Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)
From “School Ties” to “Live By Night” and this weekend’s “The Great Wall,” Ben Affleck and Matt Damon have each — for better and worse — left a considerable and ever-increasing footprint in the cultural landscape. But while the world is wide enough for both of them, our hearts are not. And so, we forced our panel of critics to choose: Ben Affleck or Matt Damon?
There can be only one.
Charles Bramesco (@intothecrevasse), Freelance with Rolling Stone, Vulture, Vox
This is a toughie. In terms of looks, both Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s faces remind me of between forty and fifty of my least-favorite classmates during my years attending high school on Massachusetts’ North Shore, and yet Damon’s permanent boyishness gives him the edge over Affleck, now in the “unshaven sad vaping” phase of his career. In their capacity as producer/directors — Damon helped shepherd “Manchester by the Sea” through production, and Affleck absconded with the Oscar for Best Picture in a year that included “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Amour,” “Lincoln,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” and “Django Unchained.” Edge, once again Damon. As actors, Affleck’s always exuded more of a studied presence than Damon, who has been the least interesting actor in all of his best films. (Defined here as including “Margaret,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Ocean’s Eleven,” “The Departed,” “True Grit,” “Contagion,” and “Behind the Candelabra,” with “The Talented Mr. Ripley” as the rare exception.)
Okay, lightning round. In the Assorted Pros column: the Matt Damon puppet from “Team America,” Affleck’s uncredited cameo in the original 1992 “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” movie, Damon cucking Jimmy Kimmel with Sarah Silverman, the endless game of musical chairs that Affleck has made out of the solo Batman movie’s pre-production process. Assorted Cons column: that time Damon mansplained diversity to Effie Brown on “Project Greenlight,” Affleck’s student film thesis “I Killed My Lesbian Wife, Hung Her on a Meat Hook, and Now I Have a Three-Picture Deal at Disney,” Affleck breaking J-Lo’s heart in 2004, Damon competing in the World Series of Poker on multiple occasions.
It’s a barn-burner, but I’m giving it to Affleck by a nose. You gotta have a little sympathy for a guy who inadvertently publicized his own greatest shame by going on a celebrity genealogy reality show, only to learn that he had come from a long line of slaveowners. A self-own on that level earns the W from me.
Christopher Campbell (@thefilmcynic), Nonfics and Film School Rejects
What an easy question: Matt Damon is the one we keep. I don’t know much about the things they’ve said or done outside their movie work, and I don’t really want to involve that stuff anyway, but aside from Ben Affleck directing a couple decent movies, he’s not even close to as valuable to movies as Damon is. Damon is a better actor, a better action star and a funnier comedic talent. And this is of course important for me in spite of my general dislike of celebrity narration: he also has been involved with documentaries, including “Inside Job” and “American Teacher.” I’m not sure if our choice means the other’s whole career so far is erased, but I’d even be willing to sacrifice “The Voyage of the Mimi” for my being able to have what Damon’s done in the past and what he’ll do in the future.
Tomris Laffly (@TomiLaffly), Film Journal International, Film School Rejects
Ben Affleck. I like him a lot as a filmmaker. I even like “Live By Night” partly. I don’t care what anyone says. Argof*ckyourself.
Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko), Pajiba/Nerdist
Keep Matt Damon. Keep him for the dramas that still hit hard like “Good Will Hunting,” “The Rainmaker,” and “Saving Private Ryan.” Keep him for the massive — and thrilling — shift he manifested in the espionage genre with “The Bourne Identity.” Keep him for films where he refused to take himself too seriously, like his reprise of Will Hunting in “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back,” his brief but sartorially sweet appearance in “The Zero Theorem,” and his inexplicable cameo as a tongue-pierced punk in “Eurotrip” (“Scotty doesn’t know!”). Keep him because he swings big, taking on daring productions like Neill Blomkamp’s “Elysium,” Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar,” Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” and Zhang Yimou’s “The Great Wall.” They’re not all great films, but they are all fascinating gambles, whose risks were enabled in part by Damon’s box office drawing power. So in that way, he’s used his charms to advance the medium.
Sure, Damon’s made a lot of forgettable movies too, but if all of Affleck’s were lost in a freak flood, the only ones I’d miss would be “Gone Girl” and “Gone Baby Gone.”
Jordan Hoffman (@JHoffman), The Guardian
Both have made some real garbage. And both have made some decent-enough though forgettable films. But Matt was in “Gerry,” “True Grit,” and “The Informant!” and man those three rule.
Matt was also chums with Howard Zinn, while Ben has the stench of Kevin Smith all over ‘em.
The answer is Matt Damon.
