8. King Of New York (1990) Directed by Abel Ferrara
While something of a hit and miss director, Abel Ferrara is completely on form with this volatile and explosive gangster film, led by a powerhouse performance from the iconic Christopher Walken as lead character, drug lord and recent prison parolee Frank White.
Buscemi is Test Tube, one of White’s soldiers. The actor really captures the essence and spirit of a workaday criminal, making a career on one of the lower rungs of the gangster world.
The film features a vast and colourful array of characters and actors in the early stages of their career, such as David Caruso, Laurence Fishburne, Wesley Snipes and Paul Calderon, this is a raw, incredibly abrasive, in your face and gritty look at everyday life in New York at the turn of the decade, pre-gentrification and the clean-up of the city that occurred later in the Nineties.
7. Mystery Train (1989) Directed by Jim Jarmusch
A mere three years before Quentin Tarantino made his explosive cinematic debut with “Reservoir Dogs” in 1992, this film, the fourth from one of the figureheads of American independent cinema, director Jim Jarmusch, used a similar non-linear, circular narrative that Tarantino would later deploy in the 1994 film “Pulp Fiction”. “Mystery Train” comprises of three stories all set on one rainy Tuesday night in Memphis.
This adorable film features a wildly eclectic cast including musicians Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, former member of legendary British punk band The Clash Joe Strummer, Sy Richardson, Tom Noonan and Italian actress Nicolleta Braschi, wife of Jarmusch regular Roberto Beningni, who’s worked with the director on both 1986’s “Down By Law” and 1991’s “Night On Earth”, another Jarmusch film with a quirky and unique fracturing of time and chronology to it.
Buscemi plays Charlie The Barber, brother-in-law of Strummer’s character in the last chapter of the film, “Lost In Space”, bringing a sense of wiry, nervous energy that would become one of the actor’s stock in trade onscreen characteristics.
A gorgeous and unconventional meditation of those ‘outside of society’ and they way that lives can criss cross, this is an absolute gem of a film.
6. Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead (1995) Directed by Gary Fleder
Like “The Big Lebowski”, Gary Fleder’s “Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead” displays a brilliant skewering of what an audience expects of Buscemi as an actor.
Known for his nervous verbal energy, he plays Mr Shhh, an almost mute hit man. The effect of stripping Buscemi of his voice is incredibly effective and remarkably unnerving to watch.
This was a crime/gangster film that came out in the wake of the immense critical and financial success of Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” the year previous. While definitely a somewhat lesser known film in comparison, it does have a strong sense of its own personality and a strong ability in its depiction of a particular world of crime.
This film features a strong cast such as Andy Garcia, Bill Nunn, a terrific Treat Williams and Christopher Walken as the world’s deadliest quadriplegic, this is a film with a great sense of feel and personality to it.
5. Ghost World (2001) Directed by Terry Zwigoff
Out of the constantly high quality of the performances that Buscemi has put forward in a variety of films, his work in “Ghost World” is one of his finest hours.
In Terry Zwigoff’s finely balanced comedy-drama, based on the graphic novel by Daniel Cloves, Buscemi really shines as Seymour, a loner and collector of old 78rpm records who befriends Enid (a spot on Thora Birch), a loner and recent high school graduate who, like Ben Braddock before for in the generation defining 1967 Mike Nichols film “The Graduate”, has no idea what to do with her life.
Never condescending or clichéd, “Ghost World” proudly sticks out like a sore thumb in the crowded world of movies about teenage life. Buscemi and Birch have a nice mirror-like connection and chemistry onscreen, displaying the fact that, even later in one’s life, the point and purpose of being here can continue to elude and escape us as individual beings.
Again, “Ghost World” is one of the utter high points of the proudly talented and unique individual that is Mr Steve Buscemi.
4. Monsters Inc (2002) Directed by Pete Docter
In one the best films to come out of the beloved Pixar Studios, and again showing his versatility, Buscemi lends his voice to the character of Randall, an underhanded worker at the same factory as Mike and Sulley (Billy Crystal and John Goodman), pathologically determined to climb the corporate ladder by any means necessary.
A gleeful satire on the corporate world as well as a highly entertaining family film, “Monsters Inc” is a fantastic example of entertainment blessed with intelligence that works on numerous levels.
Buscemi proves to be a perfect fit vocally, providing a gleefully malicious vocal interpretation of the scummy, desperate individuals he has played onscreen in various incarnations during his career.
3. The Big Lebowski (1998) Directed by The Coen Brothers
Tapping into a Byzantium storyline that recalls the likes of Raymond Chandler on crack, this gleefully loopy and immensely enjoyable from The Coen Brothers features a nicely against type role for Buscemi, playing Donny, a quiet and reserved former surfer and bowling buddy to John Goodman’s obnoxious Walter and The Dude, a truly iconic performance and role from Jeff Bridges.
Words truly fail to capture the incredibly unpredictable and, at times, downright batshit crazy attitude and vibe of this truly unique film.
If you haven’t seen it already, you’re missing out big time!
2. Reservoir Dogs (1992) Directed by Quentin Tarantino
In director Quentin Tarantino’s explosive and unforgettable debut film, Buscemi brilliantly nails the volatile, unpredictable energy of Mr Pink, one of a number of gangsters put under pressure after a jewellery heist goes wrong.
While a bit theatrical in its depiction of criminals gathering together after a collective event in their lives goes pear shaped, it more than compensates for that small failing with its attitude and tough guy dialogue, something that the director would become famous for during his career.
“Reservoir Dogs”, featuring an exceptional and perfectly cast of actors including Harvey Keitel, Michael Madsen, Tim Roth and the late Chris Penn, is also notable for the way that it continually goes against where one expects it to go.
Deploying a non-linear narrative and never actually showing the heist at the centre of the story, it’s incredibly visceral in how it shows people under pressure and how they process that moment in time.
This is an absolute high point of the back catalogue of both Buscemi and his remarkable co-actors.
1. Fargo (1995) Directed by The Coen Brothers
“Fargo” was the film that really put The Coen Brothers on the cinematic world map. By this time, Buscemi was a regular for the sibling directors, having acted in small roles in “Miller’s Crossing”, “Barton Fink” and “The Hudsucker Proxy”. This was his first really meaty role for them, playing Carl, one of a pair of hit men, along with future Cohen regular Peter Stormare.
Again, that wiry, nervous and definitely sociopathic energy that Buscemi seems incredibly talented at capturing is to the fore here. The film has a brilliantly dark and sly sense of humour to it, part of which is where various characters describe Carl as ‘funny looking. Not attractive or ugly, just funny looking’.
One of the most accomplished and rounded films from The Coen Brothers, it has recently been turned into an excellent television series which, while not recounting the events of the film, plays out a highly entertaining parallel narrative set around the same places as this film.
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.