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Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s 10 best films ranked in order of greatness

“If you’re going to put yourself above everybody else, you might end up alone.”

If you thought that Leonardo DiCaprio was the unluckiest of them all, having won only one Oscar despite delivering countless brilliant performances, you’ll be shocked to note that an actor as versatile and incredible as Joseph Gordon-Levitt has never even received a single nomination, despite his prolific career. The Academy is a sham, but Gordon-Levitt has left an indelible mark in the audience’s hearts. Passionate about acting, he has often said, “I just love to act. It’s my favourite thing to do in the world, and what keeps it interesting to me is the creative challenge. So different kinds of characters, that’s what I just love to do.” Here, on his 40th birthday today, we shall trace the trajectory of his wondrous career which began at a tender age of six and has been nothing but a wonderful thing to witness. 

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Born in Los Angeles to Jewish parents who were quite influential and careerists, he was raised a feminist by his mother and this helped him identify the sexism pervading the industry later. Levitt had been exposed to the world of theatre at the age of four where he played the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz and, shortly after, he was approached by an agent to be a part of popular TV commercials. He started starring in made-for-television films as well as sitcoms which gained him popularity and praise. After playing a wonderful role in the modern-day adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew, the pop-culture classic 10 Things I Hate About You, and voicing Jim Hawkins in Treasure Planet, he took a momentary hiatus to study history, French poetry and literature at Columbia. 

The break helped him focus on and revaluate his life by trying to star in only “good movies”. He started by acting in brilliant films such as Manic, Mysterious Skin and Brick. The unique thing about Levitt is that he never cared about money and liked starring in independent films, as he explained: “Success is not important to me, nor are power or money. If the script feels good, then I’m in. It’s that simple.” He has received acclaim from critics for his effortless acting and enigmatic presence as well as the ability to convert any role, supporting or lead, into the highlight of the entire film.

Not only is he a prolific actor but also a skilled screenwriter with a keen directorial eye, he has had some hard-hitting opinions regarding the state of the entertainment industry. “I don’t blame the people for the fact that so many movies are bad,” he said, before adding: “I think there’s a corrupt, perverted, lazy and sloppy attitude that’s pervasive in the movie business. The whole entertainment business is kind of crumbling around us.” 

We shall take a look at 10 best films starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt in all his glory which boasts of some incredible performances as well as a variety of roles that showcase how brilliant an actor he actually is. 

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s 10 best films ranked:

10. The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan, 2012)

It has been eight years since Harvey Dent’s death and Batman, after an unspeakable agreement with Gordon, vanished into the night and is still MIA. Batman decided to sacrifice everything by taking the blame for Dent’s death for the greater good. However, the cunning burglaries of Catwoman, as well as the notoriety of a masked and merciless Bane, compels him to return as the phantom of the night and engage in a battle that might have different consequences than he hoped for. 

Amidst a talented heavyweight ensemble cast comprising Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman and Anne Hathaway among others, Gordon-Levitt as the young police officer John Blake, whose name is revealed to be Robin John Blake as an ode to Batman’s loyal sidekick in the comics’ makes his mark. Although he tries to uphold the integrity and idealism that Bruce Wayne and Gordon boasted of, he soon realises how crime overwhelms goodness. Even in his supporting role, Gordon-Levitt leaves a memorable mark on the minds of the audience. 

“I’m Gotham’s reckoning.”

9. Don John (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, 2013) 

Jon Martello cares only about “my body, my pad, my ride, my family, my church, my boys, my girls, my porn”. He is a porn addict and can only get off to porn films despite being sexually active with various women. After getting dumped by the manipulative Barbara Sugarman, he finds himself getting sexually and emotionally proximate to a middle-aged grieving woman, Esther.

In his directorial debut, Gordon-Levitt enacts in the film as the titular character. He has received exalted praise for his performance as well as his directorial skills. Both Scarlet Johansson and Julianne Moore received high praise for their performances. This film is a brilliant take on how an obsession with erotica might ruin absolutely everything. 

“If you want to lose yourself, you have to lose yourself in another person. It’s a two-way thing.”

8. Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010)

Dom Cobb, a professional ‘extractor’, engages in stealing information by infiltrating into the unknowing subconscious of his targets. He is posed with an excellent offer where his criminal history shall be erased in lieu of a mammoth task; he has to implant an idea into the subject’s mind instead of extracting it.  

Nolan’s mind-bending movie that transcends the textbook definition of dream-reality brought home four academy awards; Leo’s superb portrayal of the slick and masterful Cobb will go down as one of his most memorable characters in the history of his career. Gordon-Levitt plays Cobb’s partner Arthur and to embrace the character fully, he went through a rigorous 12-week-training. As he was quoted saying, doing the stunts “was a challenge and it would have to be for it to look real”.

“Well, dreams, they feel real while we’re in them, right? It’s only when we wake up then we realize that something was actually strange.”  

7. The Lookout (Scott Frank, 2007)

Another one of Gordon-Levitt’s hidden gems, the film sees high school star athlete Chris Pratt getting into a car accident which leaves him impaired physically and emotionally. Chris works as the janitor for a bank and is noticed by a gang robbery group leader Gary who resented him in high school as he was envious of Chris’ wealth and success. Although he initially declines, Chris is soon a part of the heist. 

