Total Recall

What Are Josh Brolin's Best Movies?

In this week's Total Recall, we count down the best-reviewed work of the Labor Day star.

by | January 30, 2014 | Comments

Josh Brolin

From Hollywood scion to treasure-hunting screen teen to Oscar-nominated star, Josh Brolin has had one heck of a journey during his acting career — and with several big films on deck for wide release in 2014, it shows no signs of stopping anytime soon. Given that his appearance opposite Kate Winslet in Jason Reitman’s Labor Day is going wide this weekend, we thought now would be the perfect time to applaud some of the brighter critical highlights in Mr. Brolin’s filmography. Goonies never say die, but they do get Total Recall!


10. The Goonies

One of the defining cult classics of the 1980s, The Goonies united a cast of young stars (including Corey Feldman, Sean Astin, and Ke Huy Quan), a slightly older trio (Kerri Green, Martha Plimpton, and Brolin), three seasoned character actors (Anne Ramsey, Joe Pantoliano, and Robert Davi), and a heavily made-up former football player (John Matuszak) in the fantastical, Spielberg-inspired tale of a group of kids who go hunting for some legendary pirate treasure in a last-ditch effort to save their families’ homes from a smarmy developer (Curtis Hanson). A fairly big hit in 1985, it’s gone on to enjoy near-mythic status among grown-up kids of the 1980s, and for very good reason: As Ryan Cracknell wrote for Movie Views, “Whether it’s an organ that threatens death if the wrong note is played, a wishing well that talks back to you or a pirate ship, the surface of The Goonies is all about a child’s innocence and faith in the unlikely.”


9. Men in Black III

It wasn’t exactly a sequel that many people were clamoring for after its relatively underwhelming predecessor, but Men in Black III was pretty much a foregone conclusion once Columbia Pictures finished counting the $441 million generated by Men in Black II. Fortunately — and surprisingly — the series’ third installment turned out to be a creative rebound, using a time-travel twist to send Agent J (Will Smith) back to 1969 in an effort to save Agent K (Brolin, perfectly cast as a younger version of Tommy Lee Jones) from being killed by the nefarious Boris the Animal (Jermaine Clement). “Brolin’s performance is funny, masterful, confident, and more than a little unsettling,” marveled Ty Burr in his review for the Boston Globe. “If one human being can sample another, that’s what’s going on here.”


8. In the Valley of Elah

Writer-director Paul Haggis followed up his Oscar-winning Crash with another sober take on a thorny issue: In the Valley of Elah, starring Tommy Lee Jones and Susan Sarandon in the fact-based story of parents desperately trying to uncover the circumstances leading to the death of their son (Jonathan Tucker), a soldier who survived Iraq only to fall victim to a grisly murder. Thwarted by military officials and a disinterested sheriff (Brolin), Jones relies on his own military training — and some help from a compassionate detective (Charlize Theron) — to bring his son’s killers to justice. “It’s a testament to Elah‘s stoicism that the heartbreak at how dishonesty undoes decades of dignity pierces without ever patronizing,” wrote Nick Rogers for Suite101. “It’s an unforgettable, angry film that understands several simple thank-yous can trump eruptive, emotive speeches.”


7. The Dead Girl

Writer-director Karen Moncrieff earned richly deserved raves for this eminently creepy ensemble drama, starring Brittany Murphy as a murder victim whose lifeless body sends multiple lives spiraling into chaos and heartbreak. Appearing in a supporting role during the movie’s fifth and final segment, Brolin wasn’t given the same amount of screen time he’d be afforded in subsequent films, but for fans of his work, The Dead Girl served as a reminder that he still knew how to pick a decent script. “Those who pass on The Dead Girl are missing something,” warned the Seattle Times’ Moira Macdonald. “Moncrieff has assembled a remarkable (and mostly female) cast, and there are moments in this film that are as powerful as anything currently in theaters.”


6. Planet Terror

How often does a guy have the chance to play an unscrupulous doctor caught in the midst of a genetically engineered psycho outbreak while his wife plots to run off with Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas? Maybe once in a lifetime, if you’re Josh Brolin and you end up starring in Planet Terror, the Robert Rodriguez half of 2007’s Grindhouse, which found Rodriguez working alongside Quentin Tarantino to deliver smut-starved filmgoers a few hours of trashy thrills. “While this is the Grindhouse film that suffers most from being presented solo, it’s still the most fun,” mused Empire’s Nick de Semlyen. “Watch with beer in hand and tongue in cheek for optimal effect.”


