Nowadays Steve Martin is regarded as something of a thespian and Renaissance man: a successful author and playwright as well as a Grammy-winning bluegrass banjo player. It’s easy to forget that in the late ’70s and ’80s Steve Martin was a comedy rock star. His stand-up comedy shows regularly sold-out arenas. He was one of the most successful hosts ever of Saturday Night Live, and he starred in a string of hit films. Thanks largely to the financial success of family-friendly comedies like Father of the Bride, Bringing Down the House, and Cheaper by the Dozen, by the early 2000s he was one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood.
It’s incredibly hard to narrow Steve Martin’s mighty oeuvre down to just his top 10 films. It’s lucky the collective IMDb community of armchair film critics has already done it for us. This top 10 is as ranked by IMDb users, but there is a quick caveat to get out of the way before we start: this list only includes films where Steve Martin is one of the top-billed actors – so, unfortunately, his turn as ‘Insolent Waiter’ (as great as it is) in The Muppet Movie (1979) is excluded.
10 L.A. Story (1991) – IMDb rating of 6.7
First on the list is L.A. Story, a strangely endearing, often surreal, screwball fantasy romance film that Martin also wrote. Martin stars as wacky TV weatherman Harris Telemacher who falls for British journalist Sara (played by Martin’s then-wife, Victoria Tennant) while he is stuck in a dead-end relationship with obnoxious social climber Trudi (Marilu Henner). Unsure of what to do, Harris begins to receive cryptic love advice from a magical freeway traffic sign.
Just as zany as it sounds, and featuring Martin at his oddball best, the film is a surprisingly inventive and witty satire of the superficial L.A. social scene of the 80s and 90s.
9 Grand Canyon (1991) – IMDb rating of 6.9
1991 was a great year for Steve Martin. Not only did he write and star in L.A. Story, but he also featured in the ensemble drama Grand Canyon. Directed and produced by Lawrence Kasdan (most famous for co-writing many of the films in the Star Wars franchise), the film centers on the interconnected stories of a group of friends as they each struggle to deal with various life-changing events.
Although it was well-liked by critics, the film underperformed at the box office. However, it clearly still has plenty of fans on IMDb.
8 Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982) – IMDb rating of 6.9
One of Martin’s earliest films, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid is a neo-noir comedy film directed by Carl Reiner that deftly skirts the fine line between parody and homage. A collage film in the tradition of Woody Allen’s What’s Up, Tiger Lily? the movie features clips from classic noir films of the 1940s intercut with new footage featuring Steve Martin as private investigator Rigby Reardon.
Martin’s comedic skills in both slapstick and deadpan are on full display in this often bizarre comedy that gives the illusion he is acting opposite the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Burt Lancaster, and Ava Gardner.
7 Parenthood (1989) – IMDb rating of 7
A critical and commercial hit, Ron Howard’s family comedy Parenthood stars Steve Martin as Gil Buckman, a father of three, with the fourth on the way, who is struggling to juggle the competing pressures of work and family. More of a dramedy than an out-and-out comedy, the film follows Gil and his adult siblings as they deal with the unique demands of parenthood.
Featuring an ensemble cast that includes Dianne Wiest (who picked up a best supporting actor nomination for her role at that year’s Academy Awards), Mary Steenburgen, Keanu Reeves, and the great Jason Robards, Parenthood is a thoughtful reflection on family life that has retained its popularity with IMDb users.
6 Little Shop of Horrors (1986) – IMDb rating of 7
Based on the off-Broadway musical remake of Roger Corman’s 1960s B movie of the same name, Little Shop of Horrors tells the story of a nerdy florist named Seymour Krelborn (Rick Moranis) who becomes a local celebrity after displaying an unusual plant in his boss’s store. However, horror ensues the plant reveals its hunger for human flesh.
Steve Martin features in a memorable supporting role as the abusive, nitrous oxide-addicted boyfriend of Seymour’s love interest, Audrey (Ellen Greene). He also gets to sing one of the best songs in the movie (“Dentist!”) where he recalls his mother noticing his sadistic tendencies when he was still a child and advising him to pursue a career in dentistry, so “people will pay you to be inhumane.”
5 The Prince of Egypt (1998) – IMDb rating of 7.1
Next on the list is The Prince of Egypt, an animated musical by DreamWorks animation. The film follows the biblical story of Moses and features Steve Martin in a small role alongside frequent comedy collaborator Martin Short. The two play sinister high priests and advisers to the Egyptian pharaoh Rameses II (voiced by Ralph Fiennes).
Featuring traditional animation and an A-list voice cast, including Michelle Pfeiffer, Sandra Bullock, Jeff Goldblum, and Hellen Mirren, The Prince of Egypt was a critical and commercial success that is still popular with IMDb users.
4 The Spanish Prisoner (1997) – IMDb rating of 7.2
In a rare dramatic turn, Steve Martin plays Julian “Jimmy” Dell, a conman, in David Mamet’s thriller, The Spanish Prisoner. The film follows engineer Joe Ross (Campbell Scott) who has invented a new financial process that could make his company millions. While on holiday, Joe meets the enigmatic Jimmy, who offers him legal help to get the financial recognition he deserves from his employer for his work. However, instead of gaining his employer’s gratitude, Joe soon finds himself conned out of his process entirely and framed for murder.
An expertly acted, labyrinthine suspense film that owes plenty to Hitchcock classics like Strangers on a Train, The Spanish Prisoner is a bit of an outlier in Steve Martin’s filmography. But it is wortcoh a watch just to see how versatile an actor he can be.
3 The Jerk (1979) – IMDb rating of 7.2
Steve Martin’s first-ever starring role features him as the titular jerk, a young white man named Navin R. Johnson who was adopted by black sharecroppers but has spent his life blissfully ignorant of the fact he is not his parents’ biological son. If that premise sounds ludicrous enough, it’s only the beginning of Navin’s madcap adventures. He also has a near-fatal run-in with a homicidal maniac, finds love, and even makes a fortune by inventing a glasses attachment that stops them from slipping down one’s nose.
Steve Martin’s performance as the jerk captures many of the elements that made his stand-up so popular: offbeat, surrealistic and ironic, but ultimately affecting. It remains one of his most-loved characters.
2 Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988) – IMDb rating of 7.4
Steve Martin stars opposite Michael Caine in this remake of the 1964 film Bedtime Story. Set against the backdrop of the French Riviera and directed by Yoda himself, Frank Oz, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels follows the story of two wannabe conmen and lotharios: Michael Caine’s aging debonair Lawrence Jamieson and Steve Martin’s arrogant hustler Freddy Benson.
The joy of this movie is the easy chemistry between Martin and Caine who both relish their roles as the eponymous scoundrels. Even if many of the film’s twists and turns are telegraphed early, it’s great fun watching these two con men try to one-up one another in a comedy that quickly descends into farce.
1 Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987) – IMDb rating of 7.6
A bona fide comedy classic, it’s no surprise to find odd-couple comedy Planes, Trains, and Automobiles at the top of this IMDb list. The film unites three ’80s comedy heavyweights at the height of their popularity: writer/director John Hughes and comedic actors Steve Martin and John Candy.
The film follows Neal Page (Martin), an uptight executive who is trying to get home to Chicago for Thanksgiving after a business trip in New York City. When his plane is diverted due to a heavy snowstorm in Chicago, Page reluctantly teams up with hapless shower curtain ring salesman Del Griffith (Candy), and the two try and make it back to Chicago together.
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