Jonathan Demme was an American film director, producer, and screenwriter known for his eclectic filmography that included a wide range of genres and styles.
He was known for his ability to bring out the best in his actors and to create immersive and engaging cinematic experiences for his audiences. In honor of his legacy, here are some of his best films:
“The Silence of the Lambs” (1991) – This psychological thriller is widely regarded as one of the greatest films ever made.
It stars Jodie Foster as a young FBI agent who enlists the help of the incarcerated cannibalistic killer, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, to catch a serial killer on the loose.
“Philadelphia” (1993) – This powerful drama tells the story of a successful lawyer (Tom Hanks) who is fired after his employers discover he is gay and has AIDS.
With the help of a tenacious young attorney (Denzel Washington), he fights for justice and dignity in the face of prejudice.
“Stop Making Sense” (1984) – This concert film captures the energy and artistry of the Talking Heads’ legendary 1983 tour.
With innovative cinematography and a stunning live performance by the band, it is widely regarded as one of the greatest concert films of all time.
“Rachel Getting Married” (2008) – This intimate family drama follows the story of a young woman (Anne Hathaway) who is released from rehab to attend her sister’s wedding.
With stunning performances and a powerful emotional core, the film is a testament to Demme’s ability to capture the complexities of human relationships.
“Melvin and Howard” (1980) – This offbeat comedy-drama tells the story of an unlikely friendship between an eccentric milkman (Jason Robards) and a down-on-his-luck gas station attendant (Paul Le Mat) who claims to have received a massive inheritance from the late billionaire Howard Hughes.
Best Jonathan Demme Films
These films represent just a few examples of Jonathan Demme’s wide-ranging talent as a filmmaker.
With his ability to create compelling characters, powerful stories, and innovative visuals, Demme’s legacy as a master of American cinema remains strong to this day.
1. Caged Heat (1974)
Caged Heat” is a 1974 exploitation film directed by Jonathan Demme, which tells the story of a group of female prisoners who are subjected to cruel and inhumane treatment by their sadistic warden.
The film explores themes of power, corruption, and female empowerment, as the prisoners band together to fight against their oppressors and seek justice.
The film is notable for its graphic depictions of violence and sexuality, as well as for its feminist undertones and its portrayal of strong, independent women fighting against oppression.
It features a talented cast of female actors, including Erica Gavin, Roberta Collins, and Barbara Steele.
“Caged Heat” was a critical and commercial success upon its release, and remains a beloved cult classic among fans of exploitation cinema
. It is widely regarded as one of the best examples of the women-in-prison genre, and is considered an important early work in the career of director Jonathan Demme.
2. Crazy Mama (1975)
“Crazy Mama” is a 1975 crime-comedy film directed by Jonathan Demme and starring Cloris Leachman, Stuart Whitman, and Ann Sothern.
The film follows a group of women who go on a crime spree across the United States in order to save their family’s gas station from being repossessed.
The film is notable for its vibrant and colorful visual style, as well as its offbeat humor and engaging characters.
Demme uses a combination of fast-paced editing, colorful cinematography, and an energetic soundtrack to create a sense of fun and excitement.
The performances by the cast, especially Leachman’s, are spirited and memorable.
“Crazy Mama” is a fun and entertaining film that offers a unique and humorous perspective on crime and family.
It is a must-see for fans of crime-comedy films and road trip movies that are unafraid to embrace their campy and over-the-top sensibilities.
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3. Fighting Mad (1976)
“Fighting Mad” is a 1976 action film directed by Jonathan Demme and starring Peter Fonda, Gino Franco, and Philip Carey.
The film follows a farmer named Tom Hunter (Fonda) who is forced to take a stand against a corrupt land developer and his henchmen when they begin destroying the land and homes of local farmers.
Tom bands together with his neighbors to fight back, using any means necessary to protect their homes and families.
The film was produced during a time when many rural communities were facing threats to their land and livelihoods from developers and corporations.
