Worst: “Pearl Harbor” (2001)
Of all the time we’ve wasted in movie theaters over the years, there’s perhaps no 3-hour slot we begrudge quite so much as that we spent watching Michael Bay’s ponderous, paper thin, utterly boring “Pearl Harbor.” Making his previous outing with Affleck, 1998’s “Armageddon” seem like a masterpiece by comparison (that film at least had a broad ensemble of good-value actors and a premise that suited the bird-brained bombast of Bay’s approach) Bay’s recreation of the devastating bombing of the titular Hawaiian naval base is bafflingly dull, given the drama of the real-life incident that sparked nothing less than the U.S.'s formal entry into World War II. A lot of that dullness comes from his uncharacteristic decision to have the explosions and destruction and historical high stakes take a back seat to a listless love triangle between a triptych of totally unengaging characters played, with milky blandness by Josh Hartnett, Kate Beckinsale and Ben Affleck. It’s hard to know how much we can blame Affleck for how tiresomely dreadful the film is — a lot more things have to go wrong than just one guy’s performance to turn in something this turgid. But his casting here does point to the worst excesses of the kind of typecasting that threatened to engulf his acting career at one point — his Rafe is a humorless, self-sacrificing, gung-ho hero who lacks even the tiniest flicker of interiority and whose whole existence can be summed up in a single image of him staring, handsomely stoic, into the middle distance, with perhaps a flag flapping in the background. Actually that’s perhaps unfair, as Affleck does get to cry and hold a dying Hartnett in his arms, and to receive a medal from the President while Beckinsale’s breathy voiceover talks about Dorie Miller (Cuba Gooding Jr), the first black American to be awarded the Navy Cross. Still, if the film’s failure is not his fault, he certainly does himself no favors: even in those few segments not marred by gratuitous slo-mo close-ups (Bay’s shorthand for gravitas, it seems) he manages to turn in a performance of a one-note role remarkable for having no notes at all.
Best: “The Town” (2010)
If Affleck’s slightly schlubby, bearded Tony Mendez in his Best Picture-winning “Argo” might seem like the more obvious choice, and indeed it’s a performance we admire, when it comes to self-directed roles we’re going to go with his other one — bank heist gang leader Doug MacRay in his sophomore feature “The Town.” There’s a degree of sentiment in the choice: after “Gone Baby Gone” one of the most impressive and surprising aspects of Affleck’s 'difficult second album' was that he turned in such a strong thriller while upping the ante by starring in it himself. And not just that, but the role he gave himself (he co-wrote the adapted screenplay) is kind of the crazy-mirror version of one he’d written and played before — that of Chuckie in “Good Will Hunting.” Both are blue-collar Bostonians, trapped by social class and by the tightknit gang of friends that they’ve grown up with, but of course Doug is a wholly darker version, destined for a life of crime (the “family business” in Charlestown) as inevitably as Chuckie was condemned to a career as a construction worker. Affleck as an actor has great compassion for this type of character, and Doug, a fundamentally decent guy who, through social forces beyond his control and out of misplaced loyalty that amounts to tribalism, has become a ruthless criminal, is lent an edge of sadness and thwarted goodness by his sensitive performance. It’s also a generous performance, in that the showier, flashier part goes to Jeremy Renner, to whom Affleck graciously cedes the space for him to flex his acting muscles all the way to a Best Supporting Oscar nod in what is definitely his strongest post-“Hurt Locker” role to date. But mostly, we just enjoy Affleck when he plays broken, rather than heroic, when his character conflict largely arises from doing the wrong thing but for the right reason. And, a bank robber out of tribal loyalty and a murderer out of the instinct to protect the innocent, they don’t get much more broken or conflicted than MacRay.
