All 7 Todd Haynes Movies Ranked From Worst To Best
“The best films don’t offer redemption. They understand their own artificiality and are truthful as a result.”
– Todd Haynes
Exploring in his diverse and boldly mosaic body of work the complexity of identity and sexual politics, Todd Haynes is a singular and staggering talent. Born January 2, 1961 in Encino, California, Haynes’ fascinating film career probes via a wide variety of prisms, from Barbie dolls, Jean Genet-inspired prison-set humiliations, glam rock iconography, existential horror, the 1950s suburban homemaker, and pop cult heroes, to the lesbian love story, and more.
A pioneer of the New Queer Cinema that sprang from the 1980s breakout phase of American indie film, Haynes has largely since relinquished much of the overtly gay themes––though still present in places––opting instead to cleverly subtextualize these insights within mostly female protagonists or by dint of androgynous celebrities.
As you can see, no short sentence on Haynes’ distinct CV can avoid the intricacy and intelligence therein. While he may not be the most prolific of filmmakers––he patiently takes his time between projects, and perhaps they’re all the better for this––Haynes’ is so original an auteur that by now we certainly know that whatever he chooses to present to us will be deep, droll, elaborate, intensified, and impossible to shake.
What follows is the challenging task of ranking Haynes’ films “from best to worst”, and as an admirer of his work, I’m the first to enthusiastically exclaim that he’s not made anything close to a “bad film”. But I also didn’t want another writer taking up this charge and getting it wrong and so, dear reader, just accept that the title headline is a playful mislead. These are Todd Haynes films and they are all worthy of esteem and discussion, and if so inclined, multiple viewings.
PLEASE NOTE: Absent from this list, as they’re not of feature length, are Haynes’ numerous short films (the most notable of which would be 1987’s Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, his controversial cult featurette dramatizing the singer’s life with Barbie dolls) as well as some of his notable television work (he did an incredible episode of the short-lived HBO series Enlightened in 2013 and contributed to the TV documentary special Six by Sondheim).
7. Poison (1991)
Todd Haynes rushed onto the stage as a New Queer Cinema trailblazer in the dizzying debut, Poison. This audacious, confrontational, and uncompromising portmanteau triptych takes on three wholly different genres (faux documentary, gay prison romance, and 1950s sci-fi horror B-movie), drawing perhaps most notably from French iconoclast Genet’s lurid BDSM-addled poetic writings.
The common thread that sews these stories together rests in the dissection of traditional attitudes on homosexuality, and social panic, with results that move from subtle to extreme as familiar modes, methods, and archetypes get reworked and regenerated right before our eyes. Even today, over 25 years on, it’s rare to see such contrastingly delicate, lithe, and polemical designs in a single film. Poison is powerful stuff.
6. Velvet Goldmine (1998)
In Velvet Goldmine the glitter rock androgyny and artifice mixes with Oscar Wildean affectation and embellishment thriving through the ages––though mostly during 1970s London.
There’s a playfully camp and intellectually bright glow to Haynes’ substantial analysis of Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a Bowie-esque pop performance icon and his lavish fandom, including a genre-defying contemporary in Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor, in a role that alloys aspects of both Iggy Pop and Lou Reed), and Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale), a sexually conflicted rock journalist and super fan.
Surreal, theatrical, erotically charged, and also something of an homage to Welles’ Citizen Kane, this is an operatic and fierce fever dream of a film. For fans of art, music, and free expression, Velvet Goldmine is the chiming and melodious mother lode.
5. Mildred Pierce (2011)
This quiet, understated, and heartbreaking masterpiece is a five-part HBO miniseries that’s adapted from the famed 1941 novel from James M. Cain, which was also the basis for the Joan Crawford film noir classic from 1945. If this version has any real flaw it might be that the runtime is a little daunting for those that want more of a quick fix, but for the patient viewer, Haynes offers comprehensive and very rich rewards.
Kate Winslet is wonderful in the eponymous and Emmy-winning role as Mildred Pierce, the altruistic and overprotective matriarch who, amidst the backdrop of the Great Depression, is separating from her husband (Brían F. O’Byrne), single-handedly opening a restaurant, reluctantly falling in love with the amicable Monty Beragon (Guy Pearce), and all this while trying to regain the love and respect of her difficult and ungrateful daughter, Veda (Evan Rachel Wood). Don’t miss it.
4. Far From Heaven (2002)
Haynes’ first mainstream breakthrough came with this revisionist Douglas Sirk-style weepie from 2002, Far From Heaven. Once more his cinematic muse, Julianne Moore is wonderful as Cathy Whitaker, a 1957 Hartford, Connecticut housewife whose closeted gay husband Frank (Dennis Quaid), propels her into a taboo-shattering secret affair with Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert), a black gardener. The surface tensions quietly roar in what results as a smashing simulacrum of not just Technicolor melodrama but also of the classic women’s picture.
