Although a few of his recent movies (Prince of Persia, Love and Other Drugs) have been less interesting, Jake Gyllenhaal's career includes plenty of noteworthy films. After catching up with Source Code earlier this week, I decided it was time to take a look at my favorite choices from the 30-year-old actor's output. I didn't realize it then, but the first time I saw Gyllenhaal was playing Robin Williams' son in the impressive episode "Bop Gun" from season two of Homicide: Life on the Street. Before revealing my picks, I'm sad to admit that I haven't seen Brokeback Mountain, which would almost certainly find its way into this group.This omission might raise questions about this list, but I still feel like there are some excellent films on it. Let's get to the picks!
5. Jarhead (2005)
This was the toughest choice of the five, and I nearly picked The Good Girl or even the hokey fun of The Day After Tomorrow for this slot. Although it has some flaws and slips in its final act, I still believe that Sam Mendes' Jarhead deserves a spot on this list. Based on the book by Anthony Swofford, this look at a young marine's experiences in Saudi Arabia and in Kuwait during Desert Storm leaves a powerful impression. It shows the many boring days of military life as they wait for the next engagement. It's an inconsistent picture, but Gyllenhaal sells the material and makes Swofford a believable character.
4. Source Code (2011)
Gyllenhaal does excellent work as the lead in this sci-fi thriller from Duncan Jones (Moon) and sells the trickier parts of the plot. I just caught up with this film on Blu-ray for Monday's marathon post, and it was refreshing to see an understated, fairly intelligent movie. If you're willing to accept the sci-fi premise and the twists near the end, it's surprisingly effective. Michelle Monaghan and Vera Farmiga also perform well in supporting roles.
3. October Sky (1999)
A charming look at teens trying to build rockets in the 1960s, this inspiring Joe Johnston (Captain America) film has its share of cornball moments, but the actors sell it completely. Gyllenhaal plays Homer Hickam, who seems destined to follow in his dad's footsteps and become a coal miner. This is another true story based on a book, and Homer and his buddies are believable as small-town kids. Chris Cooper has a possibly thankless role as the stern dad, who dismisses his son's dreams. However, the veteran actor finds a way to make the guy interesting even when he's following the predictable path to serve the plot. This movie is not for cynical viewers, but it's heartwarming fun if you're willing to take the ride.
2. Donnie Darko (2001)
Let's travel back 10 years to the faraway days when Richard Kelly was considered a promising young talent. This eerie tale of a high-school teen influenced by a human-size bunny to cause mayhem hits all the right notes. Gyllenhaal is strong as the disturbed title character and is helped by an excellent supporting cast. This group includes his sister Maggie, Mary McDonnell, Drew Barrymore, and Patrick Swayze. Kelly was only 26 when Donnie Darko was released, and many viewers (including this one) anxiously awaited his next movie. Unfortunately, his follow-ups of Southland Tales and The Box were messy and over the top. They're interesting failures, but they lack the cohesion of his debut feature.
1. Zodiac (2007)
One of the great films of the past five years, David Fincher's criminally underrated look at the search for the Zodiac killer is fascinating. The director seamlessly crafts a period piece with digital effects that is believable without calling too much attention to itself. Gyllenhaal joins Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo to investigate the case and becomes obsessed with solving the long-time mystery. The movie opens with several chilling sequences that crank up the suspense to almost unbearable heights. Afterwards, Fincher shifts gears and delivers a slow-moving but intriguing procedural that reminds us (in a good way) of the classic films of the '70s. He pays homage to that style of filmmaking without ever being hampered by the comparison.
Next week, I'll jump into The Time Machine with Rod Taylor and see where the mind of H.G. Wells takes us. Guy Pearce and Simon Wells are definitely not invited to this party.