The 10 Best Jack Nicholson Movies
He is the definition of a living legend. He has appeared in countless movies and has provided a wealth of star-power, name recognition and most importantly, really good acting, to every movie he has been a part of. He’s given us countless memorable characters, whether it was The Joker or R.P. McMurphy. Jack Nicholson has been acting since the 60’s and in the past 50 years, he has built a reputation as one of Hollywood’s greatest thespians, as well as one of its most enigmatic “real-life” personas.
We’ve laughed at him, cried for him and been afraid of him. He’s been a clown, a crazy person, and a criminal. Through it all, though, he has been undeniable Jack. When he shows up in a film, even in a small role, he forces us to take notice. He was chewing scenery before that was even a term. He is as fascinating in his real life as the characters he portrays on screen. It is those characters, and the movies in which they appear, that we will be showcasing. Jack Nicholson is the perfect example of art imitating life imitating art, and these 10 movies prove it.
10) How Do You Know (2010)
Nobody said that Jack Nicholson has to be the star of the movie for it to be considered one of his best. In fact, Nicholson’s role in James L. Brooks’ film, How Do You Know, could be considered merely an extended cameo, but in those precious few moments of screen time, he reminds all of us why he’s one of the best. Jack plays the father of Paul Rudd’s character, who just so happens to be getting investigated by the Federal Government for something dear old Dad may have done. The relationship between father and son is one that many of us can relate to. A father that is overbearing and loud, a son who is timid but determined. Their relationship is strained, obvi, but we can tell they love each other. This is a perfectly nuanced role for Nicholson in a severely underrated film.
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9) Wolf (1994)
Who’s better at being a villain — Jack Nicholson or James Spader? Each brings a signature style to some odious characters but when those two worlds collide, movie magic happens. Such was the case in Wolf, a 1994 film starring Nicholson, Spader, and Michelle Pfeiffer. The film features Nicholson playing a literary agent looking for a promotion. What he gets, instead, is a bite from a wolf that may or may not be of the “were” variety. While Nicholson slowly turns into a Lycan, it is Spader that more closely resembles a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Both are vying for the same promotion, you see, and this film takes the phrase “cutthroat” to a whole ‘nother level. Not content to merely emulate Nicholson’s work-life, Spader also sleeps with the dude’s wife, firmly cementing his position as Hollywood’s biggest heel.
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8) The Witches of Eastwick (1987)
Any film that casts Jack Nicholson as the literal Devil is a film that we want to see. In The Witches of Eastwick, there’s a new kid in town and his name is Satan. He doesn’t want to bring the apocalypse, however. He just wants to bed as many beautiful women as he can get his hands on. In this film, Nicholson is charming, charismatic, and seductive. The only problem is, he may have bitten off more than he can chew when he decides to pursue Cher, Susan Sarandon, and Michelle Pfeiffer. These are the titular Witches of Eastwick, you see, and they don’t enjoy sharing. Hell hath no fury, as the saying goes, and if Nicholson thought he knew hell before, he ain’t seen nothing yet.
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7) As Good as it Gets (1997)
In this film from 1997, Nicholson plays Melvin Udall, an obsessive-compulsive writer of romantic fiction who, basically, is an jerk to everybody he meets. Udall is especially hard on his gay neighbor, played by Greg Kinnear. But when Kinnear is beaten up by the bad guy from Scream, Nicholson somehow finds himself caring for Kinnear’s dog. This softens him considerably and some of his better qualities begin to come through, attracting the attention of a waitress played by the ever-solid Helen Hunt who tolerates and then actually begins to fall in love with Nicholson’s character, who gleefully gets to channel all of his inner-awfulness but still get the girl!
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6) About Schmidt (2002)
If the title didn’t already give it away, this film is about Schmidt, an ex-insurance agent who is on the brink of retirement but does not want to go quietly into that good night. Once he actually does retire, Schmidt doesn’t know what to do with himself. Then, his wife suddenly passes and he’s even more unclear about where his life should go. While going through his late-wife’s things, he discovers love letters written between his wife and his best friend. After beating up said friend outside of a grocery store, Schmidt embarks on a one-man road trip in an effort to stop the wedding of his daughter and her affable but unmotivated fiancé. Throughout this trip, Schmidt discovers things about himself. About Schmidt is a dark, dreary, character study about what it means to get older.
