Total Recall

Donald Sutherland's Best Movies

In this week's Total Recall, we count down the best-reviewed work of the Hunger Games: Catching Fire star.

by | November 21, 2013 | Comments

Donald Sutherland

The Hunger Games franchise belongs to Jennifer Lawrence, but she’s hardly alone up there on the screen; in fact, she’s surrounded by a fairly incredible supporting cast stocked with talented veteran actors like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Woody Harrelson, and Stanley Tucci. Oh, and Donald Sutherland, who reprises his role as the ruthless President Snow in the latest installment, Catching Fire. Sutherland’s suitably icy performance so impressed us that we decided to dedicate this week’s feature to some of his finest moments on the big screen. From socially conscious dramas to goofball comedies, Donald’s done it all — and, as our countdown attests, done it brilliantly. It’s time for Total Recall!


10. A Dry White Season

The horror of South Africa’s apartheid regime has inspired a number of upstanding dramas, but only one of them features the combined acting might of Marlon Brando, Susan Sarandon, and our man Donald Sutherland: 1989’s A Dry White Season. Starring Sutherland as a teacher who experiences a reluctant awakening to apartheid’s injustice, and Brando as the human rights lawyer who helps him seek justice for a murdered employee, Season surges under the power of director Euzhan Palcy’s withering rage — and while polemics don’t always make for compelling films, most critics agreed that this was a notable exception. “A Dry White Season bursts through your door and beats you senseless,” wrote the Washington Post’s Jeanne Cooper. “It seems perverse to question its technique and only days later can you question its logic.”


9. Six Degrees of Separation

The fascinating story of real-life con artist David Hampton formed the basis for Six Degrees of Separation, adapted from the John Guare play about a smooth-talking young man named Paul (Will Smith) who shows up on the doorstep of a wealthy New York couple (Sutherland and Stockard Channing) and convinces them he’s not only friends with their college-age kids, but that he’s the son of Sidney Poitier. Before the night is out, he’s sleeping in their guest room — and before the closing credits roll, the extraordinary truth of Paul’s story is revealed. While far from a blockbuster on par with Smith’s future efforts, Separation earned Channing an Oscar nomination and won praise from critics like’s Fred Topel, who called it “a compelling drama” and “Will Smith’s greatest performance.”


8. M*A*S*H

Bitterly divided by the ongoing quagmire in Vietnam, a war-torn nation turned its eyes to Hollywood for insight — and director Robert Altman responded with 1970’s M*A*S*H, a pitch-black ensemble comedy that used the exploits of a ragtag bunch of Korean War medics to offer barbed commentary on American foreign policy while delivering lots of laughs. Featuring a rather incredible cast that included Sutherland, Robert Duvall, Elliott Gould, and Sally Kellerman, the movie racked up more than $80 million at the box office, won an Oscar for Ring Lardner, Jr.’s screenplay, and spawned a hit spinoff TV series that ran for 11 seasons. It was, argued Time Out New York’s Joshua Rothkopf, “the first real film of the 1970s.”

7. Ordinary People

Movies about the emotional wreckage hidden behind the white picket fences of American suburbia have become kind of played out over the last 20 years or so, but as the 1980s dawned, it was still somewhat new territory — and as demonstrated by debuting director Robert Redford in 1980’s Ordinary People, those themes could be drawn upon to produce one of the young decade’s most heart-wrenching (and best-acted) dramas. Led by a cast that included Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore as the emotionally distant parents of a guilt-stricken teen (Timothy Hutton) who survived a boating accident that left his brother dead, People shone a spotlight on the creeping ennui that would come to help define the decade, winning a Best Picture Oscar in the bargain and earning praise from critics like Vincent Canby of the New York Times, who held it up as “A moving, intelligent and funny film about disasters that are commonplace to everyone except the people who experience them.”


6. National Lampoon’s Animal House

He’s arguably best remembered today for his many successful dramas, but Donald Sutherland can be a pretty funny guy when he has the right script. Witness National Lampoon’s Animal House, in which director John Landis lined up some of the era’s most talented comics and character actors in order to tell the wonderfully chaotic tale of the war between a frat full of reprobates and the uptight dean (John Vernon) who wants to force them off campus with the help of a rival fraternity. Led by an unforgettable performance from John Belushi and rounded out by a stellar supporting cast (including Sutherland as a stoned English professor), it went down as one of the decade’s most uproarious (and financially successful) comedies — and although many of the movies it inspired were met with critical derision, most scribes couldn’t help but guffaw at what Sky Movies’ Domic Bloch later deemed “A masterpiece in anarchy.”


