It doesn’t cut it to simply say that Jack Nicholson is one of the greatest and most revered actors working today, because a lot of people are. Jack Nicholson is more than that; he’s one of the greatest and most revered actors to have been working for over half a century.
He’s been a famed movie star since the 1960s when he took roles in a number of Roger Corman’s legendary B-movies. He’s since worked with such iconic directors as Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick, Hal Ashby, Arthur Penn, Miloš Forman, and himself. So, here are Jack Nicholson’s 10 Best Movies, According To Rotten Tomatoes.
10 TIE: Ride in the Whirlwind (91%)
Back when westerns were ten a penny and moviegoers couldn’t get enough of them, Jack Nicholson shot two at the same time: The Shooting (which is also on this list) and Ride in the Whirlwind, both with director Monte Hellman. When Hellman and producer Roger Corman realized it would be cheaper to make two movies back-to-back than separately, they got Jack Nicholson to work on the script for a second one, which would become Ride in the Whirlwind.
Nicholson isn’t the only would-be Hollywood star who got one of his earliest roles in Ride in the Whirlwind; a young Harry Dean Stanton makes an appearance, too.
9 TIE: The Departed (91%)
Martin Scorsese finally won the Academy Award for Best Director when he helmed The Departed. Some critics said it was more like a lifetime achievement award to make up for snubbing him for his earlier, better films, but frankly, The Departed is a fantastic movie.
It’s a gripping cat-and-mouse thriller where each of the two lead characters is both a cat and a mouse. Jack Nicholson’s character, Irish mob boss Frank Costello, was inspired by Whitey Bulger, the crime lord who spent years on the FBI’s Most Wanted list without going to jail by secretly ratting out all his friends on the side.
8 TIE: The Last Detail (91%)
This powerful comedy-drama directed by Hal Ashby works so well because it’s simply about human relationships. Jack Nicholson stars as one of two Navy officers who are tasked with transporting a teenage seaman to be court-martialed and thrown in jail for stealing $40 from a charity fund and decide to give him the time of his life on the way there.
It’s sort of like a military-themed Superbad – in fact, Seth Rogen has noted the movie’s influence on his own work – as it has a lot of funny moments, but also a lot of emotional moments where these men bear their souls.
7 The Raven (92%)
A lot of Jack Nicholson’s early work from the ‘60s was produced (and sometimes directed) by Roger Corman, the low-budget filmmaking master who made a hundred movies “and never lost a dime.” The Raven was one of those movies, a film adaptation of the Edgar Allan Poe story of the same name (one of the eight Poe stories that
Corman adapted in what is known as “the Corman-Poe cycle”), and it’s one of the earliest examples of a movie that combines horror with comedy. If it wasn’t for this early trend-setter, we wouldn’t have Shaun of the Dead or Zombieland.
6 The Little Shop of Horrors (92%)
This is the original Little Shop of Horrors, not the one from the ‘80s that was adapted from an off-Broadway musical that was adapted from this one and starred Rick Moranis. This one was released in 1960 and it wasn’t a musical.
Famed B-movie producer Roger Corman was behind the camera, so there are plenty of impressive if low-budget monster effects. The movie wasn’t a smash hit when it first came out, but it gradually grew into a cult classic over the next couple of decades as it aired on TV and more and more people realized it even existed.
5 One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (94%)
There aren’t many movies that understand and empathize with mental health issues in the way that One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest does. Most such movies pity and look down on the mentally ill, but this one stands behind them. Jack Nicholson plays Randle McMurphy, a regular guy who pleads insanity to get out of jail and ends up in a mental institution, where he butts heads with the sinister Nurse Ratched, who drugs her patients out of their minds.
McMurphy leads the charge against Ratched, telling the other patients, “You’re no crazier than the average a*****e out walking around on the streets and that’s it!”
4 Broadcast News (98%)
Imagine if Anchorman had a thousand degrees less absurdity and made you genuinely care about the characters and where they were going – that’s Broadcast News. Jack Nicholson only has a minor role in the film, making it one of the few times he hasn’t taken center stage.
Actually, with an ensemble cast, there is no true star of Broadcast News. In fact, if there is a star, it’s James L. Brooks, who wrote, directed, and produced the film on his own. Broadcast News is an early template for the Apatowian comedy – lots of humor, lots of heart, and a hint of romance.
3 Chinatown (99%)
Roman Polanski directed this neo-noir about a private investigator, played by Jack Nicholson, whose latest case gets him into some shady dealings over the Los Angeles water rights (it’s a lot more interesting than it sounds). Chinatown has one of the darkest plot twists in film history, which turns the movie into a harrowing psychological thriller at the drop of a dime.
The real star is Robert Towne’s screenplay, which is used by every screenwriting teacher to teach their students what a perfect script looks like, but if it wasn’t for Nicholson’s riveting portrayal of Jake Gittes, the whole movie would crumble.
2 TIE: The Shooting (100%)
Jack Nicholson didn’t just star in this suspenseful western thriller; he also has a producer credit. It’s the story of two guys who are hired by a strange woman to escort her across the desert while they’re pursued by a sinister gunman who seems to want to kill them.
Shot back-to-back with another western (Ride in the Whirlwind) in the Utah desert by director Monte Hellman, The Shooting has that classic genre motif of a villain dressed in all black. In classic western tradition, the movie has a simplistic plot that allows for some fascinating character work, and the tension holds up all throughout the runtime.
1 TIE: On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (100%)
It’s not particularly well-known among today’s moviegoers, but On a Clear Day You Can See Forever was a big deal back in 1970. It’s a musical adapted from a 1965 stage production by the writer of the play itself and was named one of the 100 greatest musicals ever made by the American Film Institute. Jack Nicholson is not the star of the movie; Barbra Streisand is.
Comedy legend Bob Newhart also has a supporting role in the cast. Upon its original release, it was met with apprehensive reviews from some critics, but it has since come to be one of the few films with a 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes.