The icon turns 77 today, which is nuts, because you think about all the great movies he's starred in and so many of those classics (especially from 1970's) haven't aged at all. It's tough to narrow down a list, and before I do I've got to give shout outs to all the ones that could have easily made it on- Easy Rider, Reds, Five Easy Pieces, The Shining, Batman and The Passenger (I know leaving out both The Shining and Batman may be somewhat blasphemous), but here are my five favorite Jack performances out of all the movies he's made:
1) One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)
Probably the quintessential Jack Nicholson performance and maybe the first one he gave that established that sly, rebel persona that he himself has imitated many times since then. As a guy in a mental hospital who's not crazy, he leads the rebellion against the evil Nurse Ratched, and you can't help but root for him, even though I always think when I watch this movie that all the other patients in this hospital probably should be in there, even if the nurse lady is evil.
2) Chinatown (1974)
This amazing neo-noir sees Jack playing it pretty straight actually, as a PI who uncovers the horrible mystery and secrets that lay among the seedy Los Angeles underbelly. But he's perfect as the man to uncover the truth and the audience is with him right through to the devastating, despairing ending.
3) Terms of Endearment (1983)
This is a role that might have been pretty easy for him to play, as it's another one of his "Jack being Jack" parts, but he's so good in it that it will always be one of my favorites. As drunken former astronaut Garrett Breedlove who brings the uptight Shirley MacLaine out of her shell, his comic timing is perfection and he's so funny, charming and subtle as he exposes just a hint of melancholy in accepting his own flaws, that he more than deserved that second Oscar he won for this movie.
4) Carnal Knowledge (1971)
Definitely one of the darkest characters he ever played, and he really goes all out as the misogynistic sex addict who ruins all the women he comes in contact with, and creates a deeper and more miserable hole within himself as keeps doing it. His performance in this movie is really daring, as he shows a total willingness to go deep into the bowels of misery and depravation, making it a character study that exposes a certain kind of man's feelings of entitlement and self-loathing. It's pretty raw.
5) About Schmidt (2002)
One of the more surprising movies in his later career, because he sheds all the typical Jack mannerisms (this was long after he'd quit being anyone other than himself onscreen) and I honestly didn't see him in this film, but rather the sad, tired old man he was supposed to be. For managing to strip away that devilish twinkle in the eye and turning in a quiet character performance more in line with what he would have tried in his earlier career, I wish he hadn't won his third Oscar for As Good As it Gets and instead gotten it for this. It would have been earned.