James Spader is a prolific actor in television and film who rose to fame in the mid-80s, and ranking his movies from worst to best reveals niche stand-out projects he’s chosen to take on for decades. Spader’s first role was in a raunchy 1978 comedy called Team-Mates but he didn’t rise to fame until he starred alongside Molly Ringwald in the 1986 teen comedy Pretty in Pink. With his increasing popularity, Spader continued to act under renowned directors like David Cronenberg and Steven Soderbergh and even landed a role as the lead villain in Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Born in Boston, Massachusetts, actor James Spader dropped out of school at seventeen and moved to New York to achieve the American dream of becoming a successful actor. Earning money from jobs driving meat trucks, instructing yoga, or being a stable hand to study acting, he eventually garnered several major movie roles which catapulted him to stardom. He is most known for his controversially risqué 1980s-90s films and notable television roles such as the sharp-witted Alan Shore from the lawyer comedy Boston Legal where he stars alongside Star Trek’s William Shatner.
Currently, James Spader is returning for a 10th season of the hit NBC crime series The Blacklist. Proving a talent for playing a gleefully sinister character, he successfully portrays the titular fugitive Raymond Reddington who covets the attention and aid of profiler Elizabeth Keen. He is continuing to keep his name in the sphere of relevance despite having stuck with television for his most recent starring roles. With a history of Criterion and Cannes-recognized accomplishments, however, it would be prudent to look over James Spader’s filmography from worst to best.
37. Mannequin (1987)
Mannequin is a 1987 Michael Gottlieb-directed romance about a mannequin who comes to life and falls in love with the down-on-his-luck employee of the department store she’s displayed in. From an incredibly convoluted origin story dating back through Egyptian mythology to the uninspired romance plot, Mannequin leaves much to be desired in terms of originality and genuine merriment. James Spader plays the conniving store manager who works tirelessly to dampen his employee’s zeal for life which comes across as overwrought despite Spader’s performance remaining enjoyable.
36. Shorts (2009)
The 2009 fantasy comedy film Shorts directed by Spy Kids director Robert Rodriguez follows the eleven-year-old Toe Johnson who happens upon a rock that grants his every wish. The town spirals into chaos as wishes become reality, though, despite its promising premise, the film lacks any real grounding point or out-of-the-box characters like Rodriguez’s cult film The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl does. Spader plays the maniacal monopolist, Mr. Carbon Black, with his usual levels of experienced villainy which stirs up some fun in an otherwise repetitious product.
35. Keys To Tulsa (1996)
The crime drama Keys To Tulsa revolves around the drug peddler Ronnie (Spader) whom Eric Stoltz’s character finds himself in debt, causing even more trouble as he sleeps with Ronnie’s wife (played by Deborah Kara Unger who later starred alongside Spader in director David Cronenberg’s salacious film Crash) behind his back. Spader spices up the movie with his convincing demeanor as an ex-con and bounces off Stoltz’s solemn black sheep character. This film faces the downfalls many book-to-movie adaptations do which is having overly expository scenes that fail to progress a cohesive plot forward.
34. I Witness (2003)
I Witness is a crime drama starring Jeff Daniels and James Spader who attempt to get to the bottom of a potentially lethal labor dispute. The mystery sounds enjoyably dramatic in theory but translates to director Rowdy Herrington’s film more as a sluggish comedy. Playing a sardonic government agent, Spader is given the space to relish in what he’s most known for in both television and film which is a talent for dry sarcasm. Arrested Development’s Portia de Rossi and Daniels shine in their more serious roles, but the talent these practiced actors have isn’t enough to uplift this thriller into anything bombastic.
33. Shadow Of Fear (2004)
The 2004 psychological thriller Shadow of Fear stars James Spader and The Vampire Diary‘s Matthew Davis in a tense story about manslaughter, blackmail, and an overarching secret society. This film takes an overcomplicated route as it attempts to unmask the hypocrisies of middle-class society in a race to stun the audience enough to make its mark. Spader plays the man David goes to when he accidentally runs over a stranger, and he is the catalyst to a storm of legal problems in the narrative that do actually reveal original notions and ideas few thrillers have covered.
32. Stargate (1994)
Stargate is a Roland Emmerich-directed film that inspired a similarly themed sci-fi series of the same name which franchised the property. Despite the show having received ten seasons, the film does not necessarily substantiate the rationale behind Stargate’s success as a franchise. James Spader, with his nerdy charm, and Kurt Russell team up to open an interstellar gateway that brings them to a planet designed like ancient Egypt and ruled by the overlord Ra. The adventure dallies in the mystique of its concept and neglects to raise the stakes enough for the narrative to feel believably tense.
