Since her first film, The Virgin Suicides, debuted theatrically in the United States in 2000, Sofia Coppola has been one of the most interesting American filmmakers of the last 20 years. The daughter of legendary director Francis Ford Coppola has created some of the most stylistic and compelling films of the 21st century. Her catalogue of award-winning films is beloved by many, and her career as a whole has been both remarkable and influential.
Coppola’s filmmaking style has received a great deal of attention from both her fans and her detractors throughout her career. Whatever you think of Coppola’s style though, there is no denying that it is entirely her own. Personally, I have always been drawn towards directors with a distinctive style and voice, which is perhaps why I was initially interested in Coppola’s films. Those films I am referring to are often intimate, quiet, and filled with a sense of melancholy. From an aesthetic standpoint, Coppola’s use of muted colors, and her decision to utilize natural light in her films helps to create a sort of sorrowful and distant mood in many of her films. There is also a dream-like quality to almost all of Coppola’s films that consistently draws the viewer in. This distinctive mood and tone that Coppola is able to capture has been very important to her films. She is able to properly control how the viewer feels while watching one of her films, which is not an easy task for any filmmaker. Another thing I have always appreciated about Coppola’s films, and her overall style, is her ability to convey emotions through framing, visuals, and different camera techniques. Some filmmakers are only able to reveal a character’s emotions through their words, but Coppola is much more interested in using her camera to inform the audience on how a character is feeling, or what they are thinking, in a particular scene. This choice gives the viewer a personal, and deeply intimate, look into the lives of her characters. When we watch Coppola’s films, we feel like we are getting a true glimpse into the lives of these people. We feel like we are observing them from up close, instead of just simply watching a story play out on a screen in front of us. Her filmmaking style, and all the qualities I just touched on that make up this style, is what informs this feeling of closeness to these characters.
I would argue that Coppola’s films are more so driven by their themes, than by their plots. Some themes that Coppola has been most interested in exploring have been loneliness, female adolescence, parent-child relationships, and stunted ambition. Coppola’s films usually possess a female protagonist who is often at some sort of turning point in her life. She seems incredibly interested in examining how a character acts in a state of transition. These transitions don’t necessarily always need to be massively substantial ones either. Coppola is fascinated by examining the little moments in life that can sometimes have an equally important effect on us. The characters that make up Coppola’s films are often portrayed with a great amount of empathy. It is clear that Coppola cares about these characters and wants the audience to fully see them for who they are. This empathy for her characters is one possible reason why Coppola’s films are often popular with young people. Not only do many of Coppola’s films deal with what it is like to be young, but she also handles these ideas with a great sense of care and attention-to-detail. She is often interested in telling stories of misunderstood teens, which leads to the films really resonating with young people. Another thing I love about Coppola’s characters is how they feel, for lack of a better word, authentic. Coppola has certainly told several different types of stories that sometimes take place in wildly different settings and eras, but all her films feel like they are real stories about real people.
Within today’s cinematic landscape, it feels as if “real stories about real people” are becoming harder and harder to come by. As studios sometimes struggle to find ways to bring audiences out to the theater, they can start to dismiss smaller and more character-driven stories. One thing to admire about Coppola though, is that she has remained a truly independent artist, and does not seem at all interested in allowing her vision to be compromised for monetary gain. Coppola clearly believes in the importance of creative freedom, and does not want to give up that freedom because of her genuine passion for the movies she makes. This passion is real, Coppola has said in interviews that she makes films that she herself would have wanted to see as a young person. In fact, in an interview with The Guardian, Coppola said, “I mean in my first movie I felt like making something for teenage girls. I looked at the movies they made for teenage girls and thought: why can’t they have beautiful photography? Why shouldn’t we treat that audience with respect? That was something I missed when I was that age.” There is an argument to be made that this is where the best art comes from, and filmmaking in general would be better off if all filmmakers were going out and trying to make the films they wished existed in the world.
Similar to when I wrote about Wes Anderson, I feel as if I cannot completely discuss the career of Coppola without acknowledging the fact that many of her films have been fairly divisive, and her style is not appreciated by everyone. My feeling towards this is really the same as my feeling towards the critics of Anderson, which is I would much rather have a director whose films are outwardly beloved by some and rejected by others, than a director who turns out films that are widely agreed to be mediocre or unremarkable. At the end of the day, when you have a distinctive style, there are going to be those who do not care for it. I understand this, but personally, I happen to very much enjoy the style and the films of both Coppola and Anderson.
I enjoy all of Coppola’s films to varying degrees and look forward to discussing each one in greater depth. So, without further ado let’s unnecessarily take a bunch of meaningful works of art from a brilliant filmmaker and pit them against each other for no apparent reason.
(Disclaimer: I have decided not to include the 2015 Netflix special, A Very Murray Christmas, in these rankings. I enjoy that special, but find it hard to compare to her feature-lengthed, theatrically released films.)
6. Marie Antoinette (2006)
“This is ridiculous.”
