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Oliver Stone’s 10 Best Films

Oliver Stone is one of the most acclaimed and controversial directors of all time. Here's a rundown of his ten best films.

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Oliver Stone is no stranger to controversy. Since winning an Oscar for writing Midnight Express in 1979, Stone has proven to be one of the most brash and outspoken figures in Hollywood history. He’s made films excoriating the Vietnam War, the JFK assassination, and the sensationalism of reality TV. He’s made historical epics about disc jockeys, U.S. presidents and rock stars. He’s made documentaries that humanize world leaders like Vladimir Putin and Fidel Castro.

He also has a bone to pick with John Wick. Stone was asked about the action franchise during a recent interview with Variety, and he made it clear he was not a fan. “I saw John Wick 4 on the plane,” he explained. “Talk about volume. I think the film is disgusting beyond belief.” He went on to say that the franchise’s treatment of violence and murder was more akin to a “video game” than anything a real person would experience.

While the notion of Stone bashing a violent franchise seems hypocritical, given his output, his best films have always managed to thread the needle between brutality and thoughtfulness. It doesn’t always work, which is why Stone has released duds like World Trade Center (2006) and Savages (2012), but when it does, it results in something truly special. Here are Oliver Stone’s ten best films.

10. U-Turn (1997)

U-Turn was misunderstood upon release. Stone wanted to distance himself from the weighty subject matter of his previous film, Nixon (1995), and felt the best way to do so was to adapt a pulp novel by John Ridley. It worked artistically and failed commercially. U-Turn is one of the bleakest examples of neo-noir ever released, and this commitment to genre convention makes it one of the most underrated films in Stone’s career.

Sean Penn plays a con man who gets stranded in Superior, Arizona. He has to kill time while his car gets worked on, and winds up getting drawn into a twisted web of blackmail involving a sheriff (Nick Nolte) and his young wife (Jennifer Lopez). Explaining more than would risk spoiling the plot, which includes several twists, but we will say that even the film’s supporting cast is loaded. Even the smaller roles are played by former and/or future stars like Jon Voight, Billy Bob Thorton and Joaquin Phoenix.

Stone is often chastised for letting his politics get in the way of his talents, but U-Turn proves that he could churn out a straightforward crime thriller with the best of them. The nihilist slant of the film may be off-putting to some, but those willing to buy into the worldview will be rewarded.

9. Nixon (1995)

Even though it has a gargantuan runtime of 213 minutes, Stone’s take on the life of America’s most hated President is a remarkably gripping affair. The fact that Anthony Hopkins doesn’t look very much like Richard Nixon doesn’t matter; he embodies the spirit of the disgraced man and provides a very balanced portrayal of him, without necessarily making him sympathetic. It’s one of Hopkins’ most underrated turns, and the recipient of a well-deserved Oscar nomination.

The approach Stone took with Nixon was replicated to a lesser degree with W. (2008). With the former, Stone’s attempt to depict someone he actively disagrees with doesn’t feel hackneyed or like he’s trying to sit on the fence. With the latter, the complications of George W. Bush get sorted out with dime-store psychology. There’s little to mull over when the credits roll.

Stone frames Nixon as a Shakespearean tragedy. He acknowledges that the man had greatness in him, and a megalomania that proved his undoing, but crucially, he does not tell the viewer what to think. He embraces ambiguity more than usual here, and it proves a wise choice. Worth revisiting.

8. Talk Radio (1988)

The one-two punch of Platoon (1986) and Wall Street (1987) made Stone the hottest director in Hollywood. He could have signed on for any blockbuster of his choosing in 1988, yet he chose to strip things down and adapt the play Talk Radio by Eric Bogosian and Tad Savinar. The play was based on the assassination of Denver radio host Alan Berg in 1984, and its themes of censorship and political dissent perfectly aligned with Stone’s perspective.

Talk Radio is unique among Stone’s films because of its intimate setting. While Platoon and Wall Street play out in jungles and board rooms respectively, most of the scenes in Talk Radio take place in a claustrophobic radio booth. The director realized that the words are what matter here, and his ability to adjust his style accordingly makes the film’s violent climax all the more impactful.

7. The Doors (1991)

The Doors chronicles the rise and fall of the rock band of the same name. More specifically, the rise and fall of its legendary frontman, Jim Morrison. The film takes major liberties with Morrison’s life, and was heavily criticized for being inaccurate upon its release (a common occurrence with Stone), but we’d be lying if we said The Doors wasn’t a fascinating, mesmerizing experience.

The film works best when viewed as a manifestation of the “Lizard King” persona that Morrison cultivated during his lifetime: beautiful, deranged, and unpredictable. Stone’s recreations of the 1960s are bizarre and scenic, and the musical performances by the band make up some of the most impressive staging of his entire career.

That said, The Doors would not work at all were it not for the magnetic performance of Val Kilmer. He disappears into the role of Morrison, recreating the singer’s distinct voice and aloof charisma so well that it’s hard to think of Morrison without also thinking of Kilmer. Stone released JFK the same year, so he was well-represented at the 1992 Oscars, but the fact that Kilmer was snubbed for Best Actor is frankly ridiculous.

6. Wall Street (1987)

Wall Street is one of Stone’s most iconic films. He creates one of the screen’s most memorable villains in Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas), a power-hungry broker who preaches the value of greed and who takes aspiring yuppie Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) under his wing. The film may seem a bit safe to younger audiences, but that’s only because the bones of the story have been dug up and recycled by generations of directors.

