Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

Sam Rockwell's 7 Best And 7 Worst Movies Ranked

Sam Rockwell is the rare sort of performer who combines the charisma of a movie star with the versatility of a character actor. He can play the oddball, the goofy supporting role for comic relief — but he can also call up a flashy, dynamic lead performance like Bob Fosse in the miniseries "Fosse/Verdon." Like a friend you're always running into, Rockwell has such a busy film career that it feels like in any given year he'll churn out roles in three indie movies you've never heard of, but also pop up in a best picture nominee like "Vice," "Frost/Nixon," or "Jojo Rabbit." 

Rockwell's expressive face and committed performances run the full gamut of emotion. He'll play miserable, downtrodden sad sacks just as often he'll be a font of joyous energy, busting out memorable dance moves like he did hosting "Saturday Night Live." He's a bright spot in a lot of movies that didn't even make it to theaters, and is among the actors who have appeared in the MCU and won an Oscar. Let's tour the highs and lows of one of best under-the-radar actors of his generation. These are Sam Rockwell's 7 best and 7 worst movies, ranked.

Worst: Cowboys & Aliens

Taking its cue from the "Snakes on a Plane" school of super-literal movie names, 2011's "Cowboy & Aliens" delivered on the two things it promises: there are indeed cowboys and aliens in the movie.

Unfortunately, there isn't much of an interesting plot, which the film attempts to obscure behind CGI explosions and old-fashioned gunplay. The Jon Favreau movie pairs Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford as an outlaw and rancher who reluctantly team up to save a small town (unsubtly named "Absolution") from invading aliens. Craig and Ford deliver two different versions of the same gruff, silent type of action hero performance, so much so that "Cowboys & Aliens" ends up feeling like a buddy comedy that cast two straight men and forgot the funny one.

It's a shame, because Rockwell is right there further down the cast list, in a thankless role as the town doctor and saloon owner. He could have livened the movie up substantially if given one of the lead roles. As it is, even in the middle of a cast stuffed with other ringers like Paul Dano, Olivia Wilde, Clancy Brown, and Western-movie-legend Keith Carradine, Rockwell can't save a movie which is far too serious for its own good. "Cowboys & Aliens" doesn't even bring the self-aware humor its title implies it should have.

Best: Confessions of a Dangerous Mind

One of Sam Rockwell's best roles, and a vastly underrated spy movie, this quasi-biopic of "Gong Show" host Chuck Barris is as off-the-wall as its irreverent subject. 

Directed by George Clooney, the film translates Chuckie Baby's bizarre 1984 "autobiography," in which the renaissance man claimed to have not only created "The Dating Game" and written "Palisades Park," but also been a secret CIA hit man for the majority of his TV career, killing more than 30 people on government orders.

Although that claim is dubious, "Confession of a Dangerous Mind" takes its subject at face value, presenting a psychedelic journey through the life of Barris, one filled with big dreams, murder, and a surprisingly deep rumination on ego and regret. Rockwell gets to display every one of his many talents as an actor, from deep melancholy and self-loathing to energetic, joyful dancing as "The Gong Show" host. Although famed screenwriter Charlie Kaufman wasn't pleased with the changes made to his screenplay, "Confessions" is just as twisty and heartfelt as his other work in many ways, and is arguably actor-turned-director Clooney's finest work behind the camera.

Worst: A Case of You

There's not a lot of middle ground for romantic comedies; an inherently earnest, cheesy genre, the best rom-coms of all time are often just as silly and high-concept on paper as the flops. 

2013's "A Case of You" sounds like it has promise: Justin Long plays a writer that tries to win over Evan Rachel Wood's barista by stalking her online and pretending to share her interests. A relatable, trenchant premise for the social media age gets bogged down into "too corny" territory by a wandering, episodic screenplay more interested in hijinks than character, and a completely unnecessary "meta" subplot where Long's character is also writing a novel about the experience as the movie unfolds.

You won't be surprised to learn that Sam Rockwell livens up the film considerably in a brief part as a guitar instructor who gives Long music lessons. His delightfully self-centered musician Gary brags about playing Woodstock (Woodstock '99, that is), and is aghast with pure Generation X fury towards those who don't remember The Spin Doctors. 

Best: Matchstick Men

Like many veteran character actors, Sam Rockwell has perfected the art of playing the sidekick. In Ridley Scott's "Matchstick Men," he pulls of the monumental task of playing opposite Nicolas Cage in all of his histrionic, expressive glory. Cage plays a con artist who is both agoraphobic and OCD, and Rockwell is his long-suffering protégé. As Cage's character balances a life of crime with severe mental illness, and also navigates the sudden appearance of a long-lost daughter, Rockwell's second banana could easily be overshadowed in the hands of a lesser actor.

Instead, Rockwell finds nuance in a character otherwise defined by greed and impatience on the page. This benefits "Matchstick Men" greatly, as his character turns out to be even more important that he seems; the best con artist movies ends up taking a lot of twists and turns, and this is no different. Instead of one of the many movies defined by a Nicolas Cage performance, Rockwell and co-star Alison Lohman turn "Matchstick Men" into a delightful, dramatic three-hander.

