Total Recall

Total Recall: George Clooney's Best Movies

We count down the best-reviewed work of the Men Who Stare at Goats star.

by | November 3, 2009 | Comments

George Clooney

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. We hear it all the time, but George Clooney is living proof that perseverance pays off: Despite the inauspicious beginnings of a career that threatened to pigeonhole him as a Ted McGinley-style supporting player on fading sitcoms, he’s risen to the ranks of Hollywood’s highest-paid actors, and has appeared in some of the last decade’s most critically and commercially successful films. This fall, Clooney surfaces in three major releases: Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air, and The Men Who Stare at Goats, opening this weekend. If that kind of star power doesn’t deserve the Total Recall treatment, what does?


10. Syriana

It’s always fashionable to lament the lack of imagination and depth in mainstream Hollywood fare — and, quite often, it’s easy to understand why. But every so often, someone manages to slip something demanding into the release schedule. Case in point: 2007’s Syriana, a twisty political thriller that takes an impossibly intricate script (written by Stephen Gaghan, also making his directorial debut), adds a top-notch ensemble cast, and wraps the whole thing up in 128 minutes of espionage and intrigue with equal parts visceral and intellectual appeal. As Robert Barnes, the CIA operative who becomes an unwilling expert in the painful side effects of shifting Middle Eastern alliances, Clooney was only one part of a cast that included Matt Damon, Jeffrey Wright, Chris Cooper, and William Hurt — but as one of the film’s executive producers, he was a crucial element of a movie that overcame its heady themes to earn almost $100 million worldwide. Lauding Syriana as “a film that treats its audience as adults,” Channel 4 Film’s James Mottram wrote, “this is an extremely rewarding work that handsomely pays off the concentration required to watch it.”


9. Intolerable Cruelty

What do you get when you cross the Coen brothers with the tired old romantic comedy genre? 2003’s Intolerable Cruelty, in which the directing/screenwriting duo turns its deep black humor on the sexy screwball laffers of the ’30s, putting Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones in the center of a story with enough twists, turns, and double-crosses for a hundred Kate Hudson movies. The plot, which pits a brilliant but bored divorce attorney (Clooney) in a battle of the sexes against one of his former clients’ spouses (Zeta-Jones), isn’t terribly original, but the script has plenty of zingers — and the leads threw enough sparks to charm even many of the critics who came away from Cruelty disappointed with the Coens’ surprisingly mainstream shift. In the words of the Globe and Mail’s Liam Lacey, “If Intolerable Cruelty establishes one thing, it’s that George Clooney is the closest thing that contemporary Hollywood has to an old-fashioned matinee idol.”


8. Burn After Reading

After tunneling deep into the dark underbelly of human nature with their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, the Coen brothers decided to beat a lighthearted retreat for its follow-up, 2008’s Burn After Reading — and, in the process, reunite with one of their favorite leading men. For his third project with the Coens, Clooney took on the role of Harry Pfarrer, a Treasury agent whose romantic exploits are as unfortunate as they are prolific. Conducting an adulterous affair with Katie Cox (Tilda Swinton) while simultaneously fooling around with Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), Pfarrer is hilariously unaware that both women are involved in some way in the botched extortion scheme that’s about to send his life spinning off its axis. Though Burn represented a substantial critical comedown for the Coens after the award-hogging No Country, it was a hit with most scribes, including Armond White of the New York Press, who wrote, “Lesser artists would have followed a critical smash like No Country with another noir, courting audience favor through familiarity. But Burn After Reading, though shocking, is simply the flipside of the Coens’ existential dread.”


7. O Brother, Where Art Thou?

In lesser hands, a broadly comic, Depression-era update on the Odyssey could have been the most embarrassing thing George Clooney would be associated with since Return of the Killer Tomatoes, but the Coen brothers made it work — and how: Between its $71 million gross and a soundtrack so popular it spawned its own documentary, O Brother, Where Art Thou? was one of 2000’s cinematic sensations (albeit one whose impact was more cultural than financial; ranking 60th on the annual box office results, it was just a shade less successful than Dude, Where’s My Car?). Despite some South Park vocal cameos and his noteworthy late-series run on The Facts of Life, Clooney’s comedic gift remained largely undiscovered until the Coens turned him loose to ham it up as Ulysses Everett McGill, the fast-talking escaped con whose quest for ill-gotten gains leads him to an accidental career as a member of an old-time music trio. Sound like a loopy plot? Well, toss in some Klansmen, a floating cow, and John Goodman in an eyepatch, and you can understand why Eugene Novikov of Film Blather said “O Brother, Where Art Thou? is the Being John Malkovich of the year 2000,” adding, “The most remarkable thing about it is just how any sane studio executive agreed to back it.”


6. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind

It’s one of Hollywood’s most oft-repeated jokes that what actors really want to do is direct — but when they do get their first shot behind the cameras, very few actors take the opportunity to create something as wonderfully strange as Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. Adapted by Charlie Kaufman from the Chuck Barris memoir that may or may not have included giant chunks of complete fiction, Confessions introduces the viewer to a world in which noted television producer Barris (played by Sam Rockwell) is recruited by a CIA agent (Clooney) to carry out secret political assassinations — and it gets even weirder from there. Arriving in theaters years after Barris’ TV heyday, Confessions never really had a prayer of catching on at the box office, but it — and Clooney — earned the admiration of critics like Glenn Lovell of the San Jose Mercury News, who wrote, “Clooney, who on the basis of this movie has a big career ahead of him behind the camera, demonstrates a real flair for visual comedy.”


