Every George Clooney-Directed Movie Ranked
A beloved movie star, a member of Hollywood royalty, and a lover of all things Nespresso. George Clooney was born in Kentucky to a family of folks used to being seen: His mother was a politician and beauty queen, his father is a television anchor and host, and his aunt was friggin’ Rosemary Clooney. Clooney broke through as an actor thanks to his intensely watchable starring role in influential NBC drama ER, and he left the show in 1999 to keep fostering his intensely watchable movie star career. Clooney carved out an on-screen career of prestigious but entertaining adult-oriented works, earning accolades for films like Three Kings, Syriana, Michael Clayton, Up in the Air, The Descendants, Gravity, and many more, while also fostering collaborations with celebrated filmmakers like Steven Soderbergh and the Coen Brothers. Oh, and somewhere in there, he played Batman, but we don’t have to talk about that.
In the middle of becoming a true screen icon, Clooney also cultivated himself a helluva directing career, too. Critical reception on his overall output as a director has been somewhat mixed and inconsistent, with one of his films being widely seen as a masterpiece and the rest earning all kinds of critical ranges. But I have always been fond of and intrigued by Clooney the director, from his startling debut Confessions of a Dangerous Mind to his most recent, and still startling but in a quite different way, The Midnight Sky. I find his command of, and willingness to experiment with, the language of cinema to be impeccably crafted and courageous, and I find his topics of interest to be consistently important to our modern American society (even as his films tend to examine the American society of the past), delivering a wide swath of complicated theses in methods that toe the line between filmic complication and accessibility.
In celebration of the recent release of his Netflix sci-fi film The Midnight Sky, we’ve ranked every George Clooney-directed movie from worst to best, and hopefully made the case for him being an American auteur worth paying attention to. And for more on what he’s up to as a filmmaker, here’s the intel on his forthcoming adaptation of a John Grisham novel.
7. The Monuments Men
Image via Sony Pictures Releasing
The Monuments Men is, thus far, Clooney’s biggest misfire as a director. Watching it is akin to looking at a particularly natty outfit on a mannequin; the style, look, and superficial feel of the film scream “high fashion,” but at its core, its humanity is blank. The Monuments Men, based on the true story of international art experts who suited up for World War II to save our best cultural artworks and artifacts from Nazi destruction, wants to play like a light, warm, and sentimental cross between Ocean’s Eleven and a Ken Burns documentary; which is to say, the perfect Dad Movie. And from the most shallow reading possible, it sorta succeeds. It’s got a capably prestige-tinged, star-studded ensemble cast in Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville, and Cate Blanchett. There is, nearly objectively, a sense of “fun” in watching these dryly comic performers smirk their way through lowish-stakes war movie mini-set pieces rife with misdirects and what I might call “baby boomers patting themselves on the back”. Its heart is firmly on its sleeve in a way I appreciate, culminating in a beautiful ending sequence involving Clooney’s actual father, Nick Clooney. And formally, The Monuments Men is handsome as heck; DP Phedon Papamichael uses every inch of the 2.4:1 frame with stunning, immaculately colored compositions, and composer Alexandre Desplat turns in one of his many remarkable scores for a Clooney joint, despite how good the Clooney joint itself is.
And ultimately, this Clooney joint ain’t it, because Clooney plays against his strengths as a director, rather than leaning into them. There’s a ton of telling rather than showing in this film, solemn voiceovers intoning us quite explicitly about the significance of art as “the story of our lives” (voiceovers that, combined with the film’s pervasive use of cross-fading, suggest tons of necessary material left out of the final cut), about the need to put our lives on the line when the stakes are this high, and in its most embarrassing moment, about the importance of American exceptionalism and interference in foreign affairs (maybe the worst usage of an onscreen American flag in the history of cinema). Am I arguing that Americans shouldn’t fight Nazis? Absolutely not. But I am arguing that Clooney is best when he’s arguing. He’s not just a reflector or projector of good old-fashioned American idealism onto a blank screen, a dresser of clothes on a faceless mannequin. He provokes these ideals, pokes them, bends them, demands to see what’s going on underneath. To put it in an art metaphor: Clooney doesn’t have any plaques next to the portraits he’s framed, any context, any hint as to what’s ticking underneath his human subjects. He’s content to simply point and go, “Ain’t that pretty?” And well, that ain’t enough.
