From Being John Malkovich (1999) to High Fidelity (2000), here are 13 best John Cusack movies ranked.
John Cusack comes from a notable family of filmmakers and artists. His father Richard Cusack is a documentary filmmaker, and his elder sister Joan Cusack is an accomplished actress. John Cusack’s multi-decade career has seen several highs and lows. He began performing in the 1980s alongside his sister (tidbit: Joan Cusack appeared in 10 of his films) and rose to fame for his irresistible charm and emotional intensity. Cusack naturally exudes the anxious, brisk-talking intensity that many celebrities try to imitate.
Following his outstanding debut in John Hughes in Sixteen Candles, Cusack was in high demand among noted directors. His popularity soared over the next 20 years. He was among the most sought-after male stars, working with renowned filmmakers like John Sayles, Rob Reiner, Cameron Crowe, Stephen Frears, Spike Jonze, Woody Allen, Terrence Malick, and Mike Newell.
Later in the mid-90s, John Cusack tried to shed his lover-boy image, pursuing more serious roles. Those unfamiliar with his work might assume that he is typecast because he frequently plays the same character or seems to be even typecast in TV shows. His career did bear the brunt of such perceptions. But it doesn’t diminish his acting prowess or the heights he’s achieved over the past four decades playing one challenging role after another. Here are 13 John Cusack films, ranked from worst to best:
John Cusack Movies, Ranked
13. Maps to the Stars (2014)
John Cusack exudes such profound understanding of his role particularly when it comes to playing dark characters. This David Cronenberg film (also starring Julianne Moore) is designed to make us feel uncomfortable through its eerie portrayal of Beverly Hills’ noxious film industry. Stafford Weiss, a television psychologist played by Cusack, succeeds in doing so by striking the right balance between sarcasm and despondence. Stafford focuses his entire future on his son Benjie (Evan Bird), who is the star of a popular sitcom and is always in the limelight. He does this as he realizes that his own career is waning and that his family has to invest in the next generation for the future.
John Cusack makes Stafford’s heedlessness as a father completely reprehensible.
12. Identity (2003)
Identity is an engrossing thriller, distinguished by its quick pace and tense mood. The film boasts a strong ensemble of character actors who play the folks stranded at a remote Nevada motel on a stereotypically dark and stormy night. In this tale of suspense and crime, John Cusack delivers an outstanding performance as Edward Dakota and never loses his seriousness or attention to the subject matter. He brings a heroic quality to the character, who is keen to solve the mystery but plagued by his dark history as a former cop. But the film lacks confidence in its own content, despite having an engaging tempo and flow, as it relies primarily on generic plot twist tactics.
11. The Paperboy (2012)
The Paperboy is a period drama set in 1969, where Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey), a reporter for The Miami Times, is returning to his hometown of Florida because he thinks a guy (Hillary Van Wetter) on death row was falsely convicted of killing a sheriff. Wetter (John Cusack) is a sadist criminal who deserves nothing less than the death penalty. This was an important role for Cusack, who played an immoral character with grace. Hillary reminds us of a similar role Cusack played in films like The Grifters and Grosse Pointe Blank. He has no sense of remorse and casually mentions his several offenses nonchalantly. It’s an uncharacteristically repulsive performance and one of Cusack’s best in the latter half of his career.
10. The Sure Things (1985)
When Walter Gibson (John Cusack) enters his English class at Eastern University, he immediately falls in love with Alison Bradbury (Daphne Zuniga). She is an intelligent and attractive woman who brings dramatic conflict into the life of our protagonist. The film is transformed into a unique love story by the on-screen chemistry between Cusack and Zuniga, both of who bring natural confidence to their roles. Charming and astute as usual, John Cusack uses his quick wit and genuine appeal to transform what-could’ve-been-another clichéd rom-com into a mature tale. For the then-18-year-old Cusack, this was his big break.
9. Con Air (1997)
After killing a man in a late-night scuffle outside the pub where his pregnant wife works, Cameron Poe (Nicolas Cage) is sentenced to prison. When Poe is granted parole seven years later, the criminally insane Cyrus the Virus (John Malkovich) and the black separatist Diamond Dog (Ving Rhames) kidnap his jet. It’s up to Poe to turn things around. On the ground, a good-hearted U.S. marshal, Agent Vince Larkin (John Cusack), is attempting to resolve the conflict amicably, defying orders from his seniors.
In many of his moments, Cusack is only allowed to scream into a phone. And he does it so convincingly. His role as Larkin might not be big, but Cusack proves crucial to this ensemble cast of A-listers, with quotable lines and an endearing performance.
8. City Hall (1996)
Mayor John Pappas (Al Pacino) intervenes after a young boy is unintentionally killed in a firefight between a mobster and police. His brave deputy mayor, Kevin Calhoun (John Cusack), investigates the mobster’s probation report’s paper trail after developing some doubts. However, his devotion is put to the test when his investigation takes him too deep into a tightly guarded conspiracy. Veteran actor Al Pacino played the protagonist in this suspense thriller, but John Cusack is equally spectacular. Al Pacino graciously gives way to Cusack for the remainder of the film, with the young actor outperforming the veteran.
Cusack’s performance elevated this film into the top tier of political thrillers.
