The underrated film acting performances of 2015

Rosario Dawson, Hugh Jackman and Blake Lively lead our look at 2015's best under the radar acting performances in film...

This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.

This article contains mild spoilers for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2. We’ve kept these as vague as possible, but if you haven’t seen the film yet, you might wish to skip the entry pertaining to that.

2015 was a particularly exemplary year for all kinds of movies, but particularly in genre and blockbuster cinema. When there’s so much to talk about, it’s inevitable that some of the really good stuff gets lost in the mix of awards season chatter, but that’s especially true when there’s still some residual stigma about movies outside of the “worthy” release schedule that will arrive in UK cinemas between now and the Academy Awards ceremony in February.

There are a couple of likely breakthrough geek movies for this year’s Oscars, in the form of Mad Max: Fury Road and The Martian, both of which have placed strongly in critics’ end-of-year lists and have also picked up a handful of Golden Globe nominations each, including Best Picture. These are both very deserving, but somehow, we feel like we’re going to be disappointed if we think Charlize Theron is going to get due recognition for playing Imperator Furiosa.

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But regular Den of Geek readers will know that we’re not about predicting which actors are going to get nominated at this time of year, but rather who has been overlooked. In a year in which these milestone movies could make a big splash, here’s our annual round-up of the performances that deserve a little more appreciation before the imminent deluge of prestigious fare.

Nicholas Brendon, Coherence

There’s a poignant episode in Buffy The Vampire Slayer‘s sixth season called “Hell’s Bells,” in which Xander Harris (played by Nicholas Brendon) calls off his wedding to his former vengeance demon fiancée Anya, after being shown a vision of their unhappy marriage several years down the line. He’s even made aware of the fact that it’s a deliberate falsehood, but his insecurity and fears of what he might become in his older years make him give Anya up.

There’s an echo of that potential future in James Ward Byrkit’s Coherence, a mind-bending sci-fi indie that gives us an impossible situation in which paranoia reigns in a claustrophobic domestic setting. In the midst of this, Brendon’s character, Mike, is a self-loathing teetotaller and the very last person with whom you would want to be stuck in this particular scenario. It’s by far the best thing Brendon has done post-Scoobies and in a complex ensemble sci-fi story, he delivers the most nuanced performance.

Highlight: There’s a scene in which Mike makes a uniquely misjudged personal appeal to try and sort out this unusual predicament, with disastrous results. His self-destructive behaviour and addled logic make him a fascinating character and he’s an example of how the film gives an abstract plot some personal grounding.

Rosario Dawson, Top Five

As one of Hollywood’s finest character actresses, it’s staggering that Rosario Dawson has never yet broken into the annual awards season conversation. She’s consistently one of the best performers in anything in which she appears, as was evident in her all-too-fleeting appearances as Claire Temple in Marvel’s Netflix series this year. Chris Rock’s Top Five arrived in UK cinemas early in 2015 too, in which she had a stellar leading role as journalist Chelsea.

Rock’s script is Before Sunrise by way of Kevin Smith; a vulgar but sweet walk-and-talk romantic comedy and as his and Dawson’s characters wander around New York, her innate ability to build chemistry with just about anybody proves invaluable to this kind of film. She also makes a perfect foil to Rock’s troubled comedy star Andre Allen, cutting through his bullshit when he needs it most and it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing this role so perfectly.

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Highlight: Dawson is at her radiant best here, excelling in any number of scenes and easily keeping pace with Rock’s fast-talking patter. Weirdly, given the quality of the rest of the film, she does her best work when elevating the most indulgently crass scene, (which involves Chelsea’s boyfriend cheating on her) because it would otherwise have been a low point.

Brett Goldstein, SuperBob

Look, up in the sky, it’s a bird, it’s a plane – no, wait, it’s just a postman who got hit by a meteor. Of all of this year’s superhero movies, none was more charming than the super-powered romcom SuperBob, which made the best of an indie budget with a witty and endearing script set on a British superhero’s day off.

The calm, affable centre is Brett Goldstein, who’s very sweet as a kind of implausible cross between Henry Cavill and Martin Freeman; an everyman turned superman who’d quite like to meet someone nice to take out when he’s not doing MOD-sanctioned heroic work. As a comedy, SuperBob is capable of pathos and laugh-out-loud moments and Goldstein (who also wrote the script) carries that balance like it’s that car on the cover of Action Comics #1.

