Total Recall

Total Recall: Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Best Movies

We count down the best-reviewed work of the 50/50 star.

by | September 29, 2011 | Comments

Joseph Gordon-Levitt

At the ripe old age of 30, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is already a grizzled Hollywood veteran, having made his film debut nearly 20 years ago in the slobbery family comedy Beethoven. And he’s a busy guy, too — when 50/50 debuts this weekend, it’ll mark his ninth trip to theaters in the last two years, with a whopping four more films on tap for 2012. Clearly, the time has come for us to take a look at the critical highlights from Mr. Gordon-Levitt’s growing filmography, and you know what that means: It’s time for Total Recall!

10. Hesher

How far has Joseph Gordon-Levitt come since he found fame as a fresh-faced youth in Third Rock from the Sun? Far enough that in 2011, he was the bearded, chain-smoking lead in Hesher, Spencer Susser’s pitch-black drama about a shiftless lout who develops an unlikely friendship, sort of, with a lonely suburban teen (Devin Brochu) who’s trying to cope with the death of his mother and the torments of a school bully (Brendan Hill). Far from the sort of uplifting, My Bodyguard-type fare that audiences may have expected, Hesher didn’t make much of an impression at the box office — but its resolute refusal to veer into Hollywood feel-good territory impressed critics like NPR’s Bob Mondello, who wrote, “Susser doesn’t try to make Hesher anything other than a sociopath — a walking, profanity-spewing id — and to his credit, neither does Gordon-Levitt.”


9. 10 Things I Hate About You

With an assist from William Shakespeare, and a pair of breakout performances from Heath Ledger and Julia Stiles, Gil Junger’s 10 Things I Hate About You put a glossy late 1990s spin on The Taming of the Shrew by switching the location to a modern high school, where the Stratford sisters (Stiles and Larisa Oleynik) are the unwitting pawns in a prom date plot set in motion by a lovestruck young knucklehead (Gordon-Levitt) and his scheming classmate (Andrew Keegan). It’s pretty fluffy stuff, and as broad as a barn door, but its snappy pace and charming cast left some critics feeling charitable — Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times called it “as satirical as it is romantic” and “one teen film that is wise enough to span generations in its appeal.”


8. Stop Loss

American audiences are well aware of the fact that their soldiers often have a hard time adjusting to life on the home front after war — and they’re not shy about avoiding movies that tell those soldiers’ stories. Kimberly Peirce’s Stop-Loss was no exception during its theatrical run, falling victim to the same commercial indifference that felled Rendition, Body of Lies, Green Zone, and others — in spite of a hot young cast that included Channing Tatum, Abbie Cornish, Ryan Phillippe, and Gordon-Levitt. It was the audience’s loss as far as the New Yorker’s David Denby was concerned; he called Stop-Loss “forceful, effective, and alive, with the raw, mixed-up emotions produced by an endless war — a time when the patriotism of military families is in danger of being exploited beyond endurance.”

7. Manic

Before they played lovebirds in (500) Days of Summer, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel co-starred in an altogether different sort of film: Manic, a grim drama about emotionally damaged teens and the psych ward doctor (Don Cheadle) who tries to shepherd them back to health. While certainly not without its problems — Peter Keough of the Boston Phoenix dismissed it as “earnest” and “tastefully exploitative,” and a number of critics disliked its handheld cinematography — Manic‘s solid cast helped elevate it above many of the “kids in an institution” clichés. “Gordon-Levitt explodes any expectations about him,” applauded Jeffrey Westhoff of the Northwest Herald. “The rage he projects is so real it becomes its own character.”


6. Treasure Planet

Gordon-Levitt made his animated debut as the star of this big-budget Disney extravaganza, which shot Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island into space and took an eclectic voice cast along for the ride, including Martin Short, Emma Thompson, David Hyde Pierce, and Laurie Metcalfe. The idea of intergalactic pirates plundering animated booty added an interesting twist to the well-worn tale, but with a budget of $140 million, Treasure Planet had its work cut out at the box office, and its $109 million worldwide gross was ultimately regarded as something of a disappointment — particularly in the US, where it failed to make even half that much. Still, it proved an enjoyable spectacle for critics like Terry Lawson of the Detroit Free Press, who wrote, “retaining the swashbuckling spirit of Stevenson’s novel but adding megabytes of computer-age cool, Treasure Planet is the one holiday thrill ride the whole family can enjoy.”


