The top 25 films of Jeff Daniels

From Dumb & Dumber and The Martian, through to Arachnophobia and Steve Jobs - we salute the screen work of Jeff Daniels...

They say that when you play the Game of Thrones, “you win or you die”. The Game of Jeff Daniels, however, is an undeniably different beast and for the most part is a definite “you win or you win”. After viewing dozens of Jeff Daniels movies and spending many, many hours with his on-screen personas, it’s fair to say that the maxim has been sorely tested but guess what? It still holds true. This list has been carefully curated to celebrate the veteran actor’s talent, versatility and wit and no matter which (if any) of these movies you decide to revisit or check out for the first time, Jeff is guaranteed to give you something to love in each and every one.

25. Dumb And Dumber To (2014)

Hmmm. Not sure whether as audiences we’ve moved on, whether Carrey and Daniels moved on or perhaps just the world did. Either way, the pair’s return to the juvenile japery of Harry Dunne and Lloyd Christmas didn’t really work out as planned. Despite appearances from Kathleen Turner and a lightning Bill Murray turn, Dumb And Dumber To comes about as close to reprising the puerile joy of the original as a Harry and Lloyd high five. Probably better (but not by much) than the maligned prequel that didn’t star the comic duo, it’s probably safe to say there won’t be a Dumb And Dumber 3.

24. Blood Work (2002)

Erected somewhere on Mount Lee (although probably in smaller letters than the iconic Hollywood waymark because we’ve never actually seen hard evidence that this particular sign actually exists) is another bunch of letters that spell ‘Never turn down Eastwood’. As one of the golden rules of the movie business, Daniels subscribed to this logic back in 2002 and made Blood Work, a run of the mill Eastwood cop thriller that probably didn’t quite pan out as well as he’d hoped. Whilst it’s an okay movie, an interesting role and a chance to work with the legend himself, Blood Work is Eastwood’s last hurrah as both actor and director in the tough-as-nails cop genre that he himself defined and probably with good reason.

The Dirty Harry star would go on to make make more interesting films such as Million Dollar Baby and Gran Torino once he’d got Blood Work out of his system and looking back, one wonders if directing himself in such a role was almost something that Eastwood felt he had to do to cap his influence on the genre (much like he did with the western genre with the far more impressive Unforgiven). Either way, Blood Work isn’t either man’s best work and thus, finds itself near this list’s bottom end.

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23. Arachnophobia (1990)

Next up is this family-friendly spider terror-fest, hailing from the year 3 BCGFX (Before Computer Generated FX) or just plain old 1990 (should you be more partial to the gregorian calendar or simply prefer concepts that don’t make your head explode). Daniels plays a newly-arrived, arachnophobic doctor who struggles to convince the close-knit locals that a wave of killer South American spiders has infested their beloved town. The film’s pre-CG dating means that there’s some animatronics present but for the most part however, scores and scores of real spiders swarm the movie’s runtime, something I found distinctly terrifying the only other time I saw this movie back when I was ten or so.

I’m not sure what age I was when I stopped being afraid of spiders; maybe it was fourteen when I woke to find one peacefully nesting in my newly-sprouted chest hairs; maybe it was my twenties when I lived with others more fearful than me and thus became the designated spider-handler. Either way, it was probably the time I unwittingly fell out of fear with this film; watching it again, much of the magic was sadly gone and the truth is, were it to be made again today, they’d slap a 12A on it (rather than its tame PG certificate) and fill it with enough nightmarish content to scar you for years… so maybe it’s better this way. Daniels himself is witty and dry in the face of his all-encompassing fears and a show-stealing turn from John Goodman’s exterminator does much to lift the movie but even the involvement of ‘super producer’ Kathleen Kennedy can’t elevate Arachnophobia to the heights of other classic films of that era in which she was involved.

See also: looking back at Arachhnophobia and its PG-rated horror

22. Imaginary Heroes (2004)

A less well known, underrated drama that follows the fortunes of a family struggling to cope with the suicide of their oldest son. Daniels plays a father disconnected from those around him, his guilt and self-loathing crystallising into an empty disregard for the family he has left. Sigourney Weaver plays his long-suffering wife and although the movie has a few interesting scenes, if you’re in the mood for a Jeff Daniels-as-the-dysfunctional-father classic you’re much better of with The Squid And The Whale which is featured much higher up this list.

21. Infamous (2006)

Sigourney Weaver pops up in the next entry on the list too although neither Weaver nor Daniels star in Infamous, the dramatisation of Truman Capote’s (played by Toby Jones) experiences that led to the creation of In Cold Blood. Infamous is generally considered to be inferior to Capote, another version of the same story that released a year beforehand and won the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman an Oscar. Infamous isn’t a bad film though, its ensemble cast is impressive and Daniels does sterling work as the gruff, blue collar police chief who struggles to make sense of the mercurial Capote.

