Top 10 Films Of Jack Nicholson

Jack Nicholson is one of Hollywood’s most decorated and celebrated actors with a career that includes some of America’s finest films. Top 10 Films takes a look at some of his best performances…

Like so many contemporary Hollywood greats, Jack Nicholson started his career under the guidance of B-movie legend Roger Corman. After about a decade of acting in various exploitation films and minor flirtations with mainstream Hollywood, Nicholson wrote The Trip, a psychedelic LSD fueled movie, produced and directed by Corman and starring Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper. This clearly laid the foundations for Nicholson’s breakthrough into the mainstream when he appeared alongside Fonda and Hopper in 1969’s Easy Rider, a movie which can be seen as the true start of the New Hollywood period for which Nicholson basically became the poster child. His maniacal non-conformist and anti-hero-like qualities made him perfect for the period and it’s these very same qualities which have defined the man’s 65-year long career, which has earned him the most Oscar nominations for any male actor ever (twelve) and a tie for most wins with Daniel Day-Lewis and Walter Brennan as all three men have three statues to their name.

10. Prizzi’s Honor (Huston, 1985)

prizzis_honor_jack-nicholson_top10filmsWhilst the two had acted together in 1974’s Chinatown (I’ll get to that one later), it wasn’t until 1985 that Nicholson starred in Prizzi’s Honor, the final last film by one of Hollywood greatest directors and sometimes actor, John Huston. His portrayal of a not too smart and matter-of-fact mob hit man was without a doubt one of the strongest suits in this pitch-black comedy. Not Nicholson’s nor Huston’s best film, Prizzi’s Honor is well worth checking out for fans of either Hollywood legend.

9. As Good as it Gets (Brooks, 1997)

as-good-as-it-gets_jack-nicholson_top10filmsPerfect casting would have contributed greatly to Nicholson’s second Academy Award win for Best Actor here. Playing a dysfunctional narky misanthropic novelist who is suffering from a obsessive-compulsive disorder to boot, it is hard to imagine any other actor having been able to nail this part so perfectly. Add to that a film that balances drama, comedy and romance effortlessly and you end up with the most light-hearted entry in this top 10 list. And who wouldn’t want to see a cynical and grumpy Nicholson interact with a waitress, a homosexual artist and a little lapdog?

8. About Schmidt (Payne, 2002)

About Schmidt, Film, Jack NicholsonIn the year that Nicholson turned 65 in real life, he starred in the age appropriate role of Warren Schmidt, a bitter man who has just retired, loses his wife shortly afterward and seeks purpose in a life, which he feels he has wasted and that has not mattered to anyone around him. In one of Nicholson’s most controlled performances, he also manages to give one of his career’s best. A poignant character study of man who at the end of his life realises how empty the experience has been all along.

7. The Departed (Scorsese, 2006)

the departedIn the film that finally gave Martin Scorsese his coveted Best Director and Best Picture Academy Awards, Jack Nicholson turned in one hell of a performance as the menacing and ruthless Irish gangster Frank Costello, who as a result of a suggestion by the actor himself ended up being based on real-life mobster and informer Whitey Bulger. In a film stuffed with impressive performances, Nicholson nearly stole the show with his truly frightening portrayal of the gangster. And now that I have your attention: if you have never seen the Hong Kong classic Infernal Affairs, which The Departed is based on, change your plans tonight and simply right that wrong.

6. Easy Rider (Hopper, 1969)

1969-easy-rider_jack-nicholson_top10filmsAn independently produced biker movie which nonetheless became a monumental film as it gave a voice to the sixties’ counterculture, gave Nicholson his real breakthrough (and his first Oscar nomination) and truly announced the arrival of the Hollywood New Wave, a movement which would rule American cinema throughout the seventies. In a twist of fate, Nicholson scored the pivotal role of a drunk lawyer when Rip Torn, a Texan actor who the role was originally written for, almost came to blows with director Dennis Hopper after he expressed his dislike for rednecks, which he encountered whilst scouting locations for the movie in the South. Nicholson managed to make his minor role stand-out and the rest is history.