David Ehrlich (@davidehrlich), IndieWire
Ben Affleck effectively earned a lifetime pass from me thanks to the “double burger” scene in “Good Will Hunting” (or the “retainer” scene in “Good Will Hunting,” or just about any other scene in “Good Will Hunting”), but the guy has really done everything in his power to make me regret that. His activism has helped to compensate for his career choices, but it feels like we’re entering a new Dark Age with this guy — “Gigli” is deservedly notorious, but both of his Batman appearances are just as bad and twice as long. There was a minute there where it seemed like WB was setting him to be their new Clint Eastwood, but the disastrous “Live By Night” may have put the kibosh on that. If not for “Gone Girl” and how much fun it is to say “THE TOWN!” in an all-caps Boston accent, Damon would win this in a walk. Of course, he wins anyway, “Project Greenlight” worts and all. His performance in “School Ties” taught me how much fun it could be to fight back against anti-semites, and he’s way more adventurous with his roles than Affleck has ever been (they’ve both done a ton of dreck, but Damon’s body of work offers all sorts of upside in the form of “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “The Informant!,” “The Departed,” and even his sinister turn in “Interstellar”).
I’d like to sing more of Matt Damon’s praises, but unfortunately I’ve run out of time.
Christopher Rosen (@chrisjrosen), Entertainment Weekly
I’m ride or die for Ben Affleck. The man is a titan of the 1990s: “Dazed and Confused,” “Mallrats,” “Chasing Amy,” “Good Will Hunting” (re-tain-er), “Armageddon,” and “Shakespeare in Love.” He’s “Boiler Room” and that “SNL” episode from 2000 with that short directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (sidenote: Affleck is a wildly underrated “SNL” host). He’s the washout who made “Paycheck” and “Gigli” and those two shitty Christmas movies (“Reindeer Games” and the other one). He’s a pretty solid director, even “Live by Night.” He’s a great actor when he wants, like in “Gone Girl” or “Runner Runner.” (What?) He’s Bennifer. He’s whatever we called his relationship with Jennifer Garner. He’s the phoenix back tattoo that still could be real? He’s Sad Batman. He’s Peak Masshole (“The Town,” the Bill Simmons interview). He’s smart enough to NOT direct “The Batman.” Put this guy on the Mount Rushmore of modern Hollywood culture and gtfo.
Richard Brody (@tnyfrontrow), The New Yorker
Ben Affleck and Matt Damon have acted in a similarly bold batch of worthy films. Affleck’s list is much slighter but his work in “Gone Girl,” “To the Wonder,” and “Hollywoodland” can stand alongside Damon’s far richer filmography (“Behind the Candelabra,” “Contagion,” “Invictus,” “Hereafter,” “Margaret,” “The Informant!,” “Promised Land,” and “Good Will Hunting” come to mind). The difference is that Damon, a more malleable performer, melts into his roles; Affleck is untransformable — he’s more like a classic-era movie star in that regard. Damon is at home on-screen because he does what modern actors do; Affleck, whose talent is slighter but whose charisma is greater and whose affect is more opaque, mysterious, disturbing, is, as a result, somewhat ill at ease with the demands of current-day stardom. It makes perfect sense that he has therefore turned more of his attention to directing. Unfortunately, he doesn’t direct very well. If Affleck were ready to live with the incomprehension and the derision that his fascinatingly anachronistic style inevitably elicits, he’d find more directors who’d make as splendid a use of his talents as Terrence Malick and David Fincher have done. Instead, it’s superheroes and his own movies; Damon’s in Alexander Payne’s next movie. Affleck’s upside remains greater — if he’d only seek it out. Damon has long pursued the best of what his artistry can achieve, and continues to do so. I’d rather watch Affleck at his best, but it remains to be seen whether he’ll ever get near it again. By a split decision, Damon.
Tasha Robinson (@TashaRobinson), The Verge
You’re going to say this is cheating, and it is, and I don’t care. My favorite thing about both of them isn’t the movies they’ve written or directed or starred in, separately or together. It isn’t their shared TV project, or anything the tabloids have to say about them, or any of the derpy Sad Affleck or “Team America” memes that surround them. It’s their adorable, comic, larger-than-life bromance that really gets me, and that couldn’t exist without both of them. If we threw one or the other of them out, we wouldn’t get them being goofs at the Oscars together, or being weird on red carpets together, or teasing each other in charity videos. You wouldn’t have Ben Affleck literally wearing Matt Damon on a harness under his coat to smuggle him onto “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” as part of a running gag (you also wouldn’t have the “I’m F*@#ing Matt Damon!” / “I’m F*@#ing Ben Affleck!” videos from that show, which are still some of my favorite things they’ve produced).
So sorry, I can’t choose between them. I’ll throw out both of their film careers and everything else they’ve ever contributed to the entertainment landscape if I get to keep them as a couple of goofball buddies who exist to show up in the media, giving each other crap.