For someone primarily known as an “indie actor,” Joseph Gordon-Levitt has really been racking up appearances in blockbuster movies recently: Lincoln, The Dark Knight Rises, Inception, and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. I guess the big paychecks allow him to continue the kind of challenging character work in low-budget features that he says is his passion. It also helps fund his personal projects, such as Don Jon, a comedy that he wrote, directed, and stars in that will be released later this year. As his first full-length writing and directing effort, it’ll be interesting to see what lessons he’s learned along the way as an actor by which ones he applies in his new role as a filmmaker.
I first became aware of Joseph Gordon-Levitt when he was co-starring in the hit NBC sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun in the mid-nineties. Although he was playing an alien living in a teenager’s body, I thought it unlikely that he was an actual teen. For one, because his acting was very good, beyond the usual scope of a teen, and two, because a customary practice in Hollywood is to cast young-looking adult actors as teens to avoid having to observe the strict work rules that protect underage performers. As the show made its way through six seasons, Gordon-Levitt’s ever-increasing height made it obvious that he really was a talented teen actor.
If he already seemed like a seasoned pro at the start of that show’s run, it’s because he was. By the time 3rd Rock premiered in January, 1996, Gordon-Levitt had been acting professionally for over eight years. Having started in commercials at age six, he’d quickly landed numerous roles in TV shows, TV movies and feature films. Prior to 3rd Rock, he had already been a series regular on two short-lived shows: the Dark Shadows reboot in 1991, and the sitcom The Powers That Be in 1992-93. In addition, his big screen credits included significant roles in A River Runs Through It and Angels in the Outfield.
Even during the run of 3rd Rock, Gordon-Levitt actively pursued other acting opportunities. Some of his higher profile work during that time includes the movies Halloween H20: 20 Years Later and 10 Things I Hate About You. It was lower profile productions, however, that gave him his first starring roles, roles that allowed him to grow as an actor. Among those is 1998’s Sweet Jane, in which he plays a parentless AIDS victim.
From the time that 3rd Rock from the Sun ended in 2001 until 2009’s G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, Gordon-Levitt appeared in a succession of independent and low-budget Hollywood films, often in the lead. Since then, he’s mixed mega-budget and no-budget films in about equal ratio. One of my favorite films of the past year was Looper, a crime drama/time travel flick, which while not a mega-budget movie was certainly no indie. Many of Gordon-Levitt’s best performances, however, have been in indies and low-budget films. The following five films (listed chronologically) are ones that I feel include examples of his finest work, with the movies as a whole being of like quality.
Manic (2001) – Set in the juvenile wing of a mental institution, Gordon-Levitt plays a teen with rageissues but who is slow to deal with them in this exceedingly intense drama.
Brick (2005) – It may not even be a recognized category, but this tale of high school student (Gordon-Levitt) investigating the disappearance of his one-time girlfriend may be the best ever Teen Neo-Noir film.
The Lookout (2007) – Gordon-Levitt plays a once-promising athlete now suffering from brain damage caused by an auto accident; his life gets even worse when a gang of thieves attempts to take advantage of the fact that the only job he can hold is as a janitor at a local bank.
(500) Days of Summer (2009) – “This is not a love story” proclaims the voice-over narration that begins the movie, and yet it is a charming, if unconventional story about love.
50/50 (2011) – Given just an even chance of surviving a rare form of back cancer, Gordon-Levitt’s character learns about friendship and love by the reactions of those nearest to him.
The Des Moines Public Library has many DVD titles starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Click on any of the linked titles above to check out the work of one of America’s best, and most versatile, young actors. DVD checkouts are good for one week at the cost of just one buck. So what’s stopping you?