Joseph Gordon-Levitt was born into acting. He appeared in his first feature film at age 11, family comedy Beethoven (1992), where he was simply credited as Student No. 1. Gordon-Levitt became a household name in the States when he landed the small screen role of Tommy on 3rd Rock From the Sun (1996-2001). It was clear that Gordon-Levitt’s talents would take him beyond roles on television sit-coms. However, when he jumped back into feature films as a young man, he was daring enough to take on challenging roles in independent films. His skinny frame and babyface allowed him to play a teenager convincingly. A lot of his roles at the turn of the millennium explored teenage angst and sexuality. 20 years on, Gordon-Levitt has progressed into a more commercial brand of cinema, the results have been mixed. His new film, 7500 by German director Patrick Vollrath is out this week. To mark the occasion, this is my countdown of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s best performances.
5) Looper (2012)
Directed by: Rian Johnson
Written by: Rian Johnson
Starring: Bruce Willis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, Paul Dano and Jeff Daniels
Gordon-Levitt’s and Rian Johnson’s working relationship began with the 2005 independent film Brick. Johnson has since gone on to direct Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017), perhaps the most divisive film in the Star Wars saga, and more recently 2019’s hit murder-mystery Knives Out. Gordon-Levitt has appeared in every Johnson film, albeit three of these appearances are uncredited cameos. In Looper, he shares top billing with Bruce Willis. They play the same character, Joe, 30 years apart. In this time-travelling sci-fi, Old Joe is sent back in time to be killed by Young Joe. When the killing is botched, the fun really starts. Gordon-Levitt, could be accused of doing a Bruce Willis impression here. I suppose it couldn’t really work the other way around, but I would love to see it. He is made to wear distracting and unnecessary prosthetics to make him look more like a young Willis. Despite this however, Gordon-Levitt brings a stoic coolness to the role, while also suggesting a deeper pain that comes from leading the life of a drug-addled assassin.
4) Inception (2010)
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Written by: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Leonardo diCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ken Watanbe, Marion Cotillard, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy
In Inception, Gordon-Levitt plays second fiddle to Leonardo di Caprio as part of a criminal band of ‘dream-stealers’ tasked with pulling off a high-risk but richly rewarding dream heist. In yet another sci-fi film, Gordon-Levitt plays Arthur, the team’s researcher. The cog that makes the wheel turn. The character of Arthur is again stoic and pragmatic, but not without his own wry sense of humour. His role in the team forces him to be a bit of a stick-in-the-mud. His back-and-forths with the more pugnacious Eames (played by Tom Hardy) are a highlight. In the film’s third-act Gordon-Levitt also stars in one of the more memorable action sequences of the 21st Century, a zero gravity fight scene in a hotel.
3) Manic (2001)
Directed by: Jordan Melamed
Written by: Michael Bacall and Blayne Weaver
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel, Michael Bacall, Don Cheadle, Elden Hensen and Cody Lightning
Gordon-Levitt is ostensibly the lead in this independent drama but in reality the film reads better as an ensemble. He plays teenager Lyle, sent to a juvenile psychiatric ward after beating somebody half to death with a baseball bat. Needless to say Lyle has serious anger management issues. Tension simmers between him and Michael (Hensen) during group therapy. Michael fights because he gets a rush from it, Lyle does too, but Gordon-Levitt suggests a deeper intelligence within Lyle. Lyle is frustrated with systems and authority, he cannot stand to be talked down to. He confuses assertiveness with aggression. In a narrative that cannot help but riff off One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Lyle forms a bond with Chad (Bacall) as they reminisce about the mosh-pit at a Rage Against the Machine concert and dream of escape.
2) 50/50 (2011)
Directed by: Jonathan Levine
Written by: Will Reiser
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick, Bryce Dallas-Howard and Anjelica Huston
Gordon-Levitt is most certainly the lead in this film and despite it’s comic tone, it is a challenging role. Gordon-Levitt plays Adam, a late 20-something diagnosed with a rare cancer of the back. We follow Adam on his journey through chemotherapy and the physical and mental struggles that are induced by such a diagnosis. Adam is a mild-mannered, cautious individual. He stops walking at a red light even though there are no cars coming, he doesn't drink or smoke and he doesn’t drive because car crashes are in the ‘top five causes of death in the United States’. You can feel Adam’s frustration bubbling under his affable candour. It doesn’t help that his girlfriend Rachel (Dallas-Howard) is becoming increasingly distant and his best friend Kyle has a tendency to be flaky and self-absorbed. There is a moment in the final scenes, before he goes in for surgery, where Gordon-Levitt brilliantly captures how Adam must be feeling.
1)Mysterious Skin (2004)
Directed by: Gregg Araki
Written by: Gregg Araki
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Brady Corbet, Michelle Trachtenberg, Jeff Licon, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Elisabeth Shue and Bill Sage
Mysterious Skin is Gordon-Levitt’s most daring role. He plays Neil, a teenage prostitute in small-town Kansas who makes the transition to the unpredictable wilds of New York City. He is dealing with an horrific childhood trauma. He was repeatedly sexually abused by his baseball coach at the age of eight. Neil is a confident 15-year-old despite this horrific event. There is something about him that is magnetic. However, as his best friend Wendy (Trachtenberg) warns, ‘there’s a black hole in his heart, and once you fall in, you may never get back out’. Across town is Brian (Corbet), who believes that he was abducted by aliens as a child. How else could you explain the nose-bleeds and those two evenings that seem to be permanently erased from his memory? All he knows is that Neil could have the answer. There is a scene between the two young men at the end that is at once heart-breaking and surprisingly tender.