5. 50/50 (2011)
I could justify the inclusion of Gordon-Levitt’s work in 50/50 on this list by simply stating: “It’s all about that scream.” The moment when his character’s frustrations and fears finally mount, and he lets out an animalistic cry for help. I’ll admit, I wasn’t the biggest fan of 50/50, but in that moment, I was completely sold.
4. The Lookout (2007)
As the once hot-shit jock now mentally crippled from a car accident, Chris Pratt spends his days trying to make it through them. A big ordeal in his life is trying to remember what a can opener is. So when he gets tangled up in a web of dangerous thievery, we’re never quite sure if Chris is going to make it out alive. An enthralling and mysterious performance.
3. Brick (2005)
The main character in Brick is Rian Johnson’s screenplay. Setting a Dashiell Hammett-esque tale of noir inside the walls of a contemporary high school is no simple feat. And without Gordon-Levitt’s steady, believable work, Brick could’ve lost more viewers than it gained. His Brendan is the rock of the film; we live or die with him, and Gordon-Levitt carries it with utter conviction.
2. Mysterious Skin (2004)
The profound beauty of Mysterious Skin is that it deals with trauma in such a unique way. Through a very appropriately earned NC-17 rating, the film chronicles the after effects of child sexual abuse. It shows how some children repress the horrors they endured, while others rebel and seek more of it. Gordon-Levitt’s Neil is full of rebellion, and while much of his work in Mysterious Skin is alarming and difficult to stomach, everything about Neil is compelling. You want to follow him, wherever he may go.
1. Manic (2001)
I try to mention the tiny independent drama, Manic, as much as I can. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, I can honestly tell you that Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s performance as Lyle is the most accurate and horrifying depiction of teenage angst that I have ever seen on screen. Lyle is filled with pure anger. Why? We don’t know. And, more importantly, we suspect he doesn’t either. The film depicts Lyle going through the tumultuous motions of living in a mental institution. He rants, he rages, and he longs to be free. But freedom for Lyle isn’t about escaping the institution’s walls. It’s about figuring himself out.