, homosexuality, the system, and teens or minorities, but the film isn’t specifically about any of these. It’s about simple and crude violence.
The cinematography of “Elephant” is impressive, using lots of tracking shots, natural lighting and clever sound techniques (diegetic sounds). Certainly that contributed a lot to the Palme d’Or it won. There’s just one slow motion scene in the film – a dog jumping up in the air – and it appears when the big finale is about to occur, working as a typical “calm before the storm”. That scene is a beautiful piece of delicious cinema!
1. Good Will Hunting (1997)
Clearly the most famous film by Gus Van Sant, “Good Will Hunting” tells the story of Will Hunting, an outlaw who is a mathematics genius, but is in the wrong place to achieve something really important in his life. That’s when he is introduced to Sean, a psychologist that will turn into a real friend and will teach him some valuable lessons.
The film won two Oscars (Best Actor in a Supporting Role and Best Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen) and was nominated for seven more (including Best Picture and Best Director), confirming Van Sant as a solid name of American cinema. Curiously, the film was produced by Lawrence Bender, a producer known for working diligently with Quentin Tarantino.
Considered a classic, “Good Will Hunting” was in the spotlight again recently because of the death of Robin Williams. It is essential because it totally breaks with Van Sant’s indie past, showing a totally mainstream and predictable story about an anti-hero character, who appeals to the feelings of the audiences. Nevertheless, it was the piece that allowed the director to climb in his career and, for that, is an ephemeris in his path.
Author Bio: Pedro Bento is a portuguese samurai, who travels with his wakizashi sword into the infinity of his mind, always forgetting his way home. He doesn’t believe in inspirational moments, but he likes to hide in a secret place, where heavy metal is always blasting and no one can bother him, except his apathetic girlfriend Inês. Yes, he’s a loner.