The Underrated Film Acting Performances of 2016

Viola Davis, John Goodman, Bryce Dallas Howard and more, in our rundown of 2016's underrated movie acting work.

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

This article contains minor spoilers for Pete’s Dragon, Suicide Squad, and Warcraft: The Beginning.

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Nobody is likely to look back on 2016 fondly, whether because of global political instability, celebrity deaths or the rejection of Boaty McBoatface as a suitable name for a research vessel. In the world of film, we note that a lot of the contenders in this year’s awards season haven’t even been released in UK cinemas yet, and it was hardly a banner year for blockbuster cinema either.

On the plus side, there were some exemplary smaller films, of the kind that awards bodies tend to overlook, released in the last 12 months. Without any apparent genre contenders, like The Martian or Mad Max: Fury Road in 2015, this is a year in which performers are more likely to get notice for the worthier end of year fare than for underappreciated efforts elsewhere in 2016.

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For instance, Ryan Gosling will likely be recognised far more often for his role in La La Land than for his revelatory slapstick turn in The Nice Guys, but that might not be true here on Den of Geek. So, as we’ve done for the last six years now, we’ll take a look at some of our favorite underrated turns in films from 2016. This group aren’t likely to win any Oscars next month, at least not for these particular films, but at this time of year, they’re worthy of praise all the same.

Viola Davis, Suicide Squad

Viola Davis is hotly tipped to win her first Oscar for her starring role in Denzel Washington’s acclaimed drama Fences, but her immutable screen presence shone through in one of the year’s worst movies too. Amanda Waller had previously been played by Angela Bassett in 2011’s Green Lantern, as part of a nascent DC universe that never came to pass, but Davis’ interpretation in Suicide Squad is closer to what comic fans recognize in that character.

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Waller’s motivations are somewhat muddied in assembling Task Force X by the film’s fraught editing, as Jenny Nicholson memorably pointed out in a comedy sketch that went viral earlier this year (“This one’s a boomerang!”), but in a film where Will Smith and Margot Robbie and their team of sub-Hawkeye rogues keep loudly insisting they’re the bad guys, Davis brings tacit menace to her antagonistic government official. As with Ben Affleck’s Batman in Dawn Of Justice, she’s great and we’re waiting eagerly for her to be in a better DC movie.

Highlight: Right after the nonsensical twist in which it turns out that Task Force X’s first mission is to rescue Waller from a situation that wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for Task Force X, there’s absolutely no nonsense from Davis when she confronts them. She caps it off by shoulder-barging Killer Croc. If it were in a better film, we’d have been talking about that part all year.

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Bryce Dallas Howard, Pete’s Dragon

Disney had a record-breaking year, foreshadowing a point where they will probably overtake the entire Hollywood studio system. But next to the mammoth success of The Jungle Book and the widespread antipathy towards Alice Through The Looking Glass, their other live-action remake from this year was overlooked, after it was dropped out in the midst of a packed summer season. It’s a shame, because David Lowery’s remake of Pete’s Dragon was one of the very best family films of the year.

It was bursting with great performances too, from newcomer Oakes Fegley as the intrepid Pete to Robert Redford, who’s never been more twinkly than he is as an eccentric storyteller who once met a dragon. But Lowery’s Ghibli-meets-Spielberg take on the story is marked by an absence of mothers, and the standout is Bryce Dallas Howard as Grace, the park ranger who takes Pete in and the film’s major maternal figure. Her warmth towards Pete and skepticism of the supernatural is a tough balance to pull off, but she’s truly remarkable here.

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Highlight: There’s more awe and majesty in the scene where Grace finally comes face to face with Elliott, now rendered in CG floof for extra adorableness, than in all of Jurassic World, and here it’s the moment where the disparity between her love and her cynicism evaporates, beautifully. And she doesn’t run in heels either, if that sort of thing bothers you.

John Goodman, 10 Cloverfield Lane

This time last year, many of us were surprised to hear that a Cloverfield sequel was due in cinemas imminently, and once it arrived, some of us were even more surprised at how good it was. In a departure from the 2008 monster movie, Dan Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane is a three-hander centered on two 20-somethings sharing underground accommodation with John Goodman’s Howard in the wake of what he claims to be a post-apocalyptic event.

