Your Top Three is a series here at Movies.com where we choose a topic and you give us your top three picks.
One thing that keeps being said of Philip Seymour Hoffman is that it’s difficult if not impossible to pinpoint his greatest performance. It’s true, he was excellent in everything, even if the movies themselves weren’t good. Many have cited how he’s the only good part of Along Came Polly or how he elevated blockbusters like Mission: Impossible III and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire — and even Twister long before we knew him by name.
For every obvious highlight of his career (Capote; The Master; Almost Famous) there are tons of smaller roles and movies worth noting, from Scent of a Woman and The Talented Mr. Ripley to Love Liza and Owning Mahoney. He was a sort of chameleon, even if we always saw Hoffman behind the mustache or whatever other physical makeover he was given for a part, and the same goes for his performances. Few were ever alike, even though it seems like we can imagine a singular Hoffman character.
No director saw as much potential in him than Paul Thomas Anderson, who cast Hoffman in quite a variety of dissimilar parts in Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love and The Master. Each may have even defined new directions for typecasting him. It’s also worth looking at the disparity between his two characters for Bennett Miller, in Capote then Moneyball. Between those movies you get the extreme counterpoints on the spectrum of masculinity that Hoffman had been skating back and forth on throughout his career.
Below I’ve selected my top three Philip Seymour Hoffman movies, which don’t necessarily contain his best performances but are still among my favorites and I think quite illustrative of his talents.
1. Synecdoche, New York – Just watching Charlie Kaufman’s matryoska doll of a film is an intense, deep and exhausting experience, so I can only presume it was a hundred times as heavy for Hoffman to play its protagonist, Caden. How could a method actor even tackle such a part without losing his own mind? I especially love how well he and Dianne Wiest ape each other’s appearance and personality in the second half.
2. Punch-Drunk Love – Hoffman’s part, his Bluto to Adam Sandler’s Popeye, in this Paul Thomas Anderson movie comes late and is very short but is still one of his most memorable. He could play meek and he could play strong, intimidating with mind or might, and here he commands the scene as anyone could with the same profanity and delivery. But Hoffman exudes the soul of this sleazy jerk, embodying a character we’ve barely met but know completely in seconds.
3. State and Main – For a long time I thought Hoffman’s performance in this underrated David Mamet movie was his simplest. He plays a screenwriter on location and he’s sort of the straight man at the center of a story filled with ridiculous Hollywood satire. Now I can’t believe that an actor as talented as he would find it easy at all to play so small. It must have been a real challenge limiting himself for the role. And I also wonder if it hurt to keep his puckered facial expression the way it is when he was in character.
Your Picks (the top four of which are The Master and then, tied for second, Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Synecdoche, New York):
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