4. “Se7en” (1995)
Perhaps the most profound decision made on “Se7en” was keeping Spacey’s name off the casting roster and all promotional materials for the film. As John Doe, the perpetrator and mastermind whose exploits have been the bane of Detectives Mills (Brad Pitt) and Somerset (Morgan Freeman). Andrew Kevin Walker’s script brilliantly outsizes Spacey’s villainy by showing us the sheer dedication Doe has sunk into his pet project. When he finally makes an appearance, he does so in a genuinely jaw dropping scene - walking into the police station with blood all over his starched white dress shirt, hollering “DETECTIVE! You’re looking for me.” The third act of “Se7en” belongs to Spacey and he runs with it, severely downplaying the more maniacal elements that a lesser actor might have seized onto. Doe acknowledges his violence as an afterthought, the direct logical outcome of a world gone to shit. His final stroke of horrific genius is unforgettable and Spacey’s fevered pleadings for Pitt to “become vengeance” are timelessly chilling. Effectively a supporting role that grows to dominate and loom over the film, it’s a compliment to Kevin Spacey that John Doe stands out as so much more than a crazed baddie, but a misanthropic puppet-master whose plan is impenetrable and unstoppable.
5. “L.A. Confidential” (1997)
Adapting the dense, dark crime novel by James Ellroy should never have worked. The book is close to unfilmable (look at De Palma's atrocious "The Black Dahlia" for a hint of how it could have turned out), the cast were near-unknowns -- a faded Kim Basinger and Danny De Vito being the biggest names involved -- and the behind-the-scenes talent didn't suggest it would be worth a damn, being Brian Helgeland, writer of "Nightmare On Elm Street 4: The Dream Master" and Curtis Hanson, director of "The River Wild." But sometimes, a special alchemy occurs, and "L.A. Confidential" turned out, against all expectations, to be one of the very best films of the nineties, as good a Hollywood crime picture of its type as any since "Chinatown." And at its rotten center; Kevin Spacey, giving one of his very best performances. He's at his most movie-star like (Hanson told him to channel Dean Martin) as Jack Vincennes, the detective more interested in courting stardom and feathering his nest than catching criminals. He starts the movie as all surface, a man with a hollow where his heart should be, but even Vincennes becomes aware of the corruption all around him, and his conscience is finally pricked when a young actor (played by "The Mentalist") ends up dead. Spacey plays the growing uneasiness beautifully, topped off by his final, shocking scene; coming to his superior, Captain Dudley Smith (James Cromwell) with his suspicions, he gets a bullet in the heart for his troubles. Even for a man who was pivotal to most of the gut-wrenching twists of the mid 1990s, the actor's look of shock, and relief, as the pieces come together as his life slips away (even as he sets a trap for Smith with two words -- "Rollo Tomassi"), is one of the finest single moments of Spacey's career.
6. “American Beauty” (1999)
1999 is often described as a landmark year for American cinema, and for good reason. It was the year that gave us "Being John Malkovich," "The Iron Giant," and "Magnolia." But if there was an undercurrent to some of the most explosive works of that year, it was the through line of the office drone, fed up with his crummy existence, making great and often times extravagant deviations from the path life had set up for him (and, sadly, it was almost always a "him"). Everything from "The Matrix" to "Election" to "Fight Club" to "Office Space" offered this up as a core narrative tenant. But it was "American Beauty," for whatever reason, that most identified with, with the film earning strong commercial and critical support, going on to win Best Picture. And, lets be honest, for all of Sam Mendes' artfully choreographed direction and Alan Ball's modernized philosophizing script, it was Kevin Spacey's portrayal, of a man pushed too far and refusing to come back, that made the movie such a resonant, believable, and entertaining experience. All the moments that you really, truly remember from the film belong to him – his rekindled spirit as a drive-thru attendant (where he catches his wife mischievously cheating on him), the fist-pumping triumph in his line deliver of the words "I rule," and the dreamy infatuation he has with his teenage daughter's best friend. In a less gifted actor's hands, the delicate balancing act of both Ball's heightened script and Mendes' occasionally operatic direction could have fallen apart. But with Spacey in the lead (in a performance that won him an Oscar, his second), he held it together and was largely responsible for the success it became. In the years since, "American Beauty" may have turned out to be the blandest alumnus of the class of '99, but Spacey's work still gives cause for celebration.
Alternates: Spacey's also great as weaselly office manager Williamson in "Glengarry Glen Ross" and while Clint Eastwood's "Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil" is no great shakes, Spacey's central performance is undervalued. His very different vocal turns in "A Bug's Life" and "Moon" are both strong, while Jay Roach's "Recount" probably hosted his best screen performance of the last decade. -- Matthew Newlin, Mark Zhuravsky, Sam Price, Oliver Lyttelton, Drew Taylor