Spike Lee's Best Movies
In this week's Total Recall, we count down the best-reviewed work of the Oldboy director.
Spike Lee returns to theaters with Oldboy this weekend, and while his remake of the revenge classic marks the first "Film" in a career full of "Joints," it's still the same old Spike behind the cameras -- which, as this week's list will attest, is a very good thing indeed. With comedies, dramas, and documentaries to choose from, there's something for everybody here, especially if you like your pictures full of energy and attitude. So what are you waiting for? It's time for Total Recall!
10. 25th Hour
If you were about to go to prison for an extended stretch, what would you do with your last day of freedom? It's a question most of us will never have to face, but as presented by Spike Lee in 2002's 25th Hour, the answers still prove compelling. Starring Edward Norton as a convicted drug dealer making a last-ditch effort to straighten out his personal life before being carted off to the pokey, Hour delves into the sorts of complicated relationships that Lee thrives on -- fathers and sons, friends from different backgrounds, and even good love gone wrong -- and its rather messy blend of interpersonal dynamics was sweetened by the work of a stellar supporting cast that included Philip Seymour Hoffman, Brian Cox, Rosario Dawson, and Anna Paquin. "It's a long, complex, deeply flawed work," wrote Glenn Lovell for the San Jose Mercury News, before hastening to add that it was "also quite possibly Lee's most ambitious and accusatory movie since Do the Right Thing in 1989."
9. He Got Game
Lee's third joint with Denzel Washington, 1998's He Got Game presented a tricky blend of ex-con comedy, father-son redemption tale, and social commentary, all told through the bumpy tale of Jake Shuttlesworth (Washington), a prisoner granted temporary parole by an unscrupulous warden (Ned Beatty) as part of a backroom deal that leaves Jake scrambling to convince his estranged son (real-life NBA star Ray Allen) to sign with the governor's alma mater. Topped off with the only soundtrack ever to bring together Aaron Copland and Public Enemy, Game probably shouldn't have worked, but most critics were impressed; as Janet Maslin wrote for the New York Times, "Lee may never have the narrow focus to sustain a film on storytelling alone, and he may never need it. What he has here is an explosion of spectacular gambits and a great high-concept hook."
8. Jungle Fever
The same year Michael Jackson told us it didn't matter if we were black or white, Lee presented a more nuanced -- and troubled -- look at racial dynamics with Jungle Fever. The story of a black architect (Wesley Snipes) who falls for a white temp (Annabella Sciorra) in his office, Fever finds Lee examining the battle between the sexes while weighing in on the complications that can arise when couples bond across racial boundaries. "Spike Lee's still in charge," wrote an appreciative Desson Thomson for the Washington Post. "Once again, he takes a politically charged situation and stirs it up with color, music and irony. The result, for the most part, is a provocative, quintessentially Spike symphony."
Hiring Spike Lee to direct a live comedy film might seem a little like bringing a bazooka to a cap gun fight, but even if the constraints of the format prevented him from flexing his usual stylistic flair, The Original Kings of Comedy still found him working near the top of his game -- a game elevated considerably by the stand-up chops displayed by stars Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer, and Bernie Mac. "The film offers more than just yuks," observed an appreciative Jeffrey M. Anderson for Combustible Celluloid. "As in Lee's best work, the film intelligently discusses race and race relations, though this time through the guise of humor."
6. Inside Man
Denzel Washington teamed up with Spike Lee for the fourth time in this heist flick, which pitted New York police detective Keith Frazier (Washington) against a bank robber (Clive Owen) who may not be everything he seems. A familiar premise? Absolutely, and there were more than a few people who raised an eyebrow at the knowledge that Spike Lee would direct what Newsweek's David Ansen called an "unapologetic genre movie." As far as genre movies go, however, Inside Man is pretty smart stuff -- and with a top-shelf cast that surrounded Washington and Owen with Jodie Foster, Willem Dafoe, and Christopher Plummer, well...it isn't hard to see why this represented Lee's biggest commercial success, or why talk of a sequel started soon after the studio finished adding up the grosses. In the words of CHUD's Devin Faraci, "Inside Man is the Spike Lee film for people who don't go to see Spike Lee films, and it's also a fun treat for people who see everything the man does."