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7 best Jack Nicholson movies, ranked

Jack Nicholson in "The Shining."
Warner Bros. / Warner Bros.

For about 35 years, Jack Nicholson had a strong claim for being the best actor in Hollywood. After his breakthrough in 1969’s Easy Rider, it was clear that Nicholson would become a star. With a contagious smile, signature laugh, and irresistible charm, Nicholson had the looks and the talent that made him a Hollywood leading man. Yet, Nicholson also loved to steal the show as a supporting actor, as you’ll see in the rankings below.

Nicholson’s résumé speaks for itself. With 12 Oscar nominations, he is the most nominated male actor in Academy Awards history. Nicholson won three times, “one for every decade,” as he jokingly once said. It’s hard to believe that Nicholson has not acted since 2010’s How Do You Know. Yet, his legacy remains unmatched.

To honor one of the greatest of all time, we did the impossible and ranked Nicholson’s seven best movies.

7. Batman (1989)

Michael Keaton as Batman and Jack Nicholson as Joker.
Warner Bros.

Out of all the entries on the list, I’d bet a lot of money that The Batman is the one that leads to the most angry comments in my inbox. What’s not up for debate is Nicholson’s profound impact on the superhero genre, something I’d imagine he never considered when he took the role. In Tim Burton’s Batman, Nicholson plays Jack Napier, a mobster who transforms into the Joker after falling into a vat of chemicals.

While Keaton plays a gloomy, stoic Batman, Nicholson’s Joker is a charismatic, over-the-top psychopath. Before Heath Ledger’s turn in The Dark Knight, Nicholson’s Joker was the gold standard for comic book villains. Quentin Tarantino famously said Marvel actors aren’t movie stars, and for the most part, he’s right. Nicholson is the opposite. His performance defines the character, not vice versa.

Stream Batman on Max.

6. Easy Rider (1969)

A lawyer stands in front of two men and smirks.
Columbia Pictures

This one is for old D.H. Lawrence. Every acting legend has a role that displays their potential for the first time. It’s the transformative performance that people can point to as the moment that changed their career, like Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise and Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver. For Nicholson, that role came in Easy Rider, the road drama starring Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper as two bikers on a cross-country trip to find spiritual enlightenment. It’s one of the most influential films of the counterculture movement, and Nicholson’s George Hanson is one of Easy Rider’s lasting legacies.

Hanson is a slick, alcoholic lawyer who joins Wyatt (Fonda) and Billy (Hopper) on their trip to New Orleans. From the image of him on the back of a motorcycle wearing a football helmet to his marijuana-induced rant about aliens, the role of Hanson iwa a “star is born” moment for Nicholson. Though only in the film for a short time, Nicholson’s memorable appearance resulted in his first Oscar nomination, for Best Supporting Actor.

Rent Easy Rider on Prime Video, Google, YouTube, or Apple.

5. Terms of Endearment (1983)

A man raises his glass for cheers with a woman while sitting at a table.
Paramount Pictures

Terms of Endearment will leave you in a puddle of tears. James L. Brooks’ family drama stars Shirley MacLaine as Aurora Greenway (Shirley MacLaine), a widow who constantly butts heads with her rebellious daughter, Emma (The Ranch’s Debra Winger), after she marries a college professor and moves away. The heart of Terms of Endearment is the relationship between Aurora and Emma, which tears at your emotions as the film progresses.

Mixed in with the sadness are moments of hilarity and laughter thanks to Jack Nicholson’s Garrett Breedlove, the retired astronaut who lives next door to Aurora. Thanks to his abilirty to be sleazily charming, Garrett’s presence provides a lovely rom-com detour from the heaviness of the family drama. Nicholson’s memorable performance resulted in his second Oscar victory, his first for Supporting Actor.

Stream Terms of Endearment on Paramount+

4. The Shining (1980)

Jack Nicholson in The Shining.
Warner Brothers Pictures

If the most famous line from an iconic film is ad-libbed, you are a special actor. That’s the case for “Heeeere’s Johnny,” which Nicholson improvised as an homage to Ed McMahon’s introduction for Johnny Carson. Nicholson’s Jack Torrance utters the famous phrase after swinging an ax like a wild man as he tries to kill his family, and his performance in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is the actor’s scariest role in his filmography.

Nicholson plays a writer and recovering alcoholic who slowly goes insane while serving as winter caretaker for the Overlook Hotel. It’s a showy, physical performance from Nicholson, whose violent outbursts and terrifying monologues still send chills down one’s spine. Even though Stephen King (who wrote the book it’s based on) hated the film, Nicholson’s committed performance is undeniable.

Rent The Shining on Prime Video, Google, YouTube, or Apple.

3. Chinatown (1974)

Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway in Chinatown.
Paramount Pictures

If Easy Rider was Nicholson’s introduction to stardom, Chinatown cemented him as one of the greats. Roman Polanski’s neo-noir features Nicholson as Jake Gittes, a private investigator in the 1930s Los Angeles hired by Evelyn Mulwray to investigate her husband’s suspicious activities. Jake eventually learns that an imposter pretending to be Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) hired him, adding further intrigue to the mystery. 

He eventually learns that Evelyn’s father (John Huston) may be a suspect in a deeper, more dangerous conspiracy. Robert Towne’s Oscar-winning script is considered one of the best screenplays ever. However, this movie only works because of Nicholson, who elevates the already great material with wisdom, ignorance, and vulnerability.

Stream Chinatown on Netflix or Paramount+.

2. A Few Good Men (1992)

Jack Nicholson sits on a court stand and grinds his teeth.
Columbia Pictures

If you can handle the truth, listen to this: Rob Reiner, who directed the courtroom movie A Few Good Men, revealed what it was like directing the final courtroom scene when Nicholson’s Colonel Jessup takes the stand. Reiner decided to film the reaction shots of the other characters in the room before turning the camera around on Nicholson. Despite being off-camera, Reiner said Nicholson gave “exactly the same performance that you see that’s on camera.”

When Reiner joked that Nicholson should “save a little” for the “real” take, Nicholson responded by saying how much he loves to act, which is why he was making an effort for every take. This mindset and dedication to the craft is what makes Nicholson a genius. Nicholson versus Cruise in the courtroom is an acting master class. Jessup is an evil, corrupt man with no redeeming qualities. Yet, I want to watch his scenes the most, which is a testament to Nicholson’s talent. A Few Good Men remains Nicholson’s best supporting performance of his illustrious career.

Rent A Few Good Men on Prime Video, Google, YouTube, or Apple.

1. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

Jack Nicholson and Will Sampson in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest.
United Artists

Everything you want in a Nicholson performance is present in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Nicholson stars as Randle P. McMurphy, a convict who pretends to be insane so he can go to a mental institution instead of prison. Randle is a rambunctious troublemaker who injects life into the facility, which goes against the authoritarian atmosphere implemented by Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), one of the best movie villains of all time.

Nicholson thrives as the antihero leading a rebellion against the establishment. Randle is not a good guy, yet Nicholson’s smile and charm are so infectious that you look the other way when he steals a few bucks from his fellow patients. It’s a triumphant portrayal of a tragic hero. Nicholson, who won the Oscar for Best Actor, has never been better.

Rent One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest on Prime Video, Google, YouTube, or Apple.

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