5. Ocean’s Eleven

Glamour is a big part of what used to make going to the movies so much fun — and thanks to a variety of factors, not least the rising tide of paparazzi journalism, the wonderful spectacle of Hollywood’s brightest stars has lost a great deal of its wattage over the last decade and change. Steven Soderbergh managed to turn back the clock a little with his 2001 remake of the minor 1960 Rat Pack classic, lining up a cast of heavyweights so impressive that even the most jaded filmgoers couldn’t help but give in to the spectacle. Critics were suitably dazzled, too, noting that the fun being had onscreen by Clooney (as the titular Danny Ocean) and his luminous co-stars (including Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, and Julia Roberts) was too infectious to resist. Writing for the Philadelphia Weekly, Sean Burns applauded, “It’s a giant ice-cream cake of a movie that tickles the pleasure centers of your brain — restoring the good name of large-scale, old-fashioned Hollywood entertainment.”


4. Michael Clayton

Like a lot of actors with pretty faces, Clooney has toyed with his looks at various points, either by scruffing them up (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) or puffing them out (Syriana). For 2007’s Michael Clayton, however, he put them arguably to their best use by playing a guy whose suavity has helped him build a pretty flashy career as a corporate legal fixer — but behind the façade lies a burned-out shell of a man whose poor decisions have boxed him into a seemingly inescapable corner. Offering one of his most nuanced performances behind a script (courtesy of writer/director Tony Gilroy) that evoked the classic paranoid thrillers of the ’70s, Clooney helped Clayton become one of the year’s best-reviewed films — and, with a $92 million gross, one of its smarter box office hits. Paul Byrnes of the Sydney Morning Herald paid it some of its highest praise when he called it “an enveloping thriller with a cool intelligence, the kind of film Redford or Newman would have jumped at 15 or 20 years ago.”


3. Out of Sight

Lesser actors have seen their careers destroyed by failures as profound as the putrid, fluorescent stink bomb that was 1997’s Batman & Robin — but Clooney dusted himself off, locked himself in a trunk with Jennifer Lopez, and emerged with the smoldering Out of Sight. While not a huge commercial success, Sight — adapted by Scott Frank from the Elmore Leonard novel — proved Clooney had more to offer than he’d been able to show in disappointing duds like One Fine Day and The Peacemaker. More importantly, it kicked off a partnership with director Steven Soderbergh that would become arguably the defining professional association of Clooney’s career. And did we mention that Out of Sight is a lot of fun to watch? As Andrew Sarris of the New York Observer noted, “From the first shot to the last, Mr. Clooney is in complete command of the screen in the assured manner of the biggest stars in the past, and he doesn’t need a ton of special effects and digital enhancement to generate excitement.”


2. Three Kings

American audiences tend to tune out movies that take place in the deserts of the Middle East, and 1999’s Three Kings was no exception — the David O. Russell-written/directed effort failed to recoup its budget despite overwhelmingly positive reviews and a cast toplined by Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, and a pre-Are We There Yet? Ice Cube. Kings‘ following has grown in the decade since it tanked in theaters, though, and it’s easy to see why — though it was dogged by a series of embarrassing controversies, including a lawsuit from screenwriter John Ridley and an on-set brawl between Clooney and Russell, none of the behind-the-scenes drama manifests itself in this visually distinctive, effortlessly entertaining Gulf War satire, which puts the three stars in the center of a gold heist while bitterly lampooning the bloody aftermath of the 1991 conflict. Though its political subtext is unmistakably strident, Kings works as a gripping action flick, too; as Reeling Reviews’ Robin Clifford wrote, “Go see it for the effects, action and treasure hunt story, but enjoy the intelligence, too.”


1. Good Night, and Good Luck

His first directorial effort was a flight of fancy, but for his follow-up, George Clooney took a decidedly more serious tack, dramatizing the efforts of legendary journalist Edward R. Murrow to thwart Joseph McCarthy’s Communist witch hunt. Inspired by the increasingly vituperative political atmosphere of the early aughts, Clooney laid more than his career capital on the line for Good Night, and Good Luck — not only did he forsake his usual salary, collecting a dollar apiece for his directorial, screenwriting, and starring roles, but he also went so far as to mortgage his home as collateral. (Well, one of his homes, anyway. But still.) This black-and-white plea for journalistic ethics was a film out of time in the 24-hour cable news era, even with a stellar cast that included Clooney, David Strathairn, Robert Downey, Jr., Patricia Clarkson, and Frank Langella — but it still had enough Luck to rack up six Academy Award nominations and an impressive $54 million worldwide gross, not to mention raves from critics like the Daily Mirror’s David Edwards, who wrote, “George Clooney is emerging as one of America’s bravest, boldest filmmakers. And with this highly-charged political thriller, he’s also emerging as one of its very best.”

Take a look through Clooney’s complete filmography, as well as the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don’t forget to check out the reviews for The Men Who Stare at Goats.

Finally, here’s Clooney on The Facts of Life, aided and abetted by script consultant Paul Haggis:

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