5 Favorites Redux #57: Favorite Tommy Lee Jones Films

Welcome to 5 Favorites. Each week, I will put together a list of my 5 favorites (films, performances, whatever strikes my fancy) along with commentary on a given topic each week, usually in relation to a specific film releasing that week.

As easy as it can be to overrate Tommy Lee Jones’ capability as an actor, it’s equally possible to underrate him. The actor has done some impressive work in both small films and blockbusters while maintaining his gruff, no-nonsense personality. Leveraging that into credible work, Jones has managed to secure four Oscar nominations in his career, starting with his performance in one of the five films I’ll highlight below and winning the Oscar for his second nomination, The Fugitive. His other two nominations come from one film I’ll highlight below and another that barely missed the list, In the Valley of Elah.

Jones co-stars this coming weekend in Wander, a film that headlines Aaron Eckhart as a mentally unstable private investigator who links a suspicious death in the small titular town of Wander with a purported conspiracy he’s been investigating. The film looks rather uninspiring, cobbling together plots from other similar films, but Jones will give it his all, even if he doesn’t give it his best. After the break, we’ll look at my five favorite films that Tommy Lee Jones has either top-lined or supported in his 50-year career.

JFK (1991)

There was a time when director Oliver Stone was thought of as one of cinema’s great directors. His Oscar trajectory began with a win for Best Original Screenplay for 1978’s Midnight Express. His next brush with Oscar landed him three nominations in 1986, two for writing and directing Platoon and one for writing Salvador. He won the directing Oscar. His next Oscar contender was Born on the Fourth of July, the second film in his Vietnam War trilogy, for which he won a second Oscar out of three nominations in 1989, losing his other two citations for producing and writing the film.

This 1991 film marked the last time Stone earned a nomination for directing with the film also earning nominations for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. Based on a pair of non-fiction books questioning the Warren Commission’s released report on the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, JFK puts forth a conspiracy theory suggesting that it was impossible for a single gunman to have carried out the assassination of the president. Jones here plays a New Orleans businessman accused of being involved in the cover up. This may well be the performance that’s most distinct from all of the others he’s played. That characteristic gruffness of his is largely absent. He plays the gay character with sensitivity and presence, making the later film rebuke of Kevin Costner’s investigator feel empowering.

Although the film is well supported, its popularity gave Stone the idea that he could do similar pieces on other presidents with questionable moral judgements. While is subsequent film on Nixon was well regarded, his subsequent pictures on 9/11 and George W. Bush were not.

Natural Born Killers (1994)

Following Heaven & Earth, Stone took a new tack in his oeuvre as a film director with Natural Born Killers. The film was disowned by Quentin Tarantino, who had written the original screenplay (and received a story credit) for the film and which was heavily revised by Stone and company. The film looks at a pair of damaged lovers who become mass murderers with the media glorifying their actions. This controversial and bloody film is a surreal picture that gives Jones one of his most strange roles to play.

Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis headline the film and are frighteningly awful in terms of character personalities, not performances, which were great. The examination of the glorification of violence for television ratings is a subject that’s been tackled before, but seldom with so much vicious glee. One can see Tarantino’s influence on the original story of the film and why he would disown it mystifies as it typifies his style and sensibilities as an auteur. It was definitely a departure for Stone, but it was an engaging picture that was so unlike anything he did before or after that it almost feels like a novelty rather than a serious entry in his filmography. Either way, it was visceral fun with a compelling message at its heart.

Men in Black (1997)

Showing he had the capability of making a killing as a blockbuster star, Jones starred opposite Will Smith in this Barry Sonenfeld film about a secret organization responsible for keeping earth’s alien inhabitants a secret from the human population. The premise is absolutely ludicrous, but it’s handled with such warmth, humor, and creative energy that it ultimately works. Part of that success can be attributed to Smith’s strong, charismatic performance, but Jones does a fair bit of heavy lifting as the straight man to Smith’s comedic style. While he plays deadpan humor well, its his seeming normalcy in the midst of the chaos that really makes the film soar.

Men in Black is a curious trifle of the mid-to-late 1990s when blockbusters largely tried their best to use creative, inventive and original content rather than adapting from other sources. Men in Black was then an exception rather than a rule. Although it was very loosely based on a comic series, it’s impressive success may have opened the door for other such adaptations that have now become de rigeur for an industry that now struggles to support original concepts as they once did.

No Country for Old Men (2007)

The Coen Brothers have been a well respected auteur directing team since their late 1980s breakout successes Blood Simple and Raising Arizona. After their Oscar success with Fargo, the pair decided to go more outlandish with their subsequent features, returning to something a bit more grounded in reality with this 2007 Best Picture winner that earned the duo their first directing Oscars, after which they returned to the bizarre inventiveness that they embraced in their post-Fargo filmography.

No Country for Old Men is an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s celebrated novel about an aging sheriff (Jones) faced with the arrival of an emotionless hitman (Javier Bardem) who has come looking for a cache of money from a drug deal gone bad. The money ends up in the hands of a local man (Josh Brolin) who must out think and outlast the hitman. The film features a lot of the thematic and symbolic elements that have typified the Coens’ style over the years, but its black humor is kept to a minimum, making the film one of their few straight dramas and surprisingly one of the few of their films I genuinely liked, having found Fargo, Raising Arizona, and The Big Lebowski, among others, rather overrated.

This perhaps was my turning point for my appreciation for the Coens and their post-No Country work has felt a little more honest and approachable than anything they’ve done before, which could explain my improved appreciation. It’s not the best film of the year and Bardem is utterly awful in the film, but Jones is his dependable best and it is overall a better film than mothers others they did prior to it.

Lincoln (2012)

Having worked with some great directors, Jones earned his most recent Oscar nomination in the supporting category under the watchful eye of one of Oliver Stone’s contemporaries, Steven Spielberg. While Stone shifted away from important subjects in his films towards more polarizing and conspiratorial ways of filmmaking, Spielberg was treading in the opposite direction. He shifted from his populist streak of the 1970s and 1980s towards more serious fare as he matured as a filmmaker. Lincoln represents perhaps the pinnacle of Spielberg’s late-career maturity by exploring the ratification of the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which freed Black slaves in the United States and which ultimately contributed to the president’s eventual assassination.

Daniel Day-Lewis stars in the title role while Jones did career-capping work as Thaddeus Stevens, a congressman from Pennsylvania who feared Lincoln would shift away from the abolition movement that Stevens had fought so hard to preserve. The machinations between the Democrats headed by Fernando Wood (Lee Pace), the Republicans headed by Stevens, and Lincoln in the White House is fascinatingly explored in this historical drama that might not be as riveting or as important as Spielberg’s 1993 magnum opus Schindler’s List, but is ultimately one of his best films, as it is one of Jones’ best.

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