Total Recall

Total Recall: Oliver Stone's Best Movies

We count down the best-reviewed work of the Savages director.

by | July 5, 2012 | Comments

Oliver Stone

He’s won 10 Golden Globes, nine Oscars, and four BAFTAs during his long and illustrious career — but Oliver Stone has somehow never been the focus of his own Total Recall, so we decided to change that in honor of this weekend’s Savages, an intriguingly cast drug drama based on the Don Winslow novel about a pair of pot farmers racing to free the woman they love from a Mexican drug cartel. Given his lengthy filmography, you know Stone’s got some good stuff in his filmography — and the cream of the crop is right here in this week’s list.


10. W.

The most recent chapter of Stone’s presidential trilogy, W. served George W. Bush — who was wrapping up his second term while it was filmed — with a somewhat muted, surprisingly sympathetic biopic that traced his occasionally haphazard rise from political scion to oil baron and back again. While Josh Brolin earned near-universal praise for his work in the title role, critics found W. as a whole a little harder to take, citing its laconic pace and insufficiently hard-hitting approach as particularly troublesome flaws. For others, however, it proved a warm, fairly witty farewell for the GWB years; as the Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips put it, “The film may be ill-timed, arguably unnecessary and no more psychologically probing than any other Stone movie. But much of it works as deft, brisk, slyly engaging docudrama.”


9. Comandante

For a lot of Americans — especially those who grew up during the early years of the Cold War — Fidel Castro is less a world leader than a shadowy boogeyman whose thirst for brinkmanship nearly triggered World War III. But whatever his sins, Castro remains a longtime veteran of international politics and a subject worthy of investigation — hence Oliver Stone’s Comandante, a 93-minute distillation of the three days he spent filming the Cuban leader in 2002. While a sizable number of critics chafed at Stone’s aggressively friendly attitude toward his subject, others saw something of significant, albeit flawed, value; as Alan Morrison argued for Empire, it is “An opportunity frustratingly squandered, but one which still makes for fascinating viewing thanks to Castro’s natural charisma. Errol Morris would have nailed it.”


8. World Trade Center

Oliver Stone is known for his willingness to entertain conspiracy theories, his leftist political leanings, and his fondness for lurid cinematic violence, so when word got out he was planning to direct a movie about the September 11 attacks, some people were understandably nervous. But like any other director worth his title, Stone understands his role as a storyteller, and World Trade Center — starring Nicolas Cage and Michael Peña as a pair of real-life police officers who were caught in the wreckage after the buildings fell — has no room for politics or conspiracies. Its clear-eyed dedication to the people first affected by the attacks — and the selfless bravery of the men and women who worked to rescue the living — was appreciated by critics like David Denby of the New Yorker, who wrote, “The world may not make sense anymore, but Oliver Stone, a warrior still, celebrating courage and endurance, has, in his own way, come home.”


7. Nixon

In the years immediately following JFK, Stone took detours into war epic territory (Heaven & Earth) and social commentary (Natural Born Killers), but he wasn’t finished with the White House yet. With 1995’s ambitious Nixon, Stone gave us Anthony Hopkins as the disgraced former president and Joan Allen as his wife Pat — and while the 192-minute political epic failed to generate much heat at the box office, both Hopkins and Allen received Oscar nominations for their work in the film, which follows a non-linear path through Nixon’s life and career, taking viewers from his California youth through his resignation. “What it finally adds up to,” argued Janet Maslin of the New York Times, “is a huge mixed bag of waxworks and daring, a film that is furiously ambitious even when it goes flat, and startling even when it settles for eerie, movie-of-the-week mimicry.”


