Top 10 Philip Seymour Hoffman Performances


It’s with a heavy, heavy heart I get around to finishing this post I’ve started and restarted so many times. The problem with trying to name one’s favorite Philip Seymour Hoffman performances is that a rewatch of one of the dozens of films the man was great in can shake up the entire thing. He was an actor with an unparalleled ability to make you buy what he was selling. As far as this one writer is concerned, he was one of the all-time greats.

On Sunday, he left us. I’m not one to usually be affected by celebrity deaths very much—I didn’t know them, they didn’t know me—but Hoffman’s passing hit me like a ton of bricks. I wanted to write something, and because his work so often spoke for himself, I’m remembering Hoffman by remembering his greatest performances.

10.) Mission: Impossible III

I could have slotted in his chillingly deceptive supporting role in The Ides of March. Or his heartbreakingly brilliant voice work in Mary and Max. Or the low-key turn of his career in Moneyball. Or the puzzlingly effective performance he gave in Charlie Kaufman’s puzzlingly effective Synechdoche New York. But how about Owen Davian? Fresh off his Oscar, he gave a performance so good, so deliciously villainous, that you half-heartedly root for him to survive, take down Ethan Hunt, and carry on his dasterdly deeds in infinite sequels.

9.) Boogie Nights

If we were making a list of favorite movies Philip Seymour Hoffman performed in, PTA’s porn-industry opus would almost certainly top the list. Hoffman is an admittedly small part of the ensemble, but as Scotty J., he does more with less screen time than any other actor in the picture.

8.) Punch-Drunk Love

My second-favorite PSH scene is a total change of pace and comes in Paul Thomas Anderson’s wacky third film. He has less to do in Punch-Drunk Love than in Boogie Nights or really any film on this list. But “SHUT UP, SHUT, SHUT, SHUT, SHUT, SHUT UP,” is immortal.

7.) Almost Famous

And my favorite PSH scene comes in Cameron Crowe’s masterpiece. “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we’re uncool.” It took me two days to muster up the strength to watch it. It shattered me.

6.) Charlie Wilson’s War

I might be the only movie writer around willing to admit to adoring Mike Nichols’ 2007 comedy about a U.S. congressman, a Texas socialite, and a CIA agent who helped fund the Afghan resistance against the Soviet machine during the 1980s war between those two nations. It’s incredibly quick-witted and never fails to crack me up. Easily the best thing about it is Hoffman’s Gust Avrakotos—the most charmingly ill-tempered guy you’ve ever seen. His window smashes aren’t the stuff of legend, but they should be.

5.) Magnolia

In the face of much, MUCH showier performances, Hoffman holds his own. His Phil is arguably the least developed character of Magnolia‘s big ten, but he’s as compelling as Frank T.J. Mackey, Jimmy Gator, Donnie Smith, and the rest.

4.) Capote

Hoffman’s only Oscar win came for his performance in Bennett Miller’s biopic, which beautifully balances genre tradition and off-beatness. It’s a performance steeped in the In Cold Blood author’s quirks, but Hoffman presents them lovingly. It’s a more complicated performance than all the gold he won for it would indicate.

3.) Doubt

PSH went to battle with the best—Queen Meryl—in John Patrick Shanley’s adaption of his own stage play, and even if he didn’t win—a debate I’d listen to and ponder for hours and hours—he held his own and that’s a pretty damn impressive feat. Even more impressive: he’s better in the film’s quiet scenes than those meant to be big-A Acting showcases.

2.) The Master

Say what you will about Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest—I’ll say it’s a well-acted, well-crafted mess—but Philip Seymour Hoffman is the absolute best thing about it. He’s a furious man who slowly loses control—for whatever reason(s) you think—over the course of the film. By its end, he’s a blubbering mess. It’s an epic transformation by Hoffman (and an epic bait and switch by Anderson).

1.) Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

An unconventional choice, maybe, but this performance, I think, best encapsulates the qualities I think about when I think about Philip Seymour Hoffman’s acting. Playing not just a son responsible for a parent’s death but one who’s dealt with years of emotional trauma stemming from the other parent, there’s intense rage inside his Andy, but Hoffman controls that rage better, I think, than any actor possibly could. He breaks down with his wife by his side in the film’s best scene, and on a dime, he’s fine. A remarkable moment, a remarkable performance, a remarkable actor.

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