Oliver Stone’s reputation has risen and fallen many times over the past few decades. He’s gone from being one of the most acclaimed directors in the world to being a divisive self-conscious provocateur. His recent features have disappointed his ardent fans for seeming weak-willed compared to his best, and even the films from 80s/90s heyday have fierce detractors for their lack of subtlety. His style can be classically beautiful or experimental and savage, enormously effective or totally enervating…sometimes all within the same film. His films almost always swing for the fences, which makes them inconsistent, even terrible. But that’s much of what makes him an exciting filmmaker. In honor of the director’s 68th birthday, here’s a look at all of his films, from the disasters and disappointments to the films that helped him conquer the world.
22. “Alexander” (2004)
Stone has always been attracted to Big Subjects (Vietnam, 80s greed, assassinations, presidents), so it’s no surprise that he might try his hand at an epic about one of history’s greatest figures. But “Alexander” gets off to a bad start early with a dry, baffling framing device with Anthony Hopkins as Ptolmy recounting the importance of Alexander the Great’s accomplishments, and it never shakes that stuffy, solemn feeling. The film features more than a handful of career worst and near-worst performances, from Colin Farrell’s listless Alexander to Angelina Jolie’s inexplicably-accented mother to Jared Leto’s pouty work as Alexander’s best friend and lover (though their scenes together are disappointingly chaste compared to Farrell’s scenes with Dawson). Stone never finds real direction or purpose for the film, and while he’s attempted to reshape it several times (we’re on cut number four now), no amount of tinkering can salvage the alternatively dull and unintentionally campy film.
21. “Talk Radio” (1988)
“Talk Radio” might be the most baffling miss of Stone’s career. Eric Bogosian’s enjoyably misanthropic play of the same name was a concentrated dose of bilious, rat-a-tat (mostly) monologue from Bogosian’s cynical radio pundit Barry Champlain. Stone and Bogosian expand the play from its one-night setting to include flashbacks and Barry’s relationship with his ex-wife, diluting its power in the process and weakening its character’s purpose. Still, the film doesn’t become truly disastrous until its risible climax, which turns Champlain from some schmuck on the radio to a half-assed Howard Beale.
20-18. “South of the Border” (2009)/”Comandante” (2003)/”Looking for Fidel” (2004)
Stone has made a handful of documentaries about controversial leftist world leaders: two documentaries about Cuban President Fidel Castro, and “South of the Border,” about Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. “Border” is the worst of the bunch, showing Stone at his least inquisitive, but “Comandante” isn’t any more illuminating, with the director seeming strangely intimidated by his friend and his too-studied responses. “Looking for Fidel” is a little bit better, at least including some anti-Castro voices, but it’s still a big softball of a movie, the last thing anyone wants from a provocateur like Stone.
17. “The Doors” (1991)
There are a few films of Stone’s that fall under the umbrella of self-parody, but none more so than “The Doors.” To be fair, Val Kilmer seems to have a better idea of who Jim Morrison is (a self-important, loutish drunk who could sing really well) than anyone else involved, never soft-pedaling Morrison’s bad behavior while still capturing his rock star magnetism. But there’s a weird disjunction between his unpleasantness and the pleasure Stone takes in framing him as a Dionysian god. Couple that with comically mystical scenes of Morrison meeting Native American spirits or sexual dalliances with Kathleen Quinlan’s witchcraft-obsessed reporter, and you’ve got a film that captures all of the pretension and self-importance of Morrison’s songs and very little of the fun.
16. “Natural Born Killers” (1994)
There are two schools of thought on Oliver Stone’s most controversial film (really saying something): those who find its nasty satire trenchant and its assaultive formalism exhilarating, and those exhausted by Stone’s “let’s try every style” approach and think the film accidentally becomes the very thing it’s ostensibly satirizing. Count this writer among the latter. “Killers” has more than its share of terrific elements: Harrelson’s charismatically terrifying performance; unhinged supporting turns by Robert Downey, Jr. and Tommy Lee Jones; plenty of thrilling edits. But the film’s center is uneven, with Juliette Lewis giving one of her unbearably shrill hick performances (see also: “Kalifornia”). And while Stone’s attempt to make the “A Clockwork Orange” of the 1990s succeeds in sustaining its insane pitch, his touch is too leaden and his choices too cruel to be funny (laugh tracks over Lewis being molested by her father, Looney Tunes bullets at a mass murder), and his commentary never rises above sophomoric “the media is the real monster, man” pronouncements. Yet it’s still a film Stone’s fans should seek out, a terrible but fascinating movie to be reckoned with.
15. “World Trade Center” (2006)
When Stone announced he was making a film about the September 11 bombings, many prepared for the worst conspiracy theories possible about the attacks. What a shock, then, to find that Stone’s film is the kind of “respectful” middle-of-the-road movie one might expect from Ron Howard. It might be more tolerable if the film worked on its own terms, but the film soft-pedals its tragedy, jumping around from Michael Pena and a miscast Nicolas Cage buried under the rubble to their wives to flashbacks that don’t seem to gel with what we learn about them underground (Cage claims his wife complains that he never smiles, yet he does nothing but grin like a goofball in the flashbacks). Because its central characters are either trapped underground or forced to look concerned on the sidelines, the film becomes little more than a turgid waiting game, only enlivened whenever it cuts to Michael Shannon’s ferociously determined attempts to find the men. “World Trade Center” isn’t really even a 9/11 movie so much as it’s a disaster movie-of-the-week with 9/11 trappings. It’s not Oliver Stone’s worst movie, but it is his most useless.
14. “Seizure” (1974)
Before he was a multiple Oscar-winning writer and director, Stone was a Vietnam war veteran and aspiring filmmaker trying to cut his teeth on the horror genre. His first feature, the bizarre 1974 curio “Seizure,” is mostly notable for assembling a truly bizarre cast. Jonathan Frid of “Dark Shadows” fame stars as a horror writer who keeps having visions of his friends and family (Troy Donahue, “St. Elsewhere’s” Christina Pickles, Roger Corman regular Mary Woronov) killed by three evil beings, including former Bond girl Martine Beswick as “the Queen of Evil” and “Fantasy Island’s” Herve Villechaize as an evil dwarf named Spider. The film’s pedigree is nuts enough that it makes it sound like a must-see, but the direction is strangely flat, as if Stone (already a talented NYU graduate who studied under Martin Scorsese) wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to do with the film. Chalk this one up as “for the morbidly curious.”
13. “Heaven & Earth” (1993)
In theory, Stone’s third Vietnam film sounds like one of his best, a film that finally shows the perspective of a young woman (Hiep Thi Le, a rare female lead for Stone) growing up in the middle of the Vietnam War as she faces the horrors of American soldiers, the North Vietnamese, the Viet Cong, and the aftermath in Saigon and, later, her marriage to a PTSD-suffering Gunnery Sergeant (Tommy Lee Jones). The film is admirably humane, giving Jones’ struggles to adjust real power while still siding with his heroine, and one can see Stone’s shift to Buddhism in the film’s deeply spiritual later sections. But Stone doesn’t turn Le Ly (whose memoirs the film is based on) into more than a passive victim, nor does he give any shape to her story outside of some truly terrible narration. The result is a long, miserable run through one person’s suffering, which can be occasionally powerful (a torture sequence that’s among the most harrowing stuff Stone ever shot) but never grips the way it should.
12. “W.” (2008)
Here’s another project that, on paper, sounds like something Stone should have nailed. The story of the little-loved 43rd President of the United States would make for a great Strangelovian satire or, alternatively, a rich dramatic portrait of a man who acts out of desire to seem like “the decider.” The problem is that Stone tries both approaches and doesn’t execute either particularly well, and he mires the film in an obvious and dull Oedipal drama about a man whose powerful daddy didn’t love him enough. The film is somewhat held together by Josh Brolin’s phenomenal, empathetic (if still very funny) performance as George W. Bush and a host of fun supporting star turns that include Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney and Toby Jones as Karl Rove (though the less said about Thandie Newton’s twitchy Condoleeza Rice, the better). But “W.” feels like a rough draft of a movie, one that needed to wait a few years to get a clearer perspective on the man, the tone and the story Stone wanted to tell.
