Today he’s one of the most bankable movie stars in Hollywood, and one of the few actors audiences will pay to see no matter what sort of role he’s playing — whether it’s action, drama, or comedy the script calls for, having Brad Pitt‘s name above the title is about as close as anyone can come to a guarantee for a hit film. Not so long ago, however, Pitt was just another good-looking dude with enough gumption to work his way into a steady stream of TV shows and bit parts in movies. He’s come a long way, for sure, and to celebrate his latest starring role — in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, opening this weekend — we decided the time was right for a Brad Pitt edition of Total Recall.
You know the drill: As always, we spun the dials on the Tomatometer, arranged the movies in order of Freshness, and took the top 10. Of course, these Total Recalls are no stranger to controversy, and any filmography as lengthy and varied as Pitt’s is bound to include a few favorites that miss the cutoff. (Sorry, Johnny Suede fans.) But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, aren’t we? Let’s save the bickering for the comments, start at the bottom, and work our way up through the 10 best-reviewed movies of Brad Pitt’s career!
Pitt celebrated his 1995 breakout by making Sleepers, a star-studded adaptation of Lorenzo Carcaterra’s controversial (and allegedly quite fictional) semi-autobiographical book about a group of childhood friends who use the horrific abuse they suffered while serving time in a New York boys’ home as justification for a revenge scheme. With a cast that included Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Jason Patric, Kevin Bacon, and Minnie Driver alongside Pitt, Sleepers was guaranteed a modicum of success at the box office, where it performed respectably, eventually earning over $100 million in worldwide receipts. Critically, however, the results were a little more mixed; some writers found fault with Barry Levinson’s directing (Steve Davis of the Austin Chronicle accused him of making “a lopsided movie”), while others, like the Deseret News’ Chris Hicks, found it unseemly for a film to “suggest that we cheer murderers and drug dealers.” In the end, the critical community’s divergent (though ultimately positive) response is best summarized by Time’s Richard Schickel, who wrote, “it is all legally preposterous. But Levinson is a slick craftsman, his actors are insinuatingly real, and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus casts a disarmingly believable light on these proceedings.”
“Brad Pitt as Jesse James: Seldom has an actor been so perfectly cast,” wrote Calvin Wilson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and in the end, it was casting — both of Pitt as the famous bandit whose notoriety fuels the film, and Casey Affleck as the titular coward who ends his life — that kept most critics from writing off this sprawling, leisurely Western as anything but an underwhelming snooze. (And for some scribes, even Pitt and Affleck weren’t enough; as Tom Long of the Detroit News complained, “the one thing you’re not supposed to do during a Western is doze off.”) The Pitt-produced picture wasn’t a hit, grossing less than $4 million during its theatrical run — but then it wasn’t really supposed to be; rather, it’s a meditative look at the nature of American celebrity and an exercise in cinematic artistry that melds what Roger Ebert called “the space and freedom of classic Western epics” with the subtext of what J. Hoberman of the Village Voice referred to as “a psychological chamber drama.” But even the critics who championed it recognized it wasn’t for everyone, such as Chris Vognar of the Dallas Morning News, who wrote, “this is a 160-minute art Western, and if you’re up for such a beast it is a glory to behold. It’s gorgeous, but rarely for the sake of mere gorgeousness, and languorous, but never listless.”
After the descent into harrowing darkness that was No Country for Old Men, the Coen brothers were ready to try something fun — so they got down to work on their first original screenplay in nearly a decade, writing parts specifically for an impressive list of actors that included George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Richard Jenkins, John Malkovich, and, of course, Brad Pitt. As ill-fated doofus physical trainer Chad Feldheimer, Pitt took advantage of the rare opportunity to play a completely comedic role — and one that playfully inverted his sex symbol image, to boot. Despite all of its famous ingredients, Burn After Reading was a bit of a critical letdown, petering out at 78 percent on the Tomatometer and earning scorn from a fair number of scribes (Michael Dance of the Cinema Source summed it up as “unlikable characters who do stupid things,” and the Fayetteville Free Weekly’s Tony Macklin asked us to “please send Get Well cards to the Coen brothers”). Still, plenty of writers agreed with Simon Weaving of Screenwize, who hailed it as “a quirky, delicious comedy with an A-list cast clearly enjoying every moment of their screen time”; ultimately, it’s another Certified Fresh entry in the Coens’ impressive filmography, and a unique foray into dark comedy for Pitt.
He started the 1990s on a hot streak, but by the end of the decade, Pitt was suffering through a bit of a slump, appearing in a string of critical dogs (Seven Years in Tibet, The Devil’s Own, Meet Joe Black) whose box office tallies reflected their disappointing reviews. But just when the naysayers were ready to write him off as an expensive hair model who couldn’t break a movie, Pitt rebounded with Fight Club, a reunion with Seven director David Fincher that paired Pitt with Edward Norton in an adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s hit novel. Though some critics found the film’s overpowering violence and homoerotic overtones repugnant (New York Magazine’s Peter Rainer, for one, dismissed it as “the squall of a whiny and essentially white-male generation that feels ruined by the privileges of women and a booming economy”), most writers responded to Fight Club‘s social criticism and thought-provoking themes. In the words of ReelViews’ James Berardinelli, it’s “a memorable and superior motion picture – a rare movie that does not abandon insight in its quest to jolt the viewer.”
