A screen presence frequently mocked for his New England eccentricities, the perceived empty-headedness of his performance style and history as a crotch-grabbing rap artist, it's easy to dismiss Mark Wahlberg as a "serious actor."
Lest we forget, however, not only has the Boston-bred bad boy worked with such diverse talents as Paul Thomas Anderson and Martin Scorsese, but he's also an Oscar nominee and one of Hollywood's most bankable stars. Love him or hate him, the man has an interesting body of work. Here are some of his best movies.
10 Four Brothers (2005)
Sparked by the brutal murder of their foster mother, a group of adoptive brothers (Wahlberg, Garrett Hedlund, Tyrese Gibson, and André Benjamin) take justice into their own hands and go after the neighborhood kingpin (Chiwetel Ejiofor) responsible.
Though his early image was that of the unpredictable bad boy, Wahlberg’s later career has characterized him as a responsible and caring father. Four Brothers stands at the very crossroads of this career evolution. Though, in the role, he’s typically short-tempered, he’s also the father figure to the group, and the four’s easy rapport is what makes Four Brothers a winner despite its unfortunate brutality and vigilante worship.
9 The Perfect Storm (2000)
Packed with sophisticated special effects (for the time), this film tells the story of the Andrea Gail, a commercial fishing boat that fell victim to the “perfect storm” of 1991 on the Atlantic Ocean.
While the film received mixed reviews from critics, it was a box office success based on the strength of the film’s cast (featuring Wahlberg, George Clooney, and Diane Lane among others) and the promise of some natural-disaster spurred melodrama. Though many critics cited a lack of emotional investment in the proceedings, The Perfect Storm has become well-loved rainy afternoon cable viewing among those who love nothing more than to cuddle up with a tissue box and have a cry.
8 Instant Family (2018)
Pete and Ellie (Wahlberg and Rose Byrne) yearn for kids and reach out to a foster care agency hoping to be matched with a child. They get more than they bargained for when they meet a group of siblings who they can’t help but take in. Going from happy couple to parents overnight, the duo will have to learn on the fly or risk losing the new happiness they’ve found.
This dramedy has been criticized for the way it fails to portray the complexities of adoption and foster care, but its heart is in the right place. Besides, few can fault it with such a likeable pair at its center.
7 Ted (2012)
As a little boy, John (Mark Wahlberg) wishes for his beloved teddy bear (Seth McFarlane) to come alive. Thirty years later, the pot-smoking, beer-guzzling stuffie is still John's constant companion, a point of contention between him and girlfriend Lori (Mila Kunis), who just wants John to grow up.
Yes, this buddy comedy is about as juvenile as they come, but the fact that it works at all is an accomplishment in and of itself. McFarlane’s first go in the director’s chair owes a huge debt not only to Wahlberg but a supporting cast (including Giovanni Ribisi and Joe McHale) that tackles the material with just the right flavor of crassness and grounded believability. It doesn't matter who you are, seeing a teddy bear hump things will never not be at least worthy of a smirk.
6 Rock Star (2001)
Oh-so-loosely based on the true story of the band Judas Priest, this odyssey from heavy metal to grunge stars Wahlberg as the titular rocker, Chris. He finds himself kicked out of a tribute band before being picked up by “Steel Dragon," the very group he and his buddies were imitating. Riding high on fame, Chris’ dreams are fulfilled at last, but, like so many showbiz yarns, the fall from grace comes hard and fast as drugs, women, and egos threaten to tear the band apart.
Moralistic and a tad hollow, Rock Star is still an enjoyable enough love letter to an era in music that has long past, and seeing Wahlberg all ratty-haired and stuffed into leather pants never ceases to amuse.
5 Pain & Gain (2013)
Wahlberg stars as Danny Lupo, a muscle-bound Miami gym manager in the 1990s who recruits similarly beefy Paul (Dwayne Johnson) and Adrian to kidnap a wealthy businessman (Tony Shaloub) and extort him for all he’s worth.Though, like so many Michael Bay efforts, Pain & Gain has been criticized for its focus on the spectacle of violence over actual human drama, this is the closest the director has ever gotten to a thought-provoking work.
