The big release this week is “Maleficent,” Disney‘s latest attempt to reboot one of its classic family properties in as ugly a manner as humanly possible, following the enormous success of “Alice In Wonderland,” and the less-enormous-but-still-substantial success of “Oz The Great And Powerful.” Taking a page from their green-screen-heavy playbook, it’s a riff on the story of “Sleeping Beauty,” with young Elle Fanning as everyone’s favorite narcoleptic princess Aurora, but as you might be aware from the title (and omnipresent marketing), the real star is the traditional villain of the piece, embodied by megastar Angelina Jolie.
“Maleficent” is notable in part because it ends a long on-screen absence for its star: busy with humanitarian work and her new directing career, Jolie hasn’t appeared on screen since 2010’s “The Tourist.” It’s also notable because it’s pretty bad, thus continuing a long, long run of Jolie’s movies never really being very good.
That’s not to say that Jolie isn’t a great movie star. She’s a very, very fine one, unquestionably an A-lister, with a long string of excellent performances behind her, and an iconic screen presence like few others. It’s just that she has either very bad luck, or terrible taste in scripts, as the vast majority of movies she’s starred in can be described as mediocre at best, and terrible at worst. Seriously, the best movie she has an acting credit in is “Kung Fu Panda,” and the second best is “Kung Fu Panda 2.”
It’s a puzzle that someone of Jolie’s talents has so far failed to find the right material, but with another bad movie in which Jolie is very strong hitting theaters on Friday, and with her second directorial outing “Unbroken” touted for Oscars when it lands later in the year, we’ve decided to pick out the five best roles of Jolie’s career. They’re not all great movies (indeed, none of them are much more than ok, in our eyes at least), but Jolie’s terrific in all of them. Agree? Disagree? Want to pick out anything we’ve left out? You can let us know in the comments section.
Back in the days when an HBO movie was still a poor second-cousin to the big-screen, rather than a thing that movie stars did so they could get closer to an EGOT, “Gia” undoubtedly proved a turning point in Jolie’s career, winning her a second Golden Globe (taking the first, a Supporting one, for “George Wallace” the year before) and giving her dramatic cred to the extent that she could land something like “Girl Interrupted.” It remains one of her better performances, but this was also an early case of Jolie carrying some rather ropey material on her shoulders. The directorial debut of playwright/screenwriter Michael Cristofer (who penned “The Bonfire Of The Vanities” and “The Witches Of Eastwick,” and would later reteam with Jolie on the hilariously awful “Original Sin“), who co-wrote the script with “Bright Lights Big City” author Jay McInerney, it’s a biopic of Gia Carangi, labelled by many as the first supermodel when she broke through in the late 1970s, and became a lesbian icon, only to succumb first to crippling heroin addiction, and eventually AIDS, becoming one of the first famous women to die from the disease. Cristofer and McInerney make sure no salacious detail is overlooked, with plentiful soft-core Cinemax style sex sequences and even more grim wallowing in the darker recesses of Gia’s life, and it never finds a way to break out of a rote biopic formula, though to his credit, Cristofer gives things a degree of fashion-world style earlier on. But Jolie is admittedly very good, committed and bringing her otherworldly, punkish energy to the role, while not neglecting the pathos of her eventual slide. If it wasn’t clear already, a star was clearly born, and Jolie never looked back. (keep an eye out, too, for the actress playing the younger version of Gia: it’s the 14-year-old Mila Kunis, just before coming to fame on “That 70s Show.”
“Girl, Interrupted” (1999)
It’s almost hard to recall these days, when the Angelina we know directs films about war, writes movingly about women’s issues and adopts whole nations (all while resembling a human Jessica Rabbit), that she once pretty much redefined the offscreen role of “substance-abusing, wild-child Hollywood kid.” But in the late ’90s, she was squarely in that zone, approaching the end of her first marriage, occasionally institutionalized and openly bisexual. Riffing on that edgy image of danger and damage in precursor films like ”Hell’s Kitchen” and “Foxfire,” Jolie got her first proper break with this James Mangold adaptation of Susanna Kaysen’s bestselling memoir of her time in a mental institution for young women in the late 1960s. Jolie plays Lisa Rowe, a manipulative sociopath with whom Susanna (Winona Ryder) first is fascinated by and then befriends, with the hint, via a particular kiss, at more than that. It’s a showy role, and duly brought Jolie a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, but to be fair, her performance is more restrained than it could have been—she seems to understand the nature of her charisma means she doesn’t have to do much more than look sultry or scowl through dirty hair at a particular moment to sell her character as the magnetic center of this motley gang. We’re not massive fans of the film, and if we’re being honest, that year we’d probably have given the award to fellow nominee Samantha Morton (for the underrated “Sweet and Lowdown”) but Jolie does deserve props for investing Lisa with soul when she could have been all attitude. And whatever emotional effect the climax has on the audience, as Lisa’s front breaks down completely, is due to her commitment and belief in the role. If anything, Jolie’s performance is undersold by the twists the film takes later on, like the whole running-away-together sequence, which are added for melodramatic effect and don’t appear in the source memoir.
