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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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‘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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