"Mars Attacks!" (1996)
When Jack Nicholson starred as the villainous Joker in Tim Burton's groundbreaking comic book movie "Batman" in 1989, he negotiated for a percentage of the movie's grosses, which at the time included all the additional money made from the sale of Batman-related cereals, toys and pajama bottoms. His payday ended up setting a Hollywood record: he pocketed a cool $60 million. For his second collaboration with Burton, 1996's glitzy sci-fi spoof "Mars Attacks!" (based on a series of gory Topps trading cards, and with a plot worthy of that uninspiring provenance), Nicholson held out for a similar deal – and got it. Unfortunately for him, "Mars Attacks!" was a colossal flop, earning less than $40 million against its nearly $100 million budget. (Keep in mind this was the same year as "Independence Day"; clearly audiences preferred their apocalypse with a straight face.) Nicholson should at least take solace in the fact that "Mars Attacks!" contains not one but two of his most daring performances in recent memory. In one of the numerous nods to "Dr. Strangelove" nestled within the film, Nicholson plays both President James Dale (a role inhabited first by Warren Beatty and then Paul Newman, who left the film over what he felt was the film's excessive violence) and Las Vegas bottom-feeder Art Land (complete with rumpled cowboy hat and scuzzy, so-fake-it's-brilliant hippie wig with complementary porn star mustache). The characters couldn't be more different – the ineffectual President Dale tries for "Abraham Lincoln meets 'Leave It To Beaver,'" and earnestly attempts to negotiate for peace with the bloodthirsty Martian invaders. Land, on the other hand, drinks in a casino bar as "research," and in order to avoid his New Age-y wife (played by Annette Bening, Burton's original choice for Catwoman in "Batman Returns"), hands her some chips and growls, "Play our anniversary… stay off black." Nicholson's performances are perfectly modulated between arch awareness and genuine sincerity (also: Burton gets to kill him off – twice! – with gleeful abandon). Anyone who accuses Nicholson of resting on his laurels for the past few decades need only point to his dual performances in "Mars Attacks!" – in amongst the hotchpotch that is the film overall, they aren't just amazing, they're downright fearless, and rank with the actor's very best roles.
"The Pledge" (2001)
Of this particular list perhaps the standout, Nicholson's performance in "The Pledge" is so good that we had it ranked as one of the 5 most underrated of his whole career (that list here). Six years after their first collaboration on "The Crossing Guard," Nicholson reunited with director Sean Penn for "The Pledge," another grim tale of child death and revenge, in which the star plays Jerry Black, a detective who, just as he's retiring, promises the mother (Patricia Clarkson) of a murdered girl that he'll bring the killer to justice. His former colleagues think they have their criminal, a mentally-disabled Native American man (Benicio Del Toro) who kills himself in custody, but Jerry's not convinced and becomes increasingly obsessed with tracking down the murderer. While Penn's direction is occasionally a little heavy-handed and look-at-how-serious-I-am, he assembles an astonishing cast who never showboat (small cameos from Helen Mirren and Vanessa Redgrave are among the highlights), but Nicholson is first among them, carrying the entire film on his shoulders. It's easily his subtlest, least mannered performance for years, the actor almost unrecognizable as a haunted man trying to do the right thing, but often in the wrong way, and unraveling as a result. Where he's left at the end of the film is heartbreaking -- an impossible quandary of warring loyalties and instincts, coupled with vital pieces of knowledge that the audience have but of which Jerry is ignorant. It's practically Greek, this study of a good man undone by nothing worse than his impulses for empathy and justice, and it remains one of Nicholson's most resonant turns.
"Something's Gotta Give" (2003)
Often overlooked in favor of "As Good As It Gets" or "About Schmidt", the role of Harry Sanborn is seemingly tailor-made for Jack Nicholson – an older man with a cigar smoking, womanizing (20-somethings in particular) joie de vivre, and that's because it was. Nancy Meyers wrote the screenplay for "Something's Gotta Give" with Nicholson in mind (and this was a whole decade before he hit on Jennifer Lawrence -- yeah, that happened) along with Diane Keaton for the role of his age-appropriate love interest (their second pairing since "Reds" – one of his other underrated performances). While in the middle of a fling with one of his younger women (Amanda Peet), Sanborn suffers a heart attack, forcing him to re-examine his life choices and make a few changes – e.g. no red meat and no sex until he can get up a flight of stairs. In a modern day fairytale that set the trend for a decade of middle-aged (and a wee bit older) rom-coms, Sanborn falls for his conquest's playwright mother (Keaton), a forthright divorcee. Yes, the film was number one at the box office, garnered a Golden Globe nomination for Nicholson and has a decent rep in general, but it spawned such schlock as "It's Complicated" (which is enjoyable for all of the wrong reasons), "Because I Said So," and "Hope Springs" -- all of them lacking Nicholson's necessary, almost-hammy charisma. Frankly, we think that cinematic sacrifice was worth seeing Nicholson put his heart on the line in a way only a Meyers romantic comedy could get him to ("Turns out the heart attack was easy to get over. You... were something else. I finally get it. I'm 63 years old... and I'm in love for the first time in my life.") So it might not be the coolest choice on the list, but in our opinion it's still a bona fide inclusion, and it marks an interesting moment for Jack. With this role he embarked on the self-referential stage of his career, poking fun at his larger-than-life persona, and doing it with the rueful charm of the unrepentant cad -- but in a film built to accommodate him, so it doesn't come off as gimmicky. We have our fingers crossed for a return to dramatic Jack in a rumored Warren Beatty-helmed Howard Hughes film, but in the meantime, this film ranks as one of his better late-period comedies and currently rides high in that small, underserved niche of "Movies To Watch With Your Mom."
He's Jack Nicholson, so he's pretty much always worthwhile, even on autopilot. However we didn't include "The Evening Star" which, aside from only boasting a 4-minute role for the star, it did for its original, "Terms of Endearment," what "The Two Jakes" did for "Chinatown" i.e. nothing at all. So that's 0/2 on sequels, Jack. "Wolf" was temporarily considered, and is perhaps due a re-watch, but we just remember not being at all convinced by its tonal oddness. One other appearance that is worth an honorable mention, though, is Nicholson's interview in the wonderful "Corman's World" documentary, about legendary shoestring budget B-Movie maven Roger Corman. Nicholson provides some of the movie's best lines and most insightful glimpses into what it was like being part of the Corman factory in its creatively bristling heyday (and yes, we've a glint in our eye for a feature delving into those pre-fame Nicholson/Corman movies too). He's also responsible for the most unforgettable moment in the doc – when, talking about Corman, he starts to break down and cry, unsure if the camp filmmaker knows how much he's meant to him over the years. Nicholson the celebrity has become a bit of a caricature over the years with his sunglasses indoors, wolfish grin and baby-seal-slickness; this documentary reminds you that he's a real-life human being, too.
--Jessica Kiang, Drew Taylor, Diana Drumm.