Worst: Better Living Through Chemistry

This 2014 quirky drug drama feels like it should be an ideal starring role for Sam Rockwell. He plays a small-town pharmacist buckling under the pressures of an unhappy marriage and a monotonous life, who has his world rocked by a femme fatale (Olivia Wilde) and begins to loosen up. 

As the pair embark on an illicit affair and Rockwell's character starts to get "high on his own supply," Rockwell hits some vintage notes, his reckless and wild natural energy letting loose. But just as quickly as it lets him play to his strengths, "Chemistry" shifts gears again, focusing on a flat, boring murder subplot as the lovers scheme to kill her rich husband (Ray Liotta).

Sadly, this means that Rockwell spends the majority of the movie in a muted, panicked mode that isn't really what you hire Sam Rockwell to do. The screenplay doesn't delve too far into anyone's motivations or psyche, so "Chemistry" winds up in a boring, lifeless middle ground: it's not vicious or dark enough to be a good black comedy, and it isn't earnest or realistic enough to be a worthwhile cautionary tale. 

Add in some completely superfluous, random narration from Jane Fonda that over-explains the moral of the story, and you've got Rockwell's fifth-worst film.

Best: Seven Psycopaths

Rockwell has worked with writer/director Martin McDonagh on multiple occasions (winning an Oscar for his "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri"), but their crime caper "Seven Psychopaths" was a unique beast, like "Adaptation" and "Dexter" tossed into a blender. It's as if McDonagh still had something to prove after the stage play simplicity of "In Bruges" and went as complicated as possible for his follow-up. 

Colin Farrell stars in the 2012 flick as a screenwriter named Marty working on a script coincidentally also called "Seven Psychopaths"; his life is thrown into endless chaos by best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell), a loose cannon who makes his living kidnapping rich people's dogs and "finding" them for the reward money.

Ostensibly, the main plot of the movie is about Billy accidentally kidnapping the dog of a vicious gangster (Woody Harrelson), but "Seven Psychopaths" has several nested stories, as Marty receives "submissions" from various serial killers to have their stories told in his movie. As Billy, whose true nature is soon revealed to involve much more than dog-napping, Rockwell gives one his best performances as a wholly unrestrained chaos agent and wild man, in some ways a more evil version of the character he played in Tom DiCillo's "Box of Moonlight." Rockwell plays delightfully off of Farrell's drunken desperation for a story, and they're joined by a soulful Christopher Walken as the movie builds to a gloriously inevitable confrontation in the desert.

Worst: Blue Iguana

"Blue Iguana" is a decent little movie that just has a little bit too much going on for its own good. Like an even more overstuffed version of the British caper comedies of Guy Ritchie ("Snatch," "Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels"), "Iguana" pairs Rockwell alongside Ben Schwartz as a pair of American criminals roped into a convoluted heist for a giant, blue diamond. Why a classy British lawyer (Phoebe Fox) needs a dopey pair of U.S. parolees to pull off what's initially a simple holdup is unclear, and quickly glossed over as the film introduces too many characters and subplots to track.

Writer-director Hadi Hajaig packs his movie with homages to its many inspirations ("The Godfather," Reservoir Dogs," "True Romance") which only serves as a reminder that "Iguana" is nowhere in their neighborhood. Plot and dialogue seem superfluous next to its over-stylized, indulgent action sequences and while Rockwell does his best (and has decent chemistry with Schwartz and Fox), the film is largely incoherent.

Best: The Way, Way Back

Is the character of Owen in "The Way, Way Back" a shameless imitation of Bill Murray's character in "Meatballs"? Perhaps, but if there's anyone that can channel the freewheeling, ingratiating vibe of '80s Bill Murray at his most likable it's Sam Rockwell. 

Instead of a camp counselor, Rockwell plays an employee of a water park called "Water Wizz" who takes a sullen 14-year-old named Duncan (Liam James) under his wing. In the grand tradition of summer comedy coming-of-age stories, Owen teaches Duncan how to let loose and have confidence in himself.

"The Way, Way Back" is shamelessly formulaic: Rockwell's character exists primarily as a foil to Steve Carrell, playing against type as a bully dating Duncan's divorced mother. But it makes up for predictability with a consistently funny screenplay from writer/directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, comedy veterans and Oscar-winning screenwriters of "The Descendants." It's all delivered by a stacked cast, anchored by Rockwell in one of his finest, most Rockwell-ian performances.

Worst: Poltergeist

One can hardly imagine a more thankless role for Sam Rockwell, as well as costar Rosemarie Dewitt, than playing the parents in a horror movie. They do their best in this ill-advised 2015 remake of "Poltergeist," giving likable, warm performances as the heads of an unsuspecting family, but it isn't long before they're going through the familiar paces of terror and concern when their daughter goes missing. When it comes to this film, stay away from the light.

Jared Harris has far more fun as a paranormal investigator who arrives to help, and the burden of the movie is placed on the staging of the scares and the child actors who deal with more of the supernatural houseguests.

