Since earning his career breakout with Good Will Hunting in 1997, Matt Damon has won an Academy Award, worked for some of the finest directors (and alongside some of the most talented actors) in Hollywood, and proved his mettle as a dramatic actor, gifted screen comic, and steely action hero. In honor of his latest starring role, in Jason Bourne this weekend, we decided to rifle through the Damon filmography and take a closer look at the ten most critically successful entries. Which of your favorites made the cut? Which ones have the critics blasphemously overlooked? There’s only one way to find out!
As conceived by author Patricia Highsmith, Tom Ripley is a deeply unsavory character — a psychopath who uses his natural charm and malfunctioning moral compass as the gateway into a lavish lifestyle built on lies, theft, and murder. Not the kind of role you’d expect to go to a wholesome-looking fellow like Matt Damon, in other words — but that’s part of what made Damon’s performance in Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley so profoundly disquieting. Capable of communicating bottomless need, desperate rage, and cold calculation in a single scene, Damon proved his range was far greater than many may have suspected. “We all knew Damon was a fine actor after Good Will Hunting,” wrote Jeffrey Westhoff of the Northwest Herald, “but The Talented Mr. Ripley takes him much further much faster than anyone could have expected.”
Chilly and sleek, Contagion found director Steven Soderbergh working with frequent screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (The Informant!, Side Effects) to give audiences a scary-as-hell glimpse of just how quickly a global pandemic could spread in the modern world — and employing an impressive group of famous faces to portray it, including Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Elliott Gould, and Bryan Cranston, among others. While Contagion’s pulpy premise and gaudy cast might have suggested something along the lines of a ‘70s disaster flick, the end result was far more serious — and far more disturbing. “Soderbergh keeps a cool head throughout, refraining from the tear-jerking storylines and cheesy emoting you typically get in disaster movies,” wrote Jason Best for Movie Talk. “You might not be groping for tissues, but you’ll definitely be reaching for the anti-viral gel by the close.”
Think you’re committed to your job? Try being Matt Damon in preparation for Courage Under Fire. For his role as Specialist Ilario, Damon dropped 40 pounds, adopting a grueling training regimen that had him running miles a day and subsisting on a diet consisting of little more than cigarettes and coffee. It was not, as you might imagine, a decision popular with Damon’s doctors — or, more importantly, his body, which required no small amount of medical repair after shooting ended. But all’s well that ends well, and Edward Zwick’s Rashomon-style Gulf War drama helped Damon break the dry spell he’d been suffering since nabbing a role in 1993’s Geronimo: An American Legend. Oh, and the critics liked it too — like Steve Rhodes, who called it “An extremely moving picture that left me with my heart racing and my arms clutching myself and staring at the screen.”
Violent, bleak, and unbearably tense, The Departed earned director Martin Scorsese his long-overdue Best Director Oscar — but before that, it delighted critics and filmgoers by using Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s Infernal Affairs as the launchpad for an unflinching look at the personal toll exacted by the mortal struggle between law enforcement and organized crime. As dirty cop Colin Sullivan, Damon gives one of his subtlest and most heartbreaking performances, portraying a man who knows he’s living one step away from prison — or worse — and who you can’t help but feel for even as he works to ferret out the identity of Mafia mole and honest cop Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio). Though some critics compared The Departed unfavorably to Infernal Affairs, most agreed with the Academy voters who named it the year’s Best Picture; in the words of Beyond Hollywood’s Brian Holcomb, “Scorsese has made an incredible cover version of the original, imbued with every ounce of his artistic personality transforming it into something both familiar and new.”
Steven Spielberg’s long-standing fascination with World War II found its most realistic and hard-hitting expression with Saving Private Ryan. Arriving alongside Tom Brokaw’s well-received book The Greatest Generation, the film followed the fictional (but inspired by real events) tale of a platoon gutting its way through France in order to find a soldier whose three brothers have just been killed in combat (Private Ryan, played in a small but pivotal role by Matt Damon). Anchored by another strong performance from Tom Hanks, studded with talented actors, and fueled by Spielberg’s lean direction and Robert Rodat’s stirring script, Ryan won five Academy Awards against 11 nominations, made more than $500 million worldwide, and earned glowing praise from critics like the Los Angeles Times’s Kenneth Turan, who wrote, “A powerful and impressive milestone in the realistic depiction of combat, Saving Private Ryan is as much an experience we live through as a film we watch on screen.
