Top 5 Brian De Palma Films
Despite his great films and huge influence on several of today’s most celebrated directors (including Quentin Tarantino), Brian De Palma is somehow one of cinema’s most underrated filmmakers. While De Palma has had his share of misfires (Snake Eyes) to outright disasters (Bonfire of the Vanities), he’s also responsible for many great films (Scarface, Casualties of War, Dressed to Kill, The Untouchables, and Obsession to name a few).
In honor of the New York Film Festival premiere of Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s new documentary De Palma (read our review), which screens on October 11th, Way Too Indie put together a list of the Top 5 Brian De Palma Films. With such a lengthy filmography and a true master of his craft, it was difficult to decide on just five of his films. So after watching the following films, be sure to check out more of his prolific catalog.
Top 5 Brian De Palma Films
#1. Blow Out (1981)
One of the greatest and most criminally under-seen films of all-time, Blow Out is a true masterpiece in every sense of the word, up there with the best of fellow new Hollywood greats like Spielberg, Scorsese, and Coppola. Featuring John Travolta’s best performance, it makes you wonder how (outside of Pulp Fiction) he has been so spectacularly wasted throughout most of his career. Pino Donaggio’s heartbreakingly beautiful score will sit with you for days after hearing it, no matter how many times you’ve heard it before. Nancy Allen is at her most charismatic, her chemistry with Travolta so rich and natural. At one point while jotting down notes for this article I simply wrote “VILMOS FUCKING ZSIGMOND”, the incredible cinematographer who is a frequent collaborator with De Palma. (Note: Zsigmond’s middle name isn’t “Fucking”, but I’ll be damned if that’s not how I pronounce it every time I watch the many ambitious photographed sequences in Blow Out.)
But the real star of the show is of course, Brian De Palma. Blow Out is the moment when it all clicked in place, all the tools and style De Palma had been toying with and perfecting over the years are on full display here. Beautiful, and in some cases groundbreaking, use of split diopters, Steadicam, split screens, and expert audio editing demonstrates his technically proficient skills. But this is also De Palma’s most mature film. Though not completely void of some of his trademark sleaze and sophomoric humor, Blow Out is a classic thriller that illustrates the frustrations of a person in post-Watergate America tired of the political cover-ups. The film also contains the most tragic, painful, and beautifully executed ending I’ve ever seen in a film.
Do yourself a favor and buy a copy of the Criterion Collection’s release of Blow Out on DVD & Blu-ray. Don’t download it, don’t wait for it on Netflix, buy the Criterion release. You won’t regret it.
#2. Carrie (1976)
Shield your eyes Kubrick super-fans, not only is this one of the strongest horror films of the ’70s, it’s also the best film adaptation of a Stephen King horror story. Don’t get me wrong, The Shining is excellent (so put down that Jack Torrance’s axe), but De Palma’s Carrie is so stylistically rich and anchored by an incredible performance from Sissy Spacek that it’s impossible to turn away from. Spacek and Piper Laurie’s Academy Award-nominated performances (along with Travolta’s stellar work in Blow Out show what a great director of actors Brian De Palma has been throughout his career. Make sure to see this right away if you haven’t already, and if you have, it’s the perfect time for a rewatch.
#3. Carlito’s Way (1993)
One of the more underrated De Palma films and certainly not as widely known as his other collaboration with Al Pacino, but Carlito’s Way is De Palma’s finest crime drama, even superior to Scarface in just about every way. Pacino is in top form here and (along with his Michael Mann collaborations) delivered some of his finest work since the ‘70s. Sean Penn heads up a strong supporting cast. Stephen Burum’s cinematography is exquisite. And David Koepp’s script brings a solid foundation that is missing from most of De Palma’s efforts in this decade.
#4. Sisters (1973)
Along with 1974’s Phantom of the Paradise, Sisters was the film that set in motion the De Palma we know today. The film demonstrated just how versatile he could be considering his earlier work on counter-culture comedies. While Sisters is rough around the edges in some areas, the talent is very clear. De Palma has always been accused of being a Hitchcock rip-off artist and it’s easy to see why when watching something like Sisters (or better yet, Dressed to Kill). But lost in that criticism is the fact that De Palma has always been experimenting and curating his own style by way of his Hitchcock influence. That experimentation is rarely more evident than it is in Sisters with its heavy use of split screens and De Palma allowing the exploitation side of him show with increasingly graphic imagery.
#5. Mission: Impossible (1996)
Still the best entry in the Mission: Impossible franchise despite lacking the thrill of high stakes stunts executed by Cruise himself (an area the last two films have excelled in). Where De Palma one-ups the others is his handling of smaller, quieter moments that create an intensity that permeates the whole film (rather than just a few minutes of insane stunts). This proved that De Palma can handle the big scenes as well, the scene where Cruise’s Ethan Hunt steals the NOC list from C.I.A. headquarters is one of the most masterfully directed sequences of his career.