Total Recall

Total Recall: Tommy Lee Jones' Best Movies

We count down the best-reviewed work of the Hope Springs star.

by | August 9, 2012 | Comments

Tommy Lee Jones

Since making his big-screen debut in Love Story more than 40 years ago, Tommy Lee Jones has carved out one of the most eclectic, idiosyncratic career paths in Hollywood, going from soap opera star to cinematic leading man — and appearing in an impressive array of critical and commercial successes along the way. He helped kick off the summer of 2012 with Men in Black 3, and now, with this week’s decidedly more mature Hope Springs, he’s helping usher it out; in appreciation of his efforts, we decided to dedicate this week’s list to some of the many critical highlights from Jones’ distinguished filmography. Get ready to squint into the distance and give us your best world-weary sigh, because it’s time to Total Recall, Tommy Lee Jones style!


10. Captain America: The First Avenger

Making one of Marvel’s oldest (and squarest) heroes relevant for post-Dark Knight audiences seemed just about impossible on paper, but with 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger, director Joe Johnston pulled it off by doing two things: One, embracing the character’s World War II roots with an origin pic joyously reminiscent of old-fashioned matinee adventures; and two, casting the heck out of the movie with an eyebrow-raising lineup of talent that included Dominic Cooper, Stanley Tucci, Hugo Weaving as Cap’s arch-nemesis the Red Skull, and Tommy Lee Jones as Cap’s hard-as-nails commanding officer, Colonel Chester Phillips. Sighed Mark Pfeiffer of Reel Times, “In the era of the tortured superhero in movies, it’s refreshing to come across one with enthusiasm and a pure spirit.”


9. The Client

John Grisham’s bestselling books have had their ups and downs on the big screen — and in the years following his epic mishandling of the Batman franchise, it may seem hard to believe that Joel Schumacher directed one of the best Grisham adaptations we’ve seen thus far. Believe it: Not only did 1994’s The Client rack up a robust $117 million at the box office, it earned the admiration of the vast majority of critics — and Susan Sarandon, who starred opposite Jones as a pair of lawyers duking it out over the case of a boy (Brad Renfro) whose life is in danger after he witnesses a mob-related suicide. “This isn’t a masterpiece of suspense,” cautioned James Berardinelli of ReelViews, “but it has its moments and is capable of providing some light summer entertainment.”


8. A Prairie Home Companion

How do you turn one of America’s most famous (and long-running) radio shows into a movie? Well, in the case of A Prairie Home Companion, the answer turned out to be hiring Robert Altman to direct a suitably character-stuffed script by the show’s creator and host, Garrison Keillor. A long list of stars showed up for what turned out to be Altman’s final film, including Meryl Streep, Woody Harrelson, Lily Tomlin, Kevin Kline, John C. Reilly, and — as the heartless heavy who shows up to cancel the show-within-a-film — Tommy Lee Jones. “It sparkles with a magic all its own as an engagingly performed piece of Midwestern whimsy and stoicism,” applauded the New York Observer’s Andrew Sarris. “Mr. Altman’s flair for ensemble spectacle and seamless improvisation in the midst of utter chaos is as apparent as ever.”


7. Rolling Thunder

Before Sylvester Stallone wrapped a bandana around Vietnam vets’ anguish in First Blood, there was Rolling Thunder, the Peckinpah-worthy revenge saga of a freed POW (William Devane) who receives a hero’s welcome after returning to his Texas hometown — but only truly comes alive after a band of sadistic thugs comes looking for the stash of silver dollars he was awarded for his service. With his war buddy (played by a young, convincingly haunted-looking Jones) by his side and a sharpened hook for a right hand, he brings Thunder to a suitably bloody conclusion — and while its grindhouse overtones rubbed a number of critics the wrong way, for most scribes, it offered an intoxicating blend of palpable thrills and rock-solid acting. “Devane and Jones are outstanding,” marveled Film4. “Their characters are as numb as scar tissue, emasculated by peace and alienated by an ashamed and horrified society. The folly of the Vietnam War permeates every frame.”


6. JFK

Oliver Stone outdid himself when it came time to cast JFK, populating his conspiracy-fueled retelling of the chaos surrounding the aftermath of John F. Kennedy’s assassination with a bevy of famous faces (including Kevin Bacon, John Candy, Sissy Spacek, Jack Lemmon, Donald Sutherland, Ed Asner, and of course Kevin Costner). And for the villain of the story, mysterious New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw, Stone settled on an actor’s actor, picking Jones (who earned an Academy Award for his work) to lend his epic an air of shadowy menace. Though some criticized JFK for playing fast and loose with historical data, most critics felt the ends justified the means; as John Hartl wrote for, “For all its outlandish and preachy moments, Stone’s movie is anything but boring.”



5. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

Jones marked his directorial debut with this grim, well-received drama, inspired by the real-life killing of a Texas teenager by a confused border patrolman (Barry Pepper) and the subsequent efforts of his friend (Jones) to uncover the true story of his death despite the indifference of the local sheriff (Dwight Yoakam). Providing an on-screen reunion between Jones and his Coal Miner’s Daughter co-star Levon Helm, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada also earned Jones plenty of praise — including a Cannes award for Best Actor, a Golden Palm nomination, and raves from critics like Tom Long of the Detroit News, who described it as “Funny, tough, filled with cut-to-the-bone moments and bleached in the heat of the Texas sun” and called it “a movie that sears itself into the viewer with uncompromising vision and stark approach.”


4. Men in Black

The success of The Fugitive catapulted Tommy Lee Jones from “distinguished character actor” to “leading man” status, and after Bad Boys, the mid-to-late 1990s pretty much belonged to Will Smith — so Men in Black wasn’t just your average action/comedy/sci-fi summer blockbuster, it was an Event Movie with almost $590 million in ticket sales (and a pair of sequels) waiting to happen. It didn’t win any awards for storytelling depth (although it did win a Best Makeup Oscar), but its unapologetic popcorn thrills, fueled by Smith and Jones’ easy interplay, entertained a whole lot of people — including Slate’s David Edelstein, who called it “The smartest, funniest, and best-looking sci-fi comedy since the movies learned to morph.”


3. The Fugitive

The original Fugitive was one of the more highly regarded TV dramas of the 1960s, and its central plot device — a man on the run for a crime he didn’t commit, and in pursuit of the real villain — was exceedingly easy to move to the big screen and turn into a pulse-pounding 1990s action thriller. What The Fugitive really had going for it, though, was a pair of terrific leads in Harrison Ford and the Oscar-winning Tommy Lee Jones. As the titular wanted man, Dr. Richard Kimble, Ford got to play another of the reluctant action heroes he embodied so well in the 1980s and 1990s — and Jones might as well have been born to play the blunt, brilliant, and driven U.S. Marshal Samuel Gerard. A movie so successful it made the studio think 1998’s “spiritual sequel” U.S. Marshals would be a hit, The Fugitive sold tons of tickets while earning high praise from critics like the Washington Post’s Rita Kempley, who wrote, “A flurry of stunts, close shaves and deeds of desperate daring, it easily transcends its television origins to become a stylish pacemaker-buster on the order of Die Hard, MD.”


2. No Country for Old Men

After spending much of the late 1990s and early aughts muddling through unloved fare like Double Jeopardy and Man of the House, Jones started finding solid scripts again toward the middle of the decade — chief among them No Country for Old Men, the Coen brothers’ adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel about a blue-collar laborer (Josh Brolin) who stumbles across a drug deal gone bad and absconds with the money, triggering the scarily dispassionate wrath of a hitman (Javier Bardem) and drawing a world-weary sheriff (Jones) into their blood-soaked feud. “No Country for Old Men is the first movie I’ve seen in a very long while that deserves to be called a masterpiece,” enthused Lou Lumenick for the New York Post. “It’s such a stunning achievement in storytelling.”


1. Coal Miner’s Daughter

Jones earned his first Golden Globe nomination for his work in this Loretta Lynn biopic, adapted by director Michael Apted and screenwriter Tom Rickman from the country legend’s own autobiography. Co-starring alongside Sissy Spacek (who took home an Oscar for her performance as Lynn) as her tirelessly supportive husband Oliver, the Texas native helped add to the film’s air of Southern verisimilitude — and beefed up an already-impressive cast that also included Beverly D’Angelo and Levon Helm. “The movie isn’t great art, but it has been made with great taste and style,” observed Roger Ebert. “It’s more intelligent and observant than movie biographies of singing stars used to be.”

In case you were wondering, here are Jones’ top 10 movies according to RT users’ scores:

1. No Country for Old Men — 84%
2. JFK — 84%
3. The Fugitive — 82%
4. Rolling Thunder — 81%
5. Natural Born Killers — 80%
6. Coal Miner’s Daughter — 80%
7. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada — 79%
8. In the Valley of Elah — 76%
9. Captain America: The First Avenger — 75%
10. Men in Black — 73%

Take a look through Jones’ complete filmography, as well as the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don’t forget to check out the reviews for Hope Springs.


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