Only a few years ago, McConaughey was starring in a series of rom-com and thriller flops like "Two for The Money," "Sahara," "We Are Marshall," "Fool's Gold" and "Ghosts Of Girlfriend Past." Some made more money than others, but none were well-regarded, and the actor was being seen increasingly as something of a parody of himself, bar perhaps a well-regarded cameo in "Tropic Thunder." Meanwhile, Channing Tatum had been a star on the rise for some years, since breaking out in 2006's "Step Up," and clearly had the trust and hope of a number of big name directors, including Kimberley Peirce, Michael Mann and Kevin MacDonald. But he wasn't winning a lot of fans within the critical community, dismissed by many as a somewhat wooden performer; nice to look at, but not likely to be challenging for awards any time soon.
Tatum kicked of 2012 with Steven Soderbergh's "Haywire," and while it was a minor role, he fared very well against his more seasoned castmates. And just a few weeks later, he had a major hit with the romantic drama "The Vow." We can't say we were huge fans of the movie, but Tatum acquitted himself nicely in it, and it was a big hit, eventually taking $200 million worldwide. And then, barely a month later, he had another massive hit with "21 Jump Street." Co-starring Jonah Hill, the movie turned out to be one of the year's best surprises; a smart, uproariously funny action-comedy lovingly made by Phil Lord and Chris Miller. And Tatum was really the film's secret weapon, showing deft, self-deprecating comic chops, and sharing great chemistry with Hill.
McConaughey was having similar success playing with his image. "Bernie," his reunion with "Dazed and Confused" director Richard Linklater was a smart, supporting performance, some way away from the genial stoner he'd been playing more recently. The film became an unexpected sleeper hit on release in June (having premiered a year beforehand at the L.A. Film Festival), and the run continued when another 2011 festival picture, William Friedkin's "Killer Joe," was released the next month.The director's adaptation of Tracy Letts' stage play picked up great reviews when it finally hit theaters, with McConaughey enjoying the lion's share of the raves. As the titular character, a cop who moonlights as a hitman, who falls in love with the underage Dotty (Juno Temple), it was something sinister and unexpected from the actor. Killer Joe was one of the most terrifying villains we've seen all year, building a Terminator-like interior under a Texan-good-ol-boy exterior. Quite rightly, the film saw him get a Spirit Award nomination a few weeks back.
Even before those films were in theaters, McConaughey was also, somewhat surprisingly, the toast of Cannes, with two films in competition at the world's most prestigious festival. Admittedly, one, Lee Daniels' "The Paperboy" was the worst-reviewed movies at Cannes, but McConaughey picked up decent word for his central performance. And his other film on the Croisette, Jeff Nichols' "Mud," was much better received with praise coming in for both the actor and the film. Sony Pictures Classics will release it next year.
But of course, McConaughey's most memorable role came when he teamed up with Tatum, on Soderbergh's "Magic Mike," an unlikely project based on Tatum's early days as a male stripper in his early 20s. A big summer surprise hit, the movie was terrific, a "Saturday Night Fever"-style examination of a seedy lifestyle against the backdrop of the economic crisis disguised as a hen-night crowd pleaser. Tatum, carrying the film on his shoulders (he produced it as well) did an about turn from "21 Jump Street," playing a character both smarter and sweeter than he looked, a really excellent dramatic performance that also let him strut his stage moves for the first time since "Step Up." And McConaughey was even better as retired-stripper-turned-club-owner Dallas. The charisma that saw him land on our radars in the first place was seemingly turned up by about 500%, and it was like he combined every performance he ever gave into one glorious fireball, while also layering in a subtle darkness to the character that turns him into a sort of Fagin-like figure.
Looking back at their work, what these two have in common, and the reason we felt they deserved Men Of The Year status, is the way that they took control of their destinies. Neither of them were where they wanted to be, so they generated their own material, worked with some of the smartest filmmakers around, did great work, and reaped the rewards. Moreover, they all genre hopped, fearlessly challenging themselves as actors and performers, and a result, put forth some of their best work to date. And that's a great thing to see.
So congratulations to the Playlist's Men of the Year 2012, Channing Tatum and Matthew McConaughey, and we look forward to more good work from the pair down the line. Be sure to check out the rest of our 2012 year-end coverage right here.