Up there with the likes of Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader is one of the best living American filmmakers. His career spans multiple decades and genres. Their styles and perspectives are so aligned that Schrader has written multiple screenplays for Scorsese films, including Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.
A Michigan native, Schrader is also an accomplished director in his own right, responsible for quite a few critically acclaimed features that highlight his gritty approach to cinematic storytelling. This list brings together Paul Schrader’s 10 best films – either as a screenwriter, director, or both – ranked according to their percentage score on Rotten Tomatoes.
10 Hardcore (1979) – 78%
One of Schrader’s earlier features, Hardcore is a shocking and engrossing thriller. Veteran actor George C. Scott plays a conservative businessman in Grand Rapids, Michigan, who finds out his estranged daughter is starring in pornographic movies.
Scott plays Jake Van Horn, who decides to infiltrate the world of late-’70s X-rated movies in order to find his daughter and bring her home. The movie is known for the tagline, “Oh my God, that’s my daughter.”
9 The Last Temptation Of Christ (1988) – 80%
Schrader wrote the screenplay for this contentious, experimental Scorcese film starring Willem Dafoe as Jesus Christ. Eschewing the canonical depictions of Christ, the movie humanizes and complicates the ill-fated man in his final weeks and days.
The Last Temptation of Christ was criticized for depicting a sexual relationship between Christ and Mary Magdalene, portrayed as hallucinations while Christ suffers on the cross. It features supporting performances from Harvey Keitel and Barbara Hershey.
8 Rolling Thunder (1977) – 86%
Schrader is responsible for this film’s screenplay. Rolling Thunder is directed by John Flynn, known for many taut thrillers. It stars William Devane and Tommy Lee Jones, and it focuses on post-Vietnam fallout, especially for soldiers returning home from combat.
Devane plays Major Charles Rane, a man who comes back to Texas, where he’s met with equal parts derision and love. Rane becomes the target of a local gang of thieves who hope to secure the valuable silver coins he brought over from Vietnam. Bloody and bleak, Rolling Thunder is a violent revenge drama.
7 Light Sleeper (1992) – 87%
Schrader directed and wrote the screenplay for this urban drug drama starring Willem Dafoe and Susan Sarandon. Dafoe plays a former addict and high-end Manhattan drug dealer named John Le Tour whose way of life is compromised after his boss, played by Sarandon, abandons the business.
Le Tour, reeling from the change, tries to reconnect with an old girlfriend, but she associates him with her drug-addled past and wants to keep her distance. After a wealthy woman is killed during a drug sale, Le Tour begins to believe he’s being trailed by the police, causing him to spiral out of control.
6 Affliction (1997) – 88%
This critically acclaimed family drama is based on a novel by Russel Banks. Schrader wrote the screenplay and directed Affliction, which stars Nick Nolte and James Coburn, the latter of whom won an Oscar for his performance in the movie.
Nolte plays the sheriff on a small New England town who has inherited the traumas and addictive tendencies passed down from his abusive father, played by Coburn. Nolte’s character repeats many of the same behaviors as an adult, but things come to a head after a rich businessman is killed in a suspicious hunting accident.
5 Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985) – 89%
This artistic and visionary biopic about the life and death of revered 20th-century Japanese writer Yukio Mishima is likely Schrader’s most stunning and audacious feature. Ken Ogata plays Mishima, who attempted to overthrow the Japanese government and reinstate the emperor in 1970. After his coup failed and he was ridiculed, Mishima performed ritualistic suicide, known as seppuku.
Schrader’s movie digs into the complicated creative and personal life of Mishima while depicting famous scenes from his novels and plays. The sets for the sequences from Mishima’s writings were designed by Eiko, also known for her work on Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula and Tarsem Singh’s The Fall, and shot using vibrant and dreamlike colorizations.
4 First Reformed (2018) – 93%
First Reformed is Schrader’s latest feature, and it proves he hasn’t lost any of his stamina and ability as a filmmaker. Considered one of the best films of 2018, it stars Ethan Hawke as a troubled pastor in a small New York town who is questioning his faith.
After he meets with the politically radical husband of a pregnant young parishioner played by Amanda Siegfried, the pastor comes face-to-face with the degradation of the environment and the ways corruption taint humanity’s spiritual purpose. Ignoring his own health issues, the pastor slides deeper and deeper into a dark, meditative haze brought on by these dismal revelations.
3 Raging Bull (1980) – 94%
Schrader wrote the screenplay for this iconic, near-perfect biopic focused on the life of boxer Jake LaMotta, which is directed by Scorsese. Robert De Niro plays LaMotta in this career-defining movie, which also stars Joe Pesci and Cathy Moriarty. Raging Bull is considered one of the best movies of all time, and it gave De Niro his second Oscar.
The movie traces the rise and fall of LaMotta, an explosive and angry New Yorker known for his ability to withstand intense beatings. As his career reaches its height in the 1940s, LaMotta sabotages his success as a result of his inner demons. He stops taking care of himself, and by the 1950s, his career seems completely over. However, LaMotta managed to make a comeback in the 1960s as a nightclub owner and local celebrity.
2 Taxi Driver (1976) – 97%
Contemporary American cinema was forever altered after the release of Taxi Driver, the first collaboration between Schrader as screenwriter and Scorsese as director. Schrader wrote the screenplay inspired by his own experiences in New York City, where the film takes place, as well as by the journals of Arthur Bremer, the man who shot presidential candidate George Wallace in 1972.
Robert De Niro stars as a lonely taxi driver who hatches an extreme plot to execute a presidential candidate as well as a local pimp played by Harvey Keitel. Taxi Driver paints a bleak portrait of the 1970s, one defined by excessive crime and complete moral corruption. The film was considered controversial for casting Jodie Foster, who was only 12-years-old at the time, as an underage sex worker.
1 Blue Collar (1978) – 100%
Schrader’s best film is also his first directorial feature. Set in his native Michigan, Blue Collar provides a grim look into the lives of Detroit’s autoworkers. Harvey Keitel and Richard Pryor star as assembly linemen living paycheck to paycheck, despite being represented by their local union.
After they come up with a plan to steal some quick cash from their local union office, they find evidence of corruption and deceit. Blue Collar exposes the racism and classicism that continue to keep society stratified.
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