Matthew McConaughey has had one of the strangest career arcs of any actor working today. McConaughey rose to prominence in the 1990s thanks to his collaborations with great directors. Having worked with Richard Linklater, Joel Schumacher, Robert Zemeckis, John Sayles, and Steven Spielberg, McConaughey had no shortage of experienced filmmakers to draw inspiration from. He became the rare actor who could do comedic, dramatic, and action-heavy roles eually well.
However, the quality of McConaughey's work began to decline in the early 21st century. He starred in a series of disastrous romantic comedies that didn't showcase his range. There's only so much that an actor can bring to a role if it is not well written. However, McConaughey's career rebounded in the 2010s. He went back to starring in interesting projects, and even won an Academy Award for best actor for his moving performance in "Dallas Buyers Club." Shortly thereafter, he took a chance on television with "True Detective." The HBO crime series is among the most cinematic shows ever made, and it benefits from McConaughey's dramatic range.
Here are the top 15 best Matthew McConaughey movies, ranked.
"Gold" is the type of mediocre "awards bait" project that benefited from McConaughey's personality. Directed by "Syriana" filmmaker Stephen Gaghan, the film follows the life of prospector Kenny Wells, who is based on Bre-X CEO David Walsh. Wells becomes interested in a mining operation in Indonesia and spirals into obsession as he sets out to find hidden gold. He gets involved with a convoluted scheme as his search draws attention from the FBI.
The film is a typical drama, but Wells is a very engaging character. McConaughey explores how dreams can cause people to do strange things. In a way, it feels like he's drawing from his own experiences. The quirky sense of humor that Wells has fits within the film's frantic pacing. McConaughey's heartfelt performance gives the film much more emotional weight than it would otherwise have. There is a surprisingly moving scene in which Wells accepts an award for his contributions to prospecting. He tears up, as it's the first time his work has been recognized.
Reign Of Fire
"Reign of Fire" is one of the most ridiculously entertaining fantasy movies of the 21st century, and it's unfortunate that it never spawned a franchise. The film takes the high fantasy genre into the future by imagining a post-apocalyptic world where dragons have been reawakened. Humanity survives in the form of tribal villages that have little communication with each other.
Although Christian Bale stars as the protagonist, Quinn Abercromby, the film gets an instant boost of energy once McConaughey makes his entrance. Quinn is the leader of a British colony and is forced to start hunting dragons after his village's crops are burned. Soon after, he meets the American leader, Denton Van Zan (McConaughey). Although they initially distrust each other, Denton reveals to Quinn that the dragons have poor eyesight during twilight. Under the right circumstances, they might be able to work together to defeat these monsters. Denton exemplifies the sort of strange faith in the impossible that all heroes must have.
"Reign of Fire" is just self-serious enough to avoid being campy, but it doesn't bore the audience with exposition. Denton's fiery calls to arms during the film's ending battle sequence seems like what McConaughey would say in the situation, and he retains his personality to the bitter end.
"Amistad" is a complex movie that should be considered in context. Although the film tells the important story of the enslaved people who revolted against their captors on the ship "La Amistad" in 1839, the narrative is presented mostly from the perspective of the white characters. While this was not the right approach, Matthew McConaughey's performance does not discount the gravity of the events.
The film follows abolitionist Lewis Tappan (Stellan Skarsgard) and his assistant, Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman), as they decide to defend the slaves when they are put on trial. The Spanish government has claimed that they are property. Both Tappan and Joadson know they need an excellent lawyer to represent these men. They end up hiring McConaughey's character, Roger Sherman Baldwin, an eager young lawyer. The film shows how Baldwin begins looking to benefit from a major case but ends up recognizing the importance of the abolitionists' cause.
Baldwin frames his arguments in an exciting way. While this initially makes him seem impersonal, Tappen and Joadson realize that the attention to legal details is what will win them the case. McConaughey is electrifying in the trial scenes. Although Baldwin tries to maintain his composure, his spirit is crushed when he sees that many of the witnesses have no empathy.
"Tropic Thunder" is one of the funniest movies of the 21st century. The film is a satire of Hollywood elitism, and how disconnected actors are from reality. The film revolves around action star Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller), whose career is spiraling into disaster. Speedman looks to revive his career by starring in a war film shot on location in the jungle. Unfortunately, he and his co-stars are thrust into danger when they run afoul of an armed gang's drub operation.
Although "Tropic Thunder" is ridiculous, it has some satirical insight into the way that the film industry works. This is exemplified through Speedman's relationship with his agent, Rick Peck (Matthew McConaughey), who is referred to as "The Pecker." Peck is Speedman's best friend and has seen him at both his best and worst. McConaughey shows how Peck is willing to risk his livelihood to take a chance on Speedman.
Peck finds himself in an uproariously funny situation once Speedman is placed in danger. Although he's desperate to get the Hollywood brass to rescue his client, cruel studio executive Les Grossman (Tom Cruise) doesn't see the value in saving a doomed asset. McConaughey's exasperated conversations with Cruise are among the film's comedic highs.
