Total Recall

Total Recall: Russell Crowe's Best Movies

We count down the best-reviewed work of the Robin Hood star.

by | May 14, 2010 | Comments

Russell Crowe

One of a few actors blessed with the natural talent of a thespian and the pecs of an action star, Russell Crowe has spent the last 20 years racking up critical acclaim (including three Oscar nominations, one of which led to a Best Actor win) while building an eclectic resume filled with drama (A Beautiful Mind), action (Gladiator), and even a little romantic comedy (A Good Year). Critics may like to razz Crowe for his rock star dreams (not to mention the name of his old band, 30 Odd Foot of Grunts) and his periodic public temper tantrums, but the fact is, he’s amassed a surprisingly solid body of work. This weekend, Crowe puts his arrow-slinging and maiden-wooing skills to the test in Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, and to celebrate, we’re looking back at his best-reviewed films — Total Recall style!


10. Gladiator

The swords ‘n’ sandals genre had been pretty well left for dead by the time Ridley Scott took the helm of Gladiator — which might have something to do with why the project didn’t exactly race on its way to the screen, and why the script bounced around between three credited writers and countless adjustments before it debuted in May of 2000. But all’s well that ends well, and by the time audiences got their first glimpse of Russell Crowe as an unjustly enslaved Roman general, Gladiator had the look and feel of an Oscar winner. And win it did, piling up five Oscars (including Best Picture and Best Actor for Crowe) and a whopping $457 million worldwide gross. As for the critics? Well, they liked it too — including Jim Halverson of the Sacramento News & Review, who wrote, “Scott triumphantly transports us back to the Roman Empire circa 180 A.D. with a painter’s eye for detail, a proven talent for manufacturing exotic realities (such as the future shock of Blade Runner) and a sweet tooth for utter spectacle.”


9. A Beautiful Mind

Only a year after scoring his Best Actor Academy Award for Gladiator, Crowe resurfaced on Oscar ballots for his work in Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind, which dramatized the life of John Forbes Nash, Jr., a Nobel-winning economist whose struggles with schizophrenia have darkened a remarkable life. Though its historical accuracy was questioned, and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman was accused of cherry-picking details from Nash’s life to make him a more sympathetic character, the result was still a film that grossed more than $300 million and earned four Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Best Director, as well as another Best Actor nomination for Crowe). As Bob Bloom of Lafayette Journal and Courier wrote, “A brilliant performance by Russell Crowe, who takes his audience on a terrifying journey inside a man tormented by self-created mental demons, propels A Beautiful Mind.”


8. American Gangster

Crowe reunited with Ridley Scott for this sprawling, torn-from-the-headlines drama about Harlem-based heroin smuggler Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) and his years-long struggle to evade the scrutiny of Richie Roberts, the relentless cop who dogged Lucas’ operation. As Roberts, Crowe got to sink his teeth into an uncommonly complex character — a guy whose unswerving honesty made him unpopular with his peers, but whose messy personal life belied a lack of honor and discipline that stood in stark contrast to his adversary’s (admittedly screwy) moral code. Released in November 2007, American Gangster was expected to be a major Oscar contender, and though it mostly disappointed on that front, netting only two nominations (including Best Supporting Actress for Ruby Dee), Gangster was still a sizable hit, especially considering its two-and-a-half-hour length. In the words of Chris Vognar of the Dallas Morning News, “Ridley Scott packs the film with period detail and vivid, violent energy reminiscent of high-grade Scorsese, then mixes in a Lumet-like, keenly observed outrage at systemic corruption.”


7. Cinderella Man

One good biopic deserves another, so Crowe and his A Beautiful Mind director, Ron Howard, reunited for another life story — the tale of Depression-era heavyweight champion James J. Braddock, who was dubbed “The Cinderella Man” even before he overcame 10-to-1 odds and defeated Max Baer to claim his title. Surrounded by a top-shelf cast that included Renee Zellweger, Paddy Considine, and Paul Giamatti (who received one of the film’s three Oscar nominations), Crowe embodied both the raw physicality and the inner struggle of a fighter who risked his health, and his marriage, to stay in the ring. Though Cinderella Man wasn’t a Beautiful Mind-sized hit, it did break the $100 million mark — and it earned the admiration of most critics, including Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly, who wrote, “How exceptional a film actor is Russell Crowe? So exceptional that in Cinderella Man, he makes a good boxing movie feel at times like a great, big picture.”


6. State of Play

Times are tough for reporters in the real world, but in Hollywood, they’re still good for the occasional hard-bitten thriller. Case in point: Kevin Macdonald’s State of Play, which adapts the BBC miniseries about a reporter (Russell Crowe) investigating the death of a Capitol Hill staffer (Maria Thayer) who had been involved in an extramarital affair with a Congressman (Ben Affleck). Loaded with enough old-school intrigue to provoke a slew of All the President’s Men comparisons, State of Play is the kind of thinking man’s thriller that’s all too rare these days (and with an $87 million gross against its $60 million budget, it’s painfully easy to see why studios have lost interest). Even if audiences weren’t in the mood for a political murder mystery, most critics were taken with Play, including Christopher Tookey of the Daily Mail, who wrote, “Even if you don’t normally bother with movies, cheer yourself up by seeing this. There hasn’t been a more engrossing or intelligent political thriller in the past three decades.”


5. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Nominated for an impressive 10 Academy Awards, Peter Weir’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is an aquatic epic every bit as huge as its title, and a bid to launch a film franchise from Patrick O’Brian’s lengthy series of books about 19th century British Navy Captain Jack Aubrey (played here by Crowe) and his ship’s surgeon, Dr. Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany). Over two hours of ocean pursuit, cannon fire, and righteous fury from Crowe, Master and Commander pits Aubrey’s outmatched ship against a mysterious (and deadly) member of Napoleon’s fleet, with battles stretching halfway around the world (hence that unwieldy title). Though it only performed, in Weir’s words, “well…ish” at the box office, Master proved a sturdy critical vessel, earning praise from the likes of Cole Smithey, who called it “an expansive cinematic achievement that sits well against such adventure classics as Lawrence of Arabia, and a sure bet for fans of ocean-bound drama.”


4. 3:10 to Yuma

James Mangold wasn’t the first director to try his hand at adapting Elmore Leonard’s short story 3:10 to Yuma — that honor goes to Delmer Daves’ 1957 production, starring Glenn Ford and Van Heflin — but when you get to pit Russell Crowe (as the ruthless outlaw Ben Wade) against Christian Bale (as Dan Evans, the down-on-his-luck Civil War vet bent on bringing Wade to justice), you can sacrifice a few originality points for the sake of simple, vintage Western action. In any event, more than a few critics enjoyed the 2007 Yuma more than its predecessor — and despite being overshadowed in an unusually Western-heavy fall slate (which included No Country for Old Men and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), this dusty shoot-’em-up earned the admiration of scribes like Christian Toto of the Washington Times, who wrote, “If 3:10 to Yuma can’t resuscitate the Western, nothing will.”


3. Proof

The setup for Jocelyn Moorhouse’s Proof might sound like a bad joke (so a blind photographer, his housekeeper, and their friend walk into a…), but instead of laughs, this award-winning Australian export uses its unusual framework to impart some dramatic lessons about love and the human condition. Crowe, in one of his earliest film roles, stars opposite Hugo Weaving, who plays the aforementioned photographer; between them lies the duplicitous Celia (Geneviève Picot), who uses her unrequited crush on Weaving’s character as an excuse for some callous funny business that leads to impassioned soliloquies and hurt feelings all around. Barely noticed here in the States, Proof was heavily honored at the 1991 Australian Film Institute Awards, winning Best Film and Best Director, along with acting honors for Crowe and Weaving. Writing for the Washington Post, Desson Thomson noted, “There are adroit little truths everywhere, touching on blindness, cruelty, loneliness, deception and love. Writer/director Jocelyn Moorhouse has a dynamic knack for psychological twists, and for suspense in the unlikeliest of places.”


2. The Insider

Crowe picked up his first Best Actor Oscar nomination for his work in this Michael Mann film, which dramatizes the real-life story of Jeffrey Wigand (played by Crowe), the tobacco executive whose willingness to speak the truth about his industry’s unsavory activities helped lead to a massive financial settlement — and some rather incredible behind-the-scenes drama at CBS News, where a 60 Minutes report on Wigand was temporarily silenced despite the best efforts of producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino). As you might imagine, neither Wigand nor Bergman ended up terribly popular with their superiors, and some of the same interests that fought to keep their story silenced also worked to blunt The Insider‘s commercial prospects; in fact, in some cities, Wigand’s former employer sent representatives to screenings of the film to hand out cards directing filmgoers to an 800 number providing a more company-friendly spin on the story. For whatever reason, The Insider never really caught on with audiences, but it was a critical and awards season favorite, netting no fewer than seven Academy Award nominations. Not bad for a movie that, as more than one critic pointed out, spent two and a half hours talking about tobacco. As Andrew Sarris put it in his review for the New York Observer, “What I didn’t expect was an intelligently absorbing entertainment that ran for two hours and 40 minutes, during which I didn’t once look at my watch — just about the highest praise I can bestow upon a film these days.”


1. L.A. Confidential

By the mid-1990s, Crowe had kicked around the film industry for several years, and picked up a few parts that made waves on the international and/or festival circuit — but he didn’t land his breakout role until Curtis Hanson cast him as LAPD Officer Bud White in L.A. Confidential. Exploding with violent rage one moment, unexpectedly tender the next, White is just as subtly shaded and complex as the film itself. Based on James Ellroy’s 1990 mystery novel of the same name, L.A. Confidential plunged audiences into an authentic-seeming recreation of 1950s Hollywood, with cops on the take, bottom-feeding paparazzi, and at least one call girl with a heart of gold (played by Kim Basinger in an Academy Award-winning performance). Ostensibly one of the film’s leading men, Crowe was such an unknown at the time of its release that he’s barely visible on the poster, but that wouldn’t last for long — thanks in part to the voluminous amounts of praise heaped on Confidential by critics such as Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times, who wrote, “Its intricate plot is so nihilistic and cold around the heart, its nominal heroes so amoral, so willing to sell out anyone and everyone, that the film is as initially unnerving as it is finally irresistible.”

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

1. Proof — 96%
2. Gladiator — 95%
3. L.A. Confidential — 95%
4. The Insider — 95%
5. 3:10 to Yuma — 93%
6. Cinderella Man — 93%
7. A Beautiful Mind — 92%
8. American Gangster — 91%
9. State of Play — 90%
10. The Sum of Us — 88%

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

Finally, here’s Crowe singing with 30 Odd Foot Of Grunts:

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