It is one thing to be an A-lister in a major film industry, and it is quite another to be one of the few faces of it that have become the cornerstones of mainstream cinema. Matt Damon, the renowned Cambridge-born actor and producer, is one of the few Hollywood stars for whom the word bankability was coined in the first place. One of the best things that can be given to Damon’s credit is that it is not so much the standard template but the renovation that can be alluded to in his body of work.
Making his acting debut as a teenager in the coming-of-age romantic comedy Mystic Pizza (1988), Damon went on to act in major Hollywood projects. However, it was only in 1997 that he got the major breakout role of his career with a leading role in the acclaimed film The Rainmaker, directed by Francis Ford Coppola. From that time, his career as an actor has been a major mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar. Granted, many of the films he has starred in feature the rags-to-riches underdog stories or impossible personal transformations, which only look good in films. However, they are mostly done well and open the floodgates to his more personal works, which discuss war, humanity, and the struggle for justice.
Here is a list of the best and the most memorable films of Matt Damon’s acting career, according to the critical consensus website Rotten Tomatoes. For the sake of originality, the voice performance of Damon in the English dubbed version of Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo has been avoided.
10. The Departed (2006) | RT Score: 91%
Unquestionably the biggest and most lauded living auteur of American cinema, Martin Scorsese is believed to have left a mark of his legacy on each decade in which he worked. Although the peak of his career and the best film he has ever made is up for debate, The Departed is easily considered the best film he made in the 2000s. A reworking of the 2002 Hong Kong action flick Infernal Affairs, The Departed took into consideration the real-life organized crime scene in Boston. It was one of the most important films that put the meaty authenticity and grit of Scorsese’s gangster dramas on the map.
In a film about people trying to live public lives in opposition to what they actually are, Matt Damon plays Colin Sullivan, an ambitious but dirty cop who has hidden ties with an Irish mob boss and is actually a spy to him. Sullivan’s character was based on the real FBI agent John Connolly, a corrupt officer accused of racketeering and murder. Damon played him as a quintessential and conflicted Scorsese character, bringing in the slavish nature of the character and the burden this comes with.
However, it is only a testament to the talent involved here that it is still considered the weakest of the three central performances of the film. The Departed won four major Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director for Scorsese. The critical consensus for the film reads, “Featuring outstanding work from an excellent cast, The Departed is a thoroughly engrossing gangster drama with the gritty authenticity and soupy morality we come to expect from Martin Scorsese.”
9. The Martian (2015) | RT Score: 91%
Ridley Scott’s ambitious, visually stunning, and even wholeheartedly funny science-fiction epic, believe it or not, was a blog once. American novelist Andy Weir self-published The Martian in a serialized format on the internet before it came through as a debut novel in 2011. It was re-published in 2014, after which it was adapted into this major motion picture. Then, it became one of the rare genre films to be praised not just because of the human factor that it took into account but also because of its hard sci-fi aspects.
The film was particularly elevated due to the exceeding brilliance of Matt Damon, who plays the leading character of Mark Watney. As a man stranded on a lonely planet, he rendered the struggle to survive and make it back to his home planet with a touch of believability that was strong and difficult to shrug off, albeit also charming and some kind of wholesome.
For his performance, he won the Golden Globe for Best Actor- Motion Picture Musical or Comedy. He was also nominated for the Best Actor Oscar, which was among the seven Oscars for which the film was nominated. The critical consensus for the film says, “Smart, thrilling, and surprisingly funny, The Martian offers a faithful adaptation of the bestselling book that brings out the best in leading man Matt Damon and director Ridley Scott.”
8. The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) | RT Score: 92%
The Jason Bourne franchise did misfire with its last two installments in a marginal way. And yet, thanks to its limited narrative approach and breakneck intensity, it is still considered one of the best film series English-language cinema offers. The Bourne Ultimatum stands out as the best film in the franchise, almost unanimously felicitated by critics and admirers. Paul Greengrass’s taut and excellent thriller chartered considerable differences in the tone and menace of the character of Jason Bourne.