“Mr. & Mrs. Smith” (2005)
For all of her fine dramatic chops, Jolie’s one of the rare female A-listers who’s as much action heroine as tear-jerker: it’s hard to imagine, say, Amy Adams or Nicole Kidman kicking ass and taking names in the same way as Jolie has in her biggest hits (though a new generation of actors, like Jennifer Lawrence and Emily Blunt, are bridging the gap better). We wouldn’t necessarily argue that she’s doing her best work in “Gone In 60 Seconds,” “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider,” “Wanted” or even “Salt,” but she gets to have the most fun, and play one of her most iconic roles, in Doug Liman‘s actioner “Mr. And Mrs. Smith.” Still Jolie’s biggest live-action hit, though probably still best known as the film that first paired her with future beau Brad Pitt, it sees the two megastars play a married couple who, unknown to each other, are badass assassins working for competing private intelligence firms. Their marriage is crumbling, and, after they discover each other’s secrets, they’re asked to kill each other, but after a barnstorming fight sequence, reunite and turn on their employers. Even more so than most of Doug Liman’s movies, the finished product is a mess, clearly assembled out of multiple rewrites and reshoots, and only vaguely coherent, both tonally and in terms of the actual plot. And the action, while well-shot, sometimes feels like it’s coming across as a sort of apology/celebration of domestic violence, leaving a very sour note to proceedings. But it’s the chance to see two movie stars do what they do is best, and Jolie in particular is terrific: physically impressive, sexy while somehow pulling off the more domestic elements of her character, and with a sly sense of humor at play throughout. Even in her action films, she’s often playing a rather dour sort, but if nothing else, the film serves as a reminder that someone should let her let her hair down and have some fun more often.
“A Mighty Heart” (2007)
For our money the closest Angelina Jolie has ever come to truly “disappearing” into a role, and tamping down her stratospheric star power in service of the reality of a character—maybe her most convincing bid to be accepted as an actress as opposed to a star—was with this small-scale Michael Winterbottom film. Based on the true and truly tragic story of the 2002 kidnapping of American/Israeli journalist Daniel Pearl and his videotaped execution by Al-Qaeda nine days later, the film in fact took as the substance of its story the search for Pearl during those excruciating nine days, as seen through the eyes of his wife Mariane, then pregnant with their first child. In fact, it’s based on Mariane Pearl’s book of the same name, and while some criticisms were levelled at the casting of Jolie as the mixed-race Mariane, in fact it was the film’s subject herself who chose her for the role, reportedly saying “it is not about the color of your skin. It is about who you are. I asked her to play the role—even though she is way more beautiful than I am—because I felt a real kinship to her.” It’s a kinship that comes across in Jolie’s performance, which is utterly respectful of the real woman and plays to both the terrible sorrow of her situation and to her undeniable strength. And it’s crucial that she does, because otherwise the film, detailing a story of which anyone who’d strayed near a news channel knew the shocking ending, would have had little purchase on our attention. As compelling as it is, it’s largely down to Jolie, who, shorn of action heroics or even obvious attention-getting traits is quite riveting as a woman caught in the desperate space between dwindling hope and growing fear. It was also the first real onscreen glimpse we had at the politically engaged Jolie, a UN ambassador since 2001, who’d go on to make a Bosnian war film for her directorial debut.
Almost a decade on from “Girl Interrupted,” Jolie picked up her second Oscar nomination, and her first in the Lead category, for this Clint Eastwood melodrama, and while the film leaves very much to desire, the nod was certainly deserved, overdue even (she was tipped for one, but shut out, for “A Mighty Heart“). Based on a true story, and penned by “Babylon 5” creator J. Michael Straczynski, it sees Jolie as Christine Collins, an L.A. mother whose 9-year-old son Walter goes missing. Months later, the cops return a boy who’s patently a different child: Collins refuses to accept him, and is forcibly committed to a psychiatric ward by the LAPD, led by the malevolent Captain Jones (Jeffrey Donovan). It’s certainly a remarkable story, but one of the least interesting possible tellings of it imaginable and it’s no surprise to learn that Eastwood stepped in for original director Ron Howard late in the game. It’s handsomely mounted, certainly, with fine period production design and some strong photography from Tom Stern, but the scripting is lacking in nuance, with the heroes saintly and the villains demonic, and the film has the let’s-trudge-through-the-story approach of the worst of late-period Eastwood. Fortunately, the day is saved somewhat by Jolie. Her transformation is subtler than the one in “A Mighty Heart,” but no less notable, and she mostly manages to underplay things in a script that seems to invite hysteria at every opportunity. To date, it’s the last time she had real dramatic material to get her teeth into: we hope that next time she goes into this territory, it’s with subtler writing behind her.
Honorable Mentions: There’s a few more solid Jolie performances in questionable movies where that came from. Like we said, “Kung Fu Panda” might be the best film she was ever involved in as an actor, and her vocal turn as Tigress in both that and its sequel is warm and vulnerable. She’s also at her most vampish as Grendel’s mother in Robert Zemeckis‘ interesting-but-flawed motion-capture adventure “Beowulf,” arguably her third-best movie.
Back in the live-action world, she first (if you exclude, uh, “Cyborg 2“) came to people’s attention in Iain Softley‘s “Hackers,” a very silly film that dated as soon as it wrapped, but at least which gave her a good early showcase for her unique screen presence. She’s also solid in girl-gang drama “Foxfire,” and in the now-forgotten ensemble drama “Playing By Heart” as she romances an inexplicably blue-haired Ryan Phillippe.
She’s also fairly good in a hugely underwritten role in the ill-conceived air-traffic controller drama “Pushing Tin,” and with a similarly thin part in Robert De Niro‘s “The Good Shepherd,” while “Salt” provides her with one of her better action showcases, even if the movie is wildly, wildly silly. And from everything we hear about “Maleficent,” it seems like the film might almost be worth seeing just to watch her chew scenery. Still, here’s hoping that she works with a better class of filmmakers and material next time she returns to acting. And again, directorial debut “In The Land Of Blood & Honey,” while little-seen, was pretty decent, so we’re certainly holding out hope for “Unbroken” when it lands later in the year.