Total Recall

Danny DeVito's 10 Best Movies

We count down the best-reviewed work of the All the Wilderness star.

by | February 18, 2015 | Comments

Danny DeVito has been in a pair of long-running sitcoms, produced and directed some major hit movies, and turned in notable cameos in some of the most critically adored films of all time (including One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Terms of Endearment) — and all those achievements don’t even include most of his filmography, which expands this week to include his appearance in All the Wilderness. Clearly, this is the perfect time to pay tribute, and that’s exactly why we decided to (ahem) DeVote this list to the irascible, irrepressible Mr. DeVito. It’s time for Total Recall!

10. Tin Men (1987) 77%

After leaving the city for The Natural and Young Sherlock Holmes, Diner director Barry Levinson returned to Baltimore with 1987’s Tin Men, a downbeat comedy about a pair of aluminum siding salesmen (DeVito and Richard Dreyfuss) who begin a bitter, decades-long rivalry after (literally) bumping into each other during a disastrous first meeting in the ’40s. Boasting fine period detail, a terrific cast that also included Barbara Hershey, John Mahoney, and Bruno Kirby, and soundtrack work from the Fine Young Cannibals, Tin Men impressed critics like Luke Y. Thompson of New Times, who called it “Primo Levinson” and wrote, “DeVito’s rarely been more human, and Dreyfuss is at his funniest.”

9. Batman Returns (1992) 80%

Initially reluctant to film a Batman sequel, Tim Burton was eventually persuaded to return to Gotham after wresting complete creative control from Warner Bros. The result was 1992’s Batman Returns, a casting dream that found Batman (Michael Keaton, donning the cowl for the final time) facing off against Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer, resplendent in leather) and the Penguin (a scenery-chewing DeVito). Though some critics (and parents) felt the film was too dark, most reviews were positive; in fact, before Christopher Nolan came along with Batman Begins, Batman Returns was the best-reviewed film in the franchise, something Desson Thompson of the Washington Post attributed to the fact that it “comes closer than ever to Bob Kane’s dark, original strip, which began in 1939.”

8. The War of the Roses (1989) 85%

DeVito and his Romancing the Stone castmates Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner teamed up for the third time in this pitch-black comedy about a wealthy married couple (Douglas and Turner) whose disintegrating marriage becomes a desperate, violent squabble over their shared possessions. Doing double duty as director and co-star, DeVito extended his directorial hot streak (begun with 1987’s Throw Momma from the Train), while Douglas and Turner took the love/hate banter they perfected during Stone and Jewel of the Nile and subtracted the love, fueling one of the most entertainingly venomous divorces in cinematic history. As Rob Vaux of the Flipside Movie Emporium put it, “For anyone who ever spent Valentine’s Day alone with a bottle of scotch, for anyone who ever watched the love of their life go stomping out the door, for anyone who ever gazed in hatred at the happy couple spooning in public? This is the movie for you.”

7. The Rainmaker (1997) 82%

John Grisham has seen plenty of his books turned into movies, but in 2004, he told Entertainment Weekly that The Rainmaker was the best. It’s easy to understand why: with Francis Ford Coppola behind the cameras and an ace cast that included Matt Damon, Mickey Rourke, Jon Voight, and DeVito, it’d be hard to ask for a more skillfully assembled adaptation of the story of an idealistic young lawyer (Damon) who teams up with a resourceful paralegal (DeVito) to bring down an unscrupulous health insurance company. Although it failed to outgross many of them, it was, as Empire’s Ian Nathan argued, “A stronger bet than the previous 35 or however many Grisham movies before it.”

6. Hercules (1997) 84%

Before he was the Lorax, DeVito lent his pipes to Disney’s Hercules, appearing as the voice of the pugnacious satyr tasked with toughening up the titular Olympian (Tate Donovan) and assisting him in his quest to prove his worth as a true hero. Crafty and incorrigible, Phil gave DeVito the opportunity to walk away with many of the movie’s best lines — and entertained critics like Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times, who wrote, “Light on its feet and continually amusing, this free-spirited show-biz version of Greek mythology ranks with the best of modern Disney animation.”

5. Get Shorty (1995) 88%

DeVito strapped on his producer’s hat for Get Shorty, a $115 million adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel about a loan shark (John Travolta) who dreams of leaving the business and turning his life story into a hit film for a big-time Hollywood star (DeVito). Sharp, funny, and stocked with an impeccable array of talented actors, including Gene Hackman, Rene Russo, and Dennis Farina, Shorty entertained critics and audiences alike — including Newsweek’s David Ansen, who pointed out, “Hollywood has been in love with mobsters since the beginning of movies. But the other side of the equation has seldom been considered. That is, until now.”

4. Romancing the Stone (1984) 85%

Nobody plays “gleefully unscrupulous” quite like Danny DeVito, and he was given free rein with Robert Zemeckis’ Romancing the Stone, which found him playing a shady antique smuggler whose bumbling plot to get his hands on a treasure map put him at odds with a romance novelist (Kathleen Turner), a dashing explorer (Michael Douglas), and a murderous Colombian colonel (Manuel Ojeda). Loads of swashbuckling fun in a perfectly ’80s way, Stone raised more than $86 million at the box office, spawned a sequel, and won the admiration of critics like Tim Brayton of Antagony & Ecstasy, who called it “A grand example of the rarest combination of adventure, humor, and sexual chemistry which all crackle along with abandon.”

3. Matilda (1996) 90%

For his first directorial effort since 1992’s Hoffa, DeVito did something altogether different: an adaptation of the Roald Dahl novel Matilda, about a bright young girl (Mara Wilson) with loathsome parents (played by DeVito and Rhea Perlman) and a budding set of telekinetic abilities. Dahl’s flair for dark storytelling was a perfect fit for DeVito’s sensibilities, and the result was a modest hit greeted by appreciative reviews from critics like Rob Thomas of Madison’s Capital Times, who wrote, “DeVito gleefully preserves Dahl’s dark comic tone, which should delight both kids and parents.”

2. Ruthless People (1986) 93%

An ’80s spin on O. Henry’s Ransom of Red Chief courtesy of the Zucker/Abrams/Zucker laugh factory, Ruthless People gave DeVito one of his most marvelously grotesque roles: Sam Stone, the millionaire fashion magnate who’s planning to murder his equally off-putting wife (Bette Midler) when she’s kidnapped by a vengeful fashion designer (Helen Slater) and her doltish boyfriend (Judge Reinhold). Seeing an opportunity to have his dirty work done for him, Stone cheerfully neglects to pay the ransom, setting in motion a chain of hateful behavior. “DeVito is the mainspring of Ruthless People, the engine of murderous intensity right at the center,” observed Roger Ebert. “His passion is so palpable that it adds weight to all the other performances in the movie.”

1. L.A. Confidential (1997) 99%

Danny DeVito almost certainly isn’t the first actor that comes to mind when you think of L.A. Confidential — that honor most likely goes to Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, Kevin Spacey, or Kim Basinger — but his character, publishing sleazemonger Sid Hudgens, was still crucial to the story, setting in motion some key moments in the storyline and serving as the film’s narrator. And while this might not be the definitive performance in DeVito’s career, it does illustrate his gift for choosing the right script; as Variety’s Todd McCarthy wrote, this Best Picture nominee is “An irresistible treat with enough narrative twists and memorable characters for a half-dozen films.”

Finally, here’s DeVito squaring off against Oscar the Grouch in a series of visits to Sesame Street:

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