LOS ANGELES -- He's only 31 years old, and already Joseph Gordon-Levitt has proven he can pretty much do everything. From action blockbusters and crowd-pleasing romantic comedies to quirky indies and small, searing dramas, he always makes interesting, eclectic choices and brings an authenticity and watchability to every role.
With the time-travel drama "Looper" opening this weekend, here's a look at Gordon-Levitt's five best performances. They're in alphabetical order because he's so good in all of these movies, I couldn't decide on an order of preference.
_ "50/50" (2011): Gordon-Levitt was in such a tough spot here. It's a comedy ... about cancer. But as the young man who receives the diagnosis that he only has a 50-percent chance of surviving a rare, spinal form of the disease, Gordon-Levitt never creates a mawkish portrait of martyrdom. His character, Adam, goes through all the requisite stages of denial, frustration, fear and eventually acceptance, but he does so with such believable imperfection, he never feels like a saint. He's not always gracious in the face of adversity; he can be a little surly and smug and emotionally closed-off. Gordon-Levitt has the range and subtlety to make all of that work.
_ "(500) Days of Summer" (2009): At the other end of the spectrum from "50/50" is a performance that's bursting with joy at the center of Marc Webb's sweet, clever film. As an aspiring Los Angeles architect, Gordon-Levitt recalls the blissful, all-consuming romance he shared with the seemingly perfect girl, Summer (Zooey Deschanel). Through every moment of jubilation and anxiety, Gordon-Levitt makes us feel for him; he's still so appealing even when he's miserable, you almost don't want to see him succeed. I was already a fan of his, but the spontaneous production number he leads with a bunch of strangers to Hall & Oates' peppy "You Make My Dreams" is so infectious, it made me adore him.
_ "Brick" (2006): I like the movie itself – a verbally stylish film noir set in a contemporary Southern California high school – better in retrospect than I did in the moment. Back when I saw it, I admired the ambition of writer-director Rian Johnson's debut but thought the specificity of the language was too self-conscious and kept the audience at arm's length. But I always liked Gordon-Levitt's performance here as a teenage sleuth – think Humphrey Bogart in a gray hoodie – digging for the dangerous truth about the murder of the pretty, blonde classmate he loved. He handles the patter of the dialogue and repeated punches to the face with equal aplomb. It's easy to see why Johnson would write "Looper" with Gordon-Levitt in mind, even naming the lead character Joe.
_ "The Lookout" (2007): Not a lot of people saw the directing debut from longtime screenwriter Scott Frank, and that is a shame. It's a character drama tucked inside a heist caper, with building tension and beautifully drawn characters. Gordon-Levitt stars as a once-promising high school athlete who suffers a head injury in a serious car crash that leaves him with short-term memory loss. Several years later, he makes some dangerous new friends at a bar who eventually ask him to help them rob the bank where he works as a night janitor – to serve as the lookout. Gordon-Levitt's everyman accessibility puts us right there in the middle of the crime, and his sense of loneliness makes us understand why he'd want to be buddies with these people who are using him.
_ "Mysterious Skin" (2005): This was the first film that signaled the kind of risky roles Gordon-Levitt was interested in playing – an indication of the intriguing career he'd go on to carve out for himself. In writer-director Gregg Araki's low-budget drama, Gordon-Levitt co-stars as a small-town teenage hustler named Neil: a young man whose repeated molestation at the hands of his little-league coach starting at age 8 set him on a wayward path of danger and self-destruction. He's a narcissistic, blasé character whose bravado hides years of damage, and Gordon-Levitt portrays him with both bravery and sympathy. Clearly, this was no longer the cute kid from the TV sitcom "3rd Rock From the Sun."