One of the greatest treats of the summer movie season this year for any serious cinephile is “De Palma,” the documentary by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow. Premiering at the Venice Film Festival last year to rave reviews, it was picked up by A24, giving it a far greater spotlight than most cinema-on-cinema docs, and it will hit theaters this Friday.
As the title might suggest, it’s a look at the life and career of Brian De Palma, a favorite filmmaker and friend of the two helmers, and centers almost entirely around an interview they conducted with the now 75-year-old director, and clips from his work. And yet despite its seemingly modest ambitions, it’s what our review called one of the “fastest, funniest and most exhilarating” movies you’ll see all year.
De Palma came up along the New Hollywood movement of the 1970s, and was friendly with many of those contemporaries, particularly George Lucas and Paul Schrader, but he always seemed distinct from them. After a string of early comedies and experimental pictures, De Palma became best known for thrillers of various scope and scale, being influenced by Hitchcock, Antonioni and the French New Wavers, but repackaging their work into something that felt new and exciting, partly thanks to his dazzling camerawork. He’s returned consistently to the same themes — voyeurism and violence — but found new ways to talk about them.
De Palma hasn’t always been a critical darling, and he’s had a rough last couple of decades, with a string of flops, critically ignored films or projects that fell apart. But Baumbach and Paltrow’s film is a real love letter, one that’ll hopefully see an upswing for its subject, and to mark its release (and the Metrograph season of De Palma movies), we’ve paid tribute by reviewing and ranking every one of his films. Take a look below and let us know your favorites in the comments.
29. “Redacted” (2007)
Challenged to make a micro-budget movie by financier Mark Cuban, De Palma came up with the concept for “Redacted,” based on an actual event and imbued with his anger at the injustices of the Iraq war. The resulting movie was one that harkens back to his experimental early films, both in terms of its mixed media formality and its righteous political outrage, an aspect of the filmmaker that had been repressed for too long. It’s just too bad, then, that “Redacted” is utterly awful. The movie appropriates a number of disparate digital aesthetics, from shaky YouTube videos to a French documentary about the war, but the main focus is a military unit that’s responsible for the gang rape and murder of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl. But the potentially powerful subject matter, reminiscent of the better “Casualties Of War,” is hampered because none of it feels real. It’s an older director adopting new technology, but never utilizing it correctly. An unmitigated boondoggle, the movie was attacked by Fox News et al for painting a negative portrait of the troops, even though it’s based on a well-documented event and De Palma, for all his righteous fury, never places blame squarely on the troops themselves. Instead, he seems to suggest that the atmosphere of war, with all of its bloodlust and misplaced aggression, helped breed this behavior. Of course, any point the movie might have tried to make was lost amidst the amateurish filmmaking and even worse performances; the whole thing comes across as embarrassing and trite. It’s unquestionably the single worst film in De Palma’s considerably rocky oeuvre, and while we have to applaud his anger and his directness in attacking the war, would it have killed him to do it with a better movie?
28. “The Black Dahlia” (2006)
An adaptation of a crime classic by “L.A. Confidential” author James Ellroy (and a movie previously linked to David Fincher) would seem like prime De Palma territory. But “The Black Dahlia” was an embarrassment, closer to daytime soap than to classic noir, and a black mark on the career of its talented cast. We don’t imagine two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank, embarrassingly miscast as a vampy, femme fatale type, will want to see this in a career highlight reel, proving that even very fine actors have some roles they just can’t pull off. Same goes to Scarlett Johansson, Aaron Eckhart and Josh Hartnett (the latter two playing detectives investigating the famously grisly real-life murder of Elizabeth Short), all acting as if they were filmed in different rooms with different players, being given direction for three completely different films. But you can’t talk about the utter shittiness of “Black Dahlia” and not mention Fiona Shaw, who plays Swank’s mother in the film as if she was constantly high on mescaline and whip-its. The multiple reveals and plot twists surrounding this character, and her descent into unintentionally hilarious, I’m-loving-every-minute-of-being-crazy insanity, should be added to the pantheon of bad performances in shit movies. Things seem off right from the elaborate opening tracking shot, when even De Palma’s signature long takes can’t make up for the garish, over-the-top period costume design and a cartoonish street brawl staged and choreographed like a Max Fischer play but without any of the earnest charm. It’s a slog that would be more fun if it could even lay claim to being laughable; instead it’s just turgid, embarrassingly sloppy and full of so much wasted potential.
