“I make films to explore concepts and raise questions, not to tell the audience what to think.” – Yorgos Lanthimos
Yorgos Lanthimos has been the mastermind behind some of the most eccentric and idiosyncratic films of the 21st century. A native of Greece, Lanthimos has been considered a pioneering voice in the so-called “Greek Weird Wave.” As his quote above indicates, Lanthimos uses his movies to explore some of the most bizarre concepts, and raise some of the most intriguing questions, ever seen on film. Whether the story revolves around a group of children completely shut out from the outside world by an authoritarian father, a man who will be turned into a lobster if he does not find love in 45 days, or a team of men and women who spend their time impersonating the recently deceased in order to help their friends and family through the grieving process—the look and feel of a Lanthimos film always remains unmistakable.
A lot of things go into making a Yorgos Lanthimos film, a Yorgos Lanthimos film. His movies share many qualities, among them is the type of character Lanthimos likes to focus on. The protagonists in Lanthimos’ films are often isolated, both physically and psychologically. He chooses to center his stories on characters that could be described as lonely and robotic, who usually find themselves in some sort of emotionally challenging environment. The main characters in Lanthimos’ films frequently find themselves under the control of some sort of authoritarian figure as well. This helps create a sense of constraint and tension that is apparent in each of his films. Oftentimes, the actors that portray Lanthimos’ characters all take a similar approach. His films, for the most part, require extremely understated and deadpan performances from his actors. These cold, almost lifeless performances have been a signature of Lanthimos’ films from the beginning. They help make up the minimalist style that Lanthimos is known for. Although his most recent film, The Favourite, was something of a departure in terms of this style, most of Lanthimos’ films share minimalist qualities reminiscent of a director like Robert Bresson. Lanthimos developed this style in his early films, which were made for very little money. Perhaps it is those financial barriers that led to his cold and calculated filming style. It is important to note that the budgets of Lanthimos’ films have increased over time. Like many directors, he has been able to fund more expensive films as his career and notoriety have grown. A great quality of Lanthimos’ though, is the fact that he has managed to hold on to his creative freedom even as he has started to work on more expensive projects with bigger studios. He is a truly independent spirit who, in the best way possible, refuses to compromise his very distinct vision.
Throughout his career, Lanthimos’ films have fought against the constraints of traditional genres. His movies are incredibly esoteric, in that it is difficult to categorize them. Mostly all of his films contain moments of absurd comedy, frightening violence, and dark tragedy. I suppose his films can be best described as “dark comedies,” but their themes make them so much more than that. As I touched on earlier, Lanthimos’ films are centered on some of the strangest concepts to ever be explored in modern day filmmaking. Despite his many talents as a technical director, it is really these surreal concepts and fantastical premises that have made Lanthimos’ films so memorable. Through these bizarre concepts, Lanthimos is able to raise some incredibly poignant questions that resonate with the audience. His films exist in a strange space because even though his premises are wildly unusual, his characters remain grounded. This helps the audience understand the themes Lanthimos is exploring because, even though they will most likely never find themselves in these particular situations, they can relate to the characters on screen. A film like The Lobster is a great example of this. In this film, Lanthimos constructs a dystopian world in which single people in society are forced to enter a hotel where they must either find love in 45 days or be turned into an animal of their choosing. Obviously, no viewer of The Lobster will ever find themselves in that exact scenario, but they are able to understand the questions and ideas Lanthimos is exploring in regards to relationships and love. Examining the intricacies of relationships is a recurring theme in Lanthimos’ works. He is also known for exploring the corrosive effects of power and greed, the relationship that exists between father figures and their children, and how we—as a society—struggle to understand the human condition.
In many ways, Lanthimos’ films resemble parables more than modern movies. He purposefully under-informs the audience in many of his films. It seems he would rather challenge his viewers with an idea or a particular question, than explain something to them. For instance, the “how” is not nearly as important in films like The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer as the “what” and “why” are. Most of Lanthimos’ films include very little to no exposition. The point of his films is not for the audience to fully understand every intricacy of his imaginative worlds. Instead, the point is for the audience to resonate with the emotions his characters find themselves working through. Some criticize Lanthimos’ films for being too nihilistic. With all due respect to these critics, I think this shows a limited understanding of Lanthimos’ work. I do not consider Lanthimos’ films to be nihilistic at all. They are brutally honest articulations of real human truths.
At the age of 47, Lanthimos still has a very long career ahead of him. He has already established himself as one of the strangest and most interesting filmmakers of this century and I look forward to all of his future films. But for now, it is time for a look back rather than a look forward. 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.
(I have decided to omit My Best Friend, the film Lanthimos co-directed with Lakis Lazopoulos in 2001, from these rankings. This was technically Lanthimos’ first film but because he was only a co-director I don’t feel it is that indicative of his tone and style. Although it would be the lowest ranked film on my list, it is still worth a watch for any Lanthimos fans who have not seen it. Fair warning though, it is nearly impossible to find online.)
