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The 10 Best Oliver Stone Films

From ‘Scarface’ to ‘W.,’ the writer-director’s most essential big-screen works

Oliver Stone

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There is no one typical Oliver Stone movie, but he does have a few signature moves – all-star casts, big themes and a feeling of ambition that can make for wildly entertaining films. His newest, Savages, is a return to such kinetic crime epics as U Turn and Natural Born Killers, but his movies have gone all over the world. Here are 10 of the best, in chronological order.


Mary Evans/MCA-UNIVERSAL/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection


‘Scarface’ (1983 – Screenplay)

Stone had already a picked up an Academy Award in 1978 for screenwriting for Midnight Express when he penned this beast. It's directed by Brian DePalma, but the story of Tony Montana, Cuban refugee/exile turned peerless drug lord, is nevertheless pure Stone, full of themes he would return to  again and again  – the American dream as refracted through a haze of drugs or sex or politics or violence or all of them at once. No wonder it became a hip-hop touchstone, Stone's chatter endlessly sampled. Stone has said the movie is in part a reflection of his own problems with cocaine, but it's hard not to see Stone as Montana in the final scenes, announcing himself to film fans by firing a machine gun while screaming like a madman.


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‘Salvador’ (1986)

The first of Stone's films that really reflects his let's-call-them-mercurial politics, Salvador follows James Woods as a hard-livin', rather intense (read: Stone-ish) photojournalist who becomes enmeshed in the war in El Salvador, looking for adventure and finding death and complexity. Salvador touches on all the beloved lefto-vs-Central America issues, from death squads to the great Oscar Romero (the Salvadoran arch-bishop and liberation theology advocate who was assassinated by a death squad as he celebrated Mass). Woods delivers one of his all-time great performances and Stone demonstrates the sheer ambition, both thematic and filmic, that would become a career theme.


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‘Platoon’ (1986)

The first of Stone's trilogy about Vietnam (The others are 1989's Born on the Fourth of July and 1993's Heaven & Earth), Platoon remains one of Stone's strongest movies and his most flagrantly personal. Starring a pre-bonkers Charlie Sheen as Stone's sort-of analogue, Platoon stunned and divided audiences with its brutality, but it racked up awards, including Best Picture and Best Director Oscars for Stone. It ushered in a new era of post-Vietnam pop culture. (It's impossible to imagine anything from Full Metal Jacket – admittedly well into production at the time – to the TV show Tour of Duty to the comic book The 'Nam without the influence of Platoon. Also, it was a Christmas movie!

1987 Wall Street

© 20th Century Fox Film Corp./Courtesy Everett Collection


‘Wall Street’ (1987)

"Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit." With those words, Stone wrote into cinema history one Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas, never oilier), Wall Street omnivore and symbol of Eighties corporate avarice. Joined by, again, Charlie Sheen, a blue collar, pre-Oval Office Martin Sheen (who always looks like he's fiddling with rosary beads in his pocket) and Daryl Hannah as The Love Interest, Wall Street proved that Stone was on a staggering roll as a Zeitgeist maven. In keeping with Gekko's Milton's-Satan vibe, the character allegedly inspired young sociopaths to become stockbrokers because Stone and Douglas, who picked up an Oscar, made it look so damn cool. Uh, oops?

Born on the Fourth of July

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‘Born on the Fourth of July’ (1989)

The second of Stone's Vietnam movies adapts the autobiography of Ron Kovic (Tom Cruise), who went into the Vietnam War a devout Marine and came out paralyzed from the chest down. The roughest moments in Born aren't the scenes of combat, but the scene in the dank and hideous VA hospital, where rats move freely over patients who cannot. Until the uplifting (some said entirely too uplifting) ending, Born is an exceptionally dark movie and Cruise navigates its emotional contours, and shifts from pride to disillusionment to rage, really well (folks who only know him from, say, Oprah and Mission: Impossible would do well to check out this, Rain Man and Risky Business to see the roots of his star power).


© Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection/Everett Collection


‘JFK’ (1991)

In spite of the hand-wringing it engendered at the time, the movie that launched the "Oliver Stone, conspiracy loon" tag is also one of his most viscerally enjoyable. This is thanks to a scenario the basic facts of which (President Kennedy was assassinated and nobody has ever been 100 percent sure who did it) everyone knows by heart, an everymanish performance from Kevin Costner as Jim Garrison and one of the best supporting casts Stone ever assembled. Check out the scene-stealing performances from Tommy Lee Jones as flamboyant New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw, Kevin Bacon as a male prostitute and a surgical strike appearance by Donald Sutherland as X, the general who acts as conspiracy exposition fairy. The montage that accompanies his monologue should be its own short film. By the way, Seinfeld fans should note that the climactic trial scene in JFK is the source of the "back, and to the left" joke from "The Magic Loogie" episode, which seemed kind of ballsy at the time.

natural born killers

© Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection


Natural Born Killers (1994)

In which Stone calls that whippersnapper Tarantino and raises him a steaming pile of megaviolence by rewriting QT's script and cranking out of the most controversial movies of the 1990s. Mixing lenses, film stocks and shooting styles like a collageist, Stone delivers an ultra-bloody update on the psychopathic lovers on the run a la Bonnie and Clyde or Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate.   Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Juliette Lewis) go on a good, old fashioned killin' spree, except this time mass media is all over it, embodied by the smarmy journalist Gale (Robert Downey, Jr.). There were a string of alleged copycat crimes, including the Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold massacre in Columbine. One wonders if an Internet era remake is due or would just ignite another blame game.


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Nixon (1995)

A much more complicated movie than JFK, Nixon is one of Stone's most awesomely ga-ga pictures, an ecstatic fever dream of Quaker guilt, White House mythology and Seventies paranoia.  It remains a damn shame that Tom Hanks didn't play Tricky Dick, as Stone originally wanted, but Anthony Hopkins does a fine job, bringing a little distance to the part as a non-American. Again, an all-star supporting cast is lined up, including lookalike David Hyde Pierce as John Dean and a vaguely hilarious turn by Paul Sorvino as Henry Kissinger. Still not the weirdest movie about Nixon (that would be Robert Altman's Secret Honor) but a great one.

any given sunday

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Any Given Sunday (1999)

Pro football seems a step down in ambition for Stone, but this is an oddly enjoyable picture, notable for a couple of things: Al Pacino chewing his way, post-Heat-style, through his role as coach Tony D'Amato, the metal vs. hip-hop divide between the black and white players, James Woods as a corrupt team doctor, hits that sound like car crashes, Lawrence Taylor looking too old for his part and a really, really, too old Dennis Quaid as an aging quarterback. But it's best known as the dramatic film debut of Jamie Foxx, who does a hypnotic job as quarterback "Steamin'" Willie Beamen.


© Lions Gate/Courtesy Everett Collection


W. (2008)

There's something weirdly a priori about Oliver Stone making a movie about George W. Bush. The whole enterprise had a "well, sure" quality about it, especially when Stone zigged instead of zagged and W. turned out to be not an all-out assualt, but a low-key, reasonably sympathetic snapshot of a man who looked to be on a path for anything but the job he ended up in. The third of Stone's presidential trilogy, check it out for Josh Brolin as the Chief Executive – the man does know his way around mutant Texas accents (see also Men in Black III and No Country for Old Men). Ironic/stunt casting alert: Hollywood lefto Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney!

oliver stone SAVAGES

François Duhamel/© Universal Pictures



Three-time Oscar®-winning filmmaker Oliver Stone returns to the screen with the ferocious thriller Savages, featuring the all-star ensemble cast of Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively, Aaron Johnson, John Travolta, Benicio Del Toro, Salma Hayek, Emile Hirsch and Demian Bichir. The film is based on Don Winslow's best-selling crime novel that was named one of The New York Times' Top 10 Books of 2010.

Laguna Beach entrepreneurs Ben (Johnson), a peaceful and charitable marijuana producer, and his closest friend Chon (Kitsch), a former Navy SEAL and ex-mercenary, run a lucrative, homegrown industry — raising some of the best weed ever developed. They also share a one-of-a-kind love with the extraordinary beauty Ophelia (Lively). Life is idyllic in their Southern California town … until the Mexican Baja Cartel decides to move in and demands that the trio partners with them.

When the merciless head of the BC, Elena (Hayek), and her brutal enforcer, Lado (Del Toro), underestimate the unbreakable bond among these three friends, Ben and Chon — with the reluctant, slippery assistance of a dirty DEA agent (Travolta) — wage a seemingly unwinnable war against the cartel. And so begins a series of increasingly vicious ploys and maneuvers in a high stakes, savage battle of wills.

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