The underrated film acting performances of 2014

From Gone Girl and Interstellar to The Babadook and RoboCop, some of 2014's more underrated acting performances...

For once, this upcoming awards season looks set to recognise some of the bright young things in movies, rather than the usual suspects, even if the type of movie that’s considered “worthy” remain the same.

Biopics loom large, with Benedict Cumberbatch, Felicity Jones, Eddie Redmayne and David Oyelowo all considered locks for their first nominations for roles in films such as The Imitation Game, The Theory Of Everything, and Selma. With Foxcatcher, it seems like we’re going to have to get used to the phrase “Academy Award Nominee Channing Tatum” pretty soon.

Even the old guard potentials are pleasingly off-beat, with Michael Keaton tipped for his first nomination, for playing a former superhero actor in Birdman and Patricia Arquette almost a dead cert to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her turn in Boyhood.

But for the fifth year in a row, we’ve noticed that there’s something of an aversion to genre flicks, and the kind of stuff that we here at Den of Geek enjoy watching. As usual, comedy and horror are particularly conspicuous by their absence on this year’s list of potential Best Picture nominees, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that comic book movies haven’t made the cut.

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So, once again, we’ve picked out some of the best performances that either went unmentioned in reviews, or simply should have gotten more praise this year. Here are 10(ish) performances that ought to be more appreciated.

Carrie Coon, Gone Girl

Here’s a film that could well feature in the Oscar nominations come January, but most of us came out of the cinema thinking that Best Actress was Rosamund Pike’s to lose. She played Amy Dunne, a complex character, and her chemistry with Ben Affleck as husband Nick was a big part of what made the film so powerful, but fewer are remarking upon Carrie Coon’s supporting performance, as Nick’s twin sister Margo.

When the media shitstorm around Amy’s disappearance overwhelms her brother, she’s the picture of a supportive sibling throughout. That even leads the ravening cable news channels to openly speculate about “twincest” in their quest to demonise Nick, but Margo holds firm, even as Nick’s own stupidity and duplicity come to the fore.

Coon, who is currently starring in TV’s The Leftovers, remains the most likeable presence on screen, running the gamut from concern to exasperated emotional exhaustion over the course of David Fincher’s deeply cynical and fucked up film.

Tom Cruise, Edge Of Tomorrow (or Live, Die, Repeat)

Contrary to Gone Girl, this is the most underrated film of the year, full stop – this is why we can’t have nice things! Without the benefit of the un-crowded April release date that last year’s Oblivion enjoyed, Edge Of Tomorrow was unfairly overlooked in the wake of movies like Godzilla and Maleficent, when it’s genuinely one of the best original sci-fi blockbusters in years. We blame that title, although the alternate home video title wasn’t much better.

Reviews picked out the excellent Emily Blunt’s performance as Rita Vrataski, a super-competent hard-as-nails soldier in the war against invading, time-bending aliens, and rightly so. Blunt provides a nice foil to Tom Cruise’s William Cage, whose competence at the start of the story is closer to that of Red Dwarfs Arnold Rimmer. In itself, that’s enough cause to applaud Cruise for such an off-kilter performance.

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For all the flak that he gets, (the initial joke about this one being a must-see was “Tom Cruise dies over and over and over again”) he’s perhaps the only remaining movie star of his calibre, and his turn as Cage is his best in years, which is vital to going along with the film’s inherently repetitive structure. Whatever it’s called now, you need to catch up with this one if you haven’t seen it yet.

Essie Davis, The Babadook

With franchise horror and ghost train movies (quiet, quiet, BOO!) clogging up the genre in multiplexes, Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook emerged as the year’s best horror film. Contrary to some others on this list, Essie Davis’s performance as the put-upon single mother, who seems on the verge of a nervous breakdown even before an extra-dimension gribbly starts tormenting her, was actually singled out in many of the rave reviews of the film.

But of everyone on this list, she’s the one who will be most unfairly overlooked for awards recognition. This isn’t just “good for a horror movie,” it’s a world-beating portrayal of a rare rounded character in modern horror – just as Ellen Burstyn was nominated for an Oscar for The Exorcist, so Davis deserves to break through and get some kudos from the industry.

The Babadook sits comfortably in a sweet spot between arthouse horror and the mainstream and if any horror film were going to transcend Academy snobbery as William Friedkin’s film did, it would be this one. All the same, Davis is terrific as a character learning to live with her demons, both emotional and potentially physical.

