Total Recall

Matthew McConaughey's 10 Best Movies

We count down the best-reviewed work of the Gold star.

by | January 25, 2017 | Comments

Not so very long ago, Matthew McConaughey appeared doomed to join the Hollywood scrap heap of handsome guys who just don’t have a reliable knack for picking the right script, but these days, it seems like everything he touches turns to cinematic gold — and with a starring role in this weekend’s Gold, McConaughey hopes to continue that streak. With that in mind, we decided to devote this week’s list to a look back at his ever-more-impressive filmography, so settle in: all right, all right, all right, it’s time for Total Recall!

10. Frailty (2002) 74%

It’s a lot easier to shock viewers and/or gross them out than to truly scare them, which is one of the reasons why fans of smart, low-key horror movies don’t often have a lot to choose from at the cineplex — and why when exceptions to the rule arrive, like Bill Paxton’s deviously creepy Frailty, they aren’t afforded the level of marketing muscle that your average slasher might enjoy. Still, even if it’s something of a cult classic, this tale of a deranged religious fanatic (Paxton) indoctrinating his sons into his cult of “demon-slaying” — told through flashbacks relayed to an FBI agent (Powers Boothe) by a mysterious narrator (McConaughey) — it won the immediate admiration of a long list of critics that includes the Village Voice’s Michael Atkinson, who wrote, “If Frailty isn’t quite the devastation it could’ve been … it remains the most pungent American-Pentecostal mini-nightmare since 1996’s true-crime doc Paradise Lost.”

9. Amistad (1997) 77%

A year after making his big breakthrough in Joel Schumacher’s A Time to Kill, McConaughey proved he had more than popcorn movies on his mind with his performance as attorney Roger Sherman Baldwin in Amistad, Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-nominated account of the U.S. Supreme Court battle that erupted in 1841 after a slave ship was impounded by the American military following a successful revolt by its unwilling cargo. Compelling not just as a human rights drama, the story has enough real-life intrigue to fill up several films — including former President John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins) coming out of retirement to help argue the slaves’ case, to the chagrin of pro-slavery President Martin Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne). As impeccably mounted and impressively cast as you’d expect of any Spielberg prestige production, Amistad picked up four Oscar nominations, and if a handful of critics felt its epic sweep was at odds with the true story’s historical facts, the majority were too busy applauding to nitpick. “As Spielberg vehicles go,” argued USA Today’s Susan Wloszczyna, “Amistad — part mystery, action thriller, courtroom drama, even culture-clash comedy — lands between the disturbing lyricism of Schindler’s List and the storybook artificiality of The Color Purple.”

8. Killer Joe (2012) 79%

The third entry in McConaughey’s trifecta of critical hits in 2012, Killer Joe found Exorcist director William Friedkin snapping a long dry streak with a story the poster’s tagline described as “a totally twisted deep-fried Texas redneck trailer park murder story.” That’s a lot to live up to, but as far as most critics were concerned, Joe stuck the landing, rounding up a suitably killer cast — led by McConaughey as a cop-slash-contract killer hired by a drug dealer (Emile Hirsch) who schemes to off his own mother in order to get at her insurance money — in service of seedy, seamy NC-17 thrills. “Watching Killer Joe to the bitter end is like playing the Pick 6 lottery and getting three of the numbers right,” chuckled Joe Williams for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “You don’t win anything, but you still think you’re smarter than all those other idiots.”

7. Magic Mike (2012) 79%

Of all the critical smashes in Matthew McConaughey’s filmography, Magic Mike will probably always be the most unlikely; generally speaking, movies about strippers tend to inspire derision, not sequels. Here’s the happy exception to that rule, a dramedy about a humble dancer with big dreams (Channing Tatum) who teams up with a beefcake buddy (Alex Pettyfer) on his way to what he hopes will be a bright future as the owner of his own business — if he can just save enough money to be able to give notice to his boss (McConaughey) at the local strip joint. Smoothly directed by Steven Soderbergh and rounded out with a capable supporting cast that included Joe Manganiello and Olivia Munn, Magic Mike transcended its shallow-seeming premise to offer crowd-pleasing yet thought-provoking entertainment; as Owen Gleiberman wrote for Entertainment Weekly, the movie “has a conventional structure, yet a teasing question percolates beneath: If selling yourself is as much fun as this movie makes it look, what could be wrong with it?”