Marie Antoinette, at the time of its release, was seen by many as a misfire on the part of Coppola. In fact, it was somewhat famously booed when it first appeared at the Cannes Film Festival. Since that time, the film has grown to be more appreciated by a lot of people, but it still remains the least-enjoyed Coppola film by many fans and critics alike. However, I must point out, this placement on my particular list has much more to do with how I feel about Coppola’s other films, rather than how I feel about this film. In fact, I have a great amount of appreciation for this film. I will admit, when I first saw the eccentric and grandly produced biopic, my feelings about it were much more mixed than they are now. One of the things that really helped to change my view of the film was reading Amanda Dobbins’ “In Defense of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette”. In this piece, Dobbins describes the film as a “painfully hip period film about how annoying and fun and terrifying it is to be a teenage girl. It is a high-school movie transplanted to Versailles” and compares the character of Antoinette to an eighteenth-century version of Cady Heron from Mean Girls. When I started to look at the film this way, I found myself much more able to understand what Coppola’s vision was. In Marie Antoinette, Coppola uses the real life of this historical figure to take a look at what it is like to be a teenage girl today, as well as in eighteenth-century Versailles, which is just brilliant and very difficult to pull off effectively. Frequent Coppola collaborator, Kirsten Dunst, plays the titular role in this film and gives, in my opinion, the best performance of the movie. That is not to say any of the other performances are bad, but Dunst just truly shines in every scene she is in. While I have expressed a great deal of admiration for this film, some of the reasons it ranks so low on my list are because it is not a film I frequently have the urge to re-watch, and I find it to be a bit too long and really slow down in certain moments. With that being said, I still find this film to be quite the achievement for Coppola.
5. Somewhere (2010)
“Why are you taking a bath next door? Is yours broken?”
Previously, I stated that Coppola’s films are driven by their themes, and not their plots. There is perhaps no better example of this than the 2010 film Somewhere. Somewhere is the rare Coppola film that follows a male protagonist instead of a female one. The main character in this film is Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), a depressed and lonely Hollywood actor attempting to reexamine his life while reconnecting with his young daughter. The reason I say this film is driven mainly by its themes is because Somewhere is truly, at its core, a portrait of loneliness. In fact, the first 45 minutes or so of this film do not deal a ton with the father-daughter relationship that makes up the second half of the film, and instead are almost a real-time look into Johnny’s passionless and lonely life. When Johnny’s Daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning), does begin to play a larger role in the film, and his life, we see Johnny start to experience these fleeting moments of joy for the first time. It is that deeply personal and intimate look into the lives of these characters that makes Somewhere such a special film for me. Intimate is probably the best word to describe this film. While the film that preceded it, Marie Antoinette, was Coppola’s grandest and most colorful production, Somewhere is her quietest film, and felt like her returning to her roots in a way. I find the performances from both Dorff and Fanning to be excellent, and all of the minor characters who pop in the movie for a moment or two are portrayed excellently as well. The main reason this film ranks as low as number five on my list is because of the ending. I have mixed feelings with regards to the final moments of the film. In many ways, the ending feels a bit underwhelming, and leaves the film without a sense of resolution. Although, that may have been Coppola’s intention, I am still left wanting something more as the credits roll on Somewhere.
4. The Beguiled (2017)
“It’s seems the enemy… is not what we believed.”
2017’s The Beguiled is Coppola’s most recent film and comes in at the number four spot on my list. This film is an adaptation Thomas P. Cullinan’s southern gothic novel of the same name. Coppola made history with The Beguiled by becoming just the second female director, and first American female, to win the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2017. What struck me most about The Beguiled when I first saw it was how tonally different it was from all of Coppola’s other films, with it at times feeling like a horror movie. There is no doubt that The Virgin Suicides is an incredibly sorrowful and haunting film, but I would argue that The Beguiled is without a doubt that darkest film Coppola has ever made. Even though the tone and mode of this film may feel distant from Coppola’s other works, her visual style is still very much apparent when watching The Beguiled. In fact, her use of natural light and muted colors enhances the story being told and adds to the suspenseful and eerie moments that occur throughout the course of the film. The story itself takes place in Civil War era Virginia, and focuses on the unexpected arrival of a wounded Union solider to school for girls, and the chaos this arrival causes within the house. The film stars Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Oona Laurence, Angourie Rice, Addison Riecke, and Emma Howard. Similar to her debut, The Virgin Suicides, in The Beguiled, Coppola takes a look at both group dynamics, and especially the relationship between the genders. Many of Coppola’s films are described as “slow-burns” and I found this style to be incredibly effective in a suspense film, such as The Beguiled. Coppola moves through this film slowly and allows the audience to understand the small cast of characters that inhabit this compact setting before the climactic events of the film take place. I enjoy the suspenseful feel, visual aesthetic, and themes explored in this film, and appreciate Coppola’s successful attempt to try something different, while holding on to her own distinct style, with The Beguiled.
3. The Bling Ring (2013)
“I think we just wanted to be part of the lifestyle. The lifestyle that everybody kinda wants.”
