Total Recall

Ian McKellen's 10 Best Movies

In this week's Total Recall, we count down the best-reviewed work of the Mr. Holmes star.

by | July 15, 2015 | Comments

He’s played Gandalf, Magneto, and Richard III — and this weekend, Sir Ian McKellen adds another household name to the long list of characters he’s brought to life. We’re talking, of course, about Mr. Holmes, director Bill Condon?s adaptation of the Mitch Cullin novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, in which legendary sleuth Sherlock Holmes putters through retirement while looking back on a case that’s dogged him for decades. In anticipation of seeing McKellen as Holmes, we decided to dedicate this week’s list to an appreciation of his fine filmography, including all the expected hits as well as a few surprises. It’s elementary — and it’s time for Total Recall!


10. The Ballad of Little Jo (1993) 76%


A grim, muddy Western with a feminist/revisionist slant, The Ballad of Little Jo finds writer-director Maggie Greenwald plunging viewers into the dirt-caked underbelly of a world in which an unattached woman (Suzy Amis) is liable to find herself kidnapped and sold into slavery before she’s so much as reached the outskirts of the city where her family has cast her out as punishment for having a baby out of wedlock. Unwilling to put up with the brutal treatment that seems to be her new lot in life, Josephine disguises herself in men’s clothing and becomes Little Jo, resident of the misleadingly named Ruby City — and lives undetected for years among a motley crew of thugs and reprobates that includes a violent alcoholic with a taste for ladies of the evening (McKellen). “It’s not hard to view The Ballad of Little Jo as an allegorical critique of sex and power and men’s-club values in America,” mused Stephen Holden for the New York Times. “In its disdain for those values, the film is as focused and cool-headed as the remarkable character whose story it tells.”


9. Jack & Sarah (1996) 74%


He’s chiefly known to a generation of filmgoers as Gandalf and Magneto, but before picking up roles in two of the most successful franchises in recent memory, McKellen could often be seen adding an expert splash of color to British arthouse pictures in supporting roles. Case in point: 1996’s Jack & Sarah, in which Richard E. Grant and Samantha Mathis star, respectively, as a single father grieving the death of his wife and the cute waitress he hires as his nanny. The movie’s superficial resemblance to any of the Hugh Grant rom-coms of the era wasn’t lost on critics, but neither were its many small charms — including McKellen as the friendly neighborhood alcoholic bum that Grant hires for additional domestic support. “Jack & Sarah is one of those romantic movies viewers know will end in a happy smooch,” admitted the San Francisco Chronicle’s Peter Stack. “What’s fine is the rush of amusing, heartrending humanity before it gets to the inevitable.”


8. The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit Trilogies
80% (Average Score)


Ian McKellen has appeared in dozens of films, television shows, and plays — and he’s still making more — but for a considerable number of filmgoers, he will always be Gandalf from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies. And really, if you’re going to distill his life’s work into six films and a single role, that isn’t such a bad place to start. Although these movies definitely had their critical ups and downs, they brought J.R.R. Tolkien’s books to life with an overall artful blend of epic scope and wide-eyed wonder, and while McKellen may have played the noble wizard under layers of robes, hats, and hair, none of it — nor the increasing amounts of CGI spectacle — were enough to dull the depth of his portrayal of a character who could be gentle, imposing, or funny, sometimes all in the space of a single scene. As Bill Muller put it for the Arizona Republic, “Not only has Jackson boldly and faithfully brought J.R.R. Tolkien’s world to life, he’s created the most epic and sweeping fantasy adventure of all time.”


7. Cold Comfort Farm (1996) 83%


It took Cold Comfort Farm more than a year to make its journey from British television to American theaters, but for the most part, Stateside critics found the movie none the worse for wear; although John Schlesinger’s ensemble-driven adaptation of the Stella Gibbons novel — about an unflappable young woman (Kate Beckinsale) who heads to the country in order to live with relatives while discovering herself as a writer — was a fairly minor commercial success, it resonated strongly with critics who appreciated Schlesinger’s light touch and sterling cast, which included an array of wonderful supporting players that included McKellen, Stephen Fry, Joanna Lumley, and Rufus Sewell. “What could be more welcome,” wondered the Los Angeles Times’ Kevin Thomas, “than a classic English comedy, bristling with wit and hilarity and crammed with wonderful eccentrics?”


