Ranked: Roman Polanski Films from Worst to Best

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In tribute to Carnage, we reassess the director of Chinatown and The Pianist.

by Austin Duerst

Roman Polanski made a name for himself at a young age with his keen and original insight into the dark recesses of the human psyche. His films, with their grim, unflinching depictions of injustice, helped open the doors for future filmmakers to pursue dark subject matter without fear of censorship. With the release of his nineteenth feature film, Carnage, we take a look back at the films of one of cinema's greatest directors. 

19. Pirates (1986)

Long before pirate fever swept the world with Disney's Caribbean series, a lot of other pirate movies earned their place shipwrecked along the shores of cinematic history. Roman Polanski's Pirates is one of them. The idea must've seemed promising in its initial stages (after all, someone coughed up $40 million dollars to make it), but instead of delivering memorable swashbuckling, Polanski gave audiences two-hours of asinine turnovers and cheesy slapstick that are as contrived as star Walter Matthau's horrible pirate accent.

18. The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967)

This macabre fairy-tale centers on two vampire hunters who come across more like props than flesh-and-blood characters. All the ingredients are here for a choice satire of early vampire pictures, but the film's over-the-top, cartoonish quality makes it all feel kind of dumb. Critics have showered praise on the film for its beautiful sets, but they're not enough to redeem the limp comedy.

17. What? (1972)

Narrowly avoiding a rape while traveling in Italy, a young woman escapes into a decadent villa. What? earns points (sort of) for originality and some funny moments, but Polanski seems to have made it out of sheer feckless randiness. Tip-toeing topless through scenes of cooking, fucking, and ping-pong, Sydne Rome's protagonist is more sex doll than Alice in Wonderland. If this screwball Salo has any underlying significance, it's all but lost in the film's meta-twist ending, which will having you repeating the title in disappointment even after the credits roll. 

16. Oliver Twist (2005)

Given his own history as an orphan, Polanski should have been a perfect match for the classic story of Oliver Twist. Like many of Polanski's previous works, the film concerns the struggle of innocents in a world of corruption. The acting, both by the cast of children and by Ben Kingsley as the manipulative Fagin, is top-notch. The problem is that other than touching on some of the director's favorite themes, there's no real indication that Twist was made by Polanski. He seems to be holding back. 

15. Macbeth (1971)

While Macbeth's film adaptations have been hit-and-miss, Polanski's version is arguably the most faithful. (In other words, there are no machine guns.) Polanski never flinches in displaying the extreme lengths its key players will go for power, and the surrealist touch the director brings to Macbeth's various guilt-ridden, sleep-deprived hallucinations make many of the scenes memorable. But these scenes make up only a third of the two-plus-hour movie. For the rest of the time, something boring this way comes.

14. The Ninth Gate (1999)

In The Ninth Gate, Johnny Depp stars as Dean Corso, a sleazy rare-books dealer hired to authenticate a manuscript that was allegedly written by the Devil. But Depp's underwhelming performance pales in comparison to Frank Langella's menacing portrayal of bibliophile Boris Balkan. Unfortunately, Langella's scenes are few, and while there are moments of noirish humor and charm, the film is unsatisfying. Its failure at the box office has been blamed on the inevitable comparisons to Rosemary's Baby, but The Ninth Gate is slow and underdeveloped even on its own terms.

13. The Ghost Writer (2010)

Hired to take over the writing of a former British Prime Minister's memoir after the previous author dies mysteriously, successful scribe Ewan McGregor finds himself enmeshed in a web of political intrigue. The Ghost Writer is more subdued than Polanski's previous films, which is not necessarily a criticism. The film's deliberately-paced unraveling of clues is one of its more engaging qualities, a testament to its writing and editing. But ultimately, the actors don't manage to invest the film with much deeper meaning; it's the mystery that keeps you watching.

 12. Bitter Moon (1992)

A look into the personal hell of a dysfunctional relationship, Bitter Moon plays like two different films in one. The intriguing half concerns the sadistic disintegration of the love between characters Oscar and Mimi, told mostly in flashbacks. This half of Bitter Moon is a well-crafted free-fall, exhibiting Polanski's fearlessness in exploring the very depths of perversion. But the other half is the tale of a boring British couple who seem to be here only to make the rest seem more interesting by contrast.   

11. Tess (1979)

After years of macabre thrillers, Polanski took on Tess with the goal of "making something beautiful." In that respect, the film's successful; its beautifully rendered landscapes won it an Academy Award for Best Cinematography. But its film's pace is unrelentingly slow. Tess's questions regarding familial identity are interesting, and Nastassja Kinski delivers a nuanced performance as the naive but strong-willed title character. But I suspect the praise this film received had more to do with a critical fondness for watery period-pieces than anything else.  