Although Guy Ritchie's style was somewhat diluted when he started making Hollywood blockbusters like "Sherlock Holmes," "King Arthur: Legend of the Sword," and "Aladdin," he returned to his roots with the uproarious crime film "The Gentlemen" which allowed its cast, including Matthew McConaughey, to goof off as eccentric characters.
The film tells a convoluted story about drug deals gone wrong. It's McConaughey's character, Mickey Pearson, who is involved in the inciting incident. He ignores tabloid editor Big Dave (Eddie Marsden) at a social gathering. Dave is infuriated and hires his top reporter, Fletcher (Hugh Grant), to investigate. The events are told in flashback as Fletcher interviews Pearson's right-hand man, Raymond Smith (Charlie Hunnam). Any scenes with Pearson are a treat. Richie saddles McConaughey with ridiculous monologues about how the "lion is the king of the jungle," which sound even more absurd with McConaughey's thick Texas drawl.
Although "The Gentlemen" is generally light-hearted, McConaughey does have one very dramatic scene. Pearson's rival, Dry Eye (Henry Golding), attempts to assault his wife, Rosalind (Michelle Dockery). McConaughey shows Person's ferocity as he comes to his lover's aid. This could have felt like an odd change of pace, but McConaughey sells the gravity of the situation.
The Lincoln Lawyer
In many ways, "The Lincoln Lawyer" feels like the origin story of "The McConaissance." In 2011, McConaughey was coming off of disastrous romantic comedies like "Fool's Gold" and "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past," and no one was taking him seriously. He took a chance on "The Lincoln Lawyer," a legal thriller about a quirky attorney who works out of his car. Mickey Haller (McConaughey) is also someone who isn't taken seriously. Haller's career has declined because he doesn't want to get involved with cases that he doesn't believe in. This parallels how McConaughey began to choose better projects.
Haller faces an interesting moral dilemma when he discovers that his client, Louis Ross Roulet (Ryan Phillippe), is guilty of murder. Haller is legally obligated to defend him either way. However, Roulet makes the situation even direr when he threatens Haller's family. Roulet leverages his family's wealth to get away with anything. McConaughey shows how Haller is infuriated by people like this, as his honor has been rewarded with misfortune.
Haller finds a unique way to investigate the situation so that he can expose the conspiracy, save his family, and fulfill his legal obligations. McConaughey's flashes of personality reflect the strange journey that leads Haller to do the right thing.
"Bernie" is a reunion of sorts for Matthew McConaughey, who returned to collaborate with director Richard Linklater, and the film shows why they are such a great pairing. Linklater's films never seem to know where they are going, but they always reflect the mundanity of life. Who better to speak to these themes than McConaughey? Absurdly funny, shockingly violent, and oddly touching, "Bernie" shows both McConaughey and Linklater's range.
"Bernie" follows good-natured mortician Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), who kills his older companion, Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). Tiede is beloved by his community, and they are quick to defend him when he is accused of murder. McConaughey co-stars as Danny Buck Davidson, the local attorney that puts Tiede on trial. Danny is in a no-win scenario. Tiede has the support of the people, and they don't care if he is guilty.
The scenes in which Danny "explains" Texas culture in an interview-style setting are hilariously intercut with the main storyline. Who better to teach us about how to be a Texan than McConaughey?
Dallas Buyers Club
"Dallas Buyers Club" isn't necessarily Matthew McConaughy's greatest film, but it exemplifies all of the things that make him unique. Ron Woodroof (McConaughey) is a gambler, loner, and disreputable Texan who doesn't think that he has much of a future. Woodroof discovers that he has AIDS, which he immediately doubts because of the miscommunication of the era. In the 1980s, information about the AIDs pandemic was limited because people assumed that it only affected gay men. Woodroof isn't a very accepting person, and he doesn't want to be "accused" of being gay.
To save his life, Woodroof decides to cut through red tape and find the people that can help him. He searches for drugs that provide relief to those in need. McConaughey shows Woodroof's desperation. He feels like he will have nothing to return to if he survives. However, Woodroof becomes infuriated when he learns that the government is not allocating resources.
McConaughey shows the beauty of Woodroof's redemption. After starting an organization to provide medications to AIDS patients, he begins to open himself up and become an ally of the LGBTQ+ community. Although the film should have cast trans performers in major parts, McConaughey's performance shows how one man's kindness can bring hope.
Dazed And Confused
Richard Linklater's seminal coming-of-age comedy launched the careers of many breakout stars. It's one of the funniest high school movies ever, but it's also painfully realistic in the way that it handles growing up. Linklater's greatest skill is his ability to generate empathy. He shows how there is diversity in the high school experience and explores how characters from different walks of life adjust to these years of change. This required an incredible ensemble. It's all the more impressive that McConaughey is what fans remember from the film the most.
McConaughey is hardly the main character in "Dazed and Confused," but he's easily the scene stealer. His character, David Wooderson, is merely an observer of the strange events of the film. A man in his 20s who still hangs out with teenagers, Wooderson is both completely pathetic and the coolest character in the room at the same time. If mishandled, Wooderson could have felt like a total creep, but McConaughey's charisma makes him utterly endearing.
