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All 13 Lars von Trier Movies Ranked From Worst To Best

13 April 2017 | Features, Film Lists | by Shane Scott-Travis

Confrontational provocateur Lars von Trier has, over a prolific filmmaking career now bridging nearly four decades, amassed an admirable, distinct, powerful, and frequently polarizing body of work. The Danish born firebrand is recognized, even by his detractors, for his numerous technical innovations, his willingness to experiment, and his fondness for upending genre conventions.

Von Trier is also identified with his often adversarial approach to studying and scrutinizing themes of existentialism, sociopolitical issues, mental health intellection, as well as spirituality and faith traditions. Because of his often bold and spurring modus operandi, von Trier courts controversy with almost every new film he actualizes.

As an auteur-director, von Trier has inspired many of his peers via his financial independence and total creative control over his many projects, all made through his production company Zentropa Entertainment, which he founded in 1992 with producer Peter Aalbæk Jensen.

A key architect along with fellow Danish filmmakers Thomas Vinterberg––and to a lesser but still considerable extent Søren Kragh-Jacobsen and Kristian Levring––they concocted the cinematic movement called Dogme 95. This internationally acknowledged movement involved the “Dogme 95 Manifesto” and the “Vows of Chastity” were meant to emphasize traditional storytelling devices while eschewing elaborate special effects or technology, and is still practiced by filmmakers to this day, though von Trier himself has largely left it behind since the 90s.

Apart from his often brutal and burning approach to controversial subject matter, von Trier’s films consistently present strong female leads, and his female-centric films are often compared to other great European filmmakers like Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman for this very reason. “The male protagonists in my films are basically all idiots who don’t understand shit,” says von Trier, adding: “Whereas the women are much more human, and much more real. It’s the women I identify with in all my films.”

Among his many accolades, von Trier has received the Palme d’Or (for Dancer in the Dark), the Grand Prix (for Breaking the Waves), the Prix du Jury (for Europa), and the Technical Grand Prize (for The Element of Crime and Europa) at the Cannes Film Festival. And all of this from Cannes despite his being briefly banned and labelled “persona non grata” after a 2011 press conference promoting Melancholia got out of hand.

One final note before getting to the ranking of von Trier’s filmography is that the only notable omissions here are his 1988 telefilm Medea, and that of the Danish TV miniseries The Kingdom (1994) and The Kingdom II (1997), as they were never widely released cinematically, though it does slot in spectacularly as some of his most enjoyable and from out-of-left-field work. If you’re a fan of von Trier, Kingdom is essential viewing (but so is everything on this following list).

 

13. The Element of Crime (1984)

The Element of Crime

Von Trier’s pastiche-heavy neo-noir crime caper/art film, the first installment of his Europa trilogy, also runs as something akin to Alphaville-lite. But that said, it’s an artful, accomplished, and rather auspicious debut that concerns an ex-detective and expat named Fisher (Michael Elphick), down and out in Cairo when he reluctantly agree to take one last case involving a serial killer dubbed the “Lotto Murderer.”

After the at large killer keeps claiming the lives of several young girls, a frustrated Fisher enlists the help of a writer named Osbourne (Esmond Knight) and the pair explore some strange criminology methods to catch their man.

Of course, this being a von Trier film, things get stranger and more complex than this undernourished synopsis suggests and the only thing that really mars this production is that Element of the Crime was made on a small budget and some of that shows through. Still, the sepia-tones and surreal imagery make this first flight an interesting, and occasionally abstract, thriller.

 

12. Epidemic (1987)

epidemic

Continuing the Europa trilogy with Epidemic, von Trier also takes a rare turn in front of the camera as well where he is joined by co-screenwriter and co-star Niels Vørse in this eerie meta-horror film. Portraying simulacrum versions of themselves, the film features a frustrated director (von Trier) and a struggling screenwriter (Vørse) as they spend 18 months trying to concoct a suitable and bankable horror movie.

Intercut with scenes and sequences from the movie they’re writing, wherein von Trier is a rather dissident Dr. Memer trying to manufacture a cure for the titular epidemic. As Epidemic progresses things get more and ore sinister, strange, and ultimately horrific––the capsheaf is particularly cruelly rewarding––and the film is also fascinating in that all of the director’s cinematic obsessions are proleptically displayed.

Epidemic is also of interest to von Trier’s fans as it represents the first of many collaborations with the iconic cult and character actor Udo Kier.

 

11. Manderlay (2005)

Manderlay

A not entirely successful, but still rather accomplished avant-garde experiment, this follow-up to 2003’s superior dissection Dogville, is the second film in von Trier’s thus far incomplete USA – Land of Opportunities trilogy.

