The 10 Best Daniel Day-Lewis Films
From refusing to wear clothes that weren’t accessible to his character in the year the film was set in and contracting pneumonia, to demanding crew to wheel him around on set because his character can’t walk, Daniel Day-Lewis will do anything for his character. In his character, rather. The English actor, son of Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis and son-in-law of the great Arthur Miller, is currently retired by his own admission. In a career spanning almost four decades, Day-Lewis has hardly focused on volume. His complete and stout devotion to method acting has seen his career defined by the characters he’s played, not by repute or status as a global star, although it would be imprudent not to call him one. His co-stars claim to have met the real Day-Lewis not until after the shoot gets over.
Two-time collaborator Paul Thomas Anderson once said about his unique method, “From a director’s point of view… it’s incredible. You have your own three-dimensional character living for you. You just follow him and film him”. His theatrical virtuousness has seen glorious compensation from major awards, including the Academy, who have honored him for the Best Lead Actor thrice. Day-Lewis’ lives in his characters are an eclectic mix. A homosexual working-class man; an American President; an Irish boxer; an American oil tycoon; the list is endless. We’ve taken it upon ourselves to make a list of some of his best works till date, until, maybe, he returns a couple of years from now playing an actor who’s been retired for five years and has since taken up fashion designing, or gardening, or shoemaking since. With him, anything is possible.
10. The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988)
The Unbearable Lightness of Being came into Daniel Day-Lewis’ career at a stage where he was still trying to find his “bearings” in the business (see what I did there?). Despite being one of his early roles, Tomas has glimpses of the actor’s unmatched ability to disappear into his roles. Contrary to his own personality and recent roles, Tomas is a womanizer, a hustler who knows how to get the best for himself out of precarious situations.
At the same time, his conflicted love triangle with an older artist and younger waitress bellows a reversal of perception and recalls, quite prominently, the disenchanted protagonist in the narratives of our lives: human consciousness.
The steady buildup from seeing the world from Tomas’ eyes to a cosmopolitan and Avant commentary on varied social lifestyles against the backdrop of the Prague Spring not only inspires political intrigue into one of Europe’s most turbulent social revolutions but also weighs sincerely on a more intimate level about human individuality and vulnerability that is surprisingly quick to control our decisions in adversity.
The marked tonal change in the two halves allows Day-Lewis to give a befitting display of his accomplished emotional range. Although he maintains Tomas’s promiscuous and rather morally bankrupt ideals quite well through the film, it is the character’s flawed, yet endearing appetite to be a double whammy of selflessness and delusional in the face of love that redeems the performance as an acting mantlepiece.
9. My Beautiful Launderette (1985)
Stephen Frears’ My Beautiful Launderette is an authentic reflection of the times the film is set in. His account of the Thatcher years grafts a passionate love affair at its core. Johhny and Omar, two childhood friends with contrasting backgrounds, reignite acquaintances under ironic circumstances – the former holding a knife to the latter’s throat. But that doesn’t deter a friendship from blossoming that eventually transgresses societal norms about love and becomes something truly remarkable. Frears’ exposition is steady and dabbles on both the spectrums of tone – light and heavy.
It is this mix that vastly improves the film’s appeal and even allows Daniel Day-Lewis and Gordon Warnecke to experiment and showcase their talents. The former plays a guarded street punk with admirable intensity, while the latter assumes the more delible and open-minded simpleton looking to start a life. Despite missing the rainbow era by almost two decades, My Beautiful Launderette is a fine expression of the filmmaker’s personal expression of class and lives created at either end.
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8. The Age of Innocence (1993)
Martin Scorcese’s repertoire was, before the release of the film, known to be limited to creating magical and fierce portraits of troubled men played by Robert De Niro; or mob films, replete with a gigantic cast guided by a central narrative. A film, thus, about the upper-class American guild dictated less by the heart on the sleeve and more by a spitting communion to social codes and orderly behavior seems a bit uncharacteristic Marty.
Newland Archer, Scorcese’s leading man in The Age of Innocence, hardly resembles the great filmmaker’s celebrated protagonists. Jake LaMotta, Travis Bickle, and Rupert Pupkin, none can boast to have anything in common with Archer, both inward or outward. His tragedy might not seem like one at all. Who wouldn’t want to be surrounded by the trappings of 19th century New York society? But, as the old saying goes, “love is classless”. And so is heartbreak.