6. Mr. Holmes (2015) 88%

Mr.Holmes

Take the big-budget action thrills of Robert Downey, Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes franchise, spin them 180 degrees, and age the master detective by 50 years or so, and you’ve got the basic outline for Mr. Holmes. Many of Holmes’ screen appearances over the years have focused on solving mysteries and defeating bad guys, but this elegiac adaptation of the Mitch Cullin novel A Slight Trick of the Mind is more interested in the man under the deerstalker hat, and how he confronts his greatest foe — the deleterious effects of advancing age — while leading a quiet beekeeper’s life in retirement and pondering a long-ago case he was never quite able to solve. While Holmes may strike fans of Sherlock’s peppier adventures as stubbornly slow, director Bill Condon’s deliberate pace yields its own rewards; as Bilge Ebiri wrote for Vulture, “It’s a gripping little tale, to be sure, but it’s more than that. Somewhere in its tangle of timelines, false starts, and red herrings is a great truth about the unsolvable mystery of the human soul.”


5. X-Men Franchise 87% (Average Score)


The original X-Men trilogy isn’t perfect, but there’s no arguing that it helped lay some crucial groundwork for the many superhero movies that followed. One of its strongest components has always been the cast, starting with the 2000 original, which united an impressive ensemble that included the perfectly chosen McKellen and Patrick Stewart as long-battling mutant frenemies Erik “Magneto” Lehnsherr and Charles “Professor X” Xavier. The battle between Xavier’s X-Men and Magneto’s Brotherhood of Evil Mutants fuels the action overlaying the sociopolitical subtext in the original trilogy — and when the franchise rebooted itself with 2011’s X-Men: First Class, taking the characters back to their origins, the Xavier/Lehnsherr friendship frayed before filmgoers’ eyes, with Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy stepping in for McKellen and Stewart. The series’ dual timelines merged for 2014’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, bringing McKellen and Stewart back into the fold while repairing the narrative damage wrought in the widely maligned X-Men 3: The Last Stand — an apparent swan song for both actors in the roles, and one that allowed them to exit on a high note. “X-Men: Days of Future Past is a thrilling, hey-what-if comic-book movie that hits just about every mark you’d reasonably want it to hit,” observed Deadspin’s Will Leitch. “It’s not easy to surprise in a blockbuster these days. It’s a rare treat to find one that even tries.”


4. Six Degrees of Separation (1993) 88%


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 (Donald 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. Bolstered by a deep bench of acting talent — Channing earned an Oscar nomination, and the stars were backed by supporting performances from a group that included McKellen, who makes an amusing appearance as a South African businessman — Separation won praise from critics like the Austin Chronicle’s Marjorie Baumgarten, who wrote, “The temporal experience of watching Six Degrees of Separation is one of absorption and intrigue.”


3. Scandal (1989) 91%


Scandal delves into one of the more titillating real-life stories in Britain’s history, and the marketing materials for the movie didn’t shy away from the movie’s more salacious elements. But first-time director Michael Caton-Jones had more on his mind than mere prurience when he sought to dramatize the peccadillo between former British Secretary of State for War John Profumo (McKellen) and a teenage call girl (Joanne Whalley) who was being pimped out by a prominent doctor (John Hurt); although the movie has its lighthearted moments, it’s really a fairly sober reconstruction of a fascinating series of events. “What makes this movie so absorbing is its heady celebration of London during this period, as well as a healthy enjoyment of the erotic elements,” wrote Jonathan Rosenbaum for the Chicago Reader, “demonstrating overall that good, trashy fun doesn’t necessarily entail dumbness or irresponsibility.”