6. Kinetta (2005)
“You’re cozy when you’re crawling?”
2005’s Kinetta was Lanthimos’ first solo feature. While it may be far from his best work, it does contain many seeds of the filmmaker he would eventually become. The surreal nature of this film, as well as the muted performances and dull characters were clear indicators for what many of his later films would go on to look like. This being his debut film though, those qualities don’t seem to work quite as well as they do in his following films. Another marker that this film was Lanthimos’ first is the shoestring budget for which it was made. Lanthimos circumnavigated this tiny budget by utilizing a shaky hand-held camera for much of the filming. Personally, I enjoy the small budget aesthetic of this film. The quiet, emotionally distant, eccentric characters that make up this film feel like a perfect match for the unpolished, and at times disorienting, filming style. The story of Kinetta is centered on three strangers who spend their time reenacting scenes of murder. It is without a doubt the film that combats against traditional narrative more so than any other Lanthimos work. This film is the most abstract and most esoteric of Lanthimos’ oeuvre. It contains very little dialogue, often times 20 minutes go by without a single word being spoken by any of the three main characters. All these elements I am referring to make for Kinetta to be a fascinating watch, but I also find it to be the least compelling of Lanthimos’ career as well. Personally, I am more interested in his films with a clear narrative and more of a realized structure. Moreover, Lanthimos feels like he is still searching for his style in Kinetta. It was a very good and interesting place to start his career, but I think Lanthimos truly became the director he is today with Dogtooth, which is the film that followed Kinetta.
5. Alps (2011)
“I’m afraid you’ll have to go.”
Alps, Lanthimos’ third solo feature, was his final film shot in the Greek language before making his switch to English language productions with 2015’s The Lobster. Similar to Kinetta, this film contains a small group of characters brought together by a reason that is somewhat related to death. In Alps, the main characters start a business where they impersonate people who have recently passed away, as a way to help the friends and relatives of the deceased through the grieving process. Like all of Lanthimos’ films, it is a surreal concept that ultimately presents some fascinating questions about mortality and the human condition. The true main character of Alps is played by frequent Lanthimos collaborator, Angeliki Papoulia. It is through her character that the audience is forced to ponder some of the deeper questions that Alps brings up. Even though Aris Servetalis, Johnny Verkis, and Arianne Labed (Lanthimos’ real life spouse) give great performances in their roles—Papoulia is the real driving force behind this film. The “job” these characters are doing is presented to the audience, and the characters in the film, as a helpful tool for the grieving families. But Papoulia’s character shows us that the impersonators are getting as much, or more, out of it than the relatives of the deceased are. This realization, that comes when the “job” is taken away from Papoulia’s character, is what makes this film so brilliant. Despite that brilliance, Alps finds itself near the bottom of my list because it is just not as focused as some of Lanthimos’ other films. Also, certain character feel unnecessary or undeserving of a place in this film. With that being said, it is still a deeply smart and captivating film worthy of a watch.
4. The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)
“I don’t know if what is happening is fair, but it’s the only thing I can think of that’s close to justice.”
Lanthimos’ second English language production, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, is the most ominous and dark film of his career. It is a modern interpretation of the ancient Greek tragedy Iphigenia at Aulis and stars Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Barry Keoghan, Raffey Cassidy, Sunny Suljic, and Bill Camp. It is not hard to understand why this is the darkest film of Lanthmos’ filmography when looking at the plot. It centers on a successful surgeon named Steven (Farrell) who—after forming a bond with a teenage boy that becomes sinister—is forced to sacrifice the life of either his son, his daughter, or his wife. The cold and aloof filmmaking style that Lanthimos utilizes in this film only emphasizes the dark nature of the subject matter. The camera work is meant to make the viewer feel out of sorts while watching this film. This is extremely effective because the audience starts to feel more disoriented and tense as the pressures of this situation begin to grow on Farrell’s character. Lanthimos’ mimics the metaphorical walls that are closing in on Steven with the increasingly claustrophobic way in which he frames his shots. Also, this film contains an incredibly menacing and effective score that adds to the uneasy feeling the audience has while watching it. Even though Farrell, who previously worked with Lanthimos on The Lobster, is great in the lead role—the best performance of this film is given by Keoghan. His portrayal of Martin, a mysterious and socially awkward teenager, is one of the creepiest acting performances I’ve seen in recent years. It would have been easy to go over the top with a character like that but Keoghan’s performance contains the perfect amount of subtlety, which adds to the spine-chilling nature of that character. This film can be incredibly difficult to watch at times due to its dark subject matter, but it is still one of the better psychological thrillers to be released in this past decade.
3. The Lobster (2015)
“If you encounter any problems you cannot resolve yourselves, you will be assigned children, that usually helps.”
