I was only 10 (and a half!) years old when My So-Called Life premiered on television in 1994, but even back then I can remember girls going gaga for the show, and not just because it featured a relatable teenage lead in Claire Danes. No, it was also because of the cute boy who played the rebellious yet sensitive Jordan Catalano. His name was Jared Leto, and given his killer hair and puppy dog eyes, it was immediately clear that he was a star in the making. My So-Called Life was canceled after a single season, but Leto’s life in Hollywood was just beginning. Just five years later, he had already worked with directors like David Fincher, Terrence Malick, Darren Aronofsky and James Mangold.
Over the course of the next 20 years, Leto blossomed into an Oscar-winning actor, though he still behaved like a “damaged” provocateur, making more headlines for terrorizing his Suicide Squad co-stars with used condoms than for his actual performance as the Joker — a role he’ll soon reprise in Zack Snyder’s Justice League (coming March 18). But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, for today we celebrate the release of Leto’s other HBO Max movie, The Little Things.
Writer-director John Lee Hancock has been trying to make this movie since Leto first arrived on the Hollywood scene in the early ’90s. Numerous A-list stars flirted with the script over the years, though I don’t think Hancock would complain about ultimately landing Denzel Washington and fellow Oscar winners Rami Malek and Leto, the latter of whom plays a suspected serial killer.
In honor of the release of The Little Things — click here for Collider’s review — I decided to examine Leto’s career in order to identify and rank his 10 best movies. Now, you’ll notice that The Thin Red Line is absent on the list below, but that’s because Leto’s character is killed off early, so even though that’s a great movie, it’s not really a great “Jared Leto movie.” The same can be said of Girl, Interrupted, another good film in which the actor briefly appears as Winona Ryder‘s ex-boyfriend.
I also bypassed interesting failures like Blade Runner 2049 and, yes, Suicide Squad, and not because Leto is bad in those films (he’s not), but because I just can’t stand either of those movies. He’s even decent in Oliver Stone‘s historical epic Alexander, but the cut of that movie that I saw back in the day was a train wreck, one that I’ve never cared to revisit.
Still, I managed to find ten solid movies in which I appreciated what Leto was up to, and though not all of the movies are great (see #9), and at least two of the better films on this list feature Leto in relatively small parts, this is Jared Leto’s so-called career as I see it, for better or worse. He has certainly come a long way from Jordan Catalano. Without further ado, here we go!
There were two Steve Prefontaine biopics that came out within a year of each other — Without Limits starring Billy Crudup, and this one — and while it’s up for debate which one is better, what’s clear is that Leto did right by the long-distance runner, who died in a tragic car accident at the age of 24. R. Lee Ermey and Ed O’Neill play Leto’s coaches, but it was acclaimed documentary filmmaker Steve James (Hoop Dreams) who really pushed him on the track, and let’s face it, that hard work paid off, as this may be as good as Leto has ever looked on the big screen. The actor even said as much on Twitter, noting that he was in the best shape of his life back then. In fact, Leto looked and even sounded so much like Prefontaine that when Steve’s sister first saw him in character, she reportedly broke down and began to cry. I’ll take that as high praise, indeed.
This is the “one for me” entry on this list, as I was always a fan of this somewhat cheesy ’90s thriller. You know the kind. There were a bunch of them in the wake of Seven. Leto has always been drawn to darker material, and here he plays a handsome hitchhiker who we’re led to believe is responsible for a series of murders across Texas. Dennis Quaid plays the FBI agent on the case, one who has a personal stake in it because his young son is missing, while good old Danny Glover plays a drifter with a very suspicious set of wheels. This is the sort of movie you’d catch on Cinemax back in the day and get sucked into watching, and I’ve always appreciated the lengths it went to in order to disguise its killer and keep you guessing.
8. Lord of War
Before Nicolas Cage went off the deep end (and God bless him for that), he played an illegal arms dealer with no morals who ropes his kid brother Vitaly (Leto) into his growing business. Leto shines as the black sheep of the family, a wild child who becomes addicted to cocaine and is forced to check into rehab, but one who ultimately has a good heart. He also has a conscience, unlike his older brother, who is driven by the bottom line. It’s noble that Vitaly tries to save a group of refugees from certain death at the hands of an African militia, but in a movie as cynical as this one, it’s only natural that he he pays the ultimate price for his heroism. It’s possible that Leto learned some of his recent tricks from Cage, another actor who is never anything less than fully committed to his characters.
7. Fight Club
Sure, it’s Edward Norton and Brad Pitt who dominate this movie, but don’t forget about Leto’s aptly-named Angel Face, who arrives on the porch at 537 Paper Street a beautiful creature before Norton makes him his personal punching bag and turns his face into pulp. Something tells me that director David Fincher likes to torture the pretty boys of the world (see Brad Pitt, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ben Affleck, etc.), but I suppose that’s the point of Fight Club. To make men out of boys who never knew how much more they could be. What I like about Leto in this film is the way he buddies up to Pitt’s Tyler Durden in preparation for Project Mayhem, and makes Norton’s narrator jealous in the process. It’s Angel Face who brings to light Jack’s insecurity and encourages him to reinforce his own power, which opens our eyes as to the timid insurance adjuster’s true nature.