11. “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” (2010)
Decades-late sequels are always dicey prospects, but the sequel to Stone’s 1987 morality tale had a better opportunity than some, given how the 80s “greed is good” mentality ties into the late-2000s financial crisis. But like “W.” before it, “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” doesn’t seem to know what story it wants to tell: is it about Gordon Gekko’s relationship with his estranged daughter (Carey Mulligan)? Is it about his new mentorship over a young trader (a personality-free Shia LaBeouf)? Is it about LaBeouf’s attempt to take down the man (Josh Brolin) responsible for the failure of his mentor (Frank Langella)? Stone doesn’t bring these threads together in a compelling way, nor can he manage anything terribly cogent about the disasters bred by Gekko’s kind. Michael Douglas remains spectacularly reptilian, and Stone’s direction is more engaged than it had been in his previous couple of projects, but his second go-round at “Wall Street” can’t quite justify its own existence.
10. “The Hand” (1981)
Here’s an odd one: following the success of his Oscar-winning screenplay for “Midnight Express,” Stone got another chance at directing with yet another horror movie, this one starring Michael Douglas in the middle of his “I’ll star in anything” years. And no one would mistake “The Hand” for a great horror movie: Stone can’t make the prospect of the disembodied, murderous hand of a cartoonist (Caine) scary. What he can do is sustain an atmosphere of creeping dread for 100 minutes and coax a better-than-expected turn from his ostensibly slumming star, whose work as a cartoonist who holds his wife responsible for the loss of his hand recalls a less overtly psychotic version of Jack Nicholson’s “The Shining” character. Stone also manages more than a few eerie effects, like a shower handle turning into a hand to a hysterical Caine. “The Hand” doesn’t go any unexpected places, but it does show that Stone was a talented director in the making.
9. “Savages” (2012)
Stone’s best film of the past decade feels a few recastings away from being a minor classic. With the polyamorous drug dealers who run afoul of a cartel, the director makes a major misstep in casting a blank Blake Lively, the always-callow Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and Taylor Kitsch, who used 2012 to prove he should stick to character-actor roles rather than try for leading-man status. Most scenes centered around them fall flat because of it (OK, Stone writing an indelicate line like “I have orgasms, he has war-gasms” didn’t help). But “Savages” is lively around the edges, from Benicio Del Toro and Salma Hayek’s cartel enforcer and leader, respectively, to John Travolta doing his best work in years as a corrupt DEA agent. “Savages” also has Stone’s most energetic directing since the late 90s, contrasting gorgeous SoCal paradise of the first half with down-and-dirty drug wars in the second half beautifully.
8. “Any Given Sunday” (1999)
Stone’s 1999 football drama “Any Given Sunday” is another film that frequently plays as self-parody, from the hyper-masculine dick-waving of the football players (headlined by a charismatic, cocky Jamie Foxx) to the rapid-fire editing that never seems to settle down for two seconds to the use of free-associative imagery in a way that goes from thrilling to obvious (football players are modern day gladiators, which we know because a major scene features clips from “Ben-Hur”). Here’s the thing, though: Stone’s film about the power struggles in the back rooms and on the fields is still immensely entertaining. For all of his flaws, few people capture the excitement of negotiations and and power plays than Stone (see also: “Wall Street,” “Savages,” “JFK,” “Nixon”), so even when one of the subplots gets overheated, there’s another around the corner to pick things up, whether it’s Cameron Diaz’s calculating owner trying to find a way to move the team or James Woods’ unscrupulous team physician playing with players’ lives.
