Put Ryan Gosling in front of a camera, and there’s not much he can’t do. Transform into a self-hating Jewish neo-Nazi? No problem. Haughtily break down the 2007 housing collapse using Jenga pieces? You got it. Have a believably loving relationship with a lifelike sex doll? Hold his beer; he’s going to work.
For the last 20+ years, Gosling has employed his divinely sculpted good looks you can’t buy, the prepossessing charm you can’t teach, and his impeccable acting talent you can’t duplicate to make himself an amorphous vessel for characters to take shape in. And the 20 best Ryan Gosling movies prove that and more.
What comes with being able to do almost anything on screen is an uncanny ability to make audiences believe anything they see. Would a man send a letter each day to a lost lover? Probably not, but he made us believe every guy should do so in The Notebook. There’s no way to find an ounce of empathy for an iconoclastic Jewish neo-Nazi, right? See what Gosling did in The Believer, and then get back to me. A drug-addicted teacher with a heart of gold (Half Nelson); a stunt car driver turned assassin (Drive); a criminal with a bondage kink, and mommy issues (Only God Forgives). Those are all people Gosling has been and (successfully) convinced us could exist in the same world we do. This list of the 20 best Ryan Gosling movies is what made him a legend and made you a believer.
The Slaughter Rule (2002)
In his third acting role in a theatrically released film, Gosling stars as disparaged teenager Roy Chutney trying to maintain his self-confidence while the world around him tries to strip it away. Dealing with parental estrangement, high school football dreams deferred, and borderline alcoholism creates a coming-of-age story Gosling delivers on all fronts.
Remember The Titans (2000)
Before he was dancing under the L.A. night sky with Emma Stone in La La Land or strumming his heart out on the ukulele for Michelle Williams’s awkward dance routine in Blue Valentine, he was dancing across racial barriers to the tune of Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” in Remember The Titans. While his part isn’t that significant, the movie role marks his first major film acting credit and thus the start of one of the most accomplished careers of a movie actor of the 21st century. Moreover, it shows you that even the smallest Gosling parts leave a lasting memory.
The Believer (2001)
This is where it all started. The jazz dancing, sex doll-loving, replicant-hunting leading man got his first starring role in a film as a virulent Jewish neo-Nazi. Gosling will make you hate his character of Danny Balint in the best way. His self-hate manifests in the suicide threat he makes to a New York Times reporter who reveals he knows Daniel is Jewish. You’ll have to hold back from hurling saliva at your TV screen when he aggressively blames the father of an infant son murdered by a Nazi. Gosling loses himself in this character to the point that remembering the actor behind the role is actually a good guy.
Blue Valentine (2010)
If Ryan Gosling asks you to dance, you dance, especially if he’s willing to sing like his vocal cords are half-frog while playing the ukelele in the Blue Valentine. Written and directed by The Place Beyond the Pines director Derek Cianfrance, Gosling plays one of his most detestable roles as Dean Pereira, an earnest everyman who devolves into an abusive alcoholic. Some of the fights in his tumultuous relationship with his on-screen wife, Cynthia “Cindy” Heller (Michelle Williams), border on being too real to watch, but that’s what makes Blue Valentine an authentic look at what happens when love isn’t enough to keep two people from growing apart.
Gangster Squad (2013)
Gosling is so good at being a killer in movies like Gangster Squad because he has an indomitable cool where he’s phased by nothing yet aware of everything. That’s how he plays Detective Jerry Wooters, a cop that’s part of LAPD chief Bill Parker’s (Nick Nolte) secret police force tasked with taking down vicious mobster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) in this ’40s gangster flick. Gosling and Emma Stone’s pre-La La Land chemistry is on display as she engages in a torrid affair with Gosling as Cohen’s lover and social etiquette teacher Grace Faraday. Nearly every great actor of the last 50 years has an exceptional gangster flick in their filmography, and Gosling checks that box off in captivating fashion with Gangster Squad.
Half Nelson (2006)
Gosling plays a history teacher whose heart is in the right place for his students, but his body and mind are fighting through drug addiction. Gosling doesn’t pull any punches as Dan Dunne and fully embraces the torturous demons the teacher is battling while trying to keep one of his students, Drey (Shareeka Epps), from falling into the same world he’s struggling to get out of. You won’t find many Gosling performances as conflicted as this one, but it’s essential viewing to understand his immense range truly.
Lars and the Real Girl (2007)
The first time Gosling was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor in a Motion Picture–Musical or Comedy was for playing an emotionally stunted Wisconsin man who forms a real-life relationship with a sex doll. At first, the film appears to be a quirky story about an awkward adult with little to no social skills, which his family and friends detrimentally coddle. But Gosling plays the character with a level of debilitating grief over his birth coinciding with his mother’s death and his lack of masculine maturation, which turns his relationship with a lifelike doll from weird to sad. Gosling commands empathy from you; there’s nothing you can do but give it.
First Man (2018)
There’s a certain level of claustrophobia concomitant to making history—where the pressures of the outside world, self-doubt, and the lack of precedents all converge—that Gosling makes palpable in his role as famed astronaut Neil Armstrong. Gosling isn’t just an astronaut, he’s the grief-stricken father who lost his two-year-old daughter, a distraught friend of two colleagues who died doing the same job he does, and a reassuring husband trying to comfort his wife’s fears he too may die. Gosling is at his best when he plays a man composed of shattered pieces glued together by hope and determination, and First Man is one of the best movies he’s been in that accomplishes this feat.
Crazy, Stupid, Love. (2011)
Rom-com Gosling doesn’t make many appearances on this list, but womanizer Jacob Palmer in Crazy Stupid Love is too entertaining to pass up. Before Gosling and Steve Carell were partnering on profiting from the 2007 housing collapse in The Big Short, Gosling’s Palmer was helping Carell’s Cal Weaver deal with divorce by giving him an entire manhood makeover. Seeing Gosling lean into his chiseled good looks to play the role God molded him for will induce a lot less jealousy when you realize he’s mainly poking fun at himself and other unfairly attractive human beings. Also, this movie marks the first time we ever saw Emma Stone and Gosling share the screen as romantic interests, a pairing that has produced two of Gosling’s best movies ever.
The Big Short (2015)
You don’t need a business degree to understand how banks screwed the American people by causing the 2007 housing market crash. You don’t need to know much about the crash to appreciate how brilliant Gosling was in The Big Short. As slick-talking and slightly racist Deutsche Bank executive Jared Vennett, he’s cocky enough to bet against the biggest banks in America and smart enough to explain the entire housing market collapse with Jenga blocks. Rarely will you see Gosling eschew his trademark cool demeanor for the perpetual anxiety of a man always looking for a profit even as the world burns around him. Based on how he convinced pre-Succession fame Jeremy Strong to invest in his credit swap idea using an ice cream sundae analogy, this is one of Gosling’s best roles ever.
Blade Runner 2049
Loyalists of the original Blade Runner from 1982 were ready to hate its first sequel in 35 years, but Gosling’s towering performance as replicant hunter K wouldn’t let them get the pleasure. As K, Gosling balances an existential crisis over if he was born or created with the realization of his own mortality while never letting audiences fully into the machinations behind his actions. Instead, Gosling is mysterious and transparent, befitting a franchise based on a world where the line between real and artificial is as perceptible as the air they breathe. Also, this film is proof that Clint Eastwood and Gosling need an entire film together ASAP.
The Place Beyond The Pines (2012)
Few Gosling roles are as intimately grounded as his depiction of Luke Blanton, a motorcycle stunt rider driven to bank robberies to support a son he didn’t know existed for a year. The Place Beyond The Pines congeals three harrowing stories into one captivating tale of the weight of consequences. But it’s Gosling’s misguided quest for an everyday family life that stands out the most. Plus, it’s the movie where Gosling and his co-star Eva Mendes started one of Hollywood’s cutest love affairs that is still going strong.
Only God Forgives (2013)
With the release of La La Land, All Good Things, Drive, The Ides of March, The Big Short, The Nice Guys, and La La Land, you could argue that 2010-2017 was the greatest stretch of films in Gosling’s career. His role as the quiet and respected criminal in Bangkok, Julian Thompson in Only God Forgives, is an underrated piece of that seven-year streak. Reconnecting with Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn for this revenge action flick results in one of the most complex roles Gosling has ever played. He’s an assassin with an estranged mother who promises to be the mother he never had if he kills someone, and he enjoys being tied up while watching a sex worker masturbate. Gosling is engrossingly tortured as Julian, and it’s all for our viewing pleasure.
