Joseph Gordon-Levitt is 34 years old. In those 34 years he has quickly become one of the most interesting and recognizable actors of his generation. Flitting between prestigious challenging indie films and hyper-budgeted blockbusters without hesitation he is versatile, ambitious and normally always charming.
Having started his acting career in A River Runs Through It, Angels in the Outfield and sitcom 3rd Rock From the Sun he could be compared career-wise to a younger Leonardo DiCaprio or Christian Bale, both of whom he has shared screen-time. He’s worked with Steven Spielberg (Lincoln), Christopher Nolan (Inception, The Dark Knight Rises), Greg Araki (Mysterious Skin) and has a seemingly symbiotic relationship with Rian Johnson (if he doesn’t appear in upcoming Star Wars VIII, it will be Johnson’s first film without his lucky charm).
Not only this but Gordon-Levitt has founded his own online production company (hitRECord) and in 2013 he wrote, acted in and directed his debut feature film (Don Jon).
It has not all been success of course. He was in shoddy Halloween sequel Halloween H2O: 20 Years Later in a role so minor that he is not even on the poster. Despite working with a legend like Robert Rodriguez the resulting film was the lukewarmly received Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For while his casting in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra he’d probably rather forget.
That’s not to say that every sequel with his presence is not worth your time – The Dark Knight Rises is a fair shout for the greatest threequel ever, though not everyone was onboard with his character’s final reveal. An interesting side note – Gordon-Levitt is in a fair few films with numbers in their titles that are not sequels; this list includes three great examples.
By the end of this year this list will be obsolete as there will be two more films in competition for a spot on Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s top 10. He will soon play famed acrobat Phillipe Petit in the Robert Zemeckis-directed The Walk, before finishing the year by starring as infamous secrets-revealer Edward Snowden in Oliver Stone’s Snowden.
With that directing talent behind him and based-in-fact stories to draw performances from it would be frivolous to bet against Gordon-Levitt receiving his first Oscar nominations in the upcoming awards season. Until then we can admire his work thus far. Here are his 10 films you must watch.
10. 50/50 (2011)
Cancer has had a history of being a dramatic device in cinema, but mostly in the form of “weepies” like Terms of Endearment and Love Story before becoming in vogue in darkly comic teen romances like The Fault of Our Stars and the hilarious Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. The film that bridged the gap between the tear-stained weepies and the edgier cancer-comedies was 50/50, and was advertised as that: “The R-Rated Cancer Comedy”.
Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) finds out that he has a rare strain of back cancer and is given a fifty-fifty chance of survival. With the help of Seth Rogen’s crude, blowjob-joke spouting best friend and Anna Kendrick’s young, inexperienced doctor he undergoes chemo-therapy in an attempt to fight the disease.
Originally James McAvoy was lined up to play Adam but due to not wanting to miss his child’s birth he was replaced by Gordon-Levitt. McAvoy can do afflicted very well, but his experience is in those that cannot walk (Inside I’m Dancing, X-Men: Days of Future Past), but now the part would not be the same without Gordon-Levitt’s brand of nervous deadpan charm.
Rare for a comedy film, 50/50 has Gordon-Levitt showing Robert DeNiro-levels of method acting greatness in that he actually shaved his head on camera, in a single take, with Rogen attempting not to laugh behind him.
That shows an outstanding level of commitment to the acting profession but also empathy for the cancer community. Has he gone this deep for a role since? Not really. 50/50 also shows Gordon-Levitt’s slight link to the whole Apatow-produced comedy empire, via Rogen which resurfaced with his puppy-filled cameo in The Interview.
9. Treasure Planet (2002)
An attempt for Disney to out do Pixar’s recent innovations (the jaw-dropping Monsters Inc. was released the year precious) with their own visually impressive advances while continuing to make an essentially traditionally animated film. Treasure Planet was the first major flop Disney had suffered since before The Little Mermaid.
It signalled the beginning of Disney’s critical and commercial decline, which they have only just recently recovered from with Tangled and Frozen. While those films are secure in Disney’s comfort zone, combining Broadway song-writing with merchandise-ready Princess sensibility, Treasure Planet was one of the last true risks from Mouse House animation, and the ambition of the project is palpable.
Based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island retrofitted with a steam-punk makeover. Instead of oceans, galleons and parrots on shoulders there are star-strewn dark matter, intergalactic cruisers and polymorphous goo things for sidekicks. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Jim joins a voyage across the universe in search for an infinite treasure, with the no-nonsense Captain Amelia (Emma Thompson) and bumbling Dr. Dobbler (David Hyde Pierce) in tow.
Apart from the seamlessly integrated CGI environments, the real marvel is the Cyborg John Silver, not only a technical marvel due to his half animation half-CGI composition, but a morally greyer Villain than Disney are used to – he has his selfish impulses but also acts as a replacement father figure for Jim.