Image via Universal Pictures
And now, I contradict myself! Leatherheads is a curiously bifurcated picture, a film that wears its retro, roarin’ ’20s, screwball comedy genre tropes with effective affection. And then, it folds the hell in on itself, nearly demanding we take it more seriously and reexamine everything we’ve experienced about it this far. And honestly? We don’t, like, “need” that! The frothier and faster it is, the better!
In an era when the curious sport of “professional football” is picking steam as a national interest (hey, with prohibition going on, what the heck else are you gonna do?), Dodge Connelly (Clooney, impeccably casting himself as a charming but fading rogue who’s facing irrelevancy) is the leader of a particularly grimy, dirty-playing team. But what happens when a wholesome war hero (John Krasinski, not quite tracking himself to this world) joins the team, attracting the attention of a muckraking, rabble-rousing reporter (Renée Zellweger, absolutely tracking herself to this world)? All heck breaks loose, resulting in a charming love triangle, delightfully unhinged fisticuffs, some startlingly well-composed football matches and farcical, physical comedy setpieces (DP Newton Thomas Sigel turning in excellent work), and the kind of rat-a-tat back-and-forth banter you’d want from this kind of film. Place all of this against an all-timer Randy Newman score, and that’s one fun night at the movies!
Except: Leatherheads doesn’t want us to have too much fun. Even in its brightest and most ebullient moments, the pacing of the film doesn’t reach, and doesn’t seem interested in reaching, the snappiest and most stylized heights of Preston Sturges‘ best works. Some of its performers want to lean fully into the genre; most of them want us to remain, somewhat frustratingly, tethered to a more contemporarily “restrained” mode of performance. And most jarringly (and most tellingly of Clooney’s interests as a storyteller), Leatherheads eventually becomes a solemn-ish condemnation of our nation’s predilection to prefer shiny stories to the truth, orienting this story shift to Krasinski’s character in a way that doesn’t fully honor the screenplay that came before it. As stated in my examination of The Monuments Men, I tend to prefer when Clooney looks underneath the shiny stories we stake so many American structures upon, and this impulse certainly makes Leatherheads a memorably knotted, unique watch. But sometimes “impulses” can fight against a path of least resistance and result in a stubborn final product that feels more difficult to enjoy than it needs to. I don’t know why Clooney elected to treat World War II less seriously than “football fun.” But, despite its strange (and oftentimes weirdly engaging) tone-shiftings, Leatherheads remains a fun, idiosyncratic, and appealingly personal film, flaws and all.
5. The Midnight Sky
Image via Netflix
Kudos to Clooney for making a film that doesn’t feel like any of his other movies! Gone are the fascinations with “American culture” and “storytelling”. Instead, Clooney has made himself a bonafide science fiction film, one that explicitly bounces between “space exploration” and “dystopian disaster” sub-genres, with the audacity to stage action, even horror-leaning set-pieces in these spaces! The Midnight Sky, based on the novel Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton, represents a giant leap forward for Clooney’s voice as a filmmaker for this reason alone, even as other elements of it remain old-fashioned Clooney for better and for worse.
Formally, Clooney fires on some new cylinders. DP Martin Ruhe (who shot Clooney’s Hulu miniseries adaptation of Catch-22) lenses the Netflix film in the unorthodox aspect ratio of 2.11:1, giving the director room for expansive, visually splendid space-scapes and Arctic-scapes, while still emphasizing the claustrophobia of being stuck in an abandoned outpost or spaceship. Clooney and his regular editor Stephen Mirrione establish some of the best cutting patterns of their career; I love its jutting back and forth between clean, match-dissolves and disruptive, often bitterly ironic hard cuts between noise and silence. Desplat’s score sometimes verges on cheese for me, but Clooney uses it alongside his newfound panache for genre visuals to pull off a couple of straight up jump scares. And honey? They work. Maybe Clooney can follow the path of his Leatherheads co-star Krasinski and keep pulling on the horror thread…
…but to do so as successfully as Krasinski, he’s got some finessing to do as a storyteller still. There’s an endlessly fascinating A-story at the center of The Midnight Sky, one that’ll give you Cast Away meets I Am Legend vibes. Clooney himself is stuck behind in an Arctic outpost after an Earth-destroying disaster of some kind has wiped out everything else. Except, he’s not as alone as he thought. Enter: Caoilinn Springall, a young, silent girl who’s managed to hide from Clooney until now, resulting in this self-isolated, sick, and borderline misanthropic man finding his last reserve of hope for the good of this child (and just maybe, the future of the human race). Clooney has directed himself to one of the best performances of his career; he’s haunted, scary, desperate, and utterly watchable. He and Springall’s chemistry is so lovely, so needing to be resolved, and so transformative for Clooney’s arc (this might be the best Last of Us screen adaptation we’ll get, barring that HBO series being excellent). It’s fascinating, engrossing stuff.