7. “Wall Street” (1987)
“Wall Street” is a fairly simple, even hoary morality play, with Charlie Sheen’s young stockbroker torn between the ethics of his working-class father (Martin Sheen) and the pull of his Wall Street mentor Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas in an Oscar-winning role). Stone plays it broadly, too, culminating in a much-mocked scene of the younger Sheen standing on a balcony and saying to himself, as if to confirm he was conflicted, “Who am I?” None of it matters: “Wall Street” is still a wildly entertaining and incisive look at the greed and excess of the era. The wheeling, dealing and self-justification by Gekko and his cronies extends beyond the stock market and into the art market (Gekko’s wife, Sean Young, notes the value of her paintings, any taste for them being a second thought) and home. And while plenty of credit can go to the inherent fascination of watching bad men make big deals, “Wall Street” is also a healthy reminder of just how vibrant the combination of Stone and cinematographer Robert Richardson was in the 80 and 90s, with every movement only heightening the excitement of being among the wolves.
6. “U Turn” (1997)
Lambasted by some as being a needless foray into exploitation without any political relevance, Oliver Stone’s neo-noir “U Turn” is terrific for the same reasons it was hated. Stone’s excessive late-90s style could be irritating when put to preachy ends (“Natural Born Killers”), but it’s perfect for a film this unapologetically and unpretentiously nasty. John Ridley’s novel of the same name is awfully similar in its premise to John Dahl’s “Red Rock West” (drifter is paid to kill a rich man’s wife, things get complicated when he falls for her) but “U Turn’s” hapless protagonist (a wonderfully unsympathetic Sean Penn) is an even bigger loser, a man on the way to salvation when his bag of money is blown open in a grocery store robbery. He’s also enough of a prick that we don’t mind seeing him get smacked around by the weird locals, from Billy Bob Thornton’s gross mechanic to a hothead (Joaquin Phoenix) who’s none too pleased that his girlfriend (Claire Danes) is hitting on Penn. They’re so much fun that the central story with Nick Nolte as the rich man and Jennifer Lopez as his wife is almost a distraction before the film reaches its nihilistic final third. Stone even brings in some welcome self-parody by having a blind Native American (Jon Voight sporting his ludicrous “Anaconda” accent) hassle Penn and act like a fake guide.
5. “Platoon” (1986)
Years after its triumph at the Oscars, “Platoon” pales a bit next to the likes of Francis Ford Coppola’s towering “Apocalypse Now,” Stanley Kubrick’s pitch black comedy “Full Metal Jacket,” and Brian De Palma’s underrated “Casualties of War,” which manages a more nuanced villain than “Platoon’s” monstrous Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger). But that doesn’t make Stone’s film any less powerful. Aided by a great ensemble (Charlie Sheen, Berenger and Willem Dafoe headline, but Forest Whitaker, John C. McGinley, Keith David and Francisco Quinn are also excellent), Stone roots us in the day-to-day fears and struggles of his soldiers with a gripping immediacy brought by advisor Dale Dye and Stone’s own experiences in the war. And for all of the film’s broadness, it’s still enormously effective, with Dafoe’s arms to the heavens pose as “Adagio for Strings” swells acting like a knife to the heart.
4. “Salvador” (1986)
The same year Stone won Best Director for “Platoon” saw an even better film from him, and probably the film most likely to appeal to Stone’s detractors. “Salvador” has few of the hysterics that mar some of Stone’s films. It is rooted entirely in the on-the-ground experiences of James Woods’ photojournalist amidst the atrocities of the Salvadoran Civil War, given a spectacular on-the-fly feel by Robert Richardson’s cinematography. Its emotional subplot, involving Woods’ attempts to get a Salvadoran woman he’s fallen for out of the country, is one of Stone’s cries for humanity, but without his occasional sanctimony. His outrage, and the outrage of Woods’ sleazeball turned humanist, feels wholly earned.
