Oliver Stone movies are always an exercise in paranoia and social commentary, which is why the maverick filmmaker has earned his own entry here at Odd Films. Ever since he made his directorial debut with 1974’s Seizure (starring Herve Villechaize), Stone has been motivated to provide an uncompromising vision of complex individuals caught up in a maelstrom of real-life chaos. His films have been rewarded with nine Academy Awards, including wins for Best Picture (Platoon), Best Director (Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July) and Best Actor (Michael Douglas), and even a few highly-publicized bombs (Alexander and U Turn) haven’t been able to derail his cannabis-fueled quest for truth.
And while this list focuses exclusively on movies directed by Oliver Stone, it would be unwise to overlook his talents as a screenwriter. The Vietnam vet has penned a number of memorable tales for other directors, including Scarface, Midnight Express, Year of the Dragon, and Conan the Barbarian. So the next time you watch Tony Montana bury his face in a mountain of cocaine, rest assured that the screenwriter was speaking from actual experience.
While this list doesn’t include all Oliver Stone movies, it does feature ten works that I would recommend to anyone looking for an introduction to his style of filmmaking.
- The Hand (1981) – Stone made his feature film debut with a horror movie, and he followed it up seven years later with another example of the genre. This one stars none other than Michael Caine as Jon Lansdale, a cartoonist who loses his drawing hand in a traffic accident. The severed hand is never found, and Lansdale’s life begins falling apart thanks to perceived infidelity on the part of his wife (Andrea Marcovicci) and persistent visions that leave him wondering if his missing hand is crawling around strangling people (including Stone in a cameo as a homeless man). The weirdness picks up when he accepts a teaching gig at a community college and develops an obsessive relationship with a sexy tart (Annie McEnroe) in his class. Caine is always a delight to watch, and the film’s frequent over-the-top approach leads to a number of enjoyable scenes. The final scene is beyond bizarre, and the supporting cast is bolstered by fine character actors such as Bruce McGill and Charles Fleischer.
- Salvador (1986) – Nominated for two Academy Awards (Best Actor and Best Screenplay), Salvador stars James Woods as Richard Boyle, a freelance American journalist who heads to South America to cover a revolution and winds up getting caught between the right wing military and guerilla fighters. Woods plays an amoral worm with his usual finesse, while Stone uses the film as a platform to criticize the U.S. for their support of brutal regimes around the globe. A powderkeg of a motion picture, Salvador co-stars Jim Belushi, Michael Murphy, and Elpidia Carrillo.
- Platoon (1986) – Winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture, Platoon also netted Stone his first Best Director Oscar and served as a wake-up call to an apathetic nation who had largely forgotten about the horrors of Vietnam. Charlie Sheen stars as Chris Taylor, a naïve American who drops out of college and joins the military, but he soon finds there’s nothing noble about the conflict raging in Southeast Asia. As he battles exhaustion and endures constant brushes with death, Chris becomes caught in the middle of a feud between two superior officers: the compassionate Elias (Willem Dafoe) and the brutal Barnes (Tom Berenger). Those who like on-screen war action will get their fill, but Platoon provides much more in the way of emotional depth and characterization. The supporting cast includes a number of familiar faces, including Johnny Depp, Forrest Whitaker, Kevin Dillon, Tony Todd, and Oliver Stone himself in a cameo.
- Wall Street (1987) – Stone once again teams up with Charlie Sheen, this time for an examination of the American dream run amok. Set in 1985, Sheen stars as Bud Fox, an ambitious stockbroker who falls in with his idol, an unscrupulous corporate raider by the name of Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas), and gets rich thanks to insider trading. Sheen plays Bud as appropriately naïve, while Douglas steals the show as the oily Gekko (winning a Best Actor Oscar in the process). Martin Sheen co-stars as Bud’s father, and Daryl Hannah lends some sex appeal as Bud’s trophy girlfriend. A timeless look at 80’s greed, Wall Street is far superior to Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, which was made 23 years later.
