5 The Pianist (2002)
A deeply personal film for Polanski, who like its subject is a Polish-Jewish survivor of the Holocaust. Adrian Brody portrays real life piano virtuoso Szpilman, who much like Polanski would escape the death camps while his family did not. Brody’s work throughout his character’s descent from comfortable fame and prestige towards a rugged life of barebones survival is nothing short of amazing, and the Oscar it earned him was heavily predicted by critics and viewers alike. The finely made and deeply humanistic film, as a whole, was praised more than any other Polanski work since Chinatown, winning widespread acclaim and awards the world over, including an Academy Award for Best director which Polanski’s legal situation would not allow him to enter the United States to receive.
4 Macbeth (1971)
A film version of one of Shakespeare’s most dynamic plays, directed by Roman Polanski and financed by Hugh Hefner, was bound to end up something special. This was the first film Polanski made in the wake of wife Sharon Tate’s gruesome murder by the Manson family, which many believed colored his decision to revel in the play’s considerable violence. Whatever the implications, 11th century Scottish warfare and treachery are made frighteningly real in this graphic, lurid film, and it proves appropriate for an adaptation of a work whose major theme is the consequence of bloodshed. Polanski and screenwriter Kenneth Tynan took several creative liberties with the play, both to save time and modernize the material. Not that Shakespeare begs improving, but the result is a striking, haunting film that the U.S Board of Review thought to name as the year’s best.
3 Repulsion (1965)
An atmospheric, nerve-wracking psychological thriller whose influence can be felt in the likes of Black Swan, Repulsion stars a young Catherine Deneuve as an attractive (what else) Belgian living in London with her sister whose awkwardness towards men seems to mask something deep, something that eventually unravels into a fit of paranoia, hallucination, and eventually gruesome violence, mainly within the confines of her own home. It is for this reason the film is considered to be among Polanski’s “œapartment trilogy”along with Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant, and Polanski certainly makes fine and imaginative use of a limited, claustrophobic setting. The closing moments strongly suggest sexual abuse in Carol’s past, letting us mark off another Polanski hallmark and helping to create a horror film told from the perspective of a frightened, preyed upon victim who is ultimately also the killer. This was Polanski’s first English language film.
2 Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
In this dizzying, timelessly creepy film shot on location in Upper Manhattan, Mia Farrow’s Rosemary is convinced her struggling actor husband has arranged for her to be impregnated by Satan in exchange for career success, and what do you know, turns out she was right! While never being quite terrifying at any point, this film is a frightfully solid piece of storytelling, the cavernous apartment complex in which the characters dwell suggesting a posh haunted house where ancient evils are most certainly lurking. In moments like Rosemary’s nightmarish vision of the Dark One performing the dirty deed on her, it seems the kind of manic fever dream that could only have come from this moment of time, as psychedelia approached mainstream culture and turbulence and uncertainty gripped the nation. Rosemary’s Baby was Polanski’s first American made film, and though it didn’t earn quite as much acclaim as The Exorcist would just a few years later, it is now widely considered a classic.
1 Chinatown (1974)
This elegant, brooding noir stands as one of the best films of the 1970s. 1937 Los Angeles is wonderfully recreated as the backdrop for screenwriter Robert Towne’s mournful private eye yarn built around actual disputes over land and water from the city’s sordid history, and the first rate cast hold up their end in spades. Jack Nicholson portrays Jake Gittes, a cynical, streetwise ex-cop who whores out as A P.I., spending his days following unfaithful spouses, until one of those cases blows up into a quagmire of double-crossing, murder and blackmail, leading him to sinister tycoon Noah Cross (John Huston) and his inscrutable daughter Evelyn (Faye Dunaway). Ultimately, underneath it all is lurking a crime far more intimate than large-scale civic corruption, (one somewhat telling and prophetic for Polanski) and its quite un-happy ending makes it a defining moment in American film. Polanski makes an appearance as half a duo of rival operatives who confront Nicholson on a late night snoop, prompting Nicholson to ask the other “œWhere’d you get the midget?”Then Polanski slices his nostril open. Best director cameo ever.