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Director Ranked: Oliver Stone

While attending American University, I had the pleasure of taking a course titled Oliver Stone's America. Although it served as a history credit, the class studied American history specifically through the works and historical interpretations of Oliver Stone, making it one of the first times I ever delved so deeply and academically into the complete works, up to that point, of one director’s vision.

Although he usually comes across with a more liberal view, Stone’s work seems to be well researched and sometimes even includes first hand account, creating realistic, although not always literal, historical retellings that skirt the edges of  being balanced more than biased. Usually focused more on the history of American politics and culture, and biopics of…

  • Born on the Fourth of July

    1.Born on the Fourth of July

    ★★★★½

    Born on the Fourth of July, the second entry into Stone’s Vietnam trilogy, begins with a storybook family celebrating its country just at the brink of war, but goes on to show how a life surrounded by war turns even the most proudly patriotic youth ready to fight for their country into cynical, counter-culture protesters and activists. Not only is this succinct commentary honed into Oliver Stone's best work, it is also marked by the best work of actor Tom Cruise who is able to completely lose himself in the role of real life veteran Ron Kovic.

    The Vietnam Trilogy - Part II

  • Platoon

    2.Platoon

    ★★★★

    Platoon is without doubt Oliver Stone’s most iconic film. The first of what would become a trilogy examining the Vietnam War, and based on the director’s own experiences as a soldier in Vietnam, Platoon is both a real, and brutal, look at war from the inside and a cerebral experience with images that haunt memory well after it has ended. Stone is great at creating films that feel like time capsules of very specific moments, people and events, and Platoon is certainly that. This was the first Hollywood film to be written and directed by an actual veteran, and successfully solidified Stone as an important American director pretty early on in his career.

    The Vietnam Trilogy - Part I

  • JFK

    3.JFK

    ★★★★

    As opposed to the other presidential studies directed by Stone, JFK focuses on events surrounding and stemming from President Kennedy’s assasination instead of being a direct biopic. It’s a rather brilliant angle to take as the assassination itself seems to hold a stronger historical memory in America than Kennedy’s presidency itself. Often falling into and presented as a chaotic or dreamlike thread of consciousness as epiphanies unfold and connections are made, the film brings validity to another heavy aspect of American politics, the conspiracy theory, while also invoking the feelings of a country in mourning after such a tragic event. To top it off, JFK is cast to perfection with treasures of American cinema including Kevin Costner, Sissy Spacek, Kevin Bacon, Tommy Lee Jones, Michael Rooker, Laurie Metcalf and more, all turning out great performances that make the well over 3 hour running time stay engrossing and fly by.

  • W.

    4.W.

    ★★★★

    One of Stone’s most nuanced films, W. is an intimate portrait of a frat boy, a working man, a sportsman, a man of God, and a man completely out of his league within the world of U.S. politics. Unlike his previous presidential exposés that were built around chaotic conspiracy theories and a descent into failure respectively, Stone’s work here is much more traditional, simple, stable and, honestly, a bit boring, but airy with displacement and an internal panic slightly beneath the surface, just like George W. Bush himself. It’s a cutting commentary of a mediocre man that Stone jumped at creating, and was released before Bush could even leave office.

  • Talk Radio

    5.Talk Radio

    ★★★★

    Stone's 1988 film Talk Radio follows shock radio personality Barry Champlain as his local talk show readies to go national. A great character study balancing on verbal communication in both intimate, personal spaces as well as on a larger, public forum, the movie is also just as much a study of miscommunication and mass communication. When a large audience of people feels a connection to a single person that they've never actually met, there is an odd dynamic that brings about ownership and dictatorship, and how that goes with or against something as wild as shock radio is interesting. With ideas about mainstream censorship and political correctness also woven through, Talk Radio might be Stone's greatest sleeper of a hit.

  • Heaven & Earth

    6.Heaven & Earth

    ★★★★

    The third film of the trilogy, Heaven & Earth explores how the war changed the people of Vietnam itself. Being the direct perspective of those considered the enemy, without any time spent on U.S. backstory, Stone once again works to create an unheard of authenticity for American made films of the subject. This is also Stone's only film to be lead solely by a woman, and a woman of color at that, following the memoirs of Le Ly Hayslip as she navigates life during times of war. In ways uncharacteristic for Hollywood at the time, and refreshing because of it, Heaven & Earth is a great way to round off Stone’s analysis of this period of time.

    The Vietnam Trilogy - Part III

  • Nixon

    7.Nixon

    ★★★½

    The best movie villains are ones that don’t see themselves as the villain, but rather see themselves as someone who is doing the right thing through their own reasoning. Nixon is just that. Stone, with enormous help from master actor Anthony Hopkins in the title role, paints a sympathetic portrait of the controversial and corrupt president, from the roots that brought him up to his fall into darkness and all the bad decisions, false motivations, and shady dealings made along the way. The historical evidence alone is damning, and though there’s a lot of information here that becomes a bit long-winded, Stone endeavors to be as authentic as possible in his portrayal of one of the biggest figures of failure in the history of the United States of America.

  • Any Given Sunday

    8.Any Given Sunday

    ★★★

    Stone tackles, pun intended, the game that has become much more than just a camaraderie sport in his testosterone filled 1999 movie Any Given Sunday. Here are the ins and outs of the NFL, both on the field where bodies are used and abused as a commodity for profit, as well as behind the scenes where malpractice and shady dealings all ensue just to keep the wild spectators tuning in, which in turn keeps the superfluous lifestyles of those involved going. These games are modern day gladiator fights, and Stone doesn’t shy away from showing them as such.

