Total Recall

Total Recall: John Malkovich's Best Movies

We count down the best-reviewed work of the Secretariat star.

by | October 8, 2010 | Comments

John Malkovich

Acting demands intense dedication to craft, hard work, and plenty of luck — but actors like John Malkovich make it look easy: He made his Broadway debut opposite Dustin Hoffman, earned an Oscar nomination for his first major movie role (in 1984’s Places in the Heart), and has remained generally excellent throughout a career that currently includes more than 70 films. He’ll add two more to that tally this month (this week’s Secretariat and next week’s Red), and in honor of all that activity, we decided to dedicate this week’s feature to the ten best-reviewed movies in a filmography stacked with critical winners. It’s time to forget Jonah Hex ever happened — let’s go Total Recall!


10. Shadow of the Vampire

Uniting two of the actors who do “disquieting” better than almost anyone in the business, this fictionalized peek behind the scenes of Nosferatu stars Malkovich as director F.W. Murnau, whose quest for verisimilitude on the set of his vampire movie leads him to make a secret pact with the real deal — Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe), presented here not as a thespian, but a bloodthirsty member of the undead. Passed off by Murnau as a particularly dedicated Method actor, Schreck regales the cast and crew with tales of his centuries as a vampire — and gradually, they come to understand that he isn’t just staying in character. Netting several honors (including a Saturn Award, an Independent Spirit Awards, and an Oscar nomination for Dafoe), Shadow had enough bite for critics like the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Hap Erstein, who called it “An ingenious, diabolical, probably libelous, funhouse of a movie.”


9. Disgrace

Malkovich picked up one of his meatiest roles in this 2008 adaptation of the J.M. Coetzee novel, starring as a South African college professor whose affair with a student costs him his career — and sends him to his daughter’s farm, where post-apartheid racial tensions are simmering beneath the bucolic surface. An award-winner at the Toronto International Film Festival, Disgrace gave Malkovich the chance to take a rather unlikable character on a redemptive storyline arc, and drew appreciative applause from critics like the New York Post’s V.A. Musetto, who admitted, “I cannot tell a lie. I derive great satisfaction watching John Malkovich act.”


8. The Ogre

A masterpiece of creepy, steadily mounting dread, Volker Schlöndorff’s The Ogre stars Malkovich as a mentally disabled Frenchman who is used as a recruiter by the Nazis during their World War II occupation. What’s so creepy about that, you ask? Turns out the Ogre has a unique rapport with kids…and he thinks he’s protecting them…and it’s all just sort of awful, really. As a piece of filmmaking, however, The Ogre was almost universally recognized as excellent, and although it understandably wasn’t a huge box office hit, it earned praise from a number of critics — including Marc Savlov of the Austin Chronicle, who wrote, “Astonishing, disturbing, and altogether an affecting piece of work, The Ogre is Schlondorff — and everyone else involved — working in top form.”


7. The Killing Fields

Part of the banner year that also saw Malkovich earn an Academy Award nomination for Places in the Heart, Roland Joffé’s The Killing Fields relays the heartrending true story of the friendship between three journalists — Cambodian Dith Pran (Haing S. Nor), American Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterston), and British Jon Swain (Julian Sands) — during the early days of the Khmer Rouge’s rise to power in Cambodia. Malkovich appears here in the supporting role of American photojournalist Al Rockoff, who was part of the unsuccessful effort to get Pran out of Cambodia before the regime change; the real-life Rockoff was publicly unhappy with the way he was portrayed, but he was part of a small minority — The Killing Fields was ultimately nominated for seven Oscars, and it became an instant critical favorite. “It must be nerve-racking for the producers to offer a tale so lacking in standard melodramatic satisfactions,” wrote Time’s Richard Schickel, “But the result is worth it, for this is the clearest film statement yet on how the nature of heroism has changed in this totalitarian century.”


6. Being John Malkovich

You know you’ve arrived when a screenwriter dedicates an entire movie to the idea that there’s a magical portal into your brain — and although John Malkovich initially resisted starring in Being John Malkovich, director Spike Jonze eventually changed his mind; the rest, as they say, is history. One of the most marvelously weird successes in modern American film, Malkovich follows the adventures of a miserable puppeteer (John Cusack) who stumbles across a temporary gateway into — you guessed it — John Malkovich. And that’s where things start to get really strange, culminating in a series of diagram-worthy romantic entanglements, some memorable Jonze visuals, and a wonderful Charlie Kaufman script. Destined for the commercial fringes, Malkovich was one of the year’s best-reviewed films, enjoying widespread raves from critics like Lou Lumenick of the New York Post, who declared, “Being John Malkovich, which contains not a frame of extraneous footage, is more than a must-see movie: It’s a must-see-more-than-once event.”