An adaptation of Norman Maclean’s semi-autobiographical book of the same name, A River Runs Through It arrived on screens with a pretty stellar pedigree — director Robert Redford had won an Academy Award for his first effort, 1980’s Ordinary People, cinematographer Philippe Rousselot (who would win his own Oscar for River) was highly regarded for his work in French cinema, and musician Mark Isham brought his Grammy-winning talents to the Oscar-nominated score. The result, as you might imagine, was a visually sumptuous film — one whose stunning vistas bowled critics over even as they yawned through its languid pace and shrugged at its simple presentation of a Montana family’s multi-generational dynamic (as TV Guide wrote, “it’s hard to get excited by fisherman casting their lines into the water”). Still, in spite of its lack of flash, River afforded Pitt an early opportunity to work with some tremendously talented individuals, and proved he was more than just the cowboy-hatted hunk he portrayed in Thelma & Louise. Caryn James of the New York Times was suitably impressed, writing, “here are two things I never thought I’d say: I like a movie about fly fishing, and Robert Redford has directed one of the most ambitious, accomplished films of the year.”
Though his film roles to that point had, for the most part, required him to do little more than look good, Pitt’s turn in the Terry Gilliam-directed 12 Monkeys — coming on the heels of his eye-opening appearance in Seven earlier in the year — proved that he not only had good taste in scripts, but the talent to back it up. As the institutionalized activist Jeffrey Goines, Pitt tapped into a nervous energy he’d never been asked to draw on, holding his own against Bruce Willis and helping the twisty dystopian sci-fi thriller become one of 1995’s biggest surprise hits. Though it would be some time before Pitt starred in another movie that earned this kind of critical affection, after 12 Monkeys, the critics knew he wasn’t just another pretty face. As Desson Thomson of the Washington Post wrote, “Willis and Pitts’s performances, Gilliam’s atmospherics and an exhilarating momentum easily outweigh [its] trifling flaws.”
Critics have a reputation for turning up their noses at escapist fare, but when it’s done right, most scribes have no problem saying so — as they did in 2001, with the Certified Fresh Ocean’s Eleven. A loose remake of the 1960 Rat Pack feature of the same name, Eleven blended the original with the nod-and-a-wink light touch of The Sting, giving its high-wattage cast free rein to essentially goof off for 116 minutes — and audiences, who hadn’t been treated to a real all-star caper since 1984’s woeful Cannonball Run II, turned out in droves. Pitt’s turn as the food-obsessed Rusty Ryan gave him an opportunity to flash the pearly whites and old-fashioned Hollywood cool that he’d played down in recent projects such as Seven Years in Tibet or Fight Club, and helped charm critics like Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers, who wrote, “forget Oscar, Ocean’s Eleven is the coolest damned thing around.”
On the surface, it looks like just another buddy cop movie — in fact, with its “retiring detective partnered with unorthodox rookie” setup, it could have been a Lethal Weapon ripoff. Of course, as we all now know, David Fincher’s Seven brought its own dark twist to the genre, plunging the viewer into a bottomless pit of sorrow, rage, and moral decay — and ultimately refusing to help them climb out at the end. With Fincher’s amped-up direction, Darius Khondji’s gripping cinematography, and mesmerizing performances from Morgan Freeman and Kevin Spacey, Pitt could have conceivably just shown up to take a paycheck without damaging Seven too much, but instead, he helped take it to another level, using his youthful good looks — and his character’s mounting horror and confusion — as a painful visual analogy for the brutal loss of innocence and compassion suffered by everyone in the film. Though some critics took issue with Seven‘s constant gloom and grisly violence, most scribes echoed the sentiments of Netflix’s James Rocchi, who called it “a harrowingly bleak vision that haunted me in the theatres and made my flesh slick with fear even on this recent re-viewing.”
By the time Thelma & Louise was released in 1991, Brad Pitt had been around for a few years, notching roles on the big screen (blink-and-you’ll-miss-him appearances in No Way Out and Less Than Zero, as well as topline billing in the low-budget horror flick Cutting Class) and surfacing repeatedly on television (most notably via recurring gigs on Dallas, Growing Pains, and Fox’s quickly canceled Glory Days). It was his turn as J.D., the impeccably coifed, frequently shirtless con man who fleeces Thelma and Louise, however, that put Pitt over the edge, turning him from a somewhat familiar face into a bona fide sex symbol. It was a performance so well-regarded — albeit mainly by Pitt’s solidly female target demographic — that not even Johnny Suede and Cool World could keep him from imminent superstardom. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Pitt’s breakout role came as part of a movie that inspired waves of praise from critics like Matt Brunson of Creative Loafing, who wrote, “this beautifully realized picture remains a trenchant, almost mystical slice of Americana.”
Take Christian Slater, an Arquette, and the guy who directed Beverly Hills Cop II, and nine times out of 10, you probably aren’t going to get a film that tops any sort of critically themed list, let alone one that inspires a writer like Peter Canavese to crown it “a hall of fame guy’s movie” — but the exception proves the rule, and 1993’s True Romance is that exception. Slater and Patricia Arquette are the stars of this cult classic action flick, which boasts a Tarantino script and noteworthy supporting turns from (among others) Dennis Hopper, Val Kilmer, Gary Oldman, Christopher Walken, and Bronson Pinchot; it’s Brad Pitt’s few minutes as the epically stoned Floyd, however, that steal the show, sprinkling a few much-needed belly laughs between the bursts of gunfire. Such was Floyd’s influence that he served as the inspiration for 2008’s Pineapple Express. And for good reason: Not only was he industrious enough to figure out an exciting new use for an empty honey container, he was cool enough to threaten a room full of shotgun-wielding Mafia henchmen with death. (We never said he was smart.)
Finally, here’s Pitt from way back in the day, as Randy on Dallas: