He acts! He sings! He dances! He walks on the freakin’ moon! Yes, it certainly appears that Ryan Gosling can do close to anything, and all of it surpassingly well. As the multitalented actor blasts off this weekend as astronaut Neil Armstrong in “First Man,” the Apollo 11 drama that reunites him with “La La Land” director Damien Chazelle, we thought it would be a great time to count down Gosling’s top 11 film performances.
11. Blade Runner 2049
You have to say this much for Denis Villeneuve’s long-awaited sequel to Ridley Scott’s influential cult-fave sci-fi drama: This time, there can be no debate over whether the protagonist actually is a replicant. Thirty years after the events of the previous film, KD6.3-7 (Gosling) — known as K for short, and ultimately called Joe — is a new and improved replicant employed by LAPD to hunt down and “retire” rogue older models. Not unexpectedly, given that the beans have been spilled in feature stories and teaser trailers for the past year or so, K’s latest case brings him into contact with Deckard (an affectingly soulful Harrison Ford), the eponymous hero of Scott’s 1982 original. During their encounters, and throughout most of the other scenes in the movie, Gosling strikes a deft balance of robotic reserve and human emotion while portraying K as an increasingly sympathetic figure who doesn’t realize until he’s well into his mission that he’s actually on a journey of self-discovery.
10. The Believer
Gosling made his first significant impact on pop-culture consciousness (if you don’t count his fine supporting turn in 2000’s “Remember the Titans”) with his fearless portrayal of Daniel Balint, a former Jewish yeshiva student turned neo-Nazi skinhead, in writer-director Henry Bean’s wildly uneven but deeply unsettling drama, a Grand Jury Prize-winner at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival. Even audiences who had serious reservations about the movie — which reportedly was based on real-life events — were suitably impressed by the toxic mix of rage, self-loathing and tragic malleability that fueled Gosling’s dynamic performance.
Liz Hedges/Fuller/Seven Arts/Kob
9. The Big Short
Gosling is dead solid perfect as narrator and ringmaster for director Adam McKay’s three-ring circus of unbridled greed, reckless speculation and financial catastrophe, playing Deutsche Bank salesman Jared Vennett as a casually cynical SOB who’s repeatedly shocked by the immensity of the fraud and hubris he encounters while attempting to exploit the housing-bubble burst of 2007-08. The beauty of Gosling’s performance is his ability to simultaneously convey brazenly unvarnished avarice — Vennett winds up making $47 million off the sale of credit default swaps — and just the subtlest hints of moral queasiness. In short, he plays a bastard who is genuinely surprised to find that even worse bastards exist in his world.
Plan B/Regency Enterprises/Param
8. Lars and the Real Girl
Watching some movies is like witnessing the efforts of a bomb-disposal squad: You can’t help worrying that, if somebody involved makes one wrong move, everything will blow up in their faces. Craig Gillespie’s ineffably appealing “Lars and the Real Girl” is one of those movies. And Gosling’s performance as Lars, a small-town eccentric who develops a chaste relationship with an anatomically correct sex doll he treats as a real, wheelchair-bound person, is nothing short of mesmerizing as the acting equivalent of a high wire act. At the considerable risk of looking like a jackass, or worse, at any moment, Gosling never makes a false move, or pushes too hard, as he gently emphasizes his character’s sympathetic ingenuousness, making it surprisingly easy to accept that other townspeople (well, most of them) are willing to humor his singularly quirky behavior.
Sidney Kimmel Entertainment/Koba
7. The Slaughter Rule
One year after his attention-grabbing breakthrough in “The Believer,” Gosling made lightning strike a second time for himself at the Sundance Film Festival with his sensitive performance as Roy Chutney, a small-town high school senior who learns some tough life lessons following the death (a possible suicide) of his father. After being cut from his school’s football team, the aimless young man is easily talked into upping his game by Gideon Ferguson (a brilliant David Morse), a grizzled eccentric who arranges amateur matches for six-man football squads. The movie’s dramatic highlight is a homoerotically charged scene in which Gideon waxes enthusiastic about the various ways athletes express camaraderie. With equal measures of anger, confusion, suspicion and embarrassment, all of them vividly conveyed by Gosling, Roy counters that hugging teammates and grabbing asses don’t rank high among his favorite activities.
6. The Notebook
Such is the enduring if not addictive appeal of Nick Cassavetes’ emotionally effective weepie based on Nicholas Sparks’ novel that some people — including the wives of certain film critics — have watched it enough times to remember long snatches of dialogue, and speak key lines simultaneously with the actors on screen. Haters got to hate, of course, and scores of other folks have remained immune to the movie’s charms. But, to paraphrase another oft-quoted movie, even in this cynical age, you must remember this: A kiss is still a kiss. Gosling and co-star Rachel McAdams work some old-fashioned romantic movie magic here, playing two star-crossed lovers — roles that, in a more innocent time, might have gone to Troy Donahue and Sandra Dee — with winning sincerity and compelling conviction.
