Total Recall

James Franco's 10 Best Movies

We count down the best-reviewed work of the director and star of The Disaster Artist.

by | November 29, 2017 | Comments

He’s a performance artist, published author, gala host, former soap star, college student, professor, and one of the most prolific film actors currently working in Hollywood. This week, James Franco is keeping busy as the director and star of The Disaster Artist, which dramatizes outsider hero Tommy Wiseau’s efforts to bring his infamous The Room to the big screen, so we decided now would be the perfect time to take a fond look back at some of the brightest critical highlights from Franco’s bustling career. From indie flicks to blockbusters, he’s been in just about every kind of picture — and we’re ranking them here while inviting you to rank your own favorites. It’s time for Total Recall!


1. Memoria (2016) 100%

(Photo by Monterey Media)

As if it weren’t enough that Memoria served as one of a whopping nine movies Franco released in 2016, it’s also based on a short story he wrote — all of which might make it sound like the vanity project to end all vanity projects, if not for the universally positive critical reception it earned during its limited release. Granted, at five reviews, we’re dealing with a limited sample size — at a certain point, Franco becomes too prolific even for people paid to watch the movies — but a rave is a rave, and this quiet character study about a troubled Bay Area teen earned its share, with its author’s supporting turn as a concerned teacher helping anchor the drama. “Despite clocking in at a scant 70 minutes,”  wrote Michael Rechtshaffen for the Los Angeles Times, “Memoria manages to make a hauntingly poetic impression.”


2. Milk (2008) 93%

(Photo by Focus Features)

Sean Penn rightly received most of the many accolades afforded this 2008 biopic of assassinated political activist Harvey Milk, but director Gus Van Sant wasn’t content to let his movie rest on its star’s performance — he rounded out the cast of Milk with a number of actors whose seamlessly committed performances helped make it one of the most lauded films of the year. Franco fills a supporting role here as Scott Smith, Milk’s onetime lover (and, eventually, the executor of his will), who moves to San Francisco with him during the first act and helps him start his political career. Franco’s work earned him an MTV Movie Awards nomination for Best Kiss — and helped inspire Tom Long of the Detroit News to write, “Progress is slow, but Harvey Milk was one of the first to set the wheels in motion. He more than deserves a movie this good.”


3. 127 Hours (2010) 93%

(Photo by Chuck Zlotnick/Fox Searchlight Pictures)

 By 2010, James Franco had been making movies for well over a decade, and had flirted with leading man status fairly early in his career, but it never really seemed to suit him — until Danny Boyle came along with 127 Hours. A dramatization of the horrible ordeal overcome by mountain climber Aron Ralston, who devised his own gruesome rescue from certain death after being pinned by a boulder during an expedition, 127 Hours gave Franco the opportunity to carry a movie on his own terms — and earned him some of the best reviews of his career, not to mention a pile of awards and a Best Actor Oscar nomination, in the process. Mike Scott of the Times-Picayune was just one of the many critics who loved the film, calling it “A masterful slice of four-star cinema, featuring an irresistible performance by James Franco, breathtaking cinematography, and the kind of deep, searching soul that is absent from so much of what comes out of Hollywood.”

4. The Spider-Man Franchise (82%)

(Photo by Columbia Pictures)

Long before Tom Holland swung into the MCU as Spider-Man, Tobey Maguire brought Marvel’s wall-crawler to the big screen in director Sam Raimi’s blockbuster trilogy — and Franco joined the core ensemble cast as Harry Osborn, Peter Parker’s best pal and the future Green Goblin. Harry’s tortured arc helped form the backbone of Raimi’s overarching narrative throughout the three films, and although Spider-Man 3 proved a dissatisfying low note for the end of this chapter in Spidey’s big-screen life, the movies together helped pave the way for the looming great golden age of superheroes at the box office; more importantly, as Mick LaSalle observed for the San Francisco Chronicle, they offered “Smart, fun entertainment made by people who took nothing for granted, including the audience.”


5. This Is the End (2013) 83%

(Photo by Suzanne Hanover/Sony Pictures)

If an actor is playing themselves in a movie, should it count as one of their best performances? More often than not, we’d say no — but we’re making an exception for the gloriously loopy This Is the End, in which some of Hollywood’s sharpest young talent play exaggerated (or straight up invented) versions of themselves against the backdrop of the apocalypse. The end of the world, naturally, is witnessed from Franco’s abode, where he’s hosting a house party (including Seth Rogen, Danny McBride, Jonah Hill, and Emma Watson) when things go haywire. The end result, while decidedly not for all tastes, hits its comedic targets far more often than it misses; as Dana Stevens observed for Slate, “This Is the End, true to its subject matter, is as funny as hell.”


6. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) 82%

(Photo by 20th Century Fox Film Corp.)

 While it would certainly be fair to say that the human actors have never been the Planet of the Apes franchise’s biggest draw — and that goes at least double for the recent prequel trilogy — it definitely helps to ground the drama if you’re working with actors who can bring the sci-fi saga’s more fantastical elements believably to life. With Rise of the Planet of the Apes, director Rupert Wyatt rounded up a talented flesh-and-blood ensemble that included John Lithgow, Brian Cox, Freida Pinto, and — as Will Rodman, the biologist whose quest for an Alzheimer’s cure unwittingly triggers the virus that sets the story in motion — James Franco. It all added up to a blockbuster that set the bar surprisingly high for its successors, and although Andy Serkis’ mo-cap work would deservedly come to define the trilogy, Franco helped lay the groundwork with an opening installment that the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s Colin Covert deemed “first-class entertainment, packed with clever, unsettling and even inspired ideas.”

7. Goat (2016) 79%

(Photo by Paramount Pictures)

In addition to taking a supporting role, Franco also donned his producer’s hat for Goat, a harrowing drama from director/co-writer Andrew Neel about a college freshman (Ben Schnetzer) whose efforts to fit in on campus include pledging his older brother’s fraternity — a fateful decision that soon goes violently wrong, further complicating a young life already shadowed by horrific violence. Like a good number of Franco’s film efforts, it was destined for limited release and aimed outside the mainstream, but for many of the critics who screened it, this hard-hitting coming-of-age story — distinguished by a scene-stealing turn from former pop idol Nick Jonas — proved difficult to shake. “This isn’t an easy film to watch,” admitted the Washington Post’s Stephanie Merry. “But it’s even harder to forget.”


8. Yosemite (2016) 77%

(Photo by Monterey Media)

One of several films drawing from Franco’s 2010 short story collection Palo Alto, this 2015 indie drama weaves together “Yosemite” and “Peter Parker,” a pair of stories from the book, to observe moments in the lives of three fifth-grade boys in 1985. As with other Palo Alto-derived movies, Franco produced and starred but didn’t write or direct; here, he handed the reins to writer-director Gabrielle Demeestere and appeared in one segment as Phil, a father taking a trip to the titular park with his son (Everett Meckler). While certainly not one of his more widely seen efforts, it ranks among his most satisfying for the majority of critics who reviewed it — including the Village Voice’s Alan Scherstuhl, who wrote, “Yosemite mines Franco’s fiction for its most vital quality: his unsentimental depiction of youthful insecurity, this time among fifth-graders.”


9. The Dead Girl (2006) 76%

(Photo by First Look International)

 It wasn’t seen by many people during its brief theatrical run, but this dark ensemble piece from writer/director Karen Moncrieff gave a strong stable of actors (including Franco, Brittany Murphy, Marcia Gay Harden, Josh Brolin, Toni Collette, and Kerry Washington) a chance to plumb the emotional depths of the mystery surrounding a woman’s grisly death. While far from Franco’s showiest role, his turn as a kind-hearted mortician helped anchor The Dead Girl’s unrelenting grimness with a small ray of something like hope — and helped move the Oregonian’s Shawn Levy to write, “Moncrieff manages to get beneath the skin of several of these characters, a nifty trick considering what a crowded world she’s created. In all, it’s a grueling, emotionally taxing, discomfiting film.”

10. In the Valley of Elah (2007) 74%

(Photo by Warner Bros. courtesy Everett Collection)

In this Paul Haggis drama, Franco took a supporting role alongside Jason Patric as one of two politely dismissive Army officers who interfere with the efforts of a grieving father (played by Tommy Lee Jones) to uncover the facts of his son’s gruesome murder. Though its Iraq War overtones didn’t do it many favors with audiences, and some critics felt Haggis took an excessively heavy-handed approach, most were able to appreciate In the Valley of Elah’s message — and the hard questions it asked in a time of war. “After the potent final image faded to black,” wrote Aisle Seat’s Mike McGranaghan, “I had that very special tingle I get when I know I’ve just seen a great movie.”

