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In celebration of William Friedkin’s everlasting impact, Mitchell Beaupre looks at the director’s highest rated films according to the Letterboxd community—from French connections and leather bars to possessed girls and courts of law.
“Rest in peace, William Friedkin. You always went way harder than you had to, and I’ll always be thankful for that,” David writes in his Letterboxd review of The French Connection, logged just two days after the passing of the iconoclast director in August of this year. For over five decades, Friedkin shocked and delighted audiences with high-adrenaline tales of chaotic cops, deranged domesticity, morally malnourished men and more. In a recent episode of The Letterboxd Show, our podcast team popped some holy water-infused champagne to reflect on the 50th anniversary of The Exorcist, the nightmare-inducing horror that still sends shockwaves through the hearts of first-timers and repeat viewers alike on Letterboxd.
Those canonized classics aren’t the only gems in the director’s oeuvre. As his final film, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, continues to see its average rating rise, we felt this was the perfect time to honor Friedkin by diving into the reviews and seeing what the Letterboxd community had to say about his ten highest-rated features. This is just the tip of the iceberg: my personally beloved The Hunted may not have cracked the list, but that’s merely a testament to how much gold can be mined from Friedkin’s filmography. Through it all, one thing remains true, as Sean details: “God, I love that William Friedkin only has one speed: Sicko mode.”
10. Bug (2006)
After a series of critical misfires, Friedkin made a major comeback in 2006 with this adaptation of Tracy Letts’s pitch-black Oklahoma tale of a lonely waitress (Ashley Judd) and a PTSD-addled veteran (Michael Shannon) whose nightmarish level of paranoia pushes them towards oblivion. Taking place within the confines of the woman’s motel room, Bug brings the audience to the brink of sanity as Shannon rambles nonsense theories of Gulf War experiments run on him that have altered his biology with a bug infestation. Paris would be lucky to have the kind of invasion these two believe they’re enveloped in, and the duo invites us into their fractured minds where we ourselves begin to question what’s real.
Infamously a member of the F Cinemascore club, Bug perplexed casual audiences upon release with its marvelously unnerving, jagged editing from Darrin Navarro, sweat-fused cinematography by Michael Grady and a script from Letts that positions this on the razor’s edge between nasty dark humor and visceral body horror. “Its shift in texture becomes a mile-a-minute nightmare by nature, epitomizing the ‘wait, how did we get here?’ school of pacing with such a deft, cataclysmic shift in tone, often within the same minute,” says Matt.
Digging into the film’s themes and its placement in a post-9/11 world, Adam notes that Bug “was on to something rich and zeitgeisty by depicting damaged Americans trying to wrangle their pain and alienation into some kind of recognizable shape, giving themselves over to wild, inscrutable and yet reassuring fantasies of control and manipulation (and infestation) that may or may not be scarier than the realities they hold at bay.”
9. Killer Joe (2012)
If Bug wasn’t twisted enough for you, Friedkin and Tracy Letts came back even more sinister (and even more hilarious) with their next collaboration. Adapted again by Letts from his own play, Killer Joe takes a microscope to the rotten core of America as a fractious family (Emile Hirsch, Thomas Haden Church, Gina Gershon, Juno Temple) hires a cop moonlighting as a hitman (Matthew McConaughey) to off their estranged matriarch so they can pocket her $50,000 life-insurance return.
Although Bug landed an illustrious F Cinemascore, Killer Joe got its own certificate of authenticity with an NC-17 rating from the MPAA for “graphic aberrant content involving violence and sexuality, and a scene of brutality.” How many times in your life have you seen “graphic aberrant content” in a rating classification? Don’t worry about that drumming you up with unattainable expectations, because this is a true gem of shock and awe as we watch these dastardly souls eat one another alive for sex, greed and carnage. Evan calls Killer Joe “without a doubt one of the filthiest films I’ve ever experienced, the brutality alone breaking through the membrane of my expectations in those last twenty minutes. I really struggled to stomach that final sequence, which can only be a compliment considering how often Friedkin seems to reach for total sadism on this one.”
Certainly, Friedkin and Letts earned their spot on Logan’s “nastiest and cruellest hollywood movies” list, and they’d surely be proud of the inclusion. If you think you’ve delved into the darkest recesses of the human psyche, give Killer Joe a spin and see what you think about a guy offering up his sister to a hitman cop in exchange for killing their mother. One thing’s for sure, you’ll never look at fried chicken the same way again.
8. Cruising (1980)
Never a stranger to courting controversy, 1980’s Cruising was being protested before it was even released, with people clogging up streets and making noise near the set to ruin the sound recording and climbing on rooftops to shine lights that would distract cast and crew. Audiences have long been divided on this tale of Al Pacino as a fresh-faced cop being sent undercover into the world of gay S&M and leather bars in order to track down a serial killer.
Although the film continued to be protested upon release, it’s seen a massive reappraisal in the decades since, with the queer community in particular embracing it as “a popper-fueled 42nd St. Heart of Darkness,” declares Liz. Continuing, she dives into the nuanced take on police-LGBT relations: “What I find really fascinating about Cruising is just how accurately it portrays the sort of relationship and struggle that the police and the LGBT community were locked in at the time—and, even, still now—the way that the police’s interest in the case is less about actually caring for or protecting a vulnerable class, but is instead motivated by pure, cold politics.”
Friedkin masterfully toys with perception, casting multiple actors as the killer (even at times having an actor play the killer who would later play a victim!) or reusing specific shots at different periods, employing formal ambiguity to instill a sense of anxiety in the viewer. K. Austin points out this obfuscation while echoing Liz’s sentiments on the true villain at the heart of Cruising: “The serial killer, or killers, roam, vary, appear and disappear; but the police, stably identifiable as police—even while undercover, in a cop fetish bar—leave only victims in their wake.” Even if you don’t like the movie, it’s got “Bandana Code 101 as taught by Powers Boothe,” so what’s to complain about?
7. The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial (2023)
William Friedkin’s first narrative feature in a decade wasn’t designed to be his swan song, but by the time it premiered at this year’s Venice Film Festival, the director had passed, and so The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial had an extra air of circumstance around it. His legacy would have been monumental regardless of this one’s quality, yet there is something nice in knowing that he went out with one of his very best—a picture that encapsulates so many things we loved best about the artist: his refusal to ever play by a black-and-white rule book when it comes to morality and good versus evil, his innate understanding of when to go big and when to hone in on the basics to maximize impact, and as David notes, how he “always understood how to depict pressure better than anyone.”
In Tripp’s review, he declares that “William Friedkin was at his best, and we don’t talk about this enough, when he could indulge his love of great theatre and transfer it to the [screen],” which he does marvelously here in his adaptation of Herman Wouk’s acclaimed play about a naval attorney (Jason Clarke) who is tasked with defending an officer (Jake Lacy) on trial for mutineering against his captain (Kiefer Sutherland). Remarkably bold in its formal and aesthetic approach, The Caine Mutiny is practically Bressonian in its minimalism and removal from conventional cinematic attributes. Friedkin trusts that watching tremendous actors (special praise as well to Monica Raymund and the late Lance Reddick, in his own farewell appearance) sit and stand around chairs yelling at one another with a knockout script for two hours can be gripping cinema, and he’s absolutely correct.
Back to Tripp, as he puts it best: “No one in cinema history has done more to elevate the one-room drama and turn it into something cinematic without making you realize it; even The Exorcist is a one-room chamber drama! Here, he uses all of his cinematic tricks (including some great editing by Darrin Navarro) to create tension in a courtroom without ever having to include flashbacks or forced outdoor scenes.” Cutting through all the bullshit to land his punch with as much impact as possible, his last hurrah saw Friedkin right in his wheelhouse.
6. 12 Angry Men (1997)
Caine Mutiny wasn’t Friedkin’s first go at bringing a beloved play set in the halls of justice to the screen. Film lovers may balk at the suggestion of anyone else giving Reginald Rose’s teleplay 12 Angry Men the cinematic treatment after Sidney Lumet’s 1957 masterpiece (the third highest-rated film on Letterboxd ever, no big deal). I, too, was apprehensive until I gazed my sights on Friedkin’s 1997 Showtime picture (the same network that aired Caine Mutiny) and realized I never should have doubted the master. The framework is still the same: twelve men on a jury head into their deliberation room to determine the guilt or innocence of a man accused of murdering his father—they all agree he’s guilty… except for one.
“This is one of those texts that you could have someone re-adapt every decade or so with people who are considered both ‘up-and-coming’ talent and ‘veterans’ of their craft, and you’d keep getting compelling work,” Noah says, highlighting how the ‘Is this necessary?’ question around the existence of this 12 Angry Men adaptation misses the fact that we could always use a new variation on twelve sweaty dudes arguing in a room for two hours. Especially when those men are [clears throat] Jack Lemmon, George C. Scott, Courtney B. Vance, James Gandolfini, Ossie Davis, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Dorian Harewood, Tony Danza, Hume Cronyn, Mykelti Williamson, Edward James Olmos and William Petersen.