Mackenzie Foy, Interstellar

There’s another performance we could mention here, but that one’s under-appreciated expressly because we’re not allowed to talk about it. Christopher Nolan clearly sets up the arrival of a big name star at the mid-point of the story to be a surprise, so we’ll preserve that in case you haven’t seen it, except to say that he livened up the film considerably. And besides, there’s an even better performance to mention.

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Before now, Mackenzie Foy was most notable for playing Edward and Bella’s baby in The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2, through a mix of uncanny valley performance capture on a CGI baby’s face, which made it tough to disagree with the film’s villains saying she was an abomination. She’s on much more solid ground here as Murph, the daughter of Matthew McConaughey’s astronaut farmer Cooper.

Foy gives a stunning performance here – the scene where Cooper leaves for a space mission, with no inkling of when he might be coming back, is the emotional fulcrum of the film. In less capable hands, Interstellar could have been Armageddon with A-Levels, but Foy and McConaughey knock it out of the park, and we’re sure that the former has even greater things ahead.

Ben Kingsley, The Boxtrolls

Voice performances have never really come in for much in the way of Oscar recognition – this time last year, some got excited about the possibility of Scarlett Johansson getting a nod for her vocal turn as Samantha in Her, but that came to nought. But animated films barely get a look in, and for our money, the best voice performance of the year was Ben Kingsley’s, sounding almost unrecognisable as the desperately villainous Archibald Snatcher.

Laika’s gleefully grotesque adventure story is unusually balanced so that the top-billed Kingsley’s character feels more central than the titular trolls. Snatcher is a walking contradiction, so ruthless and pig-headed in his social climbing that he’s dying to eat cheese with his town’s elite in spite of a crippling case of lactose intolerance.

Kingsley has entered a phase of his career in the last couple of years where he’s taken on such unexpected roles as Georges Méliès in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and Trevor Slattery in Marvel’s Iron Man 3. Snatcher stands up to the standard of fun he’s been having lately, as another weird and wonderful character from a master of his craft.

Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo, Begin Again

It’s become a tradition of these lists that there are one or two little cheats, especially when it comes to recognising an under-appreciated chemistry between two actors. John Carney’s follow-up to Once was another of the year’s most underrated movies, with Keira Knightley starring as heartbroken singer-songwriter Greta and Mark Ruffalo as jaded, self-destructive music producer, Dan.

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The match seems obvious, but the sweetness in the script, and their performances, is in the camaraderie between Greta and Dan. They’re not marking time until they hook up in the third act for a lovey-dovey ending – it’s pretty much platonic between them and the process of becoming BFFs through creating music is hugely uplifting.

Individually, Ruffalo (the most affable Bruce Banner ever filmed) sheds his usual likeable persona to play a character in a dark place who’s brought back into the light, while Knightley bucks any Manic Pixie Dream Girl stereotyping with a refreshingly natural performance. The film has a quietly ecstatic quality that is built around the understated rapport of the two lead actors, so this is well worth checking out.

Gary Oldman, RoboCop

Early this year, some were incensed that anyone would dare remake Paul Verhoeven’s classic RoboCop, but love it or loathe it, Jose Padilha’s remake still stands alone from the original. There are fair grounds for comparison, but it’s fair to say that enough is different to be appreciated irrespective of not being Clarence Boddicker or Dick Jones.

First and foremost, Gary Oldman gives a great supporting turn as Dr. Norton, a moral man who is made to sell out over the course of the story. In exchange for upgrading Joel Kinnaman’s Murphy, Norton is promised funding for his humanitarian pursuits by Michael Keaton’s slimy CEO, and this gradually drives him to break bad in much the same way as a Dr. Frankenstein figure.

Oldman is reliably brilliant in the role and you can guarantee that if Padilha had done a Neill Blomkamp and simply adapted bits he liked into a more original movie, we’d all be singing the praises of his take on Frankenstein with cyborgs. Even in the course of being a reimagining of a beloved film, he didn’t forget the imagination as so many of these reboots do, and that invention is epitomised in Oldman’s performance.

Tony Revolori, The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson’s company of actors were out in force for the director’s acclaimed caper movie, headed up by Ralph Fiennes stretching his comedy muscles and pretty much stealing the show from beginning to end as Gustave H. But in the film’s nesting doll story structure, it’s lobby boy Zero, played by F. Murray Abraham, who is the main character.

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The younger Zero is played by newcomer Tony Revolori, who makes a terrific foil to Fiennes’ effete buffoon. Zero is ceaselessly loyal throughout this adventure, sometimes exasperated but always fond and admiring of his mentor, and Revolori’s deadpan performance, and his chemistry with Fiennes, is one of the outstanding highlights of a very busy film.

