Jeff Daniels hasn’t gotten his due at the Oscars, where he has never received a single nomination despite a career spanning almost 40 years. But the same is not true at the Emmys, which awarded him Best Drama Actor for playing news anchor Will McAvoy in “The Newsroom” in 2013. He’s got two chances to compete this year in the Best Movie/Mini Actor category, as an FBI investigator hunting Osama bin Laden in Hulu‘s “The Looming Tower” and a dangerous outlaw in Netflix‘s “Godless.” In honor of this double achievement, we’re taking a look back at some of his very best performances on the big screen. Tour through our photo gallery above of Daniels’s 15 greatest films, ranked from worst to best.
Despite being repeatedly snubbed at the Oscars, Daniels has contended at the Golden Globes multiple times for his film work. He received three nominations for Best Film Comedy/Musical Actor: for “The Purple Rose of Cairo” (1985), “Something Wild” (1986) and “The Squid and the Whale” (2005). He reaped a fourth bid on the television side for “The Newsroom” (Best TV Drama Actor in 2013).
At the Emmys, his role on “The Newsroom” brought him two more consecutive Emmy nominations as Best Drama Actor (2014 and 2015) after his victory in 2013. Daniels has also competed five times at the SAG Awards: as a member of the ensemble casts of “The Hours” (2002) and “Good Night, and Good Luck” (2005), twice for his individual drama performances in “The Newsroom” (2013-2014), and once for his limited series performance in “Godless” just this year.
Take a tour through our gallery of Daniels’s greatest films. Do you think he was robbed at the Oscars for any of these performances?
15. ‘The Hours’ (2002)
Stephen Daldry’s adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel features powerhouse performances all around, so it’s easy for someone as subtle as Daniels to get overlooked. Still, anyone who can go toe-to-toe with Meryl Streep has to be admired. The film focuses on how the novel “Mrs. Dalloway” affects the lives of three different women in three different periods: the novel’s author, Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman); a 1950s housewife (Julianne Moore) reading the book; and a modern day Mrs. Dalloway (Streep), who’s planning a party for a friend (Ed Harris) who’s dying of AIDS. Daniels plays Louis Waters, the dying man’s former lover. “The Hours” won an Oscar for Kidman as Best Actress and competed for nine other trophies, including Best Picture. The actor-dominated film also did well at SAG, where Daniels competed as part of the ensemble.
14. ‘Good Night, and Good Luck’ (2005)
Although it takes place over 60 years ago, it’s hard not to draw parallels between the events portrayed in “Good Night, and Good Luck” and what’s going on today. Directed by George Clooney, the film recounts the battle between CBS newscaster Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) and Senator Joe McCarthy, who used his power to hunt down Communists in the U.S., caring little for whether or not they actually belonged to the vilified party. Daniels co-stars as CBS News Director Sig Mickelson, who fears his anchor’s reporting could damage the network. Now more than ever, “Good Night, and Good Luck” is a testimony to the importance of a free press in the face of government deception. Daniels was once again nominated at SAG for Best Ensemble, and the film competed for six Oscars including Best Picture.
13. ‘The Martian’ (2015)
If you’re looking for an excuse to watch Matt Damon eat feces, “The Martian” is the movie for you. It’s also a near-perfect blend of sci-fi adventure and comedy. Directed by Ridley Scott, the film stars Damon as an astronaut who’s stranded on Mars after his team assumes him dead. He must then rely on his smarts and ingenuity to survive, including using his own waste to grow potatoes. Back on Earth, the Director of NASA (Daniels) and a crack team of scientists try to find a way to bring him home. Complete with a retro disco soundtrack, “The Martian” is an entertaining joy ride for viewers across the solar system. The film competed for seven Oscars, including Best Picture, and won the Golden Globe for Best Comedy/Musical Film.
12. ‘Looper’ (2012)
In the last decade, Daniels has skewered his everyman charm to great effect by playing some real jerks, particularly in Rian Johnson’s sci-fi thriller. Set in the not-too-distant future, the film imagines a world in which time travel is used by the mob to murder people. Eventually, hitmen must “close the loop” by offing their future selfs. Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as a prolific killer who is suddenly faced with an older version of himself (Bruce Willis), and needless to say, complications arise. Daniels plays Abe, the crime syndicate boss who orders the hits. Johnson’s ingenious script was recognized at the Writer’s Guild and Critics Choice with Best Original Screenplay nominations, but sadly, the Academy failed to take notice.
