During the closing moments of John Carpenter’s They Live, a sound collage of news readers and media pundits is unfurled, one of them indignantly blasting the low culture wrought by the likes of George A. Romero and Carpenter himself. It was a none-too-subtle in-joke for fans, but also a gesture of respect, one craftsman tipping his hat to his peer across the aisle. Had the speaker continued, he might easily have spoken the name of Paul Verhoeven, whose U.S. tour of duty resulted in several of the highest-profile and least respected films of their day.
Verhoeven signed his name to at least two VCR classics (RoboCop and Total Recall), one bona-fide game changer that dominated media and water-cooler conversations for months on end (Basic Instinct), and one certified turkey (Showgirls) whose fate may still be undetermined. While his stock rose and fell several times during his volatile tenure as a Hollywood auteur, his films rarely failed to provoke excitement and contention; only the bookends (Flesh+Blood in 1985, Hollow Man in 2000) fail to contribute to the tsunami.
Verhoeven didn’t just arrive in America a fully formed auteur director; he began making features that way, arriving at his feature directorial debut, Business Is Business, equipped with a favorite set of progressive themes and a flair for instilling even small moments with a swaggering, ramshackle kineticism. Most movie buffs will now associate his name only with rank sensationalism—bare breasts and broken bones—and it isn’t as if he would decline the honor. But filmed depictions of sex and violence don’t exist within Verhoeven’s purview exclusively. What we may have been responding to was the casualness, bordering on grinning impertinence, with which he deployed images designed to titillate or shock. A girl in Turkish Delight lops off the top of a banana before using a spoon to extract the meat. Verhoeven goes after your nervous system the same way: Why peel?
In honor of Film Society of Lincoln Center’s complete retrospective of Paul Verhoeven’s work, running from November 9—23, we ranked the Dutch filmmaker’s films from worst to best.