Near the end of “I’m Not There” (2007), writer-director Todd Haynes’s meditation on the many lives of singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, outlier Billy the Kid (played by Richard Gere) ruminates on not knowing who he is most of the time. He speaks on identity as though he has yesterday, today, and tomorrow all in the same room. Billy is inspired by Dylan’s soundtrack album “Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid,” which was released for a 1973 film of the same name. In the film, Dylan plays Alias, an aptly titled character for a performer who assumes identities that are never really fixed. The idea of feeling remote from a fixed self is a recurring line to be drawn through much of Haynes’s cinematic work. Nobody makes films quite like him. From suburban horror and musical biopics to lesbian romance and 1950s melodrama, Haynes explores fascinating subjects and builds onto ideas with a radical perspective. Genres seem to dissolve into a fusion of so much more than one category of film. He deconstructs conformity and subverts narrative expectations. He has quickly become one of cinema’s most prominent, trailblazing, and unapologetic voices.
With each piece of creative work, Haynes brings questions of identity and sexuality into play. His characters are often a kaleidoscope of curiosity, passion, and repression. They tend to be found in the beauty and pain of resisting a particular way of life to explore another, one in which they go against the grain. With the added touch of frequent collaborators such as composer Carter Burwell and costume designer Sandy Powell, Haynes is a master at mirroring the interior of his characters with the exterior of the worlds they inhabit. Characters like Carol White in “Safe” (1995) and Cathy Whitaker in “Far From Heaven” (2002), for instance, both played with crushing heartache by Julianne Moore, find themselves in a psychological crisis made more expressive by Haynes’s evocative use of imagery and environments. Whether it’s the warm autumnal colors and cool blues that emphasize an exaggerated existence in “Far From Heaven” or the sterile pastel greens that give off poisonous calamity and isolation in “Safe,” the aesthetics are a precise fit for what the characters are going through.
Beyond unforgettable visuals, Haynes has a socially conscious, melodramatic, yet grounded quality in the way he tells stories. He has his finger on the pulse – whether it’s grappling with queerness as a transgression in his horror-fueled feature debut “Poison” (1991), leaning into environmental illness as symbolic of the AIDS epidemic in his second feature “Safe,” or exposing corporate indifference to the chemical poisoning of a town in the whistleblower drama “Dark Waters” (2019). His voice is unmistakable in its confidence of vision. Through his remarkable collaborations with actors, especially his muse Julianne Moore, one can sense immediately that the talent is on the same page of holding onto a sense of mystery for the story. There’s so much going on behind closed doors, leading to an eager questioning of the weight behind every little nuance. For instance, in the 1950s-set love story “Carol,” every glance that Carol (Cate Blanchett) gives to Therese (Rooney Mara) speaks volumes. The film depicts the intensity of falling in love for the first time; every look and gesture that the camera lingers on carries meaning, especially from Therese’s perspective of initial insecurity and curiosity.
Haynes works from a place of layered introspection and continues in that vein with his hyper-stylized new feature “May December,” a tragic and darkly funny immersion into a world of notoriety, dysfunctional families, and the lies people tell themselves to mask uncomfortable truths. The film, which premiered to intriguing reactions at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, explores a marriage built around an age gap and the troubling details that arise when the relationship becomes a research subject. “May December” follows an actress, Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), prying into the lives of Gracie (Julianne Moore) and Joe (Charles Melton), a couple who had been involved in a scandalous tabloid narrative. Twenty years after making national news, their marriage becomes new grounds for fictional interpretation. The story marks a return to contemporary form for Haynes, who has spent much of his career in period-film mode. “May December,” in all its strangeness, is a balancing act only Haynes could pull off, and he gives it just as much urgency as he does the rest of his work. Whether his films take place in today’s day and age or decades prior, Haynes’s thought-provoking dissection of slices of life remains utterly timeless.
In anticipation of “May December” releasing in theaters this weekend, ahead of its premiere on Netflix on December 1st, let’s take a look at Haynes’s five best films so far.
5. “Velvet Goldmine” (1998)Drenched in glitter, glam-rock, and sexual liberation, “Velvet Goldmine” is best experienced at maximum volume, as the film’s opening title card advises. Haynes’s non-linear, hallucinatory music drama plunges into the 1970s glam rock world with an abundance of personality. The film is a whirlwind of perspectives as it follows journalist Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale) on assignment to unveil what has become of his idol, superstar Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), nearly a decade after the star’s dominance in the London music scene. Along the way, Arthur finds insight from those in Slade’s orbit, from ex-wife Mandy (Toni Collette) to rock star Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor). Arthur going back in time to pursue dreams of the past forces an exposure to the person he himself once was, as well as his exploration of bisexuality. The film is a stunning articulation of feeling seen. Haynes makes vivid correlations between identifying yourself through the people you see on television and how those larger-than-life personas continue to impact the masses as time goes on. Haynes turns you to his creative influences for the film, from David Bowie to Iggy Pop and Kurt Cobain. The love of music and the exploration of its tapestry in “Velvet Goldmine” sticks like glitter. Echoing a quote that appears in the film, Haynes finds meaning “not in things but in between them,” a line that feels quintessential in describing his work.
