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20 Most Essential Jonathan Demme Movies

From serial-killer thrillers to ‘Stop Making Sense,’ mob comedies to a feature-length monologue – the Demme films you need to see ASAP

Thrillers, concert films, exploitation movies, uproarious comedies, Oscar-winning dramas, quirky character studies, socially conscious documentaries – was there anything Jonathan Demme couldn’t do? To say we lost a major artist today when the director of The Silence of the Lambs, Stop Making Sense, Philadelphia, Something Wild and many, many more passed away today at the age of 73 is underselling the gap left behind – few working Hollywood directors had his verstatility and almost none of them had his all-encompassing for humanity, in all its glory and messiness.

Thankfully, we still have the movies, if not the man, and the following 20 films exemplify his range, his way with actors, his love of music and his sense of using the medium to make a statement. Some are sweet, some are slick, some are rough. All of them are Demme’s movies, from start to finish.

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‘Melvin and Howard’ (1980)

Meet down-on-his-luck Melvin Dummar (Paul Le Mat), a man who has suffered various indignities: a lost job, a repossessed truck, a long-gone stripper-wife. Then he finds out that the man he had given a ride to late one night – who happened to be reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes (Jason Robards) – had supposedly left him $156 million upon his death. Chaos ensues. Demme’s breakthrough film is both a left-field look at the fringes of the American Dream and an ode to those everyday sad sacks who keep dreaming it. The film was also quirky enough to appeal to the Talking Heads, who upon seeing it requested that the director helm their concert film Stop Making Sense. KG

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‘Stop Making Sense’ (1984)

The Talking Heads had completely deconstructed the rock concert on their 1983 tour: punk expats using Off-Broadway production values to transform a bare stage, a suit that keeps getting bigger, a love song crooned to a lamp and some of the most expressively awkward contortions to be understood by a cheering crowd as “dancing.” The power of the tour’s document – inarguably one of the greatest and most collaborative concert movies ever made – is in Demme’s gleeful rip-it-up-and-start-again joy in demolishing the “rock movie.” Instead of fretwork and crowd interplay, the director focuses on feet, faces, shadows and booming Kubrick-esque shots of the entire stage where the nine-member crew prances around like ants. It’s both weirdly intimate and weirdly alienating, a perfect way to shoot a band interpreting human existence through buildings and highways. “Same as it ever was”? Hardly. CW

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‘Something Wild’ (1986)

Straight-laced banker Jeff Daniels has his world rocked when he meets the costume-wearing libertine Melanie Griffith. The duo hit the road – and then the fun turns scary when her ex-convict husband, played by a pre-GoodFellas Ray Liotta, shows up. It’s a film that showcases Demme’s ability to transition between screwball comedy and drama seamlessly without sacrificing one for the other – it’s since gone on to become a cult classic. Daniels, Griffith and Liotta were all nominated for Golden Globes as a result; filmmaker John Waters’ surprise cameo as a seedy, dollar-bill–straightening used-car salesman sadly was not. KG

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‘Swimming to Cambodia’ (1987)

Demme not only exposed America to Spalding Gray’s unique blend of storytelling, stand-up, journalism and theater; he shot this Obie-winning monologue with a style that matched Gray signature mix of disengagement and depth. The downtown performer’s electric riff on traveling to Thailand for a role in The Killing Fields finds its heart through its detachment, spanning great human emotion but delivered cool, at piece with works by Laurie Anderson, Philip Glass and previous Demme collaborators Talking Heads. In the pre-Wes Anderson era, the director shoots him with a meticulous detachment all his own: symmetrical, stationary, simple and functional. Demme never gets in the way of the story. But he doesn’t let it do all the work either. CW

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‘Married to the Mob’ (1988)

Mention the Mafia, and most folks immediately pictured the impeccably dressed capos and killers from The Godfather; when it came time for Demme to make a mobster movie, he pulled a complete 180-degree turn and made his gangsters the most gloriously tacky criminals you’d ever seen. Mob wife Angela de Marco (a pitch-perfect Michelle Pfeiffer) is a gum-smacking widow being pursued by a bumbling FBI agent (Matthew Modine) and New York big syndicate boss (Oscar-nominated Dean Stockwell); she’s also incurred the wrath of the Don’s wife (Mercedes Ruehl), whose grocery store showdown is like something lifted from a screwball comedy. Only Demme could turn a mob movie a symphony of kitsch and a kindly rom-com blessed with a deeply warped sense of sympathy. It’s an underrated gem. DF

