At the 88th Academy Awards, Leonardo DiCaprio won his first Oscar for Best Actor. Sadly, he received the long-awaited award for the wrong film.
I’ve written in length about how The Revenant is an achievement in little beyond the uncompromising vision of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. And DiCaprio has deserved this award for superior films, which include Catch Me If You Can, The Aviator, Inception, and The Wolf of Wall Street.
(I leave out The Departed only because that film, while mostly flawless, lacks a clear lead actor who carries the film.)
We can have a lengthy debate about which of these films are his best, but for the sake of time, I’ll submit that Inception is the clear standout.
Warning: mild spoilers follow for Inception.
Directed by Christopher Nolan, Inception is successful for bringing high-minded ideas to a movie big enough for the big screen. Taking place in a dreamscape where anything can happen, the movie has a unique restraint that is tossed aside at enough moments to make us yearn for it (the line “Dream bigger” uttered by Tom Hardy comes to mind).
The set up for Inception is a slow build, as Nolan masterfully placed thrilling set pieces in a conceivable order that could come tumbling down for an ultimately satisfying final act. Only to finish the movie with a cliffhanger that begs every viewer of the movie to lend their take on what actually took place.
What enticed viewers about Inception in the first place was the promise that they’d see a unique sci-fi heist on par with accessible movies like Ocean’s 11. Yet audiences left feeling more challenged than anticipated, rivaled in part by the philosophical ripple effect The Matrix had on popular culture in 1999.
For that reason, Inception is one of those rare event movies that can be embraced by all matter of movie fans. Lovers of action and spectacle got their fill. Auteurs craving a brilliant performance received DiCaprio and Cotillard’s rush of a tragic romance, and over thinkers (such as myself) were allowed to pick apart the realities of a brand new world with fresh possibilities.
For DiCaprio, Inception is one of his best performances, as he juggles his immoral occupation as a metaphysical master thief with the sympathetic yearning of a dreamer separated from his children. The audience, characterized beautifully by Ellen Paige, is able to uncover DiCaprio’s moral quandaries within the backdrop of the only environments where the actor’s motivations would make clear sense, trading flashbacks for interactive memories.
What makes his character (Cobb) shine is his parallel battle with the rational and irrational, which comes to a head by the final act. Cobb thinks quickly and lives by the logic that has helped him survive fugitive life, but he’s just as vulnerable to the emotional impulses (plagued by his inner ghosts and demons) that undermine every plan he makes.
Much like the gaping businessmen Cobb is infiltrating for hidden secrets, Cobb himself is more or less a character we’re unwrapping as well, and the idea that he must let go of his wife is where the movie’s grandest inception actually takes place, begging the question: could Cobb have really been dreaming the entire time? The answer is up to whoever is asking the question.
(I unpack this entire exercise in length via my What You Missed About Inception article from 2013).
Inception is imaginative, massively entertaining, and hard to stop talking about. It has the dialogue of a visionary who spent a decade writing the script, characters who make the audience feel intelligent and moronic all at once, and an ending that is likely impossible to spoil in a few sentences. It’s a wholly original work of art that is harder to browse for imperfections than nearly anything else, and it is the best film yet of Leo’s career.
Do you have an unpopular opinion you want challenged? Let me know and I’ll take it on in a future Unopinionated article.
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9 thoughts on “Unopinionated: ‘Inception’ is Leonardo DiCaprio’s Best Movie”
I like this post, I agree that the Revenant wasn’t Leo’s best movie but he still earned that Oscar, the man nearly killed himself for heavens sake. Also, I do agree that Inception was Leonardo DiCaprio’s best performance.
Inception is one of my favourite movies too..
After reading your article I am very interested in Inception now and hope I can see it soon! 😀
I really liked this article and your take on Inception. I still gotta say that Wolf of Wall Street is still my favorite Leo Dicaprio movie though. My mind was blown when he didn’t win for that movie.
I disagree that Inception is DiCaprio’s best performance. The film’s priority is the intelligence of it all, which results in dialogue that’s overwhelmingly exposition-heavy mixed with typical action dialogue (the latter of which is Nolan’s weakness, even if he’s good at disguising it to look and sound good). And Leo’s character? Yeah, he’s the lead, but the film is so grounded in the concept behind dreams that it really has little room for actual grounded emotion. Sure, we see the kids and we have Marion Cotillard as an inescapable problem, but the rest (e.g. wanted criminal, exiled from the States) is tacked on just to make us care when Leo’s really just moving the film along underneath all of the exposition. He’s a lead actor, not an actor giving it all in his performance.
I still love the film immensely, but not for the characters as full-bodied characters with arcs. It’s a heist film. You pick up characters with certain skills and they move on after the job is done. Sure, they may learn something new, but it’s not much. That, or they get arrested or die. (“What’s the use?” says Sterling Hayden in The Killing as the cops corner him.)
DiCaprio’s performance and character in this film, furthermore, doesn’t compare with Matthew McConaughey’s underrated performance in Interstellar, where his character’s relationship with his family (especially his precocious daughter) is firmly grounded and further punctuated when he returns from the water planet and reviews the archived messages from the past few decades he was on the water planet. He’s a hero because we spend a fair amount of time with what he will lose if he fails. We linger on those precarious elements instead of merely flashing back to them. You cry with him as he drives to the launch station, leaving his weeping kids behind, perhaps for the last time.
DiCaprio is a good leading man throughout Inception. McConaughey is an actor giving a powerhouse, emotionally-grounded performance in Interstellar who earns his role as the leading man.
(And DiCaprio’s Inception performance doesn’t compare with Who’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Departed, Revolutionary Road, Django Unchained, and the pure physicality of The Revenant. If you ask me, Django Unchained should’ve been his Oscar. If only the Academy didn’t shaft him in favor of giving Christoph Waltz the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his co-lead role. Category fraud reigns—am I right, Alicia Vikander?)
I completely agree with you!
Inception is HANDS DOWN his best movie!
I agree that The Revenant wasn’t DiCaprio’s best movie – The Oscars just love to award actors who go through ‘terrible’ situations. I am not sure I would say Inception is his best performance either, though. While certainly a great movie (which I now am itching to watch again after reading this!), I think there are others his acting is better in.
No mention of Basketball Diaries?
If ‘best performance’ can be measured by the audience forgetting that they are watching a performance, instead feeling like they are watching real life, then definitely Basketball Diaries for me.
Hard to evaluate him disappearing into a role considering how obscure the actor was when the movie came out. That said, I judge performance a lot by how the overall movie turns out. Unfair? Maybe, but part of what makes a performance superb is how the actor carries a film.