Jack Nicholson is one of cinema’s most expressive actors. Throughout his career, Nicholson has starred and acted in terrific films. In this article, we’re going to look back at the best Jack Nicholson movies of his career and what made them so special.

Jack Nicholson Top Romantic Comedy Films

15. Something’s Gotta Give (2003)

Something’s Gotta Give Clip

Something’s Gotta Give is a real crowd-pleaser. I’ll admit, it’s a mostly “by the books” movie, but that doesn’t mean it’s not fun to watch. The picture is further heightened by a surprisingly layered performance from Jack Nicholson as a late-stage playboy. 

It’s not quite as impactful as Nicholson’s other iconic romantic-comedy As Good as It Gets, but it’s certainly one of his most enjoyable movies.

Jack Nicholson Movie Quotes

Something’s Gotta Give

  • “It’s just a walk, Erica, not a marriage proposal.”
  • Tomatometer: 72%
  • Watch Now →

Best Drama Movies With Jack Nicholson

14. The Pledge (2001)

The Pledge Trailer

Jack Nicholson is incredibly committed to the role of Detective Jerry Black in the film The Pledge. On the day of his retirement, Black is reeled back into his job after taking an incredibly difficult case. 

He ‘pledges’ to the mother of a dead young girl that he will find the killer. What follows is Nicholson masterfully controlling the screen with fervor in the search for the truth.

Jack Nicholson Movie Quotes

The Pledge

Best Performances of Jack Nicholson’s Career

13. The Last Detail (1973)

The Last Detail Clip

The Last Detail is a wild, emotional take on the road trip formula of movies. Nicholson plays the role of Buddusky, one of two navy service men tasked with bringing in a dishonorably discharged 18-year-old.

While on their trip to the brig, Buddusky, the detainee, and the other navy man decide to spend their trip in style; visiting bars and brothels throughout the East coast. 

Robert Towne penned the script, marking his first collaboration with Nicholson. The second of which would be with the great Chinatown.

Jack Nicholson Movie Quotes

The Last Detail

  • “Everybody’s old enough for a beer? Ain’t that right?”
  • Tomatometer: 91%
  • Watch Now →

Best Performances of Jack Nicholson’s Career

12. Five Easy Pieces (1970)

Five Easy Pieces Diner Clip

Five Easy Pieces was Jack Nicholson’s breakout film. Not only did it introduce him to the world as a leading man, it also nabbed him his first Oscar nomination. In the film, he plays the role of Bobby Dupea, a man who works in Middle America as an oil rigger. 

Later on its revealed that Bobby came from a family of considerable wealth and renown. The film is very much a period piece about the changing of American culture.

In 1970, individual expression and liberation were becoming more often. Structural barriers were decaying. And the status quo that had consumed American work life for 200 years was nearing its final hours. 

Nicholson embraces the confusion and aggression all this change brought up for many people. Ultimately, Five Easy Pieces is one of his most important and iconic movies.

Jack Nicholson Movie Quotes

Five Easy Pieces

  • “If you didn’t open your mouth, things would be just fine.”
  • Tomatometer: 88%
  • Watch Now →

Best Drama Movies With Jack Nicholson

11. Carnal Knowledge (1971)

Carnal Knowledge Clip

This early-stage Jack Nicholson film is perhaps best identified by the first word of its title; carnal. That is, it’s entirely about the sexual drive of men and how it corrupts them. Nicholson plays the role of Jonathan, a man who treats women like animals.

Art Garfunkel plays the role of Sandy, who often has good intentions but struggles to please women sexually. This creates a machismo power contest between the two characters.

Jonathan appears more attractive yet his objectification of women ruins his relationships. Sandy appears more sensitive but his lack of bravado ruins his relationships. Carnal Knowledge puts masculinity on the stand, and forces it to stand prosecution. 

Here, masculinity is stripped of everything except its primal and carnal roots. The question at the heart of the picture is; is this all a man is?