Coppola’s 2013 film, The Bling Ring, is one that has grown on me over time. Perhaps if I were to make this list a few years ago, this film would have ranked much lower. However, I find this true story to be one that has become increasingly relevant as the years pass by since its release back in 2013. That true story is of course the one in which a group of fame-obsessed teenagers used the internet to find, and rob, various celebrity homes. The reason I say this film has become more relevant over time is because I feel influencer/celebrity culture has exploded to an even higher degree over the course of the past seven years. Furthermore, this idea of teenagers obsessed with fame and the life that comes with it is incredibly prevalent in our society today, especially with the growth of social media, and the rise of true “overnight celebrity” on platforms such as Youtube or Tik Tok. Never in the history of society has the ability to become “famous” been so accessible for everyday people, which is why it is so fascinating to see the lengths the real life teens portrayed in The Bling Ring, set in 2008-2009, went to in order to get close to the idea of fame and luxury. The film itself is different from all of Coppola’s others in that it was shot digitally, rather than being shot on film. This certainly gives the film a different look from many of Coppola’s other films. In many ways, The Bling Ring is shot to look and feel like a documentary, rather than a feature film. Another thing that separates The Bling Ring from some of Coppola’s other works, is that it has a greater comedic tone to it than her other films. This can be seen as Coppola mocking the subjects of her film, especially the character portrayed by Emma Watson. But, I believe the reason Coppola initially wanted to tell this story is because she, on some level, understood the impulses of these teens, as well as their interest in the beautiful and luxurious aspects of life. Like many of Coppola’s films, The Bling Ring can be described as understated, and the performances in the film can be described using that same word. I appreciated this because it made the characters feel like real teenagers from the real world. I’m aware some may disagree with my ranking of this film, but I can’t deny I have a great fondness for it.
2. The Virgin Suicides (1999)
“Obviously, Doctor, you’ve never been a 13-year-old girl.”
Coppola’s debut film, The Virgin Suicides, announced her filmmaking skills to the world, and presented her distinct style to audiences. The success of this film was the catalyst for the career she would eventually go on to build. The film is of course based on the Jeffrey Eugenides novel of the same name, and Coppola herself has admitted that it was that novel that ultimately made her want to be a director. The story of The Virgin Suicides centers on a group of sisters growing up in the mid 1970s with incredibly strict and religious parents. Just like the novel, the film version of The Virgin Suicides is told from the perspective of boys who are captivated, and possibly obsessed, with the Lisbon sisters. This point-of-view is incredibly important to the film, and Coppola uses different camera techniques to enhance, and highlight, that perspective from which her story is being told. The sisters are filmed with shaky follow shots, as well as shots through windows and telescopes. This gives the audience a sense of how the boys see the girls. Furthermore, it allows the audience to feel the same sense of longing that the boys feel to gain access to these girls, and their lives, in some way. The Virgin Suicides not only showed audiences that Coppola was a creative screenwriter and interested in telling stories that Hollywood had not been telling, but it also showed audiences that Coppola was a talented technical director as well. One thing I love about this film is that the question of why these suicides take place is never the real point of the film and Coppola makes this clear. She does not try to make this film some sort of mystery, instead she explores the lives of these girls and how those around them view them, which is a much more compelling theme. The Virgin Suicides was an incredibly successful debut for Coppola, and eventually led her to making the number one film on my list.
1. Lost in Translation (2003)
“You’ll figure that out. The more you know who you are, and what you want, the less you let things upset you.”
If I’m being honest, spots six through two on my list could all change if I were to write this piece on a different day. Marie Antoinette could find its way all the way to number two, The Bling Ring could fall back a few spots, but the one spot that is not up for debate on my list is this one. There is no doubt in my mind that Lost in Translation is my number one Sofia Coppola film. The follow up to The Virgin Suicides was released in 2003 and earned Coppola her one and only Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. The main characters in this film, portrayed brilliantly by Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, are perhaps the biggest reason why I enjoy it so much. Coppola does such an incredible job of showing these two characters at a lost and depressive stage in their lives. She relays these emotions to the audience in an effective way through her filming. When Murray and Johansson’s characters of Charlotte and Bob are seen on screen alone, they are filmed much differently than when they are on screen together. The film seems to warm up in a way when these two characters are together, and on the inverse it becomes cold when we see them apart. The chemistry between Johansson and Murray is another great selling point of this film. Their unlikely friendship feels so natural to the audience. They take characters that are certainly flawed in their own ways and endear them to viewers. I say Bob and Charlotte are flawed, but that does not mean they are bad people. They are flawed in the same way we are all flawed and, furthermore, they are looking for the same things out of life that we are all looking for. That is one of the reasons this film continues to resonate with so many people, and the script was so beloved at the time of the films release. Like many of Coppola’s films, Lost in Translation is filled with a sense of loneliness and sorrow. However, that doesn’t take away from the real moments of joy that the two main characters feel at times throughout the course of the film. Also, even though we do not know what the characters say to each other in the closing moments of the film, we cannot help but be filled with some odd sense of relief or hope for the future. As an audience, we root for these characters. This is in large part due to the performances, but I feel the majority of the credit goes to Coppola because of the way she shot and wrote these characters. At the end of the day, Lost in Translation contains everything that makes a Coppola film special, and is the example of her operating at the absolute peak of her powers. I look forward to the rest of her career, but I have a hard time imagining she will top this film any time soon.