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From Hardboiled Hero to Hopeless Romantic: Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Five Best Film Roles

From Hardboiled Hero to Hopeless Romantic: Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Five Best Film Roles

This post is presented in partnership with Participant Media’s new television network Pivot and its series “HITRECORD ON TV,” airing Saturdays at 10pm ET/PT.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt may be only 32 years old, but he’s been acting on screen for a quarter century, having started as a child in television movies and guest roles. He’s since evolved into a major film talent, impressing in both indies and blockbusters and making his feature directorial debut last year with “Don Jon,” which premiered at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. He recently made a return to the small screen with “HITRECORD ON TV,” a collaboratively made reimagining of the variety show now airing on Pivot. With Gordon-Levitt back on the medium that for many people provided an introduction to him as an actor, we thought we’d take a look at his work on the big screen to date with this list of our picks for his five best film roles.

The Lookout (2007)

The directorial debut of screenwriter Scott Frank (“Get Shorty,” “Out of Sight”), “The Lookout” was a commercial disappointment on its release, making only about $5 million of its $16 million budget back. But that shouldn’t deter anyone from seeking the film out, particularly for Gordon-Levitt’s very fine work as Chris, a former star hockey player now suffering from a traumatic brain injury following a car accident he was responsible for. Working as a janitor at a bank, he’s recruited as a lookout by a gang of bank robbers. Gordon-Levitt plays Chris as a man in constant frustration — with his condition, with his unsupportive father, with his job — and barely suppressed guilt, which only grows as his actions threaten the lives of the people he cares about. As a bonus, he also gets a chance to test his comic chops in a handful of very funny scenes with his blind roommate (Jeff Daniels). –Max O’Connell

Don Jon (2013)

Gordon-Levitt’s feature directional debut was no soft blow. He directed, wrote and starred in this story of porn addiction that turns out to be quite a lot more. The trailer itself made viewers out of Dons everywhere — and then halfway through, it’s suddenly not the movie you thought it was. The premise is simple, but the story is gripping, and Gordon-Levitt plays against type, packing on muscle and swagger to play Jon, a character who is lovable, loathsome and Jersey-dapper all at once. As Jon, Gordon-Levitt cooly sidles from playboy suave to vulnerably content in the span of 86 minutes, as the character finds his ideas about sex and love challenged. “Don Jon” manages to make (both subtle and explicit) commentaries on the subject of porn, the liturgies of church-going, addiction, family, romantic comedies and marketing. A movie that can effectively tackle two or three of these at a time is unusual. A film that neatly nails all of them has done something remarkable, and it all comes together courtesy of Gordon-Levitt’s surprising performance. –Taylor Lindsay

Brick (2005)

Joseph Gordon-Levitt may have cemented his cool factor in last year’s Rian Johnson-directed sci-fi action thriller “Looper,” but never has he been so wonderfully hardboiled as in his first role with the filmmaker in the unforgettable 2005 “Brick.” In this film, Johnson’s debut, the acclaimed actor plays anti-social teen Brendan, whose vigilant attempts to find his girlfriend’s killer lead him through an absorbing series of twists and turns in a reimagining of the noir genre by way of a contemporary California high school. But with every roadblock he encounters on his mission — some as violent as the town’s underground drug lord and others as seductive as the class femme fatale — Gordon-Levitt never falters or loses his cool, managing to conjure up the very same suaveness, slyness and savviness Humphrey Bogart graced his audiences with in the golden age of cinema. –Ziyad Saadi

(500) Days of Summer (2009)

Gordon-Levitt’s part in “(500) Days of Summer,” a refreshingly bright indie about a hopeless romantic who navigates his way (unsuccessfully) through a complicated relationship, showed a lighter side of the actor. The film, “The Amazing Spider-Man” director Marc Webb’s first, was a critical and commercial success and presented Gordon-Levitt as a charming, offbeat romantic lead. In “(500) Days of Summer,” he plays Tom, a twentysomething writer who works for a Hallmark-like card company. He loves The Smiths, sings drunken karaoke and falls for Summer (Zooey Deschanel), the new assistant to his boss. Summer can at times come across as cold or remote, playing off Tom’s naivety — or his own unreliable perception of their connection. The film transcended the typical rom-com in part because of the originality, sympathy and honesty Gordon-Levitt brings to the role, which earned him a Golden Globe nomination. It’s a stinging, but memorable performance. –Eric Eidelstein

Mysterious Skin (2004)

Gordon-Levitt gave noteworthy performances before “Mysterious Skin” (including his role as a troubled teenager in the ridiculously underseen “Manic”), but it was this Gregg Araki film that put him on the map as a dramatic actor to be reckoned with. Gordon-Levitt plays Neil, a prostitute who was molested by his baseball coach as a child, but who considers the man to be his first love. It’s a tricky role, one that requires him to be both an overconfident wild card and someone who’s unsure of his place in the world, but Gordon-Levitt deftly strikes that delicate balance. An early scene shows him taunting a homophobic driver in a nearby car, all brash, devil-may-care attitude reminiscent of Robert De Niro in “Mean Streets.” Yet Neil is capable of tenderness, as when he comforts Brian (Brady Corbet), another one of the coach’s victims. Gordon-Levitt demonstrates with marvelous delicacy how Neil’s braggadocio is a defense mechanism for someone who’s irreparably damaged. –Max O’Connell

Indiewire has partnered with Pivot and its new series “HITRECORD ON TV.” The series offers a new take on the variety show, hosted by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who directs countless artists from his global online community — hitRECord — to create short films, live performances, music, animation, conversations and more. Each episode focuses on a different theme as Joe invites and encourages anybody with an internet connection to join him and contribute. The series is now airing Saturdays at 10pm ET/PT — find out more here.

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