It’s the rare director who can make consistently compelling films over the course of three decades, but every one of Kathryn Bigelow’s movies is worth watching. (Well, all the ones she directed solo, at least.) This week brings the release of her latest Oscar contender, the riveting historical drama "Detroit." If you’re hoping to catch up on her impressively varied career, here’s how to prioritize.
Atlantic Releasing Corporation
10. "The Loveless" (1982) Well, everyone has to start somewhere. And we see what Bigelow and her co-director, Monty Montgomery, were aiming for with this uneven drama: an updated version of “The Wild One,” in which a motorcycle gang upends a small town. Alas, there’s not much to grab onto, between the shaky performances, molasses-slow pacing, and pretentious narration. But the visuals are striking, and the soundtrack’s not bad. Plus, her broody antihero -- also making his feature debut -- is a crazy-young Willem Dafoe.
9. "The Weight of Water" (2000) You can feel the potential in this strained double thriller, in which an anxious modern photographer (Catherine McCormack) researches the murder reported by an overburdened 19th century wife (Sarah Polley). Though neither thread hits quite the right notes, both have beautifully shot, unbearably tense moments to them. Sean Penn overacts as an arrogant poet, as does Elizabeth Hurley as his determined seducer, but McCormack and Polley pull us in with their underplayed, all-too-understandable resentments.
8. "K-19: The Widowmaker" (2002) One of Bigelow’s strengths is her willingness to embrace a wide variety of genres, and her Cold War thriller is a taut, workmanlike effort. Some might chafe at Bigelow’s commitment to her concept: that we feel just as stifled and suffocated as soldiers stuck aboard an ill-fated Soviet submarine. But Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson play off each other well, as the Russian leaders charged with an impossible assignment.
7. "Blue Steel" (1990) A ramrod-strong Jamie Lee Curtis more than embodies the title of this moody thriller, about a Wall Street sociopath (creepy Ron Silver) obsessed with Curtis’s rookie cop. Bigelow leans hard into the lurid, B-movie feel, but it’s well-made throughout, with standout performances from Curtis and a charismatic Clancy Brown as her partner. (Watch this, then try to wrap your mind around the fact that the ultra-intense Brown went on to play SpongeBob’s boss, Mr. Krabs.)
F/M, Near Dark Joint Ventures
6. "Near Dark" (1987) Sadly underseen and oddly hard to find, Bigelow’s first solo feature possesses an almost mythic cult status. Some still consider it the best vampire movie of the modern era (modern being an admittedly relative term). With a characteristic blend of aesthetic and commercial sensibilities, she mixed the stylish Western she wanted to make with the sexy horror film she knew people wanted to see. Bonus: breakout star Bill Paxton, as one of the undead stalking two small-town innocents.
Twentieth Century Fox
5. "Point Break" (1991) Sure, it’s painfully earnest and patently preposterous. So what? It’s also got car chases, rad waves and Patrick Swayze so deep in the Zen zone he keeps forgetting to wear a shirt. Other filmmakers might have mocked the story of an undercover agent (Keanu Reeves) infiltrating a gang of bank-robbing surfers. But Bigelow shoots clear of eye and pure of heart. So Reeves is free to shout passionately into the uncaring surf: “My name is Johnny Utah!!” Yeah it is.
4. "Strange Days" (1995) It’s understandable that this jittery sci-fi nightmare flopped on release: no one knew how incredibly prescient it would turn out to be. Bigelow’s apocalyptic portrait of millennial neurosis, set at the end of 1999, envisions a world in which no one needs to leave the house: technology brings everything inside. Ralph Fiennes plays the eerie magic man luring humans to ignore a collapsing planet; Angela Bassett is his conscience, urgently aware of the dangers of disconnection.
3. "Detroit" (2017) Bigelow often works in layers, an approach that keeps us perpetually off-balance. You won’t find a moment to regain your equilibrium while watching her anguished depiction of 1967’s Detroit riots. In focusing tightly on the brutalization of several young black men (including a haunting Algee Smith) at the hands of white police officers, she’s made an American horror film that uses the past to invoke the present. The results are often as distressingly tender as they are unflinchingly traumatizing.
Zero Dark Thirty, LLC
2. "Zero Dark Thirty" (2012) In taking on the hunt for Osama bin Laden, Bigelow knew viewers would bring their own political judgments to the theater. As usual she stayed above the fray, preferring to observe rather than moralize. By alternating between the cerebral focus of CIA analyst Jessica Chastain, the dubious methods that fuel her obsession, and its adrenaline-inducing outcome, Bigelow offered us an unexpectedly complex meditation on personal -- and political -- duty.
1. "The Hurt Locker" (2008) Bigelow became the only woman to win a Best Director Oscar thanks to this era-defining war film, about a bomb squad in Iraq (led by an outstanding Jeremy Renner). Boldly deconstructing the familiar fetishization of military masculinity, she dragged us through her soldiers’ boredom, exposed their agonizing uncertainty, and laid bare their hidden addictions.