Worst: “Daredevil” (2003)
There’s no denying that Ben Affleck has been in some terrible movies, but we’d hazard that rarely has he been as front-and-center with his badness as he was with “Daredevil,” frequently Exhibit A in the case against having Affleck play Batman. Of course writer/director Mark Steven Johnson is hardly known for his subtle hand, and sure enough the script, story and overall direction of the film are pretty brutal; even the initially impressive visual rendering of Murdock’s sonar-like capabilities soon becomes wearying with repeated use and overflashy hyperkinetic editing. But it’s Affleck’s lead role, as blind lawyer Matt Murdoch who uses the super-senses his blindness somehow gifted him to fight crime as the titular masked vigilante, that is the film’s biggest misstep. With the intention to go for a grittier (for the time) take on the source material than might have been expected, the results aren't textured so much as muddy and po-faced. Affleck is given no room to be charming or fallible and is instead the very definition of bland and blockish in the role, occasionally snarling “justice” at his adversaries, while once again managing not to find a single moment of onscreen chemistry with an actress with whom he’d go on to have an offscreen romance (Jennifer Garner as Elektra). The lumbering, sober tone sits at terrible odds with the more cartoony moments — Murdock and Elektra’s first meeting/mock-fight in the playground is just ludicrous — and far too often the suiting-up sequences, the to-the-rescue! moments and the squaring off for a fight segments are given such OTT treatment that the hero comes across as, of all things, a goddamn poser. And Affleck doesn’t fare much better in his Murdock moments, styled with really horrible hair and the kind of smug grin (except when pissed about “justice”) that makes you root for the bad guy, even his should-be fun scenes with sidekick Jon Favreau (who we know can do this role, because he’s been doing in it in the “Iron Man” movies for years now) play flat and totally charmless. In case you’re wondering, the 2004 ‘Director’s Cut’ does play down the flatpacked romance in favor of more violence (which in the limited world of ‘Daredevil’ is a good thing) and a better explained plot, but ultimately you’re stuck watching an additional half-hour of this movie, a fair bit of which features Coolio, so we’ll let you decide if that’s a bargain you’re willing to make.
Best: “Hollywoodland” (2006)
Of course, when Affleck suits up for Batman vs Superman, it’s not going to be his first brush with superheroics (“Daredevil”) or indeed, his first brush with Superman. “Hollywoodland” is a fictionalized hypothesis of the events surrounding the mysterious death of Superman TV actor George Reeves in 1959 — the real-life tragedy spawned considerable controversy at the time, especially with so many close to the actor refusing to accept the official ruling of the gunshot death as suicide. But while the story is a fascinating, sensationalist cautionary tale, a Kenneth Anger-ready mix of adultery, betrayal, depression, Hollywood power politics and violent death, what really marks the film out is Ben Affleck’s absolutely note-perfect performance, possibly the finest of his career to date. His Reeves is, like all his best characters, broken; caught in the rat-wheel of the Hollywood system long after the dream has gone sour — indeed for many years the accepted version of events was that depression over typecasting had led Reeves to shoot himself. However, the film presents an alternate interpretation of events, but still Affleck keenly evokes the desperation of waning stardom, fading looks and the paradoxical frustration with a role that made him famous but which will now not let him go. In a way it’s his Norma Desmond performance (complete with real-life parallels for Affleck), an eloquent statement on the deal one might be tempted to make with the devil in order to get famous, never thinking that one day the devil might come to collect. Whether or not you go along with the film’s thesis — that Reeves was in fact murdered by MGM head Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins) due to jealousy at his wife Toni’s (Diane Lane) ongoing infatuation with him after the end of their affair — Affleck does sterling work breathing life into Reeves again after all those years. Poor George Reeves: he may not have ever got another decent role, but he did eventually become one. And for all those doubters who don’t think Affleck can take on the role of an aging, broken-down man, with an alter ego that is both a blessing and a curse and who leads a double life in the shadow of Superman, maybe it’s one to check out?
There were other titles in contention on both the positive and negative side — Affleck’s pretty dire in John Frankenheimer’s pretty dire “Reindeer Games,” “Phantoms” is so poor that even Affleck lampoons it (in the aforementioned ‘Jay and Silent Bob’ clip) and “Surviving Christmas” is an unmitigated disaster, one that the whole cast, crew and even the catering department should be held accountable for, so equally awful is it on every level. But, especially from the more recent portion of his career, we were also spoiled for choices on “best” performances, with “State of Play,” and “Argo” being among the other frontrunners, “Boiler Room” and “Chasing Amy” having their advocates and other, smaller roles considerably livening up films like “Extract” and “Shakespeare in Love.” In fact we’d argue that with David Fincher’s “Gone Girl” filming right now, a lead role in his next directorial feature, the Dennis Lehane-based “Live By Night,” lined up, with work ongoing on his Whitey Bulger biopic (in which he’s slated to star alongside brother Casey and Matt Damon) and a certain DC superhero mash-up movie all happening in the next few years, Affleck-the-actor is on a pretty stellar upward curve, however "Runner Runner" does. Perhaps now’s the time to forgive the transgressions of a decade ago — over the years since he certainly seems to have learned from those mistakes, and now when he talks about it at all, it’s with a fair amount of self-awareness:
“In our culture, we get very much into shorthanding people. It's hard to shake those sort of narratives.” Affleck told Details Magazine in Oct 2012. “If you were looking at that one-liner on me in 2003, which was definitely the annus horribilis of my life… I made a bunch of movies that didn't work. I was ending up in the tabloids. I don't know what the lesson is, except that you just have to find your compass.”