Pity, then, that we spend so much time on our B, and even C-stories, making the picture at times feel like an overbaked TV pilot trying to overstuff too many character beats into one go. Our spaceship floating in the air, having seen if a newly-discovered moon of Jupiter can sustain life, is full of performing ringers and visually arresting moments — especially one involving drops of blood and a lack of gravity — but we just don’t have the room to focus on why we’re spending so much time with them. Their moments don’t land, and struggle to float past their status as “space movie tropes and clichés”. But, if you stick through these sequences of dead air and dramatic inertia, Clooney has one sucker-punch of an ending for you, one that will just about make these detours seem not just worth it, but grandly designed from the beginning. An interesting film more often than a purely “enjoyable” one; a movie that feels like Clooney got the bug from his work on Solaris and Gravity and wanted to try; a work that represents a Hollywood stalwart stretching his legs. He’s moved forward, alright, but the growing pains are felt.
Image via Paramount Pictures
When it was first released in 2017, Suburbicon was lambasted. Folks dinged it for its clumsy stitching of two disparate stories, its obvious aping of the Coen Brothers (to be fair, it is partially a Coen Brothers script), and its mismarketing of what it actually is. I, thus, approached “what it actually is” with basement-level expectations. And well, even then, I was pretty floored by Suburbicon.
The film is about as explicit of a “Clooney poking underneath the surface of Americana” piece of filmmaking as he’s likely to ever make; and yet, it makes its most incendiary, provocative, queasy, and necessary points oddly subtly, in intentional methods that I believed led to its initially chilly response. Two threads occur simultaneously in Suburbicon, one on the surface, and one in the margins. Upfront, we get a dark, sardonic, and straight-up brutal crime comedy about the erosion of the domestic family unit as personified by Matt Damon and Julianne Moore plowing their way through a noir-tinged scheme, and Noah Jupe left as the son who must pick up the scattered pieces. This unit all delivers exceptional performances, with Damon arcing his work toward a truly, shockingly grim ending place (with this and The Departed, I’m demanding more Damon villain performances!), and Moore especially having fun twisting “1950s white suburban housewife” tropes into various origami modes of performance and meta-performance. Jupe is, simply, heartbreaking to watch, so relatable empathetic and open.
It makes sense, then, that Jupe is our tendril to Suburbicon’s other, deeper story. A Black family, played with both hardened survivalism and open points of empathy by Karimah Westbrook, Leith Burke, and especially Tony Espinosa as this family’s son, moves into the lily-white, prejudiced as fuck neighborhood of Suburbicon. And Suburbicon simply loses its mind, exploding in eruptions of city-sanctioned racism, the most macro “microaggressions” you’ll ever see on film, a constant barrage of noisy disruptions to this normal family’s way of life, and eventually, an all-out riot. Suburbicon has received fair criticisms of sidelining these Black characters as simply being “these Black characters,” more symbols of trauma executed by, both within and outside of the text, white authors than actual characters. I understand and respect these criticisms, and understand if an argument of intention versus effect is unwelcome here.
But for me, Clooney’s intentions are clear by being unclear, and obvious by being subtle to the point of sidelining. The film, in fact, wants this storyline to be sidelined, to be othered, so it can make its fundamentally incisive point about white America’s sins of othering non-white people and painting them as monsters to ignore their own, painfully obvious, painfully monstrous sins. This race-based drama occurs in the margins of the Damon/Moore storyline because Damon and Moore, and white suburbanites in general, want Black folks to remain marginalized, to ignore the riot brewing literally at their door while focusing on cultivating their own mythology of a home and “winning” their own bullshit (a point put into stark focus during our national relationship and “coping” with 2020’s periods of unrest following continued racial injustices). Is there any branch, any attempt at working progressively and constructively made between the oppressor and the oppressed?