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Beyond Scorcese’s grandeur visual expanse and royal cultural vestiges of those times lies a poignant and devastating triangle of complicated relationships and repressed feelings. The standout leads do great justice to their characters, effortlessly putting you in a trance with disarming turns. Although the storytelling is largely uneventful, the gamut of emotions at display and at stakes are enough to be thoroughly engaging.
Stream The Age of Innocence on Netflix
7. The Boxer (1997)
By the time Daniel Day-Lewis finished training for the film and started shooting, Barry McGuigan, who trained the actor for the film, quipped on a morning show that “Daniel could easily be a professional boxer. Put him on against the top 3..4, maybe, in the UK. He’ll beat them”. Jim Sheridan’s weighty drama squarely relies on the brilliance of its central leads in the absence of a compelling story. Danny Flynn’s release from jail is met with mixed feelings in the community. The former IRA rogue, having spent fourteen years in prison and having reflected on his violent past, decides to live in peace. Former colleagues can’t digest the fact and his old love is now married. Drawn into a corner, will Danny fight back or will he succumb?
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The film is quick to realize the generality of its subject-matter and quickly changes gears to accommodate and endorse its captivating star as its crown jewel. Sheridan mostly relies on the unsaid part of Danny and Maggie’s exchanges to leave the viewer to read in between the lines. While ‘The Boxer’ might not be the most impactful theatrical recreation of the tumultuous period of IRA and the ensuing violence in Ireland, it arms Daniel Day-Lewis with a fiercely motivated and deeply troubled character whose life is not the sum total of its parts but an eclectic mix of broken dreams and hopes.
6. In the Name of the Father (1993)
Injustice is often capable of evoking the strongest and the fiercest degree of anger in human beings that dangerously rests on the brink of violence. Institutional corruption and prejudice, as we see today in the US, often produce helpless, pitiful victims but also forge determined and iron-willed individuals, who can single-handedly take on the system that destroyed their lives. Daniel’s Gerry Conlon is one such man in Jim Sheridan’s emotionally charged and highly tense In the Name of the Father. The film documents the tragic episode of the Guildford Four, wrongly convicted and ethnically targeted for bombings in 1974. Quite like Ava DuVernay’s ‘When They See Us’ or Kathyrn Bigelow’s ‘Detroit’, the film boldly highlights the unethical, unjust, and shameful role played by the police in putting away innocent men behind bars using pressure tactics and intimidation.
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Sheridan jumps on quite a few tangents within the story, none more compelling than Gerry’s relationship with his father. Daniel Day-Lewis and Pete Postlethwaite play out one of the finest scenes of screen-acting when Gerry is locked up with his father in prison. His indignation at and poorly perceived image of his father unravels his intention to become a bum (in the words of Marlon Brando) and account for nothing. The arch of their relationship changes during their stay together in prison, bringing them closer than ever. The spread of the prison itself is used to polemically dismantle a prejudiced and corrupt police force and criminal justice system, whose ossified moral compass picks on the marginalized and backs them into a corner. Gerry epitomizes this feeling of hopelessness and abandonment in the face of the racial indictment, certainly making for a worthy example in the current political climate.
Day-Lewis’ central performance is a measured mix of resentment, determination, and ruthlessness and proves pivotal in shaping Sheridan’s film as a fight with the highest of stakes.
5. Phantom Thread (2017)
Paul Thomas Anderson’s cinematic palate can be quite choosy. His wild experimentations with style and substance always manage to throw you off a bit. Bias apart, his stature among modern-day filmmakers is towering and nearly immaculate. Any project of his becomes a buoyant conversation piece, often dividing and riling than uniting or comforting. Phantom Thread fits the bill quite well.
Amicably lapped up by critics, the film espoused mixed feelings within the movie-going community. But one constant feature of appreciation was Day-Lewis’ central ploy as Reynolds Woodcock (cheekily named by himself), a secluded silver fox fashion designer, assured and at the top of his professional life, uncertain, lost in his personal.