“Fighting Mad” is notable for its use of real locations and non-professional actors, lending a sense of authenticity to the story.
The film also features a memorable score by composer Bruce Langhorne, who had previously worked with Bob Dylan.
While “Fighting Mad” received mixed reviews upon its release, it has since become a cult classic among fans of 1970s action cinema.
The film is often cited for its themes of resistance and standing up to corrupt power, as well as its portrayal of rural America and its struggles.
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4. Citizens Band (1977)
“Citizens Band” is a 1977 film directed by Jonathan Demme. The film is a comedy-drama that explores the lives of a group of citizens band radio enthusiasts in the United States.
The citizens band radio, or CB radio, was a popular form of communication during the 1970s and was often used by truckers to communicate with each other on the road.
The film follows a group of CB radio enthusiasts who communicate with each other over the airwaves.
Each of the characters has their own unique personality and quirks, and the film explores their relationships and interactions with each other.
The film also touches on themes of loneliness, community, and the search for human connection.
One of the most notable aspects of “Citizens Band” is its use of non-professional actors. The film features a cast of mostly amateur actors, many of whom were real CB radio enthusiasts.
This gives the film a sense of authenticity and realism that is rare in Hollywood films.
Overall, “Citizens Band” is a charming and quirky film that offers a unique glimpse into the world of CB radio enthusiasts during the 1970s.
It’s a film that is both entertaining and thought-provoking, and it remains a cult classic among fans of independent cinema.
5. Last Embrace (1979)
“Last Embrace” is a 1979 film directed by Jonathan Demme and starring Roy Scheider and Janet Margolin.
While it is not a Bernardo Bertolucci film, Demme was heavily influenced by Bertolucci’s work and the film features several nods to Bertolucci’s films, particularly “The Conformist.”
“Last Embrace” is a thriller about a man named Harry Hannan (Scheider) who is a former government agent and is now being targeted by a mysterious organization.
As he tries to figure out who is after him and why, he meets a woman named Ellie (Margolin) who becomes involved in the dangerous situation.
The film received mixed reviews upon its release but has since gained a cult following. It is notable for its Hitchcockian themes and stylish cinematography, as well as its use of Philadelphia as a backdrop.
While it is not a Bertolucci film, it is an interesting example of a director being influenced by the work of another filmmaker and incorporating those influences into their own work.
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6. Melvin and Howard (1980)
“Melvin and Howard” is a 1980 American comedy-drama film directed by Jonathan Demme and written by Bo Goldman.
The film is based on a true story about a down-on-his-luck service station owner named Melvin Dummar, played by Paul Le Mat, who claims to have saved the life of the eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes, played by Jason Robards.
The film follows Melvin’s struggles to make ends meet in Las Vegas while trying to pursue his dreams of becoming a singer.
After finding a disheveled and injured Hughes on the side of the road, Melvin helps him and takes him to the hospital. In return, Hughes leaves him a handwritten will that entitles him to a portion of the billionaire’s fortune.
With its quirky characters and offbeat humor, “Melvin and Howard” was praised for its unique perspective on the American Dream and for its portrayal of the struggles of ordinary people.
The film also features strong performances by Le Mat and Robards, as well as a memorable soundtrack by Neil Young.
“Melvin and Howard” was a critical success and won two Academy Awards, for Best Supporting Actress (Mary Steenburgen) and Best Original Screenplay (Bo Goldman).
It remains a beloved classic in American cinema and a testament to Jonathan Demme’s ability to find the humanity in even the most unlikely of stories.
7. Swing Shift (1984)
“Swing Shift” is a 1984 comedy-drama film directed by Jonathan Demme, and starring Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell.
The film tells the story of Kay Walsh (Hawn), a woman who becomes a factory worker during World War II while her husband is away fighting in the war.