Gosling goes mind-to-mind with the ultimate mind fucker Anthony Hopkins in the psychological thriller Fracture. As hotshot district attorney William “Willy” Beachum, Gosling is tasked with convicting Theodore “Ted” Crawford (Hopkins), who kills his wife in cold blood for having an affair with officer Robert Nunally (Billy Burke). It appears to be an open and shut case until Hopkins uses the mind games that made his Silence of the Lambs role Hannibal Lecter iconic, and Gosling has to match wits. Gosling never appears out of his depths in his scenes with one of the greatest actors of all time, and instead exudes the confidence and temerity of a seasoned star, even though this was one of his first 10 acting roles in a film. Fracture is a great reminder that Gosling might be the LeBron James of acting, a prodigy who exceeded his talents’ immense expectations while holding his own with legends.
The Notebook (2004)
The Notebook was the film when Gosling became a certified movie star (and the imaginary boyfriend of a generation of teenagers). Gosling’s role as Noah Calhoun is the mix of determination and undying romanticism that makes for an immaculate core of a romantic drama for the ages. The unmistakable chemistry between Gosling and co-star Rachel McAdams was too authentic to be faked (and led to a real-life relationship) and has helped to etch The Notebook’s name into the history books of the greatest romance films of all time.
The Nice Guys (2016)
What do pornography, a private eye detective, and unflappable ‘70s-style mustaches have in common? Ryan Gosling as investigator Holland March in his buddy action comedy The Nice Guys, alongside Russell Crowe. Gosling is mostly known for his emotional malleability in drama films where it seems he’s evolving before our eyes. But he’s very adept at comedy, and The Nice Guys is arguably his finest comedic work. Whether it’s balancing a cigarette in his mouth while on the toilet pointing a gun at Crowe’s Jackson Healy, or unwittingly slicing his wrist while trying to bust his hand through a door’s glass window like an inept spy, Gosling doesn’t disappoint in embarrassing himself for our amusement.
La La Land (2016)
La La Land may have lost the Oscar for Best Picture to Moonlight in one of the most meme-worthy mixups in award show history, but it was deserving. This dazzling musical follows struggling jazz pianist Sebastian “Seb” Wilder (Gosling) and rising star Amelia “Mia” Dolan (Emma Stone), weaving in musical performances that deepen the emotional realism of the show rather than distract with novelty. The opening Steadicam shot of the most intricate dance performance on a highway you’ll ever see is enough to place this high on the list of best Ryan Gosling movies. But it’s Gosling’s own tender singing voice and relatable command of such a conflicted character that takes this role over the top.
Ides of March (2011)
Politics are always an orgy of duplicitous bedfellows, but as junior campaign manager Stephen Meyers in Ides of March, Gosling gives a visceral look into how a human goes from idealistic to shellshocked survivalist to corrupt while blurring the lines between good and bad guy. Even in a movie with certified hall of fame actors like George Clooney, Jeffrey Wright, Marisa Tomei, and the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Gosling’s star never dims.
No name? No problem. Gosling stars in the riveting Nicolas Winding Refn-directed film Drive as a nameless part-time stunt driver, the part-time getaway driver-turned-vengeful assassin after he takes part in a robbery gone wrong for Standard Gabriel, played terrifically by Oscar Issac. Gosling plays the speedster with a level of erudite cool where you never believe he is over his head even when the cards (and the mob) are stacked against him. Add in an all-star cast of Bryan Cranston, Ron Perlman, and Carey Mulligan, and you have the makings of a film with flaws so imperceptible they barely exist.
All Good Things (2010)
Before serial killer Robert Durst’s murderous exploits were the center of HBO’s The Jinx docuseries, Gosling gave one of his most pathologically terrifying portrayals as Durst-inspired killer David Marks. Gosling weaponizes the same magnetic charm that endeared him to generations of moviegoers to reel Kirsten Dunst’s Katie McCarthy into a web of fatal deception. Frank Langella is sensationally sinister as David’s father, Sanford Marks, a man who would imprison his son in the parasitic family business of real estate before he ever accepts his son’s choice of a wife. All Good Things is a murder mystery and family drama rolled into one—and the finest performance in Gosling’s illustrious career.
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