The 10 underrated film performances of 2013

Top 10 Mark Harrison 6 Jan 2014 - 06:29

As ever, some spectacular performances were overlooked in last year's rush of movie releases. Here's Mark's pick of the most underrated...

Here on Den Of Geek, It's become something of a tradition that when the end of the year rolls around, and the big awards bodies almost determinedly overlook genre cinema, and that we compile a list of the underrated and underappreciated performances by actors in the last cinematic year.

We've tried to pick out turns that either went unnoticed in most reviews, or simply should have gotten more praise. It's less about the great performances that the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences are sure to overlook, than it is about giving praise where it's due.

It's unusual that this is either the most wide-open race in a while, or there aren't nearly enough people talking about who will definitely win Oscars this time around (Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine notwithstanding).

Nevertheless, we can safely predict that these are the best film performances of 2013 that nobody is talking about for awards recognition.

Amy Acker: Much Ado About Nothing

Joss Whedon's black-and-white adaptation of Shakespeare's original romantic comedy was a product of the writer-director's geekdom for the Bard, and of play readings he's been hosting at his house since around the time he was working on Buffy The Vampire Slayer. None of the players in the film had really acted in Shakespeare productions before, but it doesn't show.

While Nathan Fillion's hilarious comedy turn as the incompetent Dogberry received great notices, Amy Acker's Beatrice is the standout in the centre of the film. The witty dialogue trips off her tongue like it was written for her, and she has a canny knack for emotional deliveries too.

Rekindling the Wesley-Fred chemistry from Angel, she plays off Alexis Denisof's Benedick marvellously, and generally lights up the screen whenever she appears. Also, she gets what is, for our money, the finest cinematic pratfall of the year, trying to navigate some stairs while eavesdropping on her mischievous cousin and her friends.

Nicolas Cage: The Croods

If I were to list some Nicolas Cage movies from the last couple of years, it would be interesting to see how many you had forgotten: The Frozen Ground, Stolen, Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance, Trespass, Justice... the list of throwaway performances goes on and on. Surprisingly, it was DreamWorks Animation who really captured the best Cage performance of the year.

The Croods was a pleasant surprise in general - a family movie with a terrific message about how shunning intellect and innovation will only lead to extinction and entropy - but it's Cage's turn as conservative caveman Grug that really stands out. While DreamWorks has been guilty of stunt casting in the past, it's been ages since I've seen an animated film so convincingly represent the same presence that we recognise from an actor's live-action work.

More than that, it's not purely the Ridic-olas Cage that launched a thousand memes and YouTube montages. There are some stirring emotional beats, and Cage nails them just as well as the wackier, more comedic moments. As much as we applaud the technical prowess that is integral to realising a performance like this, he feels more present here than he has been in any number of recent live-action films.

Jude Law: Side Effects

Billed as Steven Soderbergh's final directorial effort for the big screen, (barring the pleasant surprise of HBO's Behind The Candelabra getting a UK cinema release back in August) Side Effects was an early gem in 2013's cinematic calendar- a near-masterpiece of its genre, which never let you get comfortable with the story's gymnastic twists and turns.

The trailers made Jude Law's role look like a supporting turn in a psychological horror about medication, which was a part of the film's misdirection in itself. But Law takes a much more integral role, playing against the type of smarmy, suave character that had been attached to him until recently, and he does a terrific job too.

Soderbergh has a knack for bringing the best out of his actors, (see also: the recent Channing Tatum renaissance) and Law keeps pace with the myriad twists and turns quite impressively, alternating places in the audience's sympathies in a way that lends to the overall sense that this one demands a second viewing.

Eddie Marsan: Filth

James McAvoy arguably gave the year's best film performance, as the bipolar, corrupt DS Bruce Robinson in Jon S Baird's Filth, and was duly rewarded with a gong for Best Actor at this month's British Independent Film Awards. McAvoy is incredible in the film, and we're glad that's been recognised, but it means we can instead draw attention to another terrific performance.

