Four feature films, countless music videos and short movies, skate videos, commercials — the list goes on when considering Spike Jonze’ career. Tack on actor, writer and general funny guy and you have one hell of a well-rounded entertainer. He began directing music videos in 1992 with such classics as The Chainsaw Kittens’,” “High In High School,” and Wax’, “Hush.”
Before 1999, when he released his first feature film, Jonze worked with such artists as the Beastie Boys, Weezer, Fatboy Slim and R.E.M. He built up a long list of work that showcased exactly what he was capable of and just why he was perfect for Being John Malkovich, which garnered him a number of accolades.
Three years later Jonze was back working with a Charlie Kaufman script, this time on Adaptation. It was a genius, if not supremely introspective, work that took a certain amount of genius to bring it to life. Jonze, with the help of Nicolas Cage’s more theatrical wild side along with Meryl Streep, gave the script life. Although Jonze and the film were not as recognized in the awards department as Being John Malkovich, Streep, Cage and Chris Cooper were all nominated by the Academy with Cooper taking home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Adaptation was just as highly regarded by critics.
Between his second and third feature films, Jonze took a seven-year hiatus where he worked on commercials, with the Jackass franchise and multiple skate videos. Jonze also co-owns Girl Skateboards. If you haven’t picked up on it yet, Jonze has his hand in more cookie jars than most of us will ever have the chance to eat from.
It was in 2009 that Jonze released his third, most anticipated film, Where the Wild Things Are. Based on the widely acclaimed children’s book of the same name, Jonze created the magical world making sure to put his own vision into the already fantastical story. Jonze and author Dave Eggers wrote the screenplay.
Finally, Jonze had his first foray into solo screenwriting with his award winning Her. A creative look at the future of our relationship with technology, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with his phone’s OS, voiced by Scarlett Johansson. Years ago this idea would have been inconceivable, but in today’s world it’s almost surprising such a thing hasn’t happened yet. I’m looking at you, Siri. If people are marrying body pillows, then for God’s sake let them love an OS!
Good, great, grand, Jonze is a director and you told me what he’s made. Let’s get to the point, ranking Jonze’s four feature films using four factors… The films score on Rotten Tomatoes, adjusted American box office, Metacritic score and my personal rankings. The system is relatively basic; each movie gets a number (1-4) for each of the categories. Those numbers are added up and divided by four. The final number gives me the rank. Let’s get started:
Her – 1
Being John Malkovich – 2
Adaptation – 3
Where the Wild Things Are – 4
Her comes in first with a 94% fresh rating. Being John Malkovich and Adaptation are close behind with 93% and 91% fresh ratings respectively. Where the Wild Things Are hangs farther behind with a 73%. I used this site because it is an aggregate of hundreds of critics around the country that I don’t have direct access to. The final “fresh rating” provides me a general consensus of how the film was received.
Adjusted US Box Office
Where the Wild Things Are – 1 ($82,366,900)
Being John Malkovich – 2 ($36,077,600)
Adaptation – 3 ($30,451,600)
Her – 4 ($26,032,500)
Box Office is an obvious factor when looking at popularity of a film. Although it doesn’t directly correlate to which film is better, as we can see with these, we can draw one thing from this… Adaptations, (no not the Jonze film), are what draws the money these days. We see it every summer with new super hero films that bring in hundreds of millions for studios. Big franchises like The Fast and the Furious, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings are what make the money. One of the most popular children’s books of all time will obviously make substantially more money than the other original works. It’s the downfall of the movie industry; we rely too heavily on franchises, adaptations, and sequels instead of other incredible indie films. Enough bitching, on with the list.
Her – 1 (90)
Being John Malkovich – 1 (90)
Adaptation – 3 (83)
Where the Wild Things Are – 4 (71)
Metacritic is another aggregate site that helps compile reviewers from across the web to make an average score for the movie based on their reviews. Pitting the two more reputable aggregate sites in Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic helps offset any outliers that might occur across both platforms.
