Total Recall

Total Recall: Gary Oldman's Best Movies

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

by | August 30, 2012 | Comments

Gary Oldman

Shia LaBeouf and Tom Hardy are the stars of this weekend’s Prohibition drama Lawless, and we don’t have anything against either of them — but we’re just as intrigued by the involvement of a certain Mr. Gary Oldman, whose (by most accounts too-brief) appearance adds another chapter to one of Hollywood’s most fascinating careers. From indie flicks to blockbuster franchises, Oldman’s done it all, and we knew we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to look back on some of his filmography’s brightest critical highlights. It’s time for Total Recall!


10. Kung Fu Panda 2

It somehow seems sort of… wrong to make room on this list for the sequel to an animated comedy about an overweight martial arts warrior who also happens to be a talking panda. But it’s also absolutely fitting — Gary Oldman’s filmography is nothing if not eclectic, and although he’s made quite a name for himself playing villains and assorted shadowy characters in critically respected dramas, he’s also capable of being pretty funny, as evidenced by his role as a cretinous, power-hungry peacock named Lord Shen in Kung Fu Panda 2. “It may not tread new narrative ground,” argued USA Today’s Scott Bowles, “but Panda echoes some worthy tales that parents heard a long time ago at a theater far, far away.”


9. State of Grace

Director Phil Joanou opened his career with a better-than-average teen comedy (Three O’Clock High) and a well-intentioned, albeit indulgent rockumentary (U2: Rattle and Hum) — which is to say that few could have expected that he had it in him to helm a drama as tense and gripping as 1990’s State of Grace. Starring Sean Penn as an undercover cop whose latest case tests his loyalty to his best friend (played by Oldman) — not to mention his affection for his friend’s sister (Robin Wright) — Grace exploited an instantly recognizable formula while transcending it thanks to outstanding acting from its leads. Janet Maslin of the New York Times singled Oldman out in particular, writing that he “gives an electrifying performance that both establishes a tragic, terrifying character and explains why that character’s world is such a perilous place.”


8. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Nearly 30 years after making his film debut, Gary Oldman earned his first Academy Award nomination for his work in Tomas Alfredson’s impeccably cast adaptation of the classic John le Carré novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Alfredson’s comma-free screen version surrounded Oldman with an impressive array of talented actors, including Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Toby Jones, and Mark Strong — and while its languid pace and 127-minute running time annoyed critics accustomed to a little more bang for their spy-thriller buck, the majority agreed with the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Steven Rea, who enthused, “Just watching Gary Oldman and his trenchcoated brethren march down the damp, ill-lit streets of Cold War London is enough to make you shiver.”


7. JFK

Oldman has made a habit of playing real-life people during his film career, but none of them have been more notorious than the role he took in Oliver Stone’s JFK. Just one in a series of famous faces to pop up during the 189-minute political conspiracy epic, Oldman appeared as Lee Harvey Oswald, the assassin whose bullet murdered our 35th president. … Or did it? Stone’s undeniably well-crafted film may not have answered any questions, but it was an unqualified hit at the box office and the Academy, where it garnered eight Oscar nominations. Observed Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman, “If Stone hasn’t exactly solved the Kennedy assassination, he has captured — with a dark cinematic flair that leaves you reeling — why it still looms like a sickening nightmare.”


6. Batman Begins

After a few fallow years that saw him taking roles in little-seen indie films in order to stay close to home, Oldman resurfaced at the megaplex in the middle aughts with roles in two of the young century’s biggest franchises: Harry Potter and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Starring as Jim Gordon, a key figure in Batman’s life and career, Oldman rounded out a stellar cast — and helped wipe off the Day-Glo coating left behind from the last couple of entries in the series. “Here’s how any great franchise should start,” pointed out Desson Thomson of the Washington Post. “With care, precision and delicately wrought atmosphere.”


5. The Dark Knight Rises

Is it worth going against your conscience to achieve a greater good? That’s the question that haunts Police Commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) throughout The Dark Knight Rises — although he’s presided over a time of unprecedented peace and prosperity in Gotham City, the hidden sacrifices it took to get there have taken a psychic toll. Gordon ultimately pays the price for his well-meaning deception — and begins, along with Gotham, traveling the long road to redemption — in what Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times called “A disturbing experience we live through as much as a film we watch” and wrote, “this dazzling conclusion to director Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy is more than an exceptional superhero movie, it is masterful filmmaking by any standard.”


4. Sid & Nancy

One of rock’s most infamous love stories got the biopic treatment with Alex Cox’s 1986 drama Sid & Nancy, starring Oldman as former Sex Pistol Sid Vicious and Chloe Webb as his equally ill-fated girlfriend, Nancy Spungen. Initially largely ignored by audiences — and derided by former Pistol John Lydon, who described himself as “appalled” by its many alleged inaccuracies — Sid & Nancy has acquired a cult audience over time, thanks to film fans lured in by its titular duo’s enduring mystique. Derailed by heroin, unfolding in a series of squalid apartment buildings and motel rooms, and ending with Sid being hauled off by police after Nancy’s stabbing death, their tale wasn’t exactly cheerful — but it resonated with critics like Rita Kempley of the Washington Post, who observed, “Though dark and harrowing, explicit and unsparing, the movie proves a riveting biography of these burnt-out icons and their iconoclastic half-decade.”


3. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

After helming the first two films in the Harry Potter series, director Chris Columbus departed — leaving the chair empty for Alfonso Cuarón, who stepped in just in time to take the reins for what was then the franchise’s darkest installment yet, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Introducing Oldman as the mysterious Sirius Black, whose prison escape sets the events of the movie’s plot into motion, Azkaban established a new critical benchmark for the Potter films thanks to reviews from writers like Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek, who called it “The first true Harry Potter movie — the first to capture not only the books’ sense of longing, but their understanding of the way magic underlies the mundane, instead of just prancing fancifully at a far remove from it.”


2. Prick Up Your Ears

Oldman earned a BAFTA Best Actor nomination for his widely acclaimed work in Prick Up Your Ears, director Stephen Frears’ biopic about British playwright Joe Orton — and his tragic murder at the hands of his mentor-turned-lover, Kenneth Halliwell, played here by Alfred Molina. Neither the subjects nor the subject matter had much draw for American audiences, but for critics, it presented an irresistible collection of acting talent, working at their peak. “The great performances in the movie are, of course, at its center,” argued Roger Ebert. “Gary Oldman plays Orton and Alfred Molina plays Halliwell, and these are two of the best performances of the year.”


1. The Dark Knight

Most of the attention generated by The Dark Knight was focused on Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker — and rightly so — but Christopher Nolan is an actor’s director, and as with its predecessor, he stuffed Knight with a quality cast, from Christian Bale in the lead to Michael Caine, Aaron Eckhart, and, of course, Gary Oldman. Returning to his Batman Begins role of Gotham policeman Jim Gordon, Oldman helped provide Nolan’s increasingly dark Batman universe with a moral compass and a sense of virtue — and contributed to the film’s enormous financial and commercial success. A multiple Oscar nominee and genuine cinematic sensation, Knight earned the admiration of critics like Manohla Dargis of the New York Times, who wrote, “Pitched at the divide between art and industry, poetry and entertainment, The Dark Knight goes darker and deeper than any Hollywood movie of its comic-book kind.”

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

1. The Dark Knight — 96%
2. Léon: The Professional — 94%
3. The Dark Knight Rises — 92%
4. Batman Begins — 90%
5. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead — 87%
6. Nil by Mouth — 87%
7. Immortal Beloved — 86%
8. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban — 85%
9. The Fifth Element — 84%
10. JFK — 84%

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

Finally, here’s Mr. Oldman reading from R. Kelly’s autobiography on Jimmy Kimmel Live: