Stone’s Immaculate : the Top 5 Films Of Oliver Stone

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Controversy-courting director Oliver Stone wrote and directed some of the most honored, well known, influential and hard-hitting American films of the 1980s and 90s. Then he made Alexander. But let’s go back to the 80s and 90s. Stone seemed a man intent on dutifully showing us the ugly side effects of our democracy, with intense, often loud and chaotic films tackling war, drug use, greed bred by capitalism, violence in the media, and political corruption. Here are his five best.

5 Salvador (1986)

Filmed back to back with Platoon, Stone’s raw, blistering indictment of the U.S. government’s involvement in El Salvador’s civil war is an often overlooked, yet is more than worth re-evaluation. At its center is James Woods’ typically kinetic, Oscar-nominated performance as Boyle, a burnt-out, drug-addled freelance photographer, who thrusts himself into the war zone and gets more than he bargained for. James Belushi also impresses (seriously) as his friend/travel buddy, an aging rock DJ whom with Woods’ character forms a kind of “Fear And Loathing In Central America,” before the realities of the savage conflict surrounding them eventually close in on everything. All the markers of a good Stone screenplay are here including profanity, substance abuse, hard-bitten, cynical characters raging at the system, and a healthy dose of frank violence, but beyond that, Salvador impresses years later for what one could only imagine was a brave and immediate stance to take on a then-contemporary issue.

4 Nixon (1995)

Oliver Stone, releasing a film about President Richard Nixon, not long after the subject’s death? No controversy to be had here, right? Well, there obviously was a decent share of that, but surprisingly Stone goes easier on Tricky Dick than one would expect, painting him as a complex, often virtuous individual, undone by bitterness, paranoia and insecurity. And the film Nixon, much like the man, is flawed, yet capable of greatness. The greatness starts with Antony Hopkins’ performance as the perpetually besieged, chronically unlikeable (and sweaty) politician, in a film that stretches back to his childhood years, and ends with his resignation in 1972 amid the Watergate scandal. Joan Allen provides support as an iron Pat Nixon (“Sometimes Dick, I understand why they hate you!”) and a bevy of great actors such as James Woods, Paul Sorvino, Ed Harris, Powers Booth, and Bob Hoskins fill out Nixon’s roster of cronies and enemies. Particularly memorable, is a seemingly contrived scene wherein an unescorted Nixon chats with some very irate young people about the Vietnam War at the Lincoln Memorial, which actually has basis in an actual incident.

3 Wall Street (1987)

Stone reteamed with Charlie Sheen and paired him up with a revelatory Michael Douglas in this renowned flick about that special 80’s blend of greed and excess. Though Wall Street is a solidly told tale of wheeling, dealing, and punishment throughout, it is Douglas’ Oscar winning performance as icy corporate raider Gordon Gekko that stands out as the film’s black heart. As Gekko, Douglas delivers a majority of the film’s great lines with verve and authority as he shows Sheen’s very willing character Bud the treacherous ropes of insider trading. On the flipside, Bud’s father (played by Sheen’s own father Martin), an achingly blue-collar machinist for a floundering airline, espouses the old fashioned values of honesty and hard work. Wall Street is soaked in 1980s high-roller entrapments (suits, moussed hair, limos, cocaine, gaudy apartments and offices) and ideals (Gekko’s classic “greed is good” speech), before reaching its repentant, moralistic conclusion, wherein everyone goes to jail. In content, style, and message, this is a quintessential film of its era.

2 JFK (1991)

Controversial does not even begin to cover this frenetic, outlandish and seriously gripping film on the supposed conspiracy behind the murder of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Kevin Costner stars as real life New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, who runs an investigation into the killing that implicates a host of shady characters (who are constantly viewed at skewed angles, under moody lighting to reinforce their sketchiness) including businessman Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones) and pilot David Ferrie (Joe Pesci),among many others in this enviably casted film. JFK is a kind of visual pastiche that laces in snippets of actual news footage and shuffles back and forth from black and white to color to tell of a vast and far reaching plot that comes together from the flashback recollections of witness after witness. Even if the film is less than reliable as historical record, its prowess as an accomplished and provocative piece of entertainment is undeniable. The film would be nominated for eight Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Best Director), very justly winning for its editing and cinematography.

1 Platoon (1986)

This Best Picture winner paints a war that is most certainly hell, as the men of this unit prove as much a danger to each other as The Cong is. The film opens with Private Taylor (a young Charlie Sheen) arriving in Vietnam as body-bags head out, and beginning his first hair-raisingtour of duty amongst a powerhouse cast that includes Willem DaFoe, Forrest Whitaker, Keith David, Kevin “Johnny Drama” Dillon, Johnny Depp, Tony Todd and Tom Berenger (as a terrifying, scar-faced Sergeant). Less arty and more direct than Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket or Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (and preferred by many to both for said reason), Platoon is a full-on bush experience start to finish, with a wealth of colorful hard-ass profanities, brutal casualties/maiming, and recreational drug use culled from Stone’s own experience as an infantryman in the very same war. Platoon would prove to be the first of Stone’s “Vietnam Trilogy”, followed by Born On The Fourth of July (1989) and Heaven And Earth (1993) and earn seven Oscar nominations, including a win for Stone’s directing.

Honorable Mention

Born On The Fourth Of July (1989) – Pre-cult Tom Cruise gives the performance of his life (alongside Magnolia) as a disabled Vietnam vet who slides from gung-ho patriot to anti-war activist in this ever-resonant true story

Natural Born Killers (1994) – spawned from a screenplay by none other than Quentin Tarantino, this breakneck visual tour-de-force stars Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis as a pair of celebrity thrill-killers who go on a cross-country orgy of death and debauchery, that’s a comment on violence and the media, or something.

That’s the Oliver Stone list. Feel free to tape yourself standing in front of the flag, intercut with washed-out clips of the films that were left out, as you make an incendiary diatribe against Top 5’s negligence. Or just make your own list below.

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