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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