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5 indie films that confirmed Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s serious acting chops

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a hot commodity in Hollywood these days: starring roles in some of the year’s biggest films (The Dark Knight Rises, Looper, Spielberg’s upcoming war drama, Lincoln), cover boy for GQ’s August issue, a very viral, Magic Mike-inspired striptease on SNL a few weeks back and a just-announced funding deal with Sony for his collaborative production company, HitRECord. Plus, the self-avowed Francophile’s first directorial effort, Don Jon’s Addiction (starring Scarlett Johansson and Julianne Moore), will hit theatres in 2013.

Those who’ve long sung the praises of this talented 31-year-old are finally seeing the rest of the world acknowledge that he’s in the same league as the almighty Gosling/Franco/Gyllenhaal trifecta. Few probably recall that Gordon-Levitt’s been in the game since his diaper days, first appearing in Cocoa Puffs commercials, honing his kid actor craft in popular films like Beethoven, Angels in the Outfield and, most memorably, a six-year stint as repressed alien teen Tommy Solomon on the critically acclaimed sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun.

If Gordon-Levitt’s riveting turn as a futuristic contract killer in the just-released Looper has taught us anything, it’s that he's willing to undergo extensive physical transformations and meticulous character prep work when the part calls for it. And it pays off. So let’s cut him some slack for the complete waste of our time/his talent that was this summer’s laughable bike courier thriller Premium Rush, and look back on the five films with which JGL cultivated his indie cred. That’s pre-Inception and pre-50/50, but post-10 Things I Hate About You, for the purposes of your JGL timeline.


#5 (500) Days of Summer (2009)

Also known as JGL’s definitive breakout film. This inventively nonlinear, undeniably sweet 500-day survey of a doomed relationship between ever-romantic greeting card writer Tom (JGL) and the more commonsensical “perfect girl” Summer (Zooey Deschanel) proved to many that Gordon-Levitt was well suited for leading man parts. Who didn’t feel for poor, lovelorn Tom as the quirky film kept jumping back and forth from the couple’s demise to its happier days? The actor commanded the film’s sweet-natured comedy bits as well as scenes that required greater emotional investment. And what’s not to love about that infectious Hall & Oates dance sequence, a totally theatrical rendition of that lovestruck, “morning-after-with-butterflies” feeling…


#4 Manic (2001)

Let’s face it – although I haven’t seen this one in a few years, I doubt it gets any better with age. This 2001 Sundance entry about emotionally troubled California teens at a high-security psychiatric institution is a by-the-numbers hospital rehabilitation narrative. But it’s the captivatingly understated performances of JGL and a certain Zooey Deschanel (yes, their first collaboration!) that allow the film to rise above its teen-violence-movie-of-the-week premise. Gordon-Levitt’s character, seething with barely contained rage, tries his darnedest to suppress all freak-out fits during group therapy sessions, during which he also falls for the equally disturbed Deschanel. This marked JGL’s biggest step away from cutesy sitcom parts. Manic may be heavy-handed, but it also proved to indie filmmakers like Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper) and Gregg Araki (Mysterious Skin) that JGL had much more range than a Jonathan Taylor Thomas or Melissa Joan Hart ever would.


#3 Brick (2005)

Rian Johnson
’s directorial debut – and his first collaboration with JGL – was an inventive neo-noir set in a modern-day American high school. Playing an introverted teen sleuth determined to piece together the murder of his former girlfriend, JGL carries the film with his mastery of rapid-fire teen slang (which borrows from ’50s crime fiction) and a subdued confidence that were both vital to the part. Brick could easily have fallen into the ridiculous trap of a Dawson’s Creek-gone-gumshoe with cutesy kids pretending to be film-noir-serious adults. Johnson achieves the hyperrealism he was striving for thanks to JGL’s investment in this distressed outsider. Although you wouldn’t normally liken high school drug kingpins to their adult counterparts, the magic of Brick lies in the clever parallels it draws between high schoolers’ intense experience and that of characters populating crime fiction: they’re a bundle of nerves and yet they try so hard to repress it all.


#2 The Lookout (2007)

Arguably JGL’s most overlooked film, The Lookout tells the story of Chris (JGL), a promising high school athlete whose life takes a sharp turn for the worse after a reckless car accident leaves him with sustained brain damage and short-term memory loss. Poor Chris goes from being the dashing, smart hockey star with a bright future to a small-town bank janitor who struggles just to keep up – he needs to scribble down every routine task, else he forgets it. The damaged soul soon finds himself embroiled in a persuasive criminal’s (Matthew Goode) master plan to rob the bank he works at, with said criminal preying on Chris’ insecurities and boiling anger. The Lookout’s clever structure and taut script keep you guessing all along, but the clear standout is JGL's hauntingly nuanced turn. The calm before the storm he conveys with so few words and glances is mesmerizing.


#1 Mysterious Skin (2004)

To this day, Mysterious Skin still ranks as JGL’s boldest performance, proving that he’s fully game for big creative risks. It’s also one of the smartest, most eye-opening (and heartbreaking) films to tackle child abuse and pedophilia. Yup, this really IS entirely unlike 10 Things I Hate About You. Director Gregg Araki explores how the repeat molestation of two young boys affects them in drastically different (though no less disturbing) ways. The bulk of the film is spent uncovering how that trauma carries over into their late-teen lives. While asexual Brian (Brady Corbet) becomes single-handedly fixated on alien abduction, seductive plaything Neil (JGL) grows up to be a self-destructive hustler who mostly services middle-aged men. JGL’s fearless performance brings emotional depth to a very complex part: a profoundly scarred young man whose vulnerability is buried under industrial layers of tough-guy primer.


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