2. Gods and Monsters (1998) 96%


Long before they collaborated on Mr. Holmes, McKellen and director Bill Condon offered filmgoers a glimpse into the final days of another public figure — albeit a real-life one — in Gods and Monsters, a thoughtful attempt to imagine what might have led up to the death of Frankenstein director James Whale. McKellen’s performance as Whale drew the lion’s share of Monsters‘ acclaim, although pundits were also impressed with the rest of the cast (including Brendan Fraser and Lynn Redgrave), and fairly stunned by Condon’s evolution from Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh to prestige drama. “Gods and Monsters has been capably made in all regards,” wrote Janet Maslin for the New York Times. “What especially elevates it is the razor-sharp cleverness of Mr. McKellen’s performance, which brings unusual fullness and feeling to a most unusual man.”


1. Richard III (1995) 96%


Richard III found McKellen collaborating with director Richard Loncraine, collaborating onscreen and off in order to transplant Shakespeare’s play into a fascist nightmare version of 1930s England. The duo’s script took some liberties with the source material, both with the updated setting and its streamlined cast of characters; for example, Robert Downey, Jr. appears as Earl Rivers, an amalgamation of three roles from the play. At the heart of it all, however, McKellen anchored his Richard III with a mesmerizing performance in the title role, ensuring that even if it wasn’t the same story viewers remembered, it remained a gripping exploration of the same timeless themes. “Richard III is the kind of movie that earns the right to interpret the bard’s ideas through alternate perspectives,” argued Cinemaphile’s David Keyes, “because it does so without sacrificing its core values or integrity.”

