Earlier this month, Oscar-winner Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead in his New York apartment of a reported heroin overdose, and the acting world lost one of its most compelling and powerful figures. His untimely death inspired remembrances of his life, his career and his craft, and those of us who truly valued his work revisited our favorite Hoffman performances in tribute (mine is his inspired interpretation of irascible rock critic Lester Bangs in “Almost Famous”).
Since the early ‘90s, Hoffman delivered towering performances in one memorable and challenging film after another – “Happiness,” “The Big Lebowski,” “Magnolia,” “Capote,” “Synecdoche, New York,” “The Savages,” “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” “The Master.” With such an impressive filmography, it’s sort of disheartening that only eight of his movies are currently available for streaming on Netflix (and one of those is the lame documentary “Salinger,” in which he’s merely an interview subject).
But that handful of work does contain a few overlooked gems (and if you haven’t seen any of the films listed above, they’re all available through Netflix’s DVD mail service and deserve to be seen), and here are the four that are really worth your time, in the order of their release.
• “Hard Eight” (1996) The feature film debut of director Paul Thomas Anderson, whom Hoffman would work with four more times, “Hard Eight” is a darkly comic thriller about a down-and-out loser (John C. Reilly) who becomes a gambling huckster with the aid of a long-term conman played by Philip Baker Hall. Hoffman’s performance here essentially amounts to a one-scene cameo (his character doesn’t even have a name, credited simply as “Young Craps Player”), but he swaggers onto the screen, a cocksure greaseball who taunts a resolute Hall during a game of craps, and he almost demands you to look away from him. Hoffman had previously landed small roles in “Leap of Faith,” “Scent of a Woman” and “Nobody’s Fool,” but “Hard Eight” marks the first time a director really gave him room to strut, and he would appear the following year in Anderson’s masterful breakout film “Boogie Nights.”
• “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (1999) Hoffman doesn’t get to do as much upstaging in this sleek and sumptuous adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 novel, but he makes the most of his limited screen time. Playing Freddie Miles, the one man who sees right through the genteel façade of Matt Damon’s murderous Tom Ripley, Hoffman embodies the perfect mixture of upper-crust spite and booze-fueled contemptuousness. Although he’s off-screen more than he is on, Hoffman holds his own alongside his co-stars Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law and Cate Blanchett (all of whom were more famous than he was at the time), and he has a twinkle in his eyes throughout the film that makes him impossible to ignore.
• “Punch-Drunk Love” (2002) The fourth collaboration between Hoffman and P.T. Anderson (after “Boogie Nights,” Hoffman also appeared in the director’s magnificent but divisive high-wire act “Magnolia”), “Punch-Drunk Love” was basically a left-field star vehicle for Adam Sandler. But Hoffman is in top form here, playing a sleazy mattress salesman running a corrupt phone sex hotline that’s bamboozling Sandler’s lonely, rage-prone protagonist.
It’s one of his best, most captivating supporting performances, a guy who hides his insecurities behind a cheap veneer of menace, and Hoffman is ferocious in the role. And, as an added bonus, check YouTube for an outtake from the movie starring Hoffman (in character) in a hilarious parody of a local mattress store commercial gone wrong.
• “Mary and Max” (2009) This is one of the best unheralded animated films of recent years, a sweet, melancholy story about an unlikely friendship that spans decades and continents.
Using puppets, stop-motion animation and miniature sets, writer-director Adam Elliot chronicles the long-distance correspondence between pen pals Mary (voiced by Toni Collette), a plucky 8-year-old girl living in Melbourne, Australia, and Max (voiced by Hoffman), a lonely, overweight New Yorker in his mid-40s.
“Mary and Max” never received a wide theatrical release in the States, but it’s a wonderful little movie that’s much more engaging than its gray-and-brown color palette suggests, and Hoffman proves that he could create a complex, empathetic character using just his voice.