Sexual repression, forbidden love, collective fears, bigotry, and the vivisection of social mores are given new and unexpected élan as cinematographer Edward Lachman’s skillful lensing and Haynes’ subtle palette of deep colors sharply spotlight Moore’s delicate portrayal of demure, restless middle-class American femineity. Cruelly honest and quite brilliant, Far From Heaven is one of the most immaculately accomplished melodramas around.
3. Carol (2015)
Set in a post-war early-50s New York, Carol is an elegant and restrained lesbian love story for the ages. Adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s (Strangers on a Train) 1952 novel, The Price of Salt, and functioning as a sort of companion piece to director Todd Haynes 2002 film, Far From Heaven, it stars Cate Blanchett is the titular Carol Aird, a wealthy yet long suffering housewife, and she exhibits all the glamor, grace, and gravitation of a scorching screen-siren of the calibre of Marlene Dietrich or Greta Garbo. And then there’s Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), timid and tenderhearted, a tad thin skinned, but the two of them, once smitten and entwined, are societal outcasts, vulnerable to assail and misunderstanding.
Haynes is stylish as ever, here tenderly tapping into the Old Hollywood éclat, making a postmodern melodrama that is more than pastiche and rich in period detail and decorum. An elegant, and poignant film, Carol ranks with Haynes finest, an intoxicating, restrained, and vibrant story of love and lament. It’s an absolute scorcher.
2. Safe (1995)
An existential art house horror movie, Safe coolly details the catastrophe that awaits a Los Angeles woman, Carol White (Julianne Moore, brilliant), who’s allergic to her own environment. A masterpiece of detached uncertainty and creeping dread, Safe is also, in my estimation, one of the best American films of the nineties.
Carol is a So Cal housewife in the year 1987, where she leads a humdrum life in a sober suburban façade that slowly starts to languish around her. She has lifeless sex with her addled husband (Xander Berkeley), she shops, and gossips, and has hair appointments, and her comfortable existence crashes down bit by bit.
The horror of Haynes’ film rests amidst the anxiety in Carol’s day-to-day life, her disconnect with her family, and her inability to function. Haynes shows an at times Kubrickian sense of spacial dynamics, occasionally throwing back to 70s paranoia thrillers (think the Conversation, Marathon Man, and the Parallax View), and evidence of an Antonioni-like woman in distress vibe (Il Deserto Rosso specifically), yet still retaining his own inventive modes and manipulations.
As an exercise in visual style, Haynes proves his mastery with Safe, a film that demands a clear-sighted measure from the viewer. It hints at slow cinema with its persistent use of master shots, and it makes for a prime example of chic postmodernist cool. He allows his carefully composed shots to linger, to escalate, to alienate, resulting in a captivating and controlled patchwork that wavers to the diligent viewer’s whim.
Ultimately with Safe, Haynes presents a somnambulant nightmare of consumerist decay, of a woman’s life leeched of vitality, secure only in the knowledge that something is terribly, terribly wrong.
1. I’m Not There (2007)
One might be tempted to apply the oft-used term “biopic” to describe Haynes’ I’m Not There, a film “inspired by the music and the many lives of Bob Dylan”, but it’s more accurately a ravishing extended essay in Dylanology.
Featuring no less than six actors (among them Cate Blanchett, Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere, and Heath Ledger) as aspects of Dylan’s multifaceted self, the resulting film is an unconventional, inventive, high-flown, and absolutely beaming musical rollick that spans the five intoxicating decades of Dylan’s entertainment career.
Displaying a gobsmacking supply of contrasting visual styles, unique and varied editing techniques, and lionhearted performances from a virtuoso cast (Blanchett’s brilliant performance deserved all the acclaim and awards it mustered but also outstanding is Charlotte Gainsbourg’s heartbreaking turn as Claire Clark, and David Cross as Allen Ginsberg may just be the casting coup of the decade) make certain that I’m Not There is an absolutely singular cinematic experience.
Not once in the film’s dense and dulcet 135 minutes are the words “Bob Dylan” even uttered, and none of the cast who portray him go by such nomenclature, and yet the transience and inscrutableness of identity is given truly golden confidence and poetry. To call I’m Not There a tour de force is matter-of-fact, that it’s ambitious, challenging, surreal, and occasionally beautifully byzantine is likewise a foregone conclusion.
Haynes’ films, and I’m Not There in particular, often contend the blur of passion and pretension in the protagonist. This obsessive and persistent Dylan film displays all of Haynes’ preoccupations in one form or another, making it the ultimate and most authentic compendium of his tremendous work. It provokes laughter, tears, elation, and endless revelation. Essential viewing.
Author Bio: Shane Scott-Travis is a film critic, screenwriter, comic book author/illustrator and cineaste. Currently residing in Vancouver, Canada, Shane can often be found at the cinema, the dog park, or off in a corner someplace, paraphrasing Groucho Marx. Follow Shane on Twitter @ShaneScottravis.