31. Critical Care (1997)
Critical Care takes advantage of its talents to uplift a run-of-the-mill satirical medical drama with an esteemed starring cast including Helen Mirren, Wallace Shawn, and Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Albert Brooks. Spader plays a sympathetic doctor who gets entangled with two sisters he believes are scheming behind his back to take advantage of his position. While Spader is a perfect casting choice for a satire, the film doesn’t land on all its comedy marks. When it does succeed in comedy, however, the film is nothing more than harmless fun that offers insight into some preliminary performances of now A-list actors.
30. The Rachel Papers (1989)
Dexter Fletcher stars alongside James Spader in this book-to-film adaptation of The Rachel Papers revolving around sexuality within a group of wily and foolhardy students. From a novel filled with bold hypersexual concepts, the film’s more orthodox coming-of-age narrative proves where the story is lacking. Adding a necessary amount of teen drama, Spader suavely plays the boyfriend of Ione Skye’s character Noyce who Dexter Fletcher (director of Rocketman) is attempting to court. Though it doesn’t live up to the book’s risqué reputation, The Rachel Papers is still an acceptable romance film.
29. Alien Hunter (2003)
Reminiscent of The Thing, Alien Hunter follows a group of scientists and Cryptologist James Spader who happen upon a mysterious alien vehicle that eventually spread a virus once cracked open. Alien Hunter contains interesting concepts about the government’s response to alien contamination, such as the impulsive decision to use nuclear weapons against unspecified threats, but the film lacks any notable originality to separate it from various other sci-fi classics in the vein of Alien. As it stands, the obvious attempt at replicating The Thing’s success falls flat despite Spader’s fervent performance.
28. Endless Love (1981)
In his first major movie role, James Spader plays the brother of Jade Butterfield (Brooke Shields) in Endless Love. Jade falls in love with David (Martin Hewitt) after being introduced by Spader, an important catalyst to his sister’s imminent Romeo and Juliet-type relationship with David. Though it received poor critic reviews, there is enough substance in the performances and the Butterfield family dynamic to keep the film from floundering for a purpose. However, the story itself is subpar and the singularly stand-out element in this film is its acclaimed musical score.
27. Supernova (2000)
With a sixty million dollar budget, Supernova’s gross of around fourteen million embodies the film’s shortcomings. The Ridley Scott-style story centers around a deep space hospital ship and its crew who decide to give refuge to a mysterious traveler in possession of an alien artifact. With all the cliché trappings of classic sci-fi horror, Supernova fails to leave an impression when it comes to its script and cinematography. In a more serious role, Spader plays the co-pilot of the ship who carries much of the film through its runtime and does take part in a few genuinely tense action sequences.
26. 2 Days In The Valley (1996)
The 1996 black comedy 2 Days in the Valley focuses on hitman Dosmo Pizzo (Danny Aiello) who gets involved with a murder-for-hire scheme where his partner Lee (Spader) decides to frame him for the entire murder. Longtime friend and collaborator of Sylvester Stallone, director John Herzfeld mixes elements of indie-style filmmaking with trademarks of higher budget crime dramas to create an occasionally innovative yet disjointed story with fluctuating themes. Spader plays the traitorous hitman character well and helps establish the unique dynamics holding the film together, but his presence, unfortunately, doesn’t save this crime film’s lost potential.
25. Team-Mates (1978)
James Spader’s first movie role was in Team-Mates, a teen comedy about sports, relationships, and sex. The film meets the basic criteria for a coming-of-age teen drama but fails to stand out in the face of its low budget and unenthusiastic execution. Spader plays one of the many students in the main characters’ school and is a convincing heartthrob in the class which may have sparked Spader’s repeated castings as the lead in romance films. For an interesting surprise, Estelle Getty also appears in her first film role as a teacher seven years before she garnered fame in The Golden Girls.
24. Bad Influence (1990)
In Bad Influence, James Spader plays a successful yet emotionally bereft marketing analyst whose whole life changes for the worse when he meets a mysterious life coach played by Rob Lowe. The actors weave an invigoratingly toxic web that immerses the audience for a time until the main focus unfortunately gets drowned out by unnecessary subplots. Bad Influence’s austere subject matter revolving around how powerful peer pressure and influence can be isn’t reflected due to the film’s comical execution, but there remain a lot of refreshing thriller perks that keep it from floundering.