She forms a close friendship with her co-worker, Hazel (Christine Lahti), and begins to question her own identity and values as she is exposed to the realities of war and the changing roles of women in society.
The film explores themes of gender roles, female empowerment, and the effects of war on individuals and society.
It is notable for its strong performances, particularly by Hawn and Lahti, and for its period-accurate depiction of life in America during World War II.
Despite receiving mixed reviews upon its release, “Swing Shift” has since gained a reputation as an underrated gem of 1980s cinema, and is considered one of Demme’s lesser-known but most emotionally resonant films.
It is a touching and thought-provoking portrayal of the changing social landscape of America during a pivotal moment in history.
8. Something Wild (1986)
“Something Wild” is a 1986 comedy-drama film directed by Jonathan Demme and starring Jeff Daniels, Melanie Griffith, and Ray Liotta.
The film follows a seemingly straight-laced businessman named Charlie who gets drawn into a wild and unpredictable adventure by a free-spirited woman named Lulu.
As they journey together, they encounter a cast of eccentric characters, including a dangerous ex-convict named Ray, who threatens to derail their plans.
The film is notable for its engaging characters, witty dialogue, and eclectic soundtrack. Demme uses a combination of naturalistic cinematography, frenetic editing, and a mix of musical genres to create a sense of energy and excitement.
The performances by the cast, especially Griffith’s and Liotta’s, are memorable and nuanced.
“Something Wild” is a fun and engaging film that offers a unique and humorous perspective on romance, adventure, and self-discovery.
It is a must-see for fans of offbeat and quirky films that are unafraid to embrace their unconventional and unpredictable nature.
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9. Swimming to Cambodia (1987)
“Swimming to Cambodia” is a 1987 film directed by Jonathan Demme and based on the one-man stage show by actor and playwright Spalding Gray.
The film is a monologue that features Gray telling the story of his experiences as an actor in the film “The Killing Fields,” which was about the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia.
The film is essentially a long, personal monologue that Gray delivers while sitting at a desk in front of a live audience.
The monologue is interspersed with footage from “The Killing Fields” and other footage of Cambodia and its people.
Gray’s story is both humorous and harrowing, as he recounts his experiences working on the film, including his interactions with the cast and crew and his own struggles with the subject matter.
One of the most striking aspects of “Swimming to Cambodia” is Gray’s storytelling ability. He is a gifted storyteller, and his monologue is filled with vivid imagery and personal anecdotes that bring his experiences to life.
The film is also notable for its use of documentary footage, which adds a sense of realism and authenticity to the story.
Overall, “Swimming to Cambodia” is a unique and engaging film that offers a personal perspective on a major historical event. It’s a film that is both entertaining and informative, and it remains a classic of the one-man show genre.
10. Married to the Mob (1988)
“Married to the Mob” is a 1988 comedy film directed by Jonathan Demme and starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Matthew Modine, and Dean Stockwell.
The film tells the story of Angela de Marco (Pfeiffer), a woman who is married to a Mafia hitman and seeks to start a new life after her husband’s death.
She must navigate the dangerous and unpredictable world of organized crime, as well as fend off the advances of a persistent FBI agent (Modine) who is investigating the mob.
The film is notable for its blend of humor, romance, and action, as well as for its colorful characters and sharp writing.
It is a stylish and entertaining depiction of the Mafia underworld, and features memorable performances by Pfeiffer and Modine, as well as by Stockwell as the suave and menacing mob boss.
“Married to the Mob” was a critical and commercial success upon its release, and helped to establish Demme as one of the leading directors of his generation.
It remains a beloved and iconic film of the 1980s, and is widely regarded as one of the best Mafia comedies ever made.
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11. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
“The Silence of the Lambs” is a 1991 American thriller film directed by Jonathan Demme and based on the novel of the same name by Thomas Harris.
The film follows Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), a young FBI trainee who seeks the help of the brilliant psychiatrist and cannibalistic killer, Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), to catch a serial killer known as “Buffalo Bill.”
