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) 96%

(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 (1980) 97%

(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 (2015) 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 and Her Lover (1989) 85%

(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) 80%

(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.”

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