27. ”Wise Guys” (1986)
Oftentimes Brian De Palma movies can be funny, sometimes outrageously so (as is the case with “Body Double” and “The Fury“), but when he tries to do out-and-out comedies the results are decidedly more mixed. In the case of “Wise Guys,” though, his attempt at humor was more or less a complete disaster. Danny DeVito and Joe Piscopo (!) play a couple of low-level leg-breakers who squander a mob boss’ money and go on the run together (in a pink Cadillac, no less). There are a couple of noteworthy supporting performances, particularly Dan Hedaya as the mob boss who loves wearing bulletproof business suits (don’t ask) and Harvey Keitel as an Atlantic City hotel owner, whose mere presence makes the movie a few degrees cooler, but that doesn’t amount to much. What could have been an intriguing, fun concept is marred from the very beginning by cartoonish performances and a kind of heightened reality that doesn’t, as is usually the case with De Palma movies, enrich the action but instead detracts from it to a crippling degree. Everyone seems to be shouting and waving their arms around and De Palma’s direction more or less follows suit, with a number of visual flourishes that only serve to remind us that the director could very well be using his complex technical expertise on much better material. (Although there is a great, super single shot of an entire street clearing the way for an exploding car, only hampered slightly by his decision to speed up the action a la the trying-on-the-tuxedos moment in “Carrie.”) “Wise Guys” proves that a tone deaf, dumb-ass comedy with a bunch of nifty split diopter shots is still a tone deaf, dumb-ass comedy, and for all its frenetic energy it can’t muster much enthusiasm in those watching.
26. “The Bonfire Of The Vanities” (1990)
As lovingly detailed in Julie Salamon‘s must-read first hand account “The Devil’s Candy,” De Palma’s adaptation of Tom Wolfe‘s blockbuster novel was filled, from start to finish, with crippling creative compromises and poor decisions. How, for instance, was lovably thuggish Bruce Willis cast as the novel’s erudite British author (and the loud, Jewish judge from the book portrayed by a knightly Morgan Freeman?) De Palma has never been the best with straightforward comedies, and the screechy comedic tone from “Wise Guys” is repeated here. Perhaps more fatally, the three years that passed since the publication of Wolfe’s book, a state-of-the-nation satire about a Wall Street asshole (Tom Hanks, not exactly the first person you think of for ‘yuppie scumbag’ and another example of the disastrous miscasting throughout) and his squeeze (Melanie Griffith) who are involved in a hit-and-run, leading to a hot-button court case the zeitgeist had long since moved on. As is the case in all De Palma movies, no matter how miserable, there are a few moments that still dazzle: the opening, unbroken shot that follows Willis through a maze of underground tunnels before emerging into a swanky Manhattan event, the shot of the Concorde touching down that took a Herculean amount of effort to achieve (it’s lit by the golden hue of the setting sun), and the movie’s first image, atop the Chrysler Building, which required 24-hours of time lapse photography. But for the most part, it’s a near-irredemable mess, a tin-eared squandering of a lot of talented folks, and a movie that only goes down in cultural history because of the level of hubris and disaster it attracted (though oddly, it’s apparently a favorite in Eastern Europe).
25. ”Femme Fatale” (2002)
Betraying her team after an involved jewel heist at the Cannes Film Festival, sexy person Laure (Rebecca Romijn) goes into hiding but is mistaken for another woman, who conveniently commits suicide, leaving a passport and a plane ticket. On the flight, Laure meets smitten diplomat Watts (Peter Coyote), and ends up marrying him. All is well until he is posted back to Paris and she is photographed by hack photographer Nicolas (Antonio Banderas) and her old gang is back on her trail once more. But there are far more sexy seductions and insane coincidences and double crosses and TWIST!s than that, none of which add up to anything even distantly related to sense. Leaving aside the many, many problems that De Palma’s “Femme Fatale” suffers from in terms of characterization, performance and plot, the big issue that hangs over any summary like a sword of damocles is the (SPOILER) “twist” ending, when it is revealed that pretty much the largest portion of the film didn’t actually take place. On a level perhaps only with Bobby Ewing stepping out of the shower for sheer, facepalming WTF-ness, it takes what had till then been a very silly, but intermittently enjoyable, faux noir and makes it all a tricksy in-joke, in which the joke is on you, for investing even on a very surface level, to that point. It’s not even like De Palma takes the opportunity of poking fun at the level of ludicrousness we’d been buying till then — in fact, he undercuts any such notion with an ending that is fully as stupidly contorted as anything that happened in the “imagined” section. It gets nudged up a fraction because of a few moments of silly, salacious fun, and for the curious watchability of its trainwreck storytelling, but that doesn’t mean after the final credits roll, and all the “twists” are finally twisted out, we don’t want to throw the whole damn film off a goddamn bridge.