The film is widely regarded as a masterpiece of the psychological thriller genre, with its intense atmosphere, compelling characters, and intricate plot.
It was a commercial and critical success, grossing over $270 million worldwide and receiving numerous awards, including five Oscars in major categories such as Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay.
“The Silence of the Lambs” is notable for its nuanced and complex portrayal of the relationship between Clarice Starling and Dr. Lecter, which is a key element in the film’s suspenseful plot.
The film also features strong performances by Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins, with the latter’s chilling portrayal of Dr. Lecter becoming one of the most iconic characters in cinematic history.
Overall, “The Silence of the Lambs” is a groundbreaking film that continues to be celebrated for its ability to captivate and terrify audiences with its intelligent and suspenseful storytelling.
12. Philadelphia (1993)
“Philadelphia” is a 1993 drama film directed by Jonathan Demme and starring Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, and Antonio Banderas.
The film tells the story of a successful lawyer named Andrew Beckett who is fired from his job after his employer discovers that he has AIDS.
Beckett hires a lawyer named Joe Miller to help him sue his former employer for discrimination, and the two form an unlikely bond as they confront the prejudices and fears of a society that is struggling to come to terms with the AIDS epidemic.
The film is notable for its powerful performances, nuanced characters, and sensitive treatment of a complex and controversial subject.
Demme uses a combination of naturalistic cinematography, intimate close-ups, and a poignant musical score to create a sense of empathy and emotional connection.
The performances by the cast, especially Hanks’ and Washington’s, are raw and authentic, and the film offers a powerful commentary on the challenges of fighting for justice and equality in the face of prejudice and fear.
“Philadelphia” is a thought-provoking and emotionally charged film that offers a unique and insightful perspective on discrimination, social justice, and the human condition.
It is a must-see for fans of powerful and socially relevant dramas that are unafraid to tackle controversial issues with honesty and integrity.
13. Beloved (1998)
“Beloved” is a 1998 film directed by Jonathan Demme and based on the novel by Toni Morrison.
The film is a powerful and haunting story of a former slave named Sethe, played by Oprah Winfrey, who is haunted by the ghost of her daughter, whom she had killed to protect her from slavery.
The film is set in Ohio in 1873, and it explores themes of slavery, motherhood, and the legacy of trauma.
The story is told through a series of flashbacks, as Sethe’s memories and the ghost of her daughter reveal the brutal realities of slavery and the deep emotional scars it leaves on those who survive it.
One of the most striking aspects of “Beloved” is its use of magical realism.
The film blurs the line between reality and fantasy, as the ghost of Sethe’s daughter takes on a physical presence and becomes a symbol of the trauma and pain that Sethe has carried with her for so long.
The film is also notable for its strong performances. Oprah Winfrey delivers a powerful performance as Sethe, conveying the character’s pain and resilience in a nuanced and moving way. Thandie Newton is also excellent as Beloved, Sethe’s haunting and mysterious daughter.
Overall, “Beloved” is a powerful and emotional film that explores the lasting effects of slavery on both individuals and society as a whole.
It’s a difficult film to watch at times, but it’s also an important and necessary one that sheds light on a dark chapter in American history.
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14. The Truth About Charlie (2002)
“The Truth About Charlie” is a 2002 American-French thriller film directed by Jonathan Demme and starring Mark Wahlberg and Thandie Newton.
The film is a loose remake of the 1963 classic film “Charade,” which starred Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant.
The film follows a young woman named Regina Lambert (Thandie Newton) who returns to Paris after a holiday to find that her husband has been murdered and her savings have been stolen.
Desperate to find answers, she is pursued by a variety of dangerous characters, including an enigmatic man named Joshua Peters (Mark Wahlberg), who offers to help her.
Despite its star-studded cast and stylish visuals, “The Truth About Charlie” received mixed reviews from critics and was a commercial disappointment.