Manderlay stars Bryce Dallas Howard, who replaces Nicole Kidman in the role of Grace Mulligan, a young woman in the Dust Bowl era of Arkansas in 1933. Grace and her father (Willem DaFoe) discover the eponymous plantation where it seems that slavery is still in practice.

Feeling compelled to help the people living in Manderlay Grace opts to stay and liberate these people and see them through their first harvest. Grace’s father, a gangster, leaves her with a quartet of his gunmen and his lawyer, Joseph (Teddy Kempner), all to ensure that the ex-slaves transition as swiftly and easily as possible.

Allegorical, provocative, and spiked with anti-American sentiment, Manderlay is nevertheless a moving, and emotional R and D of race relations, arrogance, and the articles of faith. As with Dogville, this film is shot in the same distinctive style––inspired by televised theater circa 1970s––on a bare soundstage with minimal sets (buildings are denoted by lines on the floor, with nominal to no set decoration).

The results will grate on some viewers who will only see pretension in these designs, but for the rest of us, buoyed by strong performances and devilish plot twists, this is a solid film and one whose ambition and basis is both sincere and enticing.

 

10. Europa (1991)

europa_lars_von_trier

The very presence of actor Eddie Constantine in Europa invokes his iconic role of Lemmy Caution from Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 sci-fi classic Alphaville, and it’s no coincidence. But Alphaville, in von Trier’s imaginings here, sits alongside Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), and they make for oddly in sync bedfellows.

Concluding his punchy and pastiche-addled Europa trilogy, this Franz Kafka-excited closer––whose very name is an homage to Kafka’s posthumously published 1946 tome “Amerika”––is a cajoling fever dream of sound and image.

Filmed in a very experimental style with no less than three skilled cinematographers at von Trier’s beck and call (Henning Bendtsen, Edward Klosinski, and Jean-Paul Meurisse, respectively), each doing their best of imitate film noir convention in a mostly monochrome world of black-and-white with startling splashes of color imagery, rear-projection, as well as animated use of surreal layered imagery and double-exposures, all of which largely enhanced by Max von Sydow’s succinct narration.

Europa is set in 1945 US-occupied Germany, and concerns itself with a young and rather naive peacenik American named Leopold Kessler (Jean-Marc Barr), who is soon entwined in an intentionally maudlin plot to blow up a train belonging to Zentropa railways, all for the woman he loves, the fiery femme fatale Katharina Hartmann (Barbara Sukowa).

Spellbinding, and strange, Europa imagines a strangely futuristic past with no shortage of odd-lot slapstick and endless pop culture posturing. To miss Europa wouldn’t be wise.

 

9. The Boss of It All (2006)

The Boss of It All (2006)

While even von Trier’s most dirge-like films offer moments of comical interlude, 2006’s The Boss of It All is the only film thus far in his canon that’s an across-the-board comedy, though of course of the pitch dark and satiric variety.

Perverse, droll, and especially serrated, this sharp workplace-set comedy involves Ravn (Peter Gantzler), company director for a successful IT firm who has spent years convincing his competent and good-humored staff that the real “boss of it all” is an absentee overseer named Svend who lives in America.

When the opportunity to sell the business presents itself via one wealthy prospective purchaser named Finnur (Fridrik Thór Fridriksson), Ravn realizes he has no choice but to hire an actor named Kristoffer (Jens Albinus) to play the fictional boss so that the deal can occur. Hilarity ensues, of course.

Fond of throwing in a gimmick or a technical challenge with many of his films, The Boss of It All is no exception, and for this project von Trier surrenders a significant part of his control as auteur but shooting the entire film WITHOUT A CAMERA OPERATOR. I didn’t mean to shout there, but this risky gambol on von Trier’s part deserved some sort of emphasis as it’s a rather ridiculous hindrance that here seems to work impeccably.

Essentially, this operator-free exercise worked like this: after blocking the scene with the cast von Trier would chose the best possible fixed camera position for coverage––as any director would do––and then a computer running the camera would choose when to tilt, pan or zoom at random.

The results? Well, many serendipitous instances resulted in what von Trier playfully referred to as “Automavision”, and the punchy and sharp editing from Molly Malene Stensgaard helps bring the whimsical wisecracking and vagary to the fore.

A funny experiment with plenty of pay off, The Boss of It All is probably von Trier’s most overlooked and underrated film and that’s a shame as it’s an absolute pleasure from start to finish.

 

8. The Idiots (1998)

The Idiots (1998)

Von Trier’s first film made in complete compliant with the Dogme 95 Manifesto, The Idiots isn’t an easy viewing experience and is the kind of polarizing project that his fans admire while his detractors utterly abhor. That said, for the adventurous viewer, wonders await in this challenging, explicit, and emotionally charged comedy-drama.

