Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)
“Always Be My Baby” is now streaming on Netflix, and some of the excitement around the film has centered on a (very funny) cameo by Keanu Reeves as the very aggressive new boyfriend of Ali Wong’s character.
But cameos are not, of course, a new invention of the streaming age. On the contrary, the cameo is an ancient art that stretches all the way back to the time Kurt Vonnegut wrote a bad essay about his own work in “Back to School,” and possibly even before that!
With that in mind, we asked our panel of critics to name their favorite movie cameos ever. Check out their choices below:
Ken Bakely (@kbake_99), Freelance for Film Pulse
I’ve recently been oddly fascinated by Huey Lewis’s brief cameo in “Back to the Future,” in which he plays a teacher who rejects Marty McFly’s band from competing in a school contest as he finds them “too darn loud,” because I think it ticks so many of the boxes for a “classic”, for lack of a better word, type of cameo. Lewis is someone involved with the film’s production in another aspect (soundtrack), there’s a deep irony to the appearance (a rock musician playing someone who doesn’t appear to particularly like rock music—even more, the song he’s negatively reacting to is a performance of a song by his band), and it all plays as something of an inside joke (there’s no indication that there’s anything surprising who’s playing the teacher if you don’t recognize him). Certainly cameo appearances occupy a far wider variety of contexts and forms than this, but there’s something really interesting to me about how this specific moment seems to serve as a perfect encapsulation of how one might traditionally imagine a cameo.
Richard Brody (@tnyfrontrow), The New Yorker
The best cameo ever is the one that sums up all preceding cameos and sets an insurmountably high standard for those that have followed, because they’re all encompassed by this one’s very subject: Samuel Fuller’s, in Jean-Luc Godard’s “Pierrot le Fou.”
Jude Dry (@JDry), IndieWire
I believe the film is called “Always Be My Maybe,” a small yet important twist on the classic Mariah Carey song.
Luke Hicks (@lou_kicks), Film School Rejects/One Perfect Shot, Birth.Movies.Death.
Perhaps the most off-brand (hence, shockingly memorable) cameo we’ve ever seen is Tom Cruise as Les Grossman in “Tropic Thunder,” the gravely underrated Vietnam satire masterpiece that cast Cruise as a bald, ruthless, foul-mouthed studio executive overseeing the film within the film. From tearing the overcompensating Cali-bro Rick Peck (Matthew McConaughey) a new one to insisting upon the death of the actors for cultural memorial gain to crazed dance sessions, his every explosive moment is startlingly hilarious. As a rule of thumb, I felt I had to pick one that I can confirm exists, but the most mystifying cameo in my mind will always be Paul Thomas Anderson’s dodgy appearance in “Minority Report” as a pedestrian on a crowded subway platform. It might be the movie I’ve watched the most in my life, yet I still can’t find him. Cameron Crowe and Cameron Diaz have much more noticeable cameos in the film (they’d just filmed “Vanilla Sky” with Cruise who’d recently made “Magnolia” with Anderson), but Spielberg says PTA is in there, so the hunt continues.
Daniel Joyaux (@thirdmanmovies), freelance contributor for Vanity Fair, The Verge, MovieMaker Magazine, Filmotomy
For most of these surveys, I tend to spend a long time thinking about my answer, trying to be sure I haven’t forgotten a better choice than what initially occurred to me. But with great film cameos, I think one’s first thought is the point. A great cameo is one where the actor’s star power should immediately envelop you and almost take over the moment. That’s why the first answer that occurred to me is Sean Connery’s appearance as King Richard the Lionheart at the end of 1991’s “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.”
Like Harry Lime in “The Third Man,” King Richard is constantly spoken of in “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” long before he’s ever seen. The movie is, in a way, almost about his absence. When a character is set up like that, he better blow you away when (or if) he eventually shows up. And few actors have the power and gravitas to do that like Sean Connery. It was flawless casting because it relied on not just Connery’s persona as a movie star, but also on the specific history of roles in his career. Connery had previously played both kings and Robin Hood (in 1976’s “Robin and Marian,” opposite Audrey Hepburn), and his status as one of the sexiest men in cinema history ensured that there was no one alive better suited to give Maid Marian away at her wedding by kissing her cheek and telling her how “radiant” she looked. By the time Connery handed the screen back to Kevin Costner—less than a minute after he first appeared—you’d already forgotten whose movie you were even watching.
Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG), News Editor for Wicked Horror, freelance for Birth.Movies.Death, Vague Visages, The List
Any of the cameos in the first ten minutes of “Hot Fuzz” (Martin Freeman, Steve Coogan, Bill Nighy, Peter bloody Jackson) could reasonably be considered the best in recent memory, but I’d struggle to think of a wackier, or funnier, example than Helen Mirren in “Fast 8” (or “The Fate of the Furious” depending on your geographical location). The great Dame petitioned for a role in the enjoyably nuts action series, and her brief appearance is one of the stand-out moments in a movie loaded with brilliantly-conceived insanity.
As the no-nonsense mother to the criminal Shaw brothers, Mirren is gifted the only F-bomb in the PG-13 movie (“I’m f*****g thirsty,” she says, supping her tea daintily, pronouncing the “TH” as an “F” like a proper East End gangster). She also has a hilarious moment with Jason Statham’s hard man Deckard, tricking him into bringing his brother (Luke Evans’ Owen) along on his next job, against Deckard’s very loud protestations. Mirren fake-cries until she gets her way, cleverly employing mom guilt.
The best cameos simultaneously make zero sense and all the sense in the world, like Ray Wise showing up as the Anti-Pope in “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.” It’s the exact person you want to appear at that exact moment, only it isn’t clear just how perfect it is until it happens. Of course Helen Mirren is the head of the Shaw crime family. Who the hell else could it be?
Mike McGranaghan (@AisleSeat), The Aisle Seat, Ranker
He’s not the most famous guy in the world by any stretch of the imagination, but I think Marshall McLuhan wins this one for his cameo in “Annie Hall.” I could explain why, but it would be easier for anyone who doesn’t already know to just watch the scene, because it’s absolute perfection.
Aaron Neuwirth (AaronsPS4), We Live Entertainment, Why So Blu, Out Now with Aaron and Abe
Gene Hackman’s appearance as a blind man in “Young Frankenstein” feels like a gift to cinema. The famously intense actor supposedly asked to be in the film because he wanted to try comedy, and, wouldn’t you know it, he knocked it out of the part. Whether it’s the randomness of Hackman’s appearance or the fact that he is hilarious in his brief interactions with Peter Boyle’s Monster, this brief segment in an already fantastic comedy makes for a perfectly contained cameo that hardly distracts from the overall feature, a constant issue when it comes from these little surprises. If anything, he only adds to the joy of watching so much great comedy working well into Mel Brooks’ wonderful homage to James Whale’s “Frankenstein” films by working as a fun twist on the nonjudgmental priest accepting the misunderstood monster. Bonus points go to Brooks for getting the equally intense John Hurt to stop by his ‘Spaceballs’ set to redo the famous Alien chestburster scene.
Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@chrisreedfilm), Hammer to Nail, Film Festival Today
Call it a cameo, call it a bit part, but my favorite brief appearance by a well-known actor in a film about people other than himself is that of Steven Seagal in the 1996 “Executive Decision.” That movie, about a terrorist group that takes control of a commercial airliner, stars Halle Berry, John Leguizamo, Kurt Russell, David Suchet and others. For a short while, we believe that Seagal – at the time, a major box-office draw – will dominate the story, as he plays the leader of a stealth commando unit that is tasked with boarding the jetliner mid-flight. And then, “poof,” he vanishes, literally into thin air, his body ripped apart when the docked craft from which he is attempting to climb onto the hijacked plane breaks free. Exeunt Seagal, enter Russell as the lead. Seems like a fair trade, given the upgrade in acting chops.
Lindsey Romain (@lindseyromain), Staff Writer for Nerdist
I’m going to be extremely dumb but also extremely honest with my answer and say Billy Zane in “Zoolander.” The film is loaded with hilarious cameos and lines, but I’ve been quoting the line, “Put a cork in it, Zane!” for almost 20 years now and I have no intention of stopping. The best cameos are the ones that give you something to talk and laugh about forever, and the “Titanic” star’s brief but memorable appearance is the one I hold dearest to my heart.
