Lars von Trier. The Dogme95 movement is an important movement in the story of realism in cinema and von Trier is the central figure. I have Breaking the Waves as the best film of the 1990s. Obviously that has a huge impact on my list here but he’s far from being a one-hit wonder. However controversial he may be, I don’t think his talent as an artist can be argued. Is there any other great auteur as polarizing to critics? Perhaps David Lynch. Anyways, von Trier is certainly a “style-plus” director even if I hope he beefs up his filmography yet as he hits his sixties.
Best film: Breaking the Waves. It doesn’t have a huge lead on Goodfellas and Pulp Fiction for tops on my 1990’s decade listbut I remain comfortable with this film as the best. It’s an amazing achievement.
total archiveable films: 8
top 100 films: 1 (Breaking the Waves)
top 500 films: 2 (Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark)
top 100 films of the decade: 3 (Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, Melancholia)
most overrated: The Idiots– #745 all-time on TSPDT. I’ve only seen it once and will see it again but this rating blows me away. Controversial content doesn’t bother me so it wasn’t that I was offended by this movie (which is intensely offensive— and not hilariously so like Borat or anything). I just found the style to be flat- and that’s just about the worst thing I can say about a film on a list/project like this. Like I said, I’ll check it out again but liking him because he’s a provocateur isn’t something that interests me just as I don’t dislike him for that reason— the art has to be there.
most underrated: Antichrist. Dancer in the Dark is starting to get the full recognition it deserves (Breaking the Waves has long been acknowledged and Melancholia will be there too) so I’m left select his next best work– Antichrist which has not had the artistic revival yet it deserves and was largely panned when it came out (49 on metacritic).
gem I want to spotlight: Melancholia. This film was very important for von Trier. Having that third film as a major achievement (though since it’s 2013 I’m not counting it on the ranking yet) could set apart from many on this list.
stylistic innovations/traits: Von trier is an arch provocateur, anti-American, and certainly avant-garde. He’s also an irrefutably spectacular auteur despite his enfant terrible status. He’s the godfather of Dogme95 neorealism to Bazan to Kiarostami and the Dardenne brothers– it’s an important step in that lineage Some of his experiments haven’t worked so well (I still struggle with the ugliness of Dogville) but it’s very clear now that 3 decades in a row he’s given us one of the best films. Is there anyone as brazenly experimental and yet so formally rigid?
- Breaking the Waves
- Dancer in the Dark
- The Elements of Crime
By year and grades
|1984- The Elements of Crime||R|
|1996- Breaking the Waves||MP|
|2000- Dancer in the Dark||MP|
*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
I agree with you 100% on the Idiots. I think it is largely a miss on Von Trier’s part. But not so much on Dogville. I don’t find that its ugliness takes away from its quality but instead it helps it really stand out. Personally it is my favourite Von Trier so far due to how layered it is, though most of what I’ve seen of him is exceptional. I have a few more of his films on the watch-later list, but if I were to suggest one it would be 1988’s Medea.
@Georg – Thanks for sharing here, too. Yeah the lofty ranking for The Idiots continues to baffle me. I’ve seen Medea but owe it another look. And you’re not alone with Dogville. Many cinema enthusiasts think it is his strongest or second behind Breaking the Waves.
Whether it’s Idiots or Dogville I get that the ugliness is part of the Dogme 95 oath and part of the point for von Trier and i respect that. I’m just going to take the other films (like Melancholia) that do a lot of the same things but do it beautifully over it every time.
@Drake- definitely, Melancholia was stunning and an incredible film. I guess it all boils down to his tendency to experiment and I think it has worked quite well for him thus far. I cannot say, but I have a feeling – and I hope- that with his future work he will manage to get even higher up this list
I’m glad you acknowledge that a certain movie is extremely offensive and that bothers you. You mention that and then you mention that you grade the movie stylistically only. I think that’s smart of you. Also did you find idiots so bad you didnt even archive it with an R?
@Azman- Not a big deal but I said the opposite- I said the content didn’t bother me, what bothered me was it was visually so flat
Ya Im sorry but I phrased it wrongly. For movies like Birth of a Nation, you acknowledge that it is extremely racist but you evaluate it only based on it’s artistic merits. Similarly you say the The Idiots may be somewhat offensive and that may bother you. You find it to be artistically bad which is why you rated it so badly(not because of its offensive nature). For both movies you ranked them based on their artistic values but you also mention that they could be offensive or racist. I like that you mentioned that. For the idiots, you thought it was artistically bad and offensive. However for Birth, you praise the filmmaking but hate the racism.
come on man von trier should be much higher than this
Watched Dogville tonight:
Really strong foreground/background work owing to the lack of physical barriers almost anywhere in the town.