6. The Lincoln Lawyer (2011) 84%

Fifteen years after he caught an early career break by playing a lawyer in the John Grisham adaptation A Time to Kill, McConaughey returned to the courtroom for an altogether different kind of legal drama. Based on Michael Connelly’s novel of the same name, The Lincoln Lawyer follows a pivotal case for Mickey Haller, a small-time attorney who maintains his practice out of the back of a town car. If the end result didn’t really break any new ground for McConaughey or the courtroom film genre in general, it still represented a solid step back from the rom-com brink for its star, while giving him an opportunity to play just the sort of rakishly charming ne’er-do-well that’s so well-suited to his Newmanesque appeal. “The Lincoln Lawyer is not a feat of genre-breaking design,” admitted the Denver Post’s Lisa Kennedy. “But it is a well-oiled machine.”

5. Bernie (2012) 88%

Usually, a movie that depicts a district attorney doggedly pursuing a conviction against a man who killed a little old lady will present the lawyer as the hero and the killer as the villain. Not so Bernie, which found director Richard Linklater telling the exceedingly weird real-life tale of a Texas man (Jack Black) whose eccentric relationship with a wealthy widow (Shirley MacLaine) ended in her death and his trial for murder — a trial that the local DA (McConaughey) had to petition the bench to move due to the accused’s widespread popularity in the town where the killing occurred. Stranger than fiction and darkly amusing, the movie wowed critics while upending expectations; as Tara Brady cautioned for the Irish Times, “It looks like a Southern Gothic and feels like a particularly hilarious farce, but Bernie is not at all what you think.”

4. Lone Star (1996) 94%

Writer-director John Sayles earned an Oscar nomination for his work on Lone Star, which employs an outstanding ensemble cast — including Chris Cooper as a Texas sheriff investigating an old murder, Elizabeth Peña as his recently rekindled old flame, and McConaughey as Cooper’s father (in flashbacks, naturally) — to plumb the depths of small-town secrets, betrayal, and that ever-testy father-son dynamic. It’s built from fairly familiar stuff, in other words, but very skillfully; as Kim Newman wrote for Empire, “Like all the best Westerns, this is at once a morality play about individual responsibility and a challenging essay about American history. You’ll watch this for the third or fourth time and see fresh material. Outstanding.”

3. Dazed and Confused (1993) 92%

Plenty of filmmakers have sought inspiration in the shiftless glory days of idle youth, and from a distance, Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused may have seemed like just another one of those movies about kids entering, leaving, or wishing they’d never left high school when it bowed in theaters during the fall of 1993. As any member of its ever-expanding cult can attest, however, Linklater’s take on the suburban adolescent experience is sharper and more empathetic than the rest — and although it’s a finely detailed period piece set in the 1970s, its themes are timeless enough to resonate with anyone who’s ever experienced the thrill and unearned ennui of youth. It’s also remarkably well cast, and because this is his list, we’ll single out McConaughey’s memorable turn as the cheerfully scuzzy, catchphrase-spawning David Wooderson for particular praise — as did the Austin Chronicle’s Marjorie Baumgarten, saying, “He is a character we’re all too familiar with in the movies, but McConaughey nails this guy without a hint of condescension or whimsy, claiming this character for all time as his own.”

2. Dallas Buyers Club (2013) 93%

Nothing screams “for your consideration” like an actor physically transforming himself for a role, to the point that it’s become something of a signal for filmgoers cynical enough to be suspicious of a star’s motivations when taking a part. But as often as not, that commitment pays off; just ask Matthew McConaughey, whose rather frightening pre-shooting regimen included dropping nearly 50 pounds to portray Ron Woodroof, the man whose gut-wrenching and inspiring real-life story forms the heart of Dallas Buyers Club. Academy voters heard those “for your consideration” screams, affording the movie six nominations — three of which it won, including Best Actor for McConaughey and Best Supporting Actor for his co-star Jared Leto. “Just about everything is right with Dallas Buyers Club,” wrote Steven Rea for the Philadelphia Inquirer, “beginning with Matthew McConaughey’s literally transformative portrayal.”

1. Mud (2013) 97%

McConaughey has fired off an impressive string of critically lauded pictures since spending the early aughts frittering away his early buzz on stuff like Failure to Launch and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past — perhaps none more impressive than Mud, writer-director Jeff Nichols’ sparkling Southern Gothic about a mysterious man (McConaughey) whose discovery by a pair of kids on a Mississippi island presages a series of events that’s part thriller, part coming-of-age drama, and (according to most critics), all wonderful. TIME’s Mary Corliss summed up the poetic rapture felt by many of her colleagues, writing, “Glorious vision of youth and truth, love and loss, your name is Mud.”

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