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The Five Best Films Featuring Stars Who Died Before the Movie's Release

By Dustin Rowles | Lists | November 2, 2009 |

By Dustin Rowles | Lists | November 2, 2009 |

Michael Jackson’s posthumous rehearsal documentary, This Is It, was the number one film at the box office over the weekend, putting up over $30 million. It is hardly the first movie, obviously, that featured a principal who died before the movie’s release. And it’s far from the best. These, however, are the five best movies released after the death of one of its stars:

5. Waitress (Writer/Director Adrienne Shelly): “Waitress has a plot, but it’s not plot-driven. It’s driven by a fairy-tale whimsy. And this infectious floaty feeling that seeps into you while watching Waitress, a light emotion that hovers in the pit of your stomach and gently rises until the suffocating triangle of Jenna’s life traps it in your chest. And then the finale releases it, like a popped cork, unleashing every emotion within you like … like … waking up and realizing, for the first time in ages, that there is someone lying next to you in bed, lit by the sun seeping through the shades — groggy and halitosic, but striking nonetheless. I’ve given in to hyperbole, of course. But the feeling is not that dissimilar from what I described: a warm, fuzzy, magical, epiphanic feeling made even more poignant when you realize that Adrienne Shelly — who not only wrote and directed the film but also plays Dawn, a character you can see and sense and watch and enjoy — died tragically — was murdered brutally, in fact — only months before Waitress debuted at Sundance.” — Dustin Rowles

4. Enter the Dragon (Bruce Lee): Enter the Dragon was the first Chinese martial arts film produced in Hollywood and it is, inarguably, one of the most influential martial arts films of all time. Granted, beyond the performance of Bruce Lee, Enter the Dragon isn’t worth much — it’s schlocky, the dialogue is atrocious, and the plot — which concerned a super agent with martial arts skills, can be generously described as superficial. But Lee’s performance is masterful — fluid, kinetic, and lightning fast. The man was kung-fu poetry in motion.

3. The Crow: (Brandon Lee): “The Crow is intriguing on many levels beyond its actual content; it’s hard to know where to begin. At first glance, it’s basically a revenge tale tinged with the supernatural, as well as being the first “R”-rated superhero movie. Its star, Brandon Lee (son of deceased martial arts superstar Bruce Lee) died violently during filming, cutting short a promising career, and sparking a bit of controversy regarding the film’s release. It’s also a pioneer in terms of modern movie soundtracks, containing one of the best, and most interesting, soundtracks for a movie of its ilk. Numerous sequels and a failed television show followed it, all varying degrees of awful. It (somewhat unfortunately) gave more momentum and inspiration to the fashionably challenged Goth movement. On top of all of that it’s easily one of the best comic book movies ever made; an adult-themed, grim, sad and surprisingly violent saga of death, revenge, love, and redemption.” — TK

2. Rebel Without a Cause (James Dean): Who knows what would’ve happened to Dean’s career, had he not died in a car accident a month before the release of Rebel (and Giant could’ve just as well qualified for this list). What is certain is that his performance in Rebel without a Cause was both riveting and intense, and became symbolic for an entire generation of alienated teenagers. Indeed, Dean’s character became the archetype for disaffected youth. François Truffaut summed it up best: “In James Dean, today’s youth discovers itself. Less for the reasons that are usually advanced, violence, sadism, hysteria, pessimism, cruelty, and filth, than for others infinitely more simple and commonplace, modesty of feeling, continual fantasy life, moral purity.” Rebel without a Cause didn’t just make James Dean an icon, it more or less launched an entire genre of films aimed at teenagers, which is now what makes up the biggest box-office demographic in America.

1. The Dark Knight (Heath Ledger): “The Joker is a thing of beautiful terror, a psycho willing to slaughter civilians and bomb banks and stuff grenades into the mouths of those who cross him. He does this not because he’s paid to, or even because he can; he just does it, and Ledger imbues the Joker with such casual menace and believable strength that he instantly owns the character forever. This isn’t a cartoonish fop or a giddy prankster; this is someone truly beyond repair. Ledger’s performance is riddled with tics, these little grace notes that subconsciously communicate the Joker’s personality without ever making it obvious: He walks with a forced shuffle, and whenever he talks his tongue occasionally darts out to lick the lips he keeps smacking every few seconds. He loses himself in the make-up and mayhem to become an animal, a scorching villain that transforms everything about the world Nolan has created and makes the defeats that much darker and the moments of spiritual triumph that much sweeter. As Ledger’s last performance on film, it’s destined to be remembered as his James Dean song, a howling tornado of energy that tears across the screen, reshaping everything in its path. He’s perfect.” — Daniel Carlson

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.