10 Essential Jack Nicholson Films

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Tom Jolliffe offers up ten essential films from one of Hollywood’s greatest icons, Jack Nicholson…


The unpredictable spark. The unconventional delivery. The eyebrows. A permanent sense of being on the verge of exploding. It’s Jack Nicholson, an actor of unique, almost unmatched intensity. He’s got an ability to dial his emotions right up, and to occasionally pull out equilibrium entirely, but still maintaining his own realism. The closest contemporary equivalent for such unconventional, wild charisma is Nicolas Cage, but even Cage himself will attest, his output can’t match the array of masterworks that Nicholson has batted out. Nor did Jack delve into a straight to video arena, predominantly for quick and easy paychecks. No… Nicholson had done his time in low budget at the dawn of his career with Roger Corman no less. As such, there’s been nothing to tempt Nicholson out of the seeming retirement he’s been enjoying since 2010. His CV reads very impressively, but in case you needed reminding, here are 10 Essential Jack Nicholson films:

Easy Rider


One of the all time great indie movies. Dennis Hopper’s iconic road movie, c0-starring Peter Fonda, would become a phenomenon. Hopper tapped into time, place and sensibility beautifully. The young Jack Nicholson, whose career was beginning to take a footing after films like The Shooting, ended the 60’s, by paving his way for a leap forward in the 70’s. He was nominated for an Oscar here for the first time, and not the last.



Nicholson was firmly establishing himself among a new wave of invigorating actors like De Niro/Pacino/Hoffman et al. He had his unique odd quality and distinct look that pushed him toward unpredictable characters, rogues or outright ne’er do wells. The Last Detail, Five Easy Pieces, Carnal Knowledge. Jack was on his way and in Chinatown, arguably his greatest ever, he’d be a part of one of the greatest neo-noirs ever created. Chinatown, a master class in screenwriting, also delivered a master-class in acting. Faye Dunaway is sensational, along with John Huston.  In Nicholson’s canon, Chinatown remains one of his most restrained in terms of his emotional swings (he does have a couple of mania moments, but plays quite level for the most part). Regardless, Nicholson is magnificent here. The film is masterful in every department.

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest


If Chinatown showed Nicholson with a reserve fans have rarely associated with him, then One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest would be one of his most iconic examples of the Nicholson ‘style.’ As RP McMurphy, Nicholson is the ‘sane’ man in the cuckoo’s nest, but with a clear inability to control a bustling inner mania. It’s never nailed down as to his behavioural issue, but Nicholson is perfect foil for this character. Milos Forman’s superlative adaptation of the book is one of the best films of the decade (pitted in a tight battle with Chinatown as the tip top Nicholson film). Gripping, amusing, dramatic, touching, crushing and life affirming, it’s a stunning cinematic achievement, and quite rightly a regular feature in Top 100 lists.

The Shining


It might well be Nicholson’s most pop culturally impactful role. Stanley Kubrick’s impeccably realised vision is loaded with stunning imagery. It’s this kind of perfectionist film-making and level of minute detail in every aspect that marks it out from almost everything else in the genre. Stephen King and his die-hards might bemoan the unfaithful adaptation of the book, but Kubrick’s version still remains utterly engrossing. It’s pure atmosphere horror. The pace and eerie visuals are a quiet, doom laden platform for Nicholson to go wild on. Go wild, he does. The film was battered by critics upon release, before its subsequent reappraisal through the years. Now considered a masterpiece, Nicholson’s performance has also been re-appraised too. Over the top? Sure, but oh so magnetically, and so intensely that it feels genuine.

Prizzi’s Honor


John Huston’s penultimate film as director. Prizzi’s Honor is somewhat underrated. It’s a bit of forgotten and very enjoyable crime comedy. It has elements of old fashioned farce and macabre wit running through it. Very much an old fashioned vision during a decade being taken over by Blockbusters and SNL-alumni comedy. Nicholson headlines a great cast, including Kathleen Turner, Robert Loggia and the scene stealing Anjelica Huston. Despite 7 Oscar nominations (including Nicholson) and one win (Anjelica Huston) this remains oddly forgotten.



This certainly hasn’t been forgotten. Tim Burton’s groundbreaking film revolutionised the idea of what a comic book film can be. It might have been a little eclipsed in its legacy by more modern films like Nolan’s Batman films, or the MCU, but Batman really was huge. It was a game changer and an all round marketing and tie-in phenomenon that was as close to Star Wars as anyone got until Jurassic Park stomped onto the scene. Nicholson goes full Nicholson as the eponymous Joker. It’s a role blessed by an array of great versions. Jack’s Joker is superb, even if it lacks a dark unsettling intensity seen in more gritty modern portrayals from Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix. Nicholson’s though, remains the most fun of the movies and he’s chewing scenery like few else can.

A Few Good Men


YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!! Okay, I’ve got that out the way. Tom Cruise in the midst of his best acting run, pushing to the pinnacle of A-list superstardom stands against the seasoned Nicholson in this court procedural. As one might expect, and with no sleight on TC, Nicholson chews him up (alongside no shortage of scenery). Rob Reiner’s thriller remains gripping, a real departure at the time for someone more versed in films with lighter tones, or outright horror thrills. If there’s a common pitfall for the courtroom drama, it’s in losing a grip on the audience as we begin dreaming of more expansive, open cinema, but the confides here work well and the actual courtroom sequences remain gripping.

As Good as it Gets


Nicholson dusted off his comedic chops once again for an acerbic and wonderfully written character piece. Nicholson is perfection as a cantankerous writer who feels cornered into looking after his gay neighbours dog (after he is assaulted). Forming an unlikely bond with a waitress and single mother, Nicholson’s gauche and obnoxious author’s icy exterior begins to melt and he starts to relearn that being nice has its merits. Nicholson and Helen Hunt both won Oscars, while it remains the best role in Greg Kinnear’s career (for which he was nominated).

About Schmidt


With Alexander Payne’s atypically nuanced direction and penchant for the bittersweet, Nicholson is given the rare license to underplay. He plays a repressed and emotionally stoic retiree who loses his wife. Stuck with no idea what to do, he takes his RV and drives cross country to see his daughter, in advance of her wedding to a blue collar hick that Warren Schmidt has absolutely no time for. He revisits those cantankerous traits from As Good, but it’s played without Nicholson’s devilish charisma, opting for a more understated style (both are effective in different ways). It once again showed Nicholson’s surprising (to some) range.  It’s a wonderful film that still pulls on the heartstrings throughout as we find ourselves feeling for a man of seemingly no feeling (at first).

The Departed


Martin Scorsese offers up a rarity…a Hollywood remake that might actually be better than its original (Infernal Affairs). A cop goes undercover in a crime gang. A criminal goes undercover as a cop and never the twain shall meet, but shall be aware of the others existent, and so becomes a twisting, and invigorating thriller leading to inevitable carnage. Nicholson as the head of a crime organisation manages to steal a film at a canter, from a cast that boasts Leo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Vera Farmiga, Ray Winstone, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin and Mark Wahlberg. Nicholson’s unpredictable and surprising choices kept co-stars on their toes, and in unison created an interestingly unique gangster boss, different to the norm. It’s a great film and the one which FINALLY bagged Scorsese an Oscar.

Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021/2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/

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