Todd Haynes almost never directs movies that are “only” about their central narratives. He is that rare breed of filmmaker who sets up one kind of story, only to reveal it as a springboard for a more complex cinematic experience. So it makes sense that he would be drawn to May December, making its theatrical debut today and described by Joey as an idiosyncratic blend of campy, funny, creepy, but strangely humanistic and empathetic towards some very hard-to-like characters. It’s a movie that very easily could have been “only” a roman à clef about Mary Kay Letourneau, but the addition of Natalie Portman’s character alone teases something more… intricate. Samy Burch had apparently written something that, according to Haynes, “navigated potentially volatile subject matter with a kind of observational patience that allowed the characters in the story to be explored with uncommon subtlety,” which could describe the screenplays of most of his films.
It’s why he’s one of my favorite directors. He is an uncommonly creative filmmaker lacing richly psychoanalytical observations throughout a diverse array of genres. One of the vanguards of the New Queer Cinema movement, he tore down Hollywood’s myopic depictions of LGBTQ identities and continues to challenge heteronormative cultural assumptions through both the form and function of narrative art. You might assume such rebellious filmmaking instincts would result in an inconsistent output, yet the quality of his work has been unusually dependable. In fact, I would argue the only true dud of his nearly four-decade-long career so far has been the miniseries Mildred Pierce, a turgid remake that didn’t really do anything to distinguish itself from Michael Curtiz’s noir classic.
That is not going to be ranked below, and neither will his controversial short film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, which is still illegal to commercially distribute to this day. I am only ranking his feature-length film output up to his latest release, which you can check out for yourself below:
6. Dark Waters
I believe his absolute worst feature film, by a pretty wide margin, is Wonderstruck, and even that is a perfectly decent three-star children’s movie I would consider a pleasant surprise if it came from a less interesting filmmaker (which, to be fair, is most filmmakers relative to Todd Haynes). The Velvet Underground is the only film of his that I have reviewed for this site so far. I praised its resourcefulness in chronicling the rise, fall, and lasting influence of the titular band despite having a paucity of decent archive footage to work with (which I still stand by), but his first feature-length documentary still found itself near the bottom of the list solely because of the strength of its competition among the rest of his movies.
His transgressive sci-fi horror anthology Poison, legal procedural thriller Dark Waters, and avante-garde exploration of the many identities of Bob Dylan in I’m Not There are similarly three-and-a-half star successes. Velvet Goldmine and Far from Heaven are stone-cold masterpieces, Carol is arguably the best lesbian romance film of the 21st century so far, and I genuinely believe you could mount a convincing case that his quietly terrifying psychological thriller Safe is the best-directed feature film of the 1990’s (and one of the rare films that became more relevant and unnerving twenty-five years after its release).
I have no idea how May December will rank itself on my list. All I know is that its director is the kind of artist who automatically spurs my curiosity to find out, regardless of what his latest film is about.
Let me know what your favorite Todd Haynes films are in the comments!