Aside from being comically immortalised by South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker in Team America: World Police, Matt Damon has been a long-serving Hollywood actor who has consistently proven himself to be both reliable and captivating in a number of varying roles and diverse genres.
Whether he is starring as a remarkable action hero who revolutionized an entire genre, a dubious yet likeable villain with questionable morals or the vocalist of a college rock band celebrating one student’s girlfriend and her unfaithful ways through the medium of song, Matt Damon has been an unwavering and highly memorable actor.
Since first appearing in a very small role in the coming-of-age drama Mystic Pizza in 1988, Matt Damon has boldly risen through the demanding ranks of acting fame, despite struggling his way through the first initial decade.
Staying alongside childhood best friend and frequent collaborator Ben Affleck, the pair lived together in a rundown flat and took work where they could, eventually coming to prominence in 1997 thanks to their penning of the Oscar-winning original screenplay and noteworthy acting in Good Will Hunting, a piece that significantly escalated the two friends’ soon-to-be exceptionally prosperous careers from that point onwards.
A humanitarian, Massachusetts-born Damon away from acting is an active supporter of the ONE campaign, as well as a co-founder of charitable organizations such as H20 Africa Foundation and Not On Our Watch. On top of this, he is a board member for the activist group Tonic Mailstopper, an organization campaigning against the first-world problem of junk mail being delivered to homes across America.
Since rising to fame in the late 1990s after the slightly hesitant start to his acting life, Matt Damon has masterfully created a substantial back catalogue of inspirational and seminal performances spanning almost three decades, leading to an impressive list of achievements that only grows as each year passes. From a list that is difficult to narrow down, here are his ten finest performances to date.
10. Dogma (1999)
Matt Damon, along with Ben Affleck, are both good friends of the infamous cult director Kevin Smith. They appear in four of his films set in the interconnected fictional View Askewniverse world: Chasing Amy, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Jersey Girl, and, without question, most notably as two of the leads in his controversial and riotously hysterical religious satire Dogma.
Never afraid to let their comedy sides show, especially under the direction of Smith, both Damon and Affleck as fallen angels Loki and Bartleby are captivatingly absorbing throughout, creating a hilariously compelling chemistry together that clearly shows the strength of the pair’s off-screen friendship.
Dogma follows the mischievous pair Loki (Damon), the angel of death, and his companion Bartleby (Affleck), two angels perfectly bouncing off one another, who have been banished from heaven by God and sent to Earth to live a mundane existence amongst the rest of humanity.
As they constantly attempt to regain access to the alleged pearly gates through a number of loopholes in the religious system, unaware of what will happen if they actually do re-enter heaven, a group of misfits steered by another angel, Metatron, played flawlessly by Alan Rickman, set out on a quest to stop them.
What ensues is a host of bizarre and uproarious scenarios and encounters with an army of dubious character creations portraying several biblical characters, much to the offense of religious outfits everywhere, most notably Roman Catholic groups that picketed screenings of the film.
The role of Loki was initially written for another Smith regular, Jason Lee, but upon the issue of scheduling conflicts it was eventually given to Matt Damon who, despite being endlessly busy between the years of 1997 and 1999, couldn’t refuse the part upon reading the script.
Faultlessly hilarious and fascinating throughout, in turn, the movie produced one of Damon’s most unforgettable comic designs to date as a fallen angel who, despite leading a reasonably happy existence, is subject to constant peer pressure by his persuasive and forceful sidekick Bartleby, a predicament that becomes much more apparent as the film progresses towards its final act.
9. True Grit (2010)
The highly underrated remake of the gripping Western revenge tale, True Grit is one of the Coen brothers’ finest achievements in recent years. Trying their hand at an entirely different genre, the siblings manage to not only stay much more faithful to the classic novel written by Charles Portis in both tone and narrative, but arguably bypass the standard of the original 1969 John Wayne film of the same name.
Placing Hailee Steinfeld’s outstanding performance as the young Mattie Ross at the heart of the film, she goes off in search of justice against the man who killed her father with the help and guidance of lawman Rooster Cogburn, iconically portrayed by Jeff Bridges, and Matt Damon’s Texas Ranger, known only as LaBoeuf.
A role unlike anything else rendered by the versatile actor, Damon is captivating as the gutsy cowboy-type LaBoeuf. In an immaculate depiction of the Wild West, Damon portrays a courageous man who is not only determined but also undaunted and unwavering in his outlined quest, regardless of the garish predicaments that he and his two companions find themselves in.
At one stage, the character bites his own tongue off while being dragged by his horse during a miscalculated shootout, an effect Damon achieved by wrapping a hair bobble around his tongue which suitably restricted his speech for the remainder of the film.
A role that was represented by Glen Campbell in the original film, Damon managed to fashion a character entirely different, never faltering in his performance or using past creations to shape his own portrayal. It is the multiplicity of Matt Damon’s overwhelming ability that is most prominent when tasked with roles of this nature. Much like his protagonist character within the film, the actor is both confident and impudent in attaining his mission.
8. The Rainmaker (1997)
After Matt Damon’s standout performance in Courage Under Fire, the fairly unknown actor (at the time) was given the chance by legendary director Francis Ford Coppola to undertake the role of Rudy Baylor in his upcoming legal drama The Rainmaker.
It was at this point Damon decided that, prior to production commencing, he would get a job working as a bartender in Knoxville, Tennessee in an attempt to perfect his southern accent (later going on to employ one of the local bar’s regular patrons as a vocal coach throughout the filming process).