The comic aspects of The Idiots cannot be under emphasized, particularly considering how many of von Trier’s vocal detractors like to typify the Dane as a humorless cynic. The Idiots tells the harrowing tale of Karen (Bodil Jørgensen), a woman who recently lost her baby and the grief of her tragedy has eluded her as something she cannot quantify or confront––at least, not yet.

Dining alone at a bustling diner Karen meets a disruptive group of people who behave as if mentally challenged. Realizing that these people aren’t what they appear to be––are they performance artists performing some kind of guerilla theater?––she joins their ranks. Staying in a communal house and led by a poised and intellective man named Stoffer (Jens Albinus), this group of people practice “spaz” behaviour in public as a means of challenging and confronting bourgeois tenets.

Most of the controversy over The Idiots is centered around the graphic sexual content––there’s an orgy scene that might be too much for the uptight viewer––but it’s really the confrontational and blunt observations on voyeurism, upsetting social mores, and the full-on denial of emotional vulnerability that should set most viewers into a tizzy.

Von Trier, with this film, brazenly calls down thunderbolts as he forces the viewer to take some accountability with our own public personas. Brutally funny and full of affection and indignation, The Idiots radiates understanding and, pardon the play on words, real penetration.

 

 

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  • Carl Edgar Consiglio

    Breaking the waves….so glad to see it at the top of the list.

    • D Train

      AGREED!!!!

    • Joe Borg

      Carl Edgar Consiglio 3 hours ago
      Hamallagni galore……mela li tiddeletta fih int. expert.

  • wendell ottley

    Sadly, I’ve only seen Melancholia. Guess I have some movies to watch.

  • D Train

    A well written and well reasoned list!! While I may have a few qualms about the order of Von Trier’s films it’s sweet to see BREAKING THE WAVES at the top!! More articles like this PLEASE Taste of Cinema!!!

  • Zwei

    Melancholia is one the worst

    • D Train

      You couldn’t be more mistaken, just ask the Cannes jury who rightfully awarded Dunst the Best Actress Award or the US National Society of Film Critics who gave it best picture and actress honors OR Sight & Sound who also gave it best picture honors OR Cahiers du Cinéma who did the same…
      Or how about this Zwei; just name one movie, ANY MOVIE, that so truthfully, thoughtfully, and accurately communicates what living with depression is like??? Maybe if you dealt with the mental illness you’d see what a commendable and wonderful job Lars Von Trier did in detailing this mental health issue!!!!!

      • Zwei

        Surprisingly, we see how the character of Justine passes from the happiest and radiant of the brides at first, to become a woman depressed, tormented and finally sick. We do not know the reason for this radical change at the emotional level. Is it proof of the progressive closeness of the planet Melancholy? Could be. In any case, the filmmaker does not seem to be too interested to expose the motivations of his characters. the second part of the film takes place in the days after the ill-fated wedding, and focuses, mainly, the fear that the older sister feels before the imminent arrival of Melancholy to the terrestrial atmosphere. What will happen? Will there be a collision as Claire fears or will the planet simply pass by as her husband assures her? Trier wants the tension to grow while trying to shake our brains with dialogues more typical of a Bergman third. The only thing that deserves to be highlighted from this disappointing and expendable film is the magnificent performance of Kirsten Dunst, but in a work of one who considers himself the most important living filmmaker, one expects something more, does not he?

        • shane scott-travis

          Justine is neither happy nor truly radiant in the first act, but quite the opposite. As the writer of this article and a filmmaker and someone who battles depression I think I build a strong case for why Melancholia is ranked so highly here (and I also made these decisions based on a cross section of aggregated sites and the awards garnered by each film, along with the impact of said films on their respective genres and amongst filmmakers).
          Normally I wouldn’t bother to argue w/someone who might be trolling (as your original 6 worded, no punctuation remark suggests), but since you’re suddenly verbose and engaging with someone defending my column I figured, what the hell, I’m on a break anyway. It’s too bad you got so little from a very great film. Maybe, in time, you’ll revisit it and get more from it (certainly it’s technically quite dizzying, if you’ve ever used a Phantom HD Gold camera, for instance, you’d marvel at how it was put to use), or maybe not. Cheers.

          • James Hall

            #1 great rebuttal!
            Enjoy your break & Illegitimum non carborundum.