3. “Nixon” (1995)
One of Stone’s most insanely ambitious projects, “Nixon” imagines the 37th President through the lens of Shakespearean tragedy, a bit of a “King Lear” meets “Citizen Kane” (something Stone plays with very consciously, even including a “News on the March” sequence). Anthony Hopkins doesn’t really look or sound much like Nixon, but through his exaggerated performance he nails Nixon’s persecution complex, his shrewdness, his feelings of inadequacy and lack of appreciation; Joan Allen is equally excellent as his put-upon wife. Stone occasionally gets mired in questionable conspiracy theories that feel like leftovers from “JFK,” and he makes a major error in including an endless scene in the Director’s Cut of Sam Waterston’s CIA director Richard Helms arguing with Nixon, but he mostly balances the anger over Nixon’s actions with an empathetic (if tough) portrait of the man. Even Stone’s jittery 90s style ends up serving the film, recreating the free-floating paranoia of the era and giving the sometimes unwieldy film a charge without overwhelming its mournful tone.
2. “JFK” (1991)
It’d be difficult to fault someone for hating “JFK.” It’s not just fudging the facts, it’s frequently actively misleading people to buy wholly into Stone’s “counter-myth.” And while Stone probably didn’t intend to totally demonize homosexuality in the film, one scene in particular involving a sadomasochistic orgy between Tommy Lee Jones, Joe Pesci and Kevin Bacon sits uncomfortably. But “JFK” remains Stone’s most compulsively watchable film, populating its investigation into the Kennedy assassination with great turns from Pesci, Bacon, Gary Oldman as Lee Harvey Oswald, Laurie Metcalf, Michael Rooker, John Candy, Donald Sutherland as a mysterious source for Kevin Costner’s hero and Jones as the mysterious suspect of Costner’s investigation. Stone’s mixing of real footage and recreations is intentionally jarring, working up a paranoid mood that’s wholly appropriate for the times, and the film’s three-plus hours pass whiz by amidst all the terrified speculating and rapid-fire edits. It might be questionable history, at best, but as a political thriller and film about the faltering trust in the people who are supposed to lead and protect us, it’s nearly peerless.
1. “Born on the Fourth of July” (1989)
Stone’s 1989 masterpiece is as broadly pitched as any of his films, but here, all of Stone’s instincts work completely (it earned him a second Best Director Oscar). A prologue of young Ron Kovic playing war with his friends and winning a baseball game is the snapshot of the idyllic “Ozzie and Harriet” America that Kovic will soon learn is a lie when he’s paralyzed in Vietnam. Kovic’s adventures in Vietnam nail the confusion and the sweltering haze that hangs over the war. The horrors of the veteran hospital, of failing to readjust to civilian life, of bottoming out in Mexico all feel not like Stone needlessly piling on his protagonist, but as the trials before the rebirth of a man who wants to see the best in his country again. Anchored by a phenomenal performance by Tom Cruise (the best in any of Stone’s films), an All-American Boy turned wounded but wiser man who wants only to prevent this thing from happening to someone else. In that sense, it’s the ultimate Oliver Stone movie.
Odds and Ends:
Stone also directed Israeli-Palestinian doc “Persona Non Grata” (which we couldn’t track down in time) and the Showtime series “Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States,” a typically provocative and compulsively watchable (if dubious) approach to history. Before he was a major filmmaker, Stone was a screenwriter, and his first major effort, “Midnight Express,” won him his first Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay (the film has since come under fire for its depiction of Turks as monsters, something Stone has apologized for). Afterwards, he mostly wrote screenplays for glorious trash before making it big, from the sublime (“Conan the Barbarian,” “Scarface”) to the ridiculous (“Year of the Dragon”). “Scarface” in particular might be worth a revisit, not just for its marrying of Stone’s excessiveness to Brian De Palma’s own excessive style, but as a companion piece to “Wall Street’s” look at 80s excess and “Nixon’s” rise-and-fall storyline. And for anyone who ever got tired of Stone’s conspiracy theories, check out this brief scene in the charming romantic-comedy “Dave” (in which Kevin Kline plays a presidential lookalike forced to take over following the president’s stroke) to see Stone poke fun at himself.