Sheen does some of his best acting here, and Douglas, who would spend the rest of his career as a troubled hero, gets to chew the scenery as one of the definitive ’80s bad guys. The film also benefits from its authentic sense of time and place. While most of Stone’s films are period pieces, Wall Street captured something that was happening in American culture in real time, making it feel all the more real.

5. Natural Born Killers (1994)

Natural Born Killers got ripped to pieces in 1994, but can now take its place as one of the key films of Stone’s career. He took a spec script by Quentin Tarantino and rewrote it to reflect the gross glorification of true crime and violence in American culture. It is a work of extreme contradiction. In effect, Stone’s criticism of the mainstreaming of violence and the cult of celebrity surrounding murderers is depicted through a cult-like treatment of his main characters: Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Juliette Lewis).

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 mesmerizing. The film is shocking even now, and the further we get away from Natural Born Killers the more prescient it proves to be.

4. Any Given Sunday (1999)

Any Given Sunday works as both an exposè on the political machinations of football and a riveting, ensemble melodrama that’s anchored by one of Al Pacino’s last great performances. Pacino is legendary football coach Tony D’Amato, who strives to do the best for his team and hold off the overbearing influence of his general manager, Christine Paggliaci (Cameron Diaz). He also tries to bond with Willie Beamen (Jamie Foxx), the upstart who took the quarterback gig from injured veteran Cap Rooney (Dennis Quaid). Everybody has selfish motives, and part of what makes the film special is that it embraces each character’s flaws without villainizing them.

Oliver Stone’s speechifying has never been more rabble rousing and inspirational than it is here, and Pacino delivers each line of dialogue with panache. The frenetic editing style that Stone introduced in JFK is also turned up to eleven, which can sometimes make it difficult to keep track of what’s happening. Your mileage may vary on the dozen or so subplots that the film tries to juggle, but there’s something charming about the messiness of it all. Any Given Sunday is Stone’s version of a crowd-pleaser, and it still holds up today.

3. Platoon (1986)

Platoon will always be the film that Stone is remembered for. He’s made better films, and more incisive ones, but Platoon taps into a primal rage that still radiates off the screen in 2023. Charlie Sheen plays Chris Taylor, a Vietnam soldier rattled by the horrors of combat, whether it be from the enemy or deranged peers like Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger). Stone’s writing is straightforward in terms of its symbolism, with Barnes and Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe) serving as the devil and angel on Taylor’s shoulder, but it’s executed with such efficiency that it’s hard not to be won over.

Platoon also establishes Stone’s talent for casting. He turned Sheen into a household name and launched the careers of Berenger and Dafoe. Then there’s the actors who barely have lines but are still relevant today: Johnny Depp, Forest Whitaker, Kevin Dillon, Keith David and John C. McGinley to name a few. The film would go on to win four Oscars including Best Director and Best Picture, and remains one of the greatest depictions of war ever put on-screen.

2. Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

The story of Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic had been floating around Hollywood since the 1970s. It seemed as though every attempt to get it made fell apart due to the controversy surrounding the man himself, but it was precisely this controversy that attracted Stone. Born on the Fourth of July is a perfect encapsulation of the frustration and rage that Stone himself felt as a combat veteran, coupled with a story that spoke to generations of moviegoers.

Born on the Fourth of July chronicles Kovic’s journey from patriotic teenager to paralyzed soldier, and his transition to anti-war activism after returning home. It’s as tragic a story as has ever been told about the Vietnam War, and it’s elevated by the casting of Tom Cruise as Kovic. Cruise gives his finest ever performance, and Stone, knowing that the baby-faced star had come to symbolize yuppie America, wrings out moments of anguish that play in fascinating contrast to the cheesiness of Top Gun (1986). Stone took home his second Best Director Oscar for Born on the Fourth of July, and it’s hard to argue with the ruling.

1. JFK (1991)

JFK is the crowning achievement of Stone’s career. In this nearly four-hour, quasi-investigation, the director breaks down the John F. Kennedy assassination and attempts to answer the question that has been on the nation’s mind since Nov. 22, 1963: Did a crazed gunman act alone, or was there a multi-pronged government conspiracy to remove the first Catholic president?

Stone clearly believes the latter to be true, and while he doesn’t possess the evidence to make his stance ironclad, he uses all of his technical mastery and storytelling trickery to give the illusion of truth. It works. JFK is one of the most riveting political thrillers of all time because it is willing to cut corners and condense real-life events into easily digestible, memorable scenes. It never loses steam despite its lengthy runtime, and the editing cobbles together different film stocks, color schemes, and recreations without ever being hard to follow.

Then there’s the cast. Kevin Costner was at the peak of his powers here, and he delivers a searing performance as the district attorney who’s unwilling to look the other way. Tommy Lee Jones and Gary Oldman are superb as the man suspected of conspiracy and the crazed gunman, respectively. The rest of the supporting cast speaks for itself: Michael Rooker, Jack Lemmon, Sissy Spacek, Kevin Bacon, John Candy, Walter Matthau, and Joe Pesci.

Upon release, JFK was hated by journalists and news anchors. Most famously, the late Walter Cronkite demonized 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.” Cronkite was right to an extent, but to dismiss a fictional retelling for being “too” fictional ignores the tremendous artistry that Stone and company showcased. JFK is a masterpiece. If it gets you thinking and questioning, then the film has done its job.

So there you have it; our top 10 Oliver Stone films.

About the author

Will Chadwick

Will has written for the site since October 2010, he currently studies English Literature and American Studies at the University of Birmingham in the UK. His favourite films include Goodfellas, The Shawshank Redemption and The Godfather and his favourite TV shows are Mad Men, Six Feet Under, The Simpsons and Breaking Bad.