One of the joys of cinema is looking beyond the ‘name’ actors on screen and concentrating on others that are best known as ‘character actors’. These are the actors and actresses that you might not necessarily recognise by name, but when you see them on screen, you say to yourself something along the lines of ‘it’s that guy’ or ‘her’.
Many great actors fit into this category, such as Richard Jenkins, Michael Shannon, Kathryn Hahn and many more. Some of these underrated talents manage to cross over to the mainstream, such as Julianne Moore, Australian actors Guy Pearce, James Cromwell, Rachel Griffiths and Jackie Weaver, Laura Linney, Patricia Clarkson and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.
These are the actors that add a sense of light, shade and complexity to many great films. Prime among these is actor/writer/director Steve Buscemi. Not exactly the most physically conventional or attractive of actors, he has nevertheless, over the past three decades in cinema, brought an incredible sense of being and life to the various roles he has played onscreen.
Equally adept at working in both independent cinema and mainstream Hollywood, Buscemi’s onscreen presence has added a wonderful sense of character to many a film, whether they be good, bad or otherwise.
Buscemi has proven himself to be a highly talented and underrated writer and director, making small cinematic gems such as “Trees Lounge” and “Animal Factory”. He’s also very much part of the HBO family, having initially made his indelible mark in HBO’s landmark series “The Sopranos”, and also having directed episodes of some of the great shows for the television company, such as “Oz”, “Homicide: Life On The Streets”, “Nurse Jackie” and others.
Since 2010, he has brilliantly ed the role of crime lord Enoch “Nucky” Thompson in the Twenties-set crime drama “Boardwalk Empire” for HBO, introducing him to a whole new generation of film and television viewers in the process, earning him a slew of acting awards.
He is also one of the few actors that has a brilliantly humanist and compassionate quality to his being and outlook on life. A former firefighter before his career as an actor, he was physically out there in New York post 9/11, working twelve hour shifts alongside his fellow firefighters in the aftermath of this cataclysmic and world changing event.
Here are fifteen films involving Steve Buscemi, in either an acting, writing or directing capacity that are well worth your time.
15. Trees Lounge (1996) Directed by Steve Buscemi
In his accomplished debut as writer/director, Buscemi really taps into the spirit of author Charles Bukowski here, playing Tommy, an unemployed mechanic whose life is falling apart piece by piece.
An ensemble piece featuring some beautiful writing, especially in relation to very real and never forced dialogue, “Trees Lounge”, while definitely not light viewing, captures the essence and the physical/spiritual ‘world’ of those that has tried its best to beat down and ‘break’ due to one reason or another.
Working alongside some great talents such as Anthony LaPaglia, Chloe Seveigny, Carol Kane and Seymour Cassell, this is a film that flew completely under the radar upon its release and definitely deserves a wider audience.
14. Animal Factory (2000) Directed by Steve Buscemi
In Buscemi’s sophomore effort behind the camera in relation to feature films, this is a stark and powerful contrast to his debut, “Trees Lounge”. A striking and unflinching look at prison life, this is based on the novel by former prisoner, author and actor Eddie Bunker AKA Mr Blue from Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs”, with whom Buscemi co-starred in that film.
Proving his talent with actors, Buscemi gets some great performances from his well-chosen cast, including Edward Furlong, Mickey Rourke, Willem Dafoe, Danny Trejo and Mark Boone Junior.
“Animal Factory” is somewhat low key in its approach, but a fascinating and interesting look at the realities of life behind bars.
13. Airheads (1994) Directed by Michael Lehmann
While something of a box office flop upon release, “Airheads” has garnered a fierce cult following over the past two decades. Buscemi plays Rex, one of a trio of desperate wannabe rock stars that hijack a radio station, holding the DJ at ransom in order to get a song of theirs played on the radio.
Insanely stupid at times, but with an energy and sense of fun to burn, “Airheads” is a wonderfully satirical skewering of the music industry, featuring cameos from the likes of the late Chris Farley and Lemmy from world famous metal band Motorhead.
Buscemi proves himself to be something of a chameleon of an actor here, tapping into a sense of stupid fun that, as viewers, we hadn’t really seen him do before.
12. In The Soup (1992) Directed by Alexandre Rockwell
In this beautifully off-centre, gorgeously shot black and white comedy from director Alexandre Rockwell, Buscemi plays Adolfo, a wannabe screenwriter eking out an existence at the lower level of the independent film industry. Indie great Seymour Cassell plays a shady moneyman who may or may not make Adolfo’s dreams come true.
A gently ribbing, knowing look at the process of film making, the charm that really makes “In The Soup” is the fantastic chemistry between Buscemi and Cassell. Watching two of the most underrated of actors spark and bounce off each other onscreen is the real spark of another film, like “Parting Glances”, has become somewhat lost over time. This quiet little gem is definitely worth seeking out.
11. Parting Glances (1986) Directed by Bill Sherwood
This early entry into Buscemi’s career paints a vivid portrait of New York in the Eighties in the early days of the AIDS crisis when America was under the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Buscemi plays Nick, an individual dying of AIDS, one of the early victims of the major health epidemic that affected the world during that decade.
This was the only film from director Bill Sherwood, himself an early victim of the disease. This is a shame, as he showed serious potential in “Parting Glances”, especially with his warmth and humanism towards his characters, not demonising them as mass media and the world in general had done so.
A film with great wit, warmth and humour to it, it’s a shame that it’s become somewhat lost over time. If you want to see an early snapshot of what makes Buscemi a unique presence on screen, this is a wonderful lost gem to hunt down.
10. Con Air (1997) Directed by Simon West
Simon West’s “Con Air” is one of those big, dumb, loud and stupid action comedies that were highly popular in the middle of the Nineties. What lifts this one several notches above its contemporaries and competition is the extremely funny scrip from Stuart Rosenberg that all but winks at the audience. It knows what it is, basically, but has a lot of fun going through its motions.
Part of the film’s charm lies in Buscemi’s Hannibal-Lector-like serial killer Garland “The Marietta Mangler” Greene. Scoring some of the funniest dialogue in the film and completely stealing any scene he’s in, Buscemi totally holds his own in an eclectic cast that includes Nicholas Cage, John Malkovich, Ving Rhames and John Cusack.
In a world of soulless and flashy blockbusters, “Con Air” has a refreshing sense of personality and charm to it. Buscemi, along with the rest of the cast, are a big reason why this genre film works as well as it does. In lesser hands, this would have been painful and generic to say the least.
9. Living In Oblivion (1995) Directed by Tom DiCillo
A film that shares a similar sense of being a cinematic kindred spirit to Alexandre Rockwell’s “In The Soup”, Buscemi plays filmmaker Nick Reve. Set on one day of a film shoot, this is to cinema what the 1984 Rob Reiner film “This Is Spinal Tap!” is to music.
Namely, Tom DiCillo’s “Living In Oblivion” is an exaggerated and wildly funny comedy that takes an unflinching look at anything and everything that can go wrong in making a movie.
Buscemi beautifully captures the essence of a man against it all with everything negative the world can do being thrown at him. The cast also features some great character actors of Nineties cinema, such as Catherine Keener, James Le Gross, Dermot Mulroney and, in an early appearance on screen, “Game Of Thrones” actor Peter Dinklage in one of the funniest scenes ever committed to film.
Again, like “In The Soup”, this is another knowing wink and nod at the independent film industry of the time that is an immensely entertaining watch.