When I think of actors who make great villains, Catherine Keener is far from the first person to cross my mind. That may be exactly what made her performance as the villain of Netflix’s fun, time travel adventure, The Adam Project, so unexpected and memorable.
Yet, while looking up some of the best Catherine Keener movies for this particular list, I came to realize that the two-time Academy Award nominee has actually been mastering the art of playing bad for years now, as you will be able to see by streaming the titles below. Let’s start, however, with a role that is not quite so sinister, from one of the earlier years of her career.
Johnny Suede (Amazon Rental)
An aspiring musician (Academy Award winner Brad Pitt) struggles to maintain the style and personality of the rock ’n roll legends he idolizes.
Why it’s worth checking out if you like Catherine Keener: In what is described in the promotional material as a “smooth comedy” from acclaimed writer and director Tom DiCillo, things start shakin’ up for Brad Pitt’s title character from Johnny Suede after he begins a romance with Catherine Keener’s Yvonne, who challenges him to begin seeing himself for who he really is.
Being John Malkovich (Peacock)
After taking a job as a file clerk, a puppeteer (John Cusack) finds a portal hidden in his office building that allows him to inhabit the mind of actor John Malkovich (Malkovich as himself).
Why it’s worth checking out if you like Catherine Keener: Johnny Suede’s Brad Pitt makes a blink-and-you-miss-it cameo in 1999’s Being John Malkovich alongside Catherine Keener, who received her first Oscar nomination for playing the scheming, manipulative Maxine Lund in this extremely inventive, surreal, satirical fantasy from writer Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze.
Death To Smoochy (Amazon Rental)
A disgraced, fired children’s TV star (Academy Award winner Robin Williams) plots revenge against his replacement (Academy Award nominee Edward Norton), who is already growing disillusioned by his job dressing as a purple dinosaur as it is.
Why it’s worth checking out if you like Catherine Keener: Three years after Being John Malkovich, Catherine Keener played a TV producer in another dark, bizarre and unique, but highly misunderstood and unjustly underrated, satire called Death to Smoochy, which fellow star Danny DeVito also directed.
The 40-Year-Old Virgin (HBO Max)
A middle-aged tech store employee (Academy Award nominee Steve Carell) is urged by his friends to make some changes to his life after they discover that he has never had sex.
Why it’s worth checking out if you like Catherine Keener: Catherine Keener gives one of the sweetest and funniest performances of her career as a woman who falls for Carell’s titular character in 2005’s The 40-Year-Old Virigin - the theatrical, feature-length directorial debut of Judd Apatow, which remains one of his most beloved smash hits to this day.
Into The Wild (Netflix)
Wishing to get away from his privileged life and start anew, a recent college graduate (Emile Hirsch) abandons all of his belongings and sets out on a cross-country trip hitchhiking to Alaska, encountering a unique variety of interesting characters along the way.
Why it’s worth checking out if you like Catherine Keener: In 2007, Catherine Keener gave yet another sweet, but not very funny, performance as a fellow nomad who proves to be an especially inspirational figure to Hirsch’s Christopher McCandless in Into the Wild - director Sean Penn’s mesmerizing dramatization of author Jon Krakauer’s cautionary non-fiction tragedy.
Capote (HBO Max)
Acclaimed writer Truman Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman in a well-deserved Oscar-winning performance) becomes dangerously and emotionally attached to an inmate (Clifton Collins Jr.) on death row for the murder of a Kansas family while researching the crime for his latest book.
Why it’s worth checking out if you like Catherine Keener: In 2006, Catherine Keener earned her second Academy Award nomination for playing Harper Lee, who would one day publish To Kill A Mockingbird, in Capote - an intriguing inside look at the real life story behind the shocking non-fiction crime novel, In Cold Blood.
An American Crime (Tubi, IMDb TV, Peacock)
A single mother (Catherine Keener), with the help of her subservient six children and other neighborhood youngsters, subjects a teenage girl (Elliot Page) to horrific and senseless abuse after her parents put her and her younger sister in their care while they are away.