Rene Russo, Nightcrawler

While Jake Gyllenhaal is fast moving around the outside track for Best Actor nods from here to the Oscars for his turn as Lou Bloom, certain other aspects of Dan Gilroy’s gripping directorial debut have been somewhat overlooked. Riz Ahmed could just as easily have made this list, for an unrecognisable turn as an unwitting assistant to Gyllenhaal’s sociopathic videographer, but Rene Russo isn’t getting nearly enough notice.

As Nina, Russo plays a long-suffering news producer who needs the lifeline provided by Lou’s grisly footage of violent crimes, with increasingly icky consequences. After a certain point, every interaction between Nina and Lou becomes charged with Russo’s thinly veiled disgust and the effect is undeniably engrossing.

There aren’t enough roles going for female stars of Russo’s stature and she grabs onto this one with both hands- after being unceremoniously fridged in last year’s Thor: The Dark World, she’s back on form here – the professional dinner between Nina and Lou may be one of the best scenes of the year and Russo deserves equal praise for that.

Matt Vogel, Muppets Most Wanted

Year on year, there are enough sequels out that it’s probably fair to set Muppets Most Wanted apart as the most underrated sequel of 2014, skewing closer to the format of films like The Great Muppet Caper than many who loved 2012’s nostalgia love-in may have expected.

Typically for a Muppet film, it was loaded with cameos and supporting turns from Hollywood stars, but aside from Ty Burrell’s Clouseau-esque turn as an Interpol detective, Tina Fey’s revelatory performance as a singing and dancing gulag warden and hilarious guest appearances from Ray Liotta and Danny Trejo, we never see enough kudos given to the Muppeteers.

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Namely, we have to give it up for Matt Vogel, who played Constantine, the world’s most dangerous frog. As the sidelining of Walter in the sequel may have proved, it’s hard to ingratiate a new character into the familiar cast, but Vogel faced an even tougher task in making the character’s mark, because Constantine is all but identical to Kermit the Frog.

As it stands, even though Constantine is a character designed to get this particular plot going, he may have been our favourite character in the sequel, with his dastardly personality and ridiculous impression of his more genial doppelganger. He may not be “Kyeeermit,” but he’s enough justification to watch Muppets Most Wanted all by himself.

Honourable mention: Pride

Again, technically cheating, but just as we had to highlight Cloud Atlas‘ ensemble last year, so we have to celebrate the whole ensemble of Pride, rather than pick out just one or two people. Matthew Warchus’s film had a cast that ranged from the elder statesmen of British acting to the current generation of greats, while making a few stars all on its own along the way.

The LGSM (Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners) contingent included unknowns like Ben Schnetzer and Faye Marsay, who both put in star-making turns, as well as slightly more known quantities like George MacKay and Joseph Gilgun. The slightly older cast-members include Paddy Considine, Liz White, Jessica Gunning and Rhodri Meilir as members of the Welsh mining community of Onllwyn, and national treasures like Bill Nighy and Imelda Staunton fill out the ensemble.

What made it so difficult to pick out just one of these equally underrated performances is that the vast cast works so well together to bring the unlikely true story to life with raucous humour and well-judged pathos, while also keeping a remarkable number of characters’ plates spinning at once.

Andrew Scott and Dominic West play a couple who run the book shop where LGSM convenes, and they provide a good example of the equilibrium. West’s Jonathan is wonderfully charismatic and extroverted, while Scott’s Gethin is more conflicted and introverted, but we see different sides of each of them as the film goes on, even with 20 other characters alternately coming to the fore throughout.

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It’s also worth mentioning that this is the second year in a row that Bill Nighy has made the list, and if you were to take a bingo card of his performance tics in here, you’d declare a full house long before the credits. He does the awkward pauses, the snorty laughing and a gentle but fierce passion that fits kindly union leader Cliff like a glove. To repeat what we said last year- if you can have Bill Nighy in your film, you should have Bill Nighy in your film, and this is him at his Nighy-est.

Put simply, this is the best ensemble of the year, without a doubt- anybody who’s in this who isn’t already a star, is certainly going to be. The reviews have called that out too, but somehow this didn’t catch fire at the UK box office as it should have. Even looking back at The Full Monty-scale hit that it should have been, we reckon that in years to come, it will still be appreciated for the best of British acting that it represents.

Have we missed any performances that you’d like to have seen rewarded? Leave your comments below and we’ll have our own damn awards show- to hell with little gold blokes!