7. The Descendants (2011)
Just as director Alexander Payne dropped every aspect of Jack Nicholson’s persona that made him a movie star in his film About Schmidt, he does the same for George Clooney in The Descendants. Playing a widowed father to two young girls, Clooney couldn’t be further from the swinging bachelor his public persona suggested him to be at the time.
In The Descendants, he is humbled, subtle, and, once again, able to dissolve into his director’s vision invisibly. Much like his performance in Up In The Air, Clooney is brought down to earth (no pun intended) in the Descendants. He is real and flawed, and we briefly forget we’re watching the world’s most charming movie star at work behind the mask of an everyman. Briefly…
6. Solaris (2002)
Clooney drops all the celebrity baggage he has in Solaris, Steven Soderbergh’s much maligned but inarguably interesting remake of Tarkovsky’s classic science fiction art film. The movie never stood a chance from the get-go. It was too challenging for mainstream audiences and there was no way film snobs were going to let Clooney (no matter how much he had proven himself) and the guy who did Ocean’s Eleven (ditto) get away with trying to mess with what many perceive as a masterpiece.
All the negativity surrounding this film needs to be reconsidered for no other reason than to just examine Clooney’s performance within it.
Playing a widowed psychiatrist who is pulled into a space expedition to help a colleague, Clooney shows a commitment and depth that surpasses everything that came before it in his career (and still holds up to everything that came after). His pain and loss is internalized, he speaks as if his voice is holding back tears constantly, and he wholly commits and loses himself in the grief and pain of the character.
Regardless of how you feel about the film (or its very existence) Clooney’s work in Solaris reached new heights for the actor that no one seemed to care about or notice. It’s a beautiful piece of acting that was lost in a film that was much too quick to be written off.
5. Michael Clayton (2007)
Clooney’s career is full of turning points, primarily because he never stops taking risks, and many of those risks pay off tremendously because the man knows how to pick his material wisely. Michael Clayton is unquestionably one such “risk”.
Finely written and directed by Tony Gilroy, Clooney plays a sleazy, top of the line lawyer representing a chemical company case that tests his (already highly questionable) moral and ethical limits.
What makes Clooney’s work stand out so well this time around is that the risk he takes in being so unlikable at first pays off all more splendidly in his character’s arc and emotional journey of becoming a better man by fighting, for once, to do what’s right. While these aren’t particularly original themes, they are very human, real, and timeless- much like Clooney’s performance.
4. The Ides of March (2011)
Clooney co-wrote, directed, and co-starred in this film, which has a bluntly and bravely dark point of view on the inside track of politics. Starring Ryan Gosling as a rising communications specialist staffer to Clooney’s presidential candidate, the one thing you cannot ever accuse this film of doing is capitalizing off of the two leads’ inherent likability. They’re both not afraid of getting their hands dirty, as they both play characters who would sell their own mothers to get ahead.
The Ides of March is about the dark side of ambition, and the things one often has to do (or look away from) in order to succeed in such an image-oriented, ultra-competitive, and sickly fickle field as politics.
The amazing cast Clooney chose (Paul Giamatti, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Evan Rachel Wood, Marisa Tomei, Jeffrey Wright, etc.) is proof enough of his selective and brilliant tastes. Gosling is great as the young go-getter who’s still slightly conflicted about his actions (maybe…?).
Clooney, on the other hand, once again hits a new plateau and creates one of his most memorable (but currently underrated) characters: a man whose brilliance with communication, charm, wit, and power are all used to hide a very strong and very hungry wolf underneath it’s sheep’s clothing. Is Clooney trying to tell us something about himself with this one?
3. Out of Sight (1998)
Clooney’s first collaboration with Steven Soderbergh is still his best. Based on Elmore Leonard’s crime caper novel, Clooney plays a lovable screw-up of a bank robber who falls in love with a US Marshall (Jennifer Lopez) who also is trying to squash one of the schemes he’s currently involved in.
Stylish, sexy, and fun, Out of Sight was a great movie for it’s two (then still up-and-coming) leads to shine and show off in. Under Soderbergh’s direction, Clooney dropped years of bad habits (bad eye contact, head bobbing, patterned line readings), and transformed into the true movie star he was apparently destined to become. He may have been playing a very close variation of himself in this film, but he had never done it quite so well.
If From Dusk Til Dawn made Clooney a movie star, Out of Sight cemented it in stone. After seeing his charming and sympathetic performance in Out of Sight (along with some of the best onscreen romantic chemistry ever put on film between him Lopez), it seemed the sky was now the limit for the former Facts of Life guest spot hunk.
2. Syriana (2005)
Writer/director Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana wasn’t so much a turning point in Clooney’s career (as many of the titles on this list are) as much as it was a culmination and expert practice of everything he had learned in his acting career up to the point it was filmed. However jarring the experience of viewing the film is to some (many found the multi-character-and-storyline film to be confusing, disjointed and unfocused), Clooney’s presence in his Oscar-winning role of a CIA officer is undeniably the film’s major strength.
Once again, none of Clooney’s movie star baggage is brought to the table in Syriana, except his extreme believability and unavoidable (though conflicted, in this case) integrity. He is completely woven into the fabric of the world he’s in. He’s neither likable or unlikable, nor is he heroic or cowardly. He’s simply a man caught in a dangerous reality, doing the job he thinks has to be done.
Through Clooney’s skill, we walk along with him and feel it with him every step of the way without feeling manipulated or fooled. It’s a masterful performance by an actor in complete control of his craft in a very sincere but scattered film.
1. Good Night, And Good Luck (2005)
If there’s a film that sums up what George Clooney is most passionate about communicating in his life and in his career, it’s Good Night, And Good Luck.
Clooney co-wrote, directed, and costarred in this true story of CBS reporter Edward Murrow and his producer Fred Friendly publicly challenging the fear mongering tactics of Senator Joseph McCarthy, who had been exploiting 1950’s America’s fear of Communism to an unassuming public for far too long. The two men then paid the price for it, but continued to stand their ground with pride, honesty, and integrity.
Coming off the fevered and flashy directorial effort of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Clooney showed restraint, maturity, and selflessness in bringing Murrow’s and Friendly’s story to the screen. Non-sensationalized and to the point, you trust this film in the same way you trust Clooney onscreen because it presents itself in a wholly sincere and earnest fashion.
There’s no grand set piece. Nothing feels particularly heightened or dramatized. Everything is observed, untainted, and feels pure. Shot in beautiful black in white photography by Robert Elswit, Goodnight, And Good Luck’s brilliance and perfection lies in Clooney’s ability and restraint to stand back and let the story unfold as it is.
Clooney’s fantastic cast (featuring a great array of support from Robert Downey, Jr. to Patricia Clarkson to Ray Wise to Jeff Daniels, amongst many others) delivers their performances truthfully within the reality he expertly set up. Clooney’s own performance as Friendly is (as is often the case with his best work) is devoid of ego, and David Stathairn as Murrow gives a fantastic and brilliant performance that deserves an article entirely devoted just to it.
Good Night, And Good Luck is a story about standing up for ideals, speaking one’s mind, and not letting go of the things you hold dearly. It’s a bold political statement about freedom of speech, an expertly told character study, and an engaging story of watching the little guy take on the big guy and, while not necessarily having a glorious victory, making an enormous dent along the way.
With his work on this film, along with the best moments of his career to date, George Clooney went from being a movie star with a great smile to being someone with something to say who could also say it very intelligently and from a high enough platform to make a pretty big dent along the way…
Author Bio: Matt Hendricks is an independent filmmaker with several projects currently in development.