Why it’s worth checking out if you like Catherine Keener: Catherine Keener’s villainous role in The Adam Project looks like Mary Poppins when compared to her Emmy nominated portrayal of Gertrude Baniszewski in An American Crime - a Showtime original, feature-length dramatization of the unspeakable circumstances surrounding Sylvia Likens’ death (opens in new tab) in 1960s Indiana.
Get Out (Amazon Rental)
A Black photographer (future Oscar winner Daniel Kaluuya) cannot shake the feeling that something is wrong while visiting the parents of his white girlfriend (Alison Williams), unaware how horrifyingly correct his instincts would turn out to be.
Why it’s worth checking out if you like Catherine Keener: While this thriller is not a true story, but very true to real life in many upsetting aspects, Jordan Peele’s Oscar-winning debut as a writer and director, Get Out, features a brilliantly subtle, yet equally disturbing, performance by Catherine Keener that draws some amusing parallels to the plot of Being John Malkovich.
Incredibles 2 (Disney+)
After they are forced to come out of hiding to save the day, a family of superheroes (including Holly Hunter as Elastigirl) are given a much-desired second chance to “relive the glory days” and hopefully reinforce public opinion about vigilanteism.
Why it’s worth checking out if you like Catherine Keener: Without giving too much away, Catherine Keener’s naturally endearing quality, once again, proves to be an effective misdirect for her character in 2018’s Incredibles 2 - the long-awaited, action-packed sequel to one of the best Pixar movies from returning writer and director, Brad Bird.
The Croods Movies (Peacock Premium, Hulu)
After their home is destroyed, a family of cave people search for a new place to live and later discover a whole new way of living when they cross paths with a more “evolved” family.
Why it’s worth checking out if you like Catherine Keener: Another notable voice acting performance from Catherine Keener is as the motherly Ugga Crood from 2013’s fun prehistoric animated hit, The Croods, whom she would reprise alongside the all-star cast of The Croods: A New Age in 2020.
Where The Wild Things Are (Netflix)
Disillusioned by the common pressures of boyhood, the angsty and overly imaginative Max (Max Records) runs away from home and finds himself in a strange land where unusual beasts reside.
Why it’s worth checking out if you like Catherine Keener: In 2009, Catherine Keener reunited with Being John Malkovich director Spike Jonze for a visually stunning and surprisingly dark adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s seminal children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are, in the role of Max’s mother.
Enough Said (HBO Max)
A divorced massage therapist (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) discovers that her new client (Catherine Keener) is the ex-wife of her new beau (James Gandolfini), which she keeps secret as she allows her new friend to vent about the previous relationship.
Why it’s worth checking out if you like Catherine Keener: Years after she made a funny appearance on Seinfeld, Catherine Keener gives one of her most endearing performances in 2013’s Enough Said - a clever romantic comedy from Oscar-nominated writer and director Nicole Holofcener.
The Adam Project (Netflix)
A troubled 12-year-old (Walker Scobell) crosses paths with a pilot who also happens to be his future self (Ryan Reynolds) and joins him on an adventure to ensure a better tomorrow by preventing the invention of time travel.
Why it’s worth checking out if you like Catherine Keener: When you are done binging the other great Catherine Keener titles above and have a better understanding of how well she has played a villain in the past, revisit her race across time against Reynolds and Scobell in The Adam Project - Netflix’s, overall, critically well-liked tribute to Amblin-produced sci-fi classics, from director Shawn Levy.
This is just the tip of iceberg of what to look out for if you are a Catherine Keener fan, but they most definitely round out the majority of the actress’ greatest hits.
Jason has been writing since he was able to pick up a washable marker, with which he wrote his debut illustrated children's story, later transitioning to a short-lived comic book series and (very) amateur filmmaking before finally settling on pursuing a career in writing about movies in lieu of making them. Look for his name in just about any article related to Batman.
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