Total Recall

Total Recall: James Woods's Best Movies

We count down the best-reviewed work of the Straw Dogs star.

by | September 15, 2011 | Comments

James Woods

Anyone who can claim the titles “ace poker player,” “antiques dealer,” and “MIT dropout” is bound to be a pretty interesting guy — and two-time Academy Awards nominee James Woods is living proof. Over the course of his four decades in showbiz, Woods has cut an intriguingly eclectic path, popping up everywhere from Oliver Stone movies to family flicks (that’s his voice you hear in Stuart Little 2 and Hercules), video games (Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas), and TV (where he’s tormented Family Guy‘s Peter Griffin for years). But he’s never received the Total Recall treatment, and when we saw his name on the cast list for Straw Dogs, we knew we needed to repent. It’s time to Total Recall, James Woods style!


10. Nixon

Woods cashed in his chips with Oliver Stone for a role in Nixon, convincing the director to give him a role he’d originally intended for Ed Harris: H.R. Haldeman, the presidential aide whose ruthless politics helped make him a natural lightning rod — and eventual scapegoat — for the Watergate scandal that ended Nixon’s administration. He ended up becoming part of an impressive ensemble cast that included Joan Allen, J.T. Walsh, Mary Steenburgen, Bob Hoskins, Anthony Hopkins as Nixon, and, yes, Ed Harris (who ultimately played CIA operative E. Howard Hunt) — and although none of those names were enough to attract much of an audience during the movie’s theatrical run, the end result was impressive enough for critics like Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman, who wrote that “it’s overwhelming to see the many sides of Richard Nixon brought together with this kind of epic force. More than just biography, Nixon is a dizzying and cathartic spectacle — a free fall through 50 years of American political imagination.”


9. The Virgin Suicides

Movies about suicide are generally a pretty tough sell. To make a movie about the suicides of five teenage girls, you’d have to be nuts — or Sofia Coppola, who made her directorial debut with this adaptation of the Jeffrey Eugenides novel about five girls (Kirsten Dunst, Leslie Hayman, A.J. Cook, Chelse Swain, and Hanna R. Hall) whose relationship with their overprotective parents (James Woods and Kathleen Turner) leads them to make some fairly reckless, and ultimately tragic, decisions. The Virgin Suicides was understandably not a huge hit at the box office, but it proved a critically auspicious debut for Coppola, whose surprisingly assured direction helped inspire Moira MacDonald of the Seattle Times to call it “A disarmingly poetic — and specifically female — vision of adolescence that it belongs in a category of its own.”


8. Eyewitness

Screenwriter Steve Teisch followed up his Academy Award-winning script for 1979’s Breaking Away with Eyewitness, a murder mystery thriller about a janitor (William Hurt) who has a chance to pursue his long-standing crush on a local newswoman (Signourney Weaver) after a successful businessman is murdered in the building where he works. Woods delivered a memorable supporting turn here as Hurt’s best friend, a shifty fellow janitor named Aldo, helping convince the New York Times’ Vincent Canby that “Eyewitness is not terrifically strong on logic. Instead, it runs on the energy generated by its appealingly oddball characters, all beautifully acted by the members of a large cast of mostly New York actors.”


7. Videodrome

When a movie can be justifiably described as one of David Cronenberg’s weirder pictures, you know it’s got to be pretty darn strange — and Videodrome does not disappoint, following the increasingly bizarre adventures of a Toronto cable channel president (Woods) whose exposure to a pirated cable signal leads him into a dark spiral of conspiracies, violence, and unforgettably strange nightmares. In 1983, Videodrome‘s fevered vision of a culture soured by lowest-common-denominator reality television seemed over the top; now, it seems prescient. As Jeremiah Kipp wrote for Flipside Movie Emporium, “Nearly twenty years after Videodrome was shot, it still feels contemporary.”