5. The Last Detail (Ashby, 1973)

The Last Detail, Film, Jack Nicholson, Hal AshbyNicholson was quick to capitalise on his new found success through Easy Rider and quickly became the face of the New Hollywood movement with some true classics of the era, The Last Detail being one of them. Playing “Badass” Buddusky, one of two Navy men escorting a young sailor to jail for a minor crime, Nicholson received his third Academy Award nomination for Best Actor here. Playing the role of a subversive non-conformist with verve and that trademark smirk, Nicholson’s character convinces his partner that they have to use the week they have to show the young goodhearted sailor a great time before he starts his lengthy sentence and wastes the most important years of his life. Notable for its incessant curing at the time, the studio decided to only give The Last Detail a wide release after Nicholson was awarded Best Actor at Cannes.

4. Five Easy Pieces (Rafelson, 1970)

five-easy-pieces_jack-nicholson_top10filmsAnother New Hollywood classic and another Best Actor nomination at the Academy Awards for Nicholson, Five Easy Pieces is the film in which the actor really cemented his hold on the non-conformist role. Playing Bobby Dupea, a man from a wealthy family who was poised to become a well respected concert pianist but turns his back on his family and upbringing, Nicholson gave a towering performance as an alienated individual who is mad at the entire world and is looking for more meaning in his life. Watch out for the scene where he fights with a waitress at a diner over a chicken salad sandwich; it is pure gold.

3. The Shining (Kubrick, 1980)

TheShiningNicholson’s ability to play intense maniacal characters has maybe never been put to better use than when he played Jack Torrance in Stanley Kubrick’s horror masterpiece The Shining. Stephen King, the author of the novel the film is based on, although the two differ significantly, objected to Nicholson’s casting as he felt the actor’s previous roles would give away immediately that the character would go insane. On top of that it has been widely documented that King despised the final film in its entirety. Clearly King knows a lot more about writing than he does about filmmaking as The Shining is now widely considered as one of the best horror films of all time and Nicholson’s performance in it as pitch perfect. “Heeeere’s Johnny!”

2. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Forman, 1975)

One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, Milos Forman, Jack NicholsonIf the New Hollywood films of the early seventies made Nicholson into a respected and successful actor, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was the film that truly turned him into a bona fide movie star in the mid-seventies. Finally winning the Oscar for Best Actor, after having been nominated for it three times previously in the four years leading up to this win, Nicholson’s stunning portrayal a free-spirited man who feigns insanity in order to avoid jail time and ends up in an mental hospital instead was a true tour-de-force performance. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is only one of three films in the history of the Academy Awards to win all five major awards (Best Film, Director, Screenplay, Actor and Actress). An undeniable classic of American cinema and one of Nicholson’s most iconic roles.

1. Chinatown (Polanski, 1974)

Chinatown_jack-nicholson_top10filmsThe top three films in this list are basically interchangeable as all of them are masterpieces in their own right but Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, his last film made in the United States and arguably the best neo-noir ever committed to celluloid, is my top pick, if only because nowadays it seems to be slightly less known amongst the general public than the two previous entries. Nicholson gives a stunning take on the character of a smart-ass private investigator who is in over his head, a role which would have been played by Humphrey Bogart had this movie been actually made in the forties. All other elements of the film just come together perfectly, with special mention of the screenplay by Robert Towne, which has become the stuff of legend amongst screenwriters. If you have never seen Chinatown do yourself a favour and get onto that. You won’t regret it.

Written and compiled by Emilio Santoni

Check out more film recommendations at Emilio’s Facebook page Just Good Movies

Over to you: what are your fave Jack Nicholson films?

About the Author
Emilio has been a movie buff for as long as he can remember and holds a Masters Degree in Cinema Studies from the University of Amsterdam. Critical and eclectic in taste, he has been described to “love film but hate all movies”. For daily suggestions on what to watch, check out his Just Good Movies Facebook page:

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    Ratnakar Sadasyula Reply

    One Flew Over a Cuckoo’s Nest, Chinatown, 5 Easy Pieces, Easy Rider, A Few Good Men, About Schmidt, Batman.