6. The Little Things
The Little Things is the whole reason we’re doing this exercise, and it’s a welcome addition to Leto’s filmography. The movie itself isn’t great, but Leto is mesmerizing as suspected serial killer Albert Sparma. The character doesn’t really show up until halfway through the movie, but I couldn’t take my eyes off Leto when he was on the screen. You never really know what game he’s playing, which happens to be one of Leto’s strengths, as he has long been something of an enigmatic chameleon. The actor delivers a twitchy, riveting performance here, and he saves the movie from being a complete bore. Who knows, maybe HBO Max will greenlight a prequel series so we can find out what made this guy so damn strange in the first place.
5. Chapter 27
This 2007 indie drama, in which Leto plays John Lennon‘s killer Mark David Chapman, was the actor’s attempt to reclaim his indie cred following a couple of goofy B-movies like Phone Booth and Lonely Hearts. Leto was hardly an obvious choice for the role, but he proved his commitment by gaining 67 pounds to play the obsessed fan who hung out on a New York City sidewalk waiting for his brush with infamy. Leto is both convincing and compelling as Chapman, and he does a good job of burrowing into the killer’s head to help us understand his psychosis. While the actor’s physical transformation is astounding, one can’t overlook his twisted performance in this provocative film.
4. American Psycho
Yes, this is Christian Bale‘s movie all the way, but Leto makes a strong impression as Paul Allen, and the scene in which Patrick Bateman kills him with an axe while singing the Huey Lewis and the News song “Hip to Be Square” is certainly its most iconic. Leto displays some of the oily charm that would serve him so well later in his career, and it’s not hard to picture Leto playing the lead in this film, had it been made a couple years later. American Psycho is a satirical take on the serial killer thriller, and Leto’s playful sense of humor serves him well here, especially during the dueling business card scene. There’s also an air of refinement about him here that I’m surprised hasn’t landed the actor more roles in costume dramas and other such period pieces.
3. Panic Room
David Fincher’s 2002 thriller rarely gets the love it deserves when people talk about his filmography, and it may be his most rewatchable movie next to Seven. Leto plays one of three burglars who break into a high-tech home in Manhattan unaware that it is newly occupied by a single mother (Jodie Foster) and her teenage daughter (Kristen Stewart), who also happens to be diabetic. Leto is perfectly cast — if not perfectly coiffed, given his cornrows — as a spoiled brat named Junior (of course) whose decision to bring along his ex-con pal Raoul proves fatal. Leto’s manic energy serves him well here as he strives desperately to be the leader of the pack, even though Forest Whitaker is clearly the brains of the operation, while Dwight Yoakam is the brawn. If you aren’t either of those things, then what are you, really? In Fincher’s world, you’re the odd man out. Leto was a lot of fun while he lasted though, wasn’t he?
2. Dallas Buyers Club
“But Jared Leto won an Oscar for this movie! How can it be #2?” Well, this is a list of Leto’s best movies, not necessarily his best performances, and as great as he is here as Rayon, an HIV-positive transgender woman, Dallas Buyers Club is more of a Matthew McConaughey movie to me. Don’t get me wrong, this is Leto’s personal crowning achievement, and I thought his Oscar win was well-deserved, but like Schindler’s List or 12 Years a Slave, this isn’t a movie I tend to revisit. That said, director Jean-Marc Vallee deserves credit for getting career-best performances out of both McConaughey and Leto, who completed his physical transformation by losing 30 pounds, shaving his eyebrows and waxing his entire body. Leto radiates strength and sensitivity as Rayon, and I think that the serious nature of this film actually inspired he and McConaughey to step up and bring their A-games to set. Frankly, I’m thrilled they were both recognized for shining a light on such an important story.
1. Requiem for a Dream
It’s weird, this isn’t even a “Jared Leto movie” per se, as Darren Aronofsky and Ellen Burstyn are still the first people I think of when I think of Requiem for a Dream. However, when I think “Jared Leto movie,” I think of Requiem for a Dream first and foremost, such is its near-supernatural hold over me. Maybe it’s because I saw it when I was 16 and impressionable as a young moviegoer, but Requiem hasn’t lost an ounce of its power over the past 20+ years, and Leto’s Harry Goldfarb is our guide into this dangerous and deranged world of drug addiction. Seeing Leto spiral from fresh-faced and beautiful to sunken-eyed and broken remains as devastating as ever, and when Harry clutches at his amputated arm in the film’s bravura finale, the actor really makes you feel the character’s pain and grief in that moment. This early performance was a promising sign of things to come from Leto, and Requiem is still the most memorable movie he has ever done — one that has stood the test of time, which is all an actor can really hope for. Bravo, I say!
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