Being John Malkovich – 1
Her – 2
Adaptation – 3
Where the Wild Things Are – 4
Finally, my rankings. What do these matter really? Well I’m writing the article, so I get my say. I have written on film sporadically for the past few years and I have been a student of it for the past half-decade. Take it or leave it, and the best part is, this is completely interchangeable with your own rankings. Insert them here and see how the results change if at all. Look it’s an interactive article. Now, onto my reasoning.
Being John Malkovich is a great script and a great film. Written by Kaufman, directed to perfection by Jonze, everything comes together to make one of the most inventive films of the past few decades. A few things to note in my breakdowns, two of these films were written by Kaufman, (in a reference to the meta-narrative of the film, his fictionalized “brother” co-wrote Adaptation with him), while two have Jonze penning the script, (Again with Eggers co-writing Where the Wild Things Are). Some who I have talked to argue that because Her is entirely Jonze’ that it is automatically his best which I consider ludicrous because a director still has to bring the script to life, whoever the writer might be.
Being John Malkovich was inventive in bringing the 71/2 floor to life. The hole into John Malkovich’s brain was so artistic and to top it off, Malkovich himself puts on an absolutely incredible performance. To use his words, “either the movie’s a bomb and it’s got not only my name above the title but my name in the title, so I’m fuc*ed that way; or it does well and I’m just forever associated with this character.” This film is great from start to finish.
Her was my favorite movie last year and I’m exceedingly happy the Academy got it right and gave the script Best Original Screenplay. It brings to life a very realistic future with, albeit, a very sexy voice. The film is a love story at heart. When you look less at who loves who and focus on the rollercoaster of feelings that Twombly goes through while trying to love the voice connected to his OS, it is remarkably relatable. We have all had ups and downs in a relationship and this film encapsulates the struggles of falling in love no matter who it’s with.
Adaptation is a wild ride inside the mind of a struggling Kaufman while he tries to adapt a book about orchids. Kaufman inserts himself and his twin brother into the movie. He’s neurotic and nervous about the script while his brother writes a fantastic thriller in the time Kaufman can barely get down an opening.
The script is just as inventive as Being John Malkovich, if not more of a feat in itself, but as a director, it took less artistic styling than Being John Malkovich. The script is more standalone and while Jonze had to bring it to life, the work of Cage and Streep and Cooper do more of the heavy lifting than Jonze. It falls to third, but it is a close third, and while it is second to last above only Where the Wild Things Are, it should still be considered a contestant for number one as one through three are all far and away better than Jonze’ other film.
Where the Wild Things Are is an artistic feat. Stylistically it brought such an iconic book to life. I was thrilled to see it in the theaters, but halfway through I was feeling heavy, as if I was trudging through quicksand. Although the movie is only 104 minutes, it feels more like a marathon. The adult themes are heavy for a child, let alone an adult, and they weigh on the viewers’ minds. While we remember the book as a fantastic journey, the film is darker and puts the book in a different light than fans of it might have viewed it when it was just a children’s book. It is a fun journey, but comparatively, it is Jonze’ weakest film. Although that’s not saying much as everyone of his films is considered successful either at the box office or from critics.
Jonze is a damn fine director and writer. We need more directors like him.
Being John Malkovich, with a total score of 1.5.
Her, with a total score of 2.
Adaptation, with a total score of 3.
Where the Wild Things Are, with a total score of 3.25.
Purely coincidentally, my rankings match perfectly those of the final rankings. Or maybe not and I’m just a genius of film. I wish.
*While researching for this article I came across another much more comprehensive list ranking all of Jonze catalogue of work, whereas I will just be ranking his four feature films, this list was nonetheless a fantastic rabbit hole to go down for a few hours.
Steve Pipps is a Chicago-based freelance writer and a frequent contributor to Step On magazine. He enjoys writing for both the screen and TV. Follow him on Twitter or check out his website. Steve recently wrote on Almost Famous and High Fidelity.