Oscar Isaac films – ranked!

Casting the rakish, eager Isaac as a Han Solo figure in the latest Star Wars cycle seemed a great idea on paper. In the first of his outings, the character was thin but animated by his sturdy labrador charisma; he looked great in pilot gear, and his faintly queer chemistry with co-star John Boyega was promising. The script somehow made him less interesting with each iteration, but that’s not Isaac’s fault.

George Clooney’s muddled anti-racism farce got a critical pasting when it came out (and swiftly vanished) in 2017. I’m not about to launch a defence of it, but Isaac is its brightest spot. As a slick, canny insurance agent with easy patter and a natty moustache, he enters early, briefly quickens proceedings with a sense of wit and danger, and is killed off all too quickly. Let the film’s subsequent failure be a lesson to us all.

In 2009, way before he reached household name status, Isaac won an Australian Film Institute award for this earnest, compelling factual drama about journalistic derring-do in East Timor. As the future East Timor president and Nobel laureate José Ramos-Horta, he’s immediately striking, filling out what could be a standard, noble biopic turn with bristly movie-star swagger.

People can keep debating the merits of director Denis Villeneuve extending his adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi doorstop across (hopefully) two sprawling films, but the fact that this supersizing gives us more time with Isaac’s bearishly paternal, regally bearded Duke Leto Atreides is a clear win. He gives this potentially dour undertaking a hint of sex to go with his gravitas; as his onscreen son, Timothée Chalamet is a little overpowered.

Ryan Gosling’s brooding, satin-jacketed getaway driver may have been the focus, but Nicolas Winding Refn’s gorgeous, grisly heist thriller was a breakthrough for Isaac, alerting casual moviegoers to his cool, faintly nasty electricity on screen. As Carey Mulligan’s no-good ex-con husband, he again suffered an early exit, though lingered in the memory.

Coming soon to UK cinemas, Paul Schrader’s strange, simmering underworld mood piece is the most dedicated showcase Isaac has had in several years, and he makes the most of it. Playing a lone-wolf gambler as slippery as his over-creamed hair, he’s aloof and elusive but never loses our interest. There’s always something clicking away behind that cool gaze, and he sparks to kinda-love interest Tiffany Haddish in ways you wouldn’t expect.

Massively underrated when it came out in 2014, this cool, knotty Patricia Highsmith adaptation underlined just how perfectly tailored Isaac’s smoky, withholding demeanour is for film noir. Director Hossein Amini had previously written Drive, and he knew exactly how to use Isaac as a smooth-talking tourist guide and scam artist, meeting his match in Viggo Mortensen’s shady American abroad.

Are mad scientists supposed to be this sexy? Yes, in the case of Alex Garland’s artificial-intelligence chamber piece, which hinges on the highly seductive way Isaac’s reclusive internet CEO sells his Frankenstein-esque experiments in robotics. His turn is a frightening, brilliantly funny satire of tech-bro alpha posturing – capped off with a disco-dancing scene that launched a million gifs.

Perhaps one day Isaac will excel at playing an ordinary upstanding citizen, but not yet: he just wears seamy volatility like a bespoke sharkskin suit. Still, there’s a misdirected undertow of decency to his performance as the immigrant New York businessman Abel Morales, drawn into gangsterism to protect his company and family. Isaac rivetingly balances small-time Scarface grandstanding with moral finesse.

After years of next big thing whispers, Isaac finally earned great actor status – plus an armful of critics’ awards – with his exquisite portrayal of a young folk singer battling poverty, insecurity and the winter freeze in the Coen brothers’ lovely, elegiac snapshot of the early-60s Greenwich Village music scene. The Academy, clueless as ever, didn’t even nominate him. More fool them, since it’s a performance for the ages: tenderly vulnerable beneath his wry, prickly posing, and showing off dreamy pipes to boot.




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