Highlight: Bob takes the documentary crew on a tour of Peckham on his UN-mandated Tuesday off, during which children heckle him and neighbours accuse him of being a “lazy shite.” Of course, he takes it all in his stride – it’s a crucial good-natured beat for his character early on in the film.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, The Walk

Around the same time as everyone was going doolally about finally catching up with the date that Marty McFly visited in Robert Zemeckis’ Back To The Future Part II, the director’s latest film The Walk was shuffling out of cinemas, underappreciated by critics and audiences alike. Trust us, you’ll be sorrier you didn’t see this one on a big screen than any other movie released this year. Aside from the film’s technical brilliance, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s performance as Philippe Petit, the man who walked on a tightrope between the towers of the World Trade Center, might be his best ever.

His deliberately over-the-top French accent got some ribbing in the reviews and indeed, any scene in which he plays opposite Ben Kingsley’s non-specifically European mentor comes across as ‘accents at dawn’. Nevertheless, Gordon-Levitt uses his natural screen charisma to dazzling effect in the role of an egotistical but charming performer, perching himself triumphantly atop Zemeckis’ salute to showmanship. There may never be an ITV2 Keith Lemon special dedicated to The Walk, but it’s an instant classic on the CVs of both its director and its leading man.

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Highlight: As dazzling as the special effects are, it’s the physical performance that makes the titular setpiece truly breathtaking. Gordon-Levitt looks like he belongs on that wire and with nary a word of dialogue, the character’s audacity makes a genuinely tense sequence out of something that most of us already knew about from the documentary Man On Wire.

Hugh Jackman, Chappie

Neil Blomkamp’s third film had its fair share of detractors and it’ll be a few years before the dust settles and we find out what we really thought of this divisive Die Antwoord vehicle. For our part, Chappie made a strong showing in our top 10 films of the year and although there was praise and derision in all quarters, we haven’t seen enough appreciation for Hugh Jackman playing against type as weapons designer Vincent Moore. In fact, he’s the most committed performer in the film.

“Vincent is a bit like Ricky [Gervais] in The Office – he thinks everyone likes him when in fact they don’t,” Jackman told the Daily Express when the film was released in cinemas. It’s a solid and unconventional touchstone for an antagonist, but on top of his devastating mulleted/polo shirted/cargo shorted look, Vincent’s religious zealotry in the face of poor Chappie’s revolutionary sentience makes him a compelling contradiction in terms, as both a risible figure and an unnerving one. When we look back on this one, we’ll have to admit that Jackman brought it, (whatever ‘it’ was meant to be).

Highlight: Unquestionably, it’s his delivery of the line “You’re making me as cross as a frog in a sock, mate.” You probably wouldn’t see that scene in The Office, but the way Jackman holds Dev Patel’s Deon at gunpoint and then tries to laugh it off like David Brent afterwards is a weird but powerful character beat.

Samuel L. Jackson, Kingsman: The Secret Service

There has been no shortage of spy movies in the last 12 months. But last January, way ahead of SPECTRE, Bridge Of Spies, The Man From UNCLE, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, Spy, and Spooks: The Greater Good, there was Kingsman, Matthew Vaughn’s riotous Mark Millar adaptation, which did for Bond movies what Kick-Ass did for superheroes. Moreover, we finally got to see something that we never knew we wanted – Samuel L. Jackson playing a Bond villain.

Richmond Valentine is the most insidious of villains – a lisping ‘compassionate’ conservative, who supposedly has an aversion to violence while also enacting a plot to turn the lower classes on one another so that he and his rich friends will inherit the Earth. Vaughn goes full-tilt into comic book class warfare here and as horrible a figure as Valentine is, he’s made far funnier by Jackson’s knowingly grotesque performance.

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Highlight: Without giving too much of the ending away, Jackson’s delivery of the line “It’s that young valet from earlier!” is pause-the-movie hysterical. It underlines Valentine’s relative naivete for a criminal mastermind and in a big, brash action movie like Kingsman, it’s the most subtle gag with the biggest character pay-off.

Blake Lively, The Age Of Adaline

We’re not necessarily saying this is Oscar-worthy, but rather that it’s the kind of film that will be due for re-assessment if Blake Lively continues in this vein. Overshadowed at the box office by the similarly monikered Avengers sequel that came out in the same weekend, Lively gives an elegant, borderline ethereal performance as Adaline Bowman, an eternally 29-year-old woman who both enjoys and endures the anti-ageing effects of a freak lightning accident.

Lively affects such graceful isolation in her immortality that you actually believe ‘permanently looking like Blake Lively’ might be a curse for Adaline. She’s had a run of thankless supporting roles in the likes of The Town and Green Lantern, but her young fogey leading lady is a revelation. If the (decent, but flawed) film around her lived up to her performance, we’re sure it would’ve instantly marked her graduation from TV’s Gossip Girl to Serious Movie Actress.

