The List: Mark Wahlberg’s Best Films

The List is a way of organizing our thoughts on a certain topic into an easily digestible post. Topics may range from ranking films of a certain actor who has an upcoming release, to even something as simple as listing our breakfast cereals of choice. Anything is game. Length will vary depending on the individual writing said list, and jumping from one topic to the next may leave you feeling a little dizzy, but FUN (from our perspective at least) is our weapon of choice.

For the first time in the history of my movie-going life, I find myself in this odd quandary. With the release of this week’s Pain & Gain, I find myself being ever so slightly optimistic at the prospects of a film by the man of a million explosions, the one the only, Michael Bay. To the masses, Bay is a success story. To the film buff community, he makes some of the dumbest movies this side of Lifetime. But with his latest, there’s a hint of something different. Something tongue-in-cheek. Something that may not be good per se, but something that could be, dare I say the word, fun? You may ask me, ‘what is different about this one?’ Well, I’ve got two words for you: Mark Wahlberg.

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Wahlberg is one of those actors who for some reason has never really gotten the true credit he deserves. Sure, he makes his fair share of dopey action films, but for someone of that ilk he sure has a laundry list of quality performances (much like one of my favorite actors, Nicolas Cage). He not only has the dramatic chops to endear us to any number of the characters he has played, but he’s damn funny to boot.

Now let me tell you upfront: Ted will not be on this list. I wasn’t all that high on the film in general, but one of the bright spots for me was definitely Wahlberg, who really gave it his all. And that is the key to Mark Wahlberg. No matter how many films try to turn him into a Hollywood action star, he will always be that goofy everyman who is just incredibly fun to watch on the big screen. So here’s my list of favorite films starring the artist formerly known as Marky Mark.

Note: I really need to see The Yards one of these days.

Honorable Mentions: The Basketball Diaries (1995), The Italian Job (2003), Fear (1996)

Additional Note: The inclusion of Fear is for the rollercoaster scene. Yes. That one. May it live in infamy.

5. I Heart Huckabees (2004)

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“I’m not a hero. We’d all be heroes if we quit using petroleum, though.”

The first entry on this list from the mind of writer-director David O. Russell is an endearingly strange existential comedy about two existential detectives (Dustin Hoffman & Lily Tomlin) who are hired by a troubled man (Jason Schwartzman) to help him understand his own life. One of the great joys of the film is watching the cast play off each other, and my personal favorite is Mark Wahlberg. He plays Tommy, a firefighter with an existential crisis of his own. This is a role that could have been portrayed in an over-the-top fashion, but Wahlberg’s instincts seem to be spot-on. He’s silly, but endearing, which pretty much sums up the film as a whole. You may not ‘get it’ completely, but that seems to be David O. Russell’s point.

4. The Departed (2006)

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“I’m the guy who does his job. You must be the other guy.”

Mark Wahlberg’s lone Oscar-nominated performance came as part of the larger ensemble in this Boston mafia flick from one of cinema’s masters, Martin Scorsese. While I’ve always been more partial to Scorsese’s non-mafia flicks (The King of Comedy will always be my favorite) it’s undeniable that with this Best Picture-winner he crafted an entertaining picture with an impressive cast. Although he’s among the likes of DiCaprio, Damon, and Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg still manages to stand out as Sgt. Dignam. His sharp-tongued comedic banter not only entertains, but sets-up the dynamics of the Boston police force of which he is a member. When the crime epic nears its end, it’s Dignam who gets the Scorsese seal of approval to finish the narrative. As a native son of Boston, I’m sure Wahlberg couldn’t have been happier.

3. Three Kings (1999)

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-“I’m gonna buy a set of Lexus convertibles in every color.”

-“I told you, Lexus don’t make a convertible.”

-“I’ll bet you a Lexus they do.”

The first collaboration between David O. Russell and Wahlberg came in the form of this Gulf War set crime-caper about a group of soldiers who set out to find a stash of gold hidden in the desert. Along the way their plans are altered and they are forced to make choices none of them were prepared to make. Now infamous for the supposed conflict that arose on set between star George Clooney and David O. Russell, Three Kings lives on as part of one of the great film booms of the late 90s. The chemistry between the soldiers (Wahlberg, Clooney, Ice Cube, Spike Jonze) is one of the great highlights. Wahlberg was so into the role that he supposedly was shocked for real in a sequence in which his captors torture him. Hey, I’m sure people have done crazier things for art. Ah, maybe not.

2. The Fighter (2010)

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“You were my hero.”

The final collaboration between David O. Russell and Wahlberg on this list is also their best. The Fighter is the story of Micky Ward, a Massachusetts boxer who has to contend with his problematic, over-bearing family on the road to the world light welterweight title. The film won both supporting actor Oscars thanks to the performances of Melissa Leo as Micky’s mother and Christian Bale as Micky’s half-brother Dicky. At the core of the film is that complicated brother relationship, Dicky now a drug-addicted ex-boxer who longs for the days when he boxed against Sugar Ray Leonard. Dicky wants the best for Micky and wants to be his trainer, but simply can’t get clean long enough to truly make an impact. Bale is heartbreaking in the role, but it wouldn’t work without Wahlberg’s quietly confident Micky, who believes in himself but can’t shake the family that may be holding him back. It’s a powerful, understated performance that was unfortunately overlooked by the Academy, but I’m confident that one of these days Wahlberg will finally get his due.

1. Boogie Nights (1997)

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“What can you expect when you’re on top? You know? It’s like Napoleon. When he was the king, you know, people were just constantly trying to conquer him, you know, in the Roman Empire. So, it’s history repeating itself all over again.”

And now we come to the masterpiece. While it wasn’t Wahlberg’s first starring role, his role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s sprawling ensemble picture about the rise and fall of a family of filmmakers in the 70s and 80s is widely viewed as his breakthrough, and what a role it was. Oh yeah, did I mention that this family of filmmakers is in the adult film industry? Sorry. Must have slipped my mind.

Wahlberg’s role of Eddie Adams, a dreamer who busses tables until a chance encounter with director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), seemed tailor-made for him at the time. What is most shocking is that Anderson’s first choice was Leonardo DiCaprio, who decided to make Titanic instead. Despite the fact that he laughed all the way to the bank, DiCaprio has stated over the years that he wishes he chose differently. Me, I can’t really imagine anyone in the role but Wahlberg. His Eddie becomes Dirk Diggler, adult film star, after he convinces himself that everyone is given ‘one special thing’. In this case, that ‘one special thing’ happens to be his member. Yes, the sexual organ.

Now at this point you uninitiated may be questioning me calling a film about a young man’s quest to become an adult film star a masterpiece, but hey, I’m getting there. What works so well about Anderson’s film is that it passes no judgment on the adult film industry as a whole. In fact, although the backdrop of the film is that very world, the focus of the narrative is this family of dreamers who seemingly want to prove to themselves and those around them that they can be somebody. As the years go on and the tides change, Dirk and his family of misfits fall from grace, until Dirk’s epiphany (in one of the best film scenes, maybe ever) changes everything. Wahlberg is both hilarious and heartbreaking (this is becoming a trend) and Paul Thomas Anderson’s exciting cinematography and soundtrack bring it all together in a package that is widely considered one of the best films of the 90s. For me, it’s the perfect balance of comedy and drama and the cast is perfection. In fact, I’ve long claimed it to be my absolute favorite film, although any of the works of Paul Thomas Anderson could claim that spot on any given day. So, today? Yeah, number 1 seems the right place for it.

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