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Film

Six Definitive Films: The ultimate beginner's guide to Gus Van Sant

Always at the very forefront of contemporary pop culture, the American filmmaker Gus Van Sant is a pioneering director, producer, photographer, musician and all-around creative who has found success in both the independent and mainstream avenues of cinema.

A prominent auteur of the New Queer Cinema movement, Van Sant has made great cultural strides with the release of such films as My Own Private Idaho and Milk. 

Nominated for two Academy Awards whilst winning the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2003 for his provocative movie Elephant, Van Sant has never been afraid to push the boundaries of taste and challenge audiences to confront complex subject matters. Such has led the director to forge a formidable filmography made up of some of the greatest movies of contemporary cinema.   

His travels in the industry have allowed him to collaborate with some of the finest creatives of all time, not limited to the film industry, having made music videos for such artists as David Bowie, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Elton John and many more. That’s without even mentioning the movie icons he’s worked with during his illustrious time in cinema rewarding him with some extraordinary collaborations.

Gus Van Sant’s six definitive films:

Mala Noche (1986)

Van Sant’s early career began once he moved to Los Angeles in 1976, securing a job as a production assistant for filmmaker Ken Shapiro. The industry was as thorny as the young creative had expected, however, finding initial trouble progressing in his career, but he was in the right place. Becoming obsessed with life in the strange corners of the Hollywood Boulevard and the wider LA areas, the director would later work to create his debut feature film Mala Noche, an extraordinary movie that explores such lost characters. 

Made on the budget of $25,000, the film was shot in monochrome and earned the director international acclaim on the festival circuit for its raw drama and confrontation of homosexual issues. 

Drugstore Cowboy (1989)

With newfound leverage after the success of his debut feature film, Van Sant found that the movies he pitched were getting more attention, creating the 1989 movie Drugstore Cowboy first and foremost. A story about four drug addicts robbing pharmacies to support their habit, Van Sant’s follow-up movie, made just three years after his debut, marked him as a significant emerging talent. 

Met with great critical reviews, the film, headed up by lead actor Matt Dillon, demonstrated that the filmmaker was capable of handling more established film stars. 

My Own Private Idaho (1991)

Speaking of movie stars, in the early 1990s there were few teenage heartthrobs as significant as River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves, with both stars having found recent fame through separate starring roles. Following the dealings of two male hustlers, played by Phoenix and Reeves, Van Sant’s film was a brooding examination of unrequited love, alienation and belonging in a society that shunned the individual. 

Winning awards across the world, the film is now seen as something of a cultural totem to the power of the late River Phoenix who tragically passed away in 1993. My Own Private Idaho would be a fruitful exercise for each of him, Reeves and Van Sant. 

Good Will Hunting (1997)

In the time between My Own Private Idaho and his celebrated classic Good Will Hunting, Gus Van Sant worked to considerably bulk out his CV, working on music videos with the likes of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Elton John and Tracy Chapman before making the critical flop Even Cowgirls Get the Blues in 1993 and the considerably more celebrated To Die For in 1995. Though, for Van Sant, bigger things were on the horizon.

Breaking into the mainstream thanks to the Oscar-winning success of Good Will Hunting, starring Robin Williams and Matt Damon, the film about a troubled, blue-collar mathematical genius would become a mighty critical and commercial success, allowing the director the freedom to truly flex his filmmaking muscles. 

Elephant (2003)

Good Will Hunting’s success allowed Van Sant to experiment so much so that it was borderline detrimental to his career, creating comparative successive flops in the remake of Psycho in 1998, Finding Forrester in 2000 and Gerry in 2002. It wasn’t until he went back to his independent roots that he would once again find critical success, making arguably his greatest ever movie in the ethereal drama Elephant that dug deep into the chaos of a school shooting.

Winning the Palme d’Or in 2003, Van Sant’s film still stands as an exemplary piece of cinema, remaining one of the only filmmakers who dares to confront such a tentative subject with so much power yet so much grace at the same time. 

Milk (2008)

Forever curious, the work of Gus Van Sant has never failed to push the boundaries of himself as a creative as well as the limits of taste in modern cinema. Following the drama of Elephant, the director worked Last Days, a film that dealt with the essence of the creative career of Kurt Cobain as well as Paranoid Park that, once again, confronted the difficult topic of accidental murder at the hands of a minor. 

Milk, the biopic of gay activist Harvey Milk who fought for gay rights and became California’s first openly gay elected official, would take the filmmaker back to Oscar-winning ways, however, with the 2008 movie seizing the attention of critics and audiences for good reason. A captivating drama about a key figure in LGBTQ+ civil rights, Van Sant’s film demonstrated that over 20 years since his debut he remained a truly combative filmmaker. 

Though further success would follow in the shape of 2011s Restless and 2018s Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, Van Sant has been unable to get back to the raw power of his previous work. Though, just like his slump at the turn of the new millennium, perhaps his resurgence is once again just around the corner.