George Clooney: Five great indie movie roles

One of the most influential, successful stars in Hollywood is also — luckily for fans of innovative filmmaking — not afraid to take risks. Though he has starred in the kind of huge, slick hits that have established him as a dashing leading man, his tastes have always veered more political, more satirical. In THE PERFECT STORM — airing Sunday at 10P on Sundance Channel — Clooney is the captain of a Massachusetts fishing boat desperately holding onto a dying industry who goes out for one more big catch with a hurricane and two other massive weather events bearing down. But nothing could capsize this megastar’s compellingly diverse, endlessly entertaining body of work. It was hard to whittle it down, but here are five of our very favorite Clooney indie roles.

Clooney is always commanding onscreen, but he reveals his truth breadth of talent when he also steps behind the camera — as he did in 2005′s GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK. In the daring black-and-white depiction of the war of words between newsman Edward R. Murrow (David Stathairn) and Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose crusade to weed out supposed Communists in the U.S. was profoundly impacted by Murrow’s public critique, Clooney played CBS exec and Murrow ally Fred Friendly. GOOD LUCK was nominated for six Oscars, including two for Clooney, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. Though it walked away empty-handed, it proved Clooney to be a serious filmmaker of conviction (he reportedly received $1 in payment for writing, directing and starring in the movie and mortgaged one of his homes to finance it).

Surprised to see an animated movie on this list? You shouldn’t be. Under Wes Anderson’s masterful direction, Clooney embodied the charmed (and charming) title character, a family fox drawn to commit a heist against three greedy and grotesque (human) neighbors. A marvel of stop-motion animation, the hilarious and heartfelt FANTASTIC MR. FOX proved you don’t have to see Clooney’s handsome face to be swept up by his charisma. The film’s all-star cast also included Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, Willem Dafoe and Anderson favorite Bill Murray.

Whenever the Coen brothers make a movie, you know you’re in for something out of the ordinary. No more so than in this surprise 2000 hit, a sepia-toned, Southern reinterpretation of Homer’s Odyssey featuring supremely catchy bluegrass music, a cyclopsian Klansman (John Goodman), a flood and a cow floating by on a roof. Clooney played Everett McGill, the Ulysses character, who convinces two fellow members of a chain gang (John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson) to make a break for it in pursuit of a hidden treasure. Their epic adventure offered Clooney an opportunity to surprise fans and critics alike with his comic chops and convincing Kentucky drawl (it is his home state, after all).

This oddball 2002 psychological-spy pseudo-biography (we mentioned that it was oddball, right?) was so hard to pin down, it almost didn’t happen. Based on the memoir of game-show host Chuck Barris (Sam Rockwell), it focuses on his wackadoodle supposed double life as an assassin recruited by CIA agent Jim Byrd (Clooney). When the original director dropped out of the project, Clooney stepped in and CONFESSIONS became his directorial debut. It’s a delightful, strange journey into an unhinged — and maybe even dangerous — mind (Barris himself was involved in the production, wanting to ensure that his story was told accurately).

George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez, both early in their careers, locked in a trunk together… need we say more? Steven Soderbergh’s sizzling 1998 adaptation of an Elmore Leonard crime drama stars Clooney as Jack Foley, a bank robber who escapes prison by taking U.S. Marshall Karen Sisco (Lopez) hostage. Of course sparks fly, even as he takes off and she attempts to bring him back to justice. OUT OF SIGHT marked the first time Clooney and Soderbergh worked together, but certainly not the last; the two have since collaborated on the OCEAN’S ELEVEN trilogy, THE GOOD GERMAN and SOLARIS. Charming, sexy, a little weathered, in OUT OF SIGHT, Clooney looks for the first time like the star we’ve come to know and love.

And we just have to include a few honorable mentions: SYRIANA (for which Clooney won an Oscar), UP IN THE AIR, THE DESCENDANTS. What’s your favorite indie Clooney role?

Photo credit: Warner Bros.