Total Recall

Rank Marisa Tomei's 10 Best Movies

We count down the best-reviewed work of the Spider-Man: Homecoming star.

by | July 5, 2017 | Comments

Spider-Man: Homecoming swings its way into theaters this weekend, giving filmgoers their first feature-length look at the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s new version of the friendly neighborhood wall-crawler — and his long-suffering Aunt May, now played by the one and only Marisa Tomei. To celebrate Ms. Tomei’s return to the cineplex, we decided now would be the perfect time to take a fond look back at some of her brightest critical highlights, and give you the opportunity to rank your favorites in the bargain. You know what that means: it’s time for Total Recall!


1. The Wrestler (2008) 98%

(Photo by 20th Century Fox)

There’s certainly no shortage of movies about washed-up athletes, struggling dreamers, or deadbeat dads — and the stripper with a heart of gold is one of cinema’s more overused archetypes. Yet with Darren Aronofsky at the helm and a cast led by Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei, 2008’s The Wrestler manages to transcend the fairly predictable contours of its story and deliver a powerful, emotionally raw viewing experience. While this low-budget indie drama was destined to miss blockbuster status, it was one of the year’s most acclaimed efforts, and Rourke and Tomei both earned Oscar nominations for their work; as Ty Burr wrote for the Boston Globe, “The Wrestler is about the seductions of superficiality and the dull ache of living beyond one’s moment. It stares with compassion at the man pinned on the mat and wonders how he’ll ever get out of this one.”

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2. Love Is Strange (2014) 93%

(Photo by Sony Pictures Classics)

Exactly the sort of quiet, character-driven drama that film buffs often lament Hollywood doesn’t make enough of anymore, Ira Sachs’ Love Is Strange starts with a simple moment — the long-overdue nuptials of a same-sex couple (John Lithgow and Alfred Molina) who’ve been together for nearly 40 years — and traces its increasingly desperate fallout, starting with Molina’s sudden unemployment after his his bosses at the Catholic archdiocese hear of the wedding. Forced to sell their apartment and live with friends and relatives while they search for more affordable housing, the newlyweds find their relationship — and their relationships with some of their closest loved ones — tested. Rounded out by a stellar cast that includes Marisa Tomei and Darren E. Burrows, it’s the kind of movie that can seem like nothing much happens, but it’s filled with moments that linger; as Joe Williams wrote for the St Louis Post-Dispatch, “Love Is Strange is beautifully acted and bittersweet. It’s a gentle reminder that modern love, like a houseplant, needs sunlight, space and attention to grow.”

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3. In the Bedroom (2001) 93%

Tomei — along with castmates Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek — earned an Oscar nomination for her work in this quietly devastating drama from director/co-writer Todd Field, which revolves around the affair between a young college grad (Nick Stahl) and a single mom (Tomei) whose violent ex-husband is just one of several factors complicating their relationship. Also problematic are the concerns of his parents (Wilkinson and Spacek), and when their worst fears are realized, the repercussions are deadly for more than one participant in the doomed love triangle. “The story and direction are powerful enough,” wrote the Washington Post’s Desson Thomson. “But it’s the acting that takes In the Bedroom higher.”

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4. The Big Short (2015) 89%

(Photo by Paramount Pictures)

How do you take the 2008 financial crisis and turn it into an entertaining movie? Hand the reins to ex-SNL writer and frequent Will Ferrell confederate Adam McKay, stock the larder with a top-shelf cast that includes Tomei, Brad Pitt, Steve Carell, Christian Bale, and Ryan Gosling, and focus your story on the trials and tribulations of a hedge fund manager — oh, and while you’re at it, line up Margot Robbie and Selena Gomez to explain modern finance. The end result is The Big Short, an all-star dramedy that manages to make banking shenanigans entertaining — no small feat, especially considering that many people are still dealing with the real-life effects of the story. As Dana Stevens put it for Slate, “One of the most appealing things about this very appealing movie — a stylistic Chex Mix of storytelling, satire, advocacy, and clip art — is its high regard for the intellect of the viewer.”

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5. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007) 88%

(Photo by Think Film courtesy Everett Collection)

A powerful late-period triumph for director Sidney Lumet, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead offered Tomei an opportunity to deliver some of her best work surrounded by masters — not only behind the scenes, but in front of the cameras, where she shared screen time with a powerful ensemble cast that included Philip Seymour Hoffman, Albert Finney, Ethan Hawke, and Michael Shannon. Although the results were far from an easy watch, that clammy feeling you have while viewing Devil serves a purpose, adding a memorably pungent component to the film that Variety’s Lisa Nesselson called a “wrenching tale [that] has something for anyone who likes their melodrama spiked with palpable tension and genuine suspense.”

