It’s difficult for me to think of a better actress working in Hollywood right now than Julianne Moore. In fact, I think a pretty good argument could be made that over the past quarter century there hasn’t been a better actor—male or female—in American film. The ten movies below are the basis of my argument. Each one of these is worth renting. Even if she has a smaller part, her presence elevates each film.
Moore was 33 when she got this breakout role in Robert Altman’s remarkable film about Southern California in the 1990s. Altman took nine Raymond Carver stories and strung them together in an astonishing collage of contemporary life. This film perfectly illustrates what I believe his Moore’s great talent—getting the most out of each scene, including getting the most out of her co-stars in each scene. Moore plays an unfaithful wife who is confronted by her husband (Matthew Modine) about her infidelity while they are getting ready to host a dinner party. I’m not a big fan of Modine—perhaps unfairly but his voice is whiny and reedy-sounding—but the argument they have in this scene rings powerfully true. Both characters are fundamentally unlikeable in many ways, but her performance, along with the performance she pulls out of Modine, makes both characters incredibly sympathetic and human.
Okay, here’s the pitch: Louis Malle directs a film about rehearsals for a theatrical production of Anton Chekhov’s masterpiece “Uncle Vanya.” The screenplay was written by Andre Gregory (of My Dinner With Andre), based on David Mamet’s adaptation of the play. You can’t go wrong with this combination, and they didn’t. Moore plays one of the two leads (Yelena) opposite Wallace Shawn. It was shot in the then-decaying Amsterdam Theater in New York City. Actors show up for rehearsals of Chekhov’s play and are seemingly aimlessly chatting and suddenly you realize they are in the play itself. It’s a brilliant film. Moore’s performance perfectly captures the casual but heartbreaking rhythms of Chekhov’s dialogue. This is not a movie to be missed.
I think this is one of the best movies of the 1990s. It’s Paul Thomas Anderson’s monumental tragi-comic examination of the life of pornstars in the 1970s and 80s in Los Angeles. Moore plays the porn queen/mother figure named Amber Waves. The scene in which she loses custody of her child because of her career and drug use…oh my. It’s the emotional equivalent of sending yourself through a paper shredder.
I always seem to forget Moore was in this movie until I see it again and remember how fantastically odd her character is. Moore plays an avant-garde performance artist and the daughter of Jeffrey Lebowski. She’s incredibly amusing as a pretentious but vicious guardian of the family fortune who doesn’t trust her father. Her scenes with Jeff Bridges just get funnier every time I see this comedy.
A classic melodrama from Neil Jordan (The Crying Game), based on Graham Greene’s novel of the same name. Moore plays Sarah, a woman in a loveless marriage to Henry (Stephen Rea). She decides to reignite an old affair with her former lover, Bendrix (Ralph Fiennes) but then must end it, which she just can’t seem to do. It’s all set against the backdrop of World War II London.
Todd Haynes’s homage to the intimate “women’s films” of Douglas Sirk from the 1950s (films like Magnificent Obsession, All That Heaven Allows, and Imitation of Life). Moore plays Cathy Whitaker, a housewife living a seemingly perfect life in suburban 1950s Connecticut who has her world shattered when she discovers her husband (Dennis Quaid) is gay and secretly pursuing desperate encounters with other closeted men. Another outstanding example of the kind of emotionally deep performances that Moore brings out of her co-stars.
This is one of those literary movies…except it isn’t boring! And it illustrates part of Moore’s appeal; she takes on intimate roles in intimate movies. There’s not a single comic book movie in her filmography, which is a striking difference from what most Hollywood A-listers seem to feel they need to do nowadays. The Hours tells the stories of three different women from three different eras whose lives are touched by Virginia Woolf’s novel “Mrs. Dalloway.” You’ll like this movie even if you weren’t an English major. Moore plays the second of the three women, Laura Brown, a pregnant housewife who feels lost in 1950s California, parenting a young son and surviving an unhappy marriage. She has a great scene late in the film with Meryl Streep that I’ve watched over and over. Nicole Kidman won an Academy Award for her performance as Virginia Woolf.
Moore and co-star Annette Bening play a comfortable, upper middle class, middle-aged lesbian couple in Los Angeles until their marriage enters a crisis when Moore’s character has an affair with the donor father of their son—a raffishly charming chef (Mark Ruffalo). This is a wonderfully complex movie about marriage and children leaving home. Highly recommended.
A delightfully comic treatment of a marriage on the rocks that pairs Moore with comic actor Steve Carell. Carell plays a middle-aged man who decides to seek a divorce after his wife tells him she had an affair. He goes crazy and tries dating under the tutelage of a barroom Romeo (Ryan Gosling). The story reminds me of the advice that Catskills comic Red Buttons once gave me about how to tell a story: “You give ‘em an ootz, you give ‘em a spritz and then you close warm.” This movie does all that and more.
I think Moore’s performance here is perhaps her finest (okay, maybe a tie with Boogie Nights). She plays Dr. Alice Howland, an acclaimed and accomplished scientist whose life collapses as she descends into early-onset Alzheimer's. The most remarkable feature of this performance is what she again pulls out of her co-star, this time Alec Baldwin. Baldwin is one of the best comic actors of our time, and what she gets out of him as he tries helplessly to manage Alice’s decline is remarkable. Unless you are doing a one-man show, actors work together. Great actors make the other actors better. And, yet again, Moore is able to drag a surprising and deeply touching performance out of Baldwin while her character moves deeper into the horror of her deteriorating brain. Have a box of Kleenex handy.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.