Essentials: Angelina Jolie

The big release this week is "Maleficent," Disney's latest attempt to reboot one of its classic family properties in as ugly a manner as humanly possible, following the enormous success of "Alice In Wonderland," and the less-enormous-but-still-substantial success of "Oz The Great And Powerful." Taking a page from their green-screen-heavy playbook, it's a riff on the story of "Sleeping Beauty," with young Elle Fanning as everyone's favorite narcoleptic princess Aurora, but as you might be aware from the title (and omnipresent marketing), the real star is the traditional villain of the piece, embodied by megastar Angelina Jolie.

"Maleficent" is notable in part because it ends a long on-screen absence for its star: busy with humanitarian work and her new directing career, Jolie hasn't appeared on screen since 2010's "The Tourist." It's also notable because it's pretty bad, thus continuing a long, long run of Jolie's movies never really being very good.

That's not to say that Jolie isn't a great movie star. She's a very, very fine one, unquestionably an A-lister, with a long string of excellent performances behind her, and an iconic screen presence like few others. It's just that she has either very bad luck, or terrible taste in scripts, as the vast majority of movies she's starred in can be described as mediocre at best, and terrible at worst. Seriously, the best movie she has an acting credit in is "Kung Fu Panda," and the second best is "Kung Fu Panda 2."

It's a puzzle that someone of Jolie's talents has so far failed to find the right material, but with another bad movie in which Jolie is very strong hitting theaters on Friday, and with her second directorial outing "Unbroken" touted for Oscars when it lands later in the year, we've decided to pick out the five best roles of Jolie's career. They're not all great movies (indeed, none of them are much more than ok, in our eyes at least), but Jolie's terrific in all of them. Agree? Disagree? Want to pick out anything we've left out? You can let us know in the comments section.


"Gia" (1998)
Back in the days when an HBO movie was still a poor second-cousin to the big-screen, rather than a thing that movie stars did so they could get closer to an EGOT, "Gia" undoubtedly proved a turning point in Jolie's career, winning her a second Golden Globe (taking the first, a Supporting one, for "George Wallace" the year before) and giving her dramatic cred to the extent that she could land something like "Girl Interrupted." It remains one of her better performances, but this was also an early case of Jolie carrying some rather ropey material on her shoulders. The directorial debut of playwright/screenwriter Michael Cristofer (who penned "The Bonfire Of The Vanities" and "The Witches Of Eastwick," and would later reteam with Jolie on the hilariously awful "Original Sin"), who co-wrote the script with "Bright Lights Big City" author Jay McInerney, it's a biopic of Gia Carangi, labelled by many as the first supermodel when she broke through in the late 1970s, and became a lesbian icon, only to succumb first to crippling heroin addiction, and eventually AIDS, becoming one of the first famous women to die from the disease. Cristofer and McInerney make sure no salacious detail is overlooked, with plentiful soft-core Cinemax style sex sequences and even more grim wallowing in the darker recesses of Gia's life, and it never finds a way to break out of a rote biopic formula, though to his credit, Cristofer gives things a degree of fashion-world style earlier on. But Jolie is admittedly very good, committed and bringing her otherworldly, punkish energy to the role, while not neglecting the pathos of her eventual slide. If it wasn't clear already, a star was clearly born, and Jolie never looked back. (keep an eye out, too, for the actress playing the younger version of Gia: it's the 14-year-old Mila Kunis, just before coming to fame on "That 70s Show."

Girl Interrupted

“Girl, Interrupted” (1999)
It’s almost hard to recall these days, when the Angelina we know directs films about war, writes movingly about women’s issues and adopts whole nations (all while resembling a human Jessica Rabbit), that she once pretty much redefined the offscreen role of “substance-abusing, wild-child Hollywood kid.” But in the late '90s, she was squarely in that zone, approaching the end of her first marriage, occasionally institutionalized and openly bisexual. Riffing on that edgy image of danger and damage in precursor films like ”Hell’s Kitchen” and “Foxfire,” Jolie got her first proper break with this James Mangold adaptation of Susanna Kaysen’s bestselling memoir of her time in a mental institution for young women in the late 1960s. Jolie plays Lisa Rowe, a manipulative sociopath with whom Susanna (Winona Ryder) first is fascinated by and then befriends, with the hint, via a particular kiss, at more than that. It’s a showy role, and duly brought Jolie a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, but to be fair, her performance is more restrained than it could have been—she seems to understand the nature of her charisma means she doesn’t have to do much more than look sultry or scowl through dirty hair at a particular moment to sell her character as the magnetic center of this motley gang. We’re not massive fans of the film, and if we’re being honest, that year we’d probably have given the award to fellow nominee Samantha Morton (for the underrated  “Sweet and Lowdown”) but Jolie does deserve props for investing Lisa with soul when she could have been all attitude. And whatever emotional effect the climax has on the audience, as Lisa’s front breaks down completely, is due to her commitment and belief in the role. If anything, Jolie’s performance is undersold by the twists the film takes later on, like the whole running-away-together sequence, which are added for melodramatic effect and don’t appear in the source memoir.