From The Coen Brothers to Martin McDonagh: Woody Harrelson’s 10 best films
American actor Woody Harrelson has established himself as one of the biggest names in Hollywood and has, to date, enjoyed a stellar career. Starting from his role as bartender Woody Boyd on the NBC sitcom Cheers in the 1980s, an effort that got him a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series, Harrelson has since won multiple Academy Award Nominations and is famous for his appearances in outstanding films like Seven Psychopaths, No Country for Old Men and many more.
Esquire described Harrelson as “Hollywood’s wildest wild child, a raw-foodist and eco-crusader and Iraq-war protester and marijuana-legalization champion”. So far, Harrelson has over 100 acting roles credited to his name in what has been an extremely successful career.
On his 59th birthday, we take a look back at the ten best films that he has ever appeared in.
Woody Harrelson’s 10 Best Performances:
10. Zombieland – Ruben Fleischer (2009)
A fast-paced and witty zombie-infested pop-culture romp, Zombieland features Jesse Eisenberg as an anxious shut-in and Woody Harrelson as a veteran zombie slayer. Critics describe the character of Harrelson as “a redneck from hell who is out to kill zombies”. Harrelson steals the show with his confident and hilarious performance that makes 80 minutes of watching wart-riddled zombies being blown to smithereens an enjoyable experience.
Harrelson was never a fan of the genre but the script convinced him to do the film, “Yeah, I thought the script was phenomenal,” he said.
Speaking of the director, Ruben Fleischer, Harrelson added, “And then I met Reuben and really liked him and I thought this guy is a go-getter. He’s really going to make a terrific movie and so far I’m really impressed with him.”
9. Welcome to Sarajevo – Michael Winterbottom (1997)
This critically acclaimed docu-drama is set in a Bosnian war zone and it conducts a powerful investigation of the limits of journalistic detachment, trying to figure out where our human compassion takes hold of us. Woody Harrelson plays the role of Flynn, a top journalist who joins Michael Henderson (played by Stephen Dillane) in his humanitarian quest to smuggle orphans out of the conflict zone.
The film was shot on location and documentary footage was weaved into it beautifully. Welcome to Sarajevo highlights the intensity of war correspondence and all the high-octane anxieties that come with the job.
Roger Ebert noted that Harrelson is “an interesting, intense actor, and a good choice for a character living recklessly under fire”.
8. Wag the Dog – Barry Levinson (1997)
In Barry Levinson’s political satire, Woody Harrelson plays a small but important role as Sergeant William Schumann, an insane former soldier whose death complicates contingent plans that the President’s team had prepared. Although Harrelson does not get a lot of screen time, he shows that he has the talent to deliver a memorable performance in the few scenes he has.
The film is amusing but the issues it addresses are extremely serious. Its quality is such that viewers today will still relate to it and appreciate the incisive criticism of political mechanisms. Barry Levinson made a very engaging, entertaining political comedy and Woody Harrelson puts up a memorable performance in it.
7. Transsiberian – Brad Anderson (2008)
Brad Anderson’s 2008 thriller takes place on an express train that runs between China and Moscow where Harrelson and Emily Mortimer play a couple of missionaries. Transsiberian is a deranged version of Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Orient Express and Harrelson delivers a compelling performance that keeps us on the edge of our seats.
Co-star Kata Mara spoke highly of Harrelson, “Woody Harrelson has no fear, or at least he certainly acts like he has no fear. He’ll do anything, he’ll try anything in front of the camera. He’s so cool.”
She commended his contribution to the film as well, “I thought he was brilliant.”
6. The Messenger – Oren Moverman (2009)
Harrelson plays the character of Army Captain Tony Stone in Oren Moverman’s thoughtful war drama that explores the problematic nuances of the American conscience. It is philosophical and authentic in its message. Woody Harrelson’s brilliant performance in The Messenger won him his second Oscar nomination.
Harrelson explained his character, saying, “He’s got a lot of pain and rage inside of him and, you know, kind of keeps it all under wraps when he goes and does his notifications. But during the course of the film, we get to know him a little better through Ben Foster’s character, Will Montgomery.”
5. A Prairie Home Companion – Robert Altman (2006)
Robert Altman’s wonderful 2006 film features an ensemble of a star-studded cast, with the likes of Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Kline and of course, Woody Harrelson. It’s about a radio talk show that has managed to survive in the age of television. It was completed just months before Altman’s demise and is an appropriate farewell to the acclaimed filmmaker.
Altman was known for working with ensemble casts and he explained why he liked doing it, “Well, I revel in the opportunity of confusion. I allow that to develop, to happen, to grow. We all come together and use it. We’re aware of what we are doing and we each do our part. If someone’s not aware of what we’re doing, they have to learn.”
4. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – Martin McDonagh (2017)
From the immensely talented director of the 2008 film In Bruges, we get this 2017 dark comic drama that features Woody Harrelson as a revered local police chief, Sheriff William Willoughby. The critically acclaimed film earned seven Academy Award nominations, winning in two of those categories.
Reflecting on the film, director Martin McDonagh revealed, “One of my favourite scenes is when [Woody and Frances] are in the police station, and it goes from this confrontational and funny head-to-head, where they’re both locking horns and both believe they’re completely in the right, to tenderness and humanity.
“I didn’t know that that was going to happen, as much as the audience isn’t going to know that’s going to happen.”
3. The People vs. Larry Flynt – Milos Forman (1996)
Milos Forman’s 1996 biopic is a funny and fascinating protest against institutional censorship where Woody Harrelson plays the role of Larry Flynt, one of America’s most infamous pornographers. Although it wasn’t a huge commercial success, the director of 1975 film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest managed to make this a thoughtful drama which earned Harrelson his first Academy Award nomination.
“When I was preparing for this role, I had to go back through tons of these old Hustlers,” Harrelson reminisced.
“I would look at these Hustlers and go, ‘I remember that picture; I remember being very turned on by this when I was 16’.”
2. Seven Psychopaths – Martin McDonagh (2012)
Arguably Martin McDonagh’s best film, this 2012 masterpiece is a violently funny dark comedy and Woody Harrelson is unquestionably brilliant in it, displaying his penchant for portraying unpredictably aggressive characters. Harrelson plays Charlie, a psychopathic gangster who goes on a rampage to find his stolen dog.
Speaking of the ending of his film, Martin McDonagh said, “If you play with those conventions enough, the audience gets to a place where they don’t know whether the conventions are going to be obeyed or not.
“In any dramatic story, there’s always a payoff or some kind of ending that’s worthwhile or exciting or truthful. There has to be an ending; I can’t think of any good film that just dribbled out to some weird place.”
1. No Country For Old Men – The Coen Brothers (2007)
One of the best films of the 21st century, No Country For Old Men is a modern-day western thriller based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy. Woody Harrelson’s character is a menacing hitman who is brought on to tame the loose cannon that is Anton (played by Javier Bardem). Bardem delivers the best performance of his noteworthy career but Harrelson’s talent remains undiminished in the scenes he is in.
No Country For Old Men is a tense thriller set in a desolate landscape. This film is where the Coen Brothers are at their finest, with subtle camera work and perfect sound design.
The character of Woody Harrelson, Carson Wells, adds an interesting dimension to the film and even works in tandem with Anton Chigurh because Wells seems to be the only one who understands the mysterious Anton.