The Master
  • The Master

For a certain generation of moviegoers, Philip Seymour Hoffman was considered one of Hollywood’s great actors, known for bringing his towering presence to the smallest of roles. His sudden passing creates a gaping hole in the American film landscape, but the performances he left behind will stand forever. I won’t waste time rehearsing the tragic details of his death, as so many other eulogies and “dedications” have—what matters most is his legacy. After the jump, you can catch my five favorite Philip Seymour Hoffman performances, each accompanied with a clip.

5. Synecdoche, New York (2008, dir. Charlie Kaufman) Hoffman is at the center of this labyrinthine tragicomedy, the sole human element of Kaufman’s meticulous, overbearing construction. It’s the kind of role that demands a lot from an actor, but Hoffman displays little emotional or mental wear. The same can’t be said for his character, an obsessive artist who essentially works himself to death, suggesting Hoffman wasn’t the method type.

4. Doubt (2008, dir. John Patrick Shanley) The film itself isn’t all that great, but Hoffman is larger than life here, playing a charismatic priest and knowingly treading a line between duplicitous villain and hapless victim. The film’s stagey compositions are specifically designed for big, showy performances, and while Hoffman is appropriately grandiloquent, he uses the story’s theme of, uh, doubt to keep his character grounded.

3. 25th Hour (2002, dir. Spike Lee) Hoffman excelled in big-talking roles, but he also encapsulated the everyman. In this Spike Lee masterpiece, he rises above the rest of the ensemble cast in a performance that speaks to the myriad neuroses of middle-class Americans post-9/11. He handles Lee’s weighty, sonorous dialogue with ease, appearing undeniably human in a film that’s often deliberately artificial; it’s easy to see how a lesser performer might resort to caricature.

2. Punch-Drunk Love (2002, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson) He doesn’t occupy much screen time here, but Hoffman had a knack for turning small roles into seminal performances. (In fact, he did it for Paul Thomas Anderson twice previously, in Magnolia and Boogie Nights.) One of the enlightening things about this role, in which he plays a slimy crook, is the way it hints at his comedic ability. The closest he got to an outright comedy was the lackluster Along Came Polly, but even there, his manic outbursts are as terrifying as they are hilarious.

1. The Master (2012, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson) An obvious choice, but the right one. The working relationship he had with Anderson was truly special. If Hoffman was larger than life in Doubt, I’m not sure what he is here. The character, like the film as a whole, is full of paradox. He’s inscrutable yet welcoming, intimidating yet charismatic, villainous yet fatherly. He epitomizes so many things at once that it’s impossible to think of him as mere movie character—he’s a sheer force of personality, embodied by Hoffman with pure bravura.

Drew Hunt writes film-related top five lists every Sunday.