by Patrick Bromley
Brian De Palma is one of my favorite directors. It's no surprise that he's a polarizing figure; most movie nerds either love his excessive, often comically operatic style or largely dismiss him as a hack whose body of work consists of derivative trash and nonsense. What I've always loved about De Palma is just how much his movies are about being movies; there are few directors who are as open and as enthusiastic about manipulating an audience -- a trick he learned from (who else?) Hitchcock, then spent an entire career exploring. Few directors are more technically accomplished, but it's the wit and the cleverness that keeps me coming back to his movies over and over.
Keep in mind that, like all Director Essentials columns, these aren't necessarily the director's 10 best movies, or even my 10 favorite. These are 10 movies essential in understanding and showcasing Brian De Palma as a filmmaker. Also, these are not ranked in quality. They are chronological. No complaints about the order, please.
2. Phantom of the Paradise (1974) - After developing his signature style in Sisters, De Palma mixed things up with his very next movie, turning away from Hitchcockian thrillers and doing a crazy rock n' roll musical/horror mash-up. There's so much De Palma still in the movie, including one split-screen sequence that ranks with the pig's blood scene in Carrie and a mixing of styles and (especially) influences. It all adds up to a twisted, brilliant and unique movie that's more fun than anything DePalma has made since. And, as anyone who follows this site probably already knows, it's one of my favorite movies ever.
3. Carrie (1976) - If Sisters was the movie that introduced the "De Palma" style, Carrie is the movie that cemented it for good. The Stephen King adaptation gave the director his first big commercial success and still holds up as one of the best horror movies ever made. De Palma turned the source material into a darkly funny opera about high school life, got great performances from his young cast (he shared casting sessions with George Lucas, who was reading actors for Star Wars) and created some of the most iconic moments the genre has ever produced. The last scene alone changed horror movies forever.
5. Blow Out (1981) -Still De Palma's best movie, and one of my all-time favorites. A brilliant suspense movie, a brilliant political thriller, a brilliant examination of how movies are constructed. Few directors are as open about their filmmaking processes as De Palma, and while the movie is often read as a variation on Antonioni's Blow-up and one of the director's most "serious" film, it's also one of his most personally revealing efforts. John Travolta has never been better, and that ending will never stop being a punch in the stomach. It's a good scream.
6. The Untouchables (1987) - Here it is. The Untouchables is DePalma's most successful commercial movie -- not necessarily in terms of box office (that would be Mission: Impossible), but in terms of marrying his aesthetic with a mainstream, audience-friendly piece of filmmaking (an observation I first heard made by Quentin Tarantino). Great cast, great David Mamet script, great locations, great production design, great set pieces. This is the movie that could have made Brian De Palma a household name outside of us movie nerds, but between Casualties of War and Bonfire of the Vanities, De Palma just couldn't help being De Palma. The goodwill disappeared.
8. The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) - To fully understand and appreciate a filmmaker, you also have to study his failures -- and there are few failures bigger and more famous than De Palma's adaptation of Tom Wolfe's hugely popular 1987 novel. An entire book (The Devil's Candy) was written about just how things went so wrong on the movie, but the answer is pretty simple: De Palma was the wrong guy for the job. He's capable of doing comedy, but more so in the context of one of his thrillers. He's good at satire, but he's hardly subtle; as a result, he turned out one of the clunkiest and most tone-deaf satires of the last 30 years. Though a lot of the movie's problems can be attributed to a bad screenplay, miscast actors (Tom Hanks and Bruce Willis are NOT RIGHT for their roles) and huge cost overruns, it was De Palma's hubris steering the ship. Some filmmakers just fly too close to the sun.
9. Carlito's Way (1993) - Still smarting from the wounds of Vanities and the frustrating disappointment of Raising Cain, De Palma returned to the well and made another gangster movie with his Scarface star Al Pacino. Though lacking that movie's De Palmian excess, Carlito's Way is a better, richer movie, and one of the best crime/gangster movies of the 1990s. Ending aside, Scarface celebrates being a gangster; Carlito's Way laments it. Yes, there's some bad voice over and Pacino's lisp can be hard to take (ditto for Penelope Ann Miller), but the movie could be considered a minor classic just on the basis of the bar shootout and the last 30 minutes. Plus, Sean Penn is ridiculous and great. The movie doesn't get talked about as much as it should by De Palma lovers, but people who could care less about who directed it have totally embraced it.
As a huge De Palma fan, there are several movies left off the list that I would love to have included: The Fury and Body Double, two of his most underrated and misunderstood thrillers; Mission: Impossible, his last big hit and another good example of how well-suited his aesthetic could be for commercial success (but the script does that one in a little bit); Raising Cain and Snake Eyes, two frustrating and ultimately unsatisfying attempts at reclaiming his glory. F Head Cameron Cloutier pointed me in the direction of reedited Raising Cain that is supposedly much closer to De Palma's original vision and a better movie; I have yet to watch it.
More Director Essentials:
1. Michael Bay
2. Woody Allen
3. Ron Howard
4. Sidney Lumet
5. Paul Verhoeven
6. Steven Soderbergh
7. Tim Burton
8. Joe Dante
9. Robert Zemeckis
10. Michael Cimino
11. Wes Craven
12. Spike Lee
13. John Landis