Tag Cloud

zombie New York Comic Con spinoff true crime green book revenge Cannes See It Skip It VOD cops casting VICE Sneak Peek DGA CMT versus cancelled Rom-Com HBO Go ratings Western cancelled television E3 Peacock NBC Set visit Star Wars Valentine's Day Drama Walt Disney Pictures 45 finale Best and Worst scary movies stop motion binge WarnerMedia deadpool Classic Film BET Awards Horror ghosts doctor who science fiction children's TV cars Netflix Christmas movies Food Network Comic Book Interview Pet Sematary laika movie japanese Film Festival Endgame spain australia Reality nature Anna Paquin spy thriller IFC Films reboot BBC America kids zero dark thirty Tumblr twilight cancelled TV shows boxoffice miniseries First Reviews unscripted Music AMC indie YouTube comics festival films Spectrum Originals chucky Creative Arts Emmys Writers Guild of America OWN USA Network robots Black Mirror TLC TBS Acorn TV Emmy Nominations Tarantino Lifetime docudrama satire richard e. Grant Action video Red Carpet Sci-Fi cats Spring TV Crackle El Rey Trophy Talk renewed TV shows cancelled TV series Teen spanish Freeform Heroines zombies Travel Channel Hulu Dark Horse Comics Nominations Character Guide aliens technology Lionsgate dceu indiana jones HBO Election Hallmark Christmas movies Reality Competition Hallmark natural history Countdown Bravo Pride Month SundanceTV halloween scorecard period drama book thriller sequels Kids & Family dc movies The Purge TV renewals PBS USA space Chernobyl screen actors guild Mudbound Musicals Mary poppins quibi canceled stand-up comedy child's play Universal Extras 71st Emmy Awards theme song archives Emmys tv talk breaking bad joker mission: impossible Infographic nbcuniversal Television Academy social media concert Mystery romance crime drama justice league dark 2017 Podcast TCA Awards Fantasy Calendar Photos historical drama spanish language TIFF talk show Summer comiccon Holiday adventure toy story 20th Century Fox Black History Month psycho halloween tv classics The Witch Grammys Columbia Pictures Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt sequel Superheroes Funimation Nickelodeon The Academy best SDCC CNN medical drama diversity WGN Marvel Studios Oscars VH1 Disney Channel Animation Awards name the review golden globes Rock MCU Lucasfilm Brie Larson supernatural Musical Winter TV TCA emmy awards Shudder Disney streaming service hist DC Universe Sundance Now BBC One rotten CW Seed ABC cartoon Television Critics Association Discovery Channel spider-man First Look asian-american 21st Century Fox sports 2018 remakes Paramount batman Cosplay CBS All Access 2020 parents BAFTA MTV YouTube Premium dragons Thanksgiving Logo free movies Sundance TV LGBT HBO Max 4/20 dramedy documentaries Amazon mutant The Arrangement latino Opinion Biopics witnail police drama IFC Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Pop BET PlayStation MSNBC disaster cinemax Apple TV+ franchise SXSW ID TruTV Lifetime Christmas movies Mindy Kaling History crime cooking Cartoon Network Winners serial killer Year in Review travel Awards Tour psychological thriller A&E blaxploitation ABC Family DirecTV OneApp Paramount Network GoT sitcom Apple TV Plus Syfy 24 frames Tubi Esquire nfl harry potter comedies Captain marvel Turner Classic Movies vampires political drama 2015 Baby Yoda Toys critics a nightmare on elm street TNT Shondaland mockumentary National Geographic Disney+ Disney Plus screenings sag awards President Rocky FOX PaleyFest 2016 Star Trek E! Ovation Amazon Studios Warner Bros. comic Premiere Dates Marathons DC Comics 007 American Society of Cinematographers streaming TV Land TCA Winter 2020 christmas movies transformers festivals stoner Vudu jamie lee curtis french Arrowverse directors Comics on TV award winner Country war Fox Searchlight RT History crossover video on demand Family APB anime DC streaming service NYCC CBS Adult Swim Crunchyroll The CW Nat Geo 72 Emmy Awards Certified Fresh FX Disney Plus animated Britbox biography Stephen King X-Men comic books Amazon Prime Disney Trailer TCM Pop TV television Avengers Rocketman Hear Us Out die hard Ellie Kemper RT21 Amazon Prime Video Turner LGBTQ werewolf facebook south america Comedy Central Netflix Pirates Masterpiece Ghostbusters discovery romantic comedy fast and furious teaser toronto Pixar Polls and Games obituary hollywood blockbuster Box Office The Walking Dead all-time rt archives Christmas ESPN San Diego Comic-Con worst cults adaptation dogs singing competition Marvel Television rotten movies we love Comedy Video Games canceled TV shows Schedule FXX Fall TV GLAAD black FX on Hulu A24 Film Binge Guide venice Spike universal monsters Mary Poppins Returns TCA 2017 YA what to watch based on movie elevated horror composers Epix GIFs BBC italian game show news politics foreign Marvel worst movies Starz Quiz Sundance superhero ITV slashers Sony Pictures Watching Series 2019 Fox News anthology strong female leads Showtime Martial Arts criterion Academy Awards TV Apple Elton John YouTube Red hispanic Holidays game of thrones Superheroe Super Bowl independent documentary Trivia series crime thriller reviews Song of Ice and Fire football Mary Tyler Moore Tomatazos Women's History Month