Like so many others, I'm alternately hot and cold when it comes to Von Trier. In his review of Breaking the Waves, Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum makes a small remark that nevertheless encapsulates precisely how I and presumably many others feel about the director, writing, "[E]ven if [the film] winds up enraging you . . . it nonetheless commands attention." It's a sentiment that could be used to describe just about all of his films, which seem to be designed specifically to enrage his audience. Whatever your personal misgivings about his movies, each new work constitutes a major event. Of course, like I said, much of this sensationalism is drummed up self-marketing—it seems Von Trier can't make it through a single press conference without making headlines—but even for conversation's sake alone, his work is essential viewing. You can catch my five favorites after the jump.
5. The Kingdom (1994/1997) This eight-episode TV miniseries—Von Trier made four episodes in 1994, another four in 1997—illustrates the director's propensity for serial narrative structure and sprawling casts. It's a supremely creepy supernatural thriller set in a haunted hospital, shot on worn 16mm film, and imbued with unique textures, shades, characters, and images, not to mention a delightfully campy opening title sequence with an anachronistic theme song whose singsong melodies belie the show's disturbing tone.
4. Antichrist (2009) Perhaps his most deliberately antagonistic work, this psuedohorror film gets to the heart of heterosexual male-female relations by way of hyperintensive psychotherapy and a pathological treatment of the nexus of love, sex, violence, affection, religion, and nature. It's an angry but stirringly beautiful film, perfectly structured and just absurd enough ("Chaos reigns!") to take the edge off what is a truly bleak worldview.
3. Europa, aka Zentropa (1991) This, his most beautifully designed film, is equipped with vivid splashes of color, inventive rear-projection sequences, and intricate compositions. Heavily influenced by Franz Kafka, the film is decidedly otherworldly—the opening sequence is, in effect, hypnosis, designed to "transport" the viewer to the world of the film but also ground the material in its ultrasubversive, Twilight Zone-esque universe.
2. Breaking the Waves (1996) The early film that most resembles his most recent output. As he's prone to do in most of his work, Von Trier gets lost in his own rhetoric here, but we get the sense that he's working through the material as much as the audience, which tends to either infuriate viewers or draw them closer to the story. It might be his most outright beautiful film; shot by the great Robby Müller, it features some elegant landscape photography and unique visual textures.
1. Dogville (2005) This incisive parable is marked for its disparaging view of Americanism and the seemingly brutal treatment of its female protagonist, but such cynical flourishes don't detract from the film's austere beauty, nor or are they as antagonistic as they may seem. The film's sparse staging, or antistaging, really—it takes place on a bare, back-lit sound stage—belies the fully realized nature of the milieu; the town of Dogville, Colorado is fake by all accounts, but few movie settings have ever felt so tactile. Von Trier gives the audience space to essentially fill in the blanks, illustrating the imaginative power of movies and the ideologies of image-making.