“I don’t know where I fit in. I don’t feel tied to my time.”
– Jim Jarmusch
Now, I have this on some authority that if you look up “cool” in the dictionary you’ll find a picture of the casually grinning, messily coiffed, silver-maned American indie filmmaker James Robert “Jim” Jarmusch (born January 22, 1953).
The Ohio-born director, screenwriter, sometimes actor, producer, editor, and composer has become synonymous over the years with “urban cool”, making films that are artfully and intricately assembled works of poetry, often populated by rock stars and pop icons, telling sketch-like ballads of alienation, unlucky outsiders, charming losers, and trite tricksters, moving amongst neo-noir variations, road movie misfires, and droll day-to-day observances.
Though never a prolific filmmaker––since 1980’s Permanent Vacation, he’s made some 15 films, 2 of which were documentaries (as well as a handful of music videos)––Jarmusch has always taken his time between projects, sometimes several years.
As his devotees know all too well, and of which I stand proudly in that number, his films are always worth the wait and, even considering his often minimalist approach, reward numerous viewings as they’re often packed with visual gags, dense and delightful information jammed into each frame, meshed into an idiosyncratic sweep progressing at an unhurried clip, as well as chic references to previous Jarmusch visitations.
Having worked closely over the years with a Rogue’s Gallery of creatives that include John Lurie, Tom Waits, Roberto Benigni, Iggy Pop, Tilda Swinton, and Dutch cinematographer Robby Müller amongst them, Jarmusch is a very singular and resonate voice in American cinema.
Vincent Canby of The New York Times, in a 1989 review of Jarmusch’s work, described him as “the most adventurous and arresting filmmaker to surface in the American cinema in this decade”, and this delineation still holds veracity today.
The following list considers Jarmusch’s distinctive, delightful, and still growing body of work, and it comes from not just an aficionado, but a passionate fan (I went to film school in the 90s due to my love of Mystery Train which may well be my favorite film of all time). So take a glance, if so inclined, and get familiar with one of the most singular and smart voices in contemporary cinema.
NOTE: The following filmography omits Jarmusch’s two nonfiction works, the musical documentaries Year of the Horse (1997) and Gimme Danger (2016). Both of which are recommended for both Jarmusch and rock ‘n’ roll documentary fans alike, particularly the latter film.
13. The Limits of Control (2009)
A somewhat intrusive entry in Jarmusch’s canon, The Limits of Control is a repetitious road thriller that, for fans plays out Antonioni-like, and for detractors is a minimalist olio of arthouse pretension.
Jarmusch regular Isaach De Bankolé leads an all-star international cast (which also includes Gael García Bernal, John Hurt, Bill Murray, and Tilda Swinton) as a mysterious stranger, a lone wolf assassin instructed on his current mission by Creole (Alex Descas)––the details of which are never clearly stated but involve an American (Murray) and fragmentary encounters with a nude woman (Paz de la Huerta), and forced and inaccessible dialogue loops with eccentric and dreamlike characters in exotic locales in Spain.
While the surreal and chimeric aspects of the film may be too challenging for some viewers, The Limits of Control does offer, as is often par for the course with Jarmusch, a gorgeous soundtrack––including choice cuts from Bad Rabbit, the Black Angels, Boris, LCD Soundsystem, and Sunn O)))––and luminous lensing from cinematographer Christopher Doyle. A lovely to look at and intriguing film, and one that is emblematic of many of Jarmusch’s pet themes and obsessions, it’s also perhaps a fans only affair.
12. Coffee and Cigarettes (2003)
Coffee and Cigarettes comprises eleven vignettes, shot over a 17 year period, beginning in 1986, and originally intended as a single short film for Saturday Night Live.
That original short, Strange to Meet You, starring Roberto Benigni and Steven Wright, discussing caffeine and nicotine, was shot around the time Jarmusch was making Down By Law (also with Benigni), thus beginning a trend for the director wherein he’d regularly shoot segments for this project while doing other features, videos, promos, and the like. The resulting film, a treat for Jarmusch fans especially, is admittedly uneven, but frequently enjoyable, too.
As with all Jarmusch fare, the cast is a who’s who of cool — including Iggy Pop, Tom Waits, Jack and Meg White, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, GZA and RZA (of the Wu-Tang Clan), and Steve Buscemi among others — while the black-and-white cinematography recalls his early films. Despite what they say, Coffee and Cigarettes won’t kill you, but it might crack you up.
