Total Recall

Rank Daniel Day-Lewis' 10 Best Movies

In this week's Total Recall, we look back at some of the most acclaimed work of the Phantom Thread star.

by | January 17, 2018 | Comments

For decades, Daniel Day-Lewis has been one of Hollywood’s most widely respected working actors — and with this weekend’s Phantom Thread, he’s taking what he says will be his final bow, bringing an end to a remarkable career that includes some of the best-reviewed movies of the last quarter century. In honor of it all, we’re dedicating this feature to a fond look back at some of his brightest critical highlights while inviting you to create your own rankings. It’s time for Total Recall!


1. A Room With a View (1985) 100%

Although modern viewers may watch this sweeping period drama — about Edwardian lass Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham Carter), whose irrepressible fondness for a caddish rake (Julian Sands) is thwarted by an older cousin (Maggie Smith) who believes he’s a bad influence — and see pure Merchant Ivory formula, it’s important to remember that at the time, there was no such thing. Room set the template for dozens of pictures to follow, setting a bar that all but the very best have tried in vain to match — aided in no small part by a robust supporting cast that, aside from Day-Lewis as Lucy’s insufferably pretentious fiancé Cecil Vyse, included Judi Dench (who won a BAFTA for her work) and Simon Callow (who earned a nomination of his own). “This is a complete movie, full of life, love and hope,” wrote Dan Jardine for the Apollo Guide. “While we may occasionally forget that truth is beauty and beauty truth, thankfully films like A Room With a View will always be there as a reminder.”


2. My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) 97%

(Photo by Orion Pictures courtesy Everett Collection)

He’d landed film roles before, including a memorable supporting turn in The Bounty the previous year, but it was really 1985’s My Beautiful Laundrette that put Daniel Day-Lewis squarely on the critical map. Starring opposite Gordon Warnecke in this acclaimed Stephen Frears-directed drama, Day-Lewis disappeared into the character of Johnny, a young punk whose days of running with a racist street gang end after a violent reacquaintance with his old friend — and former lover — Omar (Warnecke). By the end of the decade, he’d earn his first Oscar, but more than one critic saw flashes of brilliance in his performance here; as Sheila Benson wrote for the Los Angeles Times, “The cast is extraordinary; the innocence of Warnecke’s Omar seems to shift into experience before our eyes, and Shirley Anne Field is especially memorable as the infinitely lovable Rachel. But it’s Daniel Day-Lewis, taut, intelligent, erotic, who is an emerging star.”


3. My Left Foot (1989) 97%

At this point, Day-Lewis’ acting method is the stuff of Hollywood legend — one that really got started with 1989’s My Left Foot. Playing real-life Irish writer and painter Christy Brown, who honed his craft despite severe cerebral palsy that limited him to the use of the toes in one foot, Day-Lewis insisted on staying in character for the duration of the shoot — an uncompromising approach that proved physically grueling and earned the wrath of crew members tasked with spoon-feeding their star and lugging his wheelchair around inaccessible areas of the set, but helped him understand Brown’s experiences on a far more visceral level. Those efforts paid off with the performance that brought Day-Lewis his first Best Actor Oscar, not to mention nearly universal critical acclaim; as Desson Thomson wrote for the Washington Post, “Not only does Day-Lewis master the physical aspects of the role, the minute-to-minute struggle of almost complete paralysis, he lives the painful genesis of an artistic character.”


4. The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988) 88%

(Photo by Orion Pictures courtesy Everett Collection)

Memorizing a script’s worth of lines is tough enough, but how about learning a whole new language first? To prepare for the role of Tomas, a philandering surgeon in late ’60s Prague, Day-Lewis learned Czech, spending the better part of a year living full-time inside a character whose sexual and romantic entanglements unfold against the backdrop of Soviet invasion and repression. One third of a deeply erotic love triangle rounded out by Juliette Binoche and Lena Olin, Day-Lewis helped anchor one of the best-reviewed arthouse hits of the year — and an unqualified triumph for director Philip Kaufman, whose eclectic path drew applause from critics like Roger Ebert. “Kaufman, whose previous films have included The Right Stuff and a remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, has never done anything like this, but his experiment is a success in tone. He has made a movie in which reality is asked to coexist with a world of pure sensuality, and almost, for a moment, seems to agree.”


5. In the Name of the Father (1993) 94%

(Photo by Universal Pictures courtesy Everett Collection)

Daniel Day-Lewis, Pete Postlethwaite, and Emma Thompson all earned Oscar nominations for for their work in this fact-based historical drama, which found writer-director Jim Sheridan dramatizing the travails of Gerry Conlon (Day-Lewis), an Irishman falsely convicted as one of the so-called “Guildford Four” after a 1974 pub bombing carried out by the IRA. While some who were familiar with the real-life details of the case took issue with In the Name of the Father‘s historical inaccuracies, critics overwhelmingly felt it held up as a thrilling and affecting viewing experience; as Kenneth Turan wrote for the Los Angeles Times, the end result holds up as “a model of… engaged, enraged filmmaking, a politically charged Fugitive that uses one of the most celebrated cases of recent British history to steamroller an audience with the power of rousing, polemical cinema.”


