So what did I learn from watching every single film by one of the most eccentric and quirky actors in the business? Well, one thing would be that being quirky and eccentric does not save you from having just as many duds (though, on average, less) as any other actor or actress in the business. Part of this is par for the course, every actor/actress has to make ends meet until they are sought after in Hollywood. Part of it is in redefining oneself between decades while tastes and film styles shift. Both of these played a significant role in the worst films of Cusack’s filmography, though it cannot explain all of the selections in the top ten.
On a more positive note, Cusack, with fewer hiccups (I would argue) than most actors/actresses, was able to reinterpret himself smoothly through the last thirty years. His popularity has only increased, but without him or the critics letting his recent stature overshadow the films and icons that he created and is remembered for from the past. Out of the three decades that he has been working, the 90s were quite possibly the most ill-defined period of his career. The 80s found him to be one of the most memorable and hardest-working actors of the decade (even without having a John Hughes credit to his name) and he still maintains the most iconic character of the 80s, Lloyd Dobler. Skip ahead to the 2000s, though he had a few more hiccups at the beginning of the decade, he was able to accomplish, arguably, an A-list stature and greatly sought-after presence. The 90s, however, are hard to explain. The decade is an enigma. For one, the decade contains six of my list of ten best films (including #1) and four of my list of ten worst films (including his worst film!). It seems like the 90s were a highly volatile period for Cusack. He exemplified my father’s favorite phrase for actors and actresses that he neither loved nor hated, “When they’re good, they’re real good, when they’re bad, they’re real bad.” Someone would have to watch his whole 90s filmography and, also, know the circumstances surrounding his life during that period to make any remotely accurate guesses at the ambiguity of this time. All I know is that if the Cusack films of the 90s were to be compared to highly unstable explosives, then we would all be meat carcasses splattered over an empty wasteland.
Did watching every single film in his corpus change my opinion of him as my favorite actor? No. Though it did make me realize that he was more prone to making bad films than I had originally thought at first, but that is far from an image-shattering revelation. More than anything, I actually respect him more now that I have seen his imperfect (and downright bad) works. He is still one of the hardest working actors in the business and one of the few Hollywood stars that still has credit and fans in both the underground (or cult) and mainstream circles. And, with the possible exception of Chuck Klosterman (read Sex, Drugs & Cocoa Puffs), I don’t know of anyone who absolutely detests the man wholesale. Well, take that back, there might be a few in the Republican political machine that use his picture as a dart board, but that is solely on his politically-left leanings, not on his work in films.
And, yet, what remains to be said about John Cusack? I think it still comes back full circle to what made him great and memorable in the first place: he is an eccentric actor. I don’t think you could find any other actor or actress that can completely obliterate the genre stereotypes like Cusack can. I think the one genre that displays this the best (though the films themselves tend to be in the lower echelons of his career) is romantic comedy. I don’t think that you can honestly watch The Sure Thing, Serendipity, or Must Love Dogs (to name a few) without enjoying the creativity and freshness that he brings to the characters. In The Sure Thing he is an uncouth college student who woos the girl by teaching her how to shotgun a beer and acts like a psychotic killer to save her from a pervert giving her a ride. In Serendipity, he ends up obsessing over Kate Beckinsale’s character like Woody Allen over Mia Farrow’s adopted South Korean daughter. And, most eccentric of all, was Must Love Dogs where his character’s charm came from being wholly awkward, allergic to small-talk, prone to move too fast in relationships and addicted to the movie Dr. Zhivago. Show me another romantic leading man that is more eccentric than that. I think it is a futile search.
All of this is what makes, and continues to make, John Cusack my favorite actor. I may respect the works of several other actors, but, at the end of the day, I still would take a mediocre Cusack film over most of the films out there. And with that, I present to you my lists for the best and worst films of John Cusack, so far…
Top Ten Best Films:
1. Grosse Pointe Blank (1997) - This choice was a given in my mind. Sure, his acting might have been far better in some of the other films in this list, but if you take the film as a whole, this one displays everything that is great about Cusack. Not only that, but it has something for everyone: action, romance, comedy, psychosis, philosophy, great music, etc. Nothing beats Martin Blank. Period.
2. The Thin Red Line (1998) - Some might say that this hardly counts as a John Cusack-led movie, however there is a huge ensemble cast and none of them are the main stars of the film, hence my placement of this film in the list. As far as cinematography goes, Terrence Mallick cannot be beat. His films are always beautiful, but not always interesting or entertaining. This one, however, is brilliant across the board. Easily beats out Saving Private Ryan which came out the same year. It is a quiet and thought-provoking work on war and the human condition.
3. Grace Is Gone (2007) - Easily Cusack’s most accomplished acting in any film. Somehow he was able to capture the “every man” while still retaining some of his iconic quirkiness. Not an easy film to watch, but well worth the endeavor. Also, proves that Cusack is not as driven to pick movies according to his political stance, but is willing to take on characters with whom he would probably not agree.