Matthew McConaughey may have won his Oscar for 2013's "Dallas Buyers Club," but that wasn't his best performance of the year. He also starred in Jeff Nichols' touching coming-of-age drama "Mud" in which he gave one of the most distinct performances of his career. The titular hero, Mud (McConaughey), is a mysterious fugitive who hides away on an island on the Mississippi River. Mud's isolation is shattered when he befriends two young boys named Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland).
There is beauty in the way that Mud talks to the boys about his life and regrets. Although he hints at his depression, Mud has faith that he will one day be reunited with his girlfriend, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). McConaughey implies an entire backstory that isn't seen. He is remarkably tender alongside the two young boys as they find that Mud's wholesome advice is the kind of wisdom that they're missing at home.
If you went into "Magic Mike" expecting to see a goofy stripper movie, that is definitely not what Steven Soderbergh delivered. "Magic Mike" is a devastating character drama about the impact of the financial crisis that feels closer to a 1970s drama than something like "Striptease." Although the film has some truly harrowing moments, there is still a sense of joy that comes from men expressing themselves. In an age of toxic masculinity, Soderbergh shows the beauty of men that are comfortable with their bodies.
"Magic Mike" has a lovable cast of characters, none of whom are quite as personable as Dallas (McConaughey). As the owner of the Xquisite Strip Club, he's determined to give his audience a great show no matter what. There is a dichotomy in McConaughey's performance as Dallas. While he is energetic during the stripping scenes, he's forced to admit harsh truths about the group's financial state in his private conversations with Mike (Channing Tatum).
"Interstellar" is Christopher Nolan's most imaginative and emotional film. Although some film fans may feel that the cinematic styles of Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick are complete opposites, Nolan made a film that is as touching as "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" and as mind-blowing as "2001: A Space Odyssey." "Interstellar" looks at the origins of the universe through the story of a father who is desperate to return to his daughter.
Nolan isn't always great with dialogue, which makes McConaughey's performance as the astronaut, Cooper, even more important. He has to make sure that throughout the technical mumbo jumbo, the audience has a character that they can relate to. The most emotional scene in "Interstellar" is a harrowing sequence that explores the ramifications of time. After Cooper accidentally spends too much time on a planet where time is calculated differently, he sobs as he watches the recordings that his family has sent to him.
The Wolf Of Wall Street
It only takes one scene in "The Wolf of Wall Street" for Matthew McConaughey to steal the entire film. There is no shortage of uproariously unexpected moments in Martin Scorsese's three-hour satirical epic, but the iconic sequence in which Mark Hanna (McConaughey) teaches Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) the nature of Wall Street culture might be the most hilarious. Hanna beats his chest as he hums, taking Belfort off guard, but he's intrigued by the strange charisma that Hanna seems to have.
This scene is more than an extended cameo. Hanna essentially introduces Belfort to the lifestyle that will dominate his life, and it perfectly sets the tone for the film's off-kilter sense of humor. It's the rare moment when Belfort is vulnerable. He's embarrassed by Hanna's strange routine but steadily learns that this is the type of behavior that leads to success in this business.
"Lone Star" is one of the most underrated films of the 1990s and perhaps the best example of John Sayles' elegant mix of beauty and elegance. Sayles weaponizes the naturalism of the American West to tell a tragic mystery that ends on a devastating note. As Texas sheriff Charlie Wade (Chris Cooper) investigates the death of his father, Buddy Deeds (Matthew McConaughey), he discovers secrets that threaten to unravel the entire community.
McConaughey brings out the earnest diligence that makes Deeds so beloved in his community. Although it doesn't feel like either McConaughey or Sayles is idolizing law enforcement, Deeds proves to be the rare sheriff who resolves issues without collateral damage. McConaughey is utterly heartbreaking in the flashback sequences. Even though the audience knows his death is coming, the moment still lands with an emotional impact. There's a sense of dread that presages Deeds' fate that McConaughey makes even more shocking.
In many ways, "Killer Joe" is an inversion of "Lone Star." While John Sayles' touching tribute to the ways of the American Western is tinged with a heartfelt sense of melancholy, William Friedkin's grotesque dark comedy is the embodiment of everything wrong with America. Seedy, uncomfortable, and unforgettable, "Killer Joe" is the type of film that pushes the limits of good taste. Matthew McConaughey's terrifying role as the titular lawman is the type of revolting anti-hero that you can't take your eyes off.
Based on a play by Tracy Letts, "Killer Joe" takes place in a Texas trailer park. When a young drug dealer named Chris (Emile Hirsch) winds up with a target on his back, he seeks the assistance of his ignorant father, Ansel (Thomas Hayden Church), who lives with his needy second wife, Sharla (Gina Gershon), and Chris' sister, Dottie (Juno Smith). Chris proposes a plan. If they can stage the death of Ansel's first wife, Adele, they can claim the insurance money.
Of course, a scheme like this requires the services of a veteran troublemaker like Joe. McConaughey is darkly charismatic as he pushes the characters to make decisions against their self-interests. "Killer Joe" is a delightfully morbid examination of morality.
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