There are good movies, and there are amazing performances by actors; however, when the two don’t coexist, it complicates matters. Such is the case with the extensive filmography of one Mr. Adrien Brody: he has given amazing performances in some not so great (or downright awful) films. And yes, on rare occasion, he has been lackluster in an otherwise good film.
This top 10 list is composed of those movies where lightning struck: a great performance in a great (or at least good) movie.
King Kong (bonus points for doing his own stunt driving)
Bread & Roses
#10: Love the Hard Way (2001)
Without question, Love the Hard Way contains some of Adrien Brody’s best acting. His character, Jack Grace, is a con man and womanizer who is far more sensitive behind closed doors. Quite literally closed doors, as he sneaks away to a public storage unit to write pieces of his novel. Early on in the movie, Jack meets Claire (Charlotte Ayanna), a gorgeous, brainy, naive college student, and things get complicated. Whereas Jack hides the lightness he has inside, Claire forces herself into darkness in an attempt to be part of Jack’s world. Almost like Danny and Sandy from Grease, but… not.
This ranks tenth, only because: 1. Something has to, in a top ten list gleaned from a 60+ credit filmography. 2. The content is a little too “adult” to make it as rewatchable as some movies on this list. It’s not something you pop in the DVD player when your mother or child are present.
#9: King of the Hill (1993)
Steven Soderbergh directed King of the Hill, and adapted the screenplay from a memoir by A.E. Hotchner. The film centers around Aaron (a remarkable Jesse Bradford), a young boy with a vivid imagination, living a not so pleasant existence in Missouri during the Depression. Since Aaron’s mother is under quarantine for an illness, and his father is pretty much completely devoid of paternal instinct, Aaron gets most of his life lessons from a neighbor named Lester (Adrien Brody). Lester is a wonderful character, who, more than being Aaron’s mentor, represents hope in the story. Brody was 19 when this movie (his fourth) was filmed, and already showed signs of his future greatness.
#8: Detachment (2011)
Adrien Brody himself considers Detachment to be his most underrated film, which is an accurate assessment. If this movie had been more well-known, and/or had the financing to run a successful campaign, Brody would have been nominated for another Oscar. His performance is absolutely remarkable, and the film itself sheds light on our flawed education system, flawed families, flawed… people. His portrayal of substitute teacher Henry Barthes feels so real, it almost comes across as a docudrama (an “interview” with his character at the start of the film adds to this feel). Yes, it perhaps has roots in the “teacher comes to troubled high school” trope, but it expands into something that is anything but cookie cutter or expected. Director Tony Kaye (of American History X fame) does a tremendous job here (as does his daughter Betty, who portrays troubled teacher’s pet, Meredith).
This would have ranked higher if it were only about Brody’s performance. While it is a powerful film, in some ways, it isn’t as pleasant to watch as others on this list.
#7: The Brothers Bloom (2008)
Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo are arguably two of the best actors working today, so watching them in a Dirty Rotten Scoundrels-esque movie is a good time. Brody plays “Bloom” (no first name is ever given), baby brother and reluctant partner-in-con to Ruffalo’s Stephen Bloom. Both actors shine in their respective roles, as they charm their way through the script. Rachel Weisz, Rinko Kikuchi, and Robbie Coltrane (aka: Hagrid from the Harry Potter franchise) are all very likable here, as well. Brace yourselves… The Brothers Bloom was written and directed by none other than Rian Johnson, the infamous target of fanboy/fangirl rage for his work on The Last Jedi. He did a fine job with this one, though there are a few awkward spots here and there.
#6: The Jacket (2005)
The Jacket is an unusual movie, to say the least — almost like a David Lynch work, where the story and imagery are open to interpretation. It deals with war, amnesia, mental health, psychological experimentation, time travel and romance. And that’s just Brody’s character, Jack Starks. He did a spectacular job, and definitely dedicated himself to the physical demands of the role: from weight loss, to being locked in a morgue drawer for extended periods. He’s a method actor. It’s what they do.
If you happen to be a fan of Daniel Craig, you’ll enjoy his impressive (and nearly unrecognizable) performance here. The chemistry between Craig and Brody is better than that between Brody and Keira Knightley in this film. The Jacket is definitely worth a watch… or two… it’s kind of confusing.
#5: Restaurant (1998)
Brody stars as Chris Calloway, a bartender and playwright from New Jersey. Restaurant is scattered with actors we have seen around: Elise Neal, Simon Baker, Jesse L. Martin, David Moscow, John Carroll Lynch, and Lauren Hill among them. The film, directed by Eric Bross, addresses issues such as racism, infidelity, sexual politics, and alcoholism. These topics are somehow addressed through both dramatic and lighthearted scenes, without feeling heavy-handed like an after-school special. It’s a great little indie find, and Brody is superb in it.
Since it’s difficult to find still images from this movie online, here’s a screen capture.
#4: The Darjeeling Limited (2007)
The Darjeeling Limited was Brody’s first collaboration with director Wes Anderson. Brody co-stars with Anderson mainstays Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman, as three estranged brothers who come together for a trip through India, a year after their father’s death. In true Wes Anderson style, there is dysfunctional family-based humor, and the tragic stuff is still beautifully executed. The character of middle brother Peter Whitman was reportedly written with Brody in mind, and it shows. He does much of the dramatic heavy lifting, often using his remarkably expressive face and no dialog.
#3: Midnight in Paris (2011)
This entry and ranking may seem strange, given Adrien Brody is in Midnight in Paris for one three-minute long scene. However, it absolutely fits the criteria: an amazing performance in an amazing movie. Brody’s appearance as eccentric artist Salvador Dali was scene-stealing (practically movie stealing), and has become quite iconic — many a GIF and meme have been created of Brody’s Dali. The performance actually seems ridiculously over-the-top, until you compare it to footage of the real Dali. Reportedly, Brody started out more restrained, but director Woody Allen encouraged him to go further, saying, “I want him to know he’s in the presence of a genius, but a madman.” Nailed it!
#2: The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel is a charming movie, with dark humor thrown in (as is the case with most Anderson works). It is unique and enjoyable to watch. Repeatedly. It’s a joy to see Ralph Fiennes play someone as charming and harmless as M. Gustave H., because frankly, he has played some scary men. It is equally as satisfying to see Adrien Brody as mustache-twirling villain, Dmitri Desgoffe-und-Taxis. Brody’s Dmitri is reminiscent of the character who would be tying a damsel in distress type to train tracks in an old silent film. You love to hate him, and hate how much you love him. You can tell Brody had a lot of fun as this character, which makes it all the more enjoyable for the audience.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is also how many from the younger generation discovered Brody. Several people have turned up online brandishing Dmitri tattoos — in fact, Adrien Brody’s Twitter avatar is a photo of a fan’s Dmitri-tattooed arm.
Fun fact: Adrien Brody has appeared in more films with Owen Wilson than he has any other actor. This one marked their fourth (and most recent as of this writing) collaboration.
#1: The Pianist (2002)
It may be a bit of a given to rank The Pianist as number one on a list of the best Adrien Brody movies. It is arguably his best-known role, and also his most acclaimed — making him the youngest winner of the Academy Award for Best Actor in a lead role (some speculate he will be dethroned by Timothée Chalamet this year). The Pianist hit the Oscar-bait trifecta: he played a real person (Polish pianist and composer Wladyslaw Szpilman), transformed himself physically (dramatic weight loss), and it was a film about World War II. Much more importantly, his performance and the film are both flawless. The fact that it lost to Chicago for Best Picture is still baffling.
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