4. High Fidelity (2000) - Though not my pick for most entertaining film, this is ultimately a fan favorite and one which fought me hard to make it into the list. So much about this film is brilliant (I mean, it’s a Nick Hornby story after all!), but there is a lot of dissonance in the film for me. However, I think that is part of the reason I am placing it so high on the list is because I think, given multiple viewings, it could become one of my all-time favorites. The gloves have been taken off and I accept the challenge.
5. City Hall (1996) - This film blindsided me. If you had asked me before I did this whole thing which films I thought would probably make the list, this would not have been one. However, between this and True Colors, I realized that Cusack does amazing work on political thrillers. Plus, the acting chemistry between him and Al Pacino was as natural as I have ever see Pacino with anyone (a close second would be Chris O’Donnell in Scent of a Woman). This is a highly enjoyable and effective thriller.
6. Being John Malkovich (1999) - This is a film that I would not watch very often, but the acting by everyone is brilliant including (and, maybe, even especially) John Malkovich. Spike Jonze is a bizarre director and makes some thought provoking (if not totally pretentious) films. This is probably one of his shining stars. An eccentric film with a cast of eccentric actors/actresses (with the exception of Cameron Diaz, but even she pulled off strange well) which deals with an idea that only a group of drunken Philosophy majors could come up with. Cusack does an amazing job of being pitiable and awkward.
7. True Colors (1991) - Speaking of acting chemistry, James Spader (another fairly eccentric actor, just watch Secretary) and John Cusack are magnificent together. After watching this film, I wondered why that had not done more work with each other. Once again, a political thriller that displays Spader as the protagonist and Cusack, in a rare instance, as the antagonist. Cusack plays a manipulative, politically volatile bastard so well that you wonder whether or not he could actually shake things up in the US Senate in real life. Forgiving the original music in the film (most of which is hold-overs from the 80s), this is easily one of the best political thrillers out there.
8. Say Anything… (1989) - I will not be surprised if I get a lot of flack for putting this film so low on the list. It is a classic in Cusack’s film history and one for which he will always be remembered, but let’s not allow that status to get in the way of ranking it in its proper place. He has better films than this (though, really, only seven). Cameron Crowe has better films than this, as well (take for instance Almost Famous and Elizabethtown). That is not to take away from the brilliance of this film, but it is still bound by its 80s context and my generation will probably be the last to appreciate it fully.
9. Better Off Dead… (1985) - In the big scheme of 80s angsty-teen comedies, this one is probably in the great triad of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Breakfast Club. Full of great one liners and memorable scenes (“I want my two dollars!”), this film is just absurd, but intelligent fun. It is too bad that Savage Steve Holland’s next Cusack vehicle made it onto my worst films list.
10. 1408 (2007) - Picking the movie for the number ten spot was probably the hardest decision for me, because there was heavy competition between this, The Sure Thing, Identity, Max, and The Grifters. Ultimately, my choice came down to which movie showcased Cusack’s talent the best and, let’s face it, this film is the equivalent to Hanks’ Castaway and Reynold’s Buried. It is a one man show and those types of films live and die by how well the actor/actress can draw the audience in. I think this is Cusack unplugged. It would not surprise me if Hafstrom’s advice to Cusack when making this film was “do what you do best.” The ghosts only serve as something for Cusack to bounce off of. In the end, the creepiness lies in Cusack’s acting.
Top Ten Worst Films:
10. 2012 (2009) - Yes, John Cusack is the lead man in a blockbuster film. That aside, nothing could save this from its own apocalyptic destruction. Though watching Cusack escaping a crumbling runway makes for a good scene.
9. Must Love Dogs (2005) - Though, by no means, the worst rom-com out there, it is still fairly forgettable except for Cusack’s character’s obsession with Dr. Zhivago.
8. The Road To Wellville (1994) - Decent cast, but eccentric to the point of being absurd. The one film where John Cusack is the most normal character; never a good sign!
7. Serendipity (2001) - Though films 7-10 on this list are a massive step up from 1-6, there is still no excuse for this lame and overly cliched mess.
6. Hot Pursuit (1987) - Hey, is that a young Ben Stiller? Why, yes, it is. And he still isn’t funny!
5. One Crazy Summer (1986) - I don’t even remember this movie, that’s how bad it was.
4. America’s Sweethearts (2001) - Billy Crystal getting his crotch licked by a dog…’nuff said.
3. Anastasia (1997) - I wanted to root for Rasputin during the whole movie, but not even Rasputin was interesting enough to root for.
2. Con Air (1997) - Normally Nicolas Cage-led blockbusters go straight to the bottom of my list. However, not even this film could beat out Money for Nothing.
1. Money For Nothing (1993) - I think the title of this film probably doubles as the general feelings shared by those unlucky enough to watch it in the theater.
Best Cameos or Minor Roles
1. Roadside Prophets (1992) - Delightfully zany and off-kilter. The only saving grace to this film.
2. Elvis Stories: “Elvis Patties” (Short) (1989) - Plays a mentally challenged fry cook who claims to cook patties that look like Elvis. Insanity.
3. Shadows and Fog (1991) - Has an extremely minor role in this Woody Allen film, but he is the character that delivers the crux of the philosophical meaning behind the film.