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Spotlight: Matthew McConaughey’s Big Year

With Oscar nominations announced and Sundance in full swing, it’s easy to get swept up in the hot topic chatter of the best of 2012 and what’s new in 2013. But it’s important to take a step back and remember that despite how fun awards season mania may be, it’s not the be all, end all of the year’s best in film. And one of those best things from 2012 wasn’t a film, but an actor who starred in four films: Matthew McConaughey.

Matthew McConaughey was named People’s Sexiest Man Alive in 2005, though his roles that year included the duds Sahara and Two For the Money. Showing up with a bang in Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (1993), the Texas turned surfer dude who likes to play the bongos in the nude didn’t exactly rise to the occasion. Sure, he became a huge star of rom-coms and grade C action flicks; he was swoon worthy in The Wedding Planner and played a good bit in Tropic Thunder, but I don’t think I speak for just myself in saying he was largely disposable.

That is, until something happened. I don’t know what exactly that something was, perhaps a change of manager, perhaps a moment of self reflection and discovery, or maybe a lucky opportunity. Absent for most of 2009 and 2010, McConaughey returned with four films in 2012 that turned him one of the most talked about, buzz-worthy veteran actors in Hollywood.

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as Danny Buck in “Bernie”

First, the little known but much adored Bernie received its limited U.S. release in April. McConaughey returned to work with Linklater as a small town prosecutor Danny Buck. Using his Texas drawl and dead-pan delivery, he shines as the only member of the town not enthralled by Jack Black’s Bernie. Ultimately a good man who’s painted as the villain through a skewed perspective in this black comedy, his attention to the supporting character highlighted something many would argue hadn’t been unearthed since Dazed and Confused.

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as Dallas in “Magic Mike”

Perhaps his most praised role of the year came in Magic Mike, Steven Soderbergh’s subversive male-stripper movie. Now, I must say while I admired the gall of making a movie that objectified men and got hoards of women and gay men into the theater only to use yellow hued wide shots and dialogue so uncombed it almost qualified as mumblecore, I really hated it. Maybe I should give it another shot, but I was infuriatingly frustrated throughout. But I will say the praise for McConaughey is warranted, as I wanted every second that either Alex Pettyfer or Cody Horn was on screen to dissolve into a McConaughey or Tatum or Munn scene. Playing the smarmy, greasy, conning yet ultra sexy head of the club, Dallas, he once again plays an excellent supporting character role.

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as Joe in “Killer Joe”

In July, William Friedkin’s adaptation of Tracy Letts’ play Killer Joe saw it’s U.S. limited release with an NC-17 rating to boot. Another black comedy, though Friedkin took it a bit too seriously, McConaughey played the lead and this time his depraved Joe just might have been the hero of the story; the result of another study in skewed perspectives. Again taking place in Texas, he uses his dripping, drawling accent to create a slimy yet seductive character. He’s magnetic and uninhibited; clearly dedicated 100% to Friedkin’s direction and you know for certain that the McConaughey of Fool’s Gold and Failure to Launch is no more. He’s dangerous, intelligent. He makes you uneasy with his steely gaze and his absolute tone and yet you can’t take your eyes off of him.

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as Ward in “The Paperboy”

Finally, in October, Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy opened to divisive critical reception and very little box office. While Nicole Kidman gained some awards traction for her pulpy, bold and over-the-top role, it remained the one film out of the four this year where almost no one talked about McConaughey. He plays Ward, an investigative journalist who returns to his hick Florida town to investigate the possibility that a death row inmate has been convicted on shoddy evidence. Though Efron and Kidman largely drive the story, McConaughey once again uses his newfound magic to inject charm, mystery and a little bit of uneasiness into Ward and transform the performance into a meaty character role.

It’s become obvious that McConaughey isn’t afraid to take on strange characters, depraved or obscene storylines, or commit himself to the complete vision of an auteur director. He’s become an asset to the indie film community and its directors. And while he makes no effort to mask his thick accent and always manages to subvert his attractiveness with an air of something that makes him seem a bit oily, each role is distinctly different from the other. Perhaps this is where he’s always belonged, his inherent strangeness lends him more to the oddball roles that showcase his talent much like Joaquin Phoenix or Casey Affleck.

Though his 2013 is looking to be an equally big year, with releases both in this indie vein and much more commercial. Mud played at Cannes last year but is currently debuting at Sundance before a spring release and has received some fierce early love. He’s also going big with Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street alongside DiCaprio and Jonah Hill, and going awards baity in Dallas Buyers Club, for which he lost a terrifying amount of weight to play a man dying of AIDS.

It’s hard to reconcile that the same guy who produced and starred in Surfer, Dude can so expertly approach such difficult characters as Joe or Danny Buck or Mud, but it’s clear there’s much more to him than meets the eye. He’s a strange dude and I’m immensely happy for him that he’s able to properly harness that strangeness creatively. The guy just isn’t meant for the mainstream commercial projects he had been pigeon-holed into. He’s better off working with the Friedkins and the Scorseses and the Nichols of the world than wooing Kate Hudson and man, so are we, for he’s become one of the most interesting working actors out there.

It’s been an immense pleasure watching Matthew McConaughey’s second career flourish this past year and I wish him all the best in the year to come. I know he’s one to watch.

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