This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
This review contains spoilers of various degrees for Avengers: Infinity War, American Animals, Creed II, Game Night, and A Simple Favor.
Awards season is supposed to celebrate the entire year in cinema, but as always, there are certain types of film that don’t really gain traction outside of technical categories (here are our Oscar predictions, while you’re here). While plenty of genre films have broken into some of the more prestigious categories in recent years, there’s still something of a bar when it comes to the acting department.
Following last year’s various wins for excellent genre fare like The Shape Of Water and Get Out, 2018’s awards season is once again being driven by more seasonally typical films. It goes without saying that Emily Blunt is far more likely to gain awards recognition for her role in Mary Poppins Returns than she is for her turn in A Quiet Place. But in this piece, we like to shine a light on some of the great performances that nobody is touting for awards glory at the moment.
It’s tempting to write a thousand words about Sam Elliott’s moving performance in A Star is Born, but he’s already nominated and will continue to be for the remainder of the season. By the same token, if anyone’s got a chance of breaking through with a genre performance this year, it’s Toni Colette for Hereditary, a performance that has been praised ever since the film came out in May.
This isn’t an alt-Oscars, but our tribute to some of the more underrated film acting performances of 2018, from great supporting turns in large ensemble movies to memorable performances in some of the often-overlooked genres like comedy, horror, and science fiction.
Maybe some of them received the praise they were due in some reviews at the time, but in many cases, these are performances from underrated and underseen films. As ever, this is just a signal boost for some of our favorite unsung performances of the last 12 months, at a time of year when everyone is going doolally for prestige films instead.
Josh Brolin, Avengers: Infinity War
How the heck do you play a character like Thanos? Avengers: Infinity War wasn’t Brolin’s first run at the role, but from its very first scene, it represents a massive step up from all of his prior appearances. It has to be, because as we discussed nearer the time of release, the Mad Titan is the closest thing this sprawling epic has to a protagonist.
Far more than his digitally augmented physical heft, Brolin’s decision to play this monstrous character as a soft-spoken psychopath is what makes him such a compelling villain. He rarely raises his voice as other comic book baddies might, instead lending a remarkably expressive quality to that big purple face. Gollum remains the high watermark for this kind of character, but each and every year now, there’s a performance capture turn that gets overlooked when it comes to awards season. This year, Thanos is it.
Highlight: The sequence on the planet Vormir showcases the full range of Brolin’s formidable performance. Despite suddenly veering as far into fantasy as the Marvel cinematic universe has ever gone, the scene lands so well (or far better than Gamora does, anyway) because it finally gives Thanos pause, and it’s incredibly acted.
Cynthia Erivo, Bad Times At The El Royale
In a super-competitive Best Supporting Actress field, it seems likely that Cynthia Erivo will be a frontrunner for Widows at this year’s Oscars. But her big awards-worthy arrival was beaten to the punch in UK cinemas by Bad Times At The El Royale, Drew Goddard’s follow-up to The Cabin In The Woods, in which she plays a singer called Darlene.
Like Widows, it’s an ensemble piece, but she winds up shouldering the role of the protagonist. We’re with her throughout the film’s perspective-altering encounters with Jon Hamm’s unctuous traveller, Dakota Johnson’s secretive hippy, Jeff Bridges’ conflicted priest, and that one Avenger who shows up and threatens to steal the whole damn movie in the third act. Amidst all the madness, Erivo is the stoic and sympathetic center.
Highlight: Darlene’s singing career is an element that recurs throughout the film’s various flashbacks and contained plot points, but it’s her unwavering vocal performance of “You Can’t Hurry Love” that sticks in the mind. Only occasionally appearing in shot as another character explores a corridor filled with two-way mirrors into the El Royale’s rooms, her backing serves to ratchet up the tension.
Jodie Foster and Dave Bautista, Hotel Artemis
Making a neat double bill with Bad Times At The El Royale, Drew Pearce’s Hotel Artemis is one of the year’s underrated gems. At an exclusive hospital for bad guys, Jean (Jodie Foster) and Everest (Dave Bautista) are the skeleton staff who welcome a parade of ne’er-do-wells on the night of LA’s biggest ever riot. They’re also the best screen pairing of the year.
The combination of Academy Award winner and enormous character actor was always going to be appealing, but the two of them are marvellous here. Foster has a terrific time getting stuck into some meaty genre nonsense and Bautista turns his comic timing and sheer physical presence to good use once again. In the midst of a brilliant ensemble, their “healthcare professionals” are the standouts.