Some critics praised the film’s attempt to modernize the classic “Charade” story, while others criticized it for its lack of originality and poor pacing.
Despite its flaws, “The Truth About Charlie” is still considered to be an intriguing entry in Jonathan Demme’s filmography, and its use of Parisian locations and visuals are particularly striking.
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15. The Manchurian Candidate (2004)
“The Manchurian Candidate” is a 2004 political thriller film directed by Jonathan Demme and starring Denzel Washington, Liev Schreiber, and Meryl Streep.
The film is a remake of the 1962 film of the same name and is based on the novel by Richard Condon.
The story revolves around a group of American soldiers who are captured during the Gulf War and brainwashed by a corporation to become sleeper agents, with one of them (Schreiber) being chosen as the corporation’s puppet candidate for Vice President.
Washington plays a fellow soldier who tries to uncover the conspiracy and stop the puppet candidate from being elected.
The film explores themes of political corruption, mind control, and the dangers of unchecked power.
It is notable for its intense and suspenseful tone, as well as for its strong performances, particularly by Schreiber as the conflicted and brainwashed soldier, and Streep as his ambitious and ruthless mother.
While the film received mixed reviews and was a box office disappointment upon its release, it has since gained a cult following and is considered by some to be an underappreciated gem of the political thriller genre.
Demme’s direction is praised for its visual style and psychological tension, and the film’s themes are seen as highly relevant in today’s political climate.
16. Rachel Getting Married (2008)
“Rachel Getting Married” is a 2008 drama film directed by Jonathan Demme and starring Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt, and Debra Winger.
The film tells the story of a young woman named Kym who is released from rehab in order to attend her sister Rachel’s wedding.
As the family gathers together for the wedding, long-buried secrets and tensions begin to surface, forcing Kym and her family to confront their painful past and uncertain future.
The film is notable for its naturalistic cinematography, intimate character development, and emotionally charged performances.
Demme uses a combination of hand-held camera work, long takes, and improvisational acting to create a sense of intimacy and authenticity.
The performances by the cast, especially Hathaway’s, are raw and authentic, and the film offers a powerful commentary on the complexities of family relationships, addiction, and personal growth.
“Rachel Getting Married” is a thought-provoking and emotionally resonant film that offers a unique and insightful perspective on the complexities of human relationships and the struggles of personal transformation.
It is a must-see for fans of powerful and emotionally charged dramas that are unafraid to tackle difficult subjects with honesty and compassion.
17. A Master Builder (2013)
“A Master Builder” is a 2013 film directed by Jonathan Demme, based on the play by Henrik Ibsen.
The film tells the story of a successful but tyrannical architect named Halvard Solness, played by Wallace Shawn, who is visited by a young woman named Hilde, played by Lisa Joyce, who claims to have met him years before.
The film explores themes of power, control, and mortality, as Solness confronts his own mortality and the legacy he will leave behind.
The interactions between Solness and Hilde are tense and charged with sexual tension, and the film builds to a dramatic and surprising conclusion.
One of the most notable aspects of “A Master Builder” is its use of language. The film is based on a play by one of the most renowned playwrights in history, and the dialogue is dense and complex.
The actors deliver their lines with intensity and nuance, creating a powerful and emotional atmosphere that draws the viewer in.
The film is also notable for its strong performances. Wallace Shawn gives a tour-de-force performance as Solness, conveying the character’s arrogance and vulnerability with equal skill. Lisa Joyce is also excellent as Hilde, bringing a sense of mystery and danger to the role.
Overall, “A Master Builder” is a complex and challenging film that explores the nature of power and mortality in a thought-provoking way.
It’s a film that rewards close attention and reflection, and it’s a must-see for fans of Ibsen or anyone who appreciates intense and nuanced drama.
18. Ricki and the Flash (2015)
“Ricki and the Flash” is a 2015 American comedy-drama film directed by Jonathan Demme and written by Diablo Cody.
