Total Recall

Ben Kingsley's 10 Best Movies

In this week's Total Recall, we count down the best-reviewed work of the Self/less star.

by | July 8, 2015 | Comments

Ben Kingsley‘s been knighted, he has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and he’s won a cavalcade of honors that includes an Oscar, a Grammy, a pair of BAFTAs, two Golden Globes, and a Screen Actors Guild award — and as if all that weren’t enough, this weekend Kingsley gets to steal Ryan Reynold’s body in Tarsem Singh’s new sci-fi thriller Self/less. In honor of all these achievements, we decided this week would be the perfect time to take a fond look back at some of the best efforts from Sir Kingsley’s filmography, and discovered an array of critical highlights whose diversity may surprise you. It’s time for Total Recall!


10. Fifty Dead Men Walking (2008) 83%


Loosely based on British agent Martin McGartland?s autobiographical account of his time as an undercover mole in the IRA, Fifty Dead Men Walking pries at a painful — and frequently dramatized — chapter in the UK’s past. But what the film might lack in fresh perspective, it more than makes up with the sheer talent assembled by writer-director Kari Skogland, including Jim Sturgess as McGartland and Ben Kingsley as McGartland’s devoted handler, Fergus. “What makes Fifty Dead Men work,” argued the A.V. Club’s Tasha Robinson, “is the story’s sheer moral complexity, which dares viewers to sympathize with anyone onscreen for more than a few minutes at a time.”


9. Sexy Beast (2000) 86%


Kingsley picked up a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his work in this taut British gangster movie, and it isn’t hard to see why: Aside from affording him a too-rare opportunity to play a truly unpleasant villain, Sexy Beast is a thoroughly compelling debut effort from director Jonathan Glazer, who made the leap from music videos and commercials with this eminently well-cast drama about a retired safecracker (Ray Winstone) whose efforts to live a quiet life and go straight are complicated by the sudden appearance of a former associate (Kingsley) who wants to lure him back underground for one more job — and won’t take no for an answer. As Peter Rainer wrote Peter Rainer for New York Magazine, “As the mobster Don Logan in Sexy Beast, Ben Kingsley is so intensely frightening that it’s as if the actor were on a personal mission to deep-six Gandhi and his loincloth once and for all.”


8. Gandhi (1982) 84%


Ben Kingsley has clearly been in plenty of solidly reviewed movies, but for a lot of people, Gandhi will always be the one that leaps to mind when his name is mentioned. There are a number of very good reasons for this, including the Best Actor Oscar he won for his captivating work in the title role (one of an incredible eight Academy Awards the film took home against 11 nominations), in addition to the rousing arc of its fact-based narrative and the suitably epic sweep of Richard Attenborough’s direction. More than 30 years after its release, Gandhi remains a prime example of why the inspirational biopic is still such a popular target for studios — as well as a perfect demonstration of how crucial it can be to find the right star. “In playing Gandhi, an actor must be less concerned with physical verisimilitude than with spiritual presence,” wrote TIME’s Richard Schickel. “Here, Kingsley is nothing short of astonishing.”


7. A Birder’s Guide to Everything (2014) 86%


Coming-of-age movies are never really in short supply, and there’s been something of a bumper crop in recent years, so one might be tempted to ignore A Birder’s Guide to Everything on the grounds that it most likely doesn’t add anything new to an overstuffed genre. But while that might be strictly true, that doesn’t mean this well-cast little gem doesn’t have plenty of its own rewards to offer, including some wonderfully sensitive work from co-writer/director Rob Meyer and a host of believable performances from a young contingent led by Kodi Smit-McPhee and Katie Chang. The grown-up stars aren’t too shabby either — including Kingsley as a renowned birding expert who spurs the plot toward a late twist. While conceding that the story’s “tidy resolution is telegraphed from the outset,” Slant’s Drew Hunt placed Birder’s Guide a cut above its many similarly structured brethren, arguing, “The energetic, never-mocking tone of all involved allows the film to stake its place alongside some of the genre’s stronger and more enduring touchstones.”


6. Turtle Diary (1985) 90%


Kingsley has reaped plenty of acclaim for a number of his higher-profile projects, and is certainly no stranger to blockbusters, but his filmography also boasts a number of hidden gems — including 1985’s Turtle Diary, a Harold Pinter-scripted adaptation of the Russell Hoban novel about a pair of London lonely hearts (played by Kingsley and Glenda Jackson) who bond over their shared love of sea turtles while forming an audacious plan to send a few of their favorite amphibians back to their ocean home. It may not sound like the most obvious inspiration for a memorable movie, but Diary offers the sort of thoughtful, quietly gripping cinematic experience prized by explosion-averse cineastes — and it’s bolstered by a pair of talented leads who, along with co-star Michael Gambon, turn in impeccable work. For Roger Ebert, it was a film worth seeing if only for its leading man; as he put it in his review, “Ben Kingsley’s smile, so warm and mysterious, is the sun that shines all through Turtle Diary.”