11. ‘Gettysburg’ (1993)
Ronald F. Maxwell’s four-and-a-half hour opus about the Civil War’s most decisive battle is a tough sit for non-enthusiasts, but those willing to sacrifice an afternoon will enjoy its rich performances and precise period detail. Daniels is a standout as Union Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, who commands a particularly nasty tussle. The Chicago Film Critics took notice of Daniels, rewarding him with a Best Supporting Actor nomination, which he lost to Ralph Fiennes (“Schindler’s List”). Daniels returned for Maxwell’s followup “Gods and Generals” (2003), which is an hour shorter yet feels as endless as a summer’s day, and not in a good way.
10. ‘Fly Away Home’ (1993)
It’s easy to dismiss a film as earnest as “Fly Away Home” in this age of cynicism. Yet cynicism has no place in Carroll Ballard’s sweet and gentle fable about man’s relationship with nature. Based on a true story, the film stars Daniels and Anna Paquin as a father and daughter who attempt to lead a flock of orphaned geese from Canada to Florida by flying in a makeshift aircraft. Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel reaped an Oscar nomination for his stunningly gorgeous work capturing the geese in flight. Daniels and Paquin make such a convincing father-daughter team that it’s hard to believe just nine years later she was playing his teenage paramour in Noah Baumbach’s “The Squid and the Whale” (2005).
9. ‘Arachnophobia’ (1990)
No movies gives you the creepy-crawlies quite like “Arachnophobia,” Frank Marshall’s horror-comedy about those most deadly of insects. Daniels stars as Ross Jennings, a doctor with a crippling fear of spiders who must wage war against a killer species of South American arachnids who find their way into small town America. John Goodman gives a memorable supporting turn as the local exterminator who realizes he needs a bigger can of bug spray to fight these vicious little monsters. It might not be “Citizen Kane” (1941), but “Arachnophobia” is a frightening good time for anyone who’s every crossed the street to avoid a spider’s web.
8. ‘Speed’ (1994)
Pop quiz, hot shot: what movie is more exciting than a runaway bus careening wildly down the highway? It’s this Jan de Bont thrill-ride about… well… a runaway bus careening wildly down the highway. Keanu Reeves stars as Jack Traven, a young police officer who must stop a bomb from exploding by making sure that vehicle doesn’t drop below 50 mph with the help of a plucky driver (Sandra Bullock). Daniels co-stars as Harry Temple, a senior officer helping Jack track down the madman (Dennis Hopper) who rigged up it up with TNT. The film veers wildly from one action sequence to the next, never giving the audience a second to think about the absurdity of its premise. Even Oscar voters couldn’t help but enjoy the ride, awarding it prizes for Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing.
7. ‘Pleasantville’ (1998)
There’s something about Daniels that feels quaint and old-fashioned, so it’s no wonder Gary Ross wanted him for this loving and satirical ode to 1950s sitcoms. Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon star as two modern day siblings who find themselves trapped inside a 1950s television series. Their sudden presence disrupts the town’s previously tranquil existence, literally bringing color to a black-and-white world. Daniels plays Bill Johnson, the kindly soda jerk who is inspired to paint by these new pigments, and strikes up a romance with a housewife (Joan Allen). When the town announces a ban on “colored” people, the film turns into a surprisingly powerful social statement on fear of others and resistance to change. Ultimately, “Pleasantville” forces us to question whether the good old days were really all that good, and encourages us to look towards the future.
6. ‘Dumb and Dumber’ (1994)
When it comes to gloriously stupid comedies, you can’t get much better than “Dumb and Dumber,” the debut feature from Peter and Bobby Farrelly. Daniels and Jim Carrey star as Harry and Lloyd, the two biggest goofballs on the planet, who embark on a cross-country journey to return a briefcase full of money to its rightful owner, never realizing it was actually left as ransom money. The plot functions as little more than an excuse to get from one ridiculously funny sequence to another, including a laugh-out-loud moment involving a blind boy and a parakeet. Carrey and Daniels play beautifully off each other, like a modern day Abbott and Costello. Sadly, that chemistry couldn’t be recaptured in the decades-too-late sequel “Dumb and Dumber To” (2014). (The less said about the 2003 prequel “Dumb and Dumber: When Harry Met Lloyd,” the better.)