As a complex noir, the film reeks of suspense and danger. Gritty and clever, the tension is heightened by the powerful performances from the cast. As one of his underrated projects, the film sees Gordon-Levitt playing the injured athlete angry about his lost glory as well as the trauma and guilt of the accident with an intense passion which is nearly unthinkable. 

“I have the money. I have the power.”

6. Snowden (Oliver Stone, 2016) 

A renegade, hero and legal absconder, Edward Snowden is an ex-contractor ar the National Security Agency who leaks classified data and information after resigning from his job due to severe dissatisfaction. 

Based on a true and controversial story, the film itself is gripping and Edward Snowden’s story is worth investing time and energy into. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s incredible performance added to the thrilling impact of the film. His portrayal of conflicted emotions as well as the spiral into privacy invasion is breathtaking and humanizes a character who has been pushed to the realms of myth by being the symbol of the need for transparency in the US. 

 “Bombs won’t stop terrorism, brains will, and we don’t have nearly enough of those. I’m gonna give you a shot, Snowden.”

5. Brick (Rian Jognson, 2005)  

Teenage lover Brendan Frye receives a distressed call from his ex-lover and then finds out she has been murdered. He hides the body from the police and decides to investigate the murder himself and associates with high school groups that he avoided consciously previously. On his quest for truth, he encounters dangerous forces including a drug kingpin known as “The Pin”. 

With an intriguing plot, Gordon-Levitt as Brendan on his relentless search for the truth adds to the atmospheric horror of the film. He is witty and intense and delivers the dialogues with passion. He will stop at nothing and explores and exposes the dirty underside of high school and the perils of dabbling in dangerous business.  

“I can be such a cad sometimes I just hate myself.”

4. Hesher (Spencer Susser, 2010)

In what is considered to be one of his most underrated roles in a nearly-forgotten film, Gordon-Levitt has a long mane, umpteen tattoos, vibes to hard metal and is basically the annoying shirtless guest who prolongs his stay uninvited. He is enigmatic and scary with a mysterious aura surrounding him. Levitt’s versatility can be noted in his incredible performance as Hesher. 

T.J. and his father Paul move into his grandmother’s house, as does an uninvited guest Hesher. Hesher is protective of the family and frequently lights objects on fire in an attempt to protect T.J. Hesher is dangerous and funny, charming and mysterious and is packed with surprises and punchlines that shall captivate and disarm the viewers. 

“You lost your wife. And you lost your mom. I lost my nut.”

3. Mysterious Skin (Gregg Araki, 2004)

A film which explores the consequences on the adult psyche due to childhood trauma of sexual abuse is portrayed in a touching and harrowing manner in the film. Araki, who was known for directing teen shockers, presents a film which elevates him to the level of a visionary director. Gordon-Levitt’s portrayal of a trauma-ridden sexually abused boy who tries to forget his past and nurse his wounds is inexplicably brilliant. His acting prowess and ability to evoke emotions in the audience is well demonstrated in the film. 

The film focuses on two boys Brian and Neil who had been sexually abused by their Little League coach as children. This affects their adult life with Neil mistaking abuse as love and seeking solace by being a male prostitute and often facing abuse, while Brian cognisance blocks out the memory, making him believe that he was abducted by aliens. The ending of the film is especially heartbreaking with a soulful singing of “Silent Night”. 

“And as we sat there listening to the carolers, I wanted to tell Brian it was over now and everything would be okay.” 

2. 500 Days of Summer (Marc Webb, 2009)

A trained architect but now a writer at a greeting card company, Tom Hansen, meets and falls in love with his boss’s assistant Summer Finn. They fall in love and start dating and then suddenly breaks up with him, catching him off-guard. This causes Tom to reevaluate his life by taking the last 500 days with her into consideration and finally finds his true calling in life. 

A wise and energetic journey presents a very honest view of a doomed romance as well as a man trying to find his way back by gripping on to his passion. Gordon-Levitt’s soulful performance as the lovesick Tom moves the audience; his further character development is charming and sweet. While the film is from Tom’s point of view, it is pertinent to note that Zooey Deschanel’s Summer was not the villain. Gordon-Levitt kept emphasizing how his character was instead one, by “falling in love with the idea of a person, not the actual person.” 

“You think back on the times you had with someone, replay it in your head over and over again and you look for those first signs of trouble.”

1. 50/50 (Jonathan Levine, 2011)

A radio journalist Adam is diagnosed with a cancerous tumour in his spine which shocks him as he has been very careful about his health. With a 50/50 chance of survival, he tries to remain upbeat and is being supported by his best friend Kyle. However, his strained relationship with his mother and his girlfriend’s reaction thwarts his attempts at keeping a positive attitude. He visits a therapist with whom he finds a never-found-before solace which slowly culminates into romance. 

While it has often been considered a “cancer comedy”, the film does not poke fun at the serious illness. Instead, it encourages one to smile no matter what happens and Adam, played by Gordon-Levitt, is a ray of sunshine amidst the darkness. He shaved his head for the film and shows off a witty sense of humour while playing a struggling cancer patient with dignity. He is charming and inspiring and might have instilled hope in those struggling with their diagnosis. 

“If I fuck up, I can ruin someone’s life.”

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