Jim himself is very much a product of the time, a Generation-Xer with faintly silly hair and “whatever” attitude. Being Gordon-Levitt the character has charm, but still follows the same template for every Disney hero since Aladdin: a dreamer not content in his current position, smart, kind-hearted, quick on his feet but sadly father-less.
Treasure Planet is not his only foray into animation voiceover, Gordon-Levitt also had a voice role twelve years later in the English-cast of the beautiful final Hayao Miyazaki Ghibli film The Wind Rises.
8. Hesher (2010)
First appearing, long straggle-haired and torso-tattooed from a building site ready to brawl, Hesher, an ominous unknown slacker figure, is unlike any other role Joseph Gordon-Levitt has played – a psycho, but, because it is Gordon-Levitt and can’t help it, a personable psycho. His name, though probably not his actual name, means simply “metalhead”.
It is never made completely certain who or what Hesher is, and that is part of the film’s charm – there is room for interpretation. Could Hesher be the reincarnation of late Metallica bassist Cliff Burton, sent to sort out a young child’s life in the face of vehicular mother death? Quite possibly, but just as likely not.
The story of TJ, a kid who is not having the best time of life: ignored at home, bullied at school and the recent loss of his mother exacerbates his situation. Enter Hesher. Fitting the role of mentor and antagonist in equal measure the film has fun playing with the audiences expectations of what is expected of him. As a guardian angel/mentor type Hesher is definitely a one-off, spouting metaphorical stories that have no real-world parallels and threatening extreme hurt onto his protectee.
All of Hesher’s characters are fractured in some way: TJ’s father is grieving, his grandmother senile, and his mother-replacement Nicole (Natalie Portman) is seriously depressed. Overall an idiosyncratic character-based coming of age film that benefits from an impressive selection of early Metallica thrashers on the soundtrack.
7. Inception (2010)
How many directors would create a huge budget film where the main villain is a subconscious projection of the protagonist’s suicidal wife? Arguably the greatest film from the current decade Inception possesses a dream-logic that make David Lynch and Michel Gondry look incompetent, and is one of the very few blockbusters brave enough to let the audience think for itself.
Excessive scrutiny of the film’s plotting makes holes appear, and while Christopher Nolan’s follow-up mind-bender Interstellar brought with it additional mysteries and an increased impenetrability, Inception is still a thrilling and exciting puzzle.
Nolan fills Inception with repeating motifs: the “waiting for a train” monologue, Mal’s hair in the wind, and a wine glass breaking all tease out the secrets of Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio). Within the first minute we know Cobb’s motivations – on the beach is the first time the image of his faceless children is shown, an image that is only brought to full resolution in the film’s final seconds.
As Cobb says himself, “We all yearn for reconciliation, for catharsis.” With the silencer pistols, gadgets, femme fatale and Alpine base set-piece Nolan is playing in James Bond territory, albeit with a Edith Piaf song as Bond Theme. A rare blockbuster to truly twist ones melon, one to explore, discuss, and entertain.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Arthur in Inception is very much a supporting presence, and while has none of the emotional heavy lifting of Cobb, has a lot more fun in his role. If we continue with the Bond allegory Arthur most resembles Q, a source of exposition and a seeming expert with the equipment.
Whether its squabbling with Tom Hardy’s Eames, repeatedly being knocked off his chair to demonstrate “kicks” or taking part in one of the most jaw-droppingly different action sequences in recent memory, Gordon-Levitt has more than enough key moments to have Inception be included in this list.
6. 10 Things I Hate About You (1999)
Despite having such a low critical opinion as a genre, there is a theory or formula that states that there is a truly iconic teen comedy every 5 years or so: Heathers (1989), Clueless (1995), 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), Mean Girls (2004), and Easy A (2010).
What the most recent one is is entirely up for debate, but 10 Things… is a perfect mixture of timeless love story (based on 1590’s Shakespeare play The Taming of the Shrew) and 90’s nostalgia (Letters to Cleo would never be this relevant again) and therefore one of the best teen comedies ever.
New kid Cameron (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) wants to date popular girl Bianca (Larisa Oleynik), but her overprotective father (Larry Miller) has ruled that Bianca is not allowed to date until his oldest daughter, the mean and uninterested in romance Kat (Julia Stiles), does. A plan is put forward by Cameron to get the school’s resident criminal Patrick (Heath Ledger) to go out with Kat so that Cameron can get his girl.
While given some notable hilarious competition from supporting characters, 10 Things I Hate About You is very much Ledger’s film, his flamboyant rendition of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” became imprinted on the minds of a generation of teen girls as the paragon of romantic gestures.
Gordon-Levitt is the new kid in 10 Things I Hate About You, in more ways than one; aside from limited appearances in various films previous, he was mostly known for his role as cute long-haired alien Tommy in sitcom 3rd Rock From the Sun and so this was his first major film role as a non-child actor.
While Ledger and Stiles have more screen time, Gordon-Levitt has a much more interesting character to play, to gain the object of his affection his scheme requires him to pull some serious puppet strings, he is very much the catalyst and orchestrator of this film’s events.