1. Law & Order (1991)
Hoffman’s very first on-screen role was as an accused rapist on the first season of NBC’s Law & Order. (Spoiler alert: He did it.) The part is actually pretty small — Samuel L. Jackson plays his lawyer — but his brief scenes make a strong impression. Even this early in his career, Hoffman could hold our attention by doing very little.
2. Scent of a Woman (1992)
Another small role, this time as a well-off prep school student who informs on a school prank after Chris O’Donnell’s poorer student refuses to rat out his schoolmates. Yet again, Hoffman is called upon to play a deeply flawed character whose self-interest trumps all, and he communicates volumes with very little material to go on.
3. Twister (1996)
One of Hoffman’s last “small” roles was as a fun-loving tornado chaser in director Jan de Bont’s thriller. This time, Hoffman’s buoyant good cheer proved to be one of the film’s most reliable sources of comic relief. (That, and the flying cow.)
4. Boogie Nights (1997)
Hoffman’s breakout role as a gay porn movie PA showed just what he could do when he was handed a role with genuine substance. The scene where he futilely tried to woo Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler by first showing off a new red sports car and then diving in for a kiss was heartbreaking, but Hoffman never pushed to win over our sympathy. He knew he didn’t need to.
5. The Big Lebowski (1998)
With so many enormous personalities fighting for attention in the Coen brothers’ cult comedy favorite, another actor may have faded into the background as the gofer of the title millionaire who shares a name with Jeff Bridges’ The Dude. But Hoffman was not just another actor.
6. Happiness (1998)
As a man flooded with pornographic fantasies — who starts acting on them by making obscene phone calls to his gorgeous neighbor (Lara Flynn Boyle) — Hoffman manages to keep his character sympathetic and repugnant, which is another way of saying he kept him human.
7. Flawless (1999)
The concept for this film — a pre-transition transgender woman (played by Hoffman) helps a homophobic cop (played by Robert De Niro) re-learn how to speak after he suffers a stroke — still begs credulity 15 years after its release. And yet Hoffman and De Niro’s performances were so grounded and genuine that it doesn’t matter.
8. The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)
Hoffman had played the young monied asshole a lot by the time he took on the role of Freddie Miles, yet another young monied asshole who pegs Matt Damon’s Tom Ripley for a fraud the moment he lays eyes on him. He was just so damn good as this particular monied asshole — “Watch the peeping, Tom” — that it’s telling he never really played one again.
9. Magnolia (1999)
After a series of very showy roles, Hoffman’s turn here as an even-keeled hospice nurse taking care of Jason Robards’ dying paterfamilias was a small masterstroke of understated grace.
10. True West (2000)
In this Broadway revival of Sam Shepard’s play about two rival brothers, Hoffman and costar John C. Reilly periodically switched their roles during their run. They were that effing great.
11. Almost Famous (2000)
As the famed rock music critic Lester Bangs, Hoffman brought forth the kind of uncompromising love of music that was the beating heart of Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical film.
12. Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
Hoffman continued his long collaboration with writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson as the seedy, hot-headed manager of a phone sex hotline who also happens to run a mattress store in Provo, Utah. The phone confrontation between Hoffman and star Adam Sandler is one of the great scary-funny-and-scary-again screaming matches in recent movie history.
13. Capote (2005)
Ultimately nominated for four Oscars, Hoffman won for his (inexplicably) first nomination, playing the legendary writer Truman Capote as he embarked on what became a soul-crushing endeavor to write the “nonfiction novel” that became In Cold Blood. Hoffman transformed both his body and voice for the role, and remained in character throughout the production.
14. Mission: Impossible III (2006)
Hoffman could have chewed up the scenery as Owen Davian, the main villain in J.J. Abrams’ feature directing debut, but instead he played the arms dealer as kind of over everything, a brilliant way of communicating moral rot. But the real highlight was the sequence in which Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt takes on Davian’s appearance, which allowed Hoffman the opportunity to play Tom Cruise playing him. Delicious.
15. The Savages (2007)
There was nothing grand or larger-than-life about this film about two siblings (Hoffman and Laura Linney) who must contend with their estranged, elderly father who is falling into dementia. Linney had arguably the better showcase (she earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actress), but Hoffman’s unfussy exasperation with his character’s situation proved to be all the film needed to win the audience’s heart.
16. Charlie Wilson’s War (2007)
Hoffman was so often called upon for his serious acting chops that it was rare when he was allowed just to be funny. As a perpetually pissed off CIA agent Gust Avrakotos, he was hysterical, and easily the best part of this rather ungainly fact-based dramedy from director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin about the clandestine effort to help Afghan rebels fight the Soviet Union in the 1980s.
17. Synecdoche, New York (2008)
The directorial debut of sui generis screenwriter Charlie Kaufman is arguably the most dense and complex film of Hoffman’s career. As the film follows a theater director who creates a staged recreation of life that is so uncompromisingly realistic that it fills an enormous warehouse populated by actors playing the actors playing real people, the audience often only has Hoffman’s even-keeled performance to guide them through this heady, meta-experience.
18. Doubt (2008)
Based on the acclaimed play by John Patrick Shanley (who also directed the film and adapted the screenplay), the film is all about the capital-A Acting from its cast, all of whom earned Oscar nominations. The real fireworks, though, come from the final confrontation between Meryl Streep’s determined Catholic school nun and Hoffman as the priest she is convinced molested a young boy.
19. Death of a Salesman (2012)
Hoffman earned some of the best reviews of his career for his turn as Arthur Miller’s iconic tragic hero Willy Loman, opposite Andrew Garfield’s Broadway debut as his angry, contentious son Biff.
20. The Master (2012)
In hindsight, this may be Hoffman’s last great performance, as Lancaster Dodd, the leader of a wannabe religion loosely based on Scientology’s L. Ron Hubbard. His scenes with Joaquin Phoenix — playing a kind of feral human who comes into Dodd’s orbit — are electrifying pas de deux between two outrageously talented actors at the very top of their profession.
21. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)
After the exhausting work of Death of a Salesman and The Master, Hoffman took on a supporting role as the scheming gamesmaker Plutarch Heavensbee in one of the biggest movie franchises in Hollywood today, instantly bringing his pragmatic gravitas to the series. Hoffman had concluded his scenes for the sequel, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, and had about a week left of work for Part 2. He also starred in two films that recently premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival — the spy thriller A Most Wanted Man, and the crime drama God’s Pocket — both of which will likely be released this year.
Hoffman clearly had many decades of amazing work that will now never see the light of day, including a Showtime dark comedy entitled Happyish that had only recently been ordered to series. Instead, we will have to relish the roles he did play, and played so marvelously.