There’s simply no reason to deny yourself the pleasure of, per LeSchroek, “the veins of George C. Scott that so often pulsate to the surface, the beads of sweat on Gandolfini’s forehead, Danza’s V-neck, Petersen’s perplexity, Lemmon’s sad eyes, the camera that becomes more and more mobile but always keeps its eye on what’s important, the certainty with which it exploits and captures the limited space, the confidence in the cast and the civil courage material, which once again knows how to captivate, the spot-on editing or the atmosphere, which so discreetly makes the humidity, heat or anger perceptible several times. And above all, this merciless effectiveness with which everything is welded together, proving once again what a strong director was at work here.”
5. The Boys in the Band (1970)
An early fan favorite from Friedkin, The Boys in the Band hit theaters just a bit before he started winning Oscars and terrifying audiences for the rest of eternity. Things are decidedly less physically endangering here, though the verbal barbs come hot and heavy as a group of gay men in Manhattan commemorate the birthday of Harold (Leonard Frey). Adapted by Mart Crowley from his own play, this isn’t one that immediately came to attention in the many memorializations written about the director after his passing but, as Stephen writes, “It takes somebody as legendary as Friedkin to be so acclaimed, yet still have what feels like an overlooked classic in his early output.”
The Boys in the Band exists as a high point in the nascent era of openly queer cinema. “A staple of lgbtq+ cinema. william friedkin is a straight gay icon!”, says Nick, though as Allain points out, “you don’t need to be gay to enjoy this, so spare two hours of your day to watch this marvelous yet tumultuous film.” Allain accurately summarizes not only what the film is about but also what makes it hit just as hard today: “The boys went in for a birthday party, expecting a fun night, but all they got are depression, grief, regret, confusion, and a hard reality slap. The Boys in the Band is probably the most intricate and veracious film studying male homosexuality and its stereotypical archetypes. Its separation from the typical tokenism of gay men [in] movies offered a fresh perspective on what it meant to be homosexual.”
4. To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)
Wang Chung’s groovy soundtrack. Robby Müller’s inimitably neon-inflected greens and oranges. Bi king Willem Dafoe naked, creating works of art that he promptly burns because nothing beautiful should live forever. To Live and Die in L.A. is a perfectly constructed slice of ’80s neo-noir that starts fast and never slows down. The perpetually sweaty William Petersen is a Secret Service agent on the hunt for a counterfeiter who murdered his partner, and he’ll stop at nothing to get his revenge. This is the pinnacle of ‘deranged madman with a badge will break all the rules in his quest for blood’ cinema, or as fran declares, a “cautionary tale for swaggy guys everywhere.”
“It’s really cynical filmmaking, but it’s incredible,” Avengers: Endgame and The Gray Man director Joe Russo told me when I asked him about some of his most formative films. “I think [William] Friedkin was at a really particular place in his life and in his career when he made that movie. That synthesizer score. [John] Pankow having the panic attack in the back of that car and grounding that crazy chase sequence in his character’s desperation. It’s a really great lesson in how character drives action.”
Logan’s review highlights how To Live and Die in L.A.’s cult status has helped it endure as one of the ‘cool kid’ picks for a favorite Friedkin: “the reason it’s not as widely appreciated as something like Lethal Weapon or other cop films of that era is that Friedkin is unwilling to make this pleasurable, unwilling to find meaning in revenge or corruption or violence. This film is insidious in that respect, a horror film disguised as a thriller, where nothing ends up how you imagine it, death is cruel and painful or at its worst completely pointless, and there is no escape, not from this world.”
Bonus: one of Friedkin’s very best stories is this wild one about how the counterfeit bills from To Live and Die in L.A. were so realistic that he successfully used them for years in his personal life.
3. The Exorcist (1973)
50 years after the world was first introduced to possessed twelve-year-old Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair), her suffering actress mother Chris (Ellen Burstyn) and exorcizing priests Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) and Father Karras (Jason Miller), The Exorcist “remains frightening not just for its iconic scares but also its fidelity to life—that the seepage of the supernatural into physiological reality is not merely a fantasy but a raw confrontation with the limits of religious faith,” Eternality explains. Not only did this slice of nightmare-fuel break through the glass ceiling for horror films in the industry by notching a whopping ten Oscar nominations (and two wins, for Robert Knudson and Christopher Newman’s sound work, as well as William Peter Blatty’s script adaptation of his own novel), just last year Rolling Stone named it the greatest horror film ever made.