Don Shanahan (@casablancadon), Every Movie Has a Lesson and Medium.com
To pick the best ever movie cameo, I had criteria. I couldn’t help but consider the level of prominence of three things: the performer, their impact, and the film itself. As fun as others may be, the best-of-the-best can’t merely be walk-on sight gag in a forgettable film. Adding those variables up, I have to go with Christopher Walken as Captain Koons in “Pulp Fiction.” That’s an Oscar winner coming in on the last day of shooting and delivering a monologue for the ages in what has become one of the most highly regarded and influential films of its era. He strolls in, makes eye contact, and virtually freezes time. Walken’s captivating cadence to tell the long-winded history of a not-so-trivial gold watch has us hanging on his every word. Within a modern classic like “Pulp Fiction” with memorable characters everywhere and endlessly quotable moments, it’s hard to imagine anyone else fitting into that role (though many were considered) and giving us the same yarn with the same panache.
Danielle Solzman (@DanielleSATM), Solzy at the Movies/Freelance
Hands down, the best cameo that I’ve seen in a film is when Hugh Jackman’s made a brief appearance in “X-Men: First Class.”
Oralia Torres (@oraleia), Cinescopia, Malvestida
Without a doubt, David Bowie’s cameo in “Zoolander.” His role as himself is only a few seconds long, but it’s simple, surprising, and brilliant.
Ethan Warren (@EthanRAWarren), Bright Wall/Dark Room
The term cameo often means ‘small but notable role’—I’m thinking of Alec Baldwin in “Glengarry Glen Ross” or Christopher Walken in “Pulp Fiction”—but to me, a true cameo should have some metatextual element that lends the role an additional underlying meaning (thus cameos often shine brightest in broad comedies like “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” or “The Muppet Movie” where the fluid relationship with realism allows the fourth wall to be strained). I’d argue no touch could be more metatextual than a director casting themselves in their own film, and among these, the most remarkable for my money must be Martin Scorsese’s appearance in “Taxi Driver.”
In a scene lasting under four minutes, Scorsese portrays a late-night fare who forces protagonist Travis Bickle to leave the meter running at the curb and listen as he describes his plans to murder his wife in the most violently vulgar terms possible. Even in a film so bleak it verges on nihilistic, this scene ranks among the most chilling, and Scorsese’s choice to use his own voice to plunge the story to its lowest depths creates an additional layer of rich moral complexity. And that’s not even to mention how genuinely great Scorsese’s performance is—sporting a thick black beard and extravagant mane of dark hair, Scorsese’s trademark coiled semi-manic energy brings a rush of true soulless villainy to the brief vignette that haunts the viewer far longer than any typical day player could have.
Clint Worthington (@clintworthing), Consequence of Sound, The Spool
When the Lance Armstrong doping scandal hit in 2013, revealing that the five-time Tour de France winner and certified Aspirational Figure had engaged in a complex doping scheme for years, it didn’t just ruin his legacy and the public perception of organized sports. No, the greater harm to the man’s legacy came in deflating his cameo in the 2004 screwball comedy “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story.”
One of the greatest guilt trips in cinema history up to that point, Armstrong pops up to passive-aggressively soothe the ego of Vince Vaughn’s sullen Everyman Peter Le Fleur, drinking at the bar while his team starts the big finale without him. “Well, I guess if a person never quit when the going got tough, they wouldn’t have anything to regret for the rest of their life. But good luck to you, Peter. I’m sure this decision won’t haunt you forever,” he shrugs, the kind of passive-aggressive lecture any overbearing mother would be envious to have in their arsenal — coming from the greatest athlete in the world at the time, it was a solid gag in an otherwise workmanlike comedy.
Now, in light of the fraudulent nature of Armstrong’s achievements, the “Dodgeball” speech takes on new, depressing implications. How did Peter feel after finding out his own comeback story was built on a foundation of lies by 21st-century sporting’s greatest fraud? Is the whole sport of professional dodgeball forever compromised? That‘s a “30 for 30” that deserves a slot on The Ocho, for sure.