by Paul Deeter
With a penchant for smoking and a good cup of coffee bolstered right down to the tile of his 2003 slice of life feature Coffee and Cigarettes, Jim Jarmusch established himself as a presence in 1984 and one unwilling to fade away into irrelevance up to 2021. The 68-year old Ohioan born from a relatively comfortable class family spent a lot of his childhood under the influence of films, and good ones to boot. With the influence of his mother he attended weekly double-feature theater showings of B-Movie horror flicks, and even was (probably unknowingly) exposed to an adult feature at the age of 7. At a young age two different lifestyle choices would shape him most significantly into the personality he is today. He was strictly non-religious and would not attend church with his family, and he surrounded himself with independent movie showings, beat poet literature and other forms of mixed media beyond his years. He spent his young adult years from New York to Paris, nudging shoulders with future acclaimed artists and talents and working at concert halls (his early exposure to current independent music). His privilege of working with some of the greats from early on, along with his adulterated tastes would influence his body of unique and significant films starting in 1980 with the slight university homework project Permanent Vacation, and extending into projects like Down by Law, Paterson, and many more of acclaim. His distinct style would be unmistakable, with love for long unbroken shots of amateur acting performances and a loose script to make his films feel more authentic. Lots of his work would benefit from black-and-white film, and an incredible use of soundtrack as well.
Jim Jarmusch's works spans almost 40 years but it's tricky to place a finger on just what's worth checking out and what's probably best left unwatched. With over 15 full features and many other acting and writing projects to mention, the work of Jarmusch is significant and abundant but not all essential. I'd compare Jarmusch, not by style but instead by consistency to Steven Soderbergh. These directors are almost chameleons in their projects, with Soderbergh's work spanning independent classics, comedies, heist films and even sci-fi work. Jarmusch has not completely gone too far out of the realm of his lower budget, and essentially quietly moody features. But it is impressive to know the director of a deadpan road trip comedy actually made a zombie feature. To each their own of course, but I've compiled a list of the five of the most essential, or at least uniquely significant Jarmusch projects worth watching. Not every film here is going to be your cup of tea, maybe. But there's a little bit for everyone here, and I'd encourage even the most casual viewer to dip their toes into one of his decade-spanning features. Let's dive in, in no particular order.
Broken Flowers (2005)
Jim Jarmusch would start from his first film Stranger than Paradise in 1984 and continue with the road-trip film motif for many of his features. The idea of both exploring the local flavor of different vistas and the theme of the lost traveler and their journey of self-exploration would be a commonality in Jarmusch's canon of work. While Stranger than Paradise uses black and white camerawork and very amateur, off-beat acting and dialogue, Broken Flowers sees the prolific Bill Murray front and center in his own journey. This feature has Murray playing Don Johnston (often referred to as Don Juan from his many lovers) and his trek to reconnect with his exes. An anonymous letter arrives from one of his exes, and it informs the aged and far-retired Don that he has a son, 19 years old. What's next is a often contemplative and somber film with genuine moments of comedy, strongly backed by Murray's always stellar work. Jarmusch would see both critical and commercial acclaim from this feature. It won the Grand Prix at Cannes Film Festival, and additionally was nominated for Palme-d'OR. It's no light viewing, but it shows just how raw Jarmusch can portray a character whose life of recklessness has finally caught up to him. This is maybe the bleakest Jarmusch film.
2. Down by Law (1986)
An entry of the Criterion Collection for esteemed films, Down by Law feels like a classic despite being a small independent release at the time. While the film takes a little while to get the trio of oddfellow characters in the same room, when it does we get a real strange and memorable journey. When I say journey, I should mention that the three leads: John Lurie, Tom Waits and Roberto Benigni, are trapped in a small prison cell for a majority of Law's running time. The journey that happens is one of a more comedic development, with each prisoner challenged in their interactions with each other, eventually loosening up and inevitably becoming friends. None of these three are entirely guilty, two of them are set up for their crimes in fact. That alone makes each inmate enjoyable and forgivable while we watch them brush against each other and engage in memorable comedy bits. Specifically Benigni shines as an Italian tourist who's broken English is tested through multiple conversational inquisitions. At one point he draws a window in chalk against the cell wall and inquires "does one say look through a window or look at a window?" Lurie's character wryly responds "the term is to look through a window, although in this case, at a window seems to be appropriate." On top of that there's a loud "I Scream Ice Cream" sing-along with the whole prison that's impossible to beat.
