A better actor. Name one. Okay, name one who has played a more diverse set of characters?
For my money, Tommy Lee Jones is at the top of his profession. Starring role or character role, keep your eyes on him. Good guy, bad guy, comic book character, grieving father, space cowboy.
Here are a dozen films where he shines.
Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980) This was Jones’ breakthrough film, even though Sissy Spacek did the heavy lifting. Playing a flawed and somewhat unsympathetic character, Jones makes him three-dimensional, but never sugarcoats him. This film shows that he could give a character texture without changing the character or the story. Jones was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance.
Lonesome Dove (1989) Jones scored big in his role as Woodrow Call in this television mini series. Jones was nominated for both an Emmy and Golden Globe for his performance. Jones lost himself in Larry McMurtry’s character. Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall, it does not get any better than that.
The Package (1989). Jones mostly disappeared in the 1980s. Television films and featured roles in theatrical films, but his star had dimmed. In The Package, he plays a contract killer hired to take out the Soviet leader to re-start the Cold War. The role could have been a dull, routine performance, but Jones spices it up with some inflections and subtle expressions that add texture to his character. Gene Hackman does the heavy lifting in this overlooked thriller.
JFK (1991) In the 1990s, Jones sunk his teeth into some great roles. Here he plays Clay Shaw in Oliver Stone’s somewhat fictionalized account of the Kennedy assassination. Jones is almost unrecognizable, wearing the wig and makeup, and adopting a different vocal delivery. Even if you do not like the film, there are some amazing performances, with Jones topping the list.
Under Siege (1992) Jones saviors his screen villains, here he plays the leader of band of mercenaries taking over a Navy ship and holding it ransom. Steven Seagal achieved great fame as the lead, but Jones upped his popularity with an over-the-top performance as a revolutionary who is really in it for the money. Yes, he chews on the scenery, but it tastes good.
The Fugitive (1993) He won a Best Supporting Oscar and a Golden Globe for this role. Harrison Ford is the star, but Jones gives the best performance. He was so good, a sequel, starring Jones, was released a couple of years later.
Cobb (1994) Playing the legendary Ty Cobb, under the direction of Ron Shelton, Jones squeezes every ounce of nasty from the character. Cobb hires sportswriter Al Stump to write his “official” autobiography. Cobb is a legend in his own mind and Stump sees the moral and human wreckage that is Cobb. Jones gives a performance that is hard to watch because there is little that seems redeeming in his character.
Space Cowboys (2000) Jones is the youngest of the group, normally he is the old man out. This is the typical Tommy Lee Jones role and he is quite enjoyable in it. He is the hotshot of the group and gives the film energy and zing. His character is the most interesting of the bunch and tends to dominate the scenes he is in. There is nothing very serious about the film, it is eye candy, and more fun than suspenseful. That’s okay.
Men in Black II (2002) Jones is even better in the sequel than in the first film. Whereas Jones was obtuse and a version of Joe Friday in the first film, he adds a bit of cluelessness to the sequel as his character is in search of his memory. Great fun.
Three Burials (2005) Starring and directed by Jones. Sadly, no one saw this film, but it is a good one. Jones plays Pete Perkins, a ranch foreman, who retrieves the body of his friend and employee, a Mexican cowboy, who was accidentally killed by a Border Agent. The friend is quickly buried by his killer, but is found a week later and reburied. Perkins discovers the identity of the killer and makes his dig up the body so they can transport it to be buried in Mexico. Jones gets very good performances from a quality cast and keeps a bit of mystery in the story as it moves along.
In The Valley of Elah (2007) Written and directed by Paul Haggis, no one saw this film, which co-stars Susan Sarandon, Charlize Theron and Josh Brolin in a murder mystery. Jones’ character is hurting and lost as he attempts to guide the police and military in finding out who killed his soldier son. He is unable to emotionally console his wife and finds himself out of alignment with the world he thought he understood. This is a downbeat but riveting film, and great performances by everyone.
Lincoln (2012) Jones plays Thaddeus Stevens, a member of the House of Representatives who was a leader of group of backing the 13th Amendment, banning slavery. Stevens championed the rights of Blacks and in the film delivers an extraordinary speech, which Jones sinks his teeth into. Jones was nominated for an Academy Award and Golden Globe.
Honorable Mention: Men in Black, No Country For Old Men, Rules of Engagement, Blue Sky, The Executioner’s Song.