20. Something Wild (1987)

Directed by Jonathan Demme of Philadelphia and Silence Of The Lambs fame, this screwball comedy romance is so 80s that you can feel yourself growing shoulder pads whilst watching it. In one of his first roles as a leading man, Daniels plays an uptight yuppie that gets spirited out of New York by Melanie Griffiths’ Lulu, an eccentric outsider in the mould of Madonna’s (Desperately Seeking) Susan. The film goes to great pains to point out the oddball loveliness of her character (‘look, she was wearing a wig for the first act of the film but her real hair is even crazier! She likes kinky sex too! Kooky, huh?) but ultimately falls short of Demme’s better movies as it doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be: part unconventional road trip; part oddball romantic comedy and then sudden, dark, revenge thriller, even Daniels seems a little out of sorts as a series of increasingly outlandish happenings drive the film towards its conclusion.

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Still, it’s worth a watch just to see Ray Liotta in the role that would later land him the part of Henry Hill in Goodfellas and get him the offer of an interview with Tim Burton for the title role in 1989’s Batman.

19. Escanaba In Da Moonlight (2001)

Written, directed and starring Daniels, this ode to Michigan hunting season is an uneven offering that misses the mark with one absurdist comedic salvo then unerringly finds it with the next. Based on a stage play that premiered at Daniels’ own Purple Rose (read on to discover the name’s inspiration) theatre in Chelsea, the sell out play eventually migrated into a movie about a luckless hunter who at the embarrassing age of forty-three is yet to ‘bag a buck’ in his annual sojourn to the family’s ancestral hunting lodge.

Funny in places and apparently packed with in-jokes for the Michigan hunting set, there’s enough goofball action in here to keep you entertained if you fall outside of that rather select target audience.

18. Gettysburg (1993) and 17. Gods And Generals (2003)

The original movie and its later prequel are amongst Daniels’ favourites; as a self-confessed civil war nut, making this pair of three hour epics must have been like the ultimate re-enactment weekend. The films themselves are typically lavish affairs with huge casts although with their bottom-numbing runtimes, those who aren’t so interested in the American civil war might find them just a little too self-indulgent.

16. 2 Days In The Valley (1996)

Coming hot on the heels of Tarantino’s Oscar-winning classic and featuring a number of intersecting stories set amid a fever-hit L.A., you’d be forgiven for thinking that this was just another post-Pulp Fiction knockoff. There isn’t a great deal of room in the ensemble cast for Daniels’ over the edge Valley-based cop but he adds an interesting dimension to a veritable smorgasbord of performances from Eric Stoltz, Charlize Theron, James Spader, Teri Hatcher, Danny Aello and more.

Whilst not a serious rival to Tarantino’s masterpiece, it serves as an interesting curio, presenting a perfectly preserved piece of nineties cinema that charts the filmic landscape that Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction terraformed so seismically.

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15. State Of Play (2009)

With both Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck lending heavyweight chops to this movie, one wonders how it turned out to be so very middle of the road. Crowe plays an investigative journalist that bumps up against a conspiracy miring an old pal turned politician (Affleck). Once more, Daniels’ role here as Congressman Fergus is limited but he delivers nonetheless amid a crowded pack of talented actors. Worth a watch if you’ve never seen it but for a more satisfying yet slight slice of Daniels’-as-a-shady-government-operator-pie, dine instead on Traitor, higher up this list.

14. The Lookout (2007)

This movie is just one of many of the list that features Daniels as a satisfying side dish rather than a full-on steak. Playing Lewis, the blind buddy of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Chris, Daniels is eminently watchable. Although he may be blind, Lewis can see things that the troubled Chris can’t and the age gap between the two friends creates something of a paternal relationship between them that the two actors would go on to revisit in Looper.

13. Cheaters (2000)

When you think about made-for-TV movies based on true stories, its natural for your mind to conjure up images of afternoon graveyard slot television turning your mind into dribble with wobbly sets and abominable theme tunes. Cheaters, however, isn’t one of those films. Throughout his career Daniels has always done hangdog especially well and this is never more true than with the story of Dr. Gerard Plecki, a teacher so frustrated with the inequalities of the education system that he resorts to cheating to help his academic decathlon team triumph at the state championships.

As you may notice from several of the roles on this list, Jeff Daniels has a real knack for playing the misguided fall guy whose heart is often in the right place and Cheaters finds him excelling in this tradition. Ably supported by the always excellent Paul Sorvino and a young Jena Malone, this can be a tough movie to find these days so should you see it, be sure to check it out.