Even the excellent leading performance of Matt Damon, which was much more dialogue-driven in The Bourne Identity (2002), becomes more controlled and mysterious in this brilliant third film. Although the series traces itself back to the novels of the original The Bourne Trilogy written by Rubert Ludlum, and this film lifts its name from the 1990 novel with the same name, it doesn’t lift the plot, which makes it all the more fascinating.
The film was nominated for the Academy Awards for Best Film Editing, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Sound Editing. It won all three of them. The critical consensus for the film reads, “The Bourne Ultimatum is an intelligent, finely tuned non-stop thrill ride. Another strong performance from Matt Damon and sharp camerawork from Paul Greengrass make this the finest installment of the Bourne trilogy.”
7. Ford v Ferrari (2019) | RT Score: 92%
Titled Le Mans ’66 in some European countries, Ford v Ferrari is one of the biggest mainstream films of the year. Based on the story of a determined team of locomotive engineers from America and Sweden who Henry Ford II and Lee Iacocca hired to build a race car to end the reign of the Italian racing team of Scuderia Ferrari in the 1966 24 hours of Le Mans in France, James Mangold’s film is an incredible frenzy of stylish auto-race action cinema. The critics also praised it for its surprisingly cohesive focus on the emotional aspects of the story. The film was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, out of which it won two awards for film and sound editing.
The film works mainly because of the chemistry between the characters of Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles, played by Damon and Christian Bale, respectively. Damon’s performance was a subject of critical praise. The review at Rolling Stone says, “Damon, that rare movie star with an actor’s ability to suggest a character’s inner life, catches Shelby’s Lone Star bluster, the quick mind behind it, and the deep-seated feelings he mostly hides about the heart condition that keeps him out of the driver’s seat.” The critical consensus for the film says, “Ford v Ferrari delivers all the polished auto action audiences will expect — and balances it with enough gripping human drama to satisfy non-racing enthusiasts.”
6. Air (2023) | RT Score: 93%
Air takes a historical business story worthy of a stylish and macho period piece and turns it into a pleasing and heartfelt drama. It is cut from the same cloth as all those big-budget and star-driven, uplifting American films being served tirelessly for nearly three decades. However, the emotion is so authentic and the attempt so sincere that it is hard not to enjoy it all and be moved by its large-scale filmmaking ‘gestures’ and fairly well-acted drama.
Matt Damon immortalizes the character of Sony Vaccaro in his slight, reserved but authentic, and fairly electric performance. The speech he gives to Michael Jordan toward the third act is anchored by the kind of directorial and performative honesty that is hard not to admire. The critical consensus for the film reads, “A fact-based drama that no one will dunk on, Air aims to dramatize events that changed the sports world forever — and hits almost nothing but net.”
5. Oppenheimer (2023) | RT Score: 93%
At his most basic, Christopher Nolan is the master of the visual spectacle. And like most of his previous films, Oppenheimer is designed to be a theatrical outing. Thankfully, the film matches its wide-eyed wonder and nearly perfect filmmaking with challenging and atmospheric narrative work in the biography territory, something that needs to be understood so much more than it needs to be experienced. The visuals and sounds are blended in so well that they push you to an elevation, even when the writing is circling around with conversations.
In a film tightly knit by a starry ensemble, Matt Damon plays the major character of General Leslie Groves. A more worn-down and one of the least youthful characters that he has played yet, Damon is incredible as the in-charge military general of the World War II Manhattan Project. Such is the singularity of his performance that it creates an effect even for the other characters whom he talks with.
In fact, his working relationship with the titular figure, played by Cillian Murphy, culminates in an important testimony scene, which is one of the film’s key moments. The critical consensus for the film says, “Oppenheimer marks another engrossing achievement from Christopher Nolan that benefits from Murphy’s tour-de-force performance and stunning visuals.”