  • Natural Born Killers

    9.Natural Born Killers

    ★★★

    With Natural Born Killers, Stone poses the idea that the news media’s glorification of criminals and the violence they enact sways audiences to see them more as Gods of entertainment, or even role models. The film is utterly chaotic as Stone showcases the story of this outlaw couple through various tones that mock the television industry. It's a great look at the sensationalism and gratuitousness of American TV, in a way that is just as off-putting as it should be.

  • Snowden

    10.Snowden

    ★★★

    Stone enters the age of technology with his biopic of Edward Snowden starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the former CIA operative who became famous for leaking classified information. Snowden's story is framed with paranoia, but that story itself is really the frame for Stone to tackle ideas of surveillance and privacy in the United States, and the lack of trust between the country's government and it's people. Snowden is a psychological crime thriller story like any of the top fictional movies of the genre, but based in reality, on real people and events, which makes it that much more worrisome.

  • Wall Street

    11.Wall Street

    ★★★

    Wall Street is Stone's examination of the American capitalist system, by way of the stock market industry. It may not seem as overtly political as some of Stone's other works, but Gordon Gecko's business habits are very much like that of a politician's, full of lies to get what he wants or needs. A time capsule of 1980’s America, and a precursor to the horror of films like American Psycho, the film shows how money talks to cause social casualties, where not only individual hard work is used and abused without a pay off for anyone except for those on top, but also how the country’s economic system has big rigged as a whole.

  • Salvador

    12.Salvador

    ★★★

    Set during the Salvadoran Civil War, Salvador focuses on the hands of outside forces playing in someone else’s dealings. Whether it is the media cashing in on the images of war without the proper consideration of the people involved or the right wing U.S. influence of foreign politics, foreign war and the foreign military itself with complete disregard for lives, there are strong juxtapositions here. While not as tightly put together as his later works, and with more action than in his usual fare, this film early in Stone’s career still has many of his themes intact already. Authentically showing the good and bad of people, and the situations that they are in, through powerful performances and visual storytelling that gets right into the center of it, creates his known sense of gritty realism. James Woods is scarily too good at playing a sleaze, like it just comes naturally to him or something.

  • The Doors

    13.The Doors

    ★★★

    Stone presents a time capsule of 60's America through one of the biggest acts of the time, Jim Morrison, lead singer of The Doors. This might very well be Stone's calmest film, a kind of ethereal lull of music and soft lighting, sex, drugs, art, war, love, poetry, and everything else associated with hippie culture as it meets the pressures of pop culture and the mainstream. The acid cherry on top is Val Kilmer as the very image of Jim Morrison, in all of his highs and lows and altered states of enlightenment.

  • World Trade Center

    14.World Trade Center

    ★★½

    This is a tough one to parse. It is evident that Stone tried to make a film showing both the large scope of and the state of confusion surrounding the 9-11 event and the people who were directly affected by it in the moment. However, the combination of a script that is needlessly melodramatic (because the subject is inherently traumatic enough already) and the casting of Nicholas Cage as the lead for it all to rest upon doesn’t mesh well. With a situation of this magnitude, as real as it actually is, Stone ends up delivering his version of a campy disaster movie instead of the historical take he's known for, or the inspirational take most audiences would probably want on the subject. I have to wonder, then, if World Trade Center falls more under Stone's social commentary films than it does under his historical accounts. To be fair, though, telling the magnitude of this story, from this angle, at this time probably could never have been done successfully.

  • Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

    15.Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

    ★★

    While the original Wall Street showed a more auteur Stone, Money Never Sleeps, the sequel coming nearly 25 years later, shows a Stone that is much more streamlined, a director whose filmmaking has been finessed but lacks a sort of personal passion. Again tackling the ever-growing problem of capitalism in America, the film focuses on money, money, money and its detriment to society. It's interesting that Stone relishes many historical events and people throughout his work, but this is his sole direct sequel. It seems there was still more for him to say about the corruption of Wall Street, even if it is just the same old story. History repeats itself in real life as well as in the movies, but the money of a cash-in certainly washes away the individuality.

  • Savages

    16.Savages

    ★★

    Savages is about as mainstream as Oliver Stone gets, and it suffers heavily because of it. It comes off as a fantasy about pretty white kids conquering a drug cartel, without any of the tension, angst or drama present in Stone's usual films based more authentically. While Salma Hayek owns her role, everyone else is either boring or teetering on far camp, a hallmark of Stone’s later films that don’t grip as harshly to history or politics. In fact, the whole film is a little too poppy with silly camera shots, goofy sound effects and odd editing. Brian De Palma's Scarface, written by Stone, is certainly Stone's more engaging work centering on the American drug scene.

  • U Turn

    17.U Turn

    ★★

    Like Savages, U-Turn is Oliver Stone at his most superficial, predictable and unnuanced. There is an interesting story here, with a cast that could have been great but Stone’s over the top editing, including musical selections and even more bizarre sound effects, u-turn this study of small town rural America into an absolute camp fest, belittling the serious themes within. It’s just odd choice after odd choice, without the great symbolic undertones or the blatant political overtones typical of Stone’s work.

  • Alexander

    18.Alexander

    ★★

    Stone's study of war and politics reaches back further than ever here, but in an effort to make the story of Alexander epic, it ends up feeling more like another campy fantasy film than the director's usual harsh realism. This is certainly not Oliver Stone's forte, and he seems completely inauthentic and out of his element with a non-American related period piece such as this. An odd cast of horrible accents, a mixed up timeline, a million awkward eye contact moments and other gratuitous scenes that have nothing to do with anything, especially in the 3 hour Director's Cut, come across as a low budget History Channel special. In addition, Stone's dramatic license of history seems to be stretched thin here. It's a shame as Alexander could otherwise have been an interesting gay love story for the director to add to his filmography.