Jonathan Demme, the Academy Award–winning director who died Wednesday, April 26, at the age of 73, is probably best known for The Silence of the Lambs, which won him his Oscar.
And yet the director wasn’t known for making horror films or even thrillers. For the most part, he made his name directing gentle comedies and music documentaries (along with the women’s prison film Caged Heat — his debut film!), and then spent the latter half of his career (most everything after Silence) creating movies exploring some of the ways America had let down many who professed to believe in its ideals.
He was, in a word, humane: a deeply humanist director who was always interested in the different ways people react to crisis or conflict, with a warm, loving eye for all of the characters his lens fell across. Every entry in his filmography has some worth, but if you just want to watch a handful, we’ve narrowed it down to the five movies that best capture his multifaceted talent.
Stop Making Sense (1984)
Demme was a true master of the concert film, a format he would return to again and again throughout his career, from his three Neil Young concert docs to last year’s Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids. But his first is a truly seminal work that helped legitimize the concert film as its own valid art form.
Stitching together three nights of Talking Heads performances from 1984 into a single concert experience, Stop Making Sense captures the unique energy of live musical performance like few other films have managed, or even attempted. Much of that can be chalked up to Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, a performer like no other, but Demme’s confident filmmaking choices give the film a life of its own.
After starting with a stark solo Byrne performance of “Psycho Killer,” Stop Making Sense charts a subtle emotional trajectory over the course of 16 songs, as more and more people join Byrne onstage and the energy blossoms into a celebration of musical and artistic collaboration. Stop Making Sense is frequently cited as one of the best concert films of all time, and is an integral part of Demme’s diverse cinematic legacy.
Something Wild (1986)
Demme’s star rose in the ’80s with a string of pitch-perfect zany comedies, which captured the freewheeling feel of the classic screwball comedies of the 1930s and ’40s as well as anything had since that era.
The best of these ’80s comedies is this weird road movie, featuring Jeff Daniels as a businessman going through a divorce and Melanie Griffith as a woman he meets in a diner, who seems to shift her persona to fit whatever situation she’s in.
It’s the kind of movie where anything goes for a joke, but where the characters aren’t sacrificed for the sake of those jokes, and it captures some of the empty energy of the ’80s yuppies. It might be Demme’s best film.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
A modern masterpiece, The Silence of the Lambs is the only horror film to win the Oscar for Best Picture. It’s also one of only three films to sweep the “Big Five” Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, and Best Actor and Actress. That it did so is a testament to Demme’s ability to find the humanity in each of his subjects.
When most people talk about The Silence of the Lambs, the scenes spoken of first aren’t the famously “unfilmable” moments, but rather the ones when we see the characters at their most vulnerable yet unflinching — particularly our hero Clarice Starling and Buffalo Bill’s resilient victim Catherine.
Demme has stated that Clarice is the character who inspired him to do the film; that Silence remains her story despite the villainy all around her exemplifies a crucial part of Demme’s cinematic legacy: his ability to reveal strength amid weakness, and to approach with intimacy the paradoxical nature of humanity itself.
Though The Silence of the Lambs earned Demme his Oscar and remains a modern horror classic, its portrayal of the probably transgender serial killer Buffalo Bill sent up red flags for a number of LGBTQ rights organizations, especially GLAAD.
It’s telling, then, that the deeply humane Demme made his very next film the first major Hollywood studio film about the AIDS crisis, in which a lawyer played by Tom Hanks tries to win a discrimination suit against his former employers before he dies. (Denzel Washington plays the lawyer representing him — Demme never lacked for star power.)
The film represents much of Demme’s work post-Silence in that it’s beautifully acted (Hanks won an Oscar), essentially well-meaning, and a little didactic and dull. Still, Philadelphia is a valuable time capsule of a time when LGBTQ issues weren’t yet in the American mainstream and said mainstream was just beginning to understand them.
Rachel Getting Married (2008)
The last 10 years of Demme’s life saw him going back to where he’d gotten his start — small-scale dramedies and music documentaries. (He also directed some beautiful episodes of television, especially on the HBO series Enlightened.)
This Anne Hathaway vehicle is the best movie out of that later period, centering on a troubled young woman who returns to her family home for the wedding of the titular Rachel. The movie doesn’t have a plot so much as a series of encounters between family members who’ve fallen out, but it’s perfectly acted and filled with moments of real emotional weight.
Demme’s films were always humane, open to the points of view of everybody in them, and this might be his crowning achievement in that regard.