Top 10 Films Of James Woods

James Woods is undisputedly one of America’s most electrifying male stars, yet most of the characters he plays are people you probably should avoid. Mark Fraser looks at 10 of his most memorable performances.

10. Chaplin (Richard Attenborough, 1992)

Top 10 Films of James Woods - ChaplinAlthough it’s the smallest of roles in a sometimes overly sentimental, two-and-a-half hour, star heavy biopic about one of early Hollywood’s greatest film makers, Woods briefly eats the scenery as Joseph Scott (1867-1958), the red-baiting Los Angeles lawyer who helps Joan Barry (Nancy Travis) nail Charlie Chaplin (Robert Downey Jnr) for child support while dragging the Tramp’s reputation through the mud. A great movie courtroom moment which is suitably enhanced by Sven Nykvist’s masterful cinematography.
Discover More: Top 10 Charlie Chaplin Films

9. Casino (Martin Scorsese, 1995)

Top 10 Films of James Woods - CasinoDespite the fact he’s a low life conman and former pimp, Lester Diamond (Woods) still managers to hustle ex-prostitute Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone) and her precocious daughter Amy (Erika von Tagen) away from their husband/father Sam Rothstein (Robert De Niro) and his affluent Las Vegas lifestyle. A totally believable slime ball who somehow manages to evoke a glimmer of pathetic sympathy when Rothstein sets his goons on him.
Discover More: Top 10 Films of Martin Scorsese

8. Videodrome (David Cronenberg, 1983)

Videodrome, Film, David Cronenberg, James WoodsWho else could play a seemingly normal TV producer who gets addicted to a form of snuff porn that is being transmitted from Malaysia, only to find he’s unwittingly become a pawn in a larger plot to wean out society’s perverts – and convincingly pull it all off? A few actors perhaps, but not too many. As Max Renn, Woods successfully transforms from a quick witted, smooth talking, low rent media executive into a brainwashed, part man-part machine who goes on a killing spree before being painted into a corner and committing suicide.
Discover More: Killer TV: 10 Films Where TV Is The Bad Guy

7. Once Upon a Time in America (Sergio Leone, 1984)

Top 10 Films of James Woods - Once Upon A Time In AmericaIn a strange way Max Bercovicz (Woods) ends up personifying everything that is corrupt about American politics, starting the film as a young Jewish hoodlum in Manhattan’s Lower East Side before growing into a bootlegger/gangster and finally morphing into a powerful US secretary after pulling off a switcheroo which results in the death of two of his close partners in crime (James Hayden and William Forsythe) and the 35 year self-imposed exile of his best friend Noodles (Robert De Niro). Unlike with many of his other criminal roles, Woods keeps his character in check – although from time to time he still reveals he is a walking time bomb.

6. Cop (James B Harris, 1988)

Top 10 Films of James Woods - CopOne can only wonder if crime writer James Ellroy really had someone as highly strung and slippery as Woods in mind to play Lloyd Hopkins, the senior LA detective sergeant whose namesake trilogy (Blood on the Moon [on which this film is based], Because the Night and Silent Hill) provides a sweeping picture of crime and police corruption in the city of angels since the mid-1960s. At the end of the day it probably didn’t matter what the author thought as the actor is in top form as the super-charged, rules-breaking, vigilante lawman – a role he essentially tried to emulate 10 years later in John Carpenter’s dire Vampires.
Discover More: Top 10 Films of John Carpenter

5. The Boost (Harold Becker, 1988)

Top 10 Films of James Woods - BoostThis was Woods’ second outing with director Harold Becker after their 1979 collaboration in The Onion Field. It’s also a role which could well have been written specifically for him. This time he plays Lenny Brown, a dodgy white collar yuppie whose tax shelter investment scheme collapses, leading him and his wife Linda (Sean Young) into a downward spiral of debt, cocaine abuse and domestic violence. As with Videodrome, Woods’ dark portrayal of a man slipping rapidly into insanity is distressingly mesmerising.

4. The Hard Way (John Badham, 1991)

hard way michael j fox james woodsAs the manic, take-no-crap New York detective John Moss, Woods is hilarious – there is just no other way to describe him. Easily one of the high points of his acting career, despite the fact the movie itself is pretty silly. Woods is so good in fact that it’s arguable he deserved top billing over Michael J Fox who, as actor Nick Lang, proved to be a fairly weak foil during some of their repartee.
Discover More: Top 10 Films of Michael J. Fox

3. Nixon (Oliver Stone, 1995)

Top 10 Films of James Woods - NixonOliver Stone’s take on the 37th US President is just as much about Richard Nixon’s close relationship with – and ultimate betrayal of – his pragmatic White House chief-of-staff/right hand man/late night confidant HR “Bob” Haldeman (Woods) as it is about the darkness lurking in the soul of the demon-plagued commander-in-chief (Anthony Hopkins). It’s a performance that was easily worthy of a best supporting actor Oscar. Oddly, Woods wasn’t even nominated.
Discover More: Top 10 Films of Oliver Stone | Top 10 Films In Which Anthony Hopkins Plays Historical Figures

2. Another Day in Paradise (Larry Clark, 1998)

Top 10 Films of James Woods - Another Day In ParadiseA variation on the road movie in which criminal couple Mel (Woods) and Sid (Melanie Griffith) take on the younger Bobbie (Vincent Kartheiser) and his girlfriend Rosie (Natasha Gregson Wagner) to mentor them in their thieving ways, only to become involved in a nasty comedy of errors that leads to a serious falling out between the two couples. Again Woods plays a drug addict, only this time he’s a seemingly more resourceful one than Lester in Casino and not as self-destructive as Brown in The Boost. Unfortunately for the youngsters, he also turns out to be far more dangerous.
Discover More: Top 10 Films editor Daniel Stephens reviews Larry Clark’s excellent youth culture drama Bully