        • Vincenzo Politi

          “Disappointing and expendable film” for whom? Not for me and not for many others. For me, Melancholia is one of Lars Von Trier´s best movies and I do believe it deserved the Palm d’Or much more than that 3-hours cosmic bore which was The Tree of Life. If you think that Justine was happy and radiant you haven’t really understood anything about the movie and about what depression is: it’s a dark planet hiding behind the sun. How can you misunderstand this simple and yet powerful metaphor? Justine actually become more radiant in the final act, when it is clear that Melancholia is going to hit and destroy the Earth. Again: if you think that that part is just about the other sister, you haven’t understood the movie. It’s not like Justine is ‘happier’ in the third act. Rather, she is quieter, peaceful, sometimes even smiley. She knows that life and existence are going to be over soon and she can just enjoy the fleeting pleasures of the moment, the contact with nature. She does not have to think about the future anymore. She does not have to be afraid of tomorrow anymore. She also looks ‘wiser’, whereas her sister, who was supposed to be strong and rational, has a clear nervous breakdown. It is clear that Von Trier depicts the depressed person not just like a person who is ill, not just like a person with a problem which can be medically solved. The illness transform the person and her experience. Justine has a different point of view on reality. She can ‘see’ and ‘feel’ things — i.e., the exact number of beans in a jar: but, of course, these are all metaphors for the qualities and sensibility that people with depression may acquire. After all, in the past the people who are nowadays labeled as mentally ill were often considered to be genius.

  • Breaking the Waves has to be on top of the list but where’s The Kingdom? I know it’s a TV mini-series but it should be included as my list feature some shorts and The Kingdom mini-series.

    • shane scott-travis

      Steven, thanks for reading and commenting. I mention in my intro that the only projects missing in this filmography are the telefilm Medea and the TV-series Kingdom and Kingdom II. I go on to say they’re great and essential viewing for von Trier fans especially but that they were omitted as they were made for television and only shown in repertory and arthouse cinemas on a very small scale. Cheers!

      • What you think of the short segment Occupations for To Each His Own Cinema?

        • shane scott-travis

          I thought it was one of the best in that collection. Certainly one of the most enjoyable and fun. It proves that von Trier can laugh at himself and his critics, which his detractors should see (though the camp of von Trier haters fail to acknowledge the humour that punctuates almost all of his films except maybe Antichrist).
          What did you think of it?

          • Definitely one of my favorite shorts in that film.

  • I was rather hoping to see Dancer in the Dark at #1. I love Breaking the Waves but Dancer just strikes a more unique and haunting chord for me.

    • shane scott-travis

      Dancer in the Dark is magnificent and incredibly ambitious but I feel it takes the backseat to Breaking the Waves for a few solid reasons; Dancer could only exist in a post-Breaking the Waves world as that was von Trier’s breakthrough picture, Dancer is built atop the flourishes and gestures that Waves cemented. Waves is very much a musical also (and most recently it’s been turned into an opera), and it helped to establish the Dogme movement… But truthfully it comes down to one’s personal taste. When I saw Waves during it’s premier festival run there was nothing like it. It’s power was unmatched for years (until Dancer most likely). The two films are very similar and both pack a considerable emotional punch.

      • You’re absolutely right when you state that it comes down to one’s personal taste. Both films are beautifully presented, perfectly acted, and similarly heartbreaking. Dancer in the Dark is one of my all-time favorite movies ever which is not to say that Breaking the Waves isn’t also a 4-star movie in my opinion…

  • AmazingAmy

    Only thing that sure is i only can watch that all of his film once

  • Nelsonoca Galvis

    For my Dogville, Idioterne and Dancer in the Dark are the best of him; Dogville especially is one of the movies that most influenced my life

  • Andrey Koshmar

    Dogville is one of the contenders for the title of the best film in general.

    • Vincenzo Politi

      I TOTALLY agree with you

  • Andrey Koshmar

    Some say that Lars lives in a well and is afraid of silence, others say that he does not have a heart. What’s the difference, it’s true or fiction, the main thing is that Lars is a genius and three-time champion of Northern Europe in non-standard hypnosis.

  • Rublev

    I think Europe should be a lot higher, but it’s a great list.

    • Vincenzo Politi

      The Element of Crime is also a fine picture.

  • Vincenzo Politi

    I have always found both Breaking the Waves and Antichrist to be absolutely overrated. Instead, Dogville is a work of pure genius! For me, #1 Dogville, #2 Melancholia, #Dancer in the Dark. Also, lest forget and let’s all give a very honorable mention to The Kingdom, that amazing TV show which was the perfect (an bizarre) synthesis between Twin Peaks and General Hospital, LOL!

  • bd

    You redeemed this article by putting Breaking the Waves as #1, but Element of Crime and Europa are both easily in his top 5 — whereas Antichrist should be towards the bottom; Nympho is also great but putting it in his top 5 is way too far imo.

    If you did include The Kingdom then it’d be #1 no doubt.