23. Tuff Turf (1985)
Tuff Turf revolves around the new kid (Spader) arriving at high school and finding himself enmeshed in a fight with another boy to vie for the affections of a dancer (Kim Richards). Though it is a fun foreshadowing Marvel union between a young Robert Downey Jr. and Spader, their appearances don’t save the film. This teen comedy has significant upsides such as its set design and colorful environment but its setbacks overshadow Tuff Turf’s relative charm. It’s rife with common clichés of the 1980s including cheesy musical moments with minimal connective tissue to the plot at hand and overwrought romances. Spader plays a compelling wise guy, but each character could use more involved development.
22. Curtain Call (1998)
James Spader plays a noncommittal fiancé in Curtain Call who decides to buy a new home but happens to inherit two bickering married ghosts with the purchase. Maggie Smith and Michael Caine play a delightfully dry-witted couple and uplift the comedy into a film laugh-out-loud worthy. While it succeeds as a comedy, the film’s metaphorical premise implies character growth on a large scale but growth that occurs never feels earned. A dedicated star-studded cast, and Maggie Smith’s stand-out performance especially, keep this film from falling apart yet there’s a tragedy in the lost potential of something that should leave an impression.
21. The Watcher (2000)
James Spader and Keanu Reeves act out a dark dynamic in the 2000 thriller The Watcher. Spader plays a special agent who retires from the force after failing to capture the serial killer (Reeves) he’d been hunting. These talented actors portray a suspenseful cat-and-mouse game that keeps viewers on the edge of their seats. While the film is serviceable and meets every checkmark of a classic thriller, Reeves’ consistently smug thwarting of Spader’s character damages the outlook of Reeves as a sadistic serial killer. However, forgiving its tonal confusion, The Watcher is a fun ride.
20. Dream Lover (1994)
Dream Lover is an erotic neo-noir style thriller directed by Nicholas Kazan starring James Spader and Twin Peaks’ Mädchen Amick. Spader and Amick’s characters meet at an art gallery which sparks a seemingly healthy marriage until Spader discovers she’s been lying to him about her identity and intentions since day one. Amick excels in her role as a femme fatale and Spader plays a doting yet wary husband well despite being prone to more conniving roles. Engaging until the end, Dream Lover only slips in places where the plot needs to focus on situations beyond its inherent eroticism.
19. The New Kids (1985)
The New Kids is a tense 1985 thriller directed by Sean S. Cunningham that follows the path of a brother (Shannon Presby) and his sister (Netflix’s Operation Varsity Blues’ Lori Loughlin) who move to Florida and get caught up in a battle with the local drug peddlers lead by James Spader’s character Eddie Dutra. The film doesn’t shy away from depicting the drug dealing environments of the 1980s as well as highlighting the tragedy in the youth of these delinquents. Spader is at his most deliciously intimidating, helping The New Kids inspire genuine fear in the watcher. However, it oddly falls into tropes of 80s teen comedies, exceptionally by using pop music far too much in its soundtrack which retracts from the tone the film is trying to set.
18. Less Than Zero (1987)
With stellar performances from James Spader and a young Avengers actor Robert Downey Jr., Less Than Zero focuses on the cocaine-addled livelihoods of the youth in 1980s Los Angeles. The aloof drug dealer Rip (Spader) causes problems when Andrew McCarthy’s character attempts to get his friends clean. As many dramas revolving around drugs do, this film focuses on the surreal aspects of having a trip as well as demonizing the drug dealers themselves to a level of stereotyping. However, this opens the doors for Spader to luxuriate in his antagonism which elevates the film from an average teen drama. The soundtrack also creates a vibrant atmosphere that adds to the film’s most marketable qualities, its aesthetics.
17. Storyville (1992)
From Twin Peaks co-creator Mark Frost comes Storyville, a murder trial flick involving unscrupulous amounts of blackmail and seedy politics. Frost’s trademark dialogue separates this film from most court dramas, keeping the characters idiosyncratic enough for the narrative to engage thoroughly. Despite some dull interludes, Storyville refuses to fall into predictability. Spader’s lawyer character gives insight into the starting foundations of his fundamental Alan Shore role in Boston Legal and his dedication to the part adds to the intensified plot twists in this hidden gem.
16. Jack’s Back (1988)
A hundred years following Jack the Ripper’s notorious killing spree, women are being killed in a nearly identical pattern. Jack’s Back places James Spader in horror’s limelight which contributes to the film’s unique personality. The occasional plot device works against the hard-hitting suspense the film attempts to build, such as Spader playing twin brothers, but the mystery Rowdy Herrington (director of Road House starring Patrick Swayze) poses remains thought-provoking until the end of the film. Though the film could use higher stylized filmmaking techniques to match its wild ideas, it is a decent thriller with noteworthy lore.