The film stars Meryl Streep as Ricki Rendazzo, a rock singer and guitarist who abandoned her family to pursue her music career.
When her estranged daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer) experiences a personal crisis, Ricki returns home to help her and attempt to reconnect with her family.
The film features strong performances by Meryl Streep and her real-life daughter Mamie Gummer, who plays her on-screen daughter.
The film also features a supporting cast that includes Kevin Kline, Rick Springfield, and Audra McDonald.
While “Ricki and the Flash” received mixed reviews from critics, it is still considered to be a poignant and entertaining film.
The film explores themes of family, redemption, and the pursuit of one’s dreams, and features a number of musical performances by Meryl Streep and the other musicians in the film.
The film also showcases the strong bond between mothers and daughters, both on and off the screen, making it a particularly touching entry in Jonathan Demme’s filmography.
3 Characteristics of Jonathan Demme Films
Here are three characteristics of Jonathan Demme films:
Focus on character: Jonathan Demme’s films are often driven by complex and well-drawn characters.
He has a talent for bringing out nuanced and emotional performances from his actors, and his stories often revolve around characters who are struggling with personal challenges and conflicts.
Humanistic approach: Demme’s films are marked by a humanistic approach to storytelling, with a focus on empathy and compassion for his characters.
He often explores social and political issues through the lens of individual experiences, and his films are known for their heartfelt and uplifting messages.
Innovative style: Demme was known for his innovative and eclectic style, which drew from a wide range of influences and genres.
He experimented with unconventional camera techniques and editing, and was known for his use of music and sound to create atmosphere and mood.
His films are also marked by a strong sense of social commentary and a willingness to challenge societal norms and conventions.
3 Reasons Why You Should Watch Jonathan Demme Films
Authenticity: One of the hallmarks of Jonathan Demme’s films is their authenticity.
He has a unique ability to capture the essence of his characters and their environments, creating a sense of realism and intimacy that draws the viewer in and allows them to connect emotionally with the story and its characters.
Social relevance: Demme’s films often explore important social issues and themes, such as discrimination, social justice, addiction, and personal growth.
He has a deep respect for the human condition and uses his films to offer insight and commentary on the challenges that we face as individuals and as a society.
Versatility: Demme was a versatile filmmaker who worked across a wide range of genres, from drama to comedy to music documentaries.
He was equally adept at crafting intimate character studies and larger-than-life spectacles, and he never shied away from pushing boundaries or experimenting with new techniques and styles.
As such, there is something for everyone in Demme’s filmography, and his work continues to inspire and challenge filmmakers and audiences alike.
Best Jonathan Demme Films – Wrapping Up
Jonathan Demme was a versatile and talented filmmaker, known for his ability to tackle a wide range of genres and subject matter with equal skill. Some of his best films include:
The Silence of the Lambs (1991) – A classic psychological thriller that earned Demme an Academy Award for Best Director.
Philadelphia (1993) – A groundbreaking film that explored the AIDS epidemic and its impact on society, featuring powerful performances by Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington.
Stop Making Sense (1984) – A concert film featuring the Talking Heads that is widely considered one of the best of its kind.
Rachel Getting Married (2008) – A deeply emotional and personal film about a family’s struggle to come to terms with a troubled past, featuring a standout performance by Anne Hathaway.
Something Wild (1986) – A quirky and unpredictable road movie that blends genres and features strong performances by Jeff Daniels and Melanie Griffith.
Swimming to Cambodia (1987) – A unique and engaging film that features Spalding Gray’s powerful storytelling and Demme’s skillful direction.
Beloved (1998) – A haunting and powerful exploration of slavery and its lasting impact on society, featuring strong performances by Oprah Winfrey and Thandie Newton.
These films showcase Demme’s ability to tell powerful and moving stories across a variety of genres and subject matter, and they remain a testament to his talent and legacy as a filmmaker.