11. The Dead Don’t Die (2019)
At first glance it doesn’t seem to fit that ol’ Jim should mix and mingle with zombies, but really if you look hard at his considerable CV on this very list, his many genre diversions jump out and grab at you. He’s done road movies aplenty (starting with 1984’s Stranger Than Paradise and popping up repeatedly in films like 2005’s Broken Flowers), a wild acid western (Dead Man ), a hit man/samurai flick (Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai ), and a vampire love story (Only Lovers Left Alive ) amongst some of his most admired films, all of them further elaborated upon on this very list. And so, all things considered, maybe Jarmusch making a multi-protagonist horror-comedy zombie bandwagon isn’t that out of the blue after all. Is it?
Set in the quaint and quiet small town of Centerville, The Dead Don’t Die spans a few days during an undead uprising that most likely heralds the end of man. And with atypical Jarmusch aplomb and deadpan, our guides during the final days are drawn from the filmmaker’s repertoire; Steve Buscemi, Adam Driver, Bill Murray, Iggy Pop, RZA, Tilda Swinton, and Tom Waits amongst them.
Non-fans may well be alienated and scratching their heads at how the characters in The Dead Don’t Die all rather nebbish, even clownishly accept their lot. Police officers Cliff Robertson (Murray) and Ronnie Peterson (Driver) shrug and carry on their duties as their community is overrun with the undead.
Sometimes they break the fourth wall, and that’s all part of the fun (as with Driver’s Star Wars keychain, a nod to his Kylo Ren alter ego). It’s only police woman Mindy Morrison (Chlöe Sevigny) who seems to reel in appropriate terror at the growing zombie population as news reports underscore that what’s happening in Centerville is happening all across the globe.
Rarely does the end of times land with such eccentric ruefulness and whimsy. But this is a Jarmusch film after all, so expect your expectations to be supplanted or outrightly ignored as the filmmaker and his cast have a lot of contagious fun. Sure, there’s some hit-and-miss moments, and not all the satire is all that shrewd, but for yours truly, the sight of Carol Kane as a chardonnay-obsessed ghoul is worth the ticket price alone.
Reviews have been mixed (as they often are for Jarmusch) but the bottom line is this: The Dead Don’t Die doesn’t take itself seriously at all, and if you can get into its considerable macabre charms, you’ll have an entertaining and idiosyncratic night out. Me? I wouldn’t miss it for the world.
10. Permanent Vacation (1980)
The director’s debut feature and winner of the Josef von Sternberg Award at the 1980 Mannheim-Heidelberg International Film Festival, Permanent Vacation is, though his most novice project, also in many ways Jarmusch’s quintessential film. Not only does this artful 16mm minimalist production radiate a low key cool, it also shows the emergence of his original formalism and character design.
Set in a smirched and near colorless Manhattan, a young drifter (Chris Parker) shuffles about in a half-hearted search for meaning that has him mingling with a peanut gallery of eccentrics including his girlfriend (Leila Gastil), a gifted sax player (John Lurie, who also provided the memorable score), a French traveller (Chris Hamoen) and more.
Permanent Vacation was Jarmusch’s final year university project, and while it never got a theatrical release, it’s an enjoyable detour displaying the wry emotion and urban ambient of his most personal and venerated works.
9. Night on Earth (1991)
An enjoyable omnibus, each story occurs in the evening, in taxis all over the world. Buoyed by a fantastic soundtrack courtesy of Tom Waits, highlights include a sidesplitting comedic foray from Roberto Benigni in Rome, and a Helsinki stopover with Matti Pellonpää that recalls the cinema of Aki Kaurismäki (doubly fitting as Jarmusch is often likened to Kaurismäki, a noted influence, and Pellonpää is a regular of the Finnish filmmaker).
A deadpan delight that doubles as an obliquely entertaining art house diversion, Night on Earth is a colorful character study with several sharp turn surprises.
8. Broken Flowers (2005)
One of the director’s most enjoyable mainstream successes, Broken Flowers also netted the Grand Prix of the 2005 Cannes Film Festival, and re-teamed Jarmusch with his Coffee and Cigarettes co-star Bill Murray.
Riffing on the Don Juan archetype, Murray is delightfully droll as Don Johnston, a retired computer magnate who has just been jilted by his most recent lover, Sherry (Julie Delpy) around the same time he receives an anonymous letter from an ex who announces that they share a 19-year-old son.
Egged on by his amicable neighbor, mystery novel enthusiast and mix-tape provider, Winston (Jeffrey Wright), Don reluctantly agrees to visit his exes who are most likely to be the mother of the son he’s never met.
With a first-rate cast including Frances Conroy, Alexis Dziena, Jessica Lange, Sharon Stone, and Tilda Swinton, perfectly blending into Jarmusch’s minimalist storytelling motions, and a splendidly self-effacing performance from Murray, Broken Flowers is probably the one Jarmusch film where the gentle humor and understated style will charm and pacify even his most jaded detractors. Recommended.