The editing is very strong; builds tension, lots of strong jump cuts
Great high-angle shots of the town.
Sparse mise-en-scene; a better experimenter than Godard.
Soundstage construction emphasizes the isolation of the town of Dogville; a black void at night from the rest of the world.
Handheld cinematography, reminds one of the work of Steven Soderbergh. Very strong camera movement in this film.
Incredible lighting and silhouette work; early silhouette standout with Bettany
REALLY strong foreground/background work; felt the need to mention again.
John Hurt voiceover evokes Barry Lyndon; speaking of Kubrick, it makes me excited to rewatch Eyes Wide Shut.
Kidman’s entrance is excellently directed.
Extremely dedicated to the aesthetic
Strong close-up work throughout the filn
Makes us believe it’s actually a town and not just a stage.
God’s Eye shots are fantastic; emphasizes von Trier’s point of view, the judge.
Fantastic camera movement; standout at 47 minutes switching from a medium-long shot of one character to a close-up of Kidman
Amazing orange lighting as she opens up the blinds immediately after this
Wonderful shot of Kidman standing against the rocks at 56 minutes
Incredibly lit long shot at 63 minutes
Divided on the Bettany performance; wish von Trier gave more attention to him. Reminds me of Richard Harris in Red Desert. Philip Seymour Hoffman would’ve been a better choice; he does exactly this character in 25th Hour.
Ignore the above note: Bettany’s work grows on you as the film goes on; more akin to Alain Delon in Rocco than to Harris in Red Desert (though Delon is far above Bettany here I still think).
Very good jump cut at 68 minutes
Stunner of Skarsgard against a tree at around 80 minutes
Unbelievable god’s eye shot immediately before the end of Chapter Six
Stoicism scene is brilliant acting from Kidman, and the shot of the other three returning to their households in the background with her in the foreground is brilliant.
Interestingly, Ben (the apple-truck driver) is played by little-known Primetime Emmy winner Željko Ivanek. I didn’t see much of that Emmy in Seven Psychopaths but he shows more in the scene with Kidman in his truck.
Unfrigginbelievable silhouette shot at 126 minutes; straight out of Kalatozov.
Von Trier the director is clearly a more thinking, calculating being than Von Trier the public figure, but both valiantly march forward in whatever path they take.
The sex slavery in the last hour is teased at the very beginning; I believed Kidman was a prostitute going off her outfit at the beginning of the film (then I just find out she was a gangster’s daughter at the end).
Interesting flip of Breaking the Waves; the woman is still used as a prostitute, but she’s the one who’s disabled (in this case, just restricted mobility, nothing like Jan in BtW), whilst the man is the idealistic one who longs for true love.
Strong montage sequence at 146 minutes as John Hurt narrates
Love the shine on the Cadillac in the last chapter
The finale… well, von Trier ain’t quite Mann or Scorsese.
Strong A History of Violence connectives.
Keep in mind, all of these notes were written on my phone in the middle of the movie (minor edits done afterhand). I first tried watching it on Tuesday immediately after finishing Casino (for me, a fringe, but nonetheless full-blooded MP, you have it as a MS/MP) and went into it with preconceived ideas about how good it would be and made it 15 minutes in before I was forced by time constraints to turn it off; I also thought it looked terrible. This time it was much different, since I cast off my doubts about von Trier’s abilities after trying again to watch it Wednesday and again being restricted by time constraints, albeit whilst reacting to the style much better. I hope you revisit this one in the future. It really is a gem and expands the horizon of what a film can be. I hope these notes aren’t too disorganized either, as I said I wrote them during the movie and it’s too late for me to seriously try to reorganize them, not to mention the 5 1/2 hours of sleep I got last night.
@Zane- thank you for sharing this!
1. Breaking the Waves – MP
2. Dogville – MP
3. Dancer in the Dark – MP
4. Melancholia – MS/MP
I should note it’s pretty close with Dancer In The Dark and Dogville; I flip between them fairly often and even though my viewings of them were only separated by like 3 days I hope that next year or the year after that when I inevitably rewatch them, I will view them closer together so I can definitively decide which is better.
Do you think there’s actually an argument for Breaking the Waves as his most underrated? I mean think about it. It has the least views of any of his most famous films (BtW, DitD, Dogville, Antichrist, Melancholia, both Nymphomanic volumes, and THTJB) on Letterboxd and I rarely see it discussed by cinephiles anywhere on the internet; a month or two ago I saw a Reddit post about von Trier discussing his films and I was literally the sole person to mention Breaking the Waves – not even the original poster did – but all of his other most notable works were discussed. Sure, you can say it has the highest ranking on TSPDT – and still woefully underrated – of any of von Trier’s films, but despite all that high critical praise, average cinephiles don’t seem to acknowledge its existence all that much.