4. Behind the Candelabra (2013) | RT Score: 94%
One of the quickest and most solid American directors, Steven Soderbergh, is known to make films that are either standard or elevate what is considered standard. Still, Behind the Candelabra is a film considered to fall somewhere between the two. However, this is no reason to believe that this fusion of biopic and comedy is not one of his best. Based on the 1988 book of the same name written by Scott Thorson and Alex Thorleifson, the film dramatizes the last decade of the life of pianist Liberace and his romance with Thorson.
Although it risks the failure to balance the amounts of style and substance well, it dodges that complaint by being mostly enjoyable and human in the face of its non-fiction narrative inconsistencies. Damon played the character of Scott Thorson in the film, and his performance was said to evoke the primary emotion of a young lover who was conflicted and increasingly tired in a demanding and thorny relationship because of the other lover being constantly manipulative and somewhat unmindful. The critical consensus for the film reads, “Affectionate without sacrificing honesty, Behind the Candelabra couples award-worthy performances from Michael Douglas and Matt Damon with some typically sharp direction from Steven Soderbergh.”
3. Saving Private Ryan (1998) | RT Score: 94%
In Steven Spielberg’s iconic war drama, which was so muscular and harrowing that it started getting considered to be the best anti-war movie made on American soil, a considerably young and fresh-faced Matt Damon plays someone who is basically the eponymous character, Private James Francis Ryan. With respect to the film’s standard but also potent structure, it looks like a cakewalk. Ryan has no major part in the narrative until he gets found in the film’s last act.
However, Damon’s performance as Ryan also works as a testament to the fact that it is so much more than what it appears. Ryan’s appearance and eventual saving only empower the grief and victory of his character in the face of constant bombing and ruins. In fact, in a moment of authenticity, Damon improvised one entire scene in which he tells Miller about him and his two brothers discovering the fourth one having sex with a really unattractive woman by the barn. Although his performance did not get him any awards, the film’s performative talent and success are often attributed to his screen presence. The critical consensus for the film says, “Anchored by another winning performance from Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg’s unflinchingly realistic war film virtually redefines the genre.”
2. True Grit (2010) | RT Score: 95%
An adaptation of the 1968 Charles Portis novel of the same name, with cues from the previous adaptation of the novel directed by Henry Hathaway, True Grit is widely considered one of the best films of the Coen brothers. Mainstream, thrilling, and campy in the right measure, the film was famously nominated for ten major Academy Awards but won none of them due to the heavy competition. The film was praised for resurrecting the classic and quintessential Western, picking it up from the ashes.
In the film, Matt Damon plays the role of LaBoeuf, a Texas ranger who teams up with a retribution-seeking young girl and a US Marshal on their quest to deliver the murderer of the former’s father to subsequent justice. Damon was said to have slipped into the skin of the character, evoking the timelessness, humor, and central conflict of the considerably vile but compelling character with the kind of sincerity and ease that is hard to find. The critical consensus for the film reads, “Girded by strong performances from Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, and lifted by some of the Coens’ most finely tuned, unaffected work, True Grit is a worthy companion to the Charles Portis book.”
1. Good Will Hunting (1997) | RT Score: 97%
Gus Van Sant is one of the most renowned directors of American cinema, known to have tried his hand at different styles of mainstream and independent filmmaking. Having said that, the success of his most popular film, Good Will Hunting, is attributed less to his direction and more to the impeccable script written by friends Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. Pouring in generous amounts of research and human drama, the film has sparks of honesty and sincerity, which have put it on the map of the best Hollywood films of its century.
Again, Matt Damon plays the titular character of Will Hunting, except with more agency and conviction. His performance as a brilliant 20-year-old janitor who is a mathematical genius in a tryst with a troubled past is so nuanced and clever that it is bound to feel personal. In the Chicago Film Critics Association’s Awards, Damon was declared the most promising actor for his performance in the film. The critical consensus for the film says, “It follows a predictable narrative arc, but Good Will Hunting adds enough quirks to the journey — and is loaded with enough powerful performances — that it remains an entertaining, emotionally rich drama.”