So what makes The Exorcist so special? For starters, its canonization as an ultimate chiller has led many to discover it far too young, allowing it to burrow into the most fragile corners of our forming minds and fester, growing more insidious as the years go on. But first impressions aren’t everything, as this is a story with immense depth, rewarding multiple viewings as we evolve and understand more about the world. Sure, it’s a total scream to watch a young girl bellow that “your mother sucks cocks in Hell!”, but this isn’t pure shock value. As Ethan astutely points out, “William Friedkin makes you care for the characters he develops, and builds tension in unexpected places.” Each viewing of The Exorcist unlocks a new piece of its mastery, earning its spot as one of the horrors the Letterboxd community rewatches most obsessively.
We’ll leave Reyna with the final word: “After all these years The Exorcist still bangs. Less of a horror film and more of a drama about the desperate lengths a mother will go to save her only daughter. I love the use of religion and faith as an absolute last resort for salvation but the film also brings up the question of “even if there is a god, how could he let such innocence suffer for no reason?” Well-directed and still just as frightening as it’s ever been, The Exorcist is a masterclass in nuanced horror storytelling.”
2. The French Connection (1971)
You still picking your feet in Poughkeepsie? Elevated trains were forever changed in October of 1971, when Friedkin’s Best Picture winner The French Connection first hit theaters and put his name on the map on a grand scale. Six months later, the director would win the Oscar for Best Director—one of five prizes the film would take home that night. It still hums with the same crackerjack energy today, a mountain atop the crime genre that its followers can only hope to be seen as existing in the footsteps of.
Gene Hackman chasing down criminals in full Santa Claus costume, the iconic chase scene, the ultimate reveal of where the hell those damn drugs were the whole time. There are so many legendary moments throughout The French Connection, but perhaps the reason it is such a standout of the genre is less about the individual scenes and more about the way it envelops us fully into this world. Based on a true story, “the extent to which this film is documentary-like is truly astonishing and gives the film so much value beyond the superior procedural elements,” says Scott.
You can practically suck in the stench of old cigarettes and wet socks wafting off these cops and crooks in the New York winter. Ziglet describes it as “a top shelf example of NYC as a leading character, drowning in filth and smothering itself in the moral grayness of the not-so-average police procedural,” while Theo proclaims that The French Connection “was ahead of its time as a quintessence of guerrilla filmmaking.” Echoing that sentiment, James longs for the golden days of ’70s New Hollywood, writing, “Man, I hate all the CGI bullshit these days. More movies should attach cameras to the front of cars and illegally drive them down major roads at 90mph.” Even this early in his career, Friedkin was breaking all the rules.
1. Sorcerer (1977)
Sorcerer is a wonderful example of Letterboxd’s value in witnessing a film’s reputation evolve over time. When the site began over a decade ago, Friedkin’s follow-up to The Exorcist and The French Connection would not have usurped those immediately canonized pictures, and certainly, audiences at the time of its release didn’t put it anywhere near the same ballpark. This is the definition of a high riser, a movie that has undergone a massive critical reevaluation over the decades and now sits firmly planted at the top of this list of Friedkin’s finest.
Trounced at the box office due to a release parallel to the unpredictable behemoth of Star Wars, earning unfavorable comparisons to The Wages of Fear (Henri-Georges Clouzot’s earlier adaptation of Sorcerer’s source novel) and having a disastrously dangerous production, Sorcerer was among those that put a nail in the coffin of the New Hollywood movement of studio-funded, auteur-driven projects. Now, it’s a card-carrying member of ‘they don’t make ’em like they used to’ cinema. Bad men on a bad operation in South America are led by an impossibly sweaty Roy Scheider (“definitive sweaty man cinema there’s minimum an inch of water on skin per man,” notes Dawson) on a suicide mission to transfer gallons of highly combustible nitroglycerin across a treacherous jungle.
That’s it. That’s the setup. That’s all you need in order to create what Jerry calls “Friedkin’s opus… an unrelenting, fiery, blood-curdling adrenaline rush from the very start. There’s not a single moment where the turmoil and seat-gripping tension aren’t as thick as the delirium-inducing rainforest our madmen must traverse to reach their deliverance.” Plenty of Sorcerer reviews simply resort to expletives: “holy fuck,” “jesus fucking christ” and “I mean… what the fuck. What can I even say? Billy really freaked it with this one,” with tons of members pointing as well to the wrenching bridge-sequence centerpiece that was apparently shot more or less how we see it on screen.
Many Friedkin features have forced us to peer into the murky depths of the human psyche, but none more so than Sorcerer, which Soraya calls “an acid-reflux-inducing misadventure about the lengths men will go to survive.” It’ll leave you with the kind of existential crisis Jamelle experienced, warning “you can neither run from or bargain with death. You must simply accept it, and hope to do so with a measure of serenity and peace.” Something tells me Friedkin would have liked that.
‘The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial’ is streaming now on Paramount+ with Showtime and available for digital purchase.