I’d like to thank you for introducing me to Breaking the Waves. Considering the low level of attention it gets compared to von Trier’s other works, I don’t know how long it would’ve taken me to get around to it without your recommendation. It’s an enormous MP and a strong candidate for my favorite film of all time.
I feel you should mention von Trier as among those directors who always tries to make the best film of all time every time he sets out to work, like Herzog, Malick, Coppola (for a time), Kubrick, and Tarkovsky would. Admittedly, I have only seen these 4 films, but the ambition in them, shown by just everything about Breaking the Waves, the musical approach in Dancer in the Dark, the stylistic approach to Dogville, and the apocalyptic themes of Melancholia… he definitely belongs in that category in my opinion, even if there’s only one time (Breaking the Waves) that he comes especially close to actually making that greatest film.
@Zane- This is fantastic. You make a good case for Breaking the Waves being his most underrated. And agreed on adding von Trier to the list of directors who almost always try to make the best film of all-time.
@Zane- I will say that I find it hard to wrap my head around Dogville’s ambition when it is bound to the stage. It most of these other cases we praise the the ambition being “cinematic”- when this example seems like the exact opposite of the definition of cinematic.
Well, I think it manages to take that environment and make cinema out of it. It’s not like a play when you’re watching everything from a single angle for the entire show; we move around and around the village of Dogville. And it, clearly (to me at least), is still a von Trier film. The trademark handheld, shaky camera, and the style of zooms (not all of which I love; there’s one early on with Bettany as Kidman enters that I think is really ugly; if the rest of the film had zooms like that I wouldn’t even archive it, but I have it as a MP so clearly his style improves from that point on), those same camera movements and zooms appear in all 3 of the other works I’ve seen from him. It also connects formally and thematically, with the same chapter breaks and themes of an outcast woman in a society that hates her, who gets her victory over the people who persecute her so much at the end (ok it’s debatable if Bjork really wins in Dancer in the Dark). I seriously think it’s cinema as much as it can be considered theater. It’s clearly the work of a director and not just actors.
@Zane– thank you for expounding here. You are not alone in your high praise of Dogville. I get what von Trier is doing intellectually– I just wish it wasn’t so hard to look at.
@Drake I also wish it was less stage bound and better visually. Regardless of that Dogville is better than a simple R.
Drake, I’m sure this is not your intention, but occasionally you almost begin to sound anti-theater. Yes, the greatest techniques in cinema are those that are specifically related to pushing the unique possibilities of the filmic medium (such as camera movement, editing, location shooting, and creative mise-en-scene), but that doesn’t mean one should have to throw away theatrical influences. Theatrical and cinematic are not antonyms. There are many examples to prove this, namely 12 Angry Men, which does not shy away from its confined theater ideals, yet injects them with creative cinematic mastery.
I should add that I have not seen Dogville, so my comment is not related to it specifically.
@Graham- you should see it
@Graham – I’m not anti-theater. I’m pro-cinema. I usually use “stagebound” as a critique and mean it. And I don’t think you could achieve what Lumet achieves on here http://thecinemaarchives.com/2021/02/04/12-angry-men-1957-lumet/ on the stage. If we didn’t have Lumet’s “creative CINEMATIC mastery” we’d be left with a more theatrical (and far lesser) version.
@Drake But on the other side of the coin if something is stagebound doesn’t mean it can’t have cinematic value. If I’m not wrong you had 12 Angry Men as Lumet’s most overrated film until this recent viewing. I’m pretty sure Dogville is better than a simple recommend and you may have to eat your words when you see Dogville again.
@Anderson- So you may be right in a portion of this. I’m not sure “stagebound” is the right word. Sorry. How about “visually flat”? 12 Angry Men is confined to one setting but is not visually flat or uninteresting (far from it with some of the character blocking). Does that work better? Also- could you expand on this here- what makes Dogville better than a simple recommend in your estimation?
@Drake – I think Dogville has cinematic mastery as well. We may disagree on this now, but I hope you will come around to my position in the future. I myself struggled with the style of Dogville the first time I tried to watch it (I got in 15 minutes then stopped because it was too late to finish it in a single night), then I tried it again 2 days later and was stunned by it. It was the same way with Aguirre; I was intrigued but perplexed the first time I watched Herzog’s film, then utterly blown away by it the second time.
@Graham – Drake is absolutely correct; Dogville is very much worth seeing.