Jack Nicholson Movie Quotes

Carnal Knowledge

Jack Nicholson Greatest Performances

10. Terms of Endearment (1983)

You do bring out the devil in me

Terms of Endearment (1983) is one of the most decorated films in Oscars history, with 11 nominations and five wins; including Best Supporting Actor for Jack Nicholson. 

In the picture, Nicholson plays the role of Garrett Breedlove, which is a name that sounds more like an intergalactic bounty hunter than a neighbor next door. 

But Terms of Endearment is a grounded, dramatic film. One in which Nicholson gives one of the best performances of his career.

Jack Nicholson Movie Quotes

Terms of Endearment

Jack Nicholson Greatest Performances

9. About Schmidt (2002)

About Schmidt Trailer

About Schmidt is full of existential dread but it’s actually a strangely optimistic movie. Jack Nicholson plays the role of Schmidt, a recently retired insurance man. After he retires, he starts to contemplate all the little things in life that have made him sad for so long. 

This film definitely inspired stylistic decisions in movies like Into the Wild (2007) and Demolition (2015).

It’s about searching for escape, whether through nature or relationships, but ultimately escape from oneself. About Schmidt is a movie of quiet nuance, and one of Nicholson’s best.

Jack Nicholson Movie Quotes

About Schmidt

  • “You've got to appreciate what you have while you still have it.”
  • Tomatometer: 85%
  • Watch Now →

Jack Nicholson Best Movies List

8. The Passenger (1975)

The Passenger Restored Trailer by BFI

The Passenger is an English language film from the legendary Italian director Michaelangelo Antonioni (L’Avventura, La Notte, L’Eclisse). There are considerable similarities between The Passenger and Orson Welles’ films The Third Man and Mr. Arkadin

These are all stories of false identity and how individuals escape their life through them. The Passenger is also a renowned film for Luciano Tovoli’s cinematography work. Near the end of the film, there’s a seven minute tracking shot.

Jack Nicholson Movie Quotes

The Passenger

  • “I used to be someone else, but I traded him in.”
  • Tomatometer: 90%
  • Watch Now →

Top 10 Jack Nicholson Movies

6. As Good as It Gets (1997)

We’re all gonna die soon

Interesting enough, Nicholson is really one of the great romantic comedy actors ever. Especially later in his career, Nicholson shifted focus to more light-hearted movies.

The best of which is As Good as It Gets

Both Nicholson and Lead Actress Helen Hunt won Oscars for their performances in the film. In the scene above, Nicholson expertly leans into the OCD character he’s playing. As far as Nicholson romantic comedies are concerned, is just that.

Jack Nicholson Movie Quotes

As Good as It Gets

Jack Nicholson As The Villain

5. Batman (1989)

You can call me Joker

Jack Nicholson’s performance as the Clown Prince of Crime really transformed the worlds’ perception of superhero movies. The Joker was a character that was widely viewed as a comedic villain. 

Cesar Romero played the character in the Batman TV show and 60’s movie and his Joker was more than less a joke. But Nicholson made The Joker a tragic character. He’s frightening in the role; portraying absolute lunacy and psychopathy. 

Batman, along with Christopher Reeve’s Superman movies, really kick-started the craze of superhero movies that pervade film today.

Jack Nicholson Movie Quotes


  • “Tell me something, my friend, have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?”
  • Tomatometer: 72%
  • Watch Now →

Best Drama Movies With Jack Nicholson

4. The Departed (2006)

Nicholson’s insanity on display

Director Martin Scorsese assembled an all-star cast for his 2006 Boston crime film The Departed. In the picture, Nicholson plays the role of Frank Costello, a fictional character who was largely based on real Boston  crime-boss Whitey Bulger. 

Nicholson really digs his teeth into the role, captivating and terrifying viewers throughout. The Departed won Best Picture at the Oscars that year and it’s an easy argument to make that Nicholson’s performance had a lot to do with that win.

