With Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut, Don Jon, due out in theatres next month, it’s about time we take a look back on the versatile writer-director’s very long filmography, featuring two decades’ worth of classics. Sure, you’ve seen the big name stuff like (500) Days of Summer, 10 Things I Hate About You, Inception and The Dark Knight Rises, but true JGL fans know there’s much more to our favorite 3rd Rock alum than Heath Ledger and Christopher Nolan. The man’s got depth.
Here are 11 JGL movies that you should pull up on that Netflix of yours. If it’s not streaming there, there’s this thing called the internet. I trust that you’ll find it somewhere.
1. Mysterious Skin
The movie that announced Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an actor to watch, Mysterious Skin is New Queer Cinema filmmaker Gregg Araki’s finest work by far, a movie as heartbreaking as it is emotionally challenging. It’s one of the most painfully gorgeous movies I’ve ever seen, which is strange in a movie largely about pedophilia, and Gordon-Levitt gives a performance as conflicted as the film around him, recalling a young Brando. Oscar still owes him a nomination for this one.
2. The Lookout
Another of Gordon-Levitt’s Brandoesque turns, this underrated 2007 crime flick was Scott Frank’s directorial debut. Frank wrote the screenplays for such thriller classics as Minority Report and Out of Sight — and then later wrote Marley and Me, for some reason — and he proves himself as adept as directing action as he is writing it. It helps that his cast is superb all around — from the reliably smarmy Matthew Goode to Isla Fisher, Carla Gugino and Jeff Daniels. It helps when you don’t have to give a great performance in a vaccum, and this is a perfect vehicle for JGL.
Fun fact for Parks and Rec fans: JGL’s name in the movie is Chris Pratt.
From the director of The Wackness and Warm Bodies, 50/50 was one of 2011’s biggest surprises, a cancer comedy does everything exactly right. Based on screenwriter Will Reiser’s own experiences, 50/50 was an acerbic dramedy that doubled as a dark comedy and a realistic look at the ways in which we deal with trauma. It was simultaneously bawdy and wise, a hard mix to pull off; it was so good that even Seth Rogen couldn’t screw it up.
(500) Days of Summer fans, did you know that wasn’t the first time Zooey Deschanel and JGL appeared in a movie together? For their first pairing, look to Manic, a surprisingly grounded 2001 mental institution drama. Hollywood has a habit of going over-the-top when it comes to mental illness, but Manic does a great job of finding the humanity behind the melancholy. It’s anything but an upper, but the movie gives us something better: honesty.
5 – 6. Looper/Brick
Joseph Gordon-Levitt has quickly become budding auteur Rian Johnson’s muse, and it’s easy to see why: Johnson is nothing without JGL. (For proof, see his 2008 Wes Anderson knockoff The Brothers Bloom.) Looper and Brick are two of the finest genre films of the last decade, giving noir the modern twist it deserves by translating it to science fiction and high school. Gordon-Levitt shows he’s a natural Bogart — able to be tough, wry and surprisngly vulnerable, the perfect noir hero. Mitchum would have been proud.
Before it can’t figure out how to end (and just doesn’t), Kimberly Peirce’s 2007 Iraq drama gets wonderful performances out of its cast, particularly the unsung Abbie Cornish and Gordon-Levitt, who plays a soldier battling PTSD. The film is reminiscent of 1970’s films like The Deer Hunter, which I think makes JGL Christopher Walken. He can do Brando and Bogart, so why not cinema’s favorite awkwardly inflected character actor? I’m all about more cowbell.
8. A River Runs Through It
Many people forget that Joseph Gordon-Levitt has been acting since he was a wee lass, and even as a child actor, he was making wise career choices. (Admit it: You still love Angels in the Outfield.) His finest early film was A River Runs Through It, Robert Redford’s elegiac and tender Montana drama starring Brad Pitt. It’s an old-fashioned yarn in the best sense, and a great indication of things to come for the young actor.
The movie itself is kind of a hot mess (and poor Natalie Portman is wildly miscast in it), but Joseph Gordon-Levitt is as great as the movie is clueless. Covered in tattoos and perpetually smoking, Gordon-Levitt plays a nilihistic squatter who wreaks havoc on those around him. His performance is delightfully unhinged, giving him the chance to go nuts on the movie for an hour and a half. He takes the movie to another level.
10. Premium Rush
The trailers for Premium Rush made it look kind of dumb, but Joseph Gordon-Levitt perfectly anchors what turns out to be a clever little white-knuckle thriller, one that uses it’s high-concept premise for good instead of evil. (It’s basically Speed on a bike.) JGL also has the scene-chewing Michael Shannon to play off, who makes every movie he’s in infinitely better.
Okay, don’t freak out. I don’t think this movie is good. Shadowboxer is absolutely awful, in just about every way a movie can be bad. But directed by The Paperboy‘s Lee Daniels, it’s gloriously, passionately, feverishly bad, completely committed to a world in which Cuba Gooding Jr. and Helen Mirren can make a believable couple. If that’s not enough, JGL dates Monique — because Lee Daniels does not know what casting is. This is one of those rare bad movies you need to watch right now, just to tell everyone you know about it. You won’t be sorry.
Also, JGL’s still pretty great in it, but when isn’t he great? It’s the one thing in life you can count on. The sun rises, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt is wonderful. These are the laws of nature. It’s science.