10. Game Change (Jay Roach, 2012)When Game Change debuted on HBO last year, most of the talk (rightly) centered on Julianne Moore’s performance as Sarah Palin. Moore pulled off the near impossible in showing just how dangerously incompetent Palin was to be Vice President, let alone President, and yet still made her a fully rounded person, who even generates sympathy from the audience – there is a reason why Moore won a bunch of awards for her performance. But Harrelson’s role is really the central one in the movie – he plays Steven Schmidt, the McCain adviser who wanted Palin in the first place, and then watches slowly as she melts down, and he realizes just how bad a candidate she is and yet what a brilliant actress she could be. Harrelson does not have the well-known personality or vocal mannerisms to fall back on, like Moore and Ed Harris (who played McCain) did. His role is tricky, and he pulls it off brilliantly – right up until the final moments. A great performance by Harrelson here.
9. No Country for Old Men (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2007)There is no question about it – compared to the performances in this movie by Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem and even Kelly McDonald, Woody Harrelson’s role pales. And yet, Harrelson is just about perfect in his few brief scenes as Carson Wells – another hit man who is on the trail of Josh Brolin and his stolen money, as well as Javier Bardem’s even more brutal hit man. In many ways, Wells is a mere misdirection in Cormac McCarthy’s novel, and the film based on it – he comes in, is confident, knows Chigruh, and we think we’re being setup for some sort of epic confrontation, only to have him dispatched rather quickly and easily. That’s a brilliant move – but in many instances it would mean the actor playing the role has a thankless task. But Harrelson makes the most of his few scenes – creates a very specific character out of him. No, he isn’t the best in this movie – not even close because he’s not given the role for it – that doesn’t mean he isn’t just about perfect in the film anyway.
Ron Shelton directed two great sports comedies in the late 1980s/early 1990s – the more famous of which is Bull Durham, but the better of which is White Men Can’t Jump. This is a film that gave Harrelson his first great movie role, and he excels in it. He plays a basketball hustler, who knows that simply by looking like he does, no one will take him seriously - making it all the better when he beats them. Harrelson has great chemistry with the other two major characters in the movie – Wesley Snipes (yes, there was a time where he could act), as another hustler who he teams up with, and Rosie Perez as his whip smart, sexy, funny firecracker of a girlfriend. The film is profane in the extreme – but is creative with its profanity – and Harrelson nails it.
7. Zombieland (Ruben Fleischer, 2009)Woody Harrelson has a gift for playing eccentric characters – and his role in Zombieland, as Tallahassee, the Twinkie and Bill Murray loving guy who relishes killing zombies in creative ways is one of his best. While Jessie Eisenberg is certainly the star of the show here, Harrelson gets the film’s plum supporting role – and he makes the most of it. Many actors would look lost, or simply seem out of place, but not Harrelson who nails the tone between comedy and horror pretty much perfectly. Harrelson has had tougher roles – and obviously delivered better performances, but I’m not sure he’s ever been this much fun to watch in a movie.
6. The Walker (Paul Schrader, 2007)Not many people saw Paul Schrader’s The Walker from a while back, but they should have if for no other reason than to see Harrelson’s excellent performance in the lead role. He plays Carter Page III, the son of a famous congressman who took on Richard Nixon during Watergate, and is still admired in Washington. By comparison, the younger Carter hasn’t done much with his life – he is rich and gay, and spends his days escorting the wives of politicians to social events when their husbands are too busy. And then, Carter becomes involved in a murder he did not commit, but looks like he did. This is a prototypical Schrader movie – similar in many ways to American Gigolo (1980), but to me, a better, more complete film. It is a murder mystery and a quietly moving character study. And Harrelson absolutely nails the leading role.
5. The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, 1998)I have no idea how much of Harrelson’s performance in The Thin Red Line ended up on the cutting room floor. Malick is infamous for cutting actor’s either out of the movie completely or turning major roles into what amounts to a cameo appearance – which may well be what happened to Harrelson, who only has a few minutes of screen time in Malick’s WWII masterpiece. Yet who can forget those few minutes by Harrelson – who has perhaps the most memorable scene in the entire movie gets a chance to have the film’s most tragic and accidental death sequence – and one that hits hard. Harrelson does so much in that one scene that even though that’s pretty much all he does in this film; it still remains one of the most stunning performances of his career.
4. Rampart (Oren Moverman, 2011)Harrelson’s character in Rampart is the most amoral character Harrelson has ever played – and really one of the most amoral characters I have ever seen at the heart of a movie. He plays an LAPD officer who is involved in the Rampart scandal of the late 1990s – but he seems even worse than most of the officer in that scandal. He is racist and misogynistic, has two kids, by separate mothers (who happen to be sisters and live next door to each other), but doesn’t seem to care too much about them either. He is violent in the extreme – he is filmed beating a suspect with such expertise, it cannot possibly be the first time he’s done it. He makes enemies where ever he goes – and yet somehow, he always seems to be able to escape. Rampart is not a movie with a typical plot – it does not show this man’s descent into corruption – he’s rotten to the core at the beginning of the film, and he’s not really any better or worse at the end. It is a great performance in a movie that deserves more attention.
3. The Messenger (Oren Moverman, 2009)Harrelson earned his second Oscar nomination for his excellent performance in The Messenger. He plays a career military man who was simply the wrong age to ever see any combat. His job now is to go to the homes of the families of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan and break the news to them. He has a new recruit – played by Ben Foster, subtly for once – and is showing him the ropes. He advises to not get involved – don’t touch or hug the families, just deliver the news and then get out as fast as you can. This may sound heartless, but Harrelson’s character is hardly uncaring. He is struggling with his own demons and feels tremendous guilt – he just knows what the family needs, and what he needs. This is a quiet movie – but a powerful one. And Harrelson is one of the best things in it.
I’m not sure what it was that Milos Forman saw in Harrelson to make him cast him as famed pornographer Larry Flynt in his excellent biopic – but I’m glad he did. Harrelson got his first Oscar nomination for this role – and he damn well should have won (he lost to Geoffrey Rush for Shine – a fine performance to be sure, but not a great one like Harrelson’s). Harrelson plays Flynt as a fun loving scumbag – he knows his Hustler magazine is vulgar, and he doesn’t care – it makes money. Harrelson is wonderful as she shows Flynt’s evolution from moonshiner to strip club owner to fledgling provocateur into publishing giant – all with the help of his loyal wife (Courtney Love, who showed here she is a real actress – and sadly, has yet to be able to do the same since). Harrelson fully embraces the chaos and contradictions in the role – and delivers one of his very best performances.
1. Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone, 1994)In 1994, casting Harrelson as a psychopathic spree killer in lover struck many people as odd – after all, at this point, he was pretty much known only as lovable doofus Woody Boyd from Cheers. But Oliver Stone saw the darkness in Harrelson lurking beneath the surface. As Mickey Knox, Harrelson was given the best role of his career – and delivered a tour-de-force performance. He is likable, charming, funny, creepy, scary and violent – often at the same time. The best part of his performance in undeniably the interview he gives with Robert Downey Jr.’s Geraldo like journalist (modeled after interviews with Charles Manson) – which Harrelson nails. But the entirety of his performance is brilliant. The movie was too violent and too controversial to gain any awards traction – but Harrelson deserved an Oscar for his role here. Maybe one day, he’ll get one.