4. “I’m Not There” (2007)Inspired by the music of Bob Dylan, “I’m Not There” takes a swirling look at the iconic folk singer in multiples. Cate Blanchett, Ben Whishaw, Christian Bale, Richard Gere, Marcus Carl Franklin, and Heath Ledger each play chameleonic versions of Dylan. The actors portray characters that embody his likeness as well as the people, places, and ideas that inspired him. Among the eclectic mix of personas — which include poetic narrator Arthur (Whishaw), religious-centric singer Jack Rollins (Bale), outlier Billy (Gere), 1960s movie star Robbie Clark (Ledger), and the personification of Dylan’s hero Woody Guthrie (Franklin) — the closest parallel to Dylan is acoustic folk singer Jude Quinn (a remarkably uncanny Blanchett). Jude represents the idea that the singer’s mid-1960s shift to rock and roll alienated former fans and that he changed from what he once was. Haynes brings a fittingly experimental approach to the task of making a film about Bob Dylan. There are so many intricacies to the singer; it’s a genius creative choice to structure the film through a multiplication of identities. With an unwavering resistance to a fixed way of being, Haynes gives voice to a treasure trove of free-flowing ideas that lend insightful pieces to a never-ending puzzle. From the extraordinary acting to the evocative use of music, “I’m Not There” is a stirring piece of work.
3. “Far From Heaven” (2002)
An incandescent companion to the films of Douglas Sirk, from “Imitation of Life” (1959) to “All That Heaven Allows” (1955), the devastatingly beautiful “Far From Heaven” shines as a passionate ode to the Sirk melodrama. Haynes intertwines notes on sexism, repressed queerness, racial tensions, and forbidden love through the perspective of a “perfect wife.” Set in the 1950s, the story follows Julianne Moore as Cathy Whitaker, a suburban Connecticut housewife whose world becomes crystalized when she falls in love with her gardener Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert). As Cathy ponders her feelings, her idyllic marriage to husband Frank (Dennis Quaid) unravels when she discovers he is gay and seeing another man. The film lives and breathes in questioning self and what one truly wants, particularly amidst the alienation of 50s Americana. Cathy grows for change; she feels an aching sensation to elude the matriarchal role she was so conscious of upholding and that her white picket fence neighbors unquestionably go along with. Along with Moore’s performance, every element of the film works to highlight the dangers of trying to control one’s heart and soul. With lush cinematography by Edward Lachman and a swooning score by Elmer Bernstein, the film is a prime example of how Haynes’s attention to imagery and sound evokes such powerful emotion. The critical success of “Far From Heaven” marked an exciting turning point in Haynes’s career, garnering him his first (and to this day, only) Oscar nomination (for Best Original Screenplay), plus more mainstream attention.
2. “Carol” (2015)
Less saturated and more translucent than “Far From Heaven” comes another 1950s period piece from Haynes, arguably the most mainstream of his career so far. Love is flung out of space in “Carol,” an intoxicating queer romance adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel “The Price of Salt.” The film follows the blossoming relationship between a department store clerk, Therese (Mara), and an older woman, Carol (Blanchett), in 1950s New York during Christmastime. When Carol visits the store searching for a doll for her daughter, Therese suggests a model train set instead. The two’s spellbinding first meeting puts their love story in locomotion. Isolated from their true selves and separated by their worlds, Therese and Carol gravitate towards each other. Haynes’s nimble direction reads between the lines of their all-consuming relationship and the meaning behind every move. Fleeting glimpses and lingering touches bring out a volcanic glow of emotions. Moody colors and smudged character reflections through windows give the film a dreamlike quality. With a remarkable screenplay by Phyllis Nagy (a change for Haynes, as “Carol” is his first directorial feature not written by him), plus two powerhouse performances at the center, the beauty of the film is how it subtly guides the characters closer to who they are. “Carol” is a beautiful articulation of the innate belonging that two women feel when they’re with each other, which makes the film’s ending all the more emotionally impactful.
1. “Safe” (1995)Marking the beginning of a rich collaboration between Haynes and Julianne Moore, “Safe” is a cinematic breakthrough that remains incredibly prevalent to this day. Set suggestively around the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, the film follows Carol White (Moore), a suburban southern California homemaker who begins to experience mysterious symptoms of an environmental illness. Her doctor dismisses the dizzy spells, nose bleeds, headaches, and vomiting, suggesting a psychiatrist would be best. The illness becomes an invisible threat that makes being in her own home feel isolating. As concerns grow, Carol’s life spirals into a place of unease, and she questions her own culpability in the matter. Haynes utilizes the illness as a strong narrative device for a tapestry of ideas, whether the skepticism of self-help and wellness culture or the egregious lack of attentiveness to the AIDS crisis. Haynes captures the deeply unsettling emotion of being lost inside while surrounded by an increasingly alienating environment. His depiction of sickness hidden in plain sight, amplified by a brilliant use of clinical green interiors for Carol’s home, gives the film a mysterious quality that keeps its protagonist and viewer in a perpetual state of unraveling.
What do you think of this list? Have you seen “May December” yet? Where does it rank in Todd Haynes’s filmography for you? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.