The Best Movie Ever | John Cusack
From an era that spawned one heartthrob after another emerged John Cusack, and actor who certainly made our collective hearts throb but who didn’t even seem to be trying very hard. After a string of popular comedies in the 1980s, John Cusack evolved into an acclaimed leading man and respected screenwriter.
And although his new release this week, the Stephen King thriller Cell, isn’t his biggest motion picture in recent memory, it does afford us a perfect opportunity to highlight the actor’s career and decide once and for all, what’s the best John Cusack movie ever?
We asked our panel of critics – Crave’s William Bibbiani and Witney Seibold, and Collider’s Brian Formo – to each pick just one film that stands out as the highlight of John Cusack’s career, and as usual they couldn’t agree on a thing. Find out what they picked and why, and come back next Wednesday for yet another highly debatable installment of The Best Movie Ever!
William Bibbiani’s Pick: Say Anything… (1989)
If you ask me (and you very specifically are) I would say that there are movies that John Cusack stars in, and then there are “John Cusack movies.” The former sort could be just about anything, good or bad: Being John Malkovich, Con Air, Bullets Over Broadway, The Raven, whatever. The latter sort are films that capitalize on John Cusack’s laid-back screen presence, his everyman charms, and his just about perfect balance of optimism and malaise.
Audiences tend to love John Cusack movies as much as I do. Better Off Dead is great, Grosse Pointe Blank is a comedy classic, and High Fidelity has its fan (although I personally think he comes across like an unlikable jerk in that one). But the film that has come to define John Cusack’s on-screen persona is the slight and wonderful teen romance Say Anything…
Yes, it’s the one with the boombox. The scene where John Cusack stands outside his ex-girlfriend’s house, serenading her with the song to which they lost their virginity, stands out because the rest of Say Anything… is so believably natural. Life, it seems to say, is comprised of small moments that occasionally lead to big ones. The story of a wannabe kickboxer who falls for the class valedictorian hits its emotional crescendo with a pen, for crying out loud. Cameron Crowe’s writing is natural and human, and so a naturally human performer like John Cusack comes across perfectly over the course of the film.
Say Anything… is the film that will be forever associated with John Cusack, and with good cause. It’s not just the best movie John Cusack is in, it’s the best John Cusack movie.
Brian Formo’s Pick: High Fidelity (2000)
John Cusack had an iconic run of teen flicks in the 80s. He had a charm, a baby face, a boombox, and dreams of being a kickboxer. But his best films were a decade later, when the optimism and promises from youth start to turn into questions of “what does it all mean?” The Thin Red Line and Being John Malkovich are the best movies that Cusack appears in, but High Fidelity is—top to bottom—the best John Cusack movie.
The movie itself is simple: Chicago guy gets broken up with by his girlfriend (a magnificent Iben Hjejle, in her most identifiable role, making her even more of a dream), thinks about his past relationships and why they failed; he talks a lot about music and sex, often times by breaking the fourth wall and addressing the camera. What makes High Fidelity great is that it is so relatable on its own, but Cusack makes it even more relatable because—as an actor—he’s the popular non-jock guy from high school who was nice to everybody regardless of social stature and whom you’d expect would be living the greatest life imaginable. But as High Fidelity shows us, even he is not immune from the “what does it all mean?” questions (as Catherine Zeta-Jones’ ex laments, as a ravishing beauty in her 30’s who’s had many passionate lovers, she’s receiving numerous requests to hash out why their past relationships fell apart).
As an actor, Cusack is that popular non-jock guy in Fidelity. He co-wrote the script, changed the London setting to his native Chicago, and put himself in the lead role, but he still knows when to step aside and let Jack Black scream and dry hump the air, when to let Tim Robbins hump his way through his nightmares and even steps aside for an entire segment to sell the Beta Band (and definitely helped sell more than five of their Three EPs). Throughout the whole film you just want this guy to be happy and think he’s a success, and it’s as much a testament to the film as it is to our associations with Cusack.
Witney Seibold’s Pick: Grace Is Gone (2007)
John Cusack’s greatest strength as an actor is his power to be common. Approachable. To be the guy you want to talk to, even if he’s playing a guy you don’t necessarily like. Whether he’s playing lovelorn teens, wounded adults, sullen murderers, hatred-driven criminals, or Edgar Allan Poe, Cusack infuses his characters with a humorous and wistful approachability that is oddly friendly. Even if he’s intimidating – which he can be, especially intellectually – there is a need from the audience to be near him, to hear what he has to say. This may be the reason he was considered a heartthrob early in his career. Girls wanted to be close to him. It didn’t hurt that he was also a handsome youth.
Cusack is also an amazingly prolific actor (he’s made romances, dark dramas, hilarious comedies, cartoons, cheap thrillers, and dumb action flicks), so nailing down his best performance is a difficult task. Does one select a small, great, personal and political performance in something like Bob Roberts or Cradle Will Rock? Does one choose a romantic role as in High Fidelity or the masterpiece Say Anything…? Or something big and silly like in Better Off Dead and One Crazy Summer? This may seem like an odd choice, but my final selection will go to what may be his best performance, that of Stanley Phillips in the small indie drama Grace is Gone.
Cusack has never been one to shy away from expressing his own extreme left-wing politics (he has allied himself with Tim Robbins), which means Grace is Gone is a powerful political allegory as well as a heartbreaking family drama. Stanley is a father of two young girls and an extreme right-wing war supporter. His wife, Grace, is in the military, and he couldn’t be prouder. Until she is killed in Iraq. Rather than tell his girls what’s happened, he takes them on a denial-fueled road trip, trying to literally outrun his own encroaching sadness. This is a dark tale of the way we cope with loss, and Cusack embodies that loss in every sad expression. But, with Cusack in the role, we can see a man also questioning how much value he places on war and military violence. The thing he supports the most has now hurt him the most.
It’s hard, and it’s very sad. But it’s very powerful.