6. The Last of the Mohicans (1992) 95%

(Photo by 20th Century Fox Film Corp. courtesy Everett Collection)

James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales series of novels has proven a popular draw for filmmakers over the years, with lead character Natty Bumppo — a white American adopted by a Mohican chief — portrayed by a long line of talented actors. Day-Lewis joined the list for Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans, and true to form, he took it further than the rest; in addition to reportedly living in the woods and learning how to hunt and skin wild game, he honed his already formidable woodworking skills, ultimately even making a canoe. He wasn’t rewarded with an Oscar nomination this time out, but Mohicans ended up being one of the year’s better-reviewed wide releases — and something of a mainstream hit for its rather mainstream-averse leading man. “Mann doesn’t distance Cooper’s episodic tale of war and adventure on the American frontier,” enthused Owen Gleiberman for Entertainment Weekly. “He plunges you into 18th-century combat as surely as Francis Coppola placed you in the Vietnam jungles in Apocalypse Now.”


7. There Will Be Blood (2007) 91%

A sobering, fearlessly idiosyncratic frontier epic braced through with incredible performances and unforgettable imagery, There Will Be Blood united two of modern cinema’s most singular and uncompromising talents in Day-Lewis and writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson — and the results, unsurprisingly, included reams of critical praise and multiple mantels’ worth of awards. Day-Lewis picked up his second Best Actor Oscar for his performance as the film’s protagonist, wildly ambitious and unflinchingly cruel prospector Daniel Plainview, and as far as most critics were concerned, he earned every accolade. “Conjure up the maddest despot scene you can remember and you might get a sense of the seismic register of Day-Lewis’s extravagant performance,” wrote the Globe and Mail’s Liam Lacey. “Watch and marvel, though you may have to suspend your disbelief from the top of an oil derrick.”


8. Lincoln (2012) 89%

(Photo by 20th Century Fox Film Corp.)

He presided over the most tumultuous time in our nation’s history, accomplished great things while in office, and ended his administration — and his life — in violent tragedy. Needless to say, Abraham Lincoln’s life is the stuff that Oscar-winning films are made of — and with Steven Spielberg at the helm, directing a stellar cast that included Tommy Lee Jones, Hal Holbrook, Sally Field, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and an almost unrecognizable Daniel Day-Lewis as the man himself, Lincoln was a virtual shoo-in for a Best Picture nomination even before it arrived in theaters. Of course, it helped that the finished product was one of 2012’s best-reviewed films thanks to critics like Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune, who wrote, “It blends cinematic Americana with something grubbier and more interesting than Americana, and it does not look, act or behave like the usual perception of a Spielberg epic.”


9. The Bounty (1984) 78%

(Photo by Orion Pictures courtesy Everett Collection)

The oft-told tale of Captain Bligh and his unwieldy crew got the revisionist treatment in this watery Roger Donaldson-directed epic, which gave a young Mel Gibson (as the mutinous Fletcher Christian) the chance to lock big-screen horns with Anthony Hopkins (as the tyrannical, or perhaps merely beleaguered, Bligh) for the fate of the HMS Bounty. Of course, we all know how things turned out for Bligh and his men — so it’s to Gibson and Hopkins’ immense credit, as well as a testament to a stellar supporting cast that included Laurence Olivier, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Liam Neeson, that The Bounty was such a critical success. Though some critics took issue with the script’s historical errors, as well as an overall absence of the type of fireworks one might expect from a cast of this caliber, the majority had kind words for the film — including Roger Ebert, who wrote, “this Bounty is not only a wonderful movie, high-spirited and intelligent, but something of a production triumph as well.”


10. The Age of Innocence (1993) 83%

(Photo by Columbia Pictures courtesy Everett Collection)

With Martin Scorsese in the director’s chair and a cast led by Pfeiffer, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Winona Ryder, 1993’s The Age of Innocence was practically a critical hit even before it arrived in theaters. Add in a screenplay adapted from the Edith Wharton novel about 19th-century star-crossed lovers, and the pundits’ swooning was predictable — but also understandable, given all the delicious drama wrung from Wharton’s story of a nobleman (Day-Lewis) bound by his engagement to one woman (Ryder) even as he pines through the decades for another (Pfeiffer). “I have seen love scenes in which naked bodies thrash in sweaty passion,” mused Roger Ebert, “but I have rarely seen them more passionate than in this movie, where everyone is wrapped in layers of Victorian repression.”

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