Jack Nicholson Movie Quotes

The Departed

  • “I don't want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me.”
  • Tomatometer: 91%
  • Watch Now →

Jack Nicholson Best Movies List

3. The Shining (1980)

Nicholson loses it in The Shining

The Shining is one of the most layered films ever made. Director Stanley Kubrick is known for creating movies of incredible depth. But Jack Nicholson’s performance in the leading role of Jack Torrance is what truly elevates the film. 

Torrance begins as a fairly sane man who’s looking for work to support his family. He’s hired to be the caretaker of a hotel that’s abandoned for the Winter due to inclement weather. He brings his wife and son along, and while there all three characters fall victim to the horrors of the hotel. Nicholson is magnetic in every way in the film. 

His eyes inform his mental state, his body movements change from rhythmic to sporadic, and his obsessions worsen and consume him. The Shining is a didactic film of opposing forces, and one that demands multiple viewings.

Jack Nicholson Movie Quotes

The Shining

  • “Here's to five miserable months on the wagon, and all the irreparable harm it has caused me.”
  • Tomatometer: 85%
  • Watch Now →


The Shining has inspired so many different interpretations that a documentary named Room 237 was made to explore the depths of them.

Jack Nicholson Top Films

2. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Watching baseball in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

It’s not often that a movie changes the way we look at a major societal issue. But One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest does just that. When the film was released in 1975, mental asylums were still heavily stigmatized. People termed mentally ill were often treated as second-rate citizens.

But Jack Nicholson changed the way society viewed the mentally ill. His performance invites the audience to sympathize with him. The film exposes the problems in asylums throughout the country; how institutions were much less concerned with treating patients than they were with imprisoning them. 

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest marked a radical step forward in how we view mental health. Its influence is nearly unrivaled in American film and, ultimately, one of the best Jack Nicholson movies.

Jack Nicholson Movie Quotes

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

  • “Jesus, I must be crazy to be in a loony-bin like this.”
  • Tomatometer: 94%
  • Watch Now →

Jack Nicholson’s Best

1. Chinatown (1974)

Forget about it Jake, it’s Chinatown

There’s absolutely no doubt that Chinatown is the greatest movie of Jack Nicholson’s career. The film, which is Directed by Roman Polanski, is a story of crime and corruption in 1930’s Los Angeles. Chinatown is maybe the most iconic film noir ever made. 

Nicholson plays private investigator Jake Gittes, a good-intentioned man who descends into the underworld while searching for the truth. Robert Townsend’s script is widely regarded as the industry standard for Hollywood productions. 

From story structure, to actions, to dialogue and formatting, everything is perfect. Faye Dunaway and John Huston are incredible in supporting roles. The metaphor of ‘Chinatown,’ the very concept of foreign ideas, is something that is analyzed and critiqued to this day. 

The ending of Chinatown leaves the audience with an overwhelming sense of despair and defeat. We see Nicholson’s battered face and hopeless eyes gaze into oblivion. He’s seen that corruption has won and asks the only question any person can, “How is this possible?” 

The response he gets says everything you need to know about this movie, “Forget about it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

Jack Nicholson Movie Quotes


  • “Listen, pal. I make an honest living. People only come to me when they're in a desperate situation. I help 'em out. I don't kick families out of their houses like you bums down at the bank do.”
  • Tomatometer: 99%
  • Watch Now →

These are the top 15 best Jack Nicholson movies! In every role, he finds incredible depth, whether it's his particular species of charm or his ability to tap into something wild. Not many actors have changed the landscape of acting like “The Madman” Jack Nicholson. 

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  • Chris Heckmann is a Professor of Media & Communication at Roger Williams University and graduate of UCLA’s Cinema & Media Studies Master of Arts program. When he’s not writing or teaching, he’s probably playing video games (or thinking about the next great Boston sports trade).

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