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‘The Silence of the Lambs’ (1991)

Demme’s ticket to horror-movie immortality, and a well-deserved one at that. This iconic thriller about an FBI agent (Jodie Foster, never better) using a serial killer to catch a serial killer made a superstar out of Anthony Hopkins; compare the actor’s work here to his subsequent turns as the charismatic, cannibalistic Dr. Hannibal Lecter and you can see the director’s sense of less-is-more restraint paying dividends. The film also broke a bloody glass ceiling at the Oscars, too, becoming the only horror movie to date to win Best Picture. But it’s the thoughtful way in which Demme shot the world that our heroine Clarice Starling has to navigate – so many male faces, looming huge in the frame and staring right into her (and our) eyes – that remains Silence’s most pointed commentary on predators and patriarchy. STC

20 Essential Jonathan Demme Movies

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‘Cousin Bobby’ (1992)

Folks have paid a lot of lip service (and rightfully so) to Demme’s chops as concert-movie director, but his documentary work tends to get short shrift – especially this portrait of the filmmaker’s cousin, an Episcopalian minister named Robert Castle who preaches the good word up in Harlem. Meeting up with his blood relative, the man behind the camera reminisces with the man of the cloth about their lives, their family and the notions of faith and charity; it’s the last thing you’d expect from the man who’d just made Hannibal Lecter a household name. But it’s one of those movies whose cup runneth over with kindness and a sense of brotherly love. Pure Demme, in other words. DF

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‘Philadelphia’ (1993)

In the present day, it’s easy enough to file away Demme’s A-list courtroom drama as a historical artifact or an Oscars factoid. (As a persecuted gay lawyer, Tom Hanks earned the first of his back-to-back Best Actor wins.) But beyond Hollywood’s wake-up call to the AIDS epidemic, both the film and the bond between Hanks and Denzel Washington’s legal counsel act as the director’s most lasting referendum on the grave importance of understanding, forgiveness and solidarity. Some will say it did not go far enough in terms of its portrayal of the plague that was still gutting the LGBT community, and it may not be Demme’s “coolest” film. But it just might be his most deeply empathetic – and what’s cooler than compassion for your fellow man? CB

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‘Beloved’ (1998)

Critics weren’t that kind to Demme’s adaptation of Toni Morrison’s ghost story (first Spielberg does Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, and now this?). But if ever one of the director’s films demanded a repeat viewing and a re-evaluation, it’s this one. Oprah Winfrey’s performance here as an ex-slave dealing with an unexpected visitor – who may or may not be a specter from her past – runs rings around her work in the aforementioned lit flick, and is easily the best screen work she’s done to date. Thandie Newton’s otherwordly Beloved is sometimes monstrous, sometimes childlike and completely haunting. And you can feel how Demme is constantly emphasizing the human pulse beneath the genre’s things-that-go-bump-in-the-night trappings. Attention must be paid. DF

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‘Storefront Hitchcock’ (1998)

A man, his guitar, a plate-glass window – Demme did not need much to make a completely compelling music-performance movie. Of course, it helped that he had Robyn Hitchcock, a singer and singwriter with a facility for killer hooks and cracked lyrics about devils’ radios and filthy birds, on hand to help out. The concept was simple: Get the ex-Soft Boys frontman to perform in a storefront window. That’s it. The result, however, is damn near transcendental. DF

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‘The Agronomist’ (2003)

Demme’s interest in Haitian culture dates back to his Something Wild days, so it’s not surprising that he’d devote an entire documentary to Jean Dominique, who ran the independent Radio Haiti-Inter. He used the airwaves to stand up to the powerful and the nation’s oppressors, and was assassinated for standing up for human rights; using archival footage and original interviews, the director fills in the man’s backstory and offers a much-needed history lesson about the country’s political turmoil. It’s as much a piece of protest art as it is a portrait. DF

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‘The Manchurian Candidate’ (2004)

