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.
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 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.
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
gem I want to spotlight: Paranoid Park and Last Days. I’m cheating with two films- 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!).
stylistic innovations/traits: Van Sant has really three modes. His eight archiveable films below fall into those categories. First there’s the Death Trilogy (Gerry, Elephant and Last Days). 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.
- Good Will Hunting
- Drugstore Cowboy
- My Own Private Idaho
- To Die For
- Paranoid Park
- 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|
|2005- Last Days||R|
|2007- Paranoid Park||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
i dont know about this guy. seems like a hack. if he ever cared about visuals in film he certanly doesn’t now, and he’s basically the go to for actors who wrote a script and want people to pay attention to their contributions. ‘who can i pick so the audience only focuses on acting and writing… hmm gus van sant.’ that being said, i do quite enjoy good will hunting
@m– he’s no hack– but it has been awhile since his best work and he’s continued making movies. He had a rough 2010’s decade.
[…] 136. Gus Van Sant […]
@Harry- you are quite right- thank you very much for the fix here
I definitely think Gerry should be in the archives, here are some notes I just made from my first viewing.
Despite having some really frustrating long segments that are not very cinematic, I feel this is an important feel as it allowed Van Sant to experiment with the tracking shots that built up the masterpiece Elephant.
Opens with a tracking shot of the cat, switches between three perspectives (behind, windshield and the road in front). Reaches a great peak with the sunbeams onto the windshield and this lighting is held for a nice amount of time.
Some gorgeous pillow shots of the desert terrain – plains and hills. A few shot in magic hour which is always a plus.
Mostly a dialogue-less experience so not much is needed from Affleck and Damon (who of course can deliver when there is a need). Their work isn’t great but I don’t see any point in recasting them – this isn’t that kind of film.
Some of the shots feel like a mix of Herzog and Antonioni with the hills absolutely dwarfing the characters and separating them at points. There’s great staging for a medium long shot with Affleck marooned on top of a large boulder and Damon at the base.
A tonne of Lawrence of Arabia like long shots with figures distantly moving through the desert.
The highlight is a stunning five minute shot of Damon and Affleck walking in the desert at dawn. Begins in near darkness and light slowly builds to have both figures as silhouettes, there are staged far apart and slowly Affleck lags further behind let eclipses Damon from behind, really stunning and earns the shot length.
There are just some hard to sit through parts that make me want to throw this one out, but some of the highlights just make it worth it.
Recommended, slightly shorter runtime and a stronger cinematographer would easily push this up two grades.