6. Wall Street

Smart, sleek, and eminently quotable, Stone’s yuppie jeremiad Wall Street gifted Michael Douglas with what arguably became the most iconic role of his career: He was simply perfect as the oily, morally adrift Gordon Gekko, and although Gekko’s signature proclamation that “greed is good” would go on to haunt Douglas, he was an emblematic character for an era in American history when it became acceptable to not only dedicate your life to the naked pursuit of wealth, but to attain it by any means necessary. Stone, who co-wrote the screenplay, based the character on a number of stockbrokers — including his own father — and Douglas embodied Gekko so well that he ended up winning an Oscar for his work. “Like the rest of Stone’s oeuvre, it’s about as subtle as a sledgehammer,” wrote Christopher Lloyd of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. “But his filmmaking style is like heavy metal: When he hits the right chords, nobody plays with as much power or brash energy.”



5. Talk Radio

A rare starring vehicle for monologist/playwright/character actor/cult hero Eric Bogosian, Talk Radio found Stone behind the cameras for a loose adaptation of Bogosian’s play of the same name. Inspired by the real-life assassination of Denver DJ Alan Berg, Radio centers around Dallas radio personality Barry Champlain, whose deliberately provocative style (and decidedly non-Red State political views) make him a target of hate mail and bomb threats even as his show is poised to achieve national syndication. Saying it “has the loony intensity of those impassioned conspiracy theorists who look out at the world and see patterns of corruption spreading in all directions,” the Washington Post’s Hal Hinson declared, “it’s another of Stone’s wake-up calls to America.”


4. JFK

A two-time Oscar winner and controversial, career-rejuvenating smash hit for Stone, JFK reconstructs John F. Kennedy’s assassination and then spends most of its epic 189-minute length sifting through the wreckage, treating the killing as a murder mystery that New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) doggedly attempts to solve at any cost. With an impeccable supporting cast that included Sissy Spacek, Kevin Bacon, Tommy Lee Jones, and Gary Oldman, as well as a screenplay that challenged long-held assumptions about Kennedy’s death, JFK reignited interest in the assassination, eventually leading to new legislation that ordered a reinvestigation and promised that all documents related to the killing would be made public by 2017. And while many critics agreed that the movie could have benefited from a more rigorous approach to the facts, it remains, in the words of the Washington Post’s Desson Thomson, “A riveting marriage of fact and fiction.”


3. Platoon

The first installment in Stone’s so-called Vietnam trilogy, 1986’s Platoon took a hard look at American involvement in the Vietnam War — and earned Stone Best Picture and Best Director at the Oscars and the Golden Globes in the bargain. Taking a grunt’s-eye view of the war, it puts a human face on the conflict, pitting Willem Dafoe (as Sergeant Elias, mentor to Chris, the young soldier played by Charlie Sheen) against a fellow sergeant (played by Tom Berenger) in a dreadful battle for the platoon. It is, as Roger Ebert wrote, “A film that says…that before you can make any vast, sweeping statements about Vietnam, you have to begin by understanding the bottom line, which is that a lot of people went over there.”


2. Born on the Fourth of July

He earned positive reviews for his role in Rain Man, but to many scribes, the Tom Cruise of the late 1980s was little more than the pretty face out in front of critically savaged hits like Cocktail — likable under the right circumstances, but lacking real depth. Oliver Stone saw something different, trusting Cruise with 1989’s Born on the Fourth of July — and Cruise repaid him by delivering the most harrowing performance to that point in his career, committing so deeply to his portrayal of paralyzed Vietnam vet Ron Kovic that, according to Stone, he came close to injecting himself with a solution that would have incurred temporary paralysis. Not all critics loved Fourth of July, but even those who had issues with the film were forced to take notice of Cruise’s performance — and for Vincent Canby of the New York Times, the end result was “the most ambitious nondocumentary film yet made about the entire Vietnam experience.”


1. Salvador

Stone’s films have received a combined 31 Academy Award nominations (and counting), but he picked up his first for his co-writing credit on the screenplay for Salvador, a 1986 war drama about a rather unlikable American journalist (James Woods, also nominated for an Oscar) 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.”

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

1. Platoon — 91%
2. JFK — 84%
3. Salvador — 83%
4. Natural Born Killers — 80%
5. The Doors — 79%
6. Wall Street — 78%
7. Talk Radio — 78%
8. Nixon — 72%
9. Any Given Sunday — 70%
10. Heaven & Earth — 70%

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


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