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5) A Few Good Men (1992)
“You can’t handle the truth!” It is a line that has entered the annals of movie history. It’s right up there with “I am your Father” and “Rosebud” as one of the most well-known movie lines in the world. Tom Cruise plays Lt. Daniel Kafee, a military lawyer tasked with defending two U.S. Marines who are charged with killing a fellow marine at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. Sound boring? The description certainly is, but the film is a classic. This is due, in large part, to performances from Cruise, Demi Moore, and Jack Nicholson, playing Col. Nathan Jessip. This role is also more of an extended cameo for Nicholson but, again, it’s what he does with that screen time that matters, and in this film, he knocks it out of the park.
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4) The Departed (2002)
What happens when Martin Scorsese makes a film starring Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, Mark Wahlberg, and Vera Farmiga? Possibly the greatest gangster movie ever put to film. In this 2002 remake of the Hong Kong film ‘Internal Affairs,’ Leo plays an undercover cop in South Boston, infiltrating a gang led by Jack Nicholson’s Frank Costello. Unfortunately, Costello also has “a guy.” Matt Damon plays Colin Sullivan, a criminal that is like a son to Costello, and he infiltrates the police department, becoming a well-regarded detective while providing key information to Costello. If Sullivan is like a son to Costello, then Billy Costigan (DiCaprio) is like the adopted son Costello never had. The Departed is a constant game of one-upmanship, as both DiCaprio and Damon vie for the affections of Nicholson’s Costello, as well as those of Vera Farmiga’s character. It is THE crime thriller of the 2000’s, and a lot of the movie’s success can be traced to Jack Nicholson’s performance.
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3) One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
Any snob at a dinner party ever will usually proclaim that “the book is better than the movie.” Sometimes he’s right. But in the case of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the movie is most assuredly better. This is thanks to the incredible performance of Jack Nicholson as Randall Patrick McMurphy, a convict who is transferred to a mental institution for evaluations. It is there that he happens across Nurse Ratched (played by Louise Fletcher). Ratched is worse than any prison warden, and she runs her psychiatric ward as if it is, indeed, prison. Whether she is using mental or verbal abuse, medication or electro-magnetic therapy, Ratched is not the nurse to go up against. But McMurphy does and, in doing so, ingratiates himself to the other patients, as well as the audience watching. McMurphy isn’t crazy, you see, so seeing his interactions with the patients who are amazing. The scenes aren’t played for laughs, per say, but you can’t help yourself from being astonished by the absurdity of it all.
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2) Batman (1989)
When Batman doesn’t get top-billing in a Batman movie, you know you’ve got an acclaimed actor on your hands. Jack Nicholson was cast as The Joker and immediately put to rest any doubt that Batman ’89 wouldn’t be a success. Michael Keaton (who played Batman) was known, but he wasn’t ‘Jack Nicholson-Known’. Not satisfied to get by on name-value alone, Jack Nicholson poured everything into this performance as “The Clown Prince of Crime.” He was funny, he was scary, he crazy and he was cool. He was everything you would expect “The Joker as Played by Jack Nicholson” to be. Nicholson didn’t need Batman to be successful; Batman needed Jack Nicholson to be successful. What Jack Nicholson brought to the role was a sense of legitimacy that the film desperately needed. Nicholson proved that, even if the film was called Batman, it was he who was the star of the show.
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1) The Shining (1980)
Could it be anything else? Stephen King, the writer of the book upon which the movie was based, is pretty much the only person on the entire planet who did not like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, when it hit theaters in 1980. It is as cinematically stunning as it is terrifying, and nobody would look at an elevator door, or twins, or an axe, or a maze the same again. Jack Nicholson plays Jack Torrance, a recovering alcoholic writer-type who moves his family into The Overlook Hotel to be its caretaker for the winter. But The Overlook has secrets, lots of them, and the Torrance family is about to find out the hard way that home is where the horror is. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, but he is anything but in this film. He’s scary. He’s mean and he’s mean and he will never be topped. Even before he may or may not be possessed by the hotel, he’s sort of a dick. That’s the biggest difference between the movie and the book, and it’s Stephen King’s biggest hang-up, but in the context of this film, it works. What’s most terrifying about this film is not what lurks in the shadows, but what is sleeping right next to you. Jack Nicholson has a legendary career but he will always be best known as Jack Torrance, and you don’t need to Shine to be able to see that.
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