Top 10 Oliver Stone Films

Oliver Stone is responsible for some of the “most searing” and “controversial” American films. Alex Withrow looks at his favourites from one of Hollywood’s most divisive filmmakers.

Auteur and provocateur are two mutually exclusive character descriptions when describing Oliver Stone, the artist. The man is responsible for some of the most searing and controversial films in the history of cinema. His unapologetic frankness has allowed him to become, and remain, one of the most revered American directors to ever step behind a camera. But his penchant for pushing the envelope has also been his biggest downfall.

Truth is, for every masterful Stone film, he has produced at least one less-than-mediocre movie. But when taking in Stone’s entire body of work into account, those missteps simply do not matter. Stone has given a voice to the silent and an understanding to the judged. And, more often than not, he’s done it with a frenzied style that is unmistakably his own. Love or hate the man, there’s no denying the power that lies within his best work.

10. Nixon (1995)

Yeah, it’s long. Too long, maybe. But it’s also one of the finest historical dramas ever created. Anthony Hopkins may not necessarily look or sound much like Tricky Dick, but when we watch his iconic performance here, we’re watching an actor in full command of his abilities. Two scenes in particular stand out: Nixon kindly, blankly approaching his unsuspecting protestors at the base of the Lincoln Memorial, and the extended prologue that features real news clips and a refreshingly neutral commentary from Stone himself.

9. World Trade Center (2006)

About as many would agree and disagree with me concerning Stone’s 9/11 drama, but from where I’m sitting, World Trade Center is an earnest, well-intentioned character study that never fails to move. Sure, it gets a little weighed down by needlessly (and constantly) cutting back to the wives at home, but at the heart of the story, John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno’s story of survival is the cause of one of Stone’s most touching films. Big shout out to Michael Shannon and Viola Davis, two remarkable character actors who steal every scene they have here.

8. Heaven & Earth (1993)

In concluding his Vietnam War trilogy, Stone told a story from the other side in documenting the (true) story of Le Ly Hayslip, a young woman whose peaceful life was thrown into utter disarray once the war began. I had always put off watching Heaven & Earth because, frankly, I thought it sounded boring. How wrong could I be? Not only is this one of Stone’s most raw and brutal films, it’s one of his most unforgiving. Not to be missed.

7. Talk Radio (1988)

When I profiled Stone a few months again, I made mention that the biggest surprise of his career was the crafty little dramedy, Talk Radio. Eric Bogosian, in a go for broke performance, completely nails it as shock jock radio personality Barry Champlain. Barry rarely has anything nice to say about anyone, which ultimately comes to bite him. With its impeccable ability to seamlessly shift from comedy to drama, Talk Radio is one of the best, most overlooked films of Stone’s career.

6. The Doors (1991)

Let’s be honest, for the most part, Oliver Stone makes incredibly polarizing films. I know people who loathe every single frame of his Jim Morrison biopic, but I think it’s as fine a musician biography film as I’ve seen. My affection for the film is based, in part, on two things. One is Val Kilmer’s uncanny performance, the other is the fact that you do not have to be a fan of The Doors’ music to enjoy the film. Engaging, exhaustive, and balls-out nuts, The Doors is pure Stoneian bliss.

5. Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

Stone justly won his third of three Oscars for directing this unflinching character study on Ron Kovic, an American gold boy who enlisted in Vietnam, lost the use of his legs, and ultimately became one of the war’s most outspoken critics. This film gets right what so many biopics get wrong: it shows us the man with unapologetic openness. Stone isn’t interested in idolizing a man just because he literally gave part of his life for his country, he wants to explore the darkness and depravity. This is achieved as a result of many things, none more relevant than a revelatory Tom Cruise. Thanks to Stone’s film, Kovic (who turned 66 on Wednesday) has a message that will endure for decades to come.

4. Any Given Sunday (1999)

Again, much like the majority of Stone’s work, his mad crazy pro football romp is a flick you either love or hate (or love to hate). In my opinion, Stone’s candid portrayal of what it means to run a professional sports team marks the finest football film ever made. It’s fast, furious, hilarious and entertaining as all hell. The chemistry between Jamie Foxx’s cocky quarterback and Al Pacino’s grizzled Coach D’Amato makes for some of the finest back-and-forth exchanges Stone has ever put on screen. Any Given Sunday has a pulse that beats so fast, it scares away any and all clichés commonly associated with this genre.