5. Brick

An old-school gumshoe noir that takes place in a high school setting — with none of the self-conscious irony that the setup implies — Brick heralded the arrival of writer/director Rian Johnson as a force to be reckoned with, and proved that Joseph Gordon-Levitt was ready to take on serious dramatic roles. As Brendan Frye, the heartbroken teen determined to solve his ex-girlfriend’s murder no matter the cost, Gordon-Levitt anchored what could have been a very silly film with a quietly impressive performance — and it wasn’t lost on critics like the New York Post’s Lou Lumenick, who argued, “It’s Gordon-Levitt’s pitch-perfect work that makes Brick a hardboiled treat.”


4. Mysterious Skin

Gordon-Levitt raised a lot of eyebrows with Brick, but he started erasing memories of Third Rock from the Sun the year before, with this bleak drama from Doom Generation director Gregg Araki. A favorite on the festival circuit, Mysterious Skin delves into the harrowing aftermath of sexual abuse, following the struggles of two teen boys (Gordon-Levitt and Brady Corbet) to come to grips with the actions of an emotionally disturbed baseball coach (Bill Sage). Understandably not a huge box office draw, Skin was still appreciated by critics such as the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Steven Rea, who applauded what he saw as a film that “manages to deal with its raw, awful subject matter in ways that are both challenging and illuminating.”

3. Inception

Yeah, you knew this one would be here. Gordon-Levitt was almost an afterthought in Inception, but that had everything to do with the fact that it was a Christopher Nolan joint, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, and nothing to do with his own performance as Arthur, DiCaprio’s partner in high-tech corporate espionage. A rare opportunity for Gordon-Levitt to play with choreographed stunts, trippy special effects, and blockbuster expectations, Inception earned four Academy Awards against eight nominations — not to mention more than $825 million in box office receipts, as well as praise from critics like Amy Biancolli of the Houston Chronicle, who called it “only the latest indication that Christopher Nolan might be the slyest narrative tactician making movies today.”


2. The Lookout

A little like Memento without a riddle sitting in the middle of the plot, writer/director Scott Frank’s The Lookout revolves around a brain-damaged protagonist (Gordon-Levitt) haunted by a troubled past — and whose friends and/or enemies might not be everything they seem. As a former homecoming king whose shattered life has led him into a dead-end job that makes him a natural target for a gang of unscrupulous ne’er-do-wells, Levitt brought a melancholy heart to what might have been a fairly ordinary heist flick; as Jack Mathews observed for the New York Daily News, “Though The Lookout is eventually a genre film, with a tense, bang-up ending, it is also a thoughtful study of a young man trying to make sense of a world that he is having to learn all over again.”

1. (500) Days of Summer

Indie boy meets indie girl at their quirky office (a greeting card company, for goodness’ sake) and they start an adorably star-crossed relationship. It’s the kind of thing, at least in its bare outline form, that we’ve seen countless times before — so why was (500) Days of Summer such a hit with critics and audiences? Well, partly because it boasts a smarter, more sensible script than your average Hollywood romance — and partly because Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel had enough soulful chemistry to inspire the New Republic’s Christopher Orr to write that it “Captures with such immediacy the elation and anxiety of new love, the tingle and the terror, the profound sense that you have never been more alive and the occasional wish that you could die on the spot.”

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

1. Inception — 93%
2. Mysterious Skin — 89%
3. Brick — 82%
4. (500) Days of Summer — 81%
5. Latter Days — 81%
6. Manic — 81%
7. The Lookout — 72%
8. 10 Things I Hate About You — 69%
9. Hesher — 65%
10. Treasure Planet — 64%

Take a look through Gordon-Levitt’s complete filmography, as well as the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don’t forget to check out the reviews for 50/50.


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