Jim Jarmusch had it from the start. So did Gus Van Sant. So, it seems, does Miranda July. It's an original way of looking at the world. A sensibility unmistakably their own. A singular style.
When Jarmusch's "Stranger Than Paradise" appeared in 1983, you knew you were hearing a new cinematic voice: droll, hip and oblivious to the conventions of Hollywood storytelling. Jarmusch has stayed true to his minimalist vision for 21 years. His latest, "Broken Flowers," which won the Grand Prix in Cannes in May, is his best work in a decade. Bill Murray stars as Don Johnston, a well-to-do suburban ladies' man who learns he may have a 19-year-old son he never knew about. The news comes via an anonymous letter in a pink envelope just as the latest of his girlfriends (Julie Delpy) deserts him, but it hardly gets a rise out of the stone-faced lothario. Pushed into action by his excitable neighbor Winston (Jeffrey Wright), who fancies himself a sleuth, the impassive Don hits the road on an unsentimental journey to revisit the women in his past. Might one of them be the mother of his child?
Murray is a perfect deadpan Jarmusch vessel, absorbing a lifetime of shocks with little more than an arched eyebrow and a wince that could be either indigestion or existential angst. Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange and Tilda Swinton play the four exes, and each encounter is a seriocomic gem. Funny, bittersweet, its understatement yielding surprising depth charges, "Broken Flowers" is a triumph of close observation and telling details.
Van Sant, an indie legend thanks to "Drugstore Cowboy" and "My Own Private Idaho," has taken a more eclectic route than Jarmusch, with detours into mainstream crowd-pleasers ("Good Will Hunting") and an oddball remake ("Psycho"). His recent experimental movies--"Gerry," "Elephant" and now "Last Days"--abandon narrative, genre and psychology altogether, following figures in a landscape with long unbroken takes that discourage traditional emotional identification with the characters.
But even when the form is radical or the subject unsettling ("Elephant" was inspired by Columbine), Van Sant brings a lyricism, a dreamy sensibility that infuses his detachment with sympathy. "Last Days," which is informed by the suicide of Kurt Cobain, is a hauntingly beautiful tone poem that follows the stoned, disheveled, hollowed-out Blake (Michael Pitt) as he stumbles through the woods and the vast sepulchral rooms of his country estate on the day leading up to his death. If you're looking for a story, for inside dish or psychological insight, you'll get no satisfaction here. But if you open your eyes and ears to the entrancing images of cinematographer Harris Savides and the evocative soundtrack, you'll be transported by this meditation on mortality. Instead of a sermon, Van Sant invites us to bring our own offerings to the funeral rites.
"Me and You and Everyone We Know" is Miranda July's first film, and like "Stranger Than Paradise," it has a flavor all its own--sweet, whimsical, homegrown. A quirky romantic for the 21st century, July finds humor and magic in places where no one has looked before. Playing Christine, an L.A. performance artist who makes a living as a cabdriver for the elderly, July falls in love with a troubled, skittish shoe salesman (John Hawkes) who's trying to raise 7- and 14-year-old boys after the collapse of his marriage. "Me and You" has a refreshingly unhysterical (but sometimes hysterically funny) take on what it's like for kids to grow up in a world of Internet sex, broken families and precocious sexual curiosity. An off-kilter collage, it ranges from love story to art-world satire, the pieces held together less by plot than by July's distinctive perspective, at once wide-eyed and sophisticated, sly and celebratory. With this debut, July joins a select club--The Originals.