The Lobster was Lanthimos’ first English language film and, in many ways, was responsible for introducing him to American audiences. The film not only gave Lanthimos an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, but it was also relatively successful at the American box office after being acquired by A24. Certainly, much of that success was due to the fact that recognizable names like Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, and John C. Reilly were attached to the cast. This is a fair assumption to make because The Lobster, like all of Lanthimos’ works, is nothing close to a traditional film. As I touched on earlier, this film is set in a dystopian future in which single people are taken to a hotel where they are obligated to find a romantic partner in 45 days or be transformed into an animal of their choosing if they fail. Farrell stars in this unconventional science-fiction tale as a man named David. In many ways, David acts as a stand-in for the viewer and allows the audience to imagine how they would behave in this surreal society. This film probably contains the most brilliantly interesting concept Lanthimos has ever conceived of because not only is this story unusual, it is a genuinely smart way to examine the complexities of modern relationships. Also, the absurd premise and dialogue within this film makes it the funniest of Lanthimos’ career. The film is littered with ludicrous, funny, and quotable lines of dialogue. It is so much more than a simple comedy though. In fact, it is difficult to categorize The Lobster because of the ingenious way Lanthimos subverts the science-fiction genre with this film. Lanthimos understands that the most interesting way to tell a sci-fi story is to use those other worldly elements to reflect the audience’s real world, present day anxieties. With The Lobster, he uses a sci-fi story to examine the most common cause of most peoples anxieties, relationships, and does so incredibly well.
2. The Favourite (2018)
“As it turns out, I’m capable of much unpleasantness.”
Lanthimos’ most recent film, and third English language production, ranks at the number two spot on my list. The Favourite—which was nominated for ten Oscars including Best Director and Best Picture—was seemingly a massive step up for Lanthimos in terms of his popularity in the United States. It also felt like a step up because it was by far the most expensive and most grand production of Lanthimos’ career. I noted earlier that this film is the biggest outlier in Lanthimos’ oeuvre from an aesthetic standpoint. It is much more colorful, energetic, and intricately designed than any of the films to come before it. Perhaps the biggest reason for this shift in aesthetic, besides the increased budget, is the simple fact that this film is a period piece. The story takes place in 18th century England, and focuses on Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), her close friend and secret lover Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), and the disruption that occurs in their lives once a new servant named Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives. Another way in which this film is an outlier amongst Lanthimos’ filmography is the fact that The Favourite is really driven by its performances rather than by its concept. Colman, Weisz, and Stone were all nominated for their performances at the 2019 Oscars, and Colman actually ended up winning in the Best Actress category. The chemistry, and the back-and-forth, between those three actresses is what makes this film so special. Watching these characters interact on screen is an incredibly captivating experience. They are able to make passive aggressive remarks, backstabbing acts, and verbal arguments feel like calculated maneuvers in a war. This film’s success is not solely due to the performers though, as Lanthimos gives quite possibly the best directing performance of his career in this film as well. The Favourite is, without a doubt, the most focused and most polished film of Lanthimos’ career thus far. It is certainly deserving of its very high placement on this list.
1. Dogtooth (2009)
“I hope your kids have bad influences and develop bad personalities. I wish this with all my heart.”
Although The Favourite may be Lanthimos’ most critically acclaimed and polished film—his second solo feature from 2009, Dogtooth, remains the best of his career. This film may not have received the same amount of attention The Favourite did but it certainly wasn’t without any acclaim. In fact, it earned Lanthimos his first Oscar nomination in the Best Foreign Language Film category, and won the Un Certain Regard award at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival as well. In simpler terms, it was Lanthimos’ breakout movie. And, it reached a height that he has still not been able to return to, despite making some truly great films over the years. One of the main reasons this ranks as my number one Lanthimos film is because there are few movies that are able to leave you with the feeling of “what the fuck did I just watch?” like Dogtooth does after your first viewing (in a good way). The viewer can’t help but be struck by the tone, the humor, the filmmaking style, and the themes of Dogtooth when they first see it. It is the peak Lanthimos movie in terms of his bizarre and mesmerizing style. The story, which centers on a domineering father who has kept his three adult children isolated from the outside world for their entire lives, is not overly complex. However, the way in which Lanthimos tells this story and the ideas it leaves in the audiences mind are utterly fascinating. The tone of this film is so unique to Lanthimos, it is hard for me to imagine any other filmmaker being able to pull Dogtooth off in the same way he does, which is an accomplishment in and of itself. Furthermore, the narrative of this film is more of a portrait of this specific family, in this specific time, in this specific place rather than a traditional story structure. In many ways, Dogtooth is the best version of everything Lanthimos was trying to do in Kinetta. It is a movie that needs to be seen—probably more than once to be honest—in order to be truly understood, which is why I recommend this film to any lover of cinema who has not yet seen it. It is a great starting point for anyone interested in the work of Yorgos Lanthimos, and remains the crowning achievement of his career.