Total Recall

Rank Helen Mirren's 10 Best Movies

In this week's Total Recall, we look back at the best-reviewed films of the Winchester star.

by | January 31, 2018 | Comments

She’s one of the most highly respected stars of the stage, television, and film, with an Oscar, four Emmys, and membership in the Order of the British Empire to her credit — but Helen Mirren’s eclectic filmography has always had room for more than serious arthouse fare. She’s also appeared in plenty of popcorn flicks, including National Treasure 2Inkheart, and RED, which found her toting a machine gun and blowing away bad guys alongside Bruce Willis. It’s been a career worth celebrating, to say the least, and this week, it expands to include Mirren’s starring turn in the fact-inspired horror outing Winchester. How better to pay tribute than a Total Recall dedicated to Dame Mirren’s ten best films?


1. The Queen (2006) 97%

(Photo by Miramax Films)
 No stranger to royalty, both onscreen (she’d played a queen on three previous occasions, including her Oscar-nominated performance in The Madness of King George) and offscreen (she was sworn into the Order of the British Empire in 2003, after refusing the honor in 1996), Helen Mirren was arguably the only logical choice to portray Queen Elizabeth in this dramatization of the events surrounding Princess Diana’s untimely death in 1997. Unlike a lot of plays and films about royalty, The Queen didn’t depend on the drama and mystery surrounding the monarchy; in fact, it sought to put a human face on the rigid ceremony of one of the world’s longest-running institutions. And judging from the heaps of awards it earned — including a Best Actress Oscar for Mirren — it succeeded: In the words of the Detroit News’ Tom Long, “Borne with grace and honor on the back of Helen Mirren’s astounding title performance, The Queen manages to encompass the personal and political with both depth and grace.”

2. The Long Good Friday (1982) 96%

(Photo by Embassy Pictures)

Before she wielded a machine gun in RED, Mirren displayed her gift for steely reserve as a no-nonsense mob moll in this British gangster movie classic. Starring Bob Hoskins as a cutthroat mobster whose dreams of going legit are threatened by a mysterious rival, The Long Good Friday combined political overtones with good old-fashioned bloody mayhem, and while it wasn’t a huge American hit — in fact, it wasn’t released in the states until 1982 — critics always appreciated its tightly written script and uniformly solid performances. “This movie is one amazing piece of work,” declared Roger Ebert, “not only for the Hoskins performance but also for the energy of the filmmaking, the power of the music, and, oddly enough, for the engaging quality of its sometimes very violent sense of humor.”


3. Eye In The Sky (2016) 95%

(Photo by Travis A. Topa/Bleecker Street Media)

In theory, drone warfare saves soldiers’ lives — a technological solution to the age-old problem of armed conflicts that snuff out every nation’s youth. The reality, however, is far more complicated; whether it’s because of the morally deadening effect of video game-style attacks or the increased risk of civilian casualties, there are a lot of issues to consider, many of which are explored in the tension-soaked Eye in the Sky. Mirren stars here as Colonel Katherine Powell, a military officer in charge of a drone program that runs into trouble when a civilian strays into the crosshairs just as a pilot (Aaron Paul) is about to strike, triggering international tensions that threaten to derail the entire mission. “It’s clockwork entertainment, in the end,” wrote the Boston Globe’s Ty Burr. “A precisely calibrated schematic in which every aspect of the ethical quandary balances every other aspect, and the only variable is your own moral compass.”


4. The Madness of King George (1994) 93%

(Photo by Samuel Goldwyn courtesy Everett Collection)

Mirren scored a Best Supporting Actress nomination from the Academy — and a Best Actress award at Cannes — for her work in this adaptation of Alan Bennett’s play The Madness of George III, starring Nigel Hawthorne as the monarch during his apparent bout of lunacy during the Regency Crisis of 1788-89. A meaty showcase for Hawthorne, who got to chew scenery with impunity (and picked up his own Best Actor nomination in the process), The Madness of King George wasn’t a commercial blockbuster, but it was one of the best-reviewed films of the year — as well as, in the words of the New York Times’ Janet Maslin, “a deft, mischievous, beautifully acted historical drama with exceptionally broad appeal.”


5. Cal (1984) 91%

Based on Bernard McLaverty’s novella about an IRA soldier (John Lynch) who is wracked with guilt after carrying out an assassination — and subsequently becomes romantically involved with his victim’s widow (played by Mirren) — Cal boasted wonderful performances, sensitive direction from Pat O’Connor, and a terrific score from Mark Knopfler. All that excellence wasn’t lost on the Cannes judges who awarded Mirren the year’s Best Actress award, not to mention critics like Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat of Spirituality and Practice, who called it “A taut, compelling film about the tension, distrust and senseless violence in contemporary Ireland.”


6. The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989) 87%

(Photo by Miramax)

What happens when a brutish gangster (Michael Gambon) takes over a respected restaurant? The poster for this Peter Greenaway production promised lust, murder, and dessert — and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover delivered heaping portions of all of the above. As the mobster’s surprisingly classy (albeit adulterous) wife, Mirren had the unique opportunity to play a character who runs the gamut from high society to perpetrating a thoroughly grisly revenge scheme that will be familiar to fans of Eric Cartman. It was all a bit much for filmgoers with gentler sensibilities; as ReelViews’ James Berardinelli wrote, it’s both “a wildly exuberant, bitingly satirical examination of excess, bad taste, and great acting” and “the kind of over-the-top experience that will have timid movie-goers running (not just walking) for the exits.”


7. Gosford Park (2001) 86%

(Photo by USA Films courtesy Everett Collection)

Mirren joined an outstanding ensemble cast — including Richard E. Grant, Dame Maggie Smith, Kristin Scott Thomas, the awesomely named Bob Balaban (who also produced), and her The Cook the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover castmate Michael Gambon — for this darkly funny murder mystery. Directed by Robert Altman, Gosford Park took a bunch of potential killers, confined them to an English manor, then proceeded to use that timeworn setup to make some pointed (and often humorous) statements about the absurdity of convention and how social status divides and defines relationships. Vintage Altman, in other words — and the Academy agreed, honoring Gosford Park with seven Oscar nominations (including Best Picture). An $87 million success, it was also a hit with audiences and critics such as Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman, who called it “A succulent and devious drawing-room mystery that, in its panoramic way, takes a puckish pleasure in scrambling and reshuffling the worlds of upstairs and downstairs.”


8. State of Play (2009) 84%

(Photo by Universal Pictures courtesy Everett Collection)

You can pretty much bet that any political thriller with Helen Mirren’s name on the poster is better than average, and here’s a case in point. When Kevin Macdonald set about adapting the acclaimed BBC serial State of Play, he didn’t take any chances with his cast, lining up Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck, and Rachel McAdams as his leads, then surrounding them with stellar supporting players, including Robin Wright Penn, Jeff Daniels, and (of course) Mirren. As the tight-lipped newspaper editor steering an investigation into the murder of a congressional aide whose boss (Affleck) went to college with her reporter (Crowe), Mirren didn’t have the largest role in State of Play, but she did add an extra touch of class to the proceedings — and she was an important part of why it was such a hit with critics like Ben Lyons of At the Movies, who simply stated, “I want to see more films like this.”


9. O Lucky Man! (1973) 78%

The second installment of Lindsay Anderson’s epic Mick Travis trilogy, O Lucky Man! took Travis (played by Malcolm McDowell, reprising the role he originated in 1968’s If…) on a journey from insurrectionist schoolboy to grown-up actor (with stops as a coffee salesman, prisoner, and medical guinea pig along the way). It’s a big movie with big ideas, and an inflated running time to match; understandably, some filmgoers (and a few critics) were put off by O Lucky’s artsy meandering — especially those who, like Combustible Celluloid’s Jeffrey M. Anderson, thought it amounted to “three hours without much of a plot.” Most scribes, however, echoed the sentiments of Ken Hanke of the Mountain Xpress, who found it “Rich, densely layered, disturbing, unique and strangely satisfying in a way few films ever have been.”