After a brilliant against-type role in The World's End (more on which later), this is slightly more familiar terrain for Eddie Marsan, who plays Bruce's Masonic best bud and emotional punchbag, Bladesey.

He's such a helpless man, as Bruce kicks him around emotionally and physically, but the actor carries it off in a terrifically likeable fashion. One of the film's funniest moments finds Bladesey off his head on drugs, rubbing his nipples as he dances around a gay bar in Amsterdam, but Marsan also excels in the quieter moments of pathos.

Colm Meaney: Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa

It's interesting when a film manages to make you feel sympathy for its villain, but it's not usually a good thing when you consider him to be better than the film's hero. Alan Partridge's first feature film, Alpha Papa, revolves around a corporate takeover of the North Norfolk Digital radio station, prompting fears of a clearout of the old guard.

Alan cheerfully throws his colleague under the bus with a scribbled “Just Sack Pat”, not banking on Pat coming back that night with a shotgun and holding the station hostage. As the film swings back to satirising corporate takeovers, Colm Meaney really makes the most of Pat's somewhat tragic backstory.

In an interview with Den Of Geek last month, Meaney told us: “I tend to play more active, sometimes aggressive types. This guy seemed curiously gentle and introverted in a way, even though he was a DJ.”

It's a testament to his moving performance that the gentleness comes across just as strongly as his temper, making for the year's most sympathetic screen antagonist.

Bill Nighy: About Time

Since Richard Curtis cast Bill Nighy as aging rock star Billy Mack in 2003's Love Actually, he's found ways to bring him back in everything he's done since, from The Boat That Rocked to his Doctor Who episode, Vincent And The Doctor, and now as a wise, time-travelling dad in About Time. It's understandable - if you can have Bill Nighy in your film, you should have Bill Nighy in your film.

And if About Time were better, Nighy would almost certainly be in the running for Best Supporting Actor nods up and down awards season. As much as the posters billed it as a romantic comedy, young Tim's quest to get a girlfriend with timey-wimey shenanigans is really more of a sub-plot, and the film really comes to life whenever Domhnall Gleeson's Tim sits down with Nighy for a natter.

Towards the end, while Curtis faffs about in what seems like yet another film with a whole TV series' worth of subplot crammed into it, Nighy brought us to the brink of tears in the film's moving finale. As geeks, we all know that the ending utterly ignores the already shaky rules of time-travel that the film has established. As sons and daughters, we don't care - Nighy is a perfect screen dad.

BJ Novak and Jason Schwartzman: Saving Mr Banks

Technically cheating? Well, there were a lot of good performances this year and these two are inseparable from one another in their superb performance as the Sherman brothers. While Emma Thompson seems set to get some attention for getting spectacularly cross with them and every other American who's trying to adapt Mary Poppins, these are the unsung heroes of the movie.

As you'd expect from both Novak and Schwartzman, they have impeccable comic timing as Robert and Richard Sherman, respectively. If you've seen 2009's The Boys: The Sherman Brothers Story, you might have an idea of what you're in for, but for the uninitiated, certain passages of Saving Mr Banks are like watching the Sherman brothers biopic you never knew you wanted.

You can also hear their renditions of songs from the Mary Poppins songbook on the soundtrack for Saving Mr Banks, and it's only a shame that Mrs Travers interrupts most of them - if Disney released an album of them with Bradley Whitford's Don DaGradi singing the whole soundtrack, we'd buy it. More than that, it would be very nice to see that biopic...

Simon Pegg: The World's End

Much has been written about Gary King in The World's End, not all of it nice. After Shaun and Nick Angel, Simon Pegg gave up the straight man role to play more of a lovable screw-up, with far less emphasis on the “lovable” than many viewers could stomach. Gary is a manipulative, alcoholic arsehole, who ultimately leads his friends down the path to armageddon.

Whether you like the character or not, it's a brave performance for Pegg, and it's probably a career-best for him in terms of acting. The pathos in Gary's character comes out so late in the story, that if it weren't for the strength of Pegg's performance, he'd be pretty much unwatchable.