@Zane- I hope you’re right. The argument would have to intellectual though for Dogville- not visual. I’ve poured over the visuals. Never say never I guess- trust me- I’d love to be wrong- but they don’t appear to be there.
@Drake-The way it is staged. Strong foreground/background work. Very good high angle shots of the town. Very strong and excellent camera movement. Lots of strong jump cuts. Great lighting and silhouette work. Strong editing. Strong close up work capturing Kidman’s Grace(Who is excellent). Fantastic god’s eye shots. Extremely dedicated to the aesthetic. Some great lighting at some points in the film. Love the shot of the other three returning to their homes in the background with Kidman in the foreground. Great shot of Skarsgard against a tree. Strong montage sequence with John Hurt narrating. Von Trier always the experimenter. The shine on the cadillac in the last chapter is great. Also thought the dialogue between Caan and Kidman was great. There is a shot with Kidman in the foreground and Caan in the background that is just brilliant. Not a big fan of the closing credits though.
Well for me it’s not intellectual; a lot of it for me is the atmosphere of the film and Dogville has a lot of that. Take Melancholia, for example; I’ve seen people pour over the metaphors of that film and intellectualize it all, absolutely none of which went into my rating of the film, which is probably one of the main reasons it’s just a MS/MP and not a full MP as most people would have it. It’s the exact same way with Carax’s Holy Motors as well; I’m often unconcerned with intellectual analysis of a film. I love the way von Trier builds it up until that final conclusion; so much tension built up, and the twist when we find out who she actually is, and the way von Trier released all that tension, I think it’s a brilliant film. I’m not saying the finale couldn’t have been shot better; maybe if there were some actual fires instead of I think painting the stage as he actually did it might be even higher. I can understand MS/MP but I’m positive it’s no lower than a MS.
@Zane- thanks for sharing. I’m fine being done with this whenever you are–but atmosphere is the feeling you get, right? But it has to be prompted by something von Trier is doing on the screen. For some films it is the editing (naw), some the camera movement (nope), the photography (definitely not here), the mise-en-scene (again this isn’t a box Dogville checks enthusiastically)… so I’m just wondering. If you say the writing and acting- I totally get it- but that has a ceiling for me. If you say the form of the film then I’d love to learn more on Dogville. Can we agree Dogville is ugly? I’m not saying a film can’t be an ugly masterpiece (http://thecinemaarchives.com/2020/03/26/mon-oncle-damerique-1980-resnais/ here is one) but it is rare. I’m not trying to be a jerk or belabor this- I just like finding out where we disagree. Mr. Matt Harris and I used to do this all the time when we disagreed.
@Anderson – Well a lot of that looks plagiarized from what I wrote, but if that really is you saying that I’ll have to agree.
Anyway, it’s probably time to wrap up this discussion. So much has been said already. Remember a couple months ago when we were all losing our minds over what Bergman said about Antonioni? The same thing seems to be happening here.
I don’t know what I’m doing here, I came over to commend on Harvey Keitel or something and I just read this whole discussion on Dogville. I’ve thought about this film long and hard and I always think that in spite of repeat viewings (which always help) time is the main factor that determines whether a film holds up to my initial assessment of it. That said, and after revisiting it, I don’t find myself considering Dogville to be such an indisputable masterpiece anymore. Granted, I am very fond of the film and I consider it to be great. But I can understand more fully now what’s holding cinephiles like Drake back from stamping it as a MP. My love for Dogville (it is my favourite von Trier) made me overrate it a bit. Now I’m not saying I agree with the R rating, because I think that’s vastly underestimating it, but I can see a MS being more suited to its merits. Maybe HR, but that seems a little underrating it as well. TSPDT has it at around #300-400 and I feel that maybe overrating it a touch, so I’d say perhaps #450-600? It’s not a vast difference, but it does constitute displacement from the MP status, which to me is because of its being somewhat flawed (overlong -and in this case it is a flaw, visually flat for most of its screen time). For example I find it to be superior to Two Women by De Sica, and I’m pretty certain with my assessment when it comes to comparing those two (I chose Two Women because it is a film that is absent from the TSPDT top 1000 and it is found in Drake’s top 500, so you see the contrast). I’ve explained on the 2003 page why I consider it to have significant cinematic merits and I believe the portions of the film that are distinctly flat visually help propel its visual strengths – I agree with the remarks made by Anderson, with regards to the silhouette work, and I think it is a wonderful observation. There is depth of focus here, since the actors are acting literally throughout the entire runtime, and especially in the night sequences the way Von Trier modulates lighting and captures figures in the foreground and background is very impressive. I always think of the scene where the women of the town invade Kidman’s home and break the porcelain figurines (a key aspect in interpreting the story). The shot of Kidman crying while the ladies slowly return to their “houses”, their silhouettes beautifully outlined in the back, cold blue light showering them. The constant movement of the camera and of the people in the background creates a sense of fluidity that is distinctively Von Trier. The visual merits of Dogville aren’t really related to beauty. It’s not an aesthetically pleasing film. In the vein of the Dogme 95 movement, Von trier chooses to show ugliness. But unlike say the Idiots which is awful (and offensive in many ways), Dogville has a lot of moments of searing insight and features some stark unique imagery. I don’t think Von Trier’s experimentation here pays off all the time. There are shots and sequences that are very crudely handled (hence, not a masterpiece). But some others, like the one I mentioned above, or the ever iconic shot of Kidman lying next to the scattered apples, they play out intensely, and yet fluidly, like a kind of harsh but electrifying musical piece. If anything, Von Trier’s work with light and shadow in many key scenes (including the finale) is enough to rank it as a HR. And that is before one factors in everything else, along with the intellectual aspect of it all, which is utterly fascinating, and the originality of the approach as well. I don’t want to start talking about this again because I’ve done so on the 2003 page and all you guys have done great work breaking the film down, but I just wanted to elaborate on a few points I thought were interesting, and also point out that I can now see more clearly Dogville’s weaknesses and drawbacks. As I said, I still consider it a significant, great film.
