15. U-571 (2000)
McConaughey jumped into the action genre with this WWII submarine thriller, playing a passed-over officer who is forced to lead a top-secret mission to hijack a crippled German U-boat in order to steal its Enigma encryption machine. It’s perhaps the first time McConaughey got to show the grit behind the famous grin.
14. How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003)
Sixty years ago, Cary Grant would’ve had the role of the dashing ad exec who bets he can make any woman fall in love with him in just 10 days, but unfortunately targets a blonde journalist writing a story on how to sabotage a relationship in the same span. For all the rom-com dreck he did, this is the one that’s more pleasure than guilt.
13. The Beach Bum (2019)
Possible hot take: McConaughey is great in Harmony Korine’s trippy comedy. I say possible hot take because EW critic Chris Nashawaty called McConaughey’s Moondog the most annoying character of the year. I can understand how some might not take to the performance and movie, but consider me completely charmed by the actor’s delightful turn as the hard-partying, women’s clothes-wearing poet.
12. A Time to Kill (1996)
Playing the heroic lawyer in John Grisham’s sweaty Southern courtroom drama made McConaughey a star. Some fans will likely want to see this higher on the list, but McConaughey’s performance is comparable to a young attorney working his first big case: flashes of brilliance but unsure of his own abilities.
11. Bernie (2011)
McConaughey switched sides to play the Texas district attorney tasked with convicting Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), the real-life mortician charged with murdering his elderly companion (Shirley MacLaine). He’s sort of a buffoon, but a clever buffoon, and McConaughey knows exactly how far to take it.
10. Frailty (2001)
McConaughey was then known for playing slick characters, so it was refreshing to see him play a mysterious, guilt-ridden man who comes to the FBI with news about a serial killer. It’s a terrific performance that plays upon and twists our affection for him.
9. Killer Joe (2011)
William Friedkin’s adaptation of Tracy Letts’ play was so inherently dark it got an NC-17 rating, and McConaughey plays a killer-for-hire whose soul is pitch-black. But he brings a sense of propriety to his behavior that makes his bad-deeds that much more shocking.
8. The Lincoln Lawyer (2011)
Few knew it at the time — probably not even McConaughey — but this was the beginning of the McConaissance. In some ways, it’s the same type of role he’d been playing a decade; but he’d matured and seemingly finally understood his strengths as an actor. It’s more Richard Gere in Primal Fear than Paul Newman in The Verdict, but it dwarfs what he did in A Time to Kill.
7. Tropic Thunder (2008)
McConaughey was a last-minute replacement to play the aptly named Hollywood agent, Rick Peck, after Owen Wilson dropped out. Memorably, Peck fights adamantly for contractual TiVo rights for Ben Stiller’s doofus action star, Tugg Speedman; soon after, he’s willing to let his client die in the jungle. But, Peck eventually saves the day, and the character and movie prove to be a comic high point for McConaughey.
6. Mud (2012)
Dallas Buyers Club got all the ink, but McConaughey’s performance as Mud, a lovesick fugitive who befriends two boys living on the Mississippi, is dripping with poetry and resonance. This is classic role that would’ve been perfect for Robert Mitchum back in the day, and McConaughey knocks it out of the park.
5. Magic Mike (2012)
Quite simply, the list of actors who could’ve played Dallas, the dean of strippers, had only one name on it.
4. Dazed and Confused (1993)
Director Richard Linklater feared that McConaughey was too good-looking for the creepy townie who refused to grow up, but the tiny role bloomed into something special when the 22-year-old no-name stepped on the set. Wooderson became such an essential McConaughey creation that his film company is named J.K. Livin Productions.
3. Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
The weight loss represented dedication, but the great achievement was the vulnerability McConaughey brought to Ron Woodroof, the promiscuous homophobe who became an unlikely leader of the 1980s Texas gay community after contracting AIDS and opening a barely-legal meds-smuggling business. It was Oscar bait from the get-go, but it was an uncompromising performance that fit McConaughey like a pair of cozy cowboy boots.
2. The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Another actor could’ve played Mark Hanna, the Wall Street rainmaker who mentored Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio). But few could’ve made the impact McConaughey did in just a handful of scenes, especially the lunch meeting that introduced Belfort and the audience to a through-the-looking-glass world of hedonism.
1. True Detective (2014)
Time is a flat circle where we remember how damn good McConaughey was on True Detective. While he was originally offered the role of straight man Marty Hart in the anthology series, McConaughey was rightfully drawn to Rust Cohle, the equally talented and troubled detective. McConaughey tore through long, juicy monologues like Cohle tore through beer cans, so much so that it might be time to go back.