10. Excalibur (1981) 79%

(Photo by Orion Films courtesy Everett Collection)

The legend of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table has been retold countless times, for all manner of media, so for an adaptation to stand out, it has to be pretty special. Excalibur, director John Boorman’s blood-and-lust-filled take on the tale, beat the odds and managed to stand out from the crowd, thanks in part to a cast that included Nigel Terry, Nicol Williamson, and younger versions of Patrick Stewart and Liam Neeson — as well as Mirren, who brought the vengeful sorceress Morgana Le Fay to chilling life. Nearly thirty years after its release, Excalibur still stands as one of the finest Arthurian films — as David Keyes of Cinemaphile wrote, it’s “one of those great miracles in filmmaking… Its concept of Arthur and the landscape that surrounds him is a benchmark for fantasy as we know it.”

Pages: Prev 1 2

Tag Cloud

IFC spy thriller RT21 romance Film Festival First Look San Diego Comic-Con PaleyFest Music technology Pirates justice league zero dark thirty Video Games YouTube Red spinoff casting Sundance Now blaxploitation VICE Food Network teaser Interview Mary Tyler Moore game show theme song BBC America Chernobyl Trailer dramedy Comics on TV transformers Pet Sematary animated Adult Swim Polls and Games Comedy Sci-Fi green book TV 20th Century Fox Infographic 2018 Podcast DirecTV Pride Month jamie lee curtis Spike Schedule Trivia Tomatazos Rock APB Country E3 Certified Fresh Mystery ESPN Epix AMC Mary poppins Best and Worst HBO YA CBS All Access serial killer 21st Century Fox Superheroe Britbox Warner Bros. Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Martial Arts aliens Rom-Com Mudbound TNT psycho 2015 Esquire Shondaland Box Office Musicals strong female leads Syfy GLAAD Netflix Brie Larson Calendar YouTube Premium elevated horror travel Nominations Super Bowl Cannes cinemax social media period drama medical drama boxoffice Star Trek RT History Quiz CMT adaptation space Horror DC Comics discovery MTV Hulu USA Trophy Talk DC Universe Amazon Countdown golden globes doctor who Black Mirror Reality Competition Emmy Nominations Action TruTV El Rey PBS science fiction GoT Rocky war binge docudrama Lucasfilm LGBTQ cooking Heroines robots ABC Vudu Toys TCA Ovation Extras comic FX Cosplay Nat Geo Comedy Central 2016 Acorn TV Grammys zombies Mindy Kaling Song of Ice and Fire ratings festivals based on movie Anna Paquin TLC Awards Tour Oscars Fantasy Character Guide spider-man Nickelodeon sitcom Paramount Drama psychological thriller dragons Comic Book Disney DGA police drama Columbia Pictures supernatural CBS diversity Mary Poppins Returns dc Red Carpet The Witch Sony Pictures X-Men true crime TIFF President miniseries anime politics New York Comic Con Spectrum Originals zombie TCM TBS BBC History Reality Photos Sneak Peek NBC Tumblr Creative Arts Emmys Awards crime drama Kids & Family Shudder cats mutant Fox News Thanksgiving Biopics MCU Animation comiccon WGN crime Elton John Stephen King Winners sports E! Holidays Tarantino Women's History Month cults ABC Family MSNBC Rocketman disaster Ghostbusters 45 toy story LGBT FOX Year in Review witnail The CW Western Election Bravo Pixar Freeform award winner nature sequel TCA 2017 cops harry potter 007 See It Skip It Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Captain marvel Musical crossover Starz Opinion natural history SXSW Crackle Emmys Pop Superheroes thriller Masterpiece Marvel finale 2017 dceu historical drama Universal Apple Set visit Logo Lifetime Spring TV Dark Horse Comics OWN Star Wars BET NYCC VH1 Winter TV Valentine's Day composers what to watch FXX A&E Watching Series Christmas Walt Disney Pictures CW Seed hist ITV Teen SundanceTV crime thriller vampires SDCC The Arrangement Cartoon Network American Society of Cinematographers Disney Channel Writers Guild of America Showtime Marathons streaming Fall TV Ellie Kemper Lionsgate National Geographic Paramount Network singing competition unscripted 24 frames talk show Amazon Prime biography richard e. Grant USA Network IFC Films 2019 television TV Land Sundance mockumentary facebook political drama Summer CNN Premiere Dates adventure anthology GIFs DC streaming service