The new "Poltergeist" tries to add some contemporary subtext to differentiate itself from the original; Rockwell's character has recently lost his job, and a "fixer-upper" on top of an old burial ground is the best house they can afford. But it quickly forgets all this in favor of the same clown dolls and TV-static of its predecessor. "Poltergeist" was panned by critics and quickly forgotten in a crowded horror landscape.

Best: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Although he is famously likable, Sam Rockwell's most acclaimed performance is for what might be his most loathsome character. Small-town cop Jason Dixon in "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" is openly racist, hostile, and generally incompetent at his job. Nevertheless, he's one heck of a character.

Re-teaming with "Seven Psychopaths" director Martin McDonagh, Rockwell more than lived up to the challenge of finding the humanity in a thoroughly unlikeable person. Though the film received some backlash for offering his character a bit of redemption by the film's end, Rockwell would earn an Oscar for best supporting actor, as well as and several other awards.

"Three Billboards" showcases not only Rockwell's strengths as an actor, but his value in working as part of an ensemble. His role only works because it's in stark contrast to the humanity and resolve of his commanding officer (Woody Harrelson), as well as the petulant determination of a grieving mother (Frances McDormand, who won best actress for her role). In a small role, Sandy Martin of "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" fame plays Dixon's mother, a woman whose hard and gruff exterior explains a lot about his character.

Worst: The Sitter

After pivoting memorably from dramas to comedies with 2008's "Pineapple Express," director David Gordon Green stalled out with the much less-memorable romps "Your Highness" and "The Sitter" in 2011. A "one crazy night" style story about Jonah Hill's foul-mouthed babysitter, "The Sitter" is one of many comedies forgotten from the post "Knocked Up"/"Superbad" era when Hollywood remembered that comedies could be R-rated and made for adults again. "The Sitter" was pilloried by critics and fizzled quickly at the box office

Green did recruit the star of his 2007 drama "Snow Angels" to liven up "The Sitter" as a scene-stealing villain. Sam Rockwell taps into his maniacal side in the role of the motor-mouthed drug lord Karl Fairhorst. He sinks his teeth into straight-ahead drug dealer lines like "you owe me money!" and pairs wonderfully with his right-hand man J.B. Smoove. Once again, Rockwell is one of the few pleasures in a mostly unpleasant movie.

Best: Moon

"Moon" is the ultimate Sam Rockwell film. A movie that rewards multiple viewings, Rockwell's performance, in many ways, feels like a one man play. 

At first, "Moon" seems like it will be a study in isolation, as Rockwell's character Sam Bell is the lone inhabitant of a lunar mining facility with just a robot named Gertie (Kevin Spacey) for company. But he finds a man in a wrecked vehicle that looks exactly like himself, and as "Moon" unfolds the audience sees Rockwell play every shade of paranoia and exhaustion.

With the help of some makeup, Rockwell distinguishes multiple personas, waffling between restraint and madness when the particulars of his situation become clear. A parable about loneliness, trust, and corporate malfeasance, "Moon" is a modern sci-fi classic.

Worst: Gentlemen Broncos

Director Jared Hess has spent the majority of his career trying to recreate the idiosyncratic magic of "Napoleon Dynamite," with widely varied results. "Gentlemen Broncos" is a spectacular misfire that's at least kind of admirable in its unrestrained vision, but finds Hess bordering on self-parody in his commitment to grubbiness and oddball imagination. Jemaine Clement plays a failing science fiction author who steals the story of an aspiring writer (Michael Angarano) and passes it off as his latest bestseller with a few of the names changed.

Rockwell is clearly having a great time in the role of Bronco, the main character of the story-within-the-story the audience sees depicted by an amateur filmmaker (Héctor Jiménez). In surreal episodes that pivot as the authorship of the story itself changes, Rockwell goes for broke and "Gentlemen Broncos" intermittently comes alive. But the main story is an aimless mess, building to a confrontation the movie never delivers. The ramshackle charm that Hess once made humble and unique in "Napoleon Dynamite" ultimately takes down this overbearing, pointless mess.

Best: Galaxy Quest

A true cult classic, few things remain to be said about the delightful "Galaxy Quest." 

A riff on the culture and text of the original "Star Trek," everyone in "Galaxy Quest" is perfectly cast. Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, Tony Shalhoub, and a young Justin Long are just a few members of the cast ably served by a tight, observant, uproarious screenplay. It remains tragic that a sequel was never made.

Somehow distinguishing himself in such a star-filled cast, Sam Rockwell plays Guy Fleegman, a lesser-known actor who played a one-episode "redshirt" role on a popular fictional series, ending in a quick, inglorious death. When the cast gets abducted by aliens and involved in a real interstellar fiasco, Guy is convinced he'll meet the same fate. 

Rockwell takes the role of a bit actor and gives it both humor and pathos, playing his highest notes of relatable panic and anxiety, while still providing the "plucky comic relief" for which he's famous. Even though he's not the leading man, "Galaxy Quest" is the best Sam Rockwell movie by light years.