Total Recall

Will Smith's 10 Best Movies

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

by | February 25, 2015 | Comments

He’s been a chart-topping rapper, the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and the undisputed king of the July 4 movie blockbuster — and this weekend, Will Smith returns to the big screen alongside Margot Robbie in Focus, so we knew now would be the perfect time to pay tribute to some of the brightest highlights from his blockbuster filmography. You’ll obviously find some of the biggest hit films of the last 15 years in here, but Big Willie Style isn’t always about the big-budget smash hit; his efforts include a few eclectic diversions that may surprise you. Let’s find out how many of your favorites made the cut — it’s time for Total Recall!


10. I, Robot (2004) 58%


Isaac Asimov’s classic short story collection had a long journey to the screen — and when it finally arrived in 2004, the end result bore little more than a passing resemblance to its literary namesake. It may have disappointed purists, but I, Robot was another in a line of hit summer films for Smith — and although its transformation into a big-budget action thriller may have sacrificed thought-provoking subtext along the way, it was still enough for Nev Pierce of the BBC, who argued, “Whether there’s anything substantial under the sheen and CGI of Alex Proyas’ glistening future vision is debatable, but this enjoyable, engrossing picture is at least intelligently artificial.”


9. Independence Day (1996) 60%


After establishing himself as an action star with Bad Boys, Smith kicked off a string of July 4 blockbusters with Independence Day, Roland Emmerich’s 1996 ensemble sci-fi thriller about the worldwide chaos unleashed when an armada of terribly unfriendly aliens stops by Earth for a visit. With a worldwide gross of over $815 million, Independence Day was the biggest hit of the year, and although Smith had a lot of help along the way, his wisecracking heroics were a big part of what inspired critics like Empire’s Angie Errigo to hail it as “a throwback to traditional entertainment with an old-fashioned, gung-ho good time thrilled up by ’90s-style state-of-the-art technology.”


8. Ali (2001) 67%


Smith trained for a year to prepare himself for the title role in Michael Mann’s Muhammad Ali biopic, both inside the ring and out, with a workload that included everything from live sparring to Islamic studies and time with a dialect coach. While Ali ultimately packed a somewhat disappointing punch at the box office, where its $87 million gross failed to earn back its budget, all that preparation paid off handsomely for Smith, who walked away with a Best Actor Oscar nomination — as well as glowing reviews from critics like Jay Carr of the Boston Globe, who wrote, “Smith makes contact with enough of Ali’s swagger, sweetness, wit, and pride to convince us that justice is being done to the boxing champion.”


7. The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) 67%


Otherwise known as the film that proved Will Smith’s cinematic dynasty would eventually extend to his kids, The Pursuit of Happyness used the real-life story of Chris Gardner’s journey from homeless single parent to stockbroker as the basis for an inspirational drama starring Smith alongside his son Jaden, who was all of eight when the movie came out (and stole the picture anyway). It takes a special kind of performance to make audiences believe a multimillionaire box-office king as a desperate dad on the brink of losing everything, and Smith delivered it here; as Tom Meek wrote for the Boston Phoenix, “Smith turns in a career-capping performance, and director Gabriele Muccino ingeniously turns the material inward, cautioning us all to be grateful for what we have, for we’re closer to the edge than we think.”


6. Hitch (2005) 69%


Romantic comedies get a pretty bad rap, but when they’re put together with enough sensitivity and skill, the results can be pretty hard to resist. Case in point: 2005’s Hitch, starring Smith as a legendary “date doctor” who’s playing matchmaker for a schlub (Kevin James) and his celebrity crush (Amber Valletta) while wooing a gossip columnist (Eva Mendes) whose latest assignment puts her on an unwitting collision course with Hitch. It’s all familiar stuff, but that was just fine with critics like Terry Lawson of the Detroit Free Press, who wrote, “Smith and Mendes are terrific together. He brings her game up so high you’d think she has had as many good parts as Smith.”


5. I Am Legend (2007) 70%


After languishing in development hell for more than a decade and passing through the hands of a list of stars that included Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, Richard Matheson’s classic novel finally made its way to the screen for the third time in 2007, with Will Smith starring as Robert Neville, the virologist who just happens to be one of the last healthy people left after a government-engineered vaccine goes awry and turns the human race into vampire-like beings. Although its deviations from the book — particularly in the final act — made the movie something of a blown opportunity as far as some fans were concerned, most critics enjoyed Legend on its own merits, with an appreciative Rex Reed calling it “a grenade that goes off when least expected. It has more horror than heart, but it is never boring.”


4. Enemy of the State (1998) 71%


Depending on your ideological leanings, Enemy of the State‘s pre-9/11 warnings of an encroaching government surveillance state are either quaint or chillingly prescient — but either way, this techno-thriller, which united Bruckheimer with director Tony Scott for their fifth film, is a solidly built piece of big-budget entertainment. Starring Will Smith as a lawyer targeted by the NSA, Gene Hackman as the retired spook who helps him evade capture, and Jon Voight as the creepy bureaucrat who will stop at nothing to ensure the passage of a key piece of legislation, State blended good old-fashioned man-on-the-run action with state-of-the-art technology, and scared up a healthy $250 million along the way — as well as praise from critics such as Marc Savlov of the Austin Chronicle, who called it “a thriller straight through to its sleek, millennial-fever heart, an onrushing, giddily paranoiac roller-coaster ride with bad brakes, clever dialogue, and a reach that only occasionally exceeds its grasp.”


3. Where the Day Takes You (1992) 80%


As a rapper and an actor, Smith spent the first several years of his career largely in comedy mode — so when he decided to make the jump into film, he chose the decidedly unfunny role of a handicapped, homeless Los Angeles youth in the ensemble drama Where the Day Takes You. Surrounded by a crowd of veteran actors that included Dermot Mulroney, Lara Flynn Boyle, and Kyle MacLachlan, Smith was able to test the dramatic waters without having to carry a movie on his own — and it paid off for critics like Roger Ebert, who wrote, “Maybe the director, Marc Rocco, is good with actors. Or maybe these actors haven’t had this kind of strong material to work with before.”


2. Six Degrees of Separation (1993) 88%


The fascinating story of real-life con artist David Hampton formed the basis for Six Degrees of Separation, adapted from the John Guare play about a smooth-talking young man named Paul (Smith) who shows up on the doorstep of a wealthy New York couple (Donald Sutherland and Stockard Channing) and convinces them he’s not only friends with their college-age kids, but that he’s the son of Sidney Poitier. Before the night is out, he’s sleeping in their guest room — and before the closing credits roll, the extraordinary truth of Paul’s story is revealed. While far from a blockbuster on par with Smith’s future efforts, Separation earned Channing an Oscar nomination and won praise from critics like About.com’s Fred Topel, who called it “a compelling drama” and “Will Smith’s greatest performance.”


1. Men In Black (1997) 92%


The success of The Fugitive catapulted Tommy Lee Jones from “distinguished character actor” to “leading man” status, and after Bad Boys, the mid-to-late 1990s pretty much belonged to Will Smith — so Men in Black wasn’t just your average action/comedy/sci-fi summer blockbuster, it was an Event Movie with almost $590 million in ticket sales (and a pair of sequels) waiting to happen. It didn’t win any awards for storytelling depth (although it did win a Best Makeup Oscar), but its unapologetic popcorn thrills, fueled by Smith and Jones’ easy interplay, entertained a whole lot of people — including Slate’s David Edelstein, who called it “The smartest, funniest, and best-looking sci-fi comedy since the movies learned to morph.”

 


Finally, here’s one of the Fresh Prince’s oddest recordings — a surrealist nightmare called “Then She Bit Me”:

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