It comes, symbolically, via Jupe and Espinosa. The two children, who just want to have a normal fucking life without having to deal with all these adult-installed pieces of bullshit like systemic racism, play together often during the film, quietly bonding over their melancholy traumas and situations. At the risk of verging into spoiler territory, one gut-wrenchingly terrifying moment comes when Damon explicitly orders Jupe to no longer play with this child, for explicitly racist reasons, his subconscious need to keep “othering,” to keep ignoring the demons he’s directly responsible for exploding to the surface. Jupe’s answer to this order, weirdly, gives Suburbicon an actual ending of hope through the darkness — and I mean through the darkness. Floored, I tell you, floored!
3. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind
Image via Miramax
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Clooney’s directorial debut, is a monster flex, an oddly experimental work, an audacious yielding of “style,” and maybe most importantly, a clear indication of the topics and themes Clooney is interested in exploring as a filmmaker. It tells the “true story” of Chuck Barris (Sam Rockwell, mesmerizing), a prolific, influential TV producer and host (The Dating Game, The Gong Show) who happened to moonlight as a vicious contract killer for the CIA. Chucking every visual flourish he and DP Newton Thomas Sigel can think of at the book — striking impressive and immersive gold with a series of “practical transitions” that involve moving around people and sets to communicate surreal passages of time and space in one take — Clooney uses this tale, adapted by Charlie Kaufman from an “unauthorized autobiography” by Barris himself, as a springboard directly into the heart of American entertainment, geopolitical chaos, and the queasily lessening thread between the two. It’s a startlingly cynical film made with some of the most fun filmmaking techniques I’ve seen in recent cinema; a siren song of perfect technical choices to communicate the provocative theses being made. Rockwell plays Barris as a man who slowly realizes the truth of the depths of his inhumanity, and the depths of the inhumanity of an America he might be indirectly (or directly) responsible for exacerbating. Barris’ mode of television, a mode we see in full effect not just in unscripted television but Internet discourse today, is to rate people, competing them against each other for the whims of our basest entertainment, and when they no longer serve us, to “kill” them, usually by hitting a big ol’ gong. How far away is it to hop, skip, and erratically dance into literally killing people for a different kind of American need for violence, for eradicating assets who no longer serve us, for comfortable bloodlust? Sure, this literal tracking of metaphorically killing people to literally killing people (or as Barris puts it, “I dispose of people and yet I’m disposable”) feels a little obvious on paper. But in practice, it is consistently, dizzyingly executed with fiendish, even braggadocious skill that focuses on a welcome sense of distortion and ambiguity. The end credit song drop will punch you in the gut.
2. The Ides of March
Image via Sony Pictures Releasing
Released during the relatively optimistic period of Barack Obama‘s first term, a fact you can feel in the film’s aping of Shepard Fairey’s iconic piece of agitprop, The Ides of March has only sharpened in potency, in power, in disquieting relevance to our contemporary political landscape (watching this film during, say, a fraught presidential election is maybe not so recommended). “Power” is the operative word in this feature; based on the play Farragut North by future House of Cards creator Beau Willimon (and doing everything that show wants to do in less time and more efficacy), Ides of March strips down every Fairey poster and creeps behind the oft-performative curtain of even so-called “progressive Democrats” to reveal that power, raw, unvarnished, personal power, is the engine of every single decision, no matter how inclusive the coat of paint feels.
Ryan Gosling is our young, aspiring political campaign supervisor who gets to run through this meat grinder and try to come out the other side. He plays this role wonderfully, subtly, and clearly, even as he spars with all kinds of incredible acting talent, including Clooney himself (as our Obama-esque savior candidate with all kinds of horrible secrets; another perfect understanding of how to cast himself), Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Marisa Tomei, and especially Evan Rachel Wood. In adapting a play to the screen (with screenplay work by Willimon, Clooney, and frequent collaborator Grant Heslov), Clooney understands the film’s juice lies primarily in its words, and the people saying those words. As such, there is a purity in the picture’s sequence construction; gone are the Confessions flourishes and surrealisms, replaced with a straightforward communication of the facts in all their cutting punches. This is not to say the film possesses no style, just a different, cleaner, purer one that manages to thread the needle between the murkiness of ’70s conspiracy thrillers and ’90s prestige dramas (not to mention another barn-burner of a Desplat score that gives me serious Quincy Jones vibes).