5. Dangerous Liaisons

Director Stephen Frears made his grand Hollywood entrance with this adaptation of the Christopher Hampton play Les liaisons dangereuses (and the 18th-century novel it was based on), gussying up a star-studded American cast in corsets and powdered wigs, then setting them loose to do horrid things to one another. Here, Malkovich is at his most impeccably loathsome as the womanizing Valmont, who joins forces with the scheming Marquise de Merteuil (Glenn Close) to defile her cousin’s daughter (played by Uma Thurman). Liaisons is a tragedy, so you know it’ll all end in a mess of death and confusion — but getting there is a delicious good time involving oodles of etiquette, Michelle Pfeiffer at her most luminous, and a side helping of Keanu. A triple Oscar winner, Dangerous Liaisons blended starchy pre-Victorian propriety with good old-fashioned gettin’ down — a mixture that is, in the words of the Washington Post’s Hal Hinson, “Tantalizingly wicked — watching it makes the color rise to your cheeks.”


4. In the Line of Fire

John Malkovich is a fine actor with plenty of awards and a wide variety of roles to his credit, but he’s arguably at his best when playing villains who make your skin crawl — and he used that skill to suitably chilling effect in Wolfgang Petersen’s 1993 hit In the Line of Fire, a thriller pitting Malkovich’s would-be presidential assassin against an aging Secret Service agent (Clint Eastwood) who let down his guard on the day President Kennedy was killed. Audiences made Fire a $176 million smash, and Malkovich received another Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his work as the psychotic Mitch Leary — as well as heaps of praise from critics like ReelViews’ James Berardinelli, who proclaimed, “Hands down, Malkovich’s assassin is the best thing about this solid thriller — a villain that rivals Hannibal Lecter for intelligence and cold, calculated viciousness.”


3. Of Mice and Men

Director (and producer, and co-star) Gary Sinise had some big shoes to fill when he decided to adapt John Steinbeck’s classic Of Mice and Men for the screen — not only is the book beloved, but it had already been turned into a critically lauded film in 1939. Not to mention that the book’s storyline, about a pair of Depression-era farm workers, didn’t have much surface relevance to 1990s filmgoers. But even if most of us haven’t hopped a boxcar or carried a bindle, everyone can relate to Of Mice and Men‘s timeless themes of friendship and hope in the face of despair — and critics certainly responded to Sinise’s brilliantly made adaptation, including Roger Ebert, who wrote, “I would not have thought I could believe the line about the rabbits one more time, but this movie made me do it, as Lennie asks about the farm they’ll own one day, and George says, yes, it will be just as they’ve imagined it.”


2. I’m Going Home

One of Malkovich’s more quietly acclaimed films, 2001’s I’m Going Home is a French-Portuguese production about an actor named Gilbert Valance (Michael Piccoli) whose life is turned upside down after his wife, daughter, and son-in-law are killed in a car accident. Struggling to stay emotionally afloat, Gilbert puts his career on hiatus and devotes himself to caring for his grandson — until he’s lured into an adaptation of Ulysses by an American director (Malkovich). Though it received only a limited release in the States, I’m Going Home screened in competition at Cannes, and plenty of critics were moved by its quiet grace — including the Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum, who called it “The kind of quiet masterpiece that fully registers only after you’ve seen it.”


1. Places in the Heart

Malkovich earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his work in this 1984 drama, which tells the story of a widowed woman (Sally Field) who struggles to keep her Texas farm afloat during the Great Depression. The kind of film whose plot doesn’t seem to cover a lot of ground, but which deals with some unmistakeably weighty themes (in this case racism, adultery, and family commitment), Places in the Heart wasn’t necessarily one of the most exciting pictures of the year, but it was an Academy favorite — Field’s Best Actress win prompted her oft-lampooned “you like me” speech — and a source of admiration for critics like Vincent Canby of the New York Times, who wrote, “Out of the memories of his boyhood in Waxahachie, Tex., during the Great Depression, and within the unlikely tradition of the old-fashioned ‘mortgage’ melodrama, Robert Benton has made one of the best films in years about growing up American.”

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

1. The Killing Fields — 89%

2. Empire of the Sun — 88%

3. Rounders — 86%

4. Being John Malkovich — 85%

5. Changeling — 84%

6. Dangerous Liaisons — 84%

7. Places in the Heart — 80%

8. The Sheltering Sky — 79%

9. The Ogre — 79%

10. Con Air — 77%

Take a look through Malkovich’s complete filmography, as well as the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don’t forget to check out the reviews for Secretariat.

Finally, here’s Malkovich — typecast as a deity — in a Nespresso commercial co-starring some random schlub:

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