This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
Awards ceremonies exert their own influences on cinema. Films are made that feel intrinsically like Oscar-bait, their marketing and release schedules influenced by a desire to clean up during award season. There’s the confirmation that your work is well-regarded, one that most artists seek, but also there’s a useful publicity boost to help with the bottom line, especially when the films that do well tend to have, shall we say, a literary bent to them? In the same way as book awards tend to go to literary fiction titles rather than that Chris Brookmyre book you’ve read 18 times and opens with a big jobbie on a mantelpiece. It’s not unheard of but rare for big populist blockbusters to win outside of effects categories.
Which is fine, really. I mean, it’d be nice to acknowledge the skills that go into making the cinema equivalents to page-turners, that voice-overs and comedy also test actors, and that there’s depth to be found in supporting roles outside of Important, Serious Films. Ultimately, though, more people get to enjoy these films without that many envelopes being opened. You can be invested in something without insisting it be considered as important to other people.
Nonetheless, it’d be good to consider the performance in comedies, genre-films and cartoons on their own merits, to consider the lighter aspects of the human condition as equally valid for artistic reward. Thus, and acknowledging that acting is only a small part of what makes a film great, here are ten of the best performances that stood absolutely no chance of troubling the Oscars that year.
Disclaimer: John C. Reilly isn’t in this because frankly I could make a list that only featured him. Also there is absolutely no need to leave a comment under this article because this list is correct and no further conversation is necessary.
Timothy Dalton – Simon Skinner (Hot Fuzz)
Supermarket owner Simon Skinner, one of the main villain roles, could be a boo-hiss bad guy who genuinely aggravates the audience into hating him, but with Dalton’s smirk – fixed to maximum mischief – he’s an absolute delight, both in reality and in Sergeant Nick Angel’s versions of the grisly killings that have gripped the town of Sandford. His voice is like a Spring harvest, his eyes are like the glints of axe blades. His delivery of the line “My my, he is tenacious” should be cited in the dictionary definition of “purring.” Cats are no longer the best representation of said verb.
Timothy Dalton is brilliant in the film. He’s brilliant in the outtakes. He’s brilliant on the DVD commentary. Absolutely everything he does in this film is relentlessly entertaining. If Simon Skinner had won in the end you’d have been absolutely fine with it.
Rachel House – Tala (Moana)
Voiceover work is an underrated skill, and one of the joys of it is hearing a voice and then seeing the actor who performed it in the credits and going ‘Wait, what? That was them?’
Simon Pegg in the recent Dark Crystal series is a good example. Another is Rachel House, more familiar to people as a supporting actress in Taika Waititi films (and we could have chosen her performance in Hunt for the Wilderpeople here too) for her work in Moana, a film famous for being even better than a lot of other great Disney movies but not quite seizing the zeitgeist in the same way.
Playing Moana’s granny she steals the first act of the film, hilarious and heartbreaking in equal measure.
Jessica Chastain – Lucille (Crimson Peak)
It’s worth noting that Chastain did win awards for her work here in prestigious genre awards (the Chainsaw and Saturn awards) but the film as a whole did not trouble more famous awards shows despite being widely lauded for its appearance.
Anyway. The acting. Oh my god the control of this performance. Chastain is like the little guy in The Simpsons, the one Homer refers to when he says “He hasn’t done anything yet. Look at him. He’s going to do something and you know it’s going to be good…” except that here we do get to see her go do something. The sheer glee with which the frosty facade gives way to screaming murderous rage is fantastic to watch.
Luke Wilson – Lance (The Skeleton Twins)
Both Wilsons have had their moments in indie films, but I’d like to draw attention to Luke’s performance in Craig Johnson’s excellent 2014 film The Skeleton Twins. Focusing on the intense sibling relationship between Kristen Wiig’s Maggie and Bill Hader’s Milo, Wilson is playing Maggie’s partner Lance.
Outgoing, friendly and a bit of a jock, Lance is nonetheless rendered likeable by Wilson’s performance, who plays him with total innocence and a lack of cynicism. You both understand why Maggie married him and why she’s cheating on him. There’s sympathy on both sides when the truth is revealed, but it’s a proper gut punch for Lance. Both Johnson’s writing and Wilson’s performance lift what could be an unlikeable character into something more interesting and memorable.
Chiwetel Ejiofor – The Operative (Serenity)
Sometimes you see a performance in a film and make a mental note to keep an eye out for the actor in other things. Thus, to this day I still notice films with Chiwetel Ejiofor in them and assume that they’re good, and this is entirely down to his performance in Serenity, the final live-action outing of the Firefly TV series.
