Matthew McConaughey’s best films, post-stardom
By Scott Mendelson
HollywoodNews.com: Much of the babbling over this weekends The Lincoln Lawyer has been about the idea that the well-reviewed legal thriller represents some kind of artistic reawakening for Mr. Matthew McConaughey.
As is the case with many old-school movie stars, the critics and the pundits have a habit of ignoring McConaughey’s more interesting films while highlighting his lesser mainstream fare and then reaching the conclusion that he is not but a paycheck hack. While McConaughey is certainly guilty of some questionable artistic choices, there does seem to be a whiff of genre-bias around this newest entry. It’s seems that much of the praise is not so much that The Lincoln Lawyer is allegedly a pretty good movie (I’m waiting until Friday night so the wife can come along) but it is the fact that McConaughey is once again playing in a ‘respectable’ genre (the legal thriller) as opposed to those ‘lesser’ romantic comedies that he has starred in from time to time. But, without further ado, let us recount a handful of genuinely good, if not great, films that happen to star Matthew McConaughey. Oh, and this list will only cover from 1996-2009. This is for two reasons: McConaughey became a genuine movie star after A Time To Kill in 1996 and… um… I’ve never gotten around to see Dazed and Confused from 1993 (I know, I know…). Anyway, onward and upward…
6. 13 Conversations About One Thing (2002)
I put this as number six on the list because it’s the one where he has the smallest role. This terrific ensemble piece is one of those ‘several characters go about there lives and occasionally interconnect’ films, and its a refreshingly unpretentious one. McConaughey plays a seemingly cynical lawyer who is racked with guilt after he accidentally commits a hit and run and leaves a young woman for dead on the side of the road. The film follows his personal torment and guilt-ridden reevaluation of his morals, as well as the still-living victim (Clea DuVall) whose recuperation process in turn makes her into a more cynical and bitter person. Released in the middle of summer 2002, it was the unofficial ‘escape from mainstream cinema’ entry and remains a genuinely good piece of drama.
5. Reign of Fire (2002)
Artistically speaking, 2002 was a very good year for McConaughey, and this vastly underrated film deserved a wider audience. The film got mixed reviews and got knocked for a marketing campaign that made it feel more like an epic action film than the survival drama that it was. Seen without the hype and the franchise-launching expectations, it is a shockingly pessimistic and dark tale of misery and sorrow, set in a post-apocalyptic London where dragons have awakened and ravaged the entire world. I’ve often joked that you can’t expect audiences to ‘enjoy’ a film where the characters are constantly scavenging for food, and this is a prime example. It’s not a fun film, but it remains compelling and emotionally honest throughout. While Christian Bale supplies the morose pessimism, the rare moments of light come from McConaughey’s tattooed, muscle-bound, and exceedingly over-the-top dragon killer. It’s not a subtle performance, but it is effective and always in service of the film. Random digression, in a film starring Christian Bale and Gerald Butler, it is McConaughey who provides the majority of the macho thrills. Warts and all, Reign of Fire is a rare big-budget fantasy that tries to be a film first and a thrill ride second.
