Total Recall

Total Recall: Woody Harrelson's Best Movies

We count down the best-reviewed work of the Friends with Benefits star.

by | July 21, 2011 | Comments

Woody Harrelson

Woody Harrelson has come an awfully long way since he joined the cast of Cheers in 1985, originating the role of hayseed bartender Woody Boyd and kicking off a career that has grown to encompass one of the more eclectic, unusual, and just plain interesting filmographies in modern Hollywood. Comedies? Dramas? Thrillers? Harrelson’s done ’em all — and with his supporting turn in Friends with Benefits making its way to theaters this weekend, we figured now was the perfect time to take a look back at some of the critical highlights in the Harrelson oeuvre, Total Recall style!


10. White Men Can’t Jump

During his Cheers years, Harrelson scored a few small roles in films such as Wildcats, L.A. Story, and Doc Hollywood, but it wasn’t until the show was nearing the end of its run that he got his first major big-screen break: co-starring with Wesley Snipes in Ron Shelton’s hit comedy White Men Can’t Jump. As a pair of bickering street basketball hustlers who form an uneasy partnership in order to pull off one big score, the perfectly matched odd couple helped send Jump to a $90 million worldwide gross — and although they failed to recapture the magic when they reunited for Money Train a few years later, this still stands as one of the more charmingly off-beat comedies of the decade. “This film unfolds in an uncommonly sweet, harmonious climate,” enthused Janet Maslin of the New York Times, “one in which rude remarks are the sine qua non of friendship. And that benign atmosphere becomes a large part of its charm.”


9. The Thin Red Line

Marking director Terrence Malick’s return from a 20-year absence and featuring the work of a stellar ensemble cast that included Harrelson, Adrien Brody, George Clooney, John Cusack, and Sean Penn, The Thin Red Line was the film buff event of 1998. Even with a 170-minute running time, there wasn’t enough Line to go around — in fact, during all the whittling between its five-hour first cut and the theatrical version, Malick excised entire performances by Martin Sheen, Gary Oldman, Billy Bob Thornton, Viggo Mortensen, and others. Given all that, we couldn’t very well leave The Thin Red Line off the list — even if it isn’t Harrelson’s biggest performance, it’s really saying something that it ended up in the movie at all. And for most critics, there was no arguing with the end result; as Norman Green wrote for, “It wrestles with complexity, speaks to us in poetry, weaves multiple narrative strands into a tapestry, opens the festering wounds of war and gazes inside without blinking.”


8. Welcome to Sarajevo

Filmed on location in war-torn Sarajevo and Croatia, Michael Winterbottom’s gritty, enraged Welcome to Sarajevo aimed a lens at the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina — in some cases using footage of actual war atrocities — and finds plenty of condemnation to go around. Harrelson co-stars here as Jimmy Flynn, a hotshot journalist whose quest for a story puts him in the midst of a hellish war zone — and a friendly rivalry with fellow reporter Michael Henderson (Stephen Dillane), who embroils Flynn in his efforts to smuggle orphans out of the country. Calling it “Messy and visceral, with an articulate, pointed anger that’s recognizably British,” Salon’s Charles Taylor praised Sarajevo for “[hitting] with an impact that’s not diminished by the fact that Sarajevo’s uneasy peace has held.”


7. A Prairie Home Companion

One of America’s longest-running radio programs celebrated its 31st birthday in style with this Robert Altman-directed ensemble dramedy, an artful blend of fact and fiction that dramatizes one very important night behind the scenes. Completed mere months before Altman’s death, it provided a worthy closing statement for one of Hollywood’s most dignified careers — and gave Harrelson an opportunity to rub shoulders with a cast that included Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Tommy Lee Jones, John C. Reilly, and Kevin Kline. “It sparkles with a magic all its own as an engagingly performed piece of Midwestern whimsy and stoicism,” wrote Andrew Sarris for the New York Observer, adding, “Mr. Altman’s flair for ensemble spectacle and seamless improvisation in the midst of utter chaos is as apparent as ever.”


6. Wag the Dog

Harrelson took a small but pivotal role in this black political comedy — playing a deranged former soldier whose untimely demise complicates a Presidential adviser’s intricate, daffy, and eerily prescient plans — and although it didn’t amount to much in the way of screen time, it provides a vivid demonstration of Harrelson’s ability to deliver a memorable performance in just a few moments. Calling it “A wicked smart satire on the interlocking worlds of politics and show business,” Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times said “Wag the Dog confirms every awful thought you’ve ever had about media manipulation and the gullibility of the American public.”