All of this results in an uncomfortably entertaining watch, a beyond well-crafted work of devastating incisiveness that strips bare not just the idealism of such American institutions as “elections,” but of all human beings who claim to be behaving for the good of other human beings. Put it another way: The Ides of March has a powerfully examining shot of an American flag that The Monuments Men could only dream of.
1. Good Night, and Good Luck.
Image via Warner Bros.
The only film of Clooney’s directorial career thus far that’s been nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture, and for good reason. Good Night, and Good Luck. takes all of Clooney’s favored topics — American structures becoming weaponized, the fuzzy intersection between information and degrading entertainment, the decay and irrelevance of the old guard, the destructive craving of power, and the broader gulf between surface and substance — and fuses them all into a seamless, organic, and splendidly tactile feeling film that buzzes with subtle power in a neat and clean 90 minutes. In black-and-white sequence constructions that feel both caught and documentary-esque while still intentionally communicating tons of authorial meaning (DP Robert Elswit was also nominated for his work), we step into the story of celebrated CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn, perfect) as he and his staff find themselves becoming frontline soldiers in a war against baseless accusations, policing dissents in opinion and thought, and straight up bullying under the guise of American puritanism. All of these primal impulses power Senator Joseph McCarthy, whom history buffs will know used his position to insist many Americans were Communists, and beyond the fundamentally, grimly ironic fact that America itself was founded on the ostensible ideals of freedoms of expression, McCarthy never had any proof to bolster his surface-level bluster. For a film obsessed with surface, with lenses, with a need to sand the edges of subjectivity into as pure of objectivity as possible (Elswit doing his part by constantly putting other television frames within his camera frame), it makes its most canny decision by letting McCarthy, like Murrow did in his original programs, speak for himself. This flick is packed with a remarkable cast doing remarkable work — Strathairn, Clooney, Jeff Daniels, Ray Wise, Robert Downey Jr., Patricia Arquette, Frank Langella — but McCarthy is not given the grace of an A-list actor to play him. Instead, Clooney uses the most powerful weapon at his disposable: The truth, or as close as he can get, of simple archive footage of McCarthy saying exactly what he said.
Good Night, and Good Luck. doesn’t make these sociopolitical points in dry, dreary, or unentertaining ways. Unlike some of his later works, Clooney takes the idea of “showing, not telling” to its platonic ideal; everything we learn about these characters, their goals, and the results of their action is learned in the present tense as they perform their jobs (ironic, given so much of the job at hand is literally telling things to people). As such, it tends to play like a gripping procedural thriller, a no-frills rabble-rouser that knows it doesn’t need to put any sauce on a fundamentally strong recipe (Aaron Sorkin, take notes). One key conflict on the side of the film is Murrow’s distaste for having to host a fluffy celebrity chat show, a sort of “one for them” to give him the runway for his “one for me” hard journalistic efforts. But Good Night, and Good Luck. proves you can have it both ways; you can entertain and inform, and these divisions Clooney is so intent on examining are a lot more arbitrarily yielded than they may inherently seem on first glance.
A level of, well, maybe not “hope” but of “hardened progress” helps shade the oft-hardened edges of Good Night, and Good Luck., one that gives it its conscience, its soul, and despite how Murrow might want a thesis about the truth to operate, its heart. This gives the film its staying power and present tense relevance. It reminds us, without needing to hammer the point over us, that hard work and as pure of intentions and possible can shatter through any performatively aggressive surface in its way. “Good luck” is part of it, sure. But Clooney’s best film shows us that luck can and should be tempered and forged with good work, too. Only then can we earn our good nights.
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About The Author
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Gregory Lawrence (aka Greg Smith) is a writer, director, performer, songwriter, and comedian. He’s an associate editor for Collider and has written for Shudder, CBS, Paste Magazine, Guff, Smosh, Obsev Studios, and more. He loves pizza and the Mortal Kombat movie. For more, www.smithlgreg.com
From Gregory Lawrence