Total Recall

Gary Oldman's 10 Best Movies

In this week's Total Recall, we look back at some of the best-reviewed work of the star of The Space Between Us.

by | February 1, 2017 | Comments

Young Asa Butterfield embarks on an interplanetary quest in this weekend’s The Space Between Us, but we’re just as intrigued by the involvement of a certain Mr. Gary Oldman, whose 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!

Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) 71%

By 1992, the world had seen so many Dracula adaptations — many of them sadly subpar — that the character was in desperate need of a fresh, suitably creepy start. Enter Francis Ford Coppola and his lavishly mounted Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which pitted Oldman as the titular vampire against Anthony Hopkins as his arch-nemesis Van Helsing and threw in a marquee cast that included Winona Ryder and Keanu Reeves, as well as an Annie Lennox song over the closing credits, for added megaplex appeal. Given its impeccable pedigree, the fact that Coppola’s Dracula was a financial success didn’t come as much of a surprise — but unlike a lot of previous adaptations, particularly those of recent vintage, it was also a success with critics, many of whom welcomed the opportunity to see a director as talented as Coppola interpret the vampire’s classic tale. In the words of the Washington Post’s Hal Hinson, “It is Coppola’s most lavish and, certainly, his most flamboyant film; never before has he allowed himself this kind of mad experimentation.”

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Air Force One (1997) 76%

By the late ’90s, the “action movie in a confined space” subgenre looked like it was pretty much played out, but as Air Force One forcibly demonstrated, there were still thrills yet to be wrung from its seemingly played-out premise. In this case, all it took was adding one last novel twist — namely, putting the action on a moving plane and making the sitting President our terrorist-bustin’ hero — and building the whole thing around a stellar cast led by Harrison Ford as the POTUS and Oldman as the villainous, perfectly named Ivan Korshunov. It all adds up, in the words of ReelViews’ James Berardinelli, to “a roller coaster ride for those who prefer not to think once the theater lights have dimmed.”

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Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) 83%

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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.”

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State of Grace (1990) 84%

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.”

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JFK (1991) 84%

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.”

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The Harry Potter Franchise

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 marked the first of four Potter appearances for Oldman while establishing a new critical benchmark for the franchise. Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek was just one of many to praise Azkaban, calling 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.”

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The Dark Knight Trilogy

Part of the same career resurgence that found Oldman appearing in the Harry Potter franchise after a few fallow years, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy made fine use of Oldman as Jim Gordon, the Gotham policeman whose rise to commissioner dovetails with Batman’s arrival as the city’s protector. Offering an everyman’s moral compass and sense of virtue to counterbalance the Caped Crusader’s vigilantism, Oldman’s Gordon helped shine a light in an increasingly bleak franchise — and eventually paid the price for going against his own conscience in the blockbuster finale. Calling The Dark Knight Rises “A disturbing experience we live through as much as a film we watch,” Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times 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.”

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Sid and Nancy (1986) 88%

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.”

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Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes (2014) 90%

CG spectacle is great, but it can only take a movie so far. To really make audiences feel something, it helps to have some recognizably human drama on the screen — and part of the genius of Matt Reeves’ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the impressive array of old-fashioned acting talent brought to bear on the mo-cap heavy second installment in this rebooted post-apocalyptic saga. Oldman spearheaded the cast’s human contingent as Dreyfus, leader of the frightened band of survivors who find themselves in a life-or-death struggle for survival with the planet’s newly advanced simian civilization, helping anchor all the incredibly lifelike action with palpably poignant emotional stakes. “This,” marveled Richard Roeper, “just might be the most engrossing, the smartest and the most daring Apes movie ever put on film.”

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Prick Up Your Ears (1987) 94%

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.”

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