12. Good Night, And Good Luck (2005)

This George Clooney-directed historical drama tells the story of Edward R. Murrow, the CBS journalist who stood up to Senator McCarthy during the fifties communist witch hunts. Another movie featuring Daniels in a diminished role as Sig Mickelson, the director of CBS News, Good Night, And Good Luck serves very much as a prototype for Daniels’ later role in The Martian where he would once again feature as the head of an organisation where he would be faced with conflicting ideals. Slickly acted and beautifully shot, Daniels gives another performance that proves why directors of ensemble movies have the guy on speed dial.

11. Howl (2010)

Allen Ginsberg’s seminal, provocative poem and the context in which it was released are explored in this beautiful film. The movie deviates between Ginsberg (played by James Franco) retelling the story of how Howl came to be, the 1957 obscenity trial that called into public question its literary and social value and animated sequences of poetry. 

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Daniels plays David Kirk, a literary professor who disputes the poem’s literary importance; he may only appear in one scene but split as it is by Ginsberg’s incendiary passages, it sits at the film’s very core. The real star turn in the film however, isn’t Daniels or even Franco, it’s Ginsberg’s transcendent poetry and the hauntingly beautiful animations that accompany it.

10. Paper Man (2009)

This film has all the trappings of a classic indie movie; quirky casting, a coming of age story set to an appropriately guitary soundtrack, it takes place in a summer town and co-stars Emma Stone. Daniels plays a frustrated writer suffering the mother of all mid-life crises – in fact he still has a superhero-clad imaginary friend played by Ryan Reynolds.

Sweet, sad and featuring Daniels in a superb leading role, Paper Man also boasts great performances from all involved. Although initially the film looks as if it may be straying into icky territory, Paper Man’s denouement is constructed as expertly as the intricate origami creations that serve as the movie’s motif.

9. The Purple Rose Of Cairo (1985)

A fresh-faced, young Daniels features here in the the first of two collaborations with Woody Allen (the second being a blink and you miss it cameo in the charming 1987 vignette-o-rama Radio Days, not appearing on this list due to the briefness of his role). Playing a black and white movie star that jumps off the screen to abscond with Mia Farrow, Daniels is all charm and naivety; set against the pessimistic backdrop of the great depression and taking a few potshots at Mccarthyism and the cynical nature of the movie business, his fictional Hollywood hero shines with idealism and guilelessness.

Daniels also plays the errant character’s ‘real life’ Hollywood counterpart, making this the only movie I’ve come across where the actor has a scene with himself; it also marks Daniels’ first on-screen musical number. A touching movie that gives you twice the Jeff for your money. What more could you ask for?

8. Speed (1994)

“Shoot the hostage.” In the movie’s opening scene, this tersely-worded exchange between Daniels’ veteran cop Harry and his wunderkind protege Jack (played by Keanu Reeves) ended with Reeves concluding that innocent collateral damage was not just acceptable, but sometimes necessary – meanwhile, Bill And Ted fans everywhere gulped and realised this wasn’t the goofball Keanu that we’d grown to love.

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Speed, the high-octane, nineties action movie about a bomb on a bus was undoubtedly a Keanu Reeves (ahem) vehicle; the film served as his action hero coming-out party but also launched the career of the wildly successful Sandra Bullock too. Daniels is relegated to a supporting role in the film’s main act but he does so ably and it’s great to see him exercising his action chops in the film’s extended opening sequence.

7. Steve Jobs (2015)

Essentially staged across three defining acts of the late Apple creator’s career (or life, as the two were inextricably intertwined), Steve Jobs explores the compromises made by Fassbender’s Jobs in his personal relationships, all in the name of realising his vision of the Next Great Idea. As John Scully, president of Apple and ouster of Jobs, Daniels does a great job (along with Aaron Sorkin’s fine script) of portraying the complexity of Scully’s bond with Jobs. In the mythic tapestry that Jobs’ life has become, the nature of his relationships with his contemporaries can often be simplified into reductive terms: Wozniak the Builder and Jobs the Visionary; Jobs the Innovator and Scully, The Analogous Foe. With limited screen time however, Daniels does a fine job at portraying the depth and complexity in the pair’s relationship, his inherent likability making the character that much more sympathetic.  

6. Traitor (2008)

There seems to be a fair few producers who have Daniels on hand for those ‘small but significant’ roles and Traitor is no exception. A smart action thriller that sees Don Cheadle tackling Middle East unrest, but this time without the aid of a Stark-built suit, the film explores themes of identity, radicalism and whether or not the ends ever justify the means on both sides of the increasingly desperate ideological war between Middle Eastern extremists and Western governments.