3. Natural Born Killers (1994)

There’s nothing I don’t love about Natural Born Killers. I love its unapologetic controversy, it’s joyful depiction of senseless murder, its caffeinated edited, drastic cinematography, and, of course, its manic performances. Using every feasible type of filmic style (the movie ingeniously implores black and white, animation, ‘50s-style sitcom, laugh track, color filters, and more), Natural Born Killers is a film so unhinged yet aware of what it’s doing, that you can’t help but appreciate it. The final act of this movie, in which the mad lovers lead a prison riot, is some of the best filmmaking Stone has ever put on screen.

2. JFK (1991)

Best to be clear from the onset: I consider Oliver Stone’s JFK to be an American cinematic masterpiece. Is it 100 percent accurate? Nope. Is it flawless? For my money, indeed. I’ve never viewed a narrative film as a means of gaining a history lesson, and I think the fact that JFK’s historical controversy still outweighs its cinematic merit is quite shameful. The film knows when to push, when to stand still, when to yell and when to be silent. It is evidence of a master auteur in complete control of his craft. At 189 minutes, there is not a single wasted frame here; it’s the type of movie that gets better (and more revealing) with age.

1. Platoon (1986)

I can’t even lie – I was very close to giving the top spot here to JFK, but after some brief consideration, it’s impossible to dethrone Platoon as Stone’s best film. Based closely on Stone’s time serving in Vietnam, Platoon is a gritty, terrifying, and impossible moving film that ranks with the finest war pictures ever made. Its power (thanks to its dozens of faultless performances, restrained use of music, and unflinching battle sequences) is something that never grows less significant. Take, for instance, Stone’s recreation of the My Lai Massacre, a sequence that is as horrifying and poignant as anything every captured in a war film. Platoon is Stone’s most personal film; it has a humility and frankness that is impossible to ignore. It is a necessary component to the cinematic medium.

Over to you – what are your favourite Oliver Stone films?

Written and compiled by Alex Withrow.

Alex Withrow is a magazine Editor based in Richmond, Virginia. He has been the sole writer of And So it Begins since it went live in 2007. He appreciates, and is obsessed with, anything related to film. Whether it’s writing about them, watching them, or making them, he is a cinephile dedicated to the moving picture. You can read more of Alex’s writing on film at his website and follow him on Twitter @shiftingPersona

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About the Author
Alex Withrow is a magazine Editor based in Richmond, Virginia. He has been the sole writer of And So it Begins since it went live in 2007. He appreciates, and is obsessed with, anything related to film. Whether it’s writing about them, watching them, or making them, he is a cinephile dedicated to the moving picture. You can read more of Alex’s writing on film at his website and follow him on Twitter @shiftingPersona

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  1. Avatar
    neil mitchell Reply

    World Trade Center and The Doors over Salvador and Wall Street? Really?

  2. Avatar
    mark Reply

    For my money Stone’s best films were when he collaborated with cinematographer Robert Richardson, with the standouts arguably being Nixon, JFK, NBK and The Doors (having said that, I’m not a big fan of Heaven and Earth, while it’s been over a decade since I sat thru U Turn).

    I agree with Mr Mitchell that World Trade Centre shouldn’t be there, while Salvador should.

    W is another overlooked one, full of some great performances – I recently read the Bush autobiography and thought the author spent a lot of time defending himself against the allegations made in the film (it’s actually a funny book … took me weeks to get the sound of that cocky, fake, idiotic Texas drawl out of my head).

    I wouldn’t put Alexander on the list, but the battle scene when they reach India is pretty amazing.

    Hopefully we’ll see a return to form with the just released Savages … certainly the early notices in the US suggest it’s going to be something of a mixed bag.

  3. Avatar
    Dan Reply

    @Neil/Mark: I’m not a fan of Oliver Stone myself but I find myself in agreement with swapping World Trade Center with something like Salvador. James Woods is great in everything but Salvador particularly stands out.

  4. Avatar
    Alex Withrow Reply

    It’s weird, because I did not like Salvador the first time I saw it at all. It took a few repeat viewings for me to appreciate it. I’ve always thought James Woods was incredible in it, but I dunno, there’s something about World Trade Center’s heart that has stayed with me. I definitely didn’t expect people to agree with me on that one.

    W… ah, I don’t know. Great acting, but I was just bored by that movie. To be honest, I’m not sure Stone has made 10 great films, so the bottom five of this list are definitely up for contention.

    Either way, thanks for posting this Dan!

  5. Avatar
    Dan Reply

    @Alex: “To be honest, I’m not sure Stone has made 10 great films, so the bottom five of this list are definitely up for contention.” – very interesting you should say that. As someone who feels Oliver Stone is largely overrated I’d be very hard pushed to create a top 10. In fact, it would be impossible for me.

    You could argue his best film is one he wrote but did not direct – Scarface. My faves are Platoon, Born on the 4th, and Salvador I think.

  6. Avatar
    ruth Reply

    I’ve only seen Born on the Fourth of July, but I’m intrigued by JFK. I do like Kevin Costner and given you said it’s a masterpiece, now you got me curious to see it. Generally his movies don’t appeal to me that much. I figured Alexander wouldn’t make the list, ahah.

  7. Avatar
    Eric Reply

    Yep, Platoon had to be #1. Still the best Vietnam War film I have ever seen, and there are some damn good ones out there. A little surprised to not see Wall Street on here, but nice list all the same, Alex.

  8. Avatar
    Raghav Reply

    Oliver Stone is one of my favourite directors. Besides the films you mentioned I’ve always liked U-Turn a lot for its rustic feel and for Stone slightly moving away from the biopic mode that he does so well. Good list!

  9. Avatar
    Evan Reply

    I’ve never been a huge fan of Oliver Stone. I appreciate some of his films though. I haven’t seen several of the movies on this list, however I think The Doors and Platoon are fantastic. I agree with most that Wall Street should definitely have made the list because it’s the perfect portrait of 80s greed. Natural Born Killers has always been too out there for me. When it comes to other directors doing something written by Tarantino, I prefer Tony Scott’s True Romance.

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    Pete Reply

    There could be only one. Platoon is fantastic but I’ve still yet to see JFK. Really need to see that one. Very surprised Wall Street didn’t make the top 10 but there’s a few others on here I need to see so perhaps I’m missing out.

  11. Avatar
    Alex Withrow Reply

    @Eric, thanks man. I rewatched Wall Street and few months ago and wasn’t nearly as taken with it as I used to be. Douglas as Gecko is still a god, for sure, but I dunno, didn’t really do it for me. Weird.

    @Raghav, U-Turn is just crazy nuts, isn’t it? I dig that film, for sure.

    @Evan, ooh man that’s a tough call: Natural Born Killers vs. True Romance. That merits its own post right there.

    @Pete, man, Wall Street is really crushing me here!

  12. Avatar
    Neal Damiano Reply

    What about Wall Street? Such an intense film and really reflective of the time. Michael Douglas won an oscar for his performance!

  13. Avatar
    Jaskee Reply

    This is a good list. Out of all of them, my personal favorite is JFK. That was a masterpiece.

  14. Avatar
    mark Reply

    @Alex – my favourite moment from Nixon (which I would have put at the top of my Stoner list) is the opening scene flashback, when the prez realises – via Haldermann – that Howard Hunt is involved in Watergate. Took me years to realise why this exchange became the missing 18 minutes.

    Another great part of the film is when Nixon meets the Texan businessmen after closing a deal for Studebaker and is told by Larry Hagman that Kennedy is going to get run out of town when he visits Dallas the following day. Aside from the fact it recreates the JFK rant scene between Ferrie (Pescie – forgive spelling) and Shaw (Tommy Lee), it ends when Nixon leaves Dallas on the morning of JFK’s arrival in one of the film’s most conspiratorial moments.

    Finally, there’s the fact that Nixon is not only about the demise of a president, but is also about how he screwed Haldermann in the process. Woods should have received a best supporting actor oscar for that role.