5. The Ides of March
Politics are portrayed as a matter of life or death, figuratively and otherwise, during George Clooney’s intelligent and suspenseful drama, in which an inconvenient death complicates a Presidential contender’s pursuit of his party’s nomination. Gosling emerges as first among equals in a strong ensemble cast (including Paul Giamatti, Jeffrey Wright, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Clooney himself as the POTUS wannabe) by persuasively charting every step in a fascinating devolution from earnest idealist to cold manipulator as Stephen Meyers, a junior campaign manager who really does know where, and why, at least one of the bodies is buried. The scene where Gosling and Clooney verbally thrust and parry in a deserted restaurant is as gripping as any climactic faceoff in any comic-book movie ever made.
4. The Nice Guys
Gosling and Russell Crowe develop such potent comic chemistry in Shane Black’s brutally amusing 1970s pastiche, you cannot help wishing the movie had fared sufficiently better at the box office to launch a long-running franchise. While Crowe prowls through the proceedings like a mood-swinging grizzly bear as tough-guy enforcer Jack Healy, Gosling buzzes about like a heavy-drinking, prone-to-pratfalling gadfly as Holland March, a third-rate private eye who refuses to believe he’s in way over his head during a missing-person investigation, and is sporadically swatted by Healy (among others) as the mismatched pair pursues clues high and low in Polyester Era L.A.
3. La La Land
Mix the exuberant zest of “Singin’ in the Rain” with the melancholy romanticism of “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” then sprinkle with the career clashes and unsynchronized passions of Martin Scorsese’s “New York, New York,” and you have Damien Chazelle’s wonderfully idiosyncratic musical comedy about life, love and loss in the City of Angels. Gosling and Emma Stone are perfectly cast as, respectively, an uncompromising jazz pianist and an ambitious but self-doubting actress, and their performances are so free and fresh that it’s difficult to discern whatever shrewd calculations that must have gone into making everything seem so effortless and immediate. Overall, this is a movie musical that makes you wish they made more movie musicals these days, if only to see more of multitasking Gosling singing, dancing, playing piano, and acting his broken heart out.
Gosling has played more than a few unsavory characters over his career, including a cunning sociopath (2002’s “Murder by Numbers”), an alleged multiple murderer (2010’s “All Good Things”), and a drug-addicted middle-school teacher who may be beyond redemption (2006’s “Half Nelson”). (Come to think of it, some audiences had their doubts about the moody husband he played in 2010’s “Blue Valentine” as well.) But when it comes to expressing cold-blooded, brass-balled badassery, nothing else on the actor’s resume compares to his furiously intense portrayal of an anonymous getaway driver in Nicolas Winding Refn’s sleek, slick and sometimes savagely violent thriller. Ironically, this 21st century Man with No Name gets into real trouble only when he atypically does a good deed — or what might pass for a good deed in his world — by helping a young mother whose ex-convict husband must attempt a robbery to pay off old debts to gangsters. But even when he has the best of intentions, that doesn’t stop him from being beastly, particularly in the movie’s most shocking scene, where he viciously beats to death a hit man in an elevator while the mother watches in horror.
1. First Man
It’s commonplace to praise actors for holding nothing back. But the genius of Gosling’s personal-best performance as Neil Armstrong, the aeronautical engineer who became the original NASA moonwalker, is his ability to keep his audience enthralled and empathetic by holding just about everything back. Gosling’s Armstrong is a buttoned-down, tightly focused obsessive who relentlessly stifles his emotions while dealing with challenges ranging from the fatal illness of his young daughter (early on, we see him methodically searching for specialists somewhere, anywhere, to treat her brain tumor) to a harrowing emergency during the Gemini 8 mission that almost ends with an irreversible spin into the unforgiving blackness of space. Periodically, we catch fleeting, teasing glimpses of what he hides from the world, and from himself. Much more often, however, Gosling provocatively insinuates that Armstrong isn’t just reluctant but quite possibly incapable of bearing his soul. In what arguably is the most revealing scene in “First Man,” Janet Armstrong (Claire Foy) practically browbeats her husband into warning their sons about the possibility of his not returning from his Apollo 11 adventure. So he sits down with the boys and dutifully answers their questions — with words that sound as vague, scripted and rehearsed as his responses to total strangers at a press conference. It’s as though this astronaut made up his mind long ago: To succeed and survive, feelings are not an option.