The 10 Best Films of Philip Seymour Hoffman

[3 February 2014]

By Bill Gibron

PopMatters Contributing Editor

He was only 46. He had battled significant personal demons his whole life. He got clean and sober early in his career, but relapsed just recently. He’d been called the greatest actor of his generation and yet few outside true film fans would be hard pressed to list a major mainstream accomplishment of his. Instead, Philip Seymour Hoffman stands as an example of excellence marred by a maddening vice, a habit which cost him his life and his legions of admirers future appreciation. From his earliest moments onscreen (as, for example, the boarding school student ratting out his classmates only to confront a blind and batshit Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman), he was an actor of enormous depth. Even when it looked like he was playing the heavy, he found the lightness and the lift in each and every turn. So when we read of the tragic details of his death, the less than dignified manner in which he died, it seems to suggest someone else, not this luminary we came to love onscreen.

Over the course of 22 years and dozens of performances, Hoffman rarely disappointed. Even when he stepped outside his comfort zone to make commercial fodder (as with his important turn as Plutarch Heavensbee in The Hunger Games franchise), he remained a riveting movie presence. As comfortable of the stage or the small screen as he was before the standard cinematic lens, Hoffman’s name on a cast list meant that said film instantly became more interesting. Even when the resulting effort was less than successful (as his directorial debut, Jack Goes Boating), there was no denying the talent involved. The fact that he will now forever be remembered as just another drug casualty doesn’t lesson his impact on his craft. Thus we present the “10 Best Films of Philip Seymour Hoffman”, a subjective way of discussing what is otherwise an incredible body of work. Sadly, it also represents the end to an amazing run for what was truly a terrific performer.

#10 - The Big Lebowski

Though it’s not one of the main roles in this beloved cult classic, Brandt, the “Big” Lebowski’s personal assistant, is the kind of cloying sycophant who comes across as both desperate and devious with his constant kowtowing to the wishes of his wealthy employer. The moment where he must inform the Dude that his boss is in the study, “inconsolable”, stands as one of the best bit of body acting ever. Though he is often thought of as a thinking actor, Hoffman was exceptionally skilled at using his size and shape to suggest subtext to his characters. He succeeded in that regard here as well.

#9 - Magnolia

As one of several collaborations with the amazing auteur Paul Thomas Anderson, Hoffman played Phil Parma, a nurse for the ailing Jason Robards and the individual asked to find his character’s estranged son, a motivational speaker played by none other than Tom Cruise. He sequences with the aging icon, himself a few months away from dying in real life, have an authenticity and a poignancy which counteracts some of the more fantastical moments in Anderson’s look at how chance plays a part in our everyday existence. Hoffman was coming into his own around this time, with roles in Flawless and The Talented Mr. Ripley bookending his work here.

#8 - Boogie Nights

As the closeted homosexual scoping out all the guys on the set of Jack Horner’s porn epics, Hoffman’s Scotty J. is the walking embodiment of a man uncomfortable in his skin. From his obvious lust for Mark Wahlberg’s wannabe meat puppet to the moment he finally declares his affections, we see someone struggling within to deal with the prejudices placed upon him by society. While he’s often seen as the comic relief in the movie, an alternative lifestyle loser limited by his awkward mannerisms and plentiful pot belly, Hoffman makes Scotty sad and sympathetic, something that would become a benchmark of his best work.

#7 - Happiness

Another somber turn, this time in Todd Solondz stunning (and shocking) social commentary. Hoffman is Allen, the neighbor to Lara Flynn Boyle’s successful author and, initially unbeknownst to her, an obsessive, near stalker obscene phone caller. When she ultimately discovers his identity and rejects him, his inner rage against another potential paramour is horrifying in its hate. Throughout the early part of his career, Hoffman enjoyed being part of the ensemble. He seemed to have a working knowledge of the overall theme of a film, making sure his work would complement and consider what others were doing as well.

#6 - Doubt

Four fantastic actors—Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, and a late arriving Viola Davis—take on the Pulitzer Prize winning play by John Patrick Shanley and the results are as electrifying as such casting would suggest. Here, the late actor plays a priest accused on “inappropriate behavior” with an impressionable young boy at the Catholic school where he teaches. Streep is the Head Mistress and their moments together suggest the acting craft at its finest. As he does throughout all his work, Hoffman finds the proper balance between guilt and innocence, never once showing his true hand even when we know he actually is.

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#5 - Charlie Wilson’s War

Every political film, farce or thriller, requires that insider voice of reason, that person who “gets” what everyone else in the Cabinet Room doesn’t. Into this particular kettle of crazed fish steps Hoffman’s Gust Avrakotos, an American case officer and Afghan Task Force Chief for the United States Central Intelligence Agency who wants to help the inhabitants of that country defeat the Russian threat to their sovereignty. Enter Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks), his benefactor (Julia Roberts) and a lot of clever confrontations. Hoffman’s demeanor, dour and yet devious, underscores how, sometimes, subversion works better than pure might or moral right.

#4 - Capote

While Infamous is a better film about the subject, Hoffman’s haunted turn as the acclaimed author of In Cold Blood earned the actor his only Oscar (he was nominated a total of four) and put the material on the map. Some suggested his performance wasn’t “perfect”, the writer’s signature vocalizing and mannerisms suppressed to avoid impersonation, yet Hoffman finds the future fame whore in his portrayal of a gay man looking for respect in a straight world. His scenes with costars Catherine Keener (as Capote pal Harper Lee) and Clifton Collins, Jr. (as murderer Perry Smith) are riveting and remind us that, sometimes, even the best drama can come out of conversation, not confrontation.

#3 - Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

Few got a chance to see this amazing return to form by director Sidney Lumet (his last before he died at age 86) but it features some of Hoffman’s best work. Here, he plays a real estate executive whose drug habit is endangering his career. There’s an upcoming audit and his character knows his addiction-fueled embezzlement will be discovered. Hoping to cover his tracks, Hoffman hires his brother, Ethan Hawke, to rob their parents’ jewelry store, arguing it will be a victimless crime and that the money can help them both. Naturally, things go from badly bungled to tragic, with said turn of events leading to an ending that’s devastating in its meaning.

#2 - Synecdoche, New York

As the only film (so far) written and director by oddball scribe Charlie Kaufmann, this undeniably surreal allegory sees our fallen star as a theater director who is struggling to find meaning in his increasingly difficult life. When he is unexpectedly awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, he takes the money and decides to make a piece of performance art that will hopefully explain his existence once and for all. As usual with a Kaufman piece, things go from unusual to outrageous in quick turn, with Hoffman’s character trying to literally recreate everything about his life in an ever-expanding studio space, including several versions of himself adding to the confusion.

#1 - The Master

As part of Paul Thomas Anderson’s subversive survey of Scientology’s huckster beginnings, Hoffman is the title character, a failed science fiction writer who comes up with a new and novel “treatment” for people’s mental ills. Joaquin Phoenix’s angry, alcoholic ex-serviceman falls under his spell and, before you know it, we watch as two lost souls strive to come to terms with their own flaws and fascinations. In the end, it’s Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd who proves the power of such persuasion. As an uncomfortable leader taking on the role of psychological messiah, the actor excels in ways that cause both wonder and worry.

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