Tag Cloud

popular Awards PlayStation hispanic zero dark thirty American Society of Cinematographers documentaries supernatural psycho Writers Guild of America Drama worst movies Spike festival TNT ratings TruTV Brie Larson TV Land boxoffice sitcom Travel Channel medical drama Winter TV FOX Avengers Extras rt labs Comic Book die hard nfl Pop trailers universal monsters Netflix Christmas movies DGA Baby Yoda batman adventure elevated horror TCA 2017 ITV historical drama SXSW nature Box Office latino adaptation christmas movies political drama documentary spain Martial Arts halloween revenge Amazon Prime Video 24 frames discovery TV One children's TV Amazon Prime Film dexter Nat Geo WGN halloween tv golden globes YouTube Premium Turner Comic-Con@Home 2021 Discovery Channel Adult Swim satire HBO movies doctor who japanese Christmas Acorn TV Comics on TV Rom-Com criterion know your critic Neflix Animation Exclusive Video WarnerMedia Broadway breaking bad archives Photos OWN GLAAD blockbusters mob Quiz Disney Plus parents Universal DirecTV BET Awards dark 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards green book award winner ABC Family women razzies Star Trek Sony Pictures Pop TV Sci-Fi diversity Television Critics Association zombie 20th Century Fox kids Marvel Universal Pictures Comedy versus dramedy MCU telelvision binge IFC Films Dark Horse Comics Superheroes zombies talk show stop motion IMDb TV live event Western strong female leads Pirates laika olympics pirates of the caribbean travel Calendar VH1 cancelled black trophy AMC Plus Music politics rom-coms Hulu BBC The Arrangement Crackle anthology Peacock new york name the review crime thriller sequels asian-american VICE rt archives Funimation The CW 2016 dceu 71st Emmy Awards heist movie cartoon scene in color movie dogs concert HBO Go slasher reboot Winners Columbia Pictures Comedy Central spider-verse Sundance TV Turner Classic Movies sequel fresh Captain marvel Hallmark Christmas movies Esquire aliens The Walking Dead GIFs blaxploitation stand-up comedy Interview true crime HBO Max spinoff Thanksgiving The Witch casting 72 Emmy Awards space based on movie Nominations Holiday Emmys 45 Lifetime Christmas movies Disney streaming service golden globe awards critic resources 90s streaming Trailer Instagram Live MSNBC IFC A24 Superheroe transformers Musicals Pride Month feel good Video Games Pixar Marathons comic book movies Film Festival king kong joker Sundance Teen french Rocky Trivia 73rd Emmy Awards screen actors guild comiccon singing competition Anna Paquin basketball 93rd Oscars south america Cartoon Network black comedy USA NBC RT History scorecard composers streaming movies Family screenings prank Mystery Pacific Islander Crunchyroll psychological thriller E3 rotten science fiction CNN DC Universe Alien CMT hidden camera cults best FX indiana jones international superhero Paramount Plus Fantasy Lucasfilm Schedule justice league TCM crime drama Arrowverse comic book movie 2021 cops Cosplay Cannes Ghostbusters USA Network hollywood cancelled TV series PBS CBS Song of Ice and Fire miniseries spy thriller robots PaleyFest Warner Bros. scary movies Awards Tour quibi art house CBS All Access Countdown Paramount Network kaiju Black Mirror dreamworks Chernobyl book legend SundanceTV Tumblr sports classics Creative Arts Emmys Amazon Mudbound leaderboard Polls and Games disaster new star wars movies NYCC History marvel comics thriller serial killer TBS child's play italian FX on Hulu all-time Women's History Month AMC Tokyo Olympics docudrama Tubi jamie lee curtis Pet Sematary Elton John godzilla game show New York Comic Con Grammys australia football obituary ABC Signature comics Rocketman comic Super Bowl Hear Us Out Netflix comic books Ovation technology 2018 worst hispanic heritage month Vudu Disney Amazon Studios Summer Opinion Mindy Kaling harry potter Ellie Kemper high school Lionsgate DC streaming service BAFTA police drama tv talk cars Certified Fresh vs. TV renewals indie Apple TV+ Syfy RT21 Podcast BET GoT Stephen King YA action-comedy SDCC adenture slashers TIFF LGBTQ Marvel Television films 99% Britbox Trophy Talk independent blockbuster MTV ViacomCBS witnail television Sneak Peek Kids & Family YouTube Red Fargo ID Marvel Studios Apple TV Plus Red Carpet Wes Anderson rotten movies we love facebook toronto Oscars boxing Musical Fox News TV movies rt labs critics edition A&E Hallmark TCA werewolf Tomatazos war Heroines Masterpiece Election james bond Endgame critics superman APB series The Purge Nickelodeon TLC San Diego Comic-Con The Walt Disney Company BBC One social media video on demand posters TCA Awards 21st Century Fox genre LGBT Star Wars Binge Guide Sundance Now dragons Disney+ Disney Plus Fox Searchlight mcc cats BBC America Holidays toy story VOD TV foreign spanish Year in Review royal family debate mockumentary 2015 DC Comics video Image Comics what to watch Emmy Nominations comedies dc Premiere Dates Watching Series ghosts renewed TV shows mission: impossible Black History Month Shondaland ABC cancelled television cooking Chilling Adventures of Sabrina 4/20 Mary Poppins Returns National Geographic Fall TV finale 2020 Classic Film free movies El Rey Freeform natural history book adaptation stoner Walt Disney Pictures Country mutant theme song reviews news Starz emmy awards TCA Winter 2020 First Reviews Bravo Tarantino Infographic cancelled TV shows spanish language king arthur 1990s spider-man Horror suspense NBA Toys kong CW Seed franchise Paramount E! Set visit Showtime FXX japan monster movies vampires Spring TV canceled Best and Worst YouTube 2017 OneApp Apple young adult docuseries anime saw richard e. Grant Rock hist Legendary See It Skip It Shudder romance crime Food Network sag awards Character Guide President biography First Look Mary poppins Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Logo target Epix scary marvel cinematic universe directors jurassic park festivals Mary Tyler Moore Television Academy cinemax a nightmare on elm street The Academy biopic canceled TV shows 007 ESPN Biopics sopranos crossover chucky Action Academy Awards new zealand lord of the rings Lifetime X-Men twilight wonder woman Valentine's Day fast and furious teaser live action Reality Competition Spectrum Originals unscripted Reality period drama game of thrones romantic comedy remakes deadpool venice nbcuniversal aapi animated Disney Channel 2019 gangster