With “Tomorrowland” in theaters this weekend, my friend Ben Lyons posed the question on Twitter: What’s your favorite George Clooney movie? This is, of course, one of my favorite kinds of questions to ponder because it results in so many different answers and creates such a fun debate.
Turns out, I already considered the topic of Clooney’s best work in October 2011. Here’s what I wrote back then — and I’d still make these same choices now. What would you pick?
LOS ANGELES — A couple of weeks ago, we looked back on the eclectic career of Brad Pitt, and marveled at the intelligence of his choices as well as his instinct to shun his movie-star persona while still giving the people what they want.
Pitt’s friend and co-star in the “Ocean’s” movies, George Clooney, has shown similar tastes and daring both in front of and behind the camera. And in the process of staying true to his beliefs, he’s carved out one of the most respected careers in town.
This week, he directs the political drama “The Ides of March” and plays a supporting role as a governor seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. So here’s a look at his five best performances. As you can probably guess, I’d vote for him for anything:
_ “Michael Clayton” (2007): Clooney gives a smart, subtly powerful performance in the title role as a “fixer” at a prestigious New York law firm. He’s a man who’s been around a long time and seen it all. He carries the cumulative weight of a lifetime of disappointments in his eyes, his voice, the way his shoulders hunch. And yet, Michael still responds proficiently and professionally to whatever challenge is thrust upon him. All the best of what Clooney can do is on display here: the dazzling charisma as well as the vulnerability. Writer-director Tony Gilroy gives Clooney an opportunity to do some of the best work of his career in a part that’s meaty but rarely flashy.
_ “Syriana” (2005): Clooney famously cast aside his dashing good looks, gaining 30 pounds in 30 days, growing a beard and shaving his hairline to play Bob Barnes, a fictionalized version of former CIA officer Robert Baer. He was unrecognizable, a crucial piece in writer-director Stephen Gaghan’s dense and complicated film about the global oil industry, and the performance earned him the Academy Award for best supporting actor. Clooney was so dedicated, he severely injured his back shooting a torture scene, and was still hurt while directing and co-starring in “Good Night, and Good Luck.” This is a prime example of his willingness to reject the glamour of being a movie star in favor of doing smart, challenging work.
_ “Out of Sight” (1998): Trading snappy banter with a tough-but-feminine Jennifer Lopez, Clooney was sexy as hell as a career bank robber in Steven Soderbergh’s funny and surprising film. The scene in which the two flirt at a hotel bar, with its warm lighting and flattering close-ups, is probably the movie’s best-known and it crackles with romantic tension. But Clooney is called upon to do much more than smolder. “Out of Sight” ranges from buddy comedy to gripping suspense to sultry noir, and Clooney has the versatility to keep up with all those varying genres. He’s probably a bad guy and he’s most certainly unreliable, but he’s also irresistible. Clooney makes that contrast work.
_ “Up in the Air” (2009): Clooney is at the height of his dynamism here as a man who makes a living by firing other people. This would seem like an insurmountable contradiction, but Jason Reitman’s film fleshes out the character, Ryan Bingham, with shadings and subtlety, and Clooney gets excellent support from co-stars Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick. (All three received Academy Award nominations.) Ryan jets across the country, handing out pink slips without batting an eye and worrying only about increasing his frequent-flier miles. He breezes through life efficiently, and Clooney’s naturally masculine energy gives the character real zing, but he also finds the soulfulness that’s eventually required of the role, as well.
_ “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (2009): Clooney’s work here also appeared on my list of the five best animated performances. “Up in the Air” earned him an Oscar nomination for best actor that year, but he’s just as memorable behind the microphone lending his smooth voice to the starring role of the crafty Mr. Fox. He brings all that charm in the richness of his delivery, all his signature smarts and presence to director Wes Anderson’s beautifully detailed stop-motion animation. And merely the idea of this handsome man playing a furry, little woodland creature — albeit a clever one with a sly sense of humor — is enough to bring a huge smile to your face.