5. The People vs. Larry Flynt

The idea of making a biopic about one of America’s most infamous pornographers might have seemed like some kind of joke in 1996, but The People vs. Larry Flynt — starring Harrelson as Hustler publisher Flynt and helmed by One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest director Milos Forman — actually ended up being one of the more serious, thoughtful dramas of the decade. Though it wasn’t a huge box office success, Flynt earned Harrelson his first Academy Award nomination (and scored Courtney Love a Golden Globe nomination in the bargain), as well as heaps of praise from critics like Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle, who quipped that it was “a modern-day Capra film, about an unorthodox businessman who’s persecuted for his originality but eventually is recognized for the lovable, rugged American individualist he truly is.”


4. The Messenger

Harrelson earned his second Oscar nomination for his work in this thoughtful war drama, which centers around a pair of Army officers (played by Harrelson and Ben Foster) saddled with the impossible task of telling the family members of fallen soldiers that their loved ones have died in combat. The directorial debut of screenwriter and former journalist Oren Moverman, The Messenger was ignored at the box office, where its minuscule $1.5 million gross offered further proof that audiences weren’t interested in seeing anything that would remind them of the wars in the Middle East — but it earned almost universal praise from critics like the Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips, who observed, “Some jobs are dirtier than others, and after seeing director and co-writer Oren Moverman’s beautifully acted new film, you’ll be better acquainted with some of the most grueling work a human being can be called upon to perform.”


3. Zombieland

With the number of zombie movies that have been released, any new entry in the genre really has to do something different in order to stand out — and that’s just what Ruben Fleischer did with Zombieland, starring Harrelson as a cynical survivalist prowling post-outbreak America in search of a Twinkie, Jesse Eisenberg as a college student whose meek exterior masks a surprisingly effective zombie killer, and Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin as a pair of sisters who join them on their journey to a California amusement park that’s rumored to be zombie-free. Toss in one of the most excellent celebrity cameos in recent memory, and it all added up to a $100 million hit — and the movie Roger Moore of the Orlando Sentinel described as “the funniest zombie movie since Shawn of the Dead, funnier even than Fido” as well as “a 28 Days Later played for laughs — lots of them, endless jokes, one-liners and sight gags.”


2. Transsiberian

Four strangers on a train barreling across the Trans-Siberian Express. What could go wrong? That’s the slowly unraveling mystery at the wintry heart of writer/director Brad Anderson’s Transsiberian, starring Harrelson and Emily Mortimer as a pair of missionaries whose return trip from China takes a series of unexpected turns after they find themselves sharing a train cabin with another couple (played by Eduardo Noriega and Kate Mara). It’s the kind of movie that’s better the less you know going in, so we won’t spoil any further plot details here; suffice it to say that, in the words of Colin Covert of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, “Anderson gives us an artful, shifty-eyed take on human strengths and weakness; his film delivers the pleasure of a conventional tale well told, with clever twists and complex characters.”


1. No Country for Old Men

For a guy who made his name playing a harmless hayseed on a beloved sitcom, Woody Harrelson can come across as pretty menacing when he wants to. But you know who does that trick even better? Javier Bardem, whose character in No Country for Old Men, the terrifying bounty hunter Anton Chigurh, gets the drop on Harrelson’s character, a competing hitman and former acquaintance named Carson Wells — and after a few minutes of deeply disquieting banter, offs Wells with a bolt gun. It’s one of many shudder-worthy moments from the Coen brothers’ Oscar-winning adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel, which earned over $170 million at the box office and unqualified praise from critics like Tom Long of the Detroit News, who called it “A cold, rough look at the dissolution of just about everything” and added, “It will bother you afterward. It should.”

In case you were wondering, here are Harrelson’s top 10 movies according RT users’ scores:

1. Zombieland — 87%
2. No Country for Old Men — 84%
3. Natural Born Killers — 80%
4. Seven Pounds — 77%
5. The Thin Red Line — 75%
6. The People Vs. Larry Flynt — 74%
7. Welcome to Sarajevo — 74%
8. North Country — 72%
9. Wag the Dog — 72%
10. The Messenger — 72%

Take a look through Harrelson’s complete filmography, as well as the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don’t forget to check out the reviews for Friends with Benefits.

Finally, here’s Harrelson showing off his singing skills on Cheers: