From being the third woman to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director in 2003 (Lost in Translation); the first American woman and third American filmmaker to win the Golden Lion, the top prize at the Venice Film Festival in 2010 (Somewhere); up to her most recent milestone, as the first American woman to win the coveted Prix de la mise en scène (Best Director) at the Cannes Film Festival (The Beguiled), Sofia Coppola has broken gender barriers and contemporary film making boundaries, giving the audience a taste of her uncanny brilliance in modern cinema.
Coppola’s distinguishable style of filmmaking has something to do with her visual play on pastel colors, soft natural lighting, a dreamy, moody narrative, and multi-layered characters that are often brought right in front of us in a very humane level. Characters like Charlotte (Lost in Translation) and Johnny Marco (Somewhere) have such understated subtle, human qualities, that they aren’t just movie characters — as if we are witnessing their lives in the eyes of Coppola herself. She sees something, and she makes us see it with utter specificity, down to the smallest breaths and fingertip movements of her characters.
Coppola often explores themes of alienation and isolation. She makes the inertia of her narrative through the confinement of these characters’ headspaces in their own worlds, as if trapped in their own cages. The storyline of her films are usually is motioned when these characters begin to drift into their own chimeric states, but so tranquil and smooth, as if smoothly brushed by a master painter.
We rank the films of Sofia Coppola. Make no mistake that all of her films are very symphonic to one another, it’s just an impossible task to pick which one’s the best, as all of them are equally superb in their own rights. But for self preferential purposes, the list goes as follows:
6. Somewhere (2010)
Somewhere explores the privileged life of celebrity Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff). Contrary to the ideal image of fame and fortune, the film discusses a life downhill from the stars. Coppola explores the immunity of a celebrity to all the pleasures the world gives, to the point where Marco feels absolutely nothing. It’s a subtle commentary as to how fame and fortune cannot give you the happiness one might think it could give. Marco’s daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) gives that beautiful contrast of reality where genuine joy exists. Coppola’s style of evoking this theme is through repetitive scenes, circular episodes and a series of eventful highs and lows. She captures the portrait of a celebrity status as a life where it’s both everything and nothing.
5. The Virgin Suicides (1999)
The Virgin Suicides serves as the breakthrough of Coppola into a nearly two-decade excellence in film making, as well as the beginning of her cinematic collaboration with long-time muse Kirsten Dunst, who stars as troubled teenager Lux Lisbon. This film has been highly controversial, and often discomforting to viewers due to its mature theme that involves teenagers. The beauty of this beginning is that we see a filmmaker who cares about one thing: the genuine emotions of the characters, and that includes the metaphysical mystery of one’s psyche towards depression, which ultimately leads to suicide. The greatest thing about Coppola’s exploration with ‘girlhood’ is that she didn’t try to preach or solve the film’s mystery. She didn’t try to explain grief, or rationalize the first-person intentions of suicide to the viewers. We are introduced to Coppola’s approach to mystery as an existential world where some covers are best left uninterrupted.
4. Marie Antoinette (2006)
Coppola has been very clear that Marie Antoinette has never been intended to be a political and historical drama, but simply a character profile of a woman forced to be the queen of France at the age of 16. That character profile includes, to a huge extent, the fact that Marie Antoinette is a teenager alienated in the adult world. Coppola focuses on that element, as she takes us in a realm right exactly in the eyes of Marie Antoinette. What does she see? What is she feeling? What does everything around her look like in her own eyes? That being said, Coppola played with an extravagance of colors, elaborate props, killer soundtrack in a very saucy, lavish, hard candy film making. The film has always been criticized for being overly-stylized but has no substance. But looking closely with Coppola’s approach towards the character’s profile, the film having no substance is actually the substance itself. The style, the color, the music, and costume — that’s the substance of a 16-year-old girl who knew nothing about maturity and adulthood.
3. The Beguiled (2017)
The magic of The Beguiled is due to Coppola’s ability to create tension utilizing the claustrophobic environment of the setting and women’s reserved sexuality in the civil war era. She explores the repression and alienation of these female characters so powerfully silent, that watching the film is like waiting for a kettle to scream and boil, flooding the environment as the characters, one by one, breaks free for air. That tension is as tight as a closed fist, but extremely, almost ridiculously subtle and quiet. It takes a director’s brilliance to create a potential energy that’s so meek and tranquil yet deliver something passionate and burning. This film is definitely a directorial showcase where Coppola’s eye for specificity and attention to the smallest details — from the lighting, to the characters’ eye movements, made such big difference towards the entire picture.
2. The Bling Ring (2013)
Perhaps the icon of every millennial wrapped in a film that tackles the lifestyle of the rich and famous, The Bling Ring is a flashy montage of the shallow, superficial lives of ambitious teenagers-turned-criminals. The Bling Ring flirts with the audience, from the firecracker party scenes involving drugs and alcohol, to designer bags and clothes, to the almost warming effect of the spotlight among these characters’ cold demeanor — all wrapped in a richly saturated art direction, impeccable cinematography and a loud soundtrack that accurately reflects the image Coppola tries to capture on these millennials. Very similar to Marie Antoinette, The Bling Ring is a film that heavily relies on the visual elements of the film. Coppola intricately made sure that we see what these teenagers see as the defense to their actions: a shiny, dazzling, euphoric world where downward spiral is the farthest consequence.
1. Lost in Translation (2003)
There’s no better film by Coppola that best epitomizes excellence in film making than Lost in Translation. The film is both an audio and a visual metaphor about quarter-life crisis (Charlotte, played by Scarlett Johannson) and midlife crisis (Bob, played by Bill Murray) — two Americans caged in the alienating space of Tokyo, where nobody seemed to truly understand them but each other. This is a film often coined as a movie where nothing is happening. Truly, Coppola relies on the stillness and the tension of the characters (very similar to her approach in The Beguiled), and the atmosphere of the environment, where they move in a space so swift that it’s almost null and void of emotions. The neon colors of Tokyo highly contrasts the mundane loneliness these characters feel; the energy of the landmarks such as the famous Shibuya crossing scene denotes the immobility of these characters as to where to go in life in a back drop of a fast-paced, crazy world. Lost in Translation is an oxymoron of a love story that doesn’t necessarily facilitate romance, but embrace companionship, and the fact that Coppola has left the question whether it is romantic or companionate love is the beautiful enigma of the film. The last scene, where Bob whispers to Charlotte before they part ways — yet, what he whispered is left unrevealed to the audience, is one of the most beautiful mysteries to ever exist in cinematic history.