A-List: Top Five Julia Roberts Movies

By J. Don Birnam

May 12, 2016

Ed will never again forget what they're called

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Just two weeks ago America’s Sweetheart, that Pretty Woman herself, had a movie in wide release about motherhood. This week she’s back and, although I do not expect a vastly different result than the originally disappointing Mother’s Day, two movies in one month warrants, at the very least, a Closer look at some of the best Julia Roberts movies of all time.

I have to say, I really struggled with this one, so I’d love to hear your digressions from my own picks, as usual, on Twitter or Instagram. The problem is simple: I’m a big fan and honestly dislike few of her movies. Still, I can objectively recognize that, of late, Roberts has not had a great run. The remake of the Argentine Oscar winner, The Secret in Their Eyes, for example, was plain bad. Roberts tried her best and has tried successfully to be taken more seriously as an actress (witness her solid, disturbing performance in August: Osage County), but the modifications to the script gave her nothing to work with.

But arguably it’s some of her romantic comedies that have been the true duds, including the stiflingly bad adaption of Eat, Pray, Love, the little-disguised quasi-sequel Runaway Bride, and the childish and pointless Mirror Mirror. Indeed, I’d argue that Roberts’ ventures into more serious movies are some of her best work, or at least some of her most above-average work, perhaps because we have come to expect more fluffy stuff from the actress. Who cannot say, for example, that they were enthralled by her in The Pelican Brief, or that she wasn’t sufficiently stoic in Conspiracy Theory? Pure, unadulterated, kitschy action movies. Not to mention the sinister Sleeping with the Enemy, a somewhat lithe version of Fatal Attraction, though no less memorable in its closing, vengeful scene.

Speaking of which, my sixth place on the list is without a doubt her magnificent appearance in Ocean’s Eleven, where she dazzles with her beauty and cynicism. It’s not that she’s not as good as an actress as in some of the five movies I’m about to list; it’s simply that there are so many actors in that cast of characters that it’s hard not to get somewhat overshadowed. And, indeed, she plays a much smaller role than she normally does. Still, Ocean’s Eleven proves that she can roll with the big boys, and that her talents should not be discounted as if she were another romantic comedy actress.

5. Pretty Woman (1990)

But let’s face it, Roberts is first and foremost a romantic comedy actress. And, the film that put her squarely on the map as America’s Sweetheart, the one about the prostitute with the heart of gold, is undoubtedly one of her finest.

It’s hard to explain why this is such a good movie other than perhaps Julia’s killer smile, so you probably just have to see it. Undoubtedly, however, you’re familiar with the story of Vivian Ward, who meets a lost and confused Richard Gere by accident while working in Los Angeles’ red-light district. The movie is then painstakingly choreographed to a T from that moment on - he’s not really seeking to hire a prostitute, and she’s not a drug user or really even a “slut.” She has a no kissing rule, but breaks it soon and falls in love with him, but not after being offended both by him and his friends about her profession.

All clichés lead to Rome in this one: from the opening scenes, it’s obvious that the two are to fall in love and wed, a reinventing of old movies from Klute to Butterfield 8, all of which featured prostitutes with hearts of gold, played by legendary actresses. And yet Julia, perhaps with her smile of gold, or with her wit of gold, plays it all off as if the movie were something original. In other words, the brilliance of Roberts in this film is that she elevates the movie into something it most assuredly had no business being but now is - one of the classic rom-coms of all time.


4. Mona Lisa Smile (2003)

Of the list today, this one is my guilty little pleasure - perhaps because I was physically present at my college library, where several key scenes were shot. While most rational people would probably list her turn as the charming ingénue in her movie debut, Mystic Pizza, I have a soft spot for her somewhat muted but emotionally deep performance as the feminist college professor, Katherine Ann Watson, in the 1950s in Mona Lisa Smile.

Like Pretty Woman, Mona Lisa Smile does not mince its lack of originality - like Dead Poet’s Society or even The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie before it, the movie focuses on the life-lasting effect that a devoted if controversial professor can have on a student’s life. Teaching art history at an all girl’s college, Katherine and her modern views about the professional choices that women should consider cause controversy and angst. But, the influence she wields is no less important.

In the end, however, Mona Lisa Smile has a redeeming quality that even those other movies about professors don’t have, and that, again, could only be accomplished through Julia’s killer smile. The biggest lesson, you see, is what Katherine herself learns: that while she may think that the path forward for women, the path towards happiness, is to rebel against societal pressures, the real path towards happiness is simply by choosing the life one wants, regardless of where or how that fits into those norms.

Roberts also shines as she leads a young cast that includes Julia Stiles and Kirsten Dunst, and delivers one of her most different roles to date - a serious yet undoubtedly comedic or lighthearted female driven drama unlike any other stars of her caliber can deliver.

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