5. American Gangster

Part of the banner year that also found him starring in No Country for Old Men, In the Valley of Elah, and Planet Terror, Ridley Scott’s American Gangster put Brolin in the middle of an impeccably assembled cast that included Denzel Washington (as titular gangster Frank Lucas) and Russell Crowe (as Richie Roberts, the detective whose dogged pursuit of Lucas was unnecessarily complicated by his crooked partner, played by Brolin). With such heavy hitters involved — and a real-life story serving as the inspiration for their on-screen antics — many critics expected more than they got with Gangster, but it was still a sizeable hit at the box office, and for some scribes, Scott’s take on Lucas’ tale was no less powerful for its familiarity. “Scott’s not interested in fireworks,” argued Amy Nicholson for I.E. Weekly, “but small implosions of the soul and ego.”


4. Flirting with Disaster

It probably isn’t the first movie that comes to mind when people think of Josh Brolin’s acting career, but give David O. Russell’s Flirting with Disaster this much: It’s the film that gave us the indelible sight of Brolin licking Patricia Arquette’s armpit. Starring Ben Stiller as a man desperate to meet his birth parents and Brolin as a — long story — bisexual ATF agent who ends up wrapped up in Stiller’s quest, Disaster cemented Russell’s early reputation as a guy with a gift for expertly oddball comedies; as Roger Ebert observed, “There are conventions in this sort of story, and Russell seems to violate most of them. He allows the peculiarities of his characters to lead them away from the plot line and into perplexities of their own.”


3. Milk

Every hero needs a villain — and although Brolin has displayed a willingness to play evil on more than one occasion, he might have thought twice about taking the part of Dan White, the unbalanced San Francisco city supervisor who assassinated Harvey Milk (played by Sean Penn) in the horrific 1978 incident that brought Milk’s groundbreaking political career to a heartbreaking end. How do you imbue a guy like White — who went on to make headlines by invoking the infamous “Twinkie defense” during his murder trial — with real humanity? It was Penn who walked away with the Best Actor Oscar, but Brolin picked up a Best Supporting Actor nomination — and his work helped inspire Tom Long of the Detroit News to write, “Progress is slow, but Harvey Milk was one of the first to set the wheels in motion. He more than deserves a movie this good.”


2. No Country for Old Men

Brolin worked steadily during the 1990s, but for the most part, it was a pretty grim period for his filmography, critically speaking — even when he worked with big-name directors (as he did for Woody Allen’s Melinda and Melinda) or scored roles in high-profile projects (such as The Mod Squad and Hollow Man), the stars didn’t quite align. That all changed with No Country for Old Men, the Coen brothers’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel about a poor rancher (Brolin) who stumbles across a pile of ill-gotten cash and finds himself in the crosshairs of a psychotic bounty hunter (Javier Bardem). Not exactly the feel-good movie of the year, but No Country hit with a wallop, revitalizing Brolin’s career and reaping a wave of critical hosannas from writers like Time Out’s Geoff Andrew, who enthused, “A masterly tale of the good, the deranged and the doomed that inflects the raw violence of the west with a wry acknowledgement of the demise of codes of honour, this is frighteningly intelligent and imaginative.”


1. True Grit

If you’re going to remake a movie as well-known (and critically beloved) as John Wayne’s True Grit, you’ll need a few things to make it work, including tons of chutzpah and a whole bunch of talent on the set. Fortunately for filmgoers, the 2010 version of the movie not only satisfied all of the above requirements — with the Coen brothers behind the cameras and an outstanding cast that included Brolin, Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and (making her unforgettable debut) Hailee Steinfeld — but it brought something new to the table in the bargain, focusing on the story as told in Charles Portis’ novel rather than trying to out-Duke the Duke. The result was as charmingly idiosyncratic as you’d expect from the Coens, with Bridges and Damon affecting entertainingly outrageous frontier accents in their characters’ pursuit of the scumbag (Brolin) who murdered the father of a feisty young girl (Steinfeld), and picked up an impressive 10 Oscar nominations. While it didn’t win any, it did earn plenty of accolades from critics like Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir, who wrote, “Some people are expressing amazement that Joel and Ethan Coen would set out to make a classic western in the first place, and then that they’d accomplish it. All I can say is that those folks haven’t been paying attention.”

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

1. The Goonies — 91%
2. Milk — 89%
3. American Gangster — 87%
4. No Country for Old Men — 86%
5. True Grit — 85%
6. Planet Terror — 78%
7. In the Valley of Elah — 77%
8. Men in Black III — 71%
9. Flirting With Disaster — 69%
10. Bed of Roses — 68%

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

Finally, here’s Brolin in a totally rad scene from Thrashin’:

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