Total Recall

Definitive Naomi Watts Performances

In this week's Total Recall, we look back at the roles that helped define the Demolition's star's career.

by | April 6, 2016 | Comments

Naomi Watts‘ appearance in this weekend’s Demolition expands an eclectic filmography that’s seen her going from indie dramas to big-budget blockbusters and back again. In honor of this latest venture to the big screen, we decided to take a look back at some of her best-reviewed films and gather up a list of definitive Naomi Watts performances. It’s time for Total Recall!

Mother and Child (2010) 78%

Writer-director Rodrigo Garcia Barcha followed his Sixth Sense-ish thriller Passengers with this quiet character study, which traces the impact of adoption through the stories of three women (played by Watts, Annette Bening, and Kerry Washington) and their families. Add in an ensemble supporting cast that included Jimmy Smits, Amy Brenneman, and Samuel L. Jackson and you’ve got a tremendously talented group of stars whose subtle work helped critics look past Mother and Child’s occasionally bumpy script. “The film reminds us that character, not plot, is what binds us to a story,” observed Colin Covert of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “Cutting between scenes of each in her unique environment, the movie tantalizes us.”

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Fair Game (2010) 79%

Frequent co-stars Naomi Watts and Sean Penn reunited for their third production with 2010’s Fair Game, a dramatization of the so-called “Plamegate” affair — a 2003 incident that saw CIA agent Valerie Plame resigning from the agency after her identity was outed by a journalist writing for the Washington Post. Feeling Plame’s exposure was politically motivated retribution for comments made by her husband Joseph C. Wilson, an ambassador who’d been openly critical of the current administration, the two cooperated with a special investigator’s grand jury investigation — and then pursued civil action against those they held responsible. A tough story to tell without seeming like you have an axe to grind, but according to most critics, director Doug Liman and his stars did a bang-up job. “The blind-siding of Valerie Plame wasn’t fair and wasn’t a game,” wrote Joe Williams for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “but this cinematic outcome is a touchdown for true patriots.”

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21 Grams (2003) 80%

One of several collaborations between Watts and Alejandro González Iñárritu, 21 Grams certainly isn’t the happiest film on this list, but it wrings some outstanding performances (not to mention plenty of tears) out of an outstanding cast. Using a handful of seemingly disparate plot threads, Iñárritu plunged viewers into the darkness pooling out of a tragedy unintentionally wrought by an ex-con (Benicio del Toro) whose irrevocable mistake has a profound impact on a dying math professor (Sean Penn) and a woman with a complicated past (Naomi Watts) — all of which are drawn irrevocably together by the final act. Watts and del Toro both earned Oscar nominations for their work, and neither could be accused of holding anything back; as Moira MacDonald wrote for the Seattle Times, “Watching it is a wrenching experience; the usual layers of distance between actors and audience are stripped away, and we not only watch their anguish, but become part of it.”

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The Impossible (2012) 81%

Set out to make a movie about one of the more horrific tragedies in recent memory, and you’ve got your work cut out for you — like any good dramatist, you have to make real-life events cinema-worthy without dishonoring the people who actually experienced them, but with the added pressure of large-scale death and destruction hanging over your film. By most accounts, Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Impossible did a noble enough job of representing the Indian Ocean tsunami that wreaked havoc on Boxing Day of 2004, and while some critics resented the way it focused on one white family of tourists (led by Watts and Ewan McGregor) at the expense of the people who actually lived in the region, and others dismissed the whole thing as manipulative Oscar bait, most writers found it (ahem) impossible not to be moved. Calling it “An intense and compelling family melodrama,” Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir argued that it “sets a new standard for disaster cinema.”

