Subscribe to our newsletter

(Credit: Jim Jarmusch)

Film

Six Definitive Films: The ultimate beginner's guide to Jim Jarmusch

@Russellisation

“The beauty of life is in small details, not in big events.” – Jim Jarmusch

King of eccentric and stylish filmmaking, Jim Jarmusch is well known as one of the most celebrated independent filmmakers in America. Looking a little like David Lynch’s younger brother, Jarmusch approaches his films with a similar idiosyncratic sense of style, often using recurring actors such as Bill Murray, Tom Waits and Tilda Swinton to tell his artistically-inspired soulful stories. 

Working his way into the industry through his time studying filmmaking at the New York University, Jarmusch stood out as an independent, creative thinker during his time in education, often handing in purposefully uneventful scripts to rile up his lecturers. Fond of his dissent, director Nicholas Ray, who worked at the college, took the young filmmaker under his belt where Jarmusch would pick up a considerable amount of priceless tips and techniques. 

Starting work on his final project for university, Jarmusch remarkably created the celebrated film Permanent Vacation, whilst the college refused to award him a degree for what they saw as a sub-par project. Since then, Jim Jarmusch has gone on to work with the very best Hollywood talent including Johnny Depp, Iggy Pop, Tilda Swinton, Chloë Sevigny, Steve Buscemi, Cate Blanchett, Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan. Celebrating over 40 years working in the industry, let’s take a look back at the career of Jim Jarmusch through his six most definitive films. 

Jim Jarmusch’s six definitive films:

Permanent Vacation (1980)

Very few directors have the privilege of saying that it was their final year university film that sent them to stardom, though for Jim Jarmusch this is certainly the case with his 1980 film, Permanent Vacation establishing him on the independent film scene. 

Made on a budget of only $12,000, the 16mm film is a quasi-autobiographical feature that follows an adolescent young man as he drifts through the vacant streets of downtown Manhattan. Whilst the film was not released theatrically, it would be monumentally important in establishing the director’s style later in his career, featuring the hallmarks of drab urban settings, dry humour and close character study. 

Down by Law (1986)

Many years later, once Jarmusch had refined his style and had learned from the making of his debut feature, the director would bring his first major film, Stranger Than Paradise to the big screen. Once again stamped with the trademark identity of Jarmusch, the film worked to establish his deadpan comedy and keen focus on disillusioned characters.

Seen as a pioneer of independent filmmaking upon its release in 1984, it was instead Jarmusch’s third feature film Down by Law, released two years later that would have a more profound impact on his career. Starring musicians John Lurie and Tom Waits, Jarmusch collaborated with the iconic Dutch cinematographer Robby Müller for the very first time, with his appearance alongside such major names helping to elevate his own status in the industry. 

Shot in black and white just like Stranger Than Paradise, Down by Law follows two men who are framed and sent to jail where they meet a murderer who helps them escape. More of a comedy than any of the director’s previous films, Down by Law set a new precedent for the future of Jarmusch’s career.

Mystery Train (1989)

Following work on short films and music videos, Jarmusch returned to feature filmmaking three years after Down by Law with two experiments in parallel narratives, Mystery Train and Night on Earth. 

Though Night on Earth contained more notable Hollywood names, it was Mystery Train that would help to better establish the director’s fondness for road movies and stories of lost travellers. Establishing a distinct style in his stark yet charming impression of contemporary America, Mystery Train was embraced by audiences across the art world who fell in love with its simple, stylish energy.

Dead Man (1995)

At this point in the mid-1990s, Jim Jarmusch had become established as a cult icon in cinema, with his films having a considerable impact on the industry whilst his music video work for the likes of Tom Waits was also making waves.

Johnny Depp may well have been the first major movie star the director had worked with by the time Dead Man was released in 1995, a film that saw the actor feature as a murderer who goes on a spiritual mental journey through the American plains. Slow and methodical, Dead Man once again demonstrated Jarmusch’s fondness for exploratory narratives whilst also progressing his style into something a little more surreal.

Broken Flowers (2005)

The surrealism of 1995s Dead Man began slowly creeping into the work of Jarmusch from the turn of the new millennium, where the likes of Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai and Coffee and Cigarettes utilised several bizarre characters and moments. 

Broken Flowers was something of an amalgamation of this newfound surrealism and his fondness for the road movie, with the film starring Bill Murray as a father who is informed that his estranged son is looking for him. Sparking a cross-country search for his long-lost son through the maze of past lovers, Jarmusch’s film is a romantic tale of lost love and mortality, picking up the Grand Prix at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival, largely thanks to Murray’s excellent lead performance. 

Paterson (2016)

Enjoying an eclectic career from his debut in 1980 to his latest film in 2019, Jim Jarmusch has never failed to inspire with his innovative approach to filmmaking, bringing a new concept or narrative style to each and every one of his projects. 

After the likes of the low-key crime drama, The Limits of Control and the stylish vampire flick Only Lovers Left Alive, Jim Jarmusch shifted back to his familiar formula of filmmaking with Paterson, a gentle road movie of sorts that flirts with surrealism. Starring Adam Driver as a poet and bus driver, the film follows his everyday musings and observations in the town of Paterson, New Jersey in modern-day America. 

Slow, thoughtful and hypnotic, Paterson may just be Jarmusch’s best ever film, perfectly mixing his stylish tone together with a story grounded in the beauty and absurdity of everyday living.