- Talk Radio (1988) – Largely set inside a radio station during a broadcast, Talk Radio stars Eric Bogosian as Barry Champlain, a confrontational host on the verge of national stardom. But his liberal views don’t always go over with his conservative Texas listeners, and the death threats come pouring in. Barry doesn’t take them seriously, but he should. Bogosian gets the stage mostly to himself–the film was adapted straight from his play–and he shines in a seemingly endless war of words with hostile callers. Co-stars include Alec Baldwin, John C. McGinley, Ellen Greene, and Leslie Hope.
- Born on the Fourth of July (1989) – Tom Cruise sheds his pretty boy image for a chance at Oscar gold. While he didn’t win for his role as partially paralyzed Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic (the real-life Kovic co-wrote the script with Stone), he did receive a Best Actor nomination and newfound respect among his peers. Nominated for a total of eight Academy Awards, the film follows Kovic from his carefree childhood to the deadly jungles of Vietnam. There, he loses his way and struggles to find it for the remainder of the movie. The journey is often unpleasant and usually heartbreaking, but you’ll be moved by Kovic’s search for inner peace and dignity.
- The Doors (1991) – People who knew Jim Morrison well didn’t care for the film, but that shouldn’t diminish the powerful performance given by Val Kilmer in the lead role (he also did all his own singing). All the expected excesses of the rock and roll lifestyle are examined, and Stone turns in a motion picture that seems to have eaten a few mushrooms itself. Co-starring Meg Ryan, Kyle MacLachlan, Kevin Dillon, Frank Whaley, Kathleen Quinlan, and Billy Idol.
- JFK (1991) – The ultimate film about conspiracy and corruption at the highest levels of government, JFK is notable for exposing American moviegoers to footage of the Kennedy assassination not normally seen before. Kevin Costner dons his American hero hat to play Jim Garrison, the real-life New Orleans D.A. who brought supposed conspirators to trial in an effort to get at the truth. Gary Oldman co-stars as the notorious Lee Harvey Oswald, but every character in the film–regardless of which side of the law they’re on–is equally compelling. The impressive cast includes Joe Pesci, Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Bacon, Sissy Spacek, John Candy, Michael Rooker, Donald Sutherland, Brian Doyle Murray, Jay O. Sanders, Ed Asner, Walter Matthau, and Jack Lemmon. Even if you don’t agree that Oswald had help, JFK remains a blistering exercise in cinematic paranoia.
- Natural Born Killers (1994) – Stone reached deep into his cinematic bag of tricks for this one, eventually fishing out a finished product that criticizes the media and the public with all the subtlety of a hammer to the face. Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis star as Mickey and Mallory Knox, a pair of deranged lovers on a killing spree across the United States. Pursued by a cop (Tom Sizemore) who’s just as twisted as they are, Mickey and Mallory run roughshod over Route 666 and become pop-culture icons in the process. Robert Downey Jr. co-stars as the sleazeball tabloid journalist, Tommy Lee Jones is the doomed prison warden, and Rodney Dangerfield turns in a non-comedic performance as Mallory’s incestuous father. Based on a screenplay by Quentin Tarantino, NBK uses everything from animation to black-and-white to get its point across. Some people were outraged, but many of them were the exact same idiots that Stone was criticizing in the first place. A final warning: watching this film while stoned could cause your head to explode.
- Nixon (1995) – The second of Stone’s three films about American presidents, Nixon follows America’s most disgraced leader (played by Anthony Hopkins) from his Quaker upbringing to his eventual fall from grace. In-between those moments, Stone and Hopkins combine to portray Nixon as a complex individual riddled with failings and virtues. Joan Allen is a standout as wife Pat, and the rest of the cast includes James Woods, Paul Sorvino, Ed Harris, Powers Boothe, Bob Hoskins, and J.T. Walsh. A mesmerizing look at the corrupting nature of power and how even the most well-intentioned of men can be led astray. If you think all politicians are inherently corrupt, Nixon may change your mind.
The next time you’re looking to get riled up over governmental corruption or man’s general inhumanity towards his fellow man, pop one of these Oliver Stone movies into your Blu-ray player. But when you’re through watching, don’t be surprised if you have the sudden urge to smoke a little weed or organize a protest march.