August 10, 2012

Top 5 Brad Pitt Performances


The August choice for the LAMB Acting School 101 is Brad Pitt, which offered the perfect opportunity to choose my favorite performances from his career. The 48-year-old Oklahoma native nearly finished a Journalism degree at my alma mater, the University of Missouri-Columbia. He struggled in his 20s and didn't gain much recognition until his 1991 role in Thelma and Louise. Just a few years later, Pitt had become a household name and marquee celebrity. His looks have made it hard for some to appreciate his acting talents. In the right part, Pitt has can deliver at the highest level. I'm intrigued to see his upcoming part in Andrew Dominik's crime film Killing Them Softly this October. They worked together brilliantly in the past, so my expectations are high for this second collaboration.


Honorable Mention: Paul MacLean in A River Runs Through It (1992)
I'll start with one of Pitt's earlier roles in Robert Redford's adaptation of Norman MacLean's semi-autobiographical novel. Craig Sheffer is the lead as Norman, but the story revolves around the tragic fate of his brother Paul. Pitt's bright-eyed approach works for this character and makes us like him even though he's heading down a rough path. Redford's deliberate style doesn't always work, but it sets the perfect tone for this Montana story. He captures the somber feeling of MacLean's writing yet presents engaging characters. Pitt and Sheffer have good chemistry as brothers despite their different approaches to life.


5. Detective David Mills in Se7en (1995)
Pitt excels at playing guys who believe they're smarter than everyone. Mills is a new detective and already thinks he can outwit the bad guys. This might happen with your typical criminals, but it's not going to work with John Doe (Kevin Spacey). While his partner Somerset (Morgan Freeman) senses they may be in over their heads, Mills plunges forward. Getting on Doe's radar is not wise, and the final shocker remains stunning today. Pitt does an excellent job showing Mills' arrogance; he's a good guy but doesn't respect his prey.


4. Mr. O'Brien in The Tree of Life (2011)
Terrence Malick's 2011 epic was very divisive, even among critics and bloggers. One element that most agreed upon was Pitt's performance as Mr. O'Brien. It's clear that he loves his kids, but he's also a forceful dictator who generates serious fear. He's just reaching middle age, but it's clear that O'Brien has already given up his dreams. Viewed from the perspective of his son Jack, Pitt dominates the screen and becomes an enemy for the troubled boy. It's not that simple, however. O'Brien cares for his family and hates himself for getting angry. Pitt does great work depicting the sorrow that's tearing him up from the inside.


3. Jeffrey Goines in Twelve Monkeys (1995)
Pitt's manic performance in this Terry Gilliam mind-bender surprised many because it rejected his pretty-boy persona. Compared to his work the previous year in Legends of the Fall, it was on another stratosphere. Goines is a supporting part and has limited screen time, but Pitt makes a strong impression. His scenes with Bruce Willis in the mental institution fit perfectly with Gilliam's style. This collaboration is a surprise and works better than expected. Pitt plays the character part well and fits comfortably in the ensemble cast.


2. Jesse James in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Casey Affleck gets the showier role as Robert Ford, but it's the steely performance from Pitt that sells the movie. Andrew Dominik takes a slower pace to the story of Jesse James, who's not your typical high-flying gunslinger. This tale covers the last act of his life, and Pitt conveys the world-weary approach of a guy who's been running for too long. It's a difficult part because he's such a quiet character and hard to crack. James is paranoid of everyone and seems to get little joy out of life anymore. Pitt does an excellent job by pulling back and sticking right with Dominik's low-key approach.


1. Billy Beane in Moneyball (2011)
A movie about a new approach to baseball statistics felt like a strange idea, so it was a huge surprise to see it work so well. One of the main reasons for the success was Pitt's down-to-earth job as Beane. He makes us care about the team's results even though the final outcome is already known. Pitt and Jonah Hill have an engaging camaraderie that makes it fun even if you're not a baseball fan. There's a lightness to Bennett Miller's direction that shows us the high stakes but doesn't oversell the drama. Pitt's on top of his game and carries the story, and I expect we'll see more parts on this level in the upcoming years.

I'd love to hear your thoughts about this list. Should Tyler Durden be there? What other roles deserve it? You should also check out past Top 5 Lists if you've missed them.

20 comments:

  1. Some good choices here. Pitt's performance in 12 Monkeys is what sold me on him as an actor. He could have easily gone the Hollywood pretty-boy route and churned out a crappy rom-com every nine months, but he took roles that went against that image and really pushed him.

    I haven't seen two of these films, so I can't comment. I like him in Fight Club, of course, and would also toss out Kalifornia as an interesting role for him.

