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The best Josh Brolin performances, ranked

He’s been in plenty of great movies, but Josh Brolin is not the kind of actor who sticks out. In fact, that’s one of his great skills as an actor. He’s versatile and seems as comfortable playing a giant purple alien in a Marvel movie as he is playing a Hollywood fixer for the Coen brothers. He can play a villain or a hero and do both incredibly well.

His best performances showcase how versatile he can be as an actor, and this list as a whole proves him to be one of Hollywood’s best. In honor of Outer Range, his new series on Amazon Prime Video, these are his best performances.

9. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

9. Avengers: Infinity War
68 %
Genre Adventure, Action, Science Fiction
Stars Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo
Directed by Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Brolin played Thanos in almost a half-dozen Marvel movies, but his definitive performance as the character came in Infinity War. In that movie, we learn how Thanos came to believe that half of the universe’s population needed to be wiped out, and how he influenced who Gamora and Nebula have become. Brolin is excellent in the role, which demands that he be sympathetic in spite of the fact that he is CGI, purple, and eight feet tall. Thanos is the antagonist of Infinity War, and he wins at the end of the movie. The look on his face, one of gratification, suggests that his stated goal was all he wanted. He’s not a monster bent on domination — he’s a mad titan, convinced of his rightness in the face of people who try to stop him.
Marvel Studios' Avengers: Infinity War - Official Trailer

8. American Gangster (2007)

8. American Gangster
76 %
Genre Drama, Crime
Stars Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Chiwetel Ejiofor
Directed by Ridley Scott
Nobody came to the theater to see Josh Brolin in American Gangster, but the actor’s steady work as Detective Trupo in the film is part of what makes it feel so immersive. One of Brolin’s great skills as an actor is the ability to play either the worst person in a movie about heroism, or the best person in a movie about terrible people. He’s doing the latter here, but the extent to which he feels like a good fit in either role speaks to his versatility as a performer. Josh Brolin is not a type – he’s an actor who will fit wherever you decide to put him, and that’s why he’s been in some of the best Hollywood movies of the last 20 years.
American Gangster Official Trailer #1 - Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe Movie (2007) HD

7. Milk (2008)

7. Milk
83 %
Genre History, Drama
Stars Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin
Directed by Gus Van Sant
The story of Harvey Milk is a tragedy, and Brolin’s role may be the hardest in the film. Brolin plays Dan White, a conservative who forms a tentative alliance with the rising gay politician and ultimately becomes his assassin. As is so often the case in his depictions of men who do terrible things, Brolin is able to latch onto the humanity inside White that makes his actions seem justified. He feels betrayed by Milk, and it’s through Brolin’s performance that we ultimately come to recognize that monstrous villains are not the people who do terrible things. It’s actual people with stories of their own who, for whatever reason, make choices with horrific consequences.
Milk | Trailer

6. Dune (2021)

6. Dune
74 %
Genre Science Fiction, Adventure
Stars Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Every supporting performance in Dune is excellent, but Brolin’s Gurney Halleck is particularly wonderful for the quiet wisdom he imbues in every scene. Brolin is an incredibly generous scene partner, and the work he does to support Timothée Chalamet and the rest of the film’s ensemble throughout the first half of the movie is tremendous. Also a gifted physical performer, Brolin excels as the experienced trainer capable of taking on any manner of foe. We get an introduction to Gurney, but we don’t see what happens to him after Chalamet’s character heads to the desert, but he seems likely to make a return in Part 2, and we’re not complaining about that.
Dune Official Trailer

5. True Grit (2010)

5. True Grit
80 %
Genre Drama, Adventure, Western
Stars Hailee Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon
Directed by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Brolin’s performance is not the first thing you think about when you think of True Grit, but that only reinforces his skill as a utility player. He plays Tom Chaney, the movie’s villain, and the man that Jeff Bridges’Rooster Cogburn has been hired to pursue. Brolin is both villainous and utterly human in the role, and while the driving goal is to see him dead, Brolin and the Coens give his character a real weight. Few actors can so capably create villains who are complicated and real, but True Grit was proof that Brolin could be slotted into virtually any role in an ensemble and excel.
'True Grit' Trailer HD

4. Flirting with Disaster (1996)

4. Flirting with Disaster
81 %
Genre Comedy
Stars Ben Stiller, Patricia Arquette, Téa Leoni
Directed by David O. Russell
After first emerging in The Goonies, Brolin floated along in his younger years, and didn’t really emerge as the talent that he’s now seen as until the 2000s. He made his share of interesting choices in the 1990s, though, and that was especially true of his performance in Flirting With Disaster. David O. Russell’s chaotic 1990s comedy still holds up, and Brolin’s supporting performance is one of the reasons why. Flirting With Disaster thrives on the bad decisions of its characters, and Brolin, playing a gay ATF agent, offers the movie plenty of chaos when he first appears roughly halfway through the movie’s running time.
Flirting with Disaster | Official Trailer (HD) - Patricia Arquette, Ben Stiller, Téa Leoni | MIRAMAX

3. Sicario (2015)

3. Sicario
82 %
Genre Action, Crime, Thriller
Stars Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Denis Villeneuve cast Brolin in one of his most quixotic roles here, but it was also one of his best. Playing a government agent who is part of a task force in the war against drugs, Brolin is the charismatic heart beating beneath the film’s moral quagmire. Wearing flip flops and cargo pants, Brolin’s agent seems like a down-to-earth guy, and it’s to his credit that the reveal that he’s been working with one cartel to take down another doesn’t feel out of step with the character he’s created. Brolin is kind and seems straightforward, but you can tell that there’s a menace hiding behind the open book that he offers those around him.
Sicario (2015 Movie - Emily Blunt) Official Trailer – “Hitman”

2. No Country for Old Men (2007)

2. No Country for Old Men
92 %
Genre Crime, Drama, Thriller
Stars Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin
Directed by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Brolin is the ostensible lead of No Country for Old Men, but it would be easy to forget that in part because he’s overshadowed by the enormous performances delivered by Javier Bardem and Tommy Lee Jones. One of Brolin’s great skills as an actor, though, is his ability to hold the screen without seeming to do very much at all. He’s the ultimate scene partner, and his Llewelyn Moss is the normal guy at the center of a world of criminality and primordial evil. Brolin is remarkably wordless for large chunks of his performance, but his physical presence is so electrifying that it’s easy to forget how long he goes without talking.
No Country for Old Men | Official Trailer (HD) - Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones | MIRAMAX

1. Hail, Caesar! (2016)

1. Hail, Caesar!
72 %
Genre Comedy, Drama, Mystery
Stars Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich
Directed by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
The Coen brothers are Brolin’s greatest collaborators, and they have never gifted him a better role than that of studio fixer Eddie Mannix, the ostensible lead of Hail, Caesar! The movie is all screwball energy, and what makes Brolin so essential to the whole thing is the way he’s willing to play second fiddle to the movie’s other standout characters. Brolin is the sturdy center of this insane universe, the only thing we in the audience can rely on. Eddie Mannix is dedicated to the making of motion pictures, and he’ll do anything he has to to make sure the messy stars he manages hit their marks and say their lines.
Hail, Caesar! - Official Trailer (HD)

Editors' Recommendations

Movie images and data from:
Joe Allen
Joe Allen is a freelance writer based in upstate New York focused on movies and TV.
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