Highlight: For Foster, it’s the terrible stillness in her reaction to a late-in-the-day plot twist, which contrasts brilliantly with her harried, constantly moving performance up to that point. For Bautista, it’s unquestionably his incredible pre-ass-kicking address to a mob of criminals attempting to get to his boss. Any scene where they share the screen is a delight too.
Tom Hardy, Venom
Back when Venom was released in cinemas back in October, Tom Hardy notoriously remarked that his favorite 40 minutes of the movie had been left on the cutting room floor. Venom may somehow have climbed to the top 5 highest worldwide grossers for the year, but it’s not a good movie. That said, if it were even half as wild and out-there as its central performance, we’d be talking about it with a bit more enthusiasm.
Just looking at what parts of Hardy’s dual performance as Eddie Brock and the symbiote made it into the theatrical cut, it’s becoming clearer that he’s our Nicolas Cage. He may be more discerning in the films he picks, but in terms of capital-A Acting, he is making some real choices with his performances. Frankly, his work here is so unhinged at times, it makes his Bane from The Dark Knight Rises look… hinged. The studio may have hemmed him in, but his commitment is fascinating to behold.
On the other hand, if you’re after an altogether better version of this sort of thing, check out Hardy doppelganger Logan Marshall Green’s turn in the underrated techno-thriller Upgrade.
Highlight: At the peak of his Venom-induced sickness and paranoia, Eddie tracks his old flame and her new boyfriend to a swanky restaurant, complains to a waiter that the food on a passing plate is “dead” and then takes a bath in the lobster tank. It sticks out like a sore thumb in a movie that’s otherwise as generic as this one, but boy, did we laugh.
Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively, A Simple Favor
Blake Lively has featured in this list before for her underrated turn in The Age Of Adaline and we’re firmly of the opinion that she’ll be in the running for an Oscar for something or other in the next decade or so. Sadly, it probably won’t be for her outrageous turn as Emily in Paul Feig’s barking-mad thriller, A Simple Favor.
She and previous Academy Award nominee Anna Kendrick both play against type as a pair of moms who become unlikely friends, right before one of them mysteriously disappears. Drawing on everything from Shadow of A Doubt to Gone Girl, this berserk thriller wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but the lead performances – Lively and livelier – make it massively entertaining as it careens from one berserk twist to the next.
Highlight: More spoilery highlights abound, but as those who have seen it will know, the film really takes flight whenever Emily and Stephanie meet up for a spot of day-drinking. The contrast between the two is never as simple as it seems, and their jaw-dropping psychological do-si-dos are constantly watchable.
Dolph Lundgren, Creed II
Rocky IV is a cartoon, and Ivan Drago is its most cartoonish character. Literally set up as a supervillain for Rocky Balboa to fight, Drago was Dolph Lundgren’s first major Hollywood role, but it’s not like this stern superman required much in the way of acting chops. The biggest success of Creed II is in taking that character and making his taciturn, blank-slate exterior into a real character, as a man who takes out his own failures on his giant son, Viktor.
He’s only about as chatty as he was before, but this time around, he’s more emotionally dangerous than physically imposing. Ingeniously, the sequel develops him into a three-dimensional character by expanding on what little we already know about him. Sylvester Stallone bagged himself plenty of Best Supporting Actor nominations for Creed, and while that’s clearly not in the cards for Lundgren, this is still his finest acting work to date.
Highlight: Creed II marks the first time in the Rocky franchise that somebody has actually thrown in the towel on a fight, and ironically, the climactic moment where Ivan saves Viktor is an absolute knockout. What Lundgren does with a look, finally showing how much he loves his son, is almost unparalleled in a franchise that already excels at this kind of thing. This time, he really did break us.
Rachel McAdams, Game Night
One of the year’s most pleasant surprises, Game Night boasts a likeable bunch of characters, not least of whom is Rachel McAdams’ Annie. Surrounded by friends who are similarly a little too geeky about their gaming tendencies when thrust into a real-life criminal conspiracy, she’s the ensemble wildcard.
It feels as if McAdams hasn’t had the chance to be this funny on screen since Mean Girls, and she brings boundless energy to the hyper-competitive Annie. From demanding to know why she and Jason Bateman’s Max have been unable to conceive when they’re so good at everything else, to unwittingly holding a bunch of goons at gunpoint, she gets many of the funniest moments in a very funny comedy.
Highlight: McAdams has some killer line deliveries here, but for pure funny, we love the scene in which Annie has accidentally shot Max and has to seal his wound in a supermarket car park, using only a sewing kit, a dog toy and “some nice Chardonnay,” all while using her nose to scroll through the instructions on her phone.