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Goodman feeds the paranoia and claustrophobia that festers here with his mercurial performance, whether fawning over Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Michelle (who’s also great) or losing his temper with his captives. Has the world truly ended, or is he just holding them for his own purposes? The sequel marks the franchise’s transition into a Black Mirror-style anthology series for the big screen and if future installments follow the Charlie Brooker show’s example of casting great guest stars in each new story, we can hopefully look forward to more performances like Goodman’s from the next one, due out in October.

Highlight: After Michelle and Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.) make a plan to find out more about what’s going on outside the bunker behind Howard’s back, the three of them have a board games session. As Howard describes the omniscient qualities of Santa Claus in the first person, the other two players become terrified that he’s rumbled them, until Goodman sweetly shrugs it off. It’s good, for goodness’ sake.

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Hugh Jackman, Eddie The Eagle

For the second year in a row, the outgoing Wolverine makes our list. It will be interesting to see if this time next year, Logan manages to get Hugh Jackman any awards nods, but we really loved him in Eddie The Eagle, as the composite character Bronson Peary, a former champion ski jumper gone to seed.

While the film itself occasionally gurns and mugs (“I think a little bit of wee just came out,” squeals Taron Egerton’s Eddie, at one point), there’s real honesty and pathos in Jackman’s performance as the hard-drinking mentor. It’s occasionally reminiscent of his deadbeat turn in the similarly undervalued Real Steel, and he complements the generous daftness of this biopic perfectly. We’d love to see Jackman do more of these roles after he’s sheathed his claws for good.

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Highlight: Peary brings many funnier moments, but it’s when the mask of indifference falls as he desperately, almost tearfully begs Eddie to reconsider his novelty status in the event. There’s so much weight to that scene because of his own missed opportunity, and it lands as heavily as Eddie does in most of his attempts.

Richard Jenkins, Bone Tomahawk

After The Hateful Eight, 2016’s other Kurt Russell-starring Western in UK cinemas was Bone Tomahawk, a grisly, exploitation genre remount of The Searchers, in which sheriff Russell leads a group comprising Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox and Richard Jenkins in pursuit of the savages who have kidnapped one of their own. To say that the film turns what you expect from the dominant Western-centric view of ‘savages’ on its head is an understatement, but S. Craig Zahler’s film is also well performed all around.

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Fox gives his best performance since Lost as Brooder, an arrogant but educated man, but it’s Jenkins who steals the show, in an initially unrecognisable turn as the well-meaning older deputy, Chicory. Zahler has an ear for the innuendo of the time and his script gives the four men have a fragile dynamic based on bravado – in particular, Jenkins’ soft-hearted widower feels intellectually challenged by his fellow travellers, whether they’re trying or not, and he elicits a lot of sympathy as the loyal doyle.

Highlight: After a long day, the travellers get their heads down and try to get to sleep. Restless, Chicory asks the sheriff if he can read a book in the bath. It’s incidental next to the peril that they face on their journey, but nothing is wasted in terms of character detail and Jenkins’ delight at the sheriff’s simple solution makes a nice change before it all kicks off again.

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Toby Kebbell, Warcraft: The Beginning

Duncan Jones’ lavish adaptation of the Warcraft games had a mixed reception – it bombed in the US, but was the biggest Hollywood film of the year in the increasingly important Chinese market, and it stands as the highest grossing video game movie to date worldwide. Warcraft: The Beginning is all over the place as a film, but its qualities, including a terrific turn by Toby Kebbell, are undeniable.

He plays orc chieftain Durotan, who feels as fleshed out as the human protagonists in Jones’ previous films, in no small part due to the performance behind the animation. The story may be pulled this way and that by the sheer number of characters and realms covered in this densely packed adaptation, but the audience is continually drawn back to Durotan, and without him to ground the mooted sequels, it feels like Jones will face an uphill battle. But between this and his role as the villainous Koba in Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, Kebbell is hot on Andy Serkis’ heels as a pre-eminent player in performance capture.

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Highlight: The audacious opening sequence is remarkable for a number of reasons, but the gentleness of a great big orc chieftain with his pregnant mate immediately feels like nothing else we’ve seen from a computer generated character like this. You can split credit with the animators if you’re still agnostic about the merits of CG captured performances, but for his part, Kebbell deserved more praise.

Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo, Queen Of Katwe

Another overlooked Disney film from last year was Mira Nair’s Queen Of Katwe, which adapted the true underdog story of Ugandan chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi to the big screen. Newcomer Madina Nalwanga played the young lead, but the film also provided a starring vehicle that grown-up stars Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo have been waiting on for a long, long time. Both of their characters want what is best for Phiona, but each expresses it in their own way.