Adapted for the screen by Francis Ford Coppola, and based on the best-selling novel of the same name by criminal defense lawyer-turned-author John Grisham, The Rainmaker tells the inspirational account of underdog lawyer Rudy Baylor who struggles to find substantial work and his notorious courtroom battle against a fraudulent insurance company.
A heroic tale of the little man against an evil corporation, fundamentally anchored by the director’s attention to atmosphere and detail, as well as a young Matt Damon who, at this point, was beginning to pick up momentum in his career.
While many political and courtroom dramas opt for the approach of using a big-name star to fill the lead role, Francis Ford Coppola took the approach of gripping storytelling, compelling narrative and intelligence over the requirement for a star-studded performance; instead, choosing an unlikely hero in Damon to depict the inexperienced lawyer.
This went on to later appear to be a stroke of genius casting as the relatable and highly amiable presence and demeanor of Matt Damon grabbed audiences’ attentions, giving them an everyday man that they could root for in the conflict against juggernaut corporate control.
7. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
An absolute master class in how to create a disturbing and realistic war drama about survival and endurance, portraying what men will do for their fellow kind against all the odds, Steven Spielberg’s 1998 ambitious masterpiece Saving Private Ryan is full of depth, heart and gritty imagery, expertly capturing the horrors of war and the desperate attempt to hold on to humanity during and after witnessing so many inhumane acts of violence.
Spielberg again manages to assemble a stellar cast of actors in his motion picture, here to portray the soldiers who go behind enemy lines: Tom Hanks, Barry Pepper, Tom Sizemore and Vin Diesel, to name a few, as well as Matt Damon as the titular Private Ryan.
The epic feature follows a group of U.S soldiers, fronted by Hanks, as they arrive at Omaha Beach on D-Day (the beginning thus serving as the biopic segment of the picture), followed by their attempts to rescue Damon’s surviving paratrooper Private Ryan.
The 1944 Normandy landings during World War II that serve as the film’s opening scenes are completely unforgettable, skilfully giving the feeling of being there to the audience by utilizing hand-held cameras accompanied by impressive sound and editing work. Using saturated visual tones and heart-stopping sound effects, this chaotic opening only leads to several more inspiring set pieces, all of which are full of ground-breaking action, terror and jaw-dropping visuals.
Rejected by Edward Norton who wanted to work on American History X, Damon was approached by Spielberg with the offer of starring in the ground-breaking director’s latest blockbuster (an opportunity that not many actors choose to decline).
The director stated that he wanted a fairly unknown actor with a typical, all-American look to portray Ryan, Damon ironically being cast as the titular character long before his abrupt critical success and rise to fame in Good Will Hunting.
Matt Damon’s impeccable ability to bring a character to life from a well-written script has always been a wonder to behold, never more so than when humanizing or tragically filling a vital part with emotional depth and heart. Here, portraying a well-balanced and honest soldier, distressed at the loss of his brothers, through the aid of Damon using a lot of improvisation.
Damon is enthralling as Ryan, a truly believable American hero in the heart of a horrific war who wants to do the right and honourable thing, seeing it as only fair that he continues to serve in the war, despite the fact that others were willing to risk their lives to bring him home.
6. The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)
An actor who has frequently been known for his dramatic shifts in bodyweight for specific roles, Matt Damon lost 30 pounds to undertake the part of the titular Mr. Ripley. Also adapted as the French film Plein Soleil in 1960, the thriller is based on the novel of the same name by author Patricia Highsmith.
The story takes place in 1950s New York, where Tom Ripley, a young man struggling to make money, is recruited by wealthy businessman Herbert Greenleaf as a result of mistaken identity. Ripley is sent to Italy in an attempt to return with the man’s missing son, spoiled rich kid Dickie.
In a film full of incredible performances throughout, including Jude Law’s breakout turn as the estranged missing son Dickie Greenleaf, earning him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, as well as Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett and Philip Seymour Hoffman, a young Damon holds his own in one of his finest performances to date, depicting a dark complexity and fascinating intrigue as a fraudulent criminal and budding psychopath.
Beating Leonardo DiCaprio, Christian Bale and Tom Cruise for the role of the unsettling Ripley, Damon learned how to play piano for the part plus took singing lessons to perform the song My Funny Valentine himself.
The Talented Mr. Ripley is an expertly crafted intense thriller piece, smartly written for the screen and directed by Anthony Minghella following his success with The English Patient a few years earlier. The Talented Mr. Ripley shows the ever more appropriate state of social class and the lengths that an underachieving man with nothing to lose can go to for a lavish and luxurious lifestyle.
It’s Matt Damon’s haunting yet charming lead that adds the necessary depth and profoundness to the role, making audiences relate to and, at times, even support a morally ambiguous villain to succeed (no easy accomplishment for any actor).
As the film proceeds and Tom Ripley chillingly progresses to stealing the identity of Dickie Greenleaf, showing an unsettling lack of human emotion throughout, Damon’s ability to replicate Jude Law’s mannerisms is flawless, expertly portraying Law’s behavior and tones.
It is no doubt a shame that further adaptations of other Mr. Ripley novels were not created for the screen, as it was The Talented Mr. Ripley that gave Matt Damon a platform to undertake darker and much more intricately disturbing characters, an essential role in outlining Damon’s ability for diversity.