Evan Peters, American Animals
American Animals is up there with the very best heist movies in recent years, if only because it’s so unlike any other movie of its kind. Like director Bart Layton’s previous film, The Imposter, it mixes vox pops into its re-staging of a true story, but with much more of an emphasis on drama. Of the young cast, Evan Peters is outstanding as the ringleader of an audacious and supremely flawed plot.
As played by Peters, Warren Lipka blindly leads his peers into a dangerous situation with all the unearned confidence of a mediocre teenage boy. His plot to steal ultra-rare books from a college library seems entirely sprung from movies listed in IMDb’s top 250, and the actor handles the balance between Warren’s confidence and insecurity deftly.
Highlight: There’s always the sense that Warren is just an idiot teenager, but there’s a powerful “oh no” factor to his botching of the robbery after all the flashy planning. Awkwardly man-handling librarian Mrs Gooch (Ann Dowd), the emergence of a frightened little man is powerfully played and marks a turning point in Peters’ performance from there on out.
Angourie Rice, Every Day
The young adult fantasy romance bracket has been in decline for a few years now, which is what made the little-seen Every Day such a pleasant surprise. Angourie Rice plays Rhiannon, a girl who falls for a body-hopping consciousness after it unexpectedly possesses her feckless boyfriend for a day.
Playing like a YA take on Quantum Leap, albeit one which is localised to a month or so in suburban Maryland, Rice takes on the unenviable task of building romantic chemistry with more than 10 different actors and acquits herself brilliantly. Her relationship to “A” is what grounds the concept and she more or less single-handedly makes a wacky-sounding sci-fi romance into something far more touching and engaging.
Highlight: In a film where one character is played by multiple actors, Rice inevitably gets to play a second character. When it’s her turn to wake up as A, some way into their romance, she plays the part as well as anybody else in the cast, particularly in a moving scene with Beverley’s depressed father.
Lin Shaye, Insidious: The Last Key
Unusually, January saw the release of two different movies with 70-something women in the lead roles. The first, Winchester, was not exactly a career highlight for Helen Mirren. But the other, Insidious: The Last Key, finally brought the franchise’s most valuable player to the forefront, in a prequel that addresses psychic investigator Elise’s mysterious past.
Bringing real gravitas to the proceedings, Lin Shaye has been a continual highlight of the franchise’s various time-hopping follow-ups. The fourth instalment/second prequel is only an improvement on Insidious Chapter 3, but Shaye’s rounded performance, at once brave and terrified, is what makes it so engaging. Aside from anything else, she’s doing well for someone who originally got killed off at the end of the very first film.
Highlight: The multi-dimensional gribblies of the Further are given far more weight by Shaye’s reactions to them than by the “quiet quiet BANG” mode of delivery that characterises the later Insidious films. Here, it’s Elise’s mounting terror and determination in the face of old traumas that really hooks you in.
Honorable mention: Anna And The Apocalypse
We did mention that some of these had been underseen, but despite its limited UK cinema release, Anna And The Apocalypse has all the markings of a future cult classic. The Scottish zombie musical set around a secondary school at Christmas did well enough in the States thanks to more than a year of festival hype, but it’s the ensemble cast who really make this shine.
The more recognizable faces are the ever-lovely Mark Benton and a gleefully despicable Paul Kaye, but a few relative newcomers make up the spectacular young cast. Ella Hunt plays Anna, the girl who wants to get away from her sleepy Scottish hometown even before it becomes riddled with the living dead and she can’t half sing too.
Elsewhere, Sarah Swire gives an instantly iconic turn as Steph, Malcolm Cumming plays lovable lug John, and it falls to Christopher Leveaux and Marli Siu to bring both the sickening romance and the pathos as besotted couple Chris and Lisa. They’re a versatile lot, in a film where no two zombies are killed the same way for a good portion of its running time.
It’s endlessly inventive, or at least enough to rise above the Shaun Of The Dead comparisons by always bringing something new to the moments that feel a bit familiar. More often than not, it’s a quirk of performance. Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans will recognize that everyone is in “Once More With Feeling” mode, battling monsters and singing songs, and above all else, it’s the talented cast who make this worth seeking out when it’s available to watch at home next Christmas.
Have we missed any other performances which you feel have been frustratingly overlooked or underrated? Be sure to let us know what we’ve missed in the comments and see if we can’t agree amongst ourselves where the little gold blokes should really be allocated.