15. Speaking Of Sex (2001)
The 2001 romance comedy Speaking Of Sex centers around a hand full of psychiatric experts who attempt to help the dwindling relationship between a married couple. Spader plays an expert on depression, contrasting comedically with the situations his character gets up to. He shines in this highly sexualized role, as he garnered a history of playing salacious characters up until this point. The comedy is never laugh-out-loud funny but its cleverly crude situational humor does make up for cast members Bill Murray and Catherine O’Hara being majorly neglected for most of the film.
14. Driftwood (1995)
Driftwood is an engaging and saddening thriller that keeps its mystery tightly wrapped together for the audience to unravel slowly over the course of the film. It is perhaps a more dismal rendition of Swiss Army Man for its disturbing concept and hinges mainly on the relationship between Spader and his co-star Anne Brochet. Brochet’s character saves Spader’s character on the coast and decides to keep him for herself when she discovers he has a severe case of amnesia. The film offers disheartening introspection into the consequences of loneliness and isolation and is quaint but effective.
13. Pretty In Pink (1986)
Pretty In Pink is a romantic teen comedy starring Molly Ringwald as Andie, a high school outcast who randomly gets asked out by a popular student. James Spader plays a bully named Steff, a perfectly sleazy performance that earned Spader the nickname “Mr. Sneer.” The film contains the charm many of John Hughes’ screenplays do with its idiosyncratic characters and ribald dialogue but falls flat when it tries to emulate other successful teen comedies. The fourth wall breaks are very out of place and drag the story down in scenes when Pretty In Pink needs to be taken seriously.
12. True Colors (1991)
John Cusack and James Spader star in the intensive drama True Colors as best friends who face an impasse when it comes their views on how to climb the political ladder. The film reveals distinct messages about class differences and homosocial bonds, with the aid of Spader and Cusack’s stellar chemistry, and hits its emotional marks where it needs to. In John Cusack’s transformative performance, he especially validates the tragic dissonance of his character’s morals coinciding with his wants. Though daringly bold in the motivations both characters are given considering primary assumptions of class, the suspension of disbelief the film calls for doesn’t always detract from the drama but instead adds to its risk-taking efforts.
11. Baby Boom (1987)
When J.C. (The Godfather‘s Diane Keaton) becomes the caretaker of a baby girl, her life is upended and she must move to Vermont to change her lifestyle. Baby Boom is a bittersweet romantic comedy about the upsides and downsides of motherhood, especially when one’s career joins the mix. Spader plays the man who takes over her job following the arrival of her new baby and talentedly represents the overarching themes involving corrupted workplaces. Despite this, Baby Boom conclusively offers an optimistic view of women’s capability of balancing motherhood, their careers, and their love lives.
10. Bob Roberts (1992)
Shawshank Redemption’s Tim Robbins’ political mockumentary Bob Roberts revolves around the launch of an election campaign for wealthy conservative Bob Roberts (Robbins) to run against Senator Brickley Paiste (Gore Vidal). With drastic twists and turns involving a mixture of complications, such as assassination attempts and folk music used for endorsement, this film effectively confirms modern politics as a circus in its overblown corruption instead of anything serious. Spader plays one of the many detached local news anchors who adds humorous depth to the still prevalent political satire.
9. Wolf (1994)
With a star cast including Jack Nicholson and Michelle Pfeiffer, Wolf becomes a joyous yet haunting flick filled with talented performances that boost the story where it hinders. Jack Nicholson’s commitment to his vicious role as a heartbroken werewolf alongside Spader’s equally tragic yet increasingly untamed performance throughout the film is what makes it so memorable. Though it was critically panned for scenes and elements of mediocrity within its basic werewolf premise, there are moments of genuine philosophical reflection about the nature of animalistic transformation.
8. The Music Of Chance (1993)
The Music of Chance centers around Mandy Patinkin and James Spader, a yuppie and a drifter, who end up in heavy debt after a failed poker game played with a pair of millionaires. They are set to work paying off their debts by building a 15th-century-style stone wall on the millionaires’ property. Spader’s sleazy persona in the film bounces off Criminal Minds actor Patinkin’s quiet determination so easily it forms the eccentric premise into a playful oddball comedy. However, the film truly shines with its underlying, partially satirical, themes about the monotony of working under corrupted wealthy individuals.