10. Cul-de-sac (1966)

One of Polanski's talents is a knack for subverting established genres. Equal parts gangster picture and melodrama, Cul-de-sac begins not during a heist but in the quiet moments hours later. Pushing a getaway vehicle carrying his wounded partner through a rising tide, gangster Dickie seeks refuge in a nearby castle, taking its owners hostage. More subversion: instead of the power struggle we expect, the characters develop more of an odd complacency, as each gets caught up in their own personal frustrations to the point where the hostage situation itself becomes a minor detail. Cul-de-sac is choppy at times, and the lesser performances sag into the realm of B-movie camp, but it's a strong effort.

9. Frantic (1988)

Frantic opens like a top-notch thriller: while visiting Paris for a medical conference, Dr. Richard Walker (Harrison Ford) steps into the shower of his hotel room only to exit a few minutes later to find his wife missing. It's that initial mystery, deepened by Polanski's slow and sinister tracking shots, that keeps you on the edge of your seat. Is she having an affair? Has she been kidnapped for inexplicable reasons? But when the answer comes, the deeper, more interesting questions get lost.

8. The Tenant (1976)

The final installment in Polanski's "Apartment Trilogy" stars the director himself as Trelkovsky, a polite, unassuming man who moves into a Paris apartment complex after the previous tenant inexplicably commits suicide. An atmosphere of unease begins as Trelkovsky's neighbors torment him with unfounded complaints about too much noise in his apartment at night. But during the second half of the film, a surrealist turn has Trelkovsky donning women's make-up and clothing, and from then on who can really say what the hell's happening. Still, The Tenant is captivating and filled with camera-work reminiscent of Hitchcock at his best. 

7. Death and the Maiden (1994)

Death and the Maiden was Polanski's return to form after nearly two decades of sub-par films. A taut thriller with quality performances from Ben Kingsley and Sigourney Weaver, it's a mind game where death and forgiveness are the ultimate stakes.    

6. Carnage (2011)

Polanski's shortest film to date, this "comedy of manners" is a fast-paced study in the sometimes-childish nature of "mature" parenting. When a fight between their children brings two couples together to discuss possible resolutions, the characters compete to prove who's the best parent. With smart dialogue played brilliantly on all fronts by Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, and John C. Reilly, Carnage is Polanski's funniest film.

5. Repulsion (1965)

Polanski took an artistic leap with his second film, creating a setting that mirrored the inner psychosis of its main character Carole. Filmed in a surrealist style that he would later go on to perfect in Rosemary's Baby, the film is full of haunting imagery that will stay with you long after the it. The ambiguity of what's real and what's imagined keeps Repulsion captivating throughout.

4. Knife in the Water (1962)

Polanski's first feature film earned him immediate critical acclaim. The story itself is pretty straightforward: a young couple picks up a hitchhiker and, for whatever reason, invites him on their yacht for the weekend. Polanski's focus on the hitchhiker's titular knife really sets you on edge; while you wait for some sort of bloody confrontation, the suspense becomes almost unbearable. A perfect exercise in subtlety, the film earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.

3. The Pianist (2002)

Having titillated audiences for years with imagined horrors, Polanski confronted the very real horrors of World War II in The Pianist. Informed by the director's own experiences as a child survivor of the Holocaust, the film complicates the simple moralism of most Holocaust films. It earned three Academy Awards, with Adrian Brody winning a well-deserved Best Actor award and Polanski winning his first for Best Director. It's a sophisticated look at the role of art in the face of dehumanizing circumstances.

2. Chinatown (1974)

The nihilistic, multi-layered Chinatown is a masterful look at corruption. Via a legendary performance from Jack Nicholson, the viewer is taken along through a intricate web of deceit and double-crossings. Nothing is ever what it seems, and the title of the film serves as a metaphor for a place where anything is possible and evil lies in plain sight. Aided by screenwriter Robert Towne, Polanski created a tense mystery that constantly undermines your expectations.

1. Rosemary's Baby (1968)

Universally considered one of the greatest horror movies of all time, Rosemary's Baby is also Polanski's best. It terrifies you not with buckets of blood or a masked antagonist, but with a deep, panicky uncertainty. Polanski's lens skews your perceptions of everyday objects and actions, to the point where even the most innocent act takes on sinister implications. Filmed with a perfect balance between realism and surrealism, Rosemary's Baby turns you against yourself, making you question your understanding of every detail while simultaneously daring you to look away.

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