Joss Whedon clearly has a fondness for writing dialogue in a received pronunciation accent, alongside his fondnesses for killing of major characters and terrible pregnancy storylines. Contrasted with Loki, though, Ejiofor’s Operative is unnervingly calm. Like Chastain you know something’s about to give, but instead of a slow burn we very quickly see how lethal he can be. The result is that when Ejiofor simply informs Nathan Fillion’s Mal that he will kill children “if I have to” you are left in no doubt he means it.
This is a character that could have fallen under the weight of its contradictions, but Ejiofor is undeniably cool in the role in multiple ways. There’s a charisma to him that makes the character memorable rather than someone trying too hard with the villain role.
Karen Allen – Marion Ravenwood (Raiders of the Lost Ark)
On paper Marion Ravenwood is a thankless role. Your ex from when you were a teenager turns up and offers you money for a family heirloom, after which you are largely kidnapped by Nazis and your pub gets burned down. Allen is one of many actresses over the years to take the Feisty Damsel in Distress role and – in lieu of meatier parts in cinema – develop her into a believable character.
Thus Allen, getting the role off the strength of her performance in Animal House, came up with an entire backstory for Marion. The script gives her enough to work with, but Allen’s charisma and hard work elevates the material further.
If George Lucas hadn’t decided against her returning for Temple Of Doom she might have a reputation approaching Princess Leia’s.
J.K. Simmons – J. Jonah Jameson (Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man Trilogy)
While Whiplash was an unsettling horror film about a man being really possessed by jazz, I can’t say it contains J.K. Simmons’ best performance for me. It’s worth noting that no one has dared to recast the role of J. Jonah Jameson in any of the live-action versions of Spider-Man since, because Simmons’ portrayal feels utterly definitive. No one has had the nerve to look for the tiniest gap in his portrayal, somewhere to gain a foothold for a fresh take, and this is fine. There’s no need. In fact, we might as well start calling them the J. Jonah Jameson Trilogy and enjoy the films with a basket of Christmas meat.
Elizabeth Banks – Effie Trinket (The Hunger Games series)
A different trajectory here for the Daily Bugle alumni. Elizabeth Banks is both successful and underrated, but received some nominations and awards for her work in the Hunger Games series, including an MTV Award for Best On-Screen Transformation, a Teen Choice nomination for Best Scene Stealer and a San Diego Film Critics Society nomination for Best Supporting Actress.
This is a fair summary of her work in the franchise, covering the “Hang on, is that Elizabeth Banks?” aspect but also the fact that her character and performance had some weight to it. As well as a physical transformation Effie is a character you ultimately grow to like despite her initial appearance. Banks being given the chance to do something different and seizes the opportunity, so you absolutely buy the transformations involved.
Joan Cusack – Debbie Jellinsky (Addams Family Values)
I could have picked the entire cast of this film. Raul Julia! God he was fantastic in these films, and is sorely missed. However I’m choosing Joan Cusack as a plea to the many, many Hollywood executives who read this website: please keep casting Joan Cusack in things. She’s so good. Mind the little twitch she does after calling Rob a fucking asshole in High Fidelity? That’s the best bit of facial acting in a film with Todd Louiso doing some stellar Nervous Face Reacting in the background.
Here Cusack gets to play a serial killer in something as off-kilter as Addams Family Values. Considering how long scenes from this film live in the memory it requires something special from the guest performers to stand out amidst “I’m going to have a baby. Right now.”, “I can’t swim.”, and “Swing low sweet chariot”, but Cusack holds her own.
Bernard Hill – Theoden (The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy)
I love the character of Theoden, and I think Peter Jackson’s films provide the best version of the character (although at the expense of Eomer). The idea of humanity being fallible and susceptible to the influences of evil runs through the story, and Theoden exemplifies this.
He’s bewitched (and has a house with windows and doors, but that’s by the by) by Saruman, indirectly causing his son’s death, and his anger at this caused him to make mistakes in battle and fall into despair. Who among us hasn’t asked “What can man do against such reckless hate?”recently. Ultimately he rejects this version of himself, rides to Minas Tirith to scream death and dies in the ensuing battle, finally at peace.
Bernard Hill is stunning in these films, the raw footage of his battle cry is spine tingling, he’s great value in the DVD extras, and he brings so much depth to the role, such a balance between warmth and love and rage.