5. Driving Miss Daisy (1989) Directed by Bruce Beresford
In director Bruce Beresford’s superb, accomplished and Oscar winning film, Freeman plays Hoke Colburn, an African-American limousine driver. The film concentrates on his relationship with his charge, the Miss Daisy of the title, an elderly Jewish lady (an Oscar winning Jessica Tandy).
The beauty of the film, and the performances of both Tandy and Freeman, is the way that it shows, in microcosm, the changing face of the South in America in a gentle and highly accessible way.
Surprisingly, the film was overlooked for Best Director at the Oscars, leading host Billy Crystal to famously quip that this was the film ‘that directed itself’!
This was definitely something of an oversight, as Freeman and Tandy have a wonderful chemistry on screen, something that, as most of the films Freeman has acted in, goes back to the wonderful array of directors he has worked with during his career including, in this case, Beresford.
4. Million Dollar Baby (2004) Directed by Clint Eastwood
This exceptional film is another absolute high point in the latter career of actor/director Clint Eastwood. “Million Dollar Baby” is an incendiary and emotionally shattering drama about an aspiring female boxer (Oscar Winner Hilary Swank) and her relationship with her trainer Frankie Dunn (a never better Eastwood).
Freeman, finally winning a long overdue Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, plays Eddie Dupris, Dunn’s right hand man at the gym. Again providing voice over narration, Freeman here embodies a bruised kindness and wisdom in a world where those positive human qualities and traits are in short supply.
The film heads in a particular direction for most of its story until it pulls an emotionally devastating left turn about two thirds of the way through. As a viewer, Dupris is our guide through the film, especially the traumatic and haunting final act.
Again, like “The Shawshank Redemption”, this is a film that uses an unusual sense of focalisation in that we see the story from the perspective of a secondary character rather than a main one, something that Freeman as an actor truly excels in.
“Million Dollar Baby” is a truly outstanding film and a high point of all involved in front of and behind the camera.
3. Unforgiven (1992) Directed by Clint Eastwood
Part of a quartet of brilliant actors, including director Eastwood, Gene Hackman and the late Richard Harris, this was a revisionist western that was penetrating and precise in how it addressed violence and its repercussions.
Freeman plays Ned Logan, former partner of Eastwood’s Bill Munny, a gunslinger called out of retirement. The role that Freeman plays is illustrative of how men of his kind and colour were subjected to the cruel and barbaric racism of the time, here personified by Hackman’s Oscar winning performance as toxic, bitter and vindictive sheriff Little Bill Daggett.
One of the benchmarks of Eastwood’s career, “Unforgiven” truly excels in its acting, particularly Freeman, playing a decent man in indecent times.
Beautifully shot and acted, this was very much Eastwood’s love letter to the two men that influenced him most as a director, namely Don Siegel and Sergio Leone, both of which he worked with as an actor on numerous occasions.
2. Se7en (1995) Directed by David Fincher
Corrosive, abrasive and deeply disturbing, “Se7en” looks at a highly particular serial killer who is murdering people according to the Seven Deadly Sins.
A film that really gets under your skin, it announced director David Fincher as a major talent. Here, Freemen plays Detective William Sommerset, a man who is in a state of quiet despair about the moral bankruptcy of the world around him.
A very subtle and quiet performance, it is nonetheless deeply affecting, especially when confronted by the seven days and murders that Sommerset and his partner David Mills (Brad Pitt) are forced to confront and how it affects them as individuals.
Tense and unforgettable, this is a film where all of your cinematic elements combine in a particularly compelling and powerful way.
After the debacle that was “Alien 3”, which is a highly compromised film we finally saw onscreen due to the studio’s interference, this is the film where director David Fincher truly unleashed his powers and had creative control, displaying an incredible gift for the creation of atmosphere and mood, as well as getting highly committed and strong performances from his cast.
This was the first of several high points in Fincher’s career, including “Fight Club”, “Zodiac”, “The Social Network” and his stunning latest release, “Gone Girl”.
1. The Shawshank Redemption (1994) Directed by Frank Darabont
While something of a box office flop upon release, over the past twenty years, “The Shawshank Redemption” has become one of the most beloved films ever made.
In what was his feature film debut as a director, Frank Darabont brilliantly captured the essence and feel of one of author Stephen King’s non-horror stories. Based on a novella that made up one quarter of the novel “Different Seasons”, here Freeman plays Red, a lifer in Shawshank Prison. He befriends a wrongly jailed man, Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) and the film follows their friendship over a number of decades.
Where “Shawshank” truly shines is the chemistry between Robbins and Freeman. It is Red from whom we see events and share his perspective of where the story takes us. The film features a highly effective use of voice-over narrative from Freeman, as well as his superlative performance on screen.
One major change from the novella and one that is a brilliant change on screen, is that Red was originally a big, burly Irishman, hence the nickname is given. If they were sticking to the original source material closely, one could picture someone like the late Richard Harris in the role.
Apparently, at the stage of screen testing, Robbins and Freeman had such an incredible spark and chemistry that the decision was made to slightly deviate from the original source material. As many have seen, the film is much better for doing so.
Also, apparently Tom Cruise was interested in the Robbins role for some time, but refused to work with a first time director. His loss!
Along with Rob Reiner’s 1986 film “Stand By Me” (also based on a novella from the same novel that “Shawshank” comes from), this is classic film making that takes its time to get where it goes, but the rewards, especially on an acting level, are great.
For an author best known for his work in the horror genre, it’s somewhat ironic that the two best Stephen King adaptations to screen are purely character driven, deeply heartfelt and personal stories that have struck an immense chord with viewers across the world.
Over the past twenty years since its release, “The Shawshank Redemption” has gained the ‘classic’ status it so truly deserves. Simply put, this is classically beautiful filmmaking with two exceptional lead performances at the fore.
Author Bio: Neil is a journalist, labourer, forklift and truck driver. In a previous life, he was a projectionist for ten years. He is a lifelong student of cinema.