Noteworthy not only for Cheadle’s excellent central performance but also for being a Hollywood movie that focuses heavily on a radical’s perspective, the movie also benefits from a great turn from Daniels. It would be too spoilery to say more but suffice to say, this is one of those films that is a lot better than its title and poster suggest.

5. Pleasantville (1997)

Surely there can’t be many actors that have twice played black and white characters existing within the confines of a screen that go on to escape and explore a world enlivened by colour and experience. Yet after The Purple Rose Of Cairo, Daniels does so again, this time in Pleasantville and perhaps even more brilliantly so second time around. If you’ve never seen this nineties drama where Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon are transported into a staid fifties TV show and reshape it through their Generation X sensibilities then you most definitely should; once again Daniels plays a supporting role with great significance as his artistic and sexual awakening both scandalises and sensualises the conservative inhabitants of the town. Definitely worth a watch.

4. Looper (2012)

Landing the ‘and’ credit in a movie’s titles can often mean one of two things: leading man status has somehow slipped forever from your grasp (no, that new Netflix movie with Ricky Gervais doesn’t count) or your appearances in a film are sparse yet significant, perhaps even scene stealing. Jeff Daniels’ turn as Abe in Looper definitely falls into the latter category. Bringing his inherent everyman quality to bear here, Daniels crafts a memorable antagonist out of two brief scenes.

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It helps of course that the movie itself is great and like The Martian (which features higher up this list) it’s probable that Looper would still be a great film even without his contribution. Nonetheless, Daniels’ ability to play the ruthless face of the violent criminal organisation in such an amiable, human way only adds to Looper’s quality.

3. The Squid And The Whale (2005)

Recently featured on our list of top 80s coming-of-age movies, this bittersweet film is both achingly funny and frequently heartrending – often at the same time. Following the fortunes of a New York family suffering the travails of a broken marriage, Daniels excels here as a literary douche of a father, a man so steeped in his own ego that he’s blind to the damage he is causing to his family.

Supported by the excellent Anna Paquin, Laura Linney and Jesse Eisenberg, Daniels is outstanding in this movie but even better perhaps is his youngest onscreen son, played by Owen Kline. Just fourteen at the time, Kline’s performance is mesmerising (perhaps all the more so because he hasn’t made another film since) and you should certainly, certainly seek this one out.

2. The Martian

Simply a great film by anyone’s standards, Ridley Scott’s tale of a man marooned on Mars is singular not only for Matt Damon sciencing the shit outta things, but also for the director’s ability to coax exceptional performances from all involved. With such a well written screenplay and being NASA-approved (in the sense of their participation and script input), it’s incredibly easy to forget that the film isn’t based on a real story and find oneself wondering why we didn’t send Tim Peake to Mars rather than a boring old space station. As NASA boss Teddy Sanders, Daniels is once more superb in a supporting role, sharing the brunt of the film’s moral conundrum alongside the opposing views of Sean Bean’s Mitch Henderson. A truly great movie with a vintage Daniels performance to boot, The Martian lands at number two.

1. Dumb And Dumber

So the way I see it, you’re either cheering right now or rolling your eyes in disgust – but bear with me for a moment. I’m not placing Dumb And Dumber atop this list because it’s the greatest comedy of all time (although I’ve seen more outlandish claims made throughout the ages…) in truth, it may not even be the best Farrelly Brothers comedy (Me, Myself and Irene runs it very close), but Dumb And Dumber sits atop the summit for two very good reasons (three if you accept that it’s a blindingly good example of puerile comedy).

Firstly, Daniels took the role when everyone, his agent included begged him not to. In taking on the part of perennial idiot Harry Dunne, Daniels was pitting himself against the hottest comedic talent in the world in the form of Jim Carrey. Few believed that Daniels would be able to hold his own against Carrey’s trademark zaniness (nobody at that point had dared to try) and yet Daniels does. As an equal foil for Carrey in their shared moments, he even shades their separate scenes, with Harry’s snowball fight with Lauren Holly’s Mary Swanson and the Turbo-Lax toilet scene being better than any of Carrey’s moments.

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Furthermore, Dumb And Dumber’s comedic turn alongside his action-esque appearance in Speed (weirdly, both summer of ’94 movies where he played a sidekick named Harry) allowed Daniels to develop his range, affording him the opportunities to take on roles outside of the largely romantic-comedy leading man status that he was determined not to get shoehorned into. Without Dumb And Dumber, shows like the award-winning The Newsroom and many of the films on this list wouldn’t exist – or if they did, not in the form that we love. So here’s to Dumb And Dumber, one of the smartest decisions that Daniels ever made.

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