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Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s 10 Best Performances

Matthew Newlin Matthew Newlin
September 29th, 2012 12:00pm EDT

JGL

10. Angels in the Outfield (dir. William Dear, 1994)

It’s easy to forget that JGL began his career at a very early age. His first starring performance, when he was roughly 12 years old, was the endearing and surprisingly entertaining Disney remake of Angels in the Outfield. As Roger, an orphan who prays for the Los Angeles Angels baseball team to win the pennant, JGL had to act opposite some pretty heavy hitters (Christopher Lloyd, Danny Glover, Tony Danza, Dermot Mulroney), but managed to still give an impressively mature performance.

JGL’s work in Angels in the Outfield showed clear signs that, even though he was young, he had the potential to become a very good actor, able to balance light-hearted comedy and emotional honesty. Whereas many (really, most) child actors fade away after a few early on-screen roles, JGL has stuck around to take on a wide range of complex and challenging roles.

9. 3rd Rock from the Sun (creators Bonnie Turner and Terry Turner, 1996-2001)

His next big success was landing a supporting role on the strangely entertaining sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun, which ran on ABC for six seasons and earned co-star John Lithgow more than a few accolades. JGL played an alien who takes the form of an adolescent human so he and the rest of his crew can observe and learn from the Earthlings. As a fully evolved (and grown up) alien being, it was always funny to watch “Tommy Solomon” have to dumb himself down so as to not give himself away.

JGL showed off his natural comedic sense of timing in nearly every episode of 3rd Rock, expressing the repressed feelings of a teenage boy and the frustrations of a more intelligent being having to deal with humans’ inexplicable stupidity. Luckily for JGL, 3rd Rock ended before it became too repetitive which could have serious hurt his chances for future projects.

8. Uncertainty (dir. Scott McGhee & David Siegel, 2009)

In this little seen indie gem, JGL gives one of his most underrated and nuanced performances to date. In parallel stories of the same day in their lives, Bobby (Gordon-Levitt) and Kate (Lynn Collins) face life-changing events. In one timeline, they struggle with the realization that Kate is pregnant and whether they are prepared for this. In the other timeline, Bobby finds a Blackberry in the back of a cab and tries to return it to its owner. The phone, though, is carrying some incredibly dangerous and expensive information and Bobby and Kate are soon being pursued by some anonymous organization that wants whatever is in the phone.

Playing one character facing two drastically different days is a challenge right up JGL’s alley. He gives Bobby depth and believability with the way he handles everything thrown his way, whether it is a disapproving family or a faceless criminal with a gun.

7. Killshot (dir. John Madden, 2008)

Killshot is not a great movie or even all that good, but it’s worth watching for JGL’s most over-the-top performance yet. He plays Richie Nix, a loudmouth and impulsive petty criminal who gets hooked up with a quiet, pensive hit man (Mickey Rourke). The movie is quite simplistic and sometimes barely makes sense, but JGL is a blast to watch, speaking in a ridiculous Southern accent with the temper of Yosemite Sam. It’s just pure fun.

6. (500) Days of Summer (dir. Marc Webb, 2009)

Undoubtedly, the movie that launched JGL into the mainstream spotlight was the quirky indie comedy (500) Days of Summer. The film was a creative and inventive look at how relationships can change when we are looking back at them from a distance. JGL gives not only a great comedic (and musical) performance, but a moving one as well. (500) Days of Summer proved that he could be a leading man, provide comic relief, deal with serious emotional scenes and plenty more.

5. Looper (dir. Rian Johnson, 2012)

JGL’s newest film will long be remembered as one of his best. In this brilliant sci-fi adventure, he plays Joe, a “Looper” who kills people who are sent back from the future, then disposes of the bodies. With the help of some impressive prosthetics, JGL manages to convince the audience that he really could pass as a younger Bruce Willis, who plays Old Joe. His performance is amazing not just for how well he nails Willis’ mannerisms and speech, but that he is able to prove himself as an action star in one of the most intelligent time travel movies of all-time.  

4. Brick (dir. Rian Johnson, 2005)

In their first collaboration together, Johnson found the perfect (and likely only) actor who could pull off this hyper-realistic, high school noir. With rapid-fire dialogue and witty barbs being traded, Brick takes all the great film noir tropes and cranks them up to eleven. In the film, Brendan (Gordon-Levitt) is investigating the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend. With the seriousness of The Maltese Falcon or Double Indemnity, the film follows Brendan as he tracks down her last whereabouts, complete with a visit to his informer, a sit down with a drug kingpin and a beating from a hired enforcer. Oh, and these are all high school kids. As the film’s protagonist, the entire tone of the movie rests on his shoulders and he expertly conveys the experience Johnson intended the audience to have.

3. The Dark Knight Rises (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2012)

While Christopher Nolan’s final installment in his Batman trilogy was divisive among audiences and critics, there was one solid consensus: Gordon-Levitt’s performance as police officer John Blake was the heart and soul of the movie. For the first time, JGL plays the everyman character as Blake. He is just a regular guy who wants to do what is right. He is also one of the few people in Gotham City who believes in Batman after he disappeared in disgrace.

The reason his performance is so good is the moral conviction with which he approaches the role. Blake is like Batman in a number of ways, but he believes in following the law to stop crime, not circumventing it while wearing a mask and cape. In the film’s most earnest scene, Blake tells Bruce Wayne about the first time he saw him at the orphanage where he grew up. The monologue is moving because JGL delivers it as if his world depends on convincing the audience to listen because, for Blake, that is actually the case.

2. Mysterious Skin (dir. Gregg Araki, 2004)

After six seasons on an incredibly popular and successful sitcom, JGL decided that if he was going to be seen as a serious actor, he would have to take on a role that would prove his talent and willingness to take risks. With Mysterious Skin, he was able to prove both while also securing his spot as a hot commodity in the world of indie filmmaking.

In the movie, JGL plays Neil, a teenage hustler and male prostitute that barely scrapes by performing sexual favors for closeted middle-aged men. His story intersects with Brian’s (Brady Corbet) and the two young men discover that they have a very dark and disturbing shared past. In possibly his bravest and most exposed performance, JGL attacks the character with a ferocity not often seen from him. We believe he is Neil and that he is haunted by his childhood. While some of the film’s more graphic moments may be uncomfortable (the film was released as NC-17), it is worth watching for another incredible performance from JGL.

1. The Lookout (dir. Scott Frank, 2007)

Though The Lookout was pretty much overlooked when it was released in 2007 and never managed to connect strongly with audiences, JGL gives his best performance to date as a young man who is struggling to deal with a traumatic brain injury that makes learning even the simplest tasks a frustrating ordeal. As Chris Pratt, JGL often has a blank expression on his face, as if he is just not able to connect the dots quickly enough, but never once appears absent. Chris was a high school hockey hero, but is now relegated to night janitor at a bank in his small town.

Throughout the film, JGL balances Chris’ naturally calm demeanor with a boiling anger that is ever present just below the surface. Chris wants to be his old self, smart and popular, but he is essentially lost at sea, floating through a world where it seems like everyone is moving at warp speed around him. This disconnect is what gets Chris in trouble when he falls into a group of small-time criminals, led by the smooth-talking Gary Spargo (Matthew Goode).

The film is brilliantly structured and writer/director Scott Frank, who wrote Out of Sight, gives JGL plenty of room to develop the character that is written on the page. The Lookout is required reading for any fans of JGL and anyone hoping to become an actor because it is a Master class in subtlety and conviction.

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