The Films of Jim Jarmusch, ranked.

I remember really wanting to see Jim Jarmusch’s Night On Earth when it came out in 1991, and when arranging to catch an indie flick was a serious mission. Now, 23 years later, I finally got around to it. That’s some serious delayed gratification. As I mulled over whether or not it was one of his better movies, I got thinking they might be ordered a little something like this…

11. Permanent Vacation

I can barely remember this. Who can? If you watch it, that’s basically an hour and a half you’ll never recall.

10. The Limits of Control

Abstract hit man movie. Very stylish. Possibly a commentary on vacuous movies about stylish hitmen. But what’s the comment? That they exist? It does have Cate Blanchette in a ridiculous wig though, so it’s not a complete write-off.

9. Coffee and Cigarettes

Portmanteau black-and-white movie in which a succession of characters hang out in cafes smoking and drinking espresso. This had some good bits: Bill Murray, Steve Coogan, and best of all Cate Blanchette (again). But it just seemed to go on and on. Maybe a good film to watch in chunks, or in the background. Or to project onto the wall of your trendy happening, at a revamped municipal building in a newly gentrifying urban enclave. It’s very projectable!

8. Stranger Than Paradise


7. Ghost Dog

Forest Whittaker is a Samurai Assassin, and he keeps a loft full of pigeons! That’s the kind of character detail you’d normally get in a Steven Segal movie. Actually, this is a nice take on the “quirky loner hitman learns about life” movie, and its unique mix of influences (Bushido code references, Wu Tang soundtrack, pigeons) makes it worth watching. Also, Forest Whittaker.

6. Night on Earth

Four stories, four cities, four nighttime taxi rides. The first one’s the best: proper dawn-of-the-90s Winona Ryder as a proto-grungy wannabe mechanic driver named Corky. After that it’s hit-and-miss. Rosie Perez turns up in New York. Roberto Benini has a comedy monologue that’s pretty good (but takes forever to start). And Beatrice Dalle is a very very sexy blind lady. If Angelina Jolie’s lips are like a sofa, Beatrice Dalle’s are like an entire lounge.

5. Broken Flowers

Bill Murray receives an anonymous letter telling him he has a son. So he picks up a mix tape from Jeffrey Wright and heads out on a cross-country road trip to reconnect with his exes and find out what’s up with that. While he’s on his own the movie is great – no-one does driving around quite like Jim Jarmusch (see Night on Earth). But it gets even better with each visit he makes – his exes include Sharon Stone, Tilda Swinton and Julie Delpy. A quietly excellent rumination on lost time. With jokes.

4. Dead Man

My favourite noir is “Out of the Past”, starring the ever-magnificent Robert Mitchum. Mitchum brought his tough-guy charmer routine to over 100 films, of which this was the very last one. He arranges the killing Johnny Depp. What a way to bow out. Thanks, Robert Mitchum! The rest of the movie is Johnny Depp stalked by his own mortality as he travels across the 19th century American frontier, accompanied by a Native American who considers him to be a manifestation of the poet William Blake. A shimming silvery magical mystery tour; a monochrome-psychedelic voyage into the heart of death.

3. Mystery Train

Three stories interweave one night at a dilapidated Memphis flophouse. An Italian widow is carting home her husband’s coffin. Joe Strummer is recently unemployed and coming apart at the seams. And a Japanese tourist couple grow increasingly disillusioned with their pilgrimage to the home of Elvis. This was one of the first indie movies I ever saw, on the much-missed Moviedrome with Alex Cox. All the stories are good, but the best parts are the manifestation of the ghost of Elvis, the deadpan expressions of the hotel’s night clerk (played, and I cannot stress this enough, by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins), and the sheer melancholy of the Japanese couple as they come to accept that the Memphis of their holiday is not the Memphis of their dreams. Features the best putting-away of a zippo lighter in all cinema.

2. Only Lovers Left Alive

Tom Hiddlestone and Tilda Swinton are ancient vampires, hanging out in Detroit and Tangiers, in Jarmusch’s late-period masterpiece. John Hurt plays the undead poet Philip Marlowe, and Jeffrey Wright plays a corrupt haematologist (with a nice re-run of the zippo pocketing trick, this time with a wedge of cash). Our inhuman lovers are torn between the competing distractions of 60s-era analogue audio equipment, 19th century romantic poetry, and the exterminating ennui of the eternal infinite void. Genuinely romantic, with lots of late-at-night driving around the ruins of Detroit (in Wayfarer shades and velvet gloves). You’ve got to love a movie where two vampires park up outside a decaying auto plant, and to break the silence one suggests to his companion a trip to the Motown museum, only for her to reply sadly “…I’m more of a Stax kind of girl”.

1. Down By Law


That trailer describes it as “part comedy, part drama, part fairytale.” That’s all Jim Jarmusch’s best movies, right there.

Let us know if you disagree!

One thought on “The Films of Jim Jarmusch, ranked.

  1. Also worth mentioning Neil Young’s sublime soundtrack on Dead Man. I read that Young improvised while watching the scenes, which plays a bit to the spirit of pre-talkie Westerns.

    In general, I will say what I remember most about the Jarmusch films I liked are his sense for selecting the right music/composers to accompany his films. For example, whenever I think of the film Broken Flowers, I literally hear “Yekermo Sew” by Mulatu Astatke (which I think is in a scene where Jeffrey Wright makes Bill Murray listen to an LP that he’s digging on).

    On another, ahem, personal note, I’d like to point out that Michael Fassbender was first choice to play Adam.

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