It goes without saying that Polanski is a controversial figure. However, his prior transgressions aside, he remains one of my very favorite directors. I greatly admire his elegance as a filmmaker, the sophistication he shows even when dealing in decidedly uncomfortable and otherwise lurid subject matter. The following are my five favorite films of his, and I welcome any and all counterarguments.
5. Rosemary's Baby (1968, USA) Save for the cheesy, elongated dream sequence in which the titular Rosemary is seemingly inseminated by Satan, this remains one of the most sophisticated horror films ever made. A distinct air of plausibility hangs over the action, aided by Polanski's delicate but no less assured direction. His ability to mount a steady sense of dread is masterful; each scene builds upon the last in ways that undermine the hokey premise—before Polanski pulls the rug out from under us, that is, orchestrating a climax that's as darkly hysterical as it is deeply cynical.
4. The Ghost Writer (2010, USA) Undervalued, probably because it was made too many years after The Pianist, this stylish thriller improves upon the procedural form of Chinatown (1974), which is actually a far more boring film than I think most people realize. The Ghost Writer's many twists, as calculated as they may be, never feel forced or inorganic, evoking the best of Hitchcock while maintaining Polanski's fiendishly cynical flourishes.
3. The Tenant (1976, France) In his initial review, Dave Kehr pitches this film "somewhere between Franz Kafka and William Castle." Although partially intended as a pejorative statement, I heartily agree with his assertion. Polanski's ability to infuse lowbrow concepts with highbrow ideas is one of his most valuable assets as a filmmaker. However goofy or self-indulgent his films may be (and often are), there are deeper mechanisms at play.
2. Knife in the Water (1962, Poland) This is the first feature Polanski made following his time spent at the National Film School in Łódź. Unrelenting and sardonic, it's one of the more psychologically draining films you're likely to see. In many ways, this also remains Polanski's most abstract film. It features a small cast and minimal plotting, but Polanski's penchant for mounting tension in small places—Repulsion (1965) and Carnage (2011), for example—ratchets up the stakes to almost delirious heights.
1. Cul-De-Sac (1966, U.K.) Although similar in tone and structure to Knife in the Watar, this film (the second he made during his brief stint in London) intensifies the absurdist touches Polanski had been tinkering with prior. A pitch-black comedy heavily indebted to the likes of Harold Pinter and Samuel Becket, its Freudian imagery and nebulous plotting are at once beguiling and even a tad frustrating, but persistence and patience ensure a rich experience. This is easily Polanski's most accomplished work to date, one that eschews the conventionality he shows in films like Chinatown and Frantic (1988) in favor of a more singular experience.
Honorable mentions: Tess, certainly, but also Repulsion, Death and the Maiden (1994), What? (1973), and The Fearless Vampire Killers or: Pardon Me, Madam, but Your Teeth Are in My Neck (1967), aka Dance of the Vampire, which is by far the strangest film he's ever made—and that's saying something.