Jersey Boys, Clint Eastwood’s latest film, opened this Friday, and it’s based on the popular stage musical about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Eastwood strikes me as the ideal director to translate this story to screen because many of his films are alternately affectionate and critical explorations of forms and customs indigenous to American art and culture, including jazz (Bird), country music (Honkytonk Man), the film western (Unforgiven, Bronco Billy), and now, doo-wop. Of course, he has other interests—politics (Absolute Power), crime (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil), spirituality (Hereafter), family (Mystic River), the masculine identity (High Plains Drifter), and his own identity (Sudden Impact)—but Eastwood’s best films deftly illustrate the American experience regardless of subject matter, a transcendent quality unique to our country’s greatest directors. Many of his New Hollywood peers were as (if not more) influenced by European art cinema as their native cinema; but Eastwood retained a specific interest in American movies, which naturally fed into his interest in American life. For him, the two go hand in hand. Here are my five favorite Clint Eastwood movies.
5. The Gauntlet (1977) His most thoroughly crowd-pleasing work, a complete disavowal of realism and general taste. It’s also his best early work, more thrilling than Play Misty For Me, more exciting than The Outlaw Josey Wales, and flat-out weirder than the already pretty weird High Plains Drifter.
4. Pale Rider (1985) The first and most pure western to follow Heaven’s Gate, the storied film maudit that signaled the end of the genre’s first revisionist phase. The film is incredibly personal: Eastwood mixes his own self-evaluative tendencies with an idiosyncratic examination of the archetypal Hollywood movie hero, creating an introspective mood sustained by the story’s spiritual and philosophical themes.
3. Firefox (1982) So much of Eastwood’s directorial work is an examination of his own persona as an actor, and much like Pale Rider, this action film toys with his established character type, and his approach is significantly nuanced. This film is the one that’s most different from his others, which might explain its marginal reputation, but the emotional and artistic currents nevertheless run deep. As Dave Kehr explains, “The first half is dark and slow, with a Bressonian terseness; the second, after the theft of the plane, is bright and full of action, though the ideas are even blacker.”
2. Changeling (2008) An exceedingly underrated film, a dark and aggressive survey of political and social injustice that filters the director’s trademark “vigilante revenge” story model through a female perspective. Rather than present the 1920s as a simpler or somehow more innocent time, the film highlights the rampant corruption among power groups of the era, specifically the LAPD, whose arrogance, as conceived by Eastwood, seemingly knows no bounds. Like other late-period Eastwood films, themes of child endangerment are prevalent and amplified by the story’s Kafkaesque maternal viewpoint.
1. Bird (1988) This biopic of Charlie Parker is something of a parable in the way it illustrates how the musician’s bad habits both spurred his career and led to his demise. The film is Eastwood’s great artist profile, an inquisitive and reverential survey of a master artist’s life and process—a subject he’d explore in his follow-up film White Hunter, Black Heart. The film has some weighty stylistic flourishes that seem better reserved for a more genre-oriented work—Bird‘s dense lighting anticipates Unforgiven‘s somber mood and inky cinematography—but they fit remarkably well here, particularly during nighttime shots where darkness seems to overtake the characters.