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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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‘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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