Blink and you would have missed it, but Gas Van Sant’s latest movie slipped into theaters this July, adrift amid summer tentpoles and sharp indie debuts. The Joaquin Phoenix-starring biopic, detailing the life of a quadriplegic and alcoholic cartoonist named John Callahan, was greeted by a sort of collective shrug, a fate common to many of the movies he’s made following 2008’s Milk, a Sean Penn-starring biopic that had pushed its cast to the Oscars that season. The time in between has not gone unnoticed: “It’s been a while since the Milk director has been at the top of his game,” observed Vice at Sundance this year. But what exactly is it?
Viewed in the larger context of his career, the lengthily titled Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot is a far more satisfying movie. It is, in fact, quite similar to Van Sant’s 1986 black-and-white debut Mala Noche, their energies are drawn from the real-life stories of otherwise forgotten Portland artists and the relationships they form with men, likewise outcast from normative society. Don’t Worry is not a great disability movie by any means—Van Sant can be read as either frustrated or ultimately bored with his subject’s quadriplegia— but it is a sentimental, queer drama hiding inside the arc of contemporary and vaguely prestigious fare, something that can be said of much of van Sant’s work. His camera sharpens in extended long shots of Phoenix’s body, lights bathe his developing friendship with a wealthy AA sponsor played by Jonah Hill, and the movie’s most gripping tension revolves around the subject’s feelings of betrayal at the hands of a night spent with a man he meets at a bar played by Jack Black. A nurse played by Rooney Mara briefly swims in to perform rote duties as a romantic lead, a role that Van Sant mostly sketches in the tone of a joke.
Looking at Van Sant’s movies in this light provides a kind of coherence often avoided in most discussions of his career, which tend to divide his films into collections of “auteurist” and mass-market productions, the work of an intimate indie filmmaker by day and a studio shill by night. This is only partially true. Mala Noche had struggled to find distribution, which van Sant would later blame on film festival competition with My Beautiful Laundrette, a British drama with a pleasant subplot involving a male shopkeeper in love with a punk who doubled as Daniel Day-Lewis’s breakout role. Van Sant’s romances—cast amid junkies, thieves and geniuses—lacked the humdrum neatness of these kinds of pairings, so it was not surprising that he turned toward using “straight” dramas to express them, often with heterosexual love interests sort of plugged-in by hack Hollywood screenwriters who were already well-equipped as students of finding ways to ignore women.
One does make do. Van Sant’s ability to plow through studio scripts or his own is never unremarkable and motifs emerge like disparate parts of a shipwrecked whole. Once a RISD painting student, Van Sant’s movies will pause to make room for sweeping landscapes. His subjects, often men with remarkable chins who would go on to be supersized stars, are shot with relaxed frankness, their bodies splayed forward like the talking magazine models that appear in his third movie My Own Private Idaho. As a collective whole, Van Sant’s movies portray a clear message: devotionals to human intimacy and a combative wariness of cinema’s tendency to alienate by exaltation. A sort of queerness is implicit, the answers always found outside and never a normative, nuclear life.
His movies deserve to be ranked because they each tell a version of the same story, a vision that Van Sant never rests in finding a formally different way to tell. In this way, they sample most genres of moviemaking, from the prestige biopic to the horror remake. Their respective successes or failures say much about the power style has to change or alter a fundamental message, and each one is a sort of experiment in the language of movies that shows just how much they can contain.
17. The Sea of Trees (2015)
The badness of Sea of Trees is a revelation. Most ‘bad movies’ suffer from a kind of miscalculated amount of camp which prohibits serious thought, allowing the edgy critic to occasionally recover said movie from the trash, a kind of glib Rocky Horror experience. Van Sant is, instead, uncompromising. The Sea Of Trees is a masterpiece of badness that demands to be at the bottom of this list, rejects rescue like a sinking ship captain who throws his raft back at you.