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6. The Paper (1994) 88%

(Photo by Universal courtesy Everett Collection)

An ensemble dramedy about the frantic goings-on behind the scenes during 24 hours in the life of a New York City newspaper, Ron Howard’s The Paper offers a drastically different picture of the publishing industry, rendering the movie’s backdrop rather quaint, but the sharp writing (from brothers David and Stephen Koepp) and rock-solid acting — rounded out by a showy cast that included Michael Keaton, Robert Duvall, Glenn Close, Jason Robards, and Tomei — still adds up to a timeless picture. “Howard … is back in form, and perhaps at the top of his game,” enthused Chris Hicks for the Deseret News. “There are times when the sheer size of the film seems enough to throw it off the track, but Howard manages, for the most part, to keep things rolling along in his usual slick, if sometimes obvious fashion.”

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7. My Cousin Vinny (1992) 87%

(Photo by 20th Century Fox courtesy Everett Collection)

A smash comedy hit with youts of all ages, My Cousin Vinny catapulted Tomei to fame after several years spent in exceedingly minor roles (as in Matt Dillon’s The Flamingo Kid) or misbegotten projects (like Sylvester Stallone’s Oscar). While nominally a starring vehicle for leading man Joe Pesci, it’s Tomei’s character who’s ultimately responsible for buttoning up the final act — not to mention walking off with some of the movie’s best lines, which has a lot to do with why she walked off with a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her work. “Easily the most inventive and enjoyable American film farce in a long time,” applauded the New York Times’ Vincent Canby. “Even during those extended patches when it seems to be marking time or when it continues with a running gag that can’t stay the distance.”

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8. The Ides of March (2011) 84%

(Photo by Saeed Adyani/Columbia Pictures courtesy Everett Collection)

Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign may not have amounted to much besides a lot of mocking soundbites from pundits, but it did provide the inspiration for Beau Willimon’s well-reviewed play Farragut North — which, in turn, inspired George Clooney to adapt its script into the screenplay for The Ides of March, a solidly reviewed 2011 political drama about, as Willimon put it, “the lust for power and the costs one will endure to achieve it.” While it wasn’t exactly a blockbuster, Ides outperformed at the box office considering its Beltway subject matter — and it found no shortage of critical accolades for Clooney (who starred, directed, and earned an Oscar nomination for his screenplay), or his supporting cast (including Tomei and Ryan Gosling). As Charlie McCollum put it for the San Jose Mercury News, “This is intelligent filmmaking, and a provocative moral fable. It may not be perfect, but it stands as one of the better, most realistic movies about the way we elect our leaders.”

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9. The Lincoln Lawyer (2011) 83%

(Photo by Lionsgate courtesy Everett Collection)

An unorthodox lawyer living hand to mouth while defending penny-ante ne’er-do-wells, suddenly in over his head while litigating the case of a lifetime? Anyone who loves a good courtroom thriller has seen something sort of like The Lincoln Lawyer before. But this adaptation of the Michael Connelly bestseller benefits from a light touch, with director Brad Furman threading the needle between quirky comedy and legal drama — and wielding the estimable gifts of a talented cast that includes Matthew McConaughey (as the title character) and Tomei (as his ex-wife, who also just happens to be a local prosecutor). “The Lincoln Lawyer is not a feat of genre-breaking design,” wrote the Denver Post’s Lisa Kennedy. “But it is a well-oiled machine.”

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10. Unhook the Stars (1996) 81%

The debut directorial feature from second-generation Hollywood royalty Nick Cassavetes, Unhook the Stars unpacked the small-scale drama surrounding a single mom (Tomei) and her neighbor (Gena Rowlands), whose lives intersect after Rowlands’ character suddenly finds herself living alone and Tomei’s character needs a babysitter for her young son (Jake Lloyd) after booting her abusive husband from the house. It’s a story whose contours are easy to spot early on, but one that’s nevertheless skillfully told; as the San Francisco Chronicle’s Ruthe Stein wrote, “While Cassavetes and Rowlands have stated it with more nuance, the movie’s message is both simple and familiar: It ain’t over, till it’s over. Period. ”

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