The hyperactive style, destruction, and machismo endemic to his cinema are all present and accounted for, but pumped up into self-parody, turning Pain & Gain (at least for its first hour) into a meat-headed excoriation of American greed and excess.
4 The Fighter (2010)
In this sports drama, Wahlberg stars as Micky Ward, a boxer on the outs who becomes a contender for a world title. With his hard-as-nails mother, his brother and his girlfriend counting on him, Micky sets out to redeem himself and give his family a legacy to be proud of. Based on the 1996 documentary titled High on Crack Street: Lost Lives in Lowell, Wahlberg’s third collaboration with David O. Russell is his most celebrated. All three of his co-stars (Amy Adams, Christian Bale, and Melissa Leo) were nominated for Oscars, and though Wahlberg was shut out, he’s just as much responsible for the film’s success as a piece of heart-swelling cinema. Though predictable, The Fighter is a rousing, achingly human portrait of perseverance and the stubborn, unbreakable nature of family bonds.
3 I Heart Huckabees (2004)
In this gleefully absurd environmental/existential comedy from Academy fave David O. Russell, Wahlberg and Jason Schwartzman star as clients of two bumbling “existential detectives”, the Jaffes (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin). Having grown tired of the Jaffes’ optimistic approach and lack of results, the two team up to cause some mischief with Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert), the Jaffe’s former student who has gone rogue, endorsing a more chaotic and nihilistic life philosophy.
A pat plot summation does little to capture the total lunacy of this underrated flick, which cranks its cast's various idiosyncracies up to eleven. With wild eyes and a hair trigger, Wahlberg almost steals the show (coming second only to a punch-mouthed Naomi Watts in an anachronistic bonnet and utility overalls) as Tommy Corn, a firefighter for whom petroleum is an all-consuming bugbear. Though he's turned a good deal more conservative in recent years, I Heart Huckabees channels the brawling, livewire air of Wahlberg’s youth into a strong comic force.
2 The Departed (2006)
In this Oscar-winning feature from Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio stars as an undercover cop infiltrating the gang of a Boston kingpin (Jack Nicholson) who has a mole of his own (Matt Damon) on the city’s police force. Wahlberg is to Beantown what spots are to a cheetah, so it's no surprise that he popped up in this remake of Hong Kong crime-thriller Internal Affairs (2002).
In a supporting role as Staff Sergeant Dignam, Wahlberg adds local color and streetwise Irish-American attitude to this “who’s the rat” caper, showing that a little of his particular brand of panache goes a long way. A plainly spoken oddity in a film where everyone has something to hide, Wahlberg received his first (and to date, only) Oscar nomination for his turn as a totem of coarse nobility in a sea of triple-crossing vermin.
1 Boogie Nights (1997)
Paul Thomas Anderson’s roving, kaleidoscopic rendering of the late 70s is easily one of the best films of the 90s and first put Wahlberg’s star on the map. Beginning in the San Fernando Valley in 1977, he stars as Eddie, a well-endowed busboy who gets his big break from director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds). Renaming himself Dirk Diggler, Eddie takes the industry by storm, but his egotism and increasing dependence on drugs threaten to topple his career.
A who’s who of up-and-coming character actors and rising stars (plus Reynolds, who received his sole Oscar-nomination), Boogie Nights helped launch or solidify the careers of everyone from Philip Seymour to Julianne Moore, but at the end of the day, it’s Wahlberg's picture through-and-through. Eddie/Diggler is a void at the center of this whirling dervish, a black hole that attracts everything that comes into his path. Though Wahlberg occasionally turns in a thoughtful performance here or there, Anderson captured something of the beautiful blankness inherent in his appeal, using him as a canvas on which to project a picture of a decadent industry in rapid decline.