Jim Jarmusch movies have a number of recurring elements: prominent roles for musicians, deadpan comedy, frequent use of characters and actors from countries outside the United States, and a style of storytelling that could best be described as introspective. Credited with almost single-handedly launching the new independent movement in American cinema, the white-haired director was once quoted as saying that he’d rather make a film about a guy walking his dog than about the emperor of China.
In addition to the 10 Jim Jarmusch movies featured here, he’s also tried his hand at music videos, documentary filmmaking, shorts, and even a little bit of acting. And let’s not forget about his screenwriting, as Jarmusch has brought his minimalist style to all of his feature projects (not to mention editing, composing, and producing several of them).
If you’re a fan of independent cinema, prepare to be blown away…
- Permanent Vacation (1980) – When Jim Jarmusch grabbed himself a 16mm camera and went to work, the result was a thoroughly original and brooding look at a young man wandering the New York landscape and thinking about the meaning of life. Along the way, he meets a cast of characters who are decidedly unique. While his vision of cinema is not yet fully formed, it’s a perfect opportunity to see a man grow as an artist. If you’ve never experienced any Jim Jarmusch movies, start here and view them in order.
- Stranger Than Paradise (1984) – A major influence on the independent film movement, this minimalist black-and-white sophomore effort from Jarmusch redefined how many looked at the indy scene. Willie (jazz musician John Lurie) is a gambler and all-around cool guy bored out of his mind in New York City. When he’s not cheating at cards or betting on the ponies with his pal Eddie (ex Sonic Youth drummer Richard Edson), he’s putting up Eva (Eszter Balint), his cousin from Budapest who’s in town for 10 days. This leads to a less-than-exciting trek to Cleveland, a mix-up involving a flight to Europe, and plenty of opportunities to reflect on life and their grimy surroundings. Any true fan of independent movies has to put this one on their must-see list.
- Down by Law (1986) – Three men are arrested in New Orleans and thrown in the same cell. Jack (John Lurie) is a pimp, Zach (Tom Waits) is a disc jockey, and Bob (Roberto Benigni) is an Italian tourist. Tempers flare between Jack and Zach, but Bob comes up with a plan for escape. This leads to the trio wandering around lost in the Louisiana swamps, at least until they come upon an isolated home owned by Nicolette (Nicoletta Braschi). Both Lurie and Waits contribute music to the soundtrack, and Ellen Barkin also shows up in a supporting role. If you’re expecting something akin to Escape from Alcatraz or TV’s Prison Break, then check your expectations at the door.
- Mystery Train (1989) – Jarmusch wrote and directed this anthology film set in Memphis, Tennessee and featuring an international cast. The first story, “Far From Yokohama,“ focuses on a teenage couple from Japan who are making a pilgrimage to Memphis. “A Ghost” involves a grieving widow (Nicoletta Braschi) trying to return her husband’s body to Italy. Forced to share a room for the night with a blabber mouthed young woman, the widow receives a special spiritual visitor. The final story, “Lost in Space,” stars Joe Strummer as an unemployed Brit who meanders about a flophouse with his pals (Steve Buscemi and Rick Aviles) after a drunken bout of armed robbery. Shot with bright colors and a slow pace, Mystery Train will take American audiences to an part of the country that they may not recognize as their own.
- Night on Earth (1991) – Since his last film featured three stories, Jarmusch upped the ante to five with this anthology set in taxis around the globe (L.A., New York, Paris, Rome, Helsinki). The international cast includes Winona Ryder, Gena Rowlands, Giancarlo Esposito, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Rosie Perez, Roberto Benigni, Matti Pellonpaa, and Isaach De Bankole.
- Dead Man (1995) – Jarmusch has referred to the film as an “Acid Western,” but it could just as easily be called a “Weird Western” due to its postmodern take and spiritual elements. Johnny Depp stars as a Cleveland accountant named William Blake who wanders into the frontier town of Machine to start his new job. But the position has already been filled, and soon Blake is being hunted for the shooting death of Charlie (Gabriel Byrne), the no-account son of local industrialist John Dickinson (Robert Mitchum). With a bullet in his chest and accompanied by an Indian named Nobody (who thinks he’s a reincarnation of the poet William Blake), Blake goes on a killing spree. Meanwhile, a cannibalistic bounty hunter (Lance Henriksen) in on our hero’s trail. This bizarre, black-and-white vision quest co-stars Gary Farmer, Crispin Glover, John Hurt, Michael Wincott, Iggy Pop, Billy Bob Thornton, and Alfred Molina.
- Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) – Jarmusch tries his hand at an action film, casting Forest Whitaker as Ghost Dog, a modern-day samurai who acts as a hitman for the Italian Mafia. When his superiors decide he’s become a liability, a tense showdown is all but guaranteed. Meanwhile, Ghost Dog hangs out with his Haitian pal Raymond (Isaach De Bankole) and befriends a young girl named Pearline (Camille Winbush). Drawing themes from Don Quixote, the film co-stars Henry Silva, John Tormey, Tricia Vessey, and RZA (who also provided the soundtrack).
- Coffee and Cigarettes (2003) – Eleven short stories are brought to the big screen, with only coffee and cigarettes as the linking elements. From a conversation about Tesla Coils to Bill Murray working a day job as a waiter, you’ll be fascinated by the actors and the conversations. Starring Roberto Benigni, Steven Wright, Steve Buscemi, Tom Waits, Iggy Pop, Cate Blanchett, Alfred Molina, Steve Coogan, Jack White, Meg White, GZA, and RZA.
- Broken Flowers (2005) – When he receives an anonymous letter informing him that he has a son, a notorious womanizer (Bill Murray) hits the road to track down four of his former lovers. Each visit is more disastrous than the last, but it gives Jarmusch plenty of opportunities to include performers such as Sharon Stone, Jeffrey Wright, Jessica Lange, Tilda Swinton, Chloe Sevigny, and Julie Delpy. Murray, as you might expect, is predictably wonderful.
- The Limits of Control (2009) – Filled with an eclectic soundtrack, repeated references to other films, and beautiful locations in Spain and Seville, The Limits of Control follow an assassin as he seeks to complete his latest mission. Starring Isaach De Bankole, Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Gael Garcia Bernal, and John Hurt, the film received some of the least positive reviews of all Jarmusch projects, despite the beautiful cinematography by Christopher Doyle and an ambitious vision of reality.
This concludes our look at all the Jim Jarmusch movies currently available. While 10 feature films in 30 years isn’t a massive amount, he’s more than made up for it by packing each motion picture to the brim with complex themes, interesting performances, and skilled directorial work. Fans of Jim Jarmusch are already awaiting his next project, while those unfamiliar with his work are on the verge of discovering a wide new world of independent filmmaking.