If you don't like a Todd Haynes movie when it's released, wait a few years.
Haynes, whose most acclaimed movie is six-time Oscar nominee "Carol," is the filmmaker whose work also includes the Mark Ruffalo courtroom drama "Dark Waters," and the Kate Winslet miniseries "Mildred Pierce." Haynes is attracted to female characters and to the stories of outsiders, which may have something to do with being gay, growing up with questions about his identity and where he fit in.
That may also be why he's always ahead of his time. He was making movies with complex female protagonists when Hollywood only cared about rom-com leads or Meryl Streep. Way before others, he explored subversive characters who believed society had no room for them and he centered them in experimental movies that preserved, rather than explained, their mysteries.
"All of the emotion we think a movie is giving us, we're actually giving the movie," Haynes has often said. What that translates to is the biographical "I'm Not There," where multiple people play a Bob Dylanesque character and it's left to us to figure out why. Where characters in 1950s-set dramas "Carol" and "Far From Heaven" behave not like people seen through a contemporary lens but like '50s movie characters, which means we must supply the lens.
When he started making features 30 years ago, Haynes was part of a "New Queer Cinema" movement that included Rose Troche, Derek Jarman and Marlon Riggs. Although he has said the first movie that blew his mind was "Mary Poppins" — a female and an outsider, hmmm — the writer/director told audiences at a 2016 Walker Art Center event that he always knew he'd never attract big audiences like those that flocked to "Poppins."
Even if Haynes has never made a box office smash, he has created one fine movie after another and word from the Cannes Film Festival suggests that includes his latest, a documentary portrait of '60s rock band the Velvet Underground. Music has always been crucial for Haynes, not just in the Dylan movie or his rock-themed "Velvet Goldmine" but also in the swoony Elmer Bernstein score for "Far From Heaven" and the glum pop in his rarely seen, enacted-by-dolls, Karen Carpenter elegy "Superstar."
When asked why he's drawn to music (he's planning a Peggy Lee biopic with Michelle Williams), Haynes told Variety, "music captures our memory, our sense of time and place, and links up with our experiences in a way that's hard to find any comparable example of."
I can think of a comparable example: his own movies. With Cannes having recently concluded, it's the perfect time to look back at his best.
A strong candidate for the greatest love story ever told by the movies, it's a wasn't-meant-to-be tale, set in 1950s New York City. Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett create rich, period-appropriate portraits of women who are at different points in their understanding of who they are and whom they love. The restraint, passion and intelligence of this gem have only grown deeper since its release.
Julianne Moore's first movie lead was as a suburbanite whose life becomes dominated by a mysterious malady, and she's extraordinary. We never learn what's wrong with her, although it seems to be what we'd now call an environmental illness, one sign of how far ahead of its time "Safe" was. So is the obsession with whether or not Moore's character is really sick.
Underrated because it was an Amazon release before that had become a legitimate thing, Haynes' adaptation of Brian Selznick's graphic novel is a stunner that juggles multiple timelines to tell the story of young people (Oakes Fegley and Millicent Simmonds, before the latter's "Quiet Place" movies) making their way in Manhattan, five decades apart. There's a cabinet of wonders in the 1970s segments and, as the movie winds down to a hugely satisfying conclusion, it becomes one, too.
"Velvet Goldmine" (1998)
Inspired by the life and music of David Bowie, it's an acid-dropping, bell-bottom-wearing, scarf-twirling glam-rock masterpiece with an incredible cast that includes Christian Bale, Toni Collette and Ewan McGregor.
"I'm Not There" (2007)
Haynes constantly reinvents himself as a filmmaker here, just as Dylan has reinvented himself as an artist. Multiple actors play versions of Dylan, including a Black child and Oscar-nominated Cate Blanchett, confronting various career and life challenges. My favorite is the Blanchett stuff, which deals with the confusion when he "went electric," but even the bum parts (Richard Gere) are compelling because the movie seems to be finding its way at the same time its hero does.
"Far From Heaven" (2002)
Haynes' nod to the 1950s Douglas Sirk movies he loves ("All That Heaven Allows," "Imitation of Life") tells a story that films of that era might not have dared to address — a woman who learns her husband is gay has an affair with a Black man — using the mannered acting, stiff dialogue and color-saturated visuals of the time. It could be just a gimmick but Julianne Moore, Dennis Haysbert and Dennis Quaid capture their repressed characters so well that we have to ask: How different is today?
Haynes intertwines three stories so they comment on one another and possibly become the same story. The budget was low and so is some of the acting quality but "Poison" is compelling on so many levels. As an early Sundance Film Festival winner. As part of a flash point in the '90s backlash against the National Endowment for the Arts' funding of controversial work ("Poison" was a recipient). As an early NC-17-rated film. And as an experiment in genres: a mock documentary about an abused boy, a psychodrama about prison sex and a droll parody of 1950s science fiction.