6. Casino

Get Martin Scorsese together with Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and a script about life in the Mafia, and you know the results are going to be pretty entertaining — and 1995’s Casino, which reunited Woods with his Once Upon a Time in America castmate De Niro, was no exception. Starring De Niro as Ace Rothstein, a sports handicapper who goes to Vegas to head up a (you guessed it) casino for the Mafia, Pesci as the predictably short-tempered Mob enforcer who makes life difficult for Ace, and Woods as the shyster who disrupts his marriage, Casino broke $100 million at the box office, earned Sharon Stone a Best Actress Oscar nomination, and won praise from critics like Variety’s Todd McCarthy, who wrote that “Martin Scorsese’s intimate epic about money, sex and brute force is a grandly conceived study of what happens to goodfellas from the mean streets when they outstrip their wildest dreams and achieve the pinnacle of wealth and power.”


5. Cop

A rare showcase in a résumé full of supporting roles, 1987’s Cop finds Woods playing, well, a cop — albeit one whose unconventional style and general disdain for rules costs him his badge while he’s in the middle of the case of his career. Writer/director James B. Harris, who previously worked with Woods on 1982’s Fast-Walking, adapted the script from James Ellroy’s novel Blood on the Moon — and although the result proved less than arresting for audiences, who mostly ignored Cop while it was in theaters, it impressed critics like Roger Ebert, who wrote simply, “Woods was born to play this role.”


4. The Onion Field

After spending the better part of a decade toiling in bit parts in films and TV movies, Woods scored his breakout role in Harold Becker’s The Onion Field. A dramatization of the Joseph Wambaugh novel inspired by the real-life case of two homicidal maniacs who dragged a pair of cops into a field to kill them, it was probably too profoundly disquieting to attract major mainstream success — but Woods’ performance as the charming psychopath Greg Powell earned him a Golden Globe nomination, and Variety concurred, writing that “James Woods as the near-psychotic Powell is chillingly effective, creating a flakiness in the character that exudes the danger of a live wire near a puddle.”


3. Once Upon a Time in America

With an original cut weighing in at nearly four hours, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America is a true epic — and if Leone had been able to convince his producers, it would have been split into two three-hour films. But unlike a lot of sprawling dramas, America justifies its extended running time; Leone, working from Harry Grey’s novel The Hoods, had a lot of story to tell — and with Woods helping anchor a large cast that also included Robert De Niro, Tuesday Weld, and Elizabeth McGovern, he had the actors to tell it. Studio interference resulted in a bowdlerized American cut that reportedly infuriated Leone, but the end result still haunted critics like Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader, who was moved to write, “Every gesture is immediate, and every gesture seems eternal.”


2. Salvador

Woods received the first of his two Academy Award nominations for his work in Oliver Stone’s Salvador, a 1986 war drama about a rather unlikable American journalist who’s burned so many bridges that his only professional recourse is to head to El Salvador with his unemployed DJ buddy (Jim Belushi) to try and find stories in what they initially regard as a relatively inconsequential war. Like a lot of films that try and shine a light on war while shots are still being fired, Salvador bombed at the box office — but it found an appreciative audience with writers like Rob Gonsalves of eFilmCritic, who called it “One of Oliver Stone’s best films, and absolutely James Woods’ best performance.”


1. True Believer

Loosely inspired by a case from the fascinating files of real-life attorney Tony Serra, 1989’s True Believer gave Woods a chance to go toe-to-toe with rising star Robert Downey, Jr. in a courtroom thriller about a pair of lawyers who uncover a deep, dark conspiracy behind the imprisonment of a young Korean (Yuji Okumoto) accused of a gang-related murder. The role of bruised idealist Eddie Dodd called for a magnetic, finely layered performance — and Woods responded, according to Time’s Richard Schickel, who wrote that “Woods’ angry energy is clarifying as well as terrifying, and when he unleashes it (usually without warning), the effect is to focus our attention where it belongs, not on a suspense story but on the mysteries of human behavior.”

In case you were wondering, here are Woods’s top 10 movies according RT users’ scores:

1. Once Upon a Time in America — 92%

2. Casino — 91%

3. John Q — 83%

4. Salvador — 83%

5. The Virgin Suicides — 80%

6. Videodrome — 79%

7. Contact — 74%

8. Nixon — 72%

9. Any Given Sunday — 70%

10. Diggstown — 70%

Take a look through Woods’s complete filmography, as well as the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don’t forget to check out the reviews for Straw Dogs.