    I used to think the same thing about Oldman in JFK. However, after reading Don Di Lillo’s Libra, I think Stone got it wrong in trying to somehow exonerate Oswald. He may have been a patsy, but he was no saint. Pity … the scenes where Stone recreates the possible Oswald shooting scenarios and his subsequent arrest at the movie theatre are both beautiful and brilliant.

    Finally, Platoon …. there’s no denying it’s a great film, but it’s so damn Hollywood. Two things really pull it down – the voiceover narrative (did we really need it spelt out for us?) and the overkill of Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Even Defoe’s “I’m being scarificed like Christ” slow motion death moment was overdone – another pity as the overhead shot from the helicopter’s POV of him running from the VC was great (as was the preceeding moment when he runs into the jungle; as was the whole final battle scene).

    My top 10 Stoner films (in order):

    The Doors
    Any Given Sunday
    Born on the Fourth of July
    Talk Radio

  15. Avatar
    Alex Withrow Reply

    @Mark – Awesome stuff here man, really interesting thoughts on Nixon and JFK. As for Platoon, I actually completely agree with you, but only AFTER the fact. Meaning, I think the movie looks more Hollywood now because of the films that have come after it. When it was made, I don’t think there was anything conventional or overblown about it. But how am I to tell? Just my opinion is all.

    Nice Top 10, (ps, did you mean to say “Stoner” films? Because that made me laugh my ass off.)

  16. Avatar
    mark Reply

    @Alex – Cheers for the feedback … believe it or not, I did actually feel this way about Platoon after sitting thru it during its initial run back in 1987 (I think Barber’s Adagio for Strings was the first piece of classical music, outside of Zarathustra, that made me sit up and take notice after it was played at the end of The Elephant Man).

    Final thoughts on Nixon – one of my all time favourite moments in the film is about two thirds of the way thru when Haldermann (Woods) and Erlichman (Walsh) are walking thru the corridors of the White House whispering about Nixon’s history of dirty tricks (it starts off with Walsh saying: “He’s wrong you know….” and ends with Woods saying something like: “And John, we both know that you and I are next.”) All of it is so beautifully done – from the typing pool sound effects at the start to John Williams’ dissonant piano arpeggios … plus it segues effectively into the next scene when Dean meets Howard Hunt on the bridge at night (with Hunt’s classic line: “He’s the darkness, reaching out for the darkness”).

    Back in the days of video, when I was living alone and could indulge in such nonsense, I used to rewind this scene and watch it over and over and over and over (repeat 50 times).

  17. Avatar
    Alex Withrow Reply

    Aaaand now I’m going to watch that scene the second I get home. Love little stuff like that!

  18. Avatar
    mark Reply

    Alex – didya do it?

    Best line – Ehrlichman (JT Walsh) to Halderman (Jimmy Woods): Do you think LBJ would ever have asked Hunt to forge a cable implicating Kennedy in the assassination of the president of Vietnam?

  19. Avatar
    mark Reply

    Just sat through Savages … the US gets it in July, we in Oz have to wait until October.

    It’s sort of a mess, full of inconsistencies and a few dead ends – plus he includes a variation on the “it was all a crazy dream” cop out climatic scene; this after a slow start that seems appropriate until you realise sufficient momentum is not being gathered during the rest of the film. Needless to say, the epilogue is kinda dull.

    I thought it was going to be a cross between Wild at Heart (which I’m also not a big fan of) and True Romance – unfortunately it lacks the ham fisted bizzareness of David Lynch (never throught I’d be asking myself this, but where is it when you really need it?) and the punch of Tony Scott’s movie.

    I’ve only read one Winslow book (Day of the Dog) so can’t comment on the effectiveness of the adaptation. He did, however, strike me as something of a poor man’s Ellroy. Having said that, it’s not like I’ve written any books lately ….

  20. Avatar
    Dan Grant Reply

    Stone indeed has an impressive resume. My personal choice for number one is JFK. As you mentioned, is it 100% accurate? Probably not but it’s a lot closer to the truth than the Warren Report. It’s an unflinching film and imo much better than Silence of the Lambs.

  21. Avatar
    Neal Damiano Reply

    Glad to see Talk Radio on here it’s one of my faves….however I would of fit Wall Street somewhere on this list. What an amazing film about the times we lived in, certainly the eighties (especially)

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