3. The Dead Don't Die (2019)
Jarmusch's latest feature is perhaps his most disliked. The Dead Don't Die is not shy of the loaded casts that made some of his other hits memorable, but tonally never quite hits its comedic stride with any of the performances. It's a very strange film, and sometimes (but not often) there are comedy bits that just kind of work. Adam Driver playing a police officer and calling some young tourist victims 'hipsters' even when holding one of their decapitated heads up is gold. Chloe Sevigny's turn as a fellow officer and Tilda Swinton's performance as the samurai sword wielding Zelda is also gold. I belly-laughed when Driver had a keychain of his admiral ship in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. But this is a movie of more misses than hits, some of the goofy dialogue mixed with deadpan acting falls flat, and for a zombie movie... it's a bit dull. But I couldn't leave out a film where Bill Murray and Adam Driver constantly break the fourth wall, even when it comes to hearing the film's theme song again and again on the radio.
4. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)
Ghost Dog is a true testament to the talked about and unmatched 'cool' of Jim Jarmusch. From Forest Whitaker's incredibly smooth performance as the titled hitman, to the curated original soundtrack by RZA of Wu-Tang Clan, Jarmusch has quite a few cooks in this kitchen, but the final product is phenomenal. The movie flirts with action and comedy in different bouts and is considered divisive (the most common word in its critical consensus is 'weird') but maintains a solid vibe that never lets up from start to finish. I was very engaged with this film, and had the pleasure of being introduced to it by my father (who admittedly has pretty cool tastes as well.) The movie pays respect to old-school Japanese films on samurais and their unbreakable codes, and the French classic Le Samourai. Jarmusch has clearly done his research, and it shows.
5. Mystery Train (1989)
Another testament to the coolness of Jarmusch is his approach to the town of Memphis through the perspective of multiple different characters on their own journeys. Another road trip film of sorts, the two characters most notable are a super stylish Japanese couple who are obsessed with Elvis Presley. The couple are on the farthest journey of all the characters, slightly lost in translation but undeniably cool as they venture the quiet night streets of Memphis and scrapbook their experience. The other two stories are interesting but don't hold up quite as well as the first 'Far from Yokohama', but we do get treated to a hilarious Screamin' Jay Hawkins performance as a red-suited, rule-oriented hotel receptionist.
6. Dead Man (1995)
Dead Man is also known as Jarmusch's psychedelic western, a term he himself coined. It's a pretty wild ride, but is also quite down to Earth with its loving and sensitive approach to the Native American culture of the film's many characters on screen. Johnny Depp plays William Blake (an author, not the author) who is rescued or perhaps resurrected after being shot in the chest by a Native American named Nobody. Nobody is on his own journey of arguable revenge in response to the past white violence that befell him and took his whole family from him. Blake joins him as a dead man, too close to death to truly save, but far from done with his place on the Earth, as Nobody and him hunt down criminals, outlaws and thieves (including a corrupt missionary). Blake is also being hunted, by the three killers that intended him dead after the first shooting, and they're constantly close behind the two on their chase. So many elements work here, from it's bizarre cameos (Iggy Pop as a cross-dresser) to it's almost unbroken continuous Neil Young background instrumental tracking. Nobody's story is the real focus here though. He thinks that Depp's Blake is the man who's poetry helped him through the darkest times, and eventually Blake adopts the same thinking. At the right side of a pistol Blake says "I'm a writer, perhaps you heard of my work," making those the last words one of his many victims hear.