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Mulholland Drive (2001) 83%

It resists synopsis and analysis in characteristically Lynchian fashion, but whatever it may or may not actually be about, Mulholland Drive opens a dark window into the twilight fringes of Hollywood inhabited by an aspiring actress (Naomi Watts) who arrives in Los Angeles and discovers an amnesiac woman (Laura Harring) living in her aunt’s apartment. As for the film itself, well, critics have been puzzling over its surreal imagery, nonlinear plot, and jumbled narrative since Mulholland arrived in theaters — but whether or not you can figure out what it all means, argued the New York Observer’s Andrew Sarris, it’s “One of the very few movies in which the pieces not only add up to much more than the whole, but also supersede it with a series of (for the most part) fascinating fragments.”

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King Kong (2005) 84%

It takes a lot of guts to step into a role that’s already been made famous by another actor, so even if her work in Peter Jackson’s King Kong had been downright awful, Watts would have deserved major points simply for agreeing to try and assume the part of the simian-bewitching Ann Darrow from the legendary Fay Wray. Happily for all concerned, the 21st century Kong — while perhaps unnecessary — managed to graft modern effects onto a timeless tale without putting too big of a dent in the iconic original’s charm. “Monstrous. Monumental. Magnificent,” wrote Tom Long for the Detroit News. “Use any term you want, there’s no denying the power, genius and spectacle of King Kong, which is certainly the biggest movie of the year and possibly the biggest movie ever made.”

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While We're Young (2015) 84%

It would be hard to argue that there’s a shortage of indie dramedies about ennui-riddled upper middle-class New York Caucasians, but that doesn’t mean their stories can’t be effectively told by the right director with the right script. Case in point: While We’re Young, in which Watts and Ben Stiller co-star as spouses whose repressed misgivings about their lives are stirred up when they make the acquaintance of a younger couple (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried) who seem to have the spark they fear they’ve lost along the way. “If you’ve been wishing you could see a good Woody Allen comedy again, you should check out Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young,” wrote the Globe and Mail’s Liam Lacey, saying it “sees the 45-year-old director moving in on Allen’s territory — the Manhattan comedy of manners.”

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Eastern Promises (2007) 89%

Two years after mixing equal parts “bloody” and “thought-provoking” to create A History of Violence, David Cronenberg and Viggo Mortensen reunited for Eastern Promises, an equally hard-hitting drama about a driver for the Russian mafia. Promises‘ plot is set in motion after a midwife (Watts) delivers a baby whose teenage mother dies in childbirth; after a clue in the girl’s belongings leads to a Russian mob boss, things quickly start to get pretty gnarly for all concerned, including an infamous fight scene taking place in a steam room. “If you don’t mind bloodshed and are drawn to taut thrillers with fascinating characters portrayed skillfully,” wrote Claudia Puig for USA Today, “Eastern Promises is just the ticket.”

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Birdman (2014) 91%

Michael Keaton received most of the attention for Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Birdman, and deservedly so — aside from the impressive level of visual craft that went into preserving the illusion that the movie took place in a single shot, its primary asset is its star, particularly for viewers who missed Keaton during his long absence from leading roles. That said, Iñárritu assembled a stellar cast all the way around for the project, including Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Amy Ryan, and Naomi Watts. Whether you’re a Birdman fan or you agree with the backlash, this look at the emotional travails of a washed-up actor trying to prove his dramatic mettle with a stage play is eminently well acted by a top-to-bottom talented ensemble. “Birdman, more than most, seems a film that deserves a second viewing,” wrote Jocelyn Novecek for the Associated Press. “Not only to admire the work of Keaton and his co-stars, but to delve into its many layers.”

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Flirting (1992) 96%

Writer-director John Duigan may have felt like he landed a casting coup when he signed Nicole Kidman for Flirting, but the rising Australian star — then enjoying a growing international profile thanks to her work in Dead Calm and Days of Thunder — was only part of a stellar ensemble cast packed with future household names, including Watts and Thandie Newton. Although its storyline follows the same rough contours as many other coming-of-age dramas, those performances — and the skill with which Duigan told his characters’ stories — left many critics reeling. “Flirting is one of those rare movies with characters I cared about intensely,” enthused Roger Ebert. “I didn’t simply observe them on the screen, I got involved in their decisions and hoped they made the right ones.”

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