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For Nyong’o, in her first live-action role since her Oscar-winning turn in 12 Years A Slave, single mother Harriet is fiercely protective of her daughter, with a temper as formidable as her beauty. Meanwhile, Oyelowo’s Katende is a pillar of the Kampala slum community, and an irrepressible spring of warmth in a film that doesn’t shy away from the hardships of growing up in poverty. The film masterfully maps a true story onto a Disney movie structure and the grown-up players are more than up to the task.

Highlight: Some of the best scenes in the movie are between Nyong’o and Oyelowo, mostly because there’s no contrived conflict between them in their different views – Harriet doesn’t want Phiona to be let down and Katende believes she has what it takes to achieve her dreams, and there’s gentle debate between the two. We also enjoyed Katende’s increasing exasperation at how easily his protégé starts to beat him at his own game.

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Daniel Radcliffe, Swiss Army Man

It’s really a shame that we live in a world where you can’t get an Academy Award for playing a farting corpse, because Swiss Army Man boasts Daniel Radcliffe’s best performance ever. Not everyone will get on with the weirdness in Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s (collectively ‘The Daniels’) vision of a lost young man called Hank (Paul Dano) befriending a cadaver called Manny and making his way home, but even telling you that means this is one of last year’s great underseen films.

Although Manny’s stand-in dummy was hilariously rolled out for an appearance on The Graham Norton Show, the real Radcliffe did a lot of the physical performance work that didn’t involve being carried by Hank. Playing a character who can’t move by himself paradoxically means that Radcliffe acts with his whole body, right down to the discomfiting eye-half-closed expression that is plastered across his face. On top of his physicality, his uncommon chemistry with Dano makes this a must-see.

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Highlight: Late in the film, Manny’s acapella rendition of John Williams’ Jurassic Park theme as he follows his heart (and his boner) across an emotional threshold is as funny as it is moving. The #OscarsSoAliveAndFartless hashtag starts here!

Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Sing Street

Sing Street has much to recommend it for, not least for the amazing original soundtrack. Sing Street might be yet another John Carney film in which someone gets out of an unhappy situation by being really ridiculously good at singing and songwriting, but for our money, it’s also his best by some distance. But the film wouldn’t work nearly as well as it does without its young lead.

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Incredibly, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo had never acted before Sing Street, but as Conor, the besotted youngster who starts a band so that the beautiful Raphina will be in his homemade music videos, he’s a revelation. His performance would be impressive enough if he weren’t also singing all of these original songs, but he brilliantly personifies the ramshackle loveliness of the film itself.

Highlight: Obviously, it’s the music video to Drive It Like You Stole It, the best scene in the movie, in which “Have you seen Back To The Future?” acts as a tuning fork for the fantasy sequence that follows. But we’ll also give a special mention to any of the scenes between Conor and his older brother, Brendan (Jack Reynor) whose rapport gives us many of the film’s funniest lines. “He will not be a problem,” Brendan assures Conor about an older rival for Raphina’s affections. “No woman can truly love a man who listens to Phil Collins.”

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Jodie Whittaker, Adult Life Skills

Here’s one you might not have seen yet. Adult Life Skills is an expansion of writer-director Rachel Tunnard’s BAFTA-nominated short film Emotional Fusebox, in which Jodie Whittaker reprises her role as Anna, a 29-year-old woman who lives in her mother’s shed. In a creative malaise, she spends her days reminiscing about childhood and making films about a doomed mission to the Sun, drawing faces on her thumbs to play the doomed spacemen.

The film’s brand of homespun melancholy is similar to that of Son Of Rambow and Whittaker is truly outstanding as the big kid in the centre of it. In terms of awards recognition, Brett ‘SuperBob’ Goldstein recently won a British Independent Film Award for his supporting role in the film and even outside of the film, Whittaker’s acceptance of the award on his behalf is the funniest of its kind you’ll see all year.

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Highlight: One spaceman tells another spaceman that he’s being too negative about their imminent scorching demise and needs to cheer up with an acapella rendition of Whitesnake’s Here I Go Again. All of this is performed by Whittaker and here’s hoping she also gets an award of her own, because her funny, sad, marvellous performance gets two smiley spaceman thumbs up from us.

Have we missed any performances which you feel have been frustratingly overlooked or underrated? Leave your comments below and let’s see if we can’t all look back on 2016 as ‘not a bad year, really’, at least as far as films are concerned…