When people talk about “the death of cinema,” one of the key things they usually attribute it to is the idea that the movie star as we used to know it is now meaningless. With the advent of social media, the decline of people watching talk shows live on TV, and movie stars feeling too accessible, the concept of the movie star will never be as big of a deal as it once was.
Ryan Gosling on the other hand, is an actor that entered the business at exactly the right time. At this point he has made a name for himself as one of the greatest living actors of his generation. He is one of those actors like his contemporaries Joaquin Phoenix, or Jake Gyllenhaal: when people hear a film has a name like that in the cast, it definitely still means something. Gosling is an actor that makes consistently great choices: he almost never seems to be taking roles for money.
Here is a long look at his career thus far; these are 22 of his appearances in film over the years ranked from worst to best (although with an actor this great, the term “worst” is being used very loosely here).
22. Only God Forgives (2013)
Off the success of Drive, Nicolas Winding Refn thought it would be a great idea to make Only God Forgives. At this point I think it’s safe to say that most cinephiles would prefer to forget about this tragic misstep. What is really sad about this movie’s failure is that it takes a similar approach Refn had with directing Drive, except he makes Gosling’s character even quieter.
It works in a coherent film like Drive, but here it just doesn’t seem to ever come together. The movie is one big mess that feels like Refn has no clue what he’s trying to say. In the documentary about the making of this film, My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, Ryan Gosling is seen throughout the making of the film being a stand-up guy throughout the trainwreck that is unfolding.
21. Song to Song (2017)
Song to Song is appearing on the lower portion of the list because it’s simply just not one of the better films Gosling has starred in. Terrence Malick is a filmmaker capable of truly great work, but this film was a bit of a misstep for various reasons. It is self-indulgent like Malick’s previous work, but somehow in Song to Song that just doesn’t translate well.
20. Crazy, Stupid, Love. (2011)
This film is lower on the list, but not because it’s a bad film. It’s on the lower end of the scale because it’s not one of Gosling’s best performances.
It’s not bad, but out of his entire filmography Crazy, Stupid, Love feels like a movie where he isn’t really taking chances as an actor. He does the Hollywood thing here by taking a role in a romantic comedy. But as far as mainstream romantic comedies go Gosling could have picked a lot worse. Crazy, Stupid, Love is one of the better romantic comedies of the last few years; it’s subversive enough to be engaging, and innocuous enough to entertain.
19. The Slaughter Rule (2002)
Gosling’s early career was primarily a bunch of independent films, and The Slaughter Rule was one of his first big film roles. Although he was in Remember the Titans, it was only a supporting role (which is why it’s not on this list).
In The Slaughter Rule audiences saw Gosling’s first foray into “serious” acting. The film tells the story of a high school football player (played by Gosling), and the relationship he has with his coach.
Not only is it a solid film with a great story, it marks the first time Gosling would have the foresight to take a role in such a good movie. With a lot of actors getting a foot in the door by doing independent film, there is the tendency to “take anything they can get.” In The Slaughter Rule, Gosling takes the role and really goes for it by making it entirely his.
18. Murder by Numbers (2002)
Murder by Numbers is a thriller directed by the great Barbet Schroeder about two young men who get involved in a murder. What makes this film in Gosling’s history interesting is that when we examine the career of the other main actor in the film (Michael Pitt) it’s a sad example of how Gosling’s career could have ended up after this film. Pitt is a solid actor, but his roles never really managed to push him to superstardom. As we have explored on this list so far, Gosling went on to take on roles that were incredibly memorable.
Murder by Numbers is another great example of the fact that Gosling has always been in the habit of picking only the best movies to work on. Even if it’s a mainstream Sandra Bullock vehicle, it has to be the best one.
17. The United States of Leland (2003)
The United States of Leland is another decent film from the actor’s early period. It’s not a bad movie; we can see the beginning stage of what a great actor Gosling would become. And it’s also amazing to think that this is another one of those types of roles Gosling could have easily been trapped by. He played the “tortured young man” very well in his early roles, but the way he matured as an actor was arguably by taking a break from this archetype.
16. Stay (2005)
Stay is not a movie in Gosling’s filmography brought up that often. If it has been remembered at all, it’s because Stay is one of those movies with a great cast that sort of wastes all of their talent. When you think about a movie like Stay, it’s not something that is really known for its performances. Marc Forster was going for more of a visual film, and that is what seems to be the strongest aspect Stay has.
15. Fracture (2007)
Fracture is the sort of well crafted, subversive Hollywood thriller that doesn’t seem to come along very often. With another pair of actors it could have become an average mainstream thriller movie of the week, but Gosling is paired with the legendary Anthony Hopkins. Seeing two performers in the same film that seem to come from entirely different schools of acting makes Fracture way better than it should be.
14. All Good Things (2010)
This is a solid mystery movie directed by the same filmmaker of HBO’s wildly successful The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst. All Good Things is also inspired by Robert Durst, and explores similar subject matter. If you’re familiar with the oddity of the man that is Robert Durst, you’ll want to know that Durst himself has mentioned that he thought All Good Things was a good movie. Creepy!
13. The Nice Guys (2016)
The Nice Guys features one of the weirdest pairings in cinematic history: Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe. It’s one of those kitschy movies that features the same songs from the 1970s we’ve heard in other movies a million times before.
And yet, as average as The Nice Guys is it never really truly disappoints. Gosling’s performance is definitely a little silly, but there’s also a level of authenticity there as well. It’s reminiscent of Joaquin Phoenix in Inherent Vice (or Owen Wilson in Starsky and Hutch).
12. The Big Short (2015)
The Big Short is a really ambitious movie that sets out to explain the financial crisis while simultaneously functioning as a drama and comedy. That is no easy feat, but Adam McKay pulls it off very well.
Gosling’s performance here is no better or worse than any other of his films as the stereotypical egocentric “cool” guy. But he is also the film’s narrator, and the film depends largely on how he tells the audience the story. Even though Gosling has had better roles, his abilities as a narrator are used quite well in The Big Short.