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    1. Steve, Fight Club was basically #7 on this list. It was sitting in the honorable mention slot for a little bit. Very close. I have seen Kalifornia, but it's been a long time so my memory is a bit hazy on it. I agree about Twelve Monkeys and think it (along with Seven) were the turning points for his career.

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  2. Have yet to see Moneyball but seeing his performance in it top your list Dan, it makes me want to catch the film as soon as possible. When I saw the topic I thought of his turns in 12 Monkeys and Seven so it's pleasing to see them make your top 5.

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    1. Dan, I'd definitely suggesting checking out Moneyball at some point. I have heard some detractors who think it's overrated, but few have issues with Pitt's performance. It's not a flashy role yet works because he sells the part completely.

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  3. How can you pick just five, but loved your choices (exp Assassination of Jesse James) and the pictures to define those roles. As much as I enjoyed Pitt's earlier work (Fight Club, Snatch, Spy Games), I have immensely celebrated his roles in later works, i.e., Babel, Benjamin Button, and Inglorious Bastards. I knew from his performance in 12 Monkeys he was more than a pretty face...IMO, he's long overdue for an Oscar statute - Babel, Benjamin Button and/or Moneyball.

    Sure hope the industry does not do to Pitt as they did with Al Pacino and Denzel Washington, or Henry Fonda - giving awards for movies anyone could have done, or as for Mr. Fonda, too ill to attend the ceremony.

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    1. Limiting myself to five (or six) is what makes it more fun! It would be easier to pick 10, especially from an actor with as many roles as Brad Pitt. I could be wrong, but I have the feeling Pitt's going to win an Oscar in the next five years. It seems like he's moving towards getting Clooney-like respect. If he picks the right parts, I feel like it will happen. Thanks!

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  4. I haven't seen most of these movies -- I think I would have chosen Inglorious Basterds or Fight Club. I really want to see The Tree of Life. And the picture from The River Runs Through It made me smile. I can barely remember him being that young. :-)

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    1. Stephanie, what's funny is that Pitt was actually 29 years old when A River Runs Through It was released. He doesn't look it and still seems younger than he is. I think you should definitely see The Tree of Life. I can't promise you'll love it but it's worth a look.

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  5. Great list, Dan. I'd choose the same performances, but I'd rank them like this:

    1. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
    2. The Tree of Life
    3. Se7en
    4. Moneyball
    5. Twelve Monkeys (This would be much higher, but he's not given much to do outside of the mental institution scenes.)

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    1. Thanks Josh. It's hard to argue with the way you've flipped it around. It gets very subjective once it comes down to ranking them. His role is pretty limited in Twelve Monkeys, but I put it higher because it was against type at the time.

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  6. Daring choice at #1 Dan. I really liked MONEYBALL, especially upon a second viewing. Brad Pitt continues to impress as an actor that can actually act, but also have some fun on screen.

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    1. Sam, I also enjoyed Moneyball and think it improved on the second viewing. That's when I really noticed just how good Pitt is in the lead role. It's an entertaining performance without sacrificing the drama.

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  7. Very interesting read. I included Brad Pitt in my list of favourite actors which I have just posted.
    I haven't seen Moneyball yet - and many other of his "essential" films, but of course I will do so in the future.

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    1. Thanks Mette! I think Pitt's had a surprisingly strong career. I didn't even get into his solid work in the Ocean's films (especially the first), The Mexican, Sleepers, and others.

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  8. Moneyball is such a spirited choice as his number one. That's a movie (and lead performance) that I enjoy more with each subsequent viewing. It's kind of hard to explain, but what Pitt did there is so rare for mainstream American movies. The lightness in the direction you mentioned surely helped, but man, great picks here.

    I'd have to have Babel as Pitt's number one though. His work in that floors me.

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    1. Thanks Alex. I considered Babel and agree that he does good work in it, but I'm pretty lukewarm on the movie as a whole. I realize that it shouldn't affect this list, but that pushed it back a bit for me. No argument here on Moneyball. It's easily one of the great performances of 2011.

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  9. Lovely choices! I agree his work in Moneyball is his best one, but too be honest that guy is always good, at worst he is mediocre as he was in Interview with the Vampire. For me it would probably be:

    Moneyball
    Jesse James
    Snatch
    Fight Club
    Se7en

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    1. Thanks! Pitt seems to come out unscathed even when he's in bad movies, which isn't easy to do. I can't argue with your list. His role in Snatch is ridiculous but a lot of fun.

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  10. All are good, my personal favorite is Jesse James, Dan now you can add his world war character, if you wish :).....

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    1. I assume you mean World War Z, and while I did like it, I'm not sure it would crack this list. Thanks!

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