With a name like The Martian, a person could be forgiven for assuming this Ridley Scott sci-fi thriller took filmgoers to the Red Planet for cool-looking alien creatures and awesome space battles. Instead, we got Matt Damon and a bunch of potatoes — as well as one of the most engaging outer-space dramas in Hollywood history. Damon plays Mark Watney, a member of a Mars expedition who’s presumed dead and abandoned when a freak storm forces his crew to evacuate the planet; faced with all-but-certain death, he relies on science and old-fashioned ingenuity to stay alive long enough for NASA to realize he didn’t perish in the storm — and for his fellow astronauts to mount their own daring rescue attempt. In adapting Andy Weir’s bestselling novel, Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard deftly blend a futuristic premise with immediately relatable human stakes, while The Martian‘s star made the most of a rare opportunity to shoulder a blockbuster hit virtually unassisted. “Damon is terrific,” wrote Richard Roeper for the Chicago Sun-Times. “The movie lives and breathes on his performance, and he comes through in every scene.”
It seems laughable now, but before The Bourne Identity reached theaters, there were a lot of people who didn’t think Matt Damon had what it took to be a convincing action hero. Those doubts were quickly erased with director Doug Liman’s sleek, powerful adaptation of the Robert Ludlum novel — a huge box office hit that was powered with equal parts explosive set pieces and a solid central performance by its star. As it turned out, Damon had not only the dramatic chops to realistically portray the fear and confusion of an amnesiac who slowly begins to realize he’s a lethal assassin, but the physical presence to make audiences believe he could kill a man with a pen — and launch a franchise that has had filmgoers lining up to follow a global trail of high-speed car chases, conspiracy cover-ups, and hand-held cameras shakily capturing some truly impressive hand-to-hand combat. The franchise hit its peak with its third installment, The Bourne Ultimatum, which brought some closure to the Bourne saga before its director, Paul Greengrass, eventually reunited with Damon to bring us this week’s Jason Bourne. “Who needs an identity,” quipped Peter Keough of the Boston Phoenix, “when you’re having this much fun?”
A longtime passion project for director Steven Soderbergh, Behind the Candelabra languished in development limbo for years while the Oscar-winning filmmaker struggled to find funding for a drama depicting the last years of the flamboyant pianist Liberace, as told through his estranged ex-lover Scott Thorston. Even with Michael Douglas attached as Liberace and Damon on board to play Thorston, Candelabra remained stuck until HBO stepped in to cover the budget — and ended up reaping record ratings for a TV movie on the way to achieving major awards recognition, including an Outstanding Lead Actor Emmy nomination for Damon. (Douglas, meanwhile, won Outstanding Lead Actor, while Candelabra itself walked away with Outstanding Miniseries or Movie.) “Douglas is more than acceptable, but Damon has made an unforgettable character,” wrote David Thomson for the New Republic. “Scott Thorson is unknown and he comes out of the dark as the story that needs to be told.”
If you’re going to remake a movie as well-known (and critically beloved) as John Wayne’s True Grit, you’ll need a few things to make it work, including tons of chutzpah and a whole bunch of talent on the set. Fortunately for filmgoers, the 2010 version of the movie not only satisfied all of the above requirements — with the Coen brothers behind the cameras and an outstanding cast that included Damon, Jeff Bridges, Josh Brolin, and (making her unforgettable debut) Hailee Steinfeld — but it brought something new to the table in the bargain, focusing on the story as told in Charles Portis’ novel rather than trying to out-Duke the Duke. The result was as charmingly idiosyncratic as you’d expect from the Coens, with Bridges and Damon affecting entertainingly outrageous frontier accents in their characters’ pursuit of the scumbag (Brolin) who murdered the father of a feisty young girl (Steinfeld), and picked up an impressive 10 Oscar nominations. While it didn’t win any, it did earn plenty of accolades from critics like Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir, who wrote, “Some people are expressing amazement that Joel and Ethan Coen would set out to make a classic western in the first place, and then that they’d accomplish it. All I can say is that those folks haven’t been paying attention.”
Before you even opened this list, you probably knew we’d end up here. And for good reason: Good Will Hunting is not only the massive left-field success that launched Damon and his pal/co-writer Ben Affleck into the Hollywood stratosphere, it’s a smart, tenderly written tale of the ways love and friendship can help build a bridge between the memories that haunt us and the futures we dream of. With empathetic direction from Gus Van Sant, beautiful music from Danny Elfman and Elliott Smith, and an Oscar-winning supporting performance from Robin Williams, Good Will Hunting was the kind of film that played equally well to the arthouse and cineplex crowds — and the kind of story that makes you feel good about loving movies. As Margaret McGurk of the Cincinnati Enquirer put it, “Good Will Hunting is another auspicious sign that the best of Young Hollywood is not only bringing back respect for the craft of acting, but for the cogent telling of tales as well.”