@Georg- as always, it is a pleasure reading your comments and responses. Thank you. I’m a massive admirer of von Trier (I actually just saw Melancholia yet again last night and will be creating a page for it soon) so I’m hoping there is something I can use here or in Zane’s admirable contributions to help me unlock it.
Something I find very interesting is that not only did we both watch Melancholia last night, we also both watched Contempt from Godard a day apart in March as well. I think it’s just a coincidence, but still.
@Zane- that is absolutely wild. Melancholia was picked randomly.
@Drake – could you do a von Trier study?
@Finn- that’s a good idea actually- thanks for the suggestion
@Drake – you’re welcome
Hi, Drake and readers of the site. What do you think about the gender discussion of von Trier’s films? Is he a feminist? Is he a misogynist? Does it matter?
I don’t exactly where I stand, but it’s evident that sometimes it’s really hard support the guy…
@Pedro- thanks for the comment- I do not really get into this aspect here- so I’ll step aside and let others chime in.
Hey, Drake. Sorry to ask this when you’ve already stepped aside, but: why not? Is it because that’s not the purpose (or focus) of the site? Or do you just not find the conversation interesting? It’s alright if you prefer not to answer. Thanks.
@Pedro- Well I guess to go back and answer your question I’d say it doesn’t matter- at least as far as the artistic merits of his films are concerned (which is all I really care about).
Hello, Dogville lovers and Dogville haters. I watched the film last night so it’s fresh on my mind (a good and a bad thing): I actually think it’s better than a simple R, but far from a MP for me.
Drake, you say that its camera movement isn’t great, but are you sure? I mean, it’s surely not Breaking the Waves, but I really liked how von Trier used panning here again quite frequently, and usually paired with tons of jump cuts; it feels raw, nauseating and entirely his. And, while I agree the film looks mostly “ugly”, I do think there are a few brilliant images – the shot of Kidman inside the truck in chapter 7 is glorious, for example. As for the form, I don’t see much there – I admire the commitment to the chapter breaks, but there probably isn’t a more boring way of breaking a movie into chapters than what von Trier did here (go watch Rushmore or something).
Overall, though, I really liked it. I was impressed by what von Trier was able to do on a stage, even if I agree that the premise is limiting.
Dogville = Dogmeville. There it is. I’ve unlocked the secret.
Every interview Lars von Trier does is amazing:
The Element of Crime —
Breaking the Waves MP
The Idiots HR
Dancer in the Dark —
The Five Obstructions HR
Nymphomaniac 1 & 2 —
Hey Drake, with the third season of Riget ( The Kingdom) coming out, I was just wondering why isn’t it eligible for the archives or if you’ve seen it? I haven’t seen it yet, but I know you let some “TV” shows like The Underground Railroad in, although I agree that is more a 5 hour film. Is Riget more TV than film? Especially with multiple seasons I could see that – although there are only 4-5 episodes in each season.
Also if you have seen it but it’s not eligible for the archives, would you still recommend it and where would it rank amongst Von Trier’s work?
@Joel- Anything by von Trier has to be seen in my opinion. I’ve seen the first two seasons of The Kingdom back in the 1990s and just didn’t archive them- sort of good but not great. I’m waiting for all the episodes of the new season to be released (I think late December) and then I’ll try to watch them all in a day or two.