5. ‘Steve Jobs’ (2015)
As he proved in “The Newsroom,” Daniels is really good at capturing the rhythms and cadences of Aaron Sorkin dialogue. Luckily, every actor in this Danny Boyle-directed biopic is up to his level. The film follows Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender), the brilliant, demanding co-founder of Apple, through three significant technological developments. Daniels co-stars as former Apple CEO John Sculley, equal parts mentor and antagonist to Jobs. Boyle’s energetic direction and the electrifying performances keep this stagey material from becoming a filmed play. Instead, it’s a rousing examination of the complications that come from being a genius with technology but a louse with people.
4. ‘Something Wild’ (1986)
A yuppie businessman (Daniels) meets a free-spirited nypmhet (Melanie Griffith) while eating at a greasy diner. What could possibly go wrong? In Jonathan Demme’s madcap comedy, a chance encounter at lunch leads to a wild road trip. As Charles and Lulu, Daniels and Grifftih radiate sexual tension like no screen couple since Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. Their fun-filled weekend trip turns deadly when Lulu’s violent ex-husband (Ray Liotta) shows up. It’s one of many unexpected twists and turns in this nutty film, one of the few where you truly don’t know what’s coming next. Daniels and Griffith both reaped Golden Globe nominations for Best Comedy/Musical Actor and Actress, while Liotta contended in Best Supporting Actor. Sadly, Oscar voters didn’t have a sense of humor that year, and snubbed the film entirely. Oscar nominations or not, “Something Wild” is one of the all-time great romantic comedies.
3. ‘The Purple Rose of Cairo’ (1985)
Daniels’ boyish charm and good looks have never been put to greater use than in Woody Allen’s bittersweet romantic fantasy. The film centers on Cecilia (Mia Farrow), a Depression-era waitress who escapes her abusive husband (Danny Aiello) by going to the movies. She becomes enamored with “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” an entertaining bauble about an archeologist named Tom Baxter (Daniels) making his way from Egypt to Manhattan. One day Baxter walks off the screen, prompting Cecilia to reevaluate her life. It also prompts pandemonium back in Hollywood, and the film’s star, Gil Shepherd (Daniels), travels to New York to track down his creation, romancing Cecilia in the process. Funny enough, the actor actually replaced Michael Keaton midway through shooting, a characteristic move for Allen. Despite competing at the Golden Globes, Daniels failed to reap an Oscar nomination for his delightful double performance.
2. ‘Terms of Endearment’ (1983)
You wouldn’t think a movie about a woman dying of cancer could be so funny, yet James L. Brooks’ Oscar-winning classic is full of surprises. Based on the novel by Larry McMurtry, the film centers on the contentious relationship between a hard-to-please mother (Shirley MacLaine) and her free-spirited daughter (Debra Winger). Daniels co-stars as Flap Horton, the happy-go-lucky son-in-law who doesn’t always make the best decisions when it comes to his family. Jack Nicholson and John Lithgow turn in memorable supporting performances as love interests for mother and daughter, respectively. “Terms of Endearment” is that rare film that perfectly captures the messiness of life: the laughs, the tears, and ultimately, the love. Brooks won Oscars for writing, directing, and producing, while MacLaine picked up Best Atress and Nicholson snagged Best Supporting Actor for the film.
1. ‘The Squid and the Whale’ (2005)
Daniels gives the performance of a lifetime in Noah Baumbach’s intensely personal story of two young boys (Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline) dealing with the divorce of their writer parents (Daniels and Laura Linney). As Bernard, the pompous, arrogant patriarch, Daniels channels the equal-parts vanity and insecurity that creates a very specific kind of intellectual. A once-promising novelist who has failed to live up to his potential, Bernard feels threatened when his unfaithful wife, Joan, begins having her own work published to wide acclaim. It’s a sentiment present in almost every artist (more so than they’d care to admit), one that Daniels likely used to his advantage. Perhaps his characterization hit too close to the bone for some actors: despite reaping Golden Globe and Independent Spirit nominations, Daniels was snubbed at the Oscars. No matter though, because “The Squid and the Whale” remains the crowning achievement of his career.
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