Ranked! Winona Ryder's 20 best films

From the turkeys to the triumphs, Ryder’s 30-year career has taken her from the too-bad-to-be-missed depths of The House of the Spirits to some much more intriguing choices

20. The House of the Spirits (1993)

In any career spanning three decades, there are bound to be turkeys, and Ryder has had her share. But the gloopy Autumn in New York (2000) is beaten in the too-bad-to-be-missed stakes by this laughable magical-realist clunker. Highlights include Ryder’s witless voiceover (“To me, life itself has become the most important thing”) and Meryl Streep levitating a table.

19. Simone (2001)

This high-concept tale about film-maker (Al Pacino), who creates a synthetic, programmable starlet, is not as smart as it thinks. Ryder plays a leading lady prone to tantrums.

18. Mermaids (1990)

The film of the No 1 single! There’s not much more to this coming-of-age comedy than The Shoop Shoop Song. Ryder was an 11th-hour replacement for Emily Lloyd as one of Cher’s daughters (Christina Ricci is the other) in a film beset with production difficulties. The credited director, Richard Benjamin, was its third after Lasse Hallström and Frank Oz.

Maya Angelou (left), Ellen Burstyn and Ryder (right) in How to Make an American Quilt.
Maya Angelou (left), Ryder (centre) and Ellen Burstyn in How to Make an American Quilt. Photograph: Snap/Rex

17. How to Make an American Quilt (1995)

Going straight from working with one female Australian director (Gillian Armstrong on Little Women) to another (Jocelyn Moorhouse) was a good move, even if the result second time around was less compelling. Ryder essentially spends two hours taking advice from her elders over whether to marry a DIY enthusiast.

16. Night on Earth (1991)

Jim Jarmusch’s portmanteau comedy comprises five tales of taxi-cab encounters from around the globe. Unfortunately, Ryder is in the worst one. She plays the chain-smoking Corky, a cabbie who dreams of becoming a mechanic. Disagreeably wacky.

15. Great Balls of Fire! (1989)

So-so Jerry Lee Lewis biopic with Ryder, 18 at the time, acquitting herself well as the 13-year-old first cousin once removed who became Lewis’s first wife.

14. Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael (1990)

Small-town drama with Ryder as an adopted girl convinced that a returning superstar is her biological mother. This is the standard early Ryder role: high-achieving outsider, dressed in black, incorrigibly odd (she oversees a menagerie housed in an upturned boat).

Ryder in Alien: Resurrection.
Ryder in Alien: Resurrection. Photograph: Sportsphoto/Allstar/20th Century Fox

13. Alien: Resurrection (1997)

An unfairly maligned entry in the franchise, this breakneck, Joss Whedon-scripted sequel from Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Delicatessen, Amélie) doesn’t give Ryder much to do as the android on board another doomed mission, but there is some nice rapport between her and Sigourney Weaver.

12. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

Exhausted after shooting three films back-to-back, Ryder dropped out of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part III (Sofia Coppola took her place). “Noni was fried, really fried,” said her Mermaids co-star Cher. Ryder bounced back for Coppola’s Dracula but scarcely made an impression amid the extravagant sets and barmy performances.

11. Looking for Richard (1996)

Al Pacino’s lively Shakespearean documentary goes backstage as he tries to unpick Richard III with the help of assorted experts (Vanessa Redgrave, John Gielgud) and co-stars, notably Kevin Spacey, superb as Buckingham, and a very game Ryder, who makes a tender Lady Anne.

10. Reality Bites (1994)

Much of this Gen X drama is cringeworthy, but Ryder emerges with dignity as the “non-practising virgin” with the “pointy little face”, whether bopping to My Sharona in the food mart or trying not to fall for Ethan Hawke. She used her clout at the time to hire co-star Ben Stiller as director.

9. The Crucible (1996)

“You’ll be clapped in the stocks before you’re 20,” says John Proctor (Daniel Day-Lewis) to the impetuous Abigail (Ryder) in this high-fibre adaptation of Arthur Miller’s play. Ryder is all bulging eyes and gulping mouth, rendering the OTT camerawork entirely superfluous.

8. Girl, Interrupted (1999)

There is nothing wrong with Ryder’s performance as the teenage girl holed up in a psychiatric institution – she gets to apply her repertoire of haunted, hunted facial expressions to some meaty dramatic material. But no one else in the film stands a chance next to Angelina Jolie’s Oscar-scooping turn as the rebellious Lisa, the real Jack Nicholson in this Cuckoo’s Nest.

Ryder with Johnny Depp in Edward Scissorhands.
Ryder with Johnny Depp in Edward Scissorhands. Photograph: Sportsphoto/Allstar/20th Century Fox

7. Edward Scissorhands (1990)

Ryder’s second film for Tim Burton and her only one with then-boyfriend Johnny Depp (he of the “Winona Forever” tattoo amended to “Wino Forever” when they split). Depp predicted in 1990 that she would be “the Lillian Gish of the next century”. She’s touching as the girl with the hots for the guy with the blades.

6. A Scanner Darkly (2006)

Post-shoplifting arrest, Ryder has made some dark and interesting choices, including Richard Linklater’s brain-frazzling adaptation of Philip K Dick’s novel, rendered here in trippy rotoscope animation. She plays Donna, whose addiction to the hallucinogenic Substance D has made her averse to physical contact.

5. Beetlejuice (1988)

Tim Burton’s delirious supernatural comedy has disgruntled teen Lydia (Ryder) summoning a vaudevillian bio-exorcist (Michael Keaton) from beyond the grave. Her big moment comes right at the end when she levitates up and down the stairs to Harry Belafonte’s Jump in the Line like an emo Mary Poppins.

Ryder in Black Swan.
Ryder in Black Swan. Photograph: Allstar/Fox Searchlight

4. Black Swan (2010)

Natalie Portman won an Oscar for falling apart and sprouting swan feathers in Darren Aronofsky’s ballet freak-out, but Ryder was equally revelatory as the over-the-hill soloist who can’t accept her glory days are over. She beat Jennifer Connelly, Rachel Weisz and Parker Posey to the role.

3. Little Women (1994)

An Oscar nomination came her way for playing Jo, eldest sister of the March clan, in this intelligent and underrated adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s cherished 19th-century novel. Ryder originated the project and convinced the Australian director Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career) to come aboard. The strong ensemble cast includes Claire Danes, Kirsten Dunst and Christian Bale.

2. Heathers (1988)

“Fuck me gently with a chainsaw!” Arriving with a wealth of ready-made catchphrases, this acerbic black comedy found Ryder and rebel boyfriend Christian Slater killing off high-school conformists, including a coterie of mean girls all called Heather. The nastiness fizzles out eventually but until then think John-Hughes-meets-John-Waters. It’s so very.

1. The Age of Innocence (1993)

To anyone who doubts that there are hidden layers to Ryder’s occasionally insipid persona, her performance in Martin Scorsese’s poised period drama is as robust a corrective as could be hoped for. She received the first of two Oscar nominations to date for playing May Welland, the delicate flower whose fiance (Daniel Day-Lewis) is smitten with her cousin (Michelle Pfeiffer). The narrator (Joanne Woodward) taunts May for her apparent vacuousness – “What if all her calm, her niceness, were just a negation, a curtain dropped in front of an emptiness?” –while Ryder reveals glimpses of clever cunning.

  • Heathers will be rereleased on 10 August in the UK.


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