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He carries a frown throughout his struggle with the memory of his mother and his mundane, meaningless love affairs. The episodic nature of love in his life meets a shattering end in Alma, a carefree, bold woman, who aspires for more than what Reynolds has to offer but won’t stop at anything to change that. Although the bloodline of the film is the dynamic and confrontation between Reynolds and Alma, there’s enough leeway in the narrative to allow Day-Lewis ample time to create a compelling character introspection.
4. Gangs of New York (2002)
Daniel Day-Lewis secured his second Academy nomination for his indomitable turn as Bill the Butcher, who ranks as one of the most terrifying bad guys ever played on screen. His volatile temperament and piercing gaze make for a readily combustible fuse. The great English actor makes the most of his animalistic side and spirals into an uninhibited and unstoppable force of hatred and power capable enough of melting even the hardest of metals.
Apart from its characters, Gangs of New York’s long-drawn-out story has plenty to offer in terms of sub-themes. Scorcese could have picked up the smallest of aspects or perspectives from either community or the social life around them and made multiple films. But his rendition is sparsely focused and entertains a catalog of different dimensions.
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His buildup in exploring the historic rivalries and the impact it has on the rule of law and societal confidence is masterful. The environment of his movies is always quite electric, but Gangs of New York takes it a notch above that. Scorcese seems almost proud to accept the imperfections that come at the cost of doing one’s own thing. And we’re all glad that he is!
3. Lincoln (2012)
Bringing to the fore a story about one of the most important pieces of legislation in the history of mankind, Spielberg also reinstates the idea of a true political leader, who has the wit and will to coordinate with his enemies. The 13th amendment stands as the towering pillar of equality and social justice, not only for Americans but for the world itself.
The first proclamation of emancipation didn’t come easy. It struggled on the back of a deadly Civil War with seemingly no end; growing racial tensions, political turmoil that pushed a nation on the brink of collapse. But it was endured. It is now in the past and Abraham Lincoln is more than just a historical figure.
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And therefore Lincoln is not just some nonsensical glorification of the man, but a tribute to the triumphant notion of human values and natural justice that stood strong when everything went against it. Daniel Day-Lewis’ persona of Lincoln is arguably the most authentic account of the former president on screen or in print. The stunning recreation never allows the viewer to think of him as anyone other than Mr. President. Every sigh, every turn to empty space, and within himself to look for the answer is of the highest cinematic value. Peak, if you ask me.
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2. My Left Foot (1989)
Life does not shine on all equally. Some are more fortunate than others. Christy Brown was one such fortunate person who had the gift of art and didn’t let his physical shortcomings stop him from expressing it. Christy could only use the toes of his left foot due to struggling with cerebral palsy. His true talents were spotted, nourished, and exhibited by a young carer, Eileen, and pushed him into global fame. With roles like these, there’s little margin for error.
Undercooking and overcooking physical actions can go wrong in the blink of an eye, but Daniel Day-Lewis walks the line with perfection. Christy’s scuffle with the outside world is equally challenging as the confrontation with his idea of himself. There’s not much to say about Day-Lewis as Christy as there is about Jim Sheridan’s earnest and honest sketch of an amazing life lived far beyond the wisdom of ordinary people.
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1. There Will Be Blood (2007)
During an interview with Oprah, Daniel Day-Lewis, discussing his preparation for the role of Abraham Lincoln, said that “voice is the fingerprint of the soul”. His revelation that it was this attribute of the former President’s persona that he first reconstructed emphasizes his previous point. Our voices play a big part in shaping the perception of our personalities in the minds of others.
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A rich, grainy baritone traditionally symbolizes control and dominance, while a soft and polite dictation is often received on the contrary, although it didn’t hold true in Lincoln’s case. This importance is quite strongly reflected in Daniel Plainview’s command of the scenes he is a part of. There’s no one but him driving the story forward and gaining the attention of the audience.
Loosely based on Upton Sinclair’s Oil, ‘There Will Be Blood‘ is as much an exposition of the oil boom in the late 19th century, as it is the story of a con man, who, ironically enough, cons no one but himself in the end. Day-Lewis brings every emotion a human can possibly have on display here; anger, betrayal, vulnerability, fear. Plainview is an institution unto himself.