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    Rohan Michael Morbey Reply

    All my main choices are there, but I’d have Batman and A Few Good Men on my top 10. Regardless, he is one of the best actors of any generation. No one else quite like him.

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    Darren Jones Reply

    Five Easy Pieces! But I also like The King of Marvin Gardens where he plays against type.

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    David Andrews Reply

    Chinatown, The Shining, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Five Easy Pieces, The Missouri Breaks, Easy Rider, Carnal Knowledge, Postman Always Rings Twice.

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    Neil Mitchell Reply

    The Last Detail.

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      Dan Reply

      …that’s my favourite too alongside One Flew Over A Cuckoo’s Nest.

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        David Andrews Reply

        Cool: An Ashby film that I don’t know, and w/Nicholson! I’ll look for it.

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    Dan Heaton Reply

    I’m glad to see that you focused on his best work, which really happened before he became “JACK” and almost a caricature. It was great to see him do so well in The Departed more recently. Even so, I agree that Chinatown, Cuckoo’s Nest, and Five Easy Pieces should be near the top of the list.

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    Movie Gran Reply

    Really like the choices in this top 10 and agree wholeheartedly with the top 3. I’d probably find a place for Batman – the Joker completely upstages the superhero in that film – and may move The Last Detail ahead of Five Easy Pieces but other than that, I find myself agreeing with all your selections.

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    Neal Damiano Reply

    Fantastic list, I would of put Five Easy Pieces at number 1 ( personal favorite ) …but great films here!! Great to see The Last Detail and As good As It Gets mentioned!!

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    Marc Dalesandro Reply

    The Witches of Eastwick? …sorry…not a big Nicholson fan.

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    James Brogan Reply

    I actually like The Bucket List and Mars Attacks.

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    Jaina Mistry Reply

    One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s nest for me. His performance and a jaw dropping film.

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    Padraig Coughlan Reply

    The Shining

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    David Robson Reply

    The Crossing Guard/The Pledge. Sean Penn threw some subtle challenges at him, and Nicholson went for’em.

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    YakuzaWarlord Reply

    Wolf, The Witches Of Eastwick, Ironweed and Prizzi’s Honor.

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    Tom Steward Reply

    Chinatown and The Last Detail take some beating. About Schmidt is about the only recent one I can stand!

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    Ross Kavanagh Reply

    The Last Detail is supposed to be a classic but I’ve never managed to get my hands on a copy of it

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    Richard Smith Reply

    A Few Good Men is my favourite. But love batman, the departed & the bucket list. The worst has to be Wolf

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    Andrew Griffin Reply

    About Schmidt. He plays unlikable remarkably well.

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    ravi parscha Reply

    I’m glad to see that you focused on his best work, which really happened before he became “JACK” and almost a caricature. It was great to see him do so well in The Departed more recently. Even so, I agree that Chinatown, Cuckoo’s Nest, and Five Easy Pieces should be near the top of the list.

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    Niels Reply

    I may be in a very little minority, and it may have had to do with my mood at the time, but I didn’t find Chinatown all that interesting. Sure, Jack Nicholson put in a fine performance, but that was to be expected from the thespian at the time. Having said that, I’m glad Five Easy Pieces was highlighted as I believe the film was made better by Jack Nicholson, and I simply could not find anyone else to fulfill that role. Then again, great acting is all about that, when they inhabit a role and you simply cannot separate the character from the performer.
    Great list!

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    Lights Camera Reaction Reply

    Glad to see Chinatown as No.1 – great list!
    I wish he’d get back working.

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    The Great Contrarian Reply

    I would say Chinatown, Five Easy Piece and One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest……..Easy Rider and Batman were great campy performances and “The Last Detail” was a terrific story about a non-conformist in the military!

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