7. White Palace (1990)
White Palace, a story loosely based around the fast-food chain White Castle, follows the toxic escalation of the sexual relationship between grieving advertising executive Max (Spader) and uninhibited Nora (Susan Sarandon). This film excels where its morals are most prominent. The lessons taught about how class and age differences can affect an otherwise passionate relationship separate White Palace from other romantic comedies. Director Luis Mandoki, who specializes in methodic romantic dramas, elevates Spader and Sarandon’s sexual chemistry into a severely intriguing deep love.
6. Avengers: Age Of Ultron (2015)
James Spader plays the titular Ultron character in Avenger’s sequel Avengers: Age of Ultron. This integral Marvel installment follows Ultron’s plans to eradicate humanity in order to keep the peace as Iron Man programmed him to do. Though there is massive conflict about which Avengers film is best, Spader’s sarcastically maniacal Ultron lives up to Tom Hiddleston’s legacy as Loki and inspires even greater conflicts between the Avengers themselves. It’s a more than an acceptable sequel that sets up the framework for Captain America: Civil War and future Marvel sequels nicely.
5. Secretary (2002)
The erotic comedy Secretary follows Lee’s (The Dark Knight‘s Maggie Gyllenhaal) day-to-day life as secretary to the stone-faced attorney Edward Grey (Spader). Through intricate exposition and well-written character moments, Grey’s proclivities for sadomasochism start to earn a response from Lee who finds herself entangled in a sexual power play with him. Secretary succeeds in romanticizing BDSM in ways the Fifty Shades Of Grey franchise failed to. The chemistry between Gyllenhaal and Spader is engaging enough to make the outlandish dynamic between their characters believable and desirable.
4. Lincoln (2012)
Lincoln is a comprehensive biopic about the sixteenth president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, focusing mainly on the abolishment of slavery through the thirteenth amendment. Spader dedicatedly plays one of the many officials who helped ban slavery. Daniel Day-Lewis shines in his role as the stern yet passionate Lincoln and seamlessly heightens the darkly inspiring film that highlights themes of resistance and working towards a greater good. It’s not as historically accurate as a documentary would be but it is firmly rooted in reality as much as possible to make the drama enticing.
3. Wall Street (1987)
The acclaimed stock market drama film Wall Street directed by Oliver Stone in 1987 depicts the ambitious stockbroker Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) who, not always legally, winds his way to the top of the corporate food chain through the sleazy yet powerful financier Gordon Gecko (Michael Douglas). Spader plays Bud’s friend Roger who is occasionally too nosy for his own good but fits well into the grimy underbelly of the stock world Wall Street excels in underscoring. The film truly earns its heart from the onscreen father and son dynamic, heightened by the fact they are father and son in real life too, between Charlie Sheen and Martin Sheen. Martin brilliantly plays the wary father role concerned about his son’s involvement in illegal affairs.
2. Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989)
Known for inspiring the 1990s indie film movement, Steven Soderbergh’s film debut Sex, Lies and Videotape shocked and enthralled both audiences and critics at Cannes. Andie MacDowell and James Spader’s characters intersect at the right times in their lives, where Macdowell is sexually repressed in her marriage and Spader is looking for women to discuss the intricacies of their sexualities and desires on camera for a personal project. Soderbergh breaks open the boundaries of decency and propriety to delve deeply into not only the average sexual dissatisfaction of women but the overarching reasoning behind its persistence in society. Spader and MacDowell’s sexual chemistry electrifies a narrative already rife with titillating concepts.
1. Crash (1996)
Recently earning Criterion status, Crash is a psychosexual drama directed by David Cronenberg about the overlapping intrigue towards car crashes and inherent sexual desire. Spader stands out often in these groundbreakingly racy films, but especially in Crash where he plays a man increasingly attracted to the idea of being in a car accident. Cronenberg’s controversial film inspires more than just eroticism, but a deep introspection into the nature of the human body and its parts which parallel a vehicle’s parts in the metaphorical narrative. Mesmerizing the entire runtime, Crash might be known as one of Cronenberg’s least accessible films but has an untouchable unique quality to it which makes the film incredibly memorable and thrilling.
Spader’s past few decades in the limelight have proven his accumulation of an increasingly illustrious filmography. He’s stepped foot into almost every genre of film and subsequently expanded his talents beyond his strengths in playing villains or amorous leads. James Spader is set to return for The Blacklist season 10 and will hopefully have more appearances in upcoming films, but for now, these are Spader’s movies ranked from worst to best.
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