1. Salvador (Oliver Stone, 1986)

Top 10 Films Salvador James WoodsThe film that undeniably put Woods on the map as an acting force to be reckoned with. In it he plays real life journalist (and movie script co-writer) Richard Boyle as a fast talking, drug taking, heavy drinking, opportunistic, lying, repellent, sleazy – but sometimes compassionate – war correspondent who parties quite heavily as he covers the early years of the Reagan administration’s military infiltration of El Salvador. Although Stone’s direction is sometimes uneven, wallowing in heavy handed melodrama before delving into serious criticism of US foreign policy, Woods keeps the whole thing together in a performance which makes Johnny Depp’s take on gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson in Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) seem a tad reserved.
Discover More: James Woods’ performance in Salvador features in Top 10 Films editor Daniel Stephens’ 11 Academy Award Best Actor Nominees Who Should Have Won The Oscar

Written and compiled by Mark Fraser

Over to you: what are the best James Woods films and performances?

See more great actor lists on Top 10 Films: Caine | De Niro | DiCaprio | Downey Jr. | Hanks | Hoffman | Streep | Roberts | Schwarzenegger | Oldman | Gandolfini | Freeman | Ford | Eastwood | Dreyfuss | Keitel | Woods

About the Author
Mark is a film journalist, screenwriter and former production assistant from Western Australia.

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  1. Neal Damiano Reply

    Great list. I think his portrayal of hot shot lawyer and most feared legal mind in America- lawyer Roy Cohn was brilliant. Worth a mention

  2. Wendell Reply

    I would definitely put Once Upon a Time in America as my #1. It’s one of my favorite movies of all time. I’d have Videodrome #2 and Casino #3. After that, you could have them in any order you want.

  3. Callum Reply

    He is so good in everything. A bit like Keitel. I love Videodrome but I don’t think his performance is as good as say Once Upon A Time or Salvador. Other favourites for me would be Contact, Ghosts of Mississippi and The Specialist (terrible film, great performance from him).

  4. Lynne Reply

    Perfect top 10

    • Dan Reply

      Thank you Lynn. Glad you liked it. Do you have a favourite?

      • Lynne Reply

        ooh tricky! Love the Hard Was ‘cos MJFox looks terrified of him, love the bleakness & last lines of Cop but I guess Salvaldor

        • Lynne Reply

          If it had been Top11 films them I would have added Best Seller to the list. A great James Woods movie with Brian Dennehy

          • Dan

            Not the first to mention Bestseller. Another terrific performance. He has so many notable films.

  5. Kost Reply

    Bestseller. He and Dennehy have never been better

  6. Lindsey Reply

    Never seen Another Day In Paradise but have enjoyed other Larry Clark films so will have to check it out. I think Salvador features a great performance from Woods but I didn’t think he’s been better than the underrated Hard Way.

  7. Huddon Reply

    He’s a master of the slime ball. Love his part in Casino despite it not been the lead. He also steals every scene of The Hard Way.

  8. Dan Grant Reply

    Another great list. However there’s one film that he did that he stands out in, maybe it’s not an Oscar worthy performance but he’s so damn charismatic in the Stallone/Sharon Stone movie The Specialist. He does what he does best in this film, play the slimy, arrogant bad guy, and he is so funny. I know this is a total personal choice, but it’s one role that I’ve always remembered him for.

    I also thought he was really good in the film True Believer with Robert Downey Jr.

  9. Neal Damiano Reply

    I guess nobody saw the Cohn film on HBO, his portrayal of the disturbed man was absolutely phenomenal! Great acting

  10. Neal Damiano Reply

    Citizen Cohn

  11. Mark Fraser Reply

    @All – thanx so much for the feedback. All valid comments/additions.

    @Neal – you are absolutely right, he was great in CC. Unfortunately it was made for TV and – as far as I know – never had a theatrical run, so it gets penalised (and speaking of injustices, the clowns who program for the TV down here yanked Shark after about three episodes … they couldn’t even be bothered rescheduling it for the graveyard shift).

    @Dan and Callum – I’m definitely going to buy some beers and revisit The Specialist.

  12. Neal Damiano Reply

    So glad to see “Cop” Included here, in my opinion it would be further down on the list. A fantastic film!!!!
    A phenomenal performance by Woods.

  13. Kabba Reply

    Superb top 10. James Woods is a class act and this is a fitting tribute.

  14. Ira Haber Reply

    wow no Diggstown?

  15. BeardyFreak Reply

    have to jam in “Badge of the Assassin” (disgustingly hard to get,but great powerhouse stuff) & where’s the superb “Best Seller”?

  16. Offbeat Reply

    Could easily swap one of those for his great performance in the TV movie Promise (1986).

    • BeardyFreak Reply

      ‏Not seen it.
      He was great in “True Believer”,”Onion Field” & another hard to get (with Dennehy again) “Split Image”

      • Offbeat Reply

        Another interesting one — if not altogether successful — is Fast Walking.

        • BeardyFreak Reply

          Agh! Another I’ve not seen.
          Loved his turn in “True Crime” too. Very funny.
          You forget how many great films he has.

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