5. Panic

As Hunger Games fans are well aware, Sutherland can be a fairly imposing fellow when he wants, and he was in classically intimidating form for 2000’s Panic, a low-budget indie picture that blended high-stakes, life-or-death conflict with dark comedy and dysfunctional family drama. Starring William H. Macy as a henpecked hitman whose jerk of a boss (Sutherland) also happens to be his father, Neve Campbell as the temptress who could save Macy from his failing marriage, and John Ritter as a psychiatrist with a past, Panic may have suffered just a bit from its share of storyline contrivances, but overall, the vast majority of critics felt its strong cast more than compensated for any weaknesses. Argued Charles Taylor for Salon, “There has never been an evocation of middle-aged disappointment like it.”


4. The Dirty Dozen

If you’ve ever enjoyed watching the exploits of a group of squabbling social misfits as they insult one another, clash with their superiors, and ultimately save the world, you’ve got the Dirty Dozen to thank. This unconventional World War II Army unit, made up of soldier convicts who were either on the chain gang or headed for execution, set new standards for both misanthropic heroism (Telly Savalas’ character, Archer Maggott, isn’t someone you’d want to trust your life with) and shocking violence (Ebert, commenting on The Dirty Dozen’s R rating, quipped, “It’s not obscene as long as they burn to death with their clothes on”). It also raised the bar for action teams’ cool quotients to absurd levels, combining the talents of Sutherland, Savalas, Lee Marvin, John Cassavetes, Charles Bronson, and Jim Brown, just to name a few. Many of its main ingredients may seem like old hat now, but The Dirty Dozen remains, in the words of Fulvue Drive-In’s Chuck O’Leary, “A macho male fantasy that still plays to the inner rebel in all viewers who harbor such a streak.”


3. Don’t Look Now

Novelist Daphne du Maurier was one of Alfred Hitchcock’s secret weapons — her novels inspired Rebecca and The Birds — but she proved an equally effective muse for director Nicolas Roeg, who used her short story “Don’t Look Now” as the basis for his 1973 movie of the same name. Adapted by screenwriters Chris Bryant and Allan Scott, the film version differed from the story in a few respects, but it hewed close to the original where it truly mattered, using a tragedy suffered by a grieving couple (Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland) as the backdrop for a haunting, moody tale of potentially paranormal horror. As Jay Cocks put it for TIME, “Don’t Look Now uses the occult and the inexplicable as Henry James did: to penetrate the subconscious, to materialize phantoms from the psyche.”


2. Klute

Director Alan J. Pakula kicked off his “paranoia trilogy” with this 1971 thriller about a jaded call girl (Jane Fonda, who won an Oscar for her work) who works with a private investigator (Sutherland) to catch a killer who’s been targeting ladies of the evening. “Lots of guys swing with a call girl like Bree — one guy just wants to kill her,” cooed the poster, and that’s pretty much Klute in a nutshell; there wasn’t anything particularly innovative or unexpected about Andy and Dave Lewis’ screenplay, and neither was Pakula’s direction the film’s main selling point (Roger Greenspun of the New York Times described it as “a tepid, rather tasteless mush”). Its real strength was the interplay between Sutherland and Fonda, both of whom drew raves from critics. Roger Ebert was one of the duly impressed, writing, “with Fonda and Sutherland, you have actors who understand and sympathize with their characters, and you have a vehicle worthy of that sort of intelligence. So the fact that the thriller stuff doesn’t always work isn’t so important.”


1. Invasion of the Body Snatchers

The original Invasion of the Body Snatchers was an acknowledged classic by 1978, when director Philip Kaufman took the reins of a fairly gutsy remake that, by all rights, should have been overshadowed by its predecessor. There’s an exception to every rule, however, and Kaufman’s Snatchers surprised filmgoers by not only boasting improved special effects, but a terrific W.D. Richter script whose taut, ensemble-driven story was well served by an impressive cast that included Sutherland, Veronica Cartwright, Leonard Nimoy, and Jeff Goldblum (not to mention Jerry Garcia as “Banjo Player”). Calling it a “dazzling remake of one of the cleverest of horror classics,” Janet Maslin of the New York Times applauded, “There’s a little something extra in virtually every frame.”

In case you were wondering, here are Sutherland’s top 10 movies according RT users’ scores:

1. Without Limits — 87%
2. National Lampoon’s Animal House — 86%
3. The Dirty Dozen — 86%
4. Ordinary People — 85%
5. The Hunger Games — 80%
6. M*A*S*H — 80%
7. Don’t Look Now — 77%
8. Klute — 77%
9. Invasion of the Body Snatchers — 74%
10. The Day of the Locust — 73%

Take a look through Sutherland’s complete filmography, as well as the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don’t forget to check out the reviews for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.

Finally, here’s Sutherland playing Wilhelm Reich in the video for Kate Bush’s “Cloudbusting”:

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