Without going into spoilers, we can't really argue that the ending of the film is a tad shambolic, and it's understandable if you come away feeling that Gary didn't really learn anything, but for once, we have the chance to single out Simon Pegg the actor over Simon Pegg the screenwriter.

While we're on the subject, special mention should go to Nick Frost, who also puts in a revelatory turn as Gary's former friend and long-suffering enabler, Andy - this one was a terrific showcase for his range as a straight man and an action man, and if you did feel Gary was unwatchable, it's Frost's Andy that always keeps you on side.

Saoirse Ronan: Byzantium

Neil Jordan's seaside vampire noir was one of the underrated films of the year, finding a different spin on the nocturnal beasties in a market that has been saturated with post-modernity and Twilight movies in recent years - we've never really seen a mother-daughter vampire dynamic before.

While Gemma Arterton puts in solid work, Saoirse Ronan does that Saoirse Ronan thing of being absolutely brilliant in everything. Given the more integral and understated role, she brings a real sadness to the role of Eleanor. There's a sense that Arterton's Clara has numbed herself to the angst of eternal life in the time she has on her daughter. Ronan makes that raw and fragile, but there's a steely resolve beneath that.

After I originally saw the film, I immediately felt that it might have been even more interesting if a younger actress were cast as the mother and an older actress as the daughter, playing with vampire aging in a different fashion, but on the strength of Ronan's performance, I wouldn't have had it any other way.

Maribel Verdú: Blancanieves

Pablo Berger's silent movie re-telling of Snow White has a callous and frightening villain in the form of Maribel Verdú's Encarna, the most sinister incarnation of the wicked stepmother character since Disney's. Her rivalry with her step-daughter, Carmen, is intense, and even though you know the story, there's an air of not really knowing what depths she will stoop to next.

Berger updates the story to the 1920s and imagines Encarna as a ruthless social climber- she starts out as a nurse to Carmen's beloved father, before marrying him and later inheriting his wealth and belongings.

Verdú plays the role magnificently. It's all the more impressive for being a silent movie performance- there aren't many people who can pull off this style of acting without lapsing into gurning, but Verdú is a perfectly hateful villain.

Honourable mention: Anybody in Cloud Atlas

Okay, so this is definitely cheating. It came out in US cinemas back in October 2012, but by the magic of UK release dates, it's actually been almost a year since people were embroiled in not praising the ambition and vision of Cloud Atlas, one of the better adaptations of an “unadaptable” text in recent years.

Turning the six-pronged novel into a 172 minute film is a daunting task, but by using the same actors to visually link recurring themes, directors Tom Tykwer and Andy and Lana Wachowski both simplified and contextualised the unwieldy source material for the big screen.

And so, the cast are literally all over the shop, with race and gender proving no bar to which roles they can be cast in. Even if the make-up lets them down in some scenes, the bravery and believability of some of these turns is spectacular throughout.

We considered singling out one actor, but it's tough to pick just one, mostly because everyone in the cast makes a good fist of it, but also because when you start comparing, it comes down to which actors were consistently the best in different segments of the film, which isn't entirely the point.

To pick a few highlights, Jim Broadbent is superb in the knockabout Ealing comedy strand in which his character unwittingly commits himself to a nursing home, Ben Whishaw gives an excellent portrayal of a tormented, bisexual composer, and Hugh Grant furiously rages against type in a variety of villainous and downright scary roles.

In a year that has also included Captain Phillips and Saving Mr Banks, Tom Hanks adds a few more great turns to his CV (even if we're not sure about his Irish gangster-cum-author) all at once, as the de facto lead.

One villainous monologue from the film turned out to be oddly prophetic of the film's reception. There's a natural order, and those who try to upend it do not fare well. It's unfortunate that the film hasn't been appreciated in its time, but in a way it's fitting that the most underrated film of the year is packed to the gills with underrated performances.

Have we missed any performers that you feel deserved more attention from critics and awards organisations? Leave your suggestions in the comments - we'll have our own damn awards show!

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