Steve Buscemi: 10 essential films

Following Steve Buscemi’s 60th birthday, we celebrate the great American character actor behind some of cinema’s most loveable losers.

12 December 2017

By Charles Graham-Dixon

The Big Lebowski (1998)

An eccentric, often darkly humorous counterpoint to leading men, Steve Buscemi is one of the most recognisable character actors in modern American cinema. As well as directing five films of his own, he has worked with many of the titans of US indie cinema, from Jim Jarmusch and Abel Ferrara via Quentin Tarantino to five collaborations with the Coen brothers. He’s also an inimitable presence on the small screen, appearing in the landmark series The Sopranos (2004-06) and Boardwalk Empire (2010-14).

Whenever and wherever he appears, in central performances or fleeting cameos, you’re guaranteed something captivating, often funny and always committed. Here are 10 key Buscemi joints to track down.

Mystery Train (1989)

Director: Jim Jarmusch

Mystery Train (1989)

Filmed in Memphis, Tennessee during the summer of 1988, Mystery Train is an independent anthology film centred on that most iconic of musical cities. Laced with a dry, dark wit and anti-establishment attitude, it’s an early classic from Jim Jarmusch. In the segment ‘Lost in Space’, Buscemi features alongside The Clash’s Joe Strummer. As heavy-drinking Charlie, he’s the ideal foil to Strummer’s unstable, distraught Johnny (nicknamed ‘Elvis’). 

King of New York (1990)

Director: Abel Ferrara

King of New York (1990)

Abel Ferrara’s cult New York crime movie features Buscemi in a rare non-comedic role as Test Tube, a bespectacled member of Frank White’s (Christopher Walken) criminal organisation. With a soundtrack featuring hip-hop icon (and regular Ferrara collaborator) Schoolly D, King of New York contains an illustrious list of fine actors in early big screen outings, including Laurence Fishburne, Giancarlo Esposito, Wesley Snipes and David Caruso. Watch out for Walken’s electric dance moves, a precursor surely to his appearance in Fatboy Slim’s ‘Weapon of Choice’ video some years later.

Barton Fink (1991)

Director: Joel Coen

Barton Fink (1991)

“Are you a trans or res?” enquires Buscemi’s hotel bellboy Chet to John Turturro’s bemused, eponymous screenwriter in Barton Fink, a typically dark Coen comedy drama examining writer’s block, art vs mass entertainment and the Hollywood machine of 1941. Despite a poor showing at the box office, Barton Fink proved a critical success, winning both the Palme d’Or and the best actor award for Turturro at Cannes. Following Miller’s Crossing (1990), it was Buscemi’s second collaboration with the Coens.

Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Reservoir Dogs (1992)

As Mr Pink, the non-tipping, non-conformist member of a group of diamond robbers, Buscemi made a memorable impression as part of the killer ensemble in Quentin Tarantino’s sensational debut film, more than holding his own against an impressive roll call of both character actors and leading men, including Michael Madsen, Tim Roth, Chris Penn and Harvey Keitel. Tarantino’s affinity for free-flowing dialogue showcases Buscemi’s effortlessly cool delivery and comic timing.

Pulp Fiction (1994)

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Pulp Fiction (1994)

In a short but sweet, typically understated and memorable cameo role, Buscemi plays ‘Buddy Holly’, the waiter at 1950s rock’n’roll themed diner Jack Rabbit Slims. As he did in Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino uses Buscemi’s deadpan, languid timing to great effect as the actor riffs on $5 milkshakes and ‘Douglas Sirk steaks’ with John Travolta and Uma Thurman.

Fargo (1996)

Director: Joel Coen

Fargo (1996)

As small-time con Carl Showalter, Buscemi spends the latter part of Fargo as a gruesome, continually swearing mess after being shot in the face when a ransom goes wrong. This tale of murder, deceit and black comedy in and around the snowy highways and small towns of Minnesota is one of the Coens’ finest efforts. Fargo provides Buscemi with a larger than usual role and the ability to showcase his wonderful talent. In typical Coens style, everything that can go wrong does, as Buscemi and his psychopathic crook partner, Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare), tour the bars, brothels and motels of the Twin Cities.

Trees Lounge (1996)

Director: Steve Buscemi

Trees Lounge (1996)

A Long Island drama with a fine line in dark humour, Trees Lounge was Buscemi’s directorial debut. It’s an understated but beautifully acted piece, featuring Buscemi alongside some fine New York character actors, including Chloë Sevigny, Debi Mazar and The Sopranos’ Michael Imperioli. Played with poignant sensitivity, Buscemi’s no-hoper Tommy Basilio is a regular fixture at the titular Trees Lounge bar, where he’s stuck in a cycle of self-destruction, booze and drugs.

The Big Lebowski (1998)

Director: Joel Coen

The Big Lebowski (1998)

In this slacker comedy classic from the Coen brothers, Buscemi plays nice guy Donny, a quietly spoken, perpetually confused 10-pin bowler. Always unclear as to what’s happening around him, Donny is the brunt of friend Walter’s (John Goodman) frustrations. Walter, an unstable Vietnam vet, is at his wit’s end from minute one with Donny’s inability to grasp life’s narratives, prompting him to bark the now much-quoted: “Shut the fuck up, Donny!”

Ghost World (2001)

Director: Terry Zwigoff

Ghost World (2001)

“I can’t relate to 90% of humanity,” declares Seymour (Buscemi) in Terry Zwigoff’s adaptation of Daniel Clowes’ comic book of the same name. Certainly, Seymour is one of life’s outsiders, seemingly misanthropic and out of step with daily life. But scratch beneath the surface, as Enid (Thora Birch) does, and we see a complex, sensitive man who is a fan of rare blues and jazz and just wants some good company. For anyone who has ever felt awkward and really, genuinely, doesn’t like dancing, Seymour is one of those characters you can relate to.

The Death of Stalin (2017)

Director: Armando Iannucci

The Death of Stalin (2017)

Almost unrecognisable, Buscemi plays the Soviet statesman Nikita Khrushchev in this razor-sharp historical comedy from Armando Iannucci – proof that the director and satirist can generate humour from impossibly bleak subjects, in this case famine, death and an authoritarian regime. Buscemi appears alongside a venerable pool of fine US and British acting talent, including Michael Palin, Jeffrey Tambor, Simon Russell Beale and Paul Whitehouse.

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