Oliver Stone’s Five Best Films

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Oliver Stone is coming back to narrative filmmaking this summer with his adaptation of Don Winslow’s novel Savages, a glossy yet amoral and hedonistic tale of two drug dealers who get involved with the Mexican cartel. It looks to be a return to the form of 1983′s Scarface (which Stone wrote the script for).

Over the span of his career, Stone has crafted a niche for himself (for better or for worse) as a deeply political filmmaker, a trademark which stems out of him serving 15 months in the Vietnam War. He started out as a high profile screenwriter winning an Oscar for 1978′s Midnight Express. He then turned to more genre fare with Conan the Barbarian and Scarface. He made his directorial debut with the horror film The Hand, establishing himself as a director before he could truly go on to make the films he wanted to make.

In 1986 he wrote & directed Salvador and Platoon, which garnered critical acclaim and numerous Oscar nominations between the two, trumping up wins for Best Picture and Director with Platoon .

To credit the director, he didn’t fall into making films for the money, he made the films he wanted to make and never compromised his vision or politics. It has been an eclectic career producing some bad films, but many great films too.

So with that in mind and with the imminent release of Savages, we take a look over Oliver Stone‘s career and pick his five best films.

5. Any Given Sunday (1999)

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One of Stone’s forgotten greats is Any Given Sunday, a film which aims to act as an exposè of the corrupt football system but in reality it is one of his more entertaining, mainstream efforts and contains the last great film performance from Al Pacino (who since this has decided to be absolute garbage in every other film he’s done, despite stellar work on TV). On one level, it is Stone’s attempt to make a crowd pleaser, being one of his very few works where there are clean cut heroes and villains.

Pacino is the film’s hero. As the tough yet supportive football coach Tony D’Amato, he strives to do the best for his team and hold off the overbearing influence of the villainous general managers, the head of which is Christina Pagniacci, played with steely verve by Cameron Diaz in one of her finer performances. Oliver Stone‘s speechifying has never been more rabble rousing and inspirational than it is here and Pacino delivers them with pure panache.

It is by no means perfect. With an extended running time that nearly hits 3 hours, it is much, much too long and while the cinematography lends a certain sense of exhilaration to proceedings, there are times when it does call attention to itself for the wrong reasons. Also, in its efforts to crowd please it does fall into cliche, which is very odd for an Oliver Stone film, but who am I to begrudge him that? If this is his attempt to make an audience feel good then this can almost certainly be labelled as ‘his Rocky‘.

4. Natural Born Killers (1994)

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The film that got ripped to pieces on initial release 18 years ago can now primely take its place as one of the key films of Oliver Stone‘s career. Working from a script by Quentin Tarantino, which was then largely abandoned and changed by Stone, the oncoming swarm of reality television and the media’s portrayal of violence comes under the director’s scrutiny in this bravura piece of work that remains the director’s most underrated piece.

It is a work of extreme contradiction. In effect, Stone’s criticism of the mainstreaming of violence and the cult of celebrity surrounding murderers comes undone due to his intense fascination with the central figures of Mickey and Mallory.

It is a brash, loud and uneven film, Stone shoves so much vibrant and stylised imagery at you that it seems shallow at first, but there are strong ideas at work and the confidence with which Stone conveys them is nothing short of mesmerising. The film is shocking even now, and the further we get away from Natural Born Killers (it is nearly 20 years old) the more strangely prescient it becomes.

The vilification it received upon its release now validates the theory that Natural Born Killers was a film way ahead of its time, offering ideas and themes that audiences and critics weren’t ready to face. This film is the crux of Stone’s distinct anger at the world that lacks the heavy handed worthiness of his Vietnam pieces.

3. Nixon (1995)

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This is another one of Oliver Stone‘s films that you could argue is grossly overextended in its run time. Yet Even though it hits a gargantuan 213 minutes in the director’s cut, Stone’s vast tapestry on the life of America’s most hated President is a remarkably gripping affair with a masterly central performance. The fact that Anthony Hopkins doesn’t look very much like Richard Nixon is no matter; he embodies the spirit of the disgraced man and provides a very balanced portrayal of Nixon, without necessarily making him sympathetic. It remains Hopkins’ finest hour.

The approach Stone took in portraying life of Nixon he then tried to replicate with W., only with far less success. Here, Stone’s attempt to provide a balanced portrayal with someone he actively disagrees with doesn’t feel hackneyed or like he’s trying to sit on the fence. Stone is interested in what brought the man to his success but also why he became a villain to the nation. Like in W., Stone arrives at the conclusion that it has something to do with overbearing parenting and a desire to do good, thinking he has the best intentions.