The movie’s title politely alludes to the Japanese Aokigahara forest, notable for its suicides and, as many critics noticed, this made van Sant only the second filmmaker that year to set a widely panned drama in its midst, arriving in wide release eight months after the Natalie Dormer-starring The Forest. What drew Van Sant to the movie’s plot—penned by Chris Sparling of Buried fame—is obvious. The story of two men who get lost in a big forest is a mash of Van Sant’s earlier movies Gerry and Last Days, and he even throws in the dead wife plot device of Good Will Hunting (though this time she is given corporeal form by Naomi Watts via numerous flashbacks). Van Sant tries very hard to power through Sparling’s weird script, full of strange speeches that involve Matthew McConaughey delivering long recollections about how he used to refill his dead wife’s box of tea in the middle of the night. Another of Van Sant’s motifs involve intimate relationships between men that cross class or cultural barriers, which in Sea of Trees involves Ken Watanabe playing a sort of ghost that one critic likened to “basically the Asian version of the Magical Negro.” Watanabe actually spends a lot of time watching this disaster unfold in stunned silence, as if busy thanking some higher power that he is not in this moment Matthew McConaughey, crashing into the walls of human emotion like a motorboat driven by a blind man. I think I could write another 5,000 words about the masterfully bad moments that anchor The Sea of Trees, but not a single soul in the world would want to read them, and I think this is part and parcel of the movie’s uncompromising genius.
16. Drugstore Cowboy (1989)
There probably exists a significant crowd who wished Van Sant would make nothing but movies like Drugstore Cowboy, movies about badasses with romantic swagger and emotional pain that engage just enough with the tradition of outlaw road movies to keep their attention. In fact, the arc of Matt Dillon’s drugstore-robbing cowboy, whose crimes are governed by a system of mysticism that eventually dictates he leave the business for good, is remarkably similar to that of Samuel Jackson in Pulp Fiction. But while Tarantino and his imitators were never incredibly interested in what their Jules Winnfields did with their lives after leaving their diners, Van Sant always was. Half of Drugstore Cowboy deals with Dillon on the methadone program, facing the ordinariness of life and befriending a druggie priest, played by cult novelist William Burroughs. It is hard not to imagine that this was the story Van Sant wanted to tell all along.
It is this plodding insecurity that makes Drugstore Cowboy the weakest of Van Sant’s early period, with much of its first half working as a collection of indie cinema calling cards. (He can do drugs! He can do crime! etc.) Notably, Van Sant would never make another outlaw movie again, though its therapeutic second half can find easy kinship with much of Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot. He makes the genre feel hollow because, well, maybe it is. The real drugstore cowboy whose life the movie was based on was still robbing pharmacies into his 70s. That’s kind of a bummer, isn’t it?
15. Promised Land (2012)
Curiously, the worst script Van Sant has ever had to work with was co-authored by one of the writers of his most celebrated: along with John Krasinski, Matt Damon penned a corny political parable about fracking based on a concept by Dave Eggers. In it, Damon and Krasinski duel as oil man and environmentalist, fighting over a local bartender (Rosemarie DeWitt) and more importantly betraying each other’s hearts. To Van Sant, this is all very funny and Damon’s character even forgets to sleep with DeWitt when he beats Krasinski. Critics were less impressed by the cheesy sincerity that any Eggers-related product wears like a rubbery hazmat suit, and the movie failed to be nominated for any of the Academy Awards that its December release date had hoped for.
But Van Sant powers through, and if you ignore every word spoken in Promised Land, an underrated visual spectacle emerges. The aerial shots of the central Pennsylvania countryside are some of the most gorgeous in Van Sant’s career, shot in crisp Super 35mm lens by La La Land cinematographer Linus Sandgren. Underused but not unappreciated is the presence of Frances McDormand as a fellow oil company representative who sort of functions as the gabe in the movie’s central contest between Damon and Krasinski. She spends much of the movie in a nearby hotel room, kind of laughing about it.
14. Finding Forrester (2000)
While Van Sant was torn down for his remake of Psycho two years before, it is surprising that he left unscathed from the largely forgotten remake of his own Good Will Hunting he made after. The movies are in fact so similar that instead of schooling a Harvard egghead on the economics of the lower colonies, Finding Forrester’s Jamal Wallace (Rob Brown, in his debut) schools a random bougie guy on the history of the BMW corporation. People were very easily impressed before the internet! And in lieu of being a math and theory whiz, Wallace is a literary (and basketball) prodigy, with Stellan Skarsgård and Robin Williams’s dueling attentions replaced by the singular Sean Connery, who plays a reclusive novelist based on J.D. Salinger. Salinger was, of course, known to use his reclusivity to chase college-aged women similarly falling upon his door. Connery is mercifully more chaste.
