Total Recall

Peter Jackson's 10 Best Movies

by | December 11, 2014 | Comments

No surprises here, folks — other movies are coming out this week, but it’s really all about The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, and when it came time to figure out who would be the focus of our list, there was only one choice. Yes, we’re talking about Peter Jackson, the director whose final(?) venture to Middle-earth is one of 2014’s most eagerly awaited sequels — and whose filmography is about so, so much more than hobbits and orcs. From gory comedies to vulgar puppets and beyond, Jackson has displayed one of the most artfully wandering spirits in Hollywood over the course of his career, and it’s high time we took a look at the critical highlights. Get ready for Total Recall!

10. Bad Taste (1987)   71%

Human fast food might be some of the grossest sustenance on Earth, but Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste dares to imagine something even more disgusting — alien fast food, derived from the human carcasses of unwilling victims. (Brings new meaning to “pink slime,” doesn’t it?) Gleefully embracing the promise of its title, Taste shows a side of Jackson that might surprise filmgoers only familiar with his work on the Lord of the Rings movies, but it’s actually of a piece with his eclectic artistic journey — and one that resonated with Dan Fienberg of Zap2It, who later lamented, “I miss Peter Jackson in his ultra low-budget horror mode. He always looked like he was having fun.”

9. Meet the Feebles (1989)   71%

Having explored the darker side of extraterrestrial life with Bad Taste, Jackson decided to warp another object of childhood fascination — puppets — for his follow-up, 1989’s Meet the Feebles. Dark and vulgar, Feebles was marketed with the tagline “From the creators of Bad Taste comes a film with no taste at all” — and as far as a sizable number of critics were concerned, it lived down to its proudly lowbrow advance billing (Janet Maslin of the New York Times predicted that it was “Destined to stand as an unfortunate footnote to Mr. Jackson’s career”). But for others, the ribald, felt-covered adventures of characters like Bletch the Walrus, Sid the Elephant, and Heidi the Hippo were undeniably entertaining; as Luke Y. Thompson admitted for the New Times, “Homicidal puppets with VD just get me every time.”

8. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)   74%

With 2012’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Jackson found himself in a situation few filmmakers ever experience — namely, following up a movie that made more than a billion dollars worldwide but was still regarded as something of a disappointment. It couldn’t have come as a surprise to Jackson, given the marginally more contemplative pace of his first Lord of the Rings prequel, as well as the crushing weight of expectations generated by the epic blockbusting sweep of Jackson’s LotR trilogy. His Hobbit franchise rebounded with its second installment, 2013’s The Desolation of Smaug, which fell a hair short of its predecessor’s impressive box office take, yet enjoyed a far warmer critical reception — due in no small part to the introduction of Benedict Cumberbatch as the voice and mo-cap spirit of the titular dragon, adding action and evil charisma to a series that needed both. As Betsy Sharkey put it in her review for the Los Angeles Times, “Peter Jackson’s newest installment of the Tolkien trilogy is set afire by the scorching roar of a dragon.”

7. King Kong (2005)   84%

Remaking King Kong had been tried before — and with less-than-stellar results — in 1976, when producer Dino De Laurentiis dragooned an all-star cast into a misguided attempt at updating the classic original. But Dino didn’t have Peter Jackson behind the camera, and that (along with nearly 30 years of advances in special effects technology) made all the difference for 2005’s King Kong, which matched an awesome-looking Kong against a well-chosen cast that included Adrien Brody, Jack Black, and Naomi Watts as the simian-bewitching Ann Darrow. Even with a running time that clocked in over three hours, Jackson’s Kong was king of the box office, drumming up more than $218 million in global receipts — and impressing critics like Tom Long of the Detroit News, who enthused, “Monstrous. Monumental. Magnificent. Use any term you want, there’s no denying the power, genius and spectacle of King Kong, which is certainly the biggest movie of the year and possibly the biggest movie ever made.”

6. Dead Alive (1992)   88%

Boasting one of the most memorably disturbing posters of the ’90s — as well as a storyline ripe with the sort of disgusting possibilities Jackson embraced so whole-heartedly early in his career — 1992’s Dead Alive tells the delightfully gonzo tale of a lovestruck teen (Timothy Balme) whose budding romance with his lady love (Diana Penalver) hits a snag due to the fact that his mother (Elizabeth Moody) has been turned into a flesh-eating zombie by a bite from a Sumatran rat monkey on exhibit at the local zoo. It gets enthusiastically foul from there — including the climactic appearance of a strategically wielded lawnmower — but as far as most critics were concerned, the gore was all in exceedingly good fun; as Rob Humanick put it for Projection Booth, “Rarely has the urge to expectorate one’s lunch been a feeling so sublime.”

5. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)   92%

It took a few decades to get there, but once J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books finally, officially made their way to theaters, they did it in a big way — and they did it the right way, courtesy of Peter Jackson’s sure-handed direction (and a $93 million budget), not to mention a pitch-perfect cast that included Elijah Wood (as the pure-hearted hobbit Frodo), Sean Astin (as his stalwart friend Samwise), and Ian McKellen (as the mighty wizard Gandalf), united in their quest to save Middle-earth from the malignant advances of the dark lord Sauron. Full of eye-popping special effects (including those used to bring to life the warped Gollum, played by Andy Serkis) and bolstered by a screenplay that did justice to its hefty source material, it was an unqualified smash — both with audiences and with critics like the San Francisco Chronicle’s Mick LaSalle, who observed, “Watching it, one can’t help but get the impression that everyone involved was steeped in Tolkien’s work, loved the book, treasured it and took care not to break a cherished thing in it.”

4. Heavenly Creatures (1994)   93%

Jackson’s impressively violent early work might have made him a natural fit for a movie about the grisly true-life tale of two teenage girls (played by Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet) whose obsessive relationship leads to a shocking act of bruality — but few of his fans could have been prepared for Heavenly Creatures, an absorbing, assured film that blended elements of drama, science fiction, and romance while drawing beautifully compelling performances from its leads. Ultimately nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar at the Academy Awards, Creatures vaulted Jackson and his partner Fran Walsh to international acclaim, jump-started Winslet’s film career, and wowed critics like David Rooney of Variety, who wrote that it “Combines original vision, a drop-dead command of the medium and a successful marriage between a dazzling, kinetic techno-show and a complex, credible portrait of the out-of-control relationship between the crime’s two schoolgirl perpetrators.”

3. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)   93%

After all that buildup, the final installment of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy had a lot of epic expectations to live up to — and by most accounts, 2003’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King met or exceeded them, delivering the franchise’s passionate fanbase a suitably sweeping conclusion to the saga that many of them had loved since long before Jackson ever stepped behind a camera. Clearly, given all the anticipation that later greeted The Hobbit, Jackson was the right person to adapt the beloved books that served as his movies’ source material; 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.”

2. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)   95%

He set a high bar for himself with the first Lord of the Rings movie, The Fellowship of the Ring — and then Jackson surpassed it with the second installment, 2002’s The Two Towers, which took a plotline that largely amounted to a lot of walking and turned it into a legitimate three-hour epic, complete with elves, dwarves, hobbits, amazing large-scale battles, and sentient, ambulatory trees. A two-time Academy Award winner (and Best Picture nominee), The Two Towers racked up nearly a billion dollars worldwide during its theatrical run, and prompted suitably hefty praise from critics like Salon’s Charles Taylor, who opined, “Yes, there are some ‘middle-chapter’ problems, but Peter Jackson’s Tolkien adaptation hasn’t lost its devastating humanity, its heart-stopping cinematography or its epic sweep.”

1. Forgotten Silver (1996)   100%

From Preston Tucker to Joe Meek and beyond, we love biopics about overlooked, overshadowed, and/or forgotten pioneers — so when Peter Jackson premiered Forgotten Silver, an alleged documentary about the unjustly forgotten New Zealand filmmaker Colin McKenzie, its claims that McKenzie was responsible for the first talkie and color film proved irresistible to many viewers. Only one problem: None of it was true, and Jackson — who co-wrote and co-directed with his friend Costa Botes — was actually perpetrating a skillful fraud, right down to the interview segments with Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein and film critic Leonard Maltin. Some were understandably annoyed when the truth came out, but that didn’t prevent critics from bestowing universal praise; as Wade Major wrote for Boxoffice Magazine, “Forgotten Silver succeeds best because it was birthed by the filmmakers’ own innate love for the art and history of movie making, a joy that bleeds through in every frame of the film.”

Finally, here’s a (slightly NSFW) compedium of Peter Jackson cameos:

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