This works best when looking at it not as a biopic but as a Shakespearean tragedy. And in that regard, it follows the rise before the great fall and it is much to Stone’s credit that in his screenplay he does attempt to show that Nixon had greatness within his reach but the megalomania of power brought about his fall. Nixon is a wonderful piece of work with a towering performance from Hopkins and admirable support from an insanely starry supporting cast.

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2. Wall Street (1987)

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When the sequel Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps opened 2 years ago, there was a feeling that Oliver Stone‘s attitude towards the stock market traders of Wall Street had softened greatly. And when you look back at the original Wall Street, you realise that over the past 23 years the filmmaker had definitely lost his bite. Coming straight out of the Oscar-winning success of Platoon, Stone placed his sights on big market capitalism and the demons of big business.

Crafting one of the screen’s most memorable villains is the excellent Michael Douglas as the vile Gordon Gekko, who also provides one of the defining speeches in 80′s cinema. Everyone remembers the “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good” speech, a truly savage indictment for an age when spending and wealth were spinning out of control. Greed had become an attractive prospect for the young and impressionable, embodied by protagonist Bud Fox (a fantastic Charlie Sheen).

Like many of Stone’s films, this deals with the issues of father figures. Martin Sheen (father of Charlie) steps in to play the onscreen father of Bud, a blue collar worker who watches his own son’s descent into capitalist greed destroy their relationship. As his role as father is slowly disintegrated, Gekko steps in to become the patriarchal figure with a bad influence. Like Bret Easton Ellis‘ novel American Psycho, Wall Street has become a piece of popular culture that defined the 80′s, specifically the excess and overwhelming disproportion of wealth that allowed the fat cats to get so big.

1. JFK (1991)

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Of all the films that Oliver Stone has made, films that haven’t even made this list (Salvador, Platoon, World Trade Center) and documentaries such as South of the Border, none of them are as controversial as JFK, the crowning achievement of Stone’s filmmaking career. In his epic 3.5-hour quasi-investigation, Stone provides us with an intense dissection of the John F. Kennedy assassination and probes two big questions: Was it just an angered lone gunman that killed one of the most popular Presidents, or was there a deeper conspiracy that was brewing in the dark corner of the government to get the Catholic Democrat out of office?

Stone’s view is clearly in the latter camp but the great power of the film lies in the fact that Stone isn’t and can’t quite be sure of the answer. Upon release, this was a film that was hated by journalists and news anchors. Most famously, the late Walter Cronkite demonised it by saying “there is not a shred of truth in it. It was a mishmash of fabrications and paranoid fantasies. It did not reflect the elementary principles of good journalism.” He’s right, as it doesn’t. But this has been the issue that has dogged Oliver Stone for his entire career.

Because he takes on big issues and puts real figures and historical events on film, many people assume that his films are pieces of journalism rather than pieces of narrative. Stone said recently that it is very difficult for people to separate him, his politics and his films and judge them accordingly. What continues to be ignored and what Cronkite ignored about JFK is just how much of a staggering piece of filmmaking it is.

Despite a bloated running time, JFK holds our attention for the duration due to some masterful filmmaking techniques right from the very beginning, when we see stunningly well-researched newsreel footage combined with stagings that recreate the day of the assassination. The sequence is a tribute to the Oscar-winning work of genius cinematographer Robert Richardson and editors Joe Hutshing & Pietro Scalia. That montage sets the tone for the entire film and is an exhibition for the refined talent of a brilliant filmmaker.

Then there is a fantastic script which has several characters speechifying in the most entertaining and gripping manner, delivered by amazing actors doing some of their best work. A never better Kevin Costner plays lawyer Jim Garrison, who was convinced that the assassination wasn’t just the work of Lee Harvey Oswald on his own. Costner’s work here is excellent and the “back and to the left” scene remains one of the finest courtroom moments in cinema.

However, the success of JFK lies in fact that this is a film and a subject matter that Stone approaches with the greatest sincerity but also the greatest skepticism, and it is the balance between these two that makes the film so fascinating, but yet so honest.

With JFK, Oliver Stone proved himself as one of America’s most engaged filmmakers, interested in the repressed issues that haunt the collective American psyche and bringing them back up for an intelligent discussion. This isn’t a film that is angry like a lot of Stone’s work; it is a film that is concerned and inquisitive. It is a total masterpiece and one of the 20 greatest American films ever made.

So there you have it; our top five Oliver Stone films. Now it’s your turn, head down to the comments and tell us what your favorite Stone films are.

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  • John Dow

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