People often point to movies like Finding Forrester as the nadir of Van Sant’s sentimentality, a designation that groups the movie along with the run of awful movies about white teachers heroically forming friendships with black high school students that saturated the latter half of the decade (Half Nelson, Freedom Writers). Notably, the script’s hapless appropriation of slang (penned by eventual Secretariat-screenwriter Mike Rich) ended up inspiring one of the earliest memes in internet history, that of Connery saying “You’re the man now, dog” in a very Sean Connery voice. But it is compelling that Wallace is forced to find support in the dusty confines of a reclusive novelist with a secret, after being shunned by both the movie’s main teacher figure (F. Murray Abraham) and unhelped by the movie’s token suffering girlfriend (Anna Paquin).
13. Elephant (2003)
Dogged pursuit of naturalism compelled ‘80s indie peers Steven Soderbergh and Van Sant to cast dark dramas among communities of non-actors in the middle of America, both within two years of each other. But where Soderbergh confined his indie experiments to the art movie crowd, Van Sant’s aimed Elephant squarely at mass communication by taking on the Columbine massacre as his subject, a gesture that won him far more seats in theaters and the Palme d’Or in 2003. (Cannes had bestowed Bowling for Columbine a similar award the year before.)
This makes Elephant a hard movie to assess; surely the retrospective legacy of Oliver Stone’s blockbuster World Trade Center would have suffered in the wake of a decade of further mass terrorist attacks. As such, the movie’s legacy is unhelped by another school shooter later using a still from Elephant as his website profile picture before killing seven people. Van Sant’s dramaturgical hand is masterful: we watch two students with guns begin walking toward the school early on, before flashing briefly back to another part of the school day, electrifying every minute with our tragically ironic knowledge. And these minutes are rich in the kind of intimate gestures that Van Sant has become so good at: an artist kid taking photographs of his peers, a soft-spoken boy working around his father’s alcoholism (the alcoholic father, in one of the few actor roles, was played by Timothy Bottoms, who had recently played George Bush in DC 9/11, one the first movies to be made about 9/11. This added to the appreciation of the movie in France.) Even the school shooters look vaguely sympathetic, living outsider lives of sexual and social alienation, playing what looks like a video game version of Gerry. A certain kind of person will argue that this is the real way to get a message across, balancing empathy and tragedy in open-armed compassion. But Bob Geldof already did that on “I Don’t Like Mondays,” didn’t he?
12. Restless (2011)
When tragedy robs a young man played by Henry Hopper, son of Dennis, he turns to the company of a Japanese military pilot who appears as a ghost (a plot devise uncannily similar to that of Sea of Trees!), followed by a dying girl played by Mia Wasikowska in a strikingly androgynous haircut. Filming teen romance gives Van Sant the permission to be very literal: the never-seen dying parents replaced by the dying girlfriend illuminates why so many of Van Sant’s characters enter his movies severed off-screen from their normative nuclear families, a kind of transference that repeats itself infinitely. His movies are never about finding soulmates, they’re about finding ways to rearticulate more primal relationships lost long ago.
Of course, the most arresting thing about Restless is that it screened at Cannes almost a whole year before John Green even published The Fault in Our Stars. Sure, Van Sant doesn’t really care about the dying at the center of it, and this kind of stagey emptiness annoys critics looking for something that feels important, especially as it regards the Japanese ghost going on about being a kamikaze pilot. But what he does care about is the moments before this meeting, the awkward silences of teenagers and a place to perform small gestures, to which the movie’s palette of faded colors fits perfectly.
11. Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot (2018)
Don’t Worry functions, most immediately, as a return to form: Van Sant had penned the script, it was set in Portland and starred the brother of Van Sant’s brief muse, River Phoenix. Incidentally, it doubles as Van Sant’s first feature film to gesture toward the AIDS crisis. The movie is not unproblematic on its own terms: Phoenix’s John Callahan views his disability as a punishment for his abuse of alcoholism.
But like in all Van Sant movies, this a vehicle for a story about mostly male intimacy across social and cultural lines, from the betrayal that Callahan suffers at the hands of a fry cook he meets at a bar (Jack Black) whose drunk driving disables Callahan to the cohort of AA members that meet in Hill’s mansion. And like his heroes in My Own Private Idaho, Psycho, Good Will Hunting or Restless, he is tormented by the absence of parental guidance: in this case his mother makes an appearance in a drunken ghostly illumination. It is interesting that Van Sant has never made a movie about families related by blood, a style that seems to say that the only families that matter are made outside.