The Patriot Act years were ripe for a remake of John Frankheimer’s 1962 political-conspiracy thriller about brainwashed assassins worming their way into the White House – and Demme did not soft-peddle the Dubya administration critique in his take at all. He goes for the jugular in this update, emphasizing how the constant threat of terrorist attacks and war in the Middle East (the prologue takes place during the First Iraq War, while its sequel was happening outside the multiplex) made the population vulnerable to some nasty folks worming their way into power. It contains one of Denzel Washington’s best performances, as well as Liev Schreiber in primo Beltway-crazy mode and Meryl Streep owning the mother-from-hell role. It’s both fantastic to the extreme and the stuff of headline-driven nightmares. DF

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‘Neil Young: Heart of Gold’ (2006)

Demme made three concert documentaries about his
old friend Neil Young in the span of six years. The warmest is the first, Heart of Gold, which finds the adventurous
artist in unplugged mode, playing several songs off his plainspoken 2005 folk
record Prairie Wind. Utilizing
leisurely camera moves and intimate close-ups, this wistful documentary matches
the mood of the reflective music, which was written as Young was preparing to
have surgery for a brain aneurysm. Melancholy ballads about family and love
dominate the performance movie, and the
cantankerous singer is refreshingly chummy from the stage of the Ryman, telling
stories between songs and looking grateful to still be doing what he loves. The
feeling is mutual for anyone watching the film. TG

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‘Jimmy Carter: Man From Plains’ (2007)

Book tours for former Commanders-in-Chief are usually fawning affairs – no one told that, apparently, to Jimmy Carter. Demme’s doc chronicles the promotional rounds our 39th president underwent for his 2006 tome Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, in which he laid much of the blame for Middle Eastern discord at the feet of Israel. Unsurprisingly, that opinion didn’t please many in the international community, and the movie follows Carter as he faces his critics on tour, leading to provocative, enthralling debate about the future of the region. Most folks would have simply turned this into a long promo piece; Demme, wisely, goes for bigger game here, letting this portrait double as a look at ways the media reduces complicated arguments into simplistic sound bites. TG

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‘Rachel Getting Married’ (2008)

“I am Shiva the Destroyer, and your harbinger of doom for this evening.” The mother of all dysfunctional wedding dramas, Demme’s late-period high-water mark gave Anne Hathaway a role actresses dream of and parents have nightmares about. A family’s pitch-black sheep has gotten back from her latest rehab stint, just in time for the nuptials of her sister (Rosemarie DeWitt). She then sets about methodically, spitefully trying to ruin the event in brutally uncomfortable fashion … because why just be self-destructive when you can be all-out destructive? Pain, rage, hard-earned healing – anyone else might have turned this into a cringe-comedy with a moral and left it at that. Demme injects a generous sense of heart and soul into the affair. It makes all the difference. CB

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‘Ricki and the Flash’ (2015)

Yes, Demme’s final fictional feature film is far from perfect – but even
when his material wasn’t top-notch, he could still pull incredible
performances from his cast (this was a man who genuinely loved actors,
and loved watching them work) and infuse the wonkiest of stories with
his trademark humanism. Meryl Streep’s down-and-out singer finds the
Oscar-winner warbling gamely through classic-rock tunes, but watch how
Demme films this bar-band like they’re the Stones in 1972; he gives
these middle-aged musicians with their misguided “Hello, Cleveland!”
dreams a sense of dignity. What you remember aren’t the big
missteps but the movie’s small grace-note moments: Mamie Gummer’s manic,
heartbroken daughter enjoying the familial chaos; the joint-smoking
bonding between Streep and her ex-husband Kevin Kline; new wife Audra McDonald shutting down her rival’s passive-aggressiveness; Streep and beau Rick Springfield bickering and leaning on each other like a real couple. The Demme-isms were in the details. DF

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‘Justin Timberlake + the Tennesee Kids’ (2016)

By the time that Demme captured Justin Timberlake’s infectious stage show, he was widely acknowledged as one of our greatest concert filmmakers, and so it was tempting to take the excellence here for granted. Now that he’s gone, this joyous affair, a film that celebrates creativity and passion, feels like a fitting way to say goodbye. What made Demme’s work with fellow artists so remarkable was how much he understood to get out of their way. And so his film swoops across the stage, bouncing from musician to musician, and humming with a pop rhythm that channels Timberlake’s Vegas-meets-Jacksons’-Victory-tour spectacle. This was a man who filmed music makers in a way that made you love them as much as he did. We already miss him. BT

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