4. Ed TV (1999)
I was meh on this one back when it was released in early 1999. The reviews were generally mixed, the box office was mediocre, and the film was basically written off as a more mainstream, less sophisticated version of The Truman Show. But holy god, can you think of any film that more accurately predicted the future of our entertainment than this Ron Howard cautionary tale? The plot involves McConaughey as an average guy who agrees to have every waking moment of his life filmed for a television show. Needless to say, complications involving privacy and relationship issues abound pretty quickly. I could go on and on about the myriad way the reality TV craze seemed to eerily mirror this picture, but the one scene that always stood out is the moment where audience members casually vote on whether McConaughey’s longtime girlfriend (Jena Elfman) is pretty enough for the television star compared to the temptress (Elizabeth Hurley) that the producers have sent in to ‘spice things up’. EdTV may not be a great film, but its a good one and goodness did it see the writing on the wall…
3. Sahara (2005)
I wrote about this vastly underrated action-adventure film last February, and I still say it is one of the better old-fashioned adventure pictures of the just-finished decade. Rather than rephrase what I wrote last year, a token excerpt: In a time when we complain about an over-reliance on computer-generated effects and digital stuntmen, Sahara is the real thing. It has real vehicle chases, practical stunt work, and real desert locations. When characters fight and tumble, we see real sweat, blood, and sand. The action feels real and as a result it’s genuinely exciting. The set pieces are both engaging and funny (a first-act boat chase) and inventive and suspenseful (a fight set on a giant rotating solar-paneled roof). Most importantly, the film remembers to actually be a movie. There is an actual story involving an epidemic that starts in North Africa which intertwines with a quest for a lost Civil War battleship. While the film doesn’t take the events incredibly seriously, it remembers that the characters do. When a major character is killed in the first act, he is mourned for a substantial period of screen-time. The characters acknowledge the devastation that grips North Africa without navel-gazing or flippant exploitation. While the events are preposterous, the actors remember to play it for real whenever possible.
And the characters are genuinely winning. Sure, some of them are ‘types’, but everyone is by turns entertaining, charming, ruthless, and/or amusing, whatever the situation calls for. In short, you have three fun heroes (McConaughy, Penelope Cruz, and Steve Zahn) who sell the gee-wiz sex appeal without being obnoxious, two ruthless, thoughtful, and occasionally charming villains (Lennie James and Lambert Wilson), and two seen-it-all higher-ups played with relish by beloved character actors (William H. Macy and Delroy Lindo). The plot that makes a token amount of sense and has just enough real-world politics (what seemingly only affects North Africa eventually threatens lives elsewhere) to merit your attention. All that, plus exciting action scenes that are staged the old-fashioned way. Sahara is the very definition of the kind of movie they just don’t make anymore (see also – Hidalgo and The Rundown). And, alas, because it cost $130 million and made just $119 million worldwide, we shouldn’t expect to see another of its kind for awhile.
2. Contact (1997)
This was McConaughey’s first big Hollywood test after A Time To Kill, and he more than held his own against Jodie Foster in this dynamite sci-fi drama from Robert Zemeckis. McConaughey is basically the love-interest and the representation of ‘good spirituality/religion’ that contrasts with the more malevolent sorts personified by Rob Lowe and/or Jake Busey. McConaughey doesn’t pull any rabbits out of his acting hat, but there is something to be said with standing tall amongst giants. The film still holds up as a wonderfully engaging and moving look at how the discovery of alien lifeforms would impact the world as a whole. The cast alone (the above mentioned stars, plus Angela Bassett, James Woods, David Morse, Jena Malone, William Fitchner, Tom Skerritt, and John Hurt) make this a must see. It stands, fourteen years later, as one of the last big-budget science-fiction films intended for adults and pitched at an adult level.
1. Frailty (2002)
As I wrote last Halloween, Frailty is my pick for the best horror film of the last decade. This emotionally-wrenching and uncommonly disturbing chiller comes from director Bill Paxton, who also stars as a normal single father of two young boys. Everything is fine and dandy until he sees a vision of a religious nature and wakes up his children to inform them that God has chosen him to be a slayer of demons. Told mostly from the point of view of the oldest son (a devastatingly-good Matt O’Leary), this modern-day fable brings about timely issues of the nature and limits of religious devotion, and how our standards for sanity have changed over the centuries. It features fine work from all involved, and McConaughy dominates much of the film a surviving brother who tells his family story to a stunned detective played by Powers Boothe. Frailty is disturbing and scary as hell. It will leave you feeling thoroughly creeped out and not a little sad. It is easily Matthew McConaughey’s best film, and it’s a high-water mark for pretty much everyone involved.
To read more about this article go to Mendelson’s Memos
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