Highlight: Adaline meets her new beau’s father, William, who turns out to be an old flame, with emphasis on the old. Harrison Ford could as easily have made this list for his flabbergasted turn as her heartbroken ex (played in flashback by dead ringer Anthony Ingruber), but the first scene in which they’re alone together is masterfully executed by both actors.

Ryan Reynolds, The Voices

Few actors have had so many chances to launch a movie as Ryan Reynolds in recent years. But after numerous comic book movie flops (a trend which he’s surely hoping to buck with the upcoming Deadpool), he’s developed a nice sideline in unusual and frankly fucked-up fare like The Voices, a romcom/slasher horror in which he plays a shy, schizophrenic factory worker called Jerry.

It’s a frivolously dark affair that examines its protagonist’s psyche through conversations with his loyal dog Bosco and his sociopathic Glasgow-accented cat Mr. Whiskers. Tellingly, both of these characters are voiced by Reynolds too. Understandably, the film didn’t have the biggest showing in UK cinemas and proved very divisive among those who did see it, but whatever you think of it, Reynolds’ provocative performance(s) must be seen as a high point.

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Highlight: Any scene in which Jerry, Bosco and Mr. Whiskers have a sit down to talk things through is marvellous, but especially in the scenes after Jerry stops taking his medication and we start to see his apartment as it really is, rather than the illusion he has constructed for himself.

Phyllis Smith, Inside Out

Inside Out is the first Pixar film since 2010’s Toy Story 3 to be in the Best Picture discussion and even in a superb year for animation, it seems like a lock for the Best Animated Feature category. However, voice performances are hardly, if ever singled out, and Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Mindy Kaling, Bill Hader and Lewis Black all did terrific vocal work as avatars for the emotions inside an 11-year-old girl’s head.

The standout is Smith though, who brings morbid hilarity and genuine feeling to her hangdog performance as Sadness. She’s a figure of frustration for the character of Joy and for some viewers too, as she’s the one who incites the crisis at the top of this emotional disaster movie. But the ultimate point of Sadness is one that rings true for viewers of all ages and is all the more impressive for coming across so well in a film aimed at children. Smith’s vocals are crucial here and her performance makes the biggest impression.

Highlight: The first moment in which Joy starts to appreciate what Sadness is supposed to do, after imaginary friend Bing Bong watches his rocket get dumped like so much rubbish. It’s a well-written scene, made even better by the performance. Plus, there’s the line “Remember that funny movie where the dog died?”

Donald Sutherland, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2

The Hunger Games franchise is something of a mixed bag, but there are two constants that at least make all four films watchable. Obviously, there’s Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen, but Donald Sutherland has done some of the best work of the latter part of his career as her sneering, leonine nemesis, President Coriolanus Snow.

Much of the marketing for the climactic chapter, Mockingjay Part 2, focused on an imminent confrontation between Katniss and Snow as her burgeoning resistance movement marched on Panem’s seat of power. Typically of this series, the film itself is rather more subtle, and Sutherland remains as deliciously nasty as ever.

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Highlight: As good as Sutherland has been in all of these movies, the very last shot of Snow is one to remember, his face contorted with insane laughter as he disappears from view. We’ve been led up to this point to believe that his rule can’t possibly triumph, but that moment is essential to a denouement that lingers on the legacy of his oppressive regime.

Honorable mention: Bill

Finally, another look at a film whose praises we have been singing all year, and the ensemble cast who make it so enjoyable. Bill is very much in the mould of Blackadder and particularly the big screen works of Monty Python, but it’s perfectly pitched at a family audience.

Mathew Baynton, Simon Farnaby, Martha Howe-Douglas, Jim Howick, Laurence Rickard and Ben Willbond are all Horrible Histories alums who seamlessly essay multiple roles in this very funny film, which follows the unlikely story of Bill Shakespeare’s unwitting involvement in a Catholic plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I. Willbond and Rickard also wrote the script, in addition to recurring as various characters throughout the film.

Getting in on the fun in singular roles are Damian Lewis, who has a fun cameo as the dashing Sir Richard Hawkins, and Helen McCrory as Elizabeth, who is completely distinct from Miranda Richardson’s iconic take from Blackadder II and yet funny in her own way as the bemused foil to all of the goddamn silliness that surrounds her.

If Bill is to be recognised during awards season, it would more likely be at the BAFTAs than the Oscars, but either way, it’s worth a look if you haven’t seen it already, when it comes to DVD, Blu-ray and VOD in February.

Have we missed any other performances which you feel have been frustratingly overlooked and under-appreciated. Leave your comments below and we can hang the little gold blokes and have our own awards ceremony. Meet back here for a party if Charlize Theron wins something shiny and chrome!

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