7. Say Anything… (1989)
Lloyd Dobler is a high school slacker (John Cusack). College is not a part of his future professional goals. He mentions he wants to be a professional kickboxer in passing, but the only time we see him actually doing it professionally is when he’s instructing a group of young children. Diane (Ione Skye), on the other hand, is a golden girl, the class valedictorian, and the recipient of an English scholarship. Lloyd attempts to ask her out but is thwarted by her controlling father, Jim Court (John Mahoney).
No image is more closely associated with John Cusack’s on-screen persona than the scene in which he is seen outside a window playing “In Your Eyes” on a boombox. The story may not have aged well but is still Cusack’s most recognizable movie and one of his greatest.
6. Eight Men Out (1988)
There are numerous timeless must-see classics for baseball movie fans, and Eight Men Out (also starring Clifton James, Michael Lerner, Christopher Lloyd, Charlie Sheen, David Straithaim, D.B. Sweeney, and Michael Rooker) is right up there. Based on the ‘White Sox Scandal’, eight baseball players from the Chicago White Sox were asked to throw the 1919 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds by a gambling gang. The players’ decision to turn against their sport and fans stemmed from poor remuneration and challenging circumstances. John Cusack plays Buck Weaver, a naive, idealistic guy, with an aplomb that reflects the earliest signs of a rising talent.
Despite the players’ efforts on the field, Cusack’s embodiment of the sport becomes the tragic focal point of this movie, elevating it beyond a compelling sports drama and into a story of human passion.
5. The Grifters (1990)
After reading the eponymous book on which the film is based, Cusack pursued the part because he thought Roy was an interestingly wicked role to venture into. Even real con artists helped him learn cards, dice, and magic tricks. In the film, Anjelica Huston portrays Lilly, a con artist who’s become ruthless over time. Her son, Roy (John Cusack), initially sticks to small-time scams involving magic shows. Roy’s girlfriend, Myra (Annette Bening), uses seduction to get what she wants. Things get extremely difficult when the three individuals finally cross paths.
After playing so many lovesick underdogs in the 1980s, John Cusack plays a cunning character with a delight and wit that keeps you guessing until the very end.
4. The Thin Red Line (1998)
The Thin Red Line, a monumental World War II classic by Terrence Malick, stars almost all of the greatest actors of the 1990s (Sean Penn, George Clooney, John Travolta, John C Reilly, Adrien Brody, Jim Caviezel, Ben Chaplin, Woody Harrelson, Elias Koteas, Nick Nolte). But as Captain John Gaff, who is tasked with the almost impossible task of eliminating an entire Japanese resistance unit, Cusack steals the show in all of his moments. He skillfully depicts the demands of leadership in the midst of a chaotic battle where uncertainty and violence coexist. It shows real veterans a lot of respect and pays tribute to their heroic goals.
Surprisingly, a number of the scenes starring stars like Martin Sheen, Gary Oldman, and Viggo Mortensen were left from the final cut. Even though John Cusack plays a minor role, his part was preserved for its powerful portrayal.
3. Bullets over Broadway (1994)
Bullets Over Broadway is a black comedy crime movie with a plot that masterfully couples John Cusack’s humorous acting with the diversified imagination of renowned filmmaker Woody Allen. David Shayne was a young playwright who had just arrived on Broadway in 1928. He is forced to include a gangster’s girlfriend, Olive Neal (Jennifer Tilly), as a character in his play. He soon discovers that he is stealing his ideas from Neals’ escort. The film is humorous, full of surprising situations and stands head and shoulders above many of Allen’s films, thanks to strong performances and a joyful soundtrack of 1920s music.
It nabbed an astonishing 7 Academy Award nominations and is unquestionably one of Cusack’s best films as well as one of Allen’s most notable successes.
2. Being John Malkovich (1999)
Cusack’s penchant for unconventional roles is evident in films like Better Off Dead and Grand Piano. But Being John Malkovich is the craziest in Cusack’s filmography. When unemployed and struggling puppeteer Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) crawls into a tunnel and enters the mind of Hollywood legend John Malkovich, his life quickly changes. This bizarre, fantastical film is pure escape, demonstrating the lengths humans would go to in order to put themselves in another person’s shoes.
An unconventional direction by Spike Jonze, a fantastic script by Charlie Kaufman, and an extraordinary performance by John Cusack made this film a surprise hit despite its small theatrical run. Roger Ebert named it the greatest film of 1999.
1. High Fidelity (2000)
High Fidelity is Cusack’s most critically acclaimed rom-com. He plays Rob Gordon, the proprietor of the record shop, who struggles to understand how to maintain a long-term relationship. A great film that does a good job of fusing comedy, romance, and drama, all of which are Cusack’s natural strengths. He defies expectations as a rather repulsive character and yet endears Gordon to the viewer. The film leaves us yearning for its superbly crafted soundtrack, which includes some gems from ’80s music.
John Cusack wrote the script of the film based on Nick Hornby’s novel (who later lauded his performance). The actor was nominated for a Golden Globe and left a mark on a whole generation of indie music lovers. High Fidelity ranks in our list of ’50 Greatest Romances of the 21st Century’:
The versatile John Cusack has covered all grounds from romantic comedies to action thrillers, poignant biopics (Love and Mercy, 2014, starring Paul Dano, Brian Wilson, and Elizabeth Banks), and horror. Among the finest actors in the industry, he elevated every role and film that came his way. And it wouldn’t be wrong to say Cusack is yet to finish his innings as an actor.
FTII alumnus and freelance writer. My articles have appeared in Scroll.in, The Hindu, Livemint.com, The Quint, The Tribune, Upperstall, among other publications.