5. Transsiberian (2008) 93%


Four strangers on a train barreling across the Trans-Siberian Express. What could go wrong? That’s the slowly unraveling mystery at the wintry heart of writer/director Brad Anderson’s Transsiberian, starring Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer as a pair of missionaries whose return trip from China takes a series of unexpected turns after they find themselves sharing a train cabin with another couple (played by Eduardo Noriega and Kate Mara) — a meeting that ultimately puts them under the watchful eye of a Russian narcotics detective (Kingsley). It’s the kind of movie that’s better the less you know going in, so we won’t spoil any further plot details here; suffice it to say that, in the words of Colin Covert of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, “Anderson gives us an artful, shifty-eyed take on human strengths and weakness; his film delivers the pleasure of a conventional tale well told, with clever twists and complex characters.”


4. Dave (1993) 95%


Dave is nothing if not laughably unrealistic — a temp agency owner (Kline) stands in for the President, hires an accountant to fix the federal budget, and dreams up a jobs bill that will provide work for anyone who wants it, all while unwittingly helping perpetrate a fraudulent scandal against the Vice President (Kingsley) and making the First Lady (Sigourney Weaver) fall for him along the way — but even in the go-go ’90s, it appealed to our best and brightest hopes for our elected leaders, and in today’s vituperative political climate, it’s more of a funny, warm ‘n’ cuddly fable than ever. Janet Maslin of the New York Times was certainly charmed during its original release, admitting that “In spite of this sogginess, and despite a self-congratulatory, do-gooder streak that the film discovers within Dave, this comedy remains bright and buoyant much of the way through.”


3. Hugo (2011) 93%


Brian Selznick’s bestselling novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret earned raves and won awards partly because of its unique structure, which blended graphic elements with narrative prose — and made it a natural target for the right filmmaker to turn into a family-friendly big-screen blockbuster. Martin Scorsese gave it his best shot with Hugo, a 3D adaptation of the story starring Asa Butterfield as the young titular protagonist and Kingsley as the reclusive retired director whose creations hold the key to past secrets as well as a fantastical future. A modern visual opus that stands as a testament to the magic of the cinema, Hugo won praise from critics like the Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday, who wrote, “If ever the movie gods were to smile on an adaptation, it would be Scorsese’s take on Selznick’s bestselling book, a valentine to the cinematic artists whose work the filmmaker has toiled so tirelessly to champion and preserve.”


2. Schindler’s List (1993) 97%


Steven Spielberg circled Schindler’s List for years, concerned he didn’t have the skills or maturity necessary to dramatize the story of Oskar Schindler, the Nazi Party member who used his position as a German industrialist to save nearly 1,200 Jews during World War II. After trying to give the project away more than once (Spielberg’s candidates for his own replacement included Roman Polanski and Martin Scorsese), he finally started filming in early 1993 — and the result is one of the most widely acclaimed movies of the ’90s, and the crowning achievement of Spielberg’s career. Kingsley, who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor BAFTA, appears as accountant Itzhak Stern, aiding the spiritual transformation of the title character (portrayed by Liam Neeson) from war profiteer to a man wracked with guilt over the lives he’d failed to spare, despite risking his life — and losing his fortune — to prevent the deaths of so many. It may have taken Spielberg time to feel he was up to the challenge of Schindler’s List, but in the end, he had nothing to worry about; as Janet Maslin of the New York Times wrote, “Rising brilliantly to the challenge of this material and displaying an electrifying creative intelligence, Mr. Spielberg has made sure that neither he nor the Holocaust will ever be thought of in the same way again.”


1. Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993) 100%


Chess may not seem like the most inherently cinematic subject, and a story about a young prodigy caught in a tug-of-war between the opposing ideologies of his mentors sounds like the stuff of treacly clichés. Credit to writer-director Steven Zaillian, then, for turning Searching for Bobby Fischer into a genuinely touching drama whose climactic chess matches are actually rather thrilling — and doing cinematic justice to real-life former Junior Chess champion Joshua Watzkin with a fact-based film (based on his father’s memoir) stocked with stellar acting talent. Here, Kingsley works in a supporting role, playing real-life chess coach Bruce Pandolfini, whose strict approach puts him at odds with a speed player (Laurence Fishburne) that young Joshua (Max Pomeranc) meets in the park — a conflict that stokes the drama in a film that Variety’s Brian Lowry referred to as “a kind of cerebral The Karate Kid.”

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