Van Sant.  So Gus Van Sant is the first auteur on my list not to have a top 500 film. They (top 500 films that haven’t had their director mentioned by my previous 135 directors on this list) are getting rarer and rarer. But Van Sant’s case is still strong because he has 3 films that land in the top 100 of their respective decade (also getting rarer) and all three of Van Sant’s 3 top 100 of the decade films are at least 10 years old (I have that 10 year moratorium so everything 2009/2010 and newer doesn’t count for much unless I’m breaking ties).  Van Sant’s case is also aided by the distinct voice he lends to his films—even a bad Van Sant film is specific to his voice.

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repeat viewings of Good Will Hunting will reward to detail and craftsmanship of Van Sant’s work. The first 5 times I saw the film I thought it was mostly an accomplishment for the actors, screenplay and Elliot Smith

Best film:  Elephant. I think all of Van Sant’s top 4 films have a case here but as much as I admire the other three-  Van Sant’s death trilogy (more below) is what separates him from being just a really good director (and makes him an ambitious auteur) and Elephant is the first, and best, of the death trilogy. The rolling tracking shots, non-professional actors—there are brilliant aesthetic and formal choices all over the place here that I appreciate.

Elephant– the rolling tracking shots, non-professional actors—there are brilliant aesthetic and formal choices all over the place here that I appreciate.

total archiveable films: 8

top 100 films:  0

top 500 films:  0

top 100 films of the decade:  3 (Drugstore Cowboy, Good Will Hunting, Elephant)

most overrated: I guess technically it’s Elephant. It is in my top 550 (I only listed up to 500) but the TSPDT consensus has it at #460—still- not a big deal—I like that slot.

most underrated:  Drugstore Cowboy needs to be somewhere in the TSPDT top 1000 and it isn’t. Van Sant’s only other film in the TSPDT top 1000 after Elephant is My Own Private Idaho– currently at #578

  • Features early work from go-to DP for Wes Anderson- Robert Yeoman
  • Certainly an updated take on Bonnie and Clyde (complete with impotency references)- really nice touch
  • Great jazz score
  • Van Sant’s content/narrative auteur mark and obsessions- youth (specifically troubled youth) exploration in full effect here
  • The best part of the film, which I love, is the reoccurring dream sequences of objects floating in blank (usually black) background with voice over. It starts from the beginning with prior to the film (which is really a full flashback). Really nice film form and stylistic touch
great portrait and the use of a framing device in Drugstore Cowboy
The best part of the film, which I love, is the reoccurring dream sequences of objects floating in blank (usually black) background with voice over. It starts from the beginning with prior to the film (which is really a full flashback). Really nice film form and stylistic touch
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American indie cinema had a resurgence (some call it the true birth of indie cinema) in 1989 and the early 1990’s- Van Sant– particularly Drugstore Cowboy (1989- pictured here) and My Own Private Idaho were a big part of that

gem I want to spotlight:  Paranoid Park and Last Days. I’m cheating with two films but they are the second and third leg of Van Sant’s death trilogy which I mentioned when discussing Elephant as his best film above. This is indie-cinema at its finest—ambitious, divergent from the Hollywood’s norm (show Last Days to someone who doesn’t watch any indie or foreign cinema and tell them it’s a biopic and watch them lose their mind- haha!).

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another immaculate mise-en-scene framing– this one from Last Days — a stunning photograph

stylistic innovations/traits:  Van Sant has really three modes. His 8 archiveable films below fall into those categories. First there’s the death trilogy (Elephant, Last Days and Paranoid Park). These are almost experimental in style—audacious, formally strong—but keep your friends who aren’t into artistic cinema away from them like I said- haha. Then there’s the conventional Hollywood films with a touch of Van Sant behind the camera as an accomplished artist and director (MILK, Good Will Hunting and To Die For)—excellent performances, scores, polished and well-executed. Lastly, there’s Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho that blur the lines in-between those two opposites. Van Sant is on this list because of the first and last modes mentioned—as much as I appreciate MILK and Good Will Hunting– there’s the unique voice and formal prowess that just isn’t in the typical Hollywood fare that gets him here. I mentioned it when talking about Drugstore Cowboy but almost all of Van Sant’s cinema explore youth and specifically troubled youth. With guys like Cassavetes out there decades before you can’t call Van Sant the father of indie cinema but he’s an important figure. He worked well with young actors helping either discover or nurture talents like the Phoenix brothers, Keanu Reeves, Damon, Ben and Casey Affleck. Lastly, and more importantly than even the visuals for Van Sant, he’s a formal master. In both Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho there’s a repetition in the sleep and surrealism sequence and clearly Elephant is a stake in the ground for bold (and repeated) shot choices and formal excellence.

My Own Private Idaho– this shot has everything- he designs every inc of the frame, Phoenix in the frame, the tree branches, the magic hour lighting

top 10

  1. Elephant
  2. Good Will Hunting
  3. Drugstore Cowboy
  4. My Own Private Idaho
  5. To Die For
  6. MILK
  7. Paranoid Park
  8. Last Days

By year and grades

1989- Drugstore Cowboy HR
1991- My Own Private Idaho
1995- To Die For R
1997- Good Will Hunting HR/MS
2003- Elephant MS
2005- Last Days R
2007- Paranoid Park R
2008- Milk R

*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film

MS is Must-see- top 5-6 quality of the year film

HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film

R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives