Total Recall

Angelina Jolie's 10 Best Movies

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

by | May 29, 2014 | Comments

Angelina Jolie
Both on and off the screen, Angelina Jolie has been one of the film industry’s most eminently watchable celebrities for over a decade. Whether she’s appearing in big-budget blockbusters (Mr. & Mrs. Smith), more thoughtful dramas (Changeling), or animated features the whole family can enjoy (Kung Fu Panda) — or simply hypnotizing the paparazzi with her tabloid-friendly lifestyle — Jolie hasn’t strayed far from the spotlight since earning raves for her Emmy-nominated performance in HBO’s Gia. In honor of her appearance in the title role of Disney’s Maleficent this weekend, we decided to revisit the critical highlights of her billion-dollar filmography by counting down her ten best-reviewed performances. It’s time for Total Recall, Angelina Jolie style!


10. Girl, Interrupted

On paper, Girl, Interrupted looked like a star vehicle for Winona Ryder, who took a producer’s credit and the leading role in this adaptation of Susanna Keysen’s memoir about her stint in a Massachusetts mental hospital during the late 1960s. But if Interrupted was Keysen’s story, it was a story largely told through her relationships with her fellow patients — especially her conflicted friendship with Lisa Rowe, a diagnosed sociopath whose deep rage and utter lack of boundaries help Susanna confront her own problems. Lisa would have been a showy role for any actress, but for Angelina Jolie, she became a scene-stealing character who breathed a new level of energy into the movie; it was a performance that earned Jolie her first Academy Award, and it proved that her critically acclaimed performance in HBO’s Gia was no fluke. Writing for ReelTalk Movie Reviews, Betty Jo Tucker applauded, “Jolie enlivens every scene she’s in — so much so that whenever she’s not on screen, many viewers go into a state of suspended animation waiting for her to come back.”


9. The Good Shepherd

You might not think a nearly three-hour drama about the formation of the CIA would make for interesting viewing, and based on the reception afforded 2006’s The Good Shepherd, most critics (and many of your fellow filmgoers) would agree: though it recouped its budget, Shepherd didn’t achieve the level of box office success you’d expect from a film starring Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, William Hurt, and Robert De Niro — and though the reviews were generally full of praise for the stars’ performances, they also included a lot of words like “bloated,” “tortuously paced,” and “too long.” Still, it’s easy to see why director and grown-up Cold War kid De Niro was drawn to the story, and its nearly 30-year sprawl must have been appealing to Damon and Jolie, whose characters met, married, had a child, and drifted apart, all while the nascent CIA worked its way into every facet of their lives. Go into it expecting action and you’ll be disappointed — but as Andrew Sarris wrote for the New York Observer, “No previous American film has ventured into this still largely unknown territory with such authority and emotional detachment. For this reason alone, The Good Shepherd is must-see viewing.”


8. Mr. & Mrs. Smith

Take The War of the Roses, inject it with some loud, glossy, big-budget action, add a dash of potent sexy chemistry between your stars, and you’ve got 2005’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith — as well as a pretty fantastic formula for a blockbuster summer flick. Smith could easily have been overshadowed by all the tabloid speculation that dogged Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s relationship; this is, after all, the movie that gave the world Brangelina. But if filmgoers came for glimpses of real-life sparks, they stayed for the snappy one-liners in Simon Kinberg’s script, director Doug Liman’s well-staged (albeit thoroughly ludicrous) action set pieces, and the sheer spectacle of two very attractive people dispatching bad guys and blowing stuff up while they decide whether they want to stay married or kill each other. It certainly isn’t high art, but the movie has a fizzy charm that Roger Ebert summed up by writing, “What makes the movie work is that Pitt and Jolie have fun together on the screen, and they’re able to find a rhythm that allows them to be understated and amused even during the most alarming developments.”


7. Playing by Heart

In spite of a cast of marquee-lighting veterans that included Sean Connery, Dennis Quaid, Madeleine Stowe, and Ellen Burstyn, this ensemble romantic dramedy sank virtually without a trace after it bowed in December of 1998. But as far as most critics were concerned, Playing by Heart‘s failure was the filmgoer’s loss; though some scribes came away frustrated with director-writer Willard Carroll’s talky script, and others rolled their eyes at the way the hitherto unseen ties between the movie’s characters were revealed in the final act, the generally strong performances from the cast more than made up for any flaws. Somewhat surprisingly, given some of her co-stars’ pedigrees, it was Jolie who earned the most significant praise, including a Breakthrough Performance award from the National Board of Review and glowing reviews from the likes of Film Threat’s Ron Wells, who wrote, “The brightest spot belongs to Angelina Jolie, who is so compelling to watch she has chemistry with the furniture.” (Or Ryan Phillippe.)


6. Salt

Just about every film production endures its share of setbacks, but Salt went through a particularly tortured development process, with original lead Tom Cruise departing and the script undergoing a significant overhaul en route to the project re-emerging as a starring vehicle for Angelina Jolie. Fortunately, Jolie’s just as capable as anyone of playing a butt-kicking spy on the run, and Salt‘s roughly $300 million in worldwide grosses offer compelling proof that audiences agree. Although critics were far from unanimous in their praise of the Phillip Noyce-directed thriller, the majority sided with Movie Talk’s Jason Best, who wrote, “Casting a lithe Jolie as the film’s protagonist stops Salt from being a Bourne knock-off or a Mission: Impossible reboot and gives the tired espionage genre a novel twist.”


5. Changeling

She has a clear fondness for popcorn flicks, but on occasion, Angelina Jolie also likes to remind us that she can act — and she did just that with 2008’s Changeling, earning a stack of critical praise and an Academy Award nomination for her portrayal of Christine Collins, a Los Angeles woman whose son’s abduction in 1928 was only the beginning of an unbelievable ordeal that would go on to include her forced institutionalization, multiple lawsuits, the temporary removal of two high-ranking LAPD officers, and one of the most callous, bizarre cover-ups in law enforcement history. The fact-based Changeling is a textbook example of truth being stranger than fiction, but as hard as it might be to believe its story, the movie probes at some dark truths about how American attitudes toward women have changed (and, sadly, how some of them haven’t). A modest American box office success, it also gave Jolie the opportunity to work with director Clint Eastwood, whose minimalistic style allowed Changeling to fail or succeed on her ability to carry her role. It was a gambit that paid off, according to Stephen Whitty of the Newark Star-Ledger, who wrote, “This is one movie where the star really is the star. And delivers a performance of which any actress can be truly proud.”


4. Beowulf

How do you turn one of humanity’s oldest works of literature into a $200 million hit at the box office? Hire Robert Zemeckis to turn it into a 3-D burst of mo-cap eye candy — and cast Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s mother, whose decidedly reptilian appearance stands at odds with her disdain for clothing. As the New York Times’ Manohla Dargis noted, “You don’t need to wait for Angelina Jolie to rise from the vaporous depths naked to know that this Beowulf isn’t your high school teacher’s Old English epic poem.” This might have been a problem for lit professors who chafed at Zemeckis’ thirst for spectacle over story, but for filmgoers — as well as most critics — the ’07 edition of one of the original warrior vs. monster epics provided a welcome update to a story that freshmen have been sleeping through for decades.


3. Wanted

As if all the explosions, assassins, and curving bullets weren’t enough, Timur Bekmambetov’s big-screen adaptation of Mark Millar’s comic book miniseries also boasted a mighty fine cast, including Morgan Freeman, James McAvoy, and — as the deadly, perfectly named Fox — Angelina Jolie. Of course, that doesn’t mean Wanted required much in the way of actual acting; its storyline, about a guild of constantly double-crossing assassins who draw their recently assassinated colleague’s son into a web of murderous intrigue, is really only there to connect the many action sequences. But oh, what action: even by the super-caffeinated standards of post-Matrix Hollywood, Wanted serves up an impressive stack of visual thrills. That was enough for filmgoers, who generated nearly $350 million in worldwide grosses — and most critics agreed with the popcorn-gobbling masses, granting Wanted a Certified Fresh rating on the strength of positive reviews from scribes such as the New York Post’s Kyle Smith, who called it “A 12-armed heavy-metal drummer of a movie, kicking and flailing through two hours of impossible.”


2. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

One of the most technologically intriguing releases of 2004, Kerry Conran’s Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow was sort of a beta Avatar, combining live action and computer-generated effects in new and exciting ways. Adding to the gee-whiz factor was Conran’s gleefully retro storyline, which pitted the heroic Sky Captain (Jude Law) and a Royal Navy led by the eyepatch-rocking Francesca “Franky” Cook (Jolie) against the giant robot army of the nefarious Dr. Totenkopf (Sir Laurence Olivier, in a display of technology both thrilling and sort of creepy) in an alternate version of 1939. Captain mimicked the Golden Age matinee serials so successfully that many modern filmgoers didn’t quite know what to make of it, and as a result, it went the fate of Totenkopf’s army at the box office — but it was welcomed with open arms by critics like Ed Park of the Village Voice, who wrote, “His nostalgia enabled by technology, Conran takes the ghosts in his machine seriously, and the results appear at once meltingly lovely and intriguingly inhuman.”


1. A Mighty Heart

Filmgoers have shown a resolute unwillingness to turn out for movies having anything to do with 9/11 or its aftermath, and A Mighty Heart was no different, grossing only $18 million during its brief run at the box office. This wasn’t a reflection of the movie’s quality, though; most critics agreed that this dramatization of the search for journalist Daniel Pearl, who was kidnapped and brutally murdered by terrorists in 2002, did justice to its tragic tale. Pearl’s wife Mariane, who wrote the memoir A Mighty Heart is based on, personally chose Angelina Jolie to play her in the film — and though some critics carped that Mariane’s biracial heritage should have precluded Jolie from taking the role, the majority applauded her strong performance, among them James Mottram of Film4, who wrote, “If Winterbottom struggles to shoehorn his documentary style into the form of a thriller, Jolie has no problems in bringing Mariane to life with a vibrant and vital turn. This honourable film is worth seeing for her alone.”

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

1. Girl, Interrupted — 84%
2. Changeling — 82%
3. Playing by Heart — 80%
4. Gone in 60 Seconds — 77%
5. Beyond Borders — 73%
6. A Mighty Heart — 70%
7. Wanted — 69%
8. Hackers — 69%
9. Foxfire — 66%
10. The Bone Collector — 64%

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

Finally, here’s a seven-year-old Jolie in her big screen debut — playing opposite her dad Jon Voight in Lookin’ to Get Out , from 1982:

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