10 Best Jonathan Demme Movies
One of the most devastating losses of 2017, visionary director Jonathan Demme will be missed and appreciated for years and years to come. There aren’t many other directors who managed to helm both dramatic narrative films and captivating documentary features, but Demme managed to do so with relative ease. He’s an essential part of film history, and his loss was certainly a devastating one. He’d directed a few features before the decade rolled around, but Demme really came into his own once the 80s began. For the next thirty-seven years, Demme flipped from dramas to comedies to documentaries to concert films to television episodes and back again. He was truly a one-of-a-kind voice, and a filmmaker responsible for an illustrious list of greatest hits.
Stop Making Sense
A fascinating hybrid of a concert film and a sketch comedy, this 1984 collaboration between Demme and uniquely compelling rock band The Talking Heads is one for the ages. Never before had a band optimized their concert film for the screen. Never before had a serious director taken on such an absurd idea for a documentary. Together, the two’s Stop Making Sense proves to be the best concert film ever made (as well as Demme’s strongest documentary).
The Silence of the Lambs
No matter how good he was at making them, documentaries were only one half of what made Demme such a valuable asset—he was also one of the greatest dramatic directors of his time. This is proven to the fullest extent with 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs. Starring Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins, the crime thriller is as creepy now as it was back then. Demme’s direction is everything, elevating what could’ve been a ho-hum drama to one of the all-time greatest additions to the genre ever made.
Swimming to Cambodia
Actor and writer Spalding Gray was a performer through and through. Naturally, it only makes sense for a voice like his to collaborate with a director like Demme. 1987’s Swimming to Cambodia is one long comedic monologue from Gray, but it’s so much more than that. Grey moves from set to set as he details his experiences behind the scenes of the 1984 film The Killing Fields and the turmoil in Cambodia that was taking place during the filming of the movie, while Demme keeps the camera at a safe enough distance to let Spalding do his thing.
One of Tom Hanks’s most devastating performances, Philadelphia follows the profoundly moving story of Andrew Beckett and Joe Miller (Denzel Washington) as a gay man and a homophobic lawyer, respectively, as they fight back against Beckett’s former employer for wrongful dismissal. Coming at a time when HIV/AIDS was still a hard subject for the world, Philadelphia is as important as it is absorbing.
Arriving on the heels of Stop Making Sense, Something Wild sees Jeff Daniels and Melanie Griffith as a wealthy man and a loose cannon, respectively, with the latter “kidnapping” the former for a weekend of fun. Something Wild is witty, original, and an excellent vehicle for both Daniels and Griffith. It no doubt cemented Demme’s status as one of the most promising up-and-coming directors of the time.
Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids
Originally released on Netflix, Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids is a stylistic concert film and an interesting documentary in one. Regardless of how you feel about Timberlake, Demme makes you care about the final nights of his 20/20 Experience World Tour. It’s one of his final projects as a director, and it’s absolutely worth your time — especially since it’s so readily available to stream.
Melvin and Howard
Inspired by a true story and based on a novel by the same name, 1980’s Melvin and Howard is a strong dramatic comedy from Demme and a great vehicle for actress Mary Steenburgen. It’s a curious rags-to-riches story, and it’s made all the more interesting by the fact that it’s true. Demme might not have been a huge name at this point in his career, but it certainly points towards a very successful future.
Who Am I This Time?
This entry is a little different than anything else Demme did: it’s a stage play, it aired on PBS, and it’s incredibly meta. Susan Sarandon and Christopher Walken star as a couple who struggle with their relationship both on and off the stage. Like with Swimming to Cambodia, Demme keeps the camera in just the right place to allow the stars to show off their talent.
Rachel Getting Married
Starring Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married is another excellent drama from Demme. Hathaway plays Kym, a catalyst to a family that would probably rather go on without her and her drama. It’s a slow-burning film, one that slowly builds up the heat until tensions boil over. Demme was capable of a lot, and Rachel Getting Married is an excellent late-career reminder of this.
Married to the Mob
It seems that every good director has to make a good mob movie—this is Demme’s. Married to the Mob follows a mobster’s wife who hates her life, but gets a chance to change course when her husband is killed. It’s a funny spin on the mob movie genre, and it’s a memorable entry in Demme’s filmography. Michelle Pfeiffer and Matthew Modine are pretty great in this, too.
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