Monday, December 29, 2014

2014's Most Underrated Performances

One of my annual year-end staples is to outline the most overlooked performances of the past year. It always begins with a preliminary list that I conjure up after scouring my database for all the films I've seen from that specific year. So far, in 2014, I have 95 films to choose from. And since this list focuses on the "underrated" performances, anything in Oscar contention is automatically nixed. More so than in the past, my preliminary list was quite lengthy this year with 17 exceptional roles that needed to be whittled down to 10. It was a difficult process, but here are my Most Underrated Performances of 2014.

#10. Riz Ahmed - Nightcrawler

Everyone seemed to enjoy Dan Gilroy's directorial debut, Nightcrawler, and it's leading star, Jake Gyllenhaal, has reaped all of the benefits from the feature's success. However, I took things even further when I proclaimed the film as having one of the best ensembles of the year. One of my biggest reasons for doing so was the breakout performance from Gyllenhaal's onscreen right-hand man, Rick, played brilliantly by Riz Ahmed. As a character essential to the film's success, Ahmed played a wide array of deviating emotions, all of which made him a very noticeable performer in a universally adored film.

#9. Pat Healy - Cheap Thrills

I've devoted plenty of time this year raving about the Drafthouse Films diamond in the rough, Cheap Thrills, and at its center is a knockout performance from the movie's leading star, Pat Healy. In a self-proclaimed game of modern day "fear factor", we watch a loyal and hard working husband engage in unfathomable acts in order to sufficiently provide for his wife and child. Financial fears loom over all of us and Healy is able to capture these psychological burdens with such pinpoint accuracy that everything ends up falling into place brilliantly in one of the year's finest offerings.

#8. Rory Culkin - Gabriel

Although Lou Howe's mentally unstable drama, Gabriel, has only made its way around the festival circuit and bypassed a theatrical release in 2014, Rory Culkin (the youngest of seven siblings) gives too impressive of a performance to overlook. Culkin brings to life a multi-dimensional and troubled character who's begging for acceptance and normalcy in life. That's why after he's released from his psychiatric institution, Gabriel seeks out his first true love in hopes that it will finally bring balance to his world. Culkin is mesmerizing and perfectly unpredictable in a career defining role that truly sets him apart as one of the finest young actors in Hollywood.

#7. Kristen Wiig - The Skeleton Twins

We all know and love Kristen Wiig as the Saturday Night Live alumni who made us laugh hysterically in the female-centric comedy, Bridesmaids. However, 2014 proved to be a huge breakout year for the actress with her dynamic performance in the Sundance dramedy hit, The Skeleton Twins. As the female half of a pair of twins who reconnect under unfortunate circumstances after being estranged for nearly a decade, Wiig's sincere role demonstrates her impressive ability to transcend comedy and deliver in the dramatic ranks. Much like the superb trans-formative talents that came before her, such as Robin Williams, Jim Carrey and many others, Kristen Wiig uses The Skeleton Twins as a platform to bolster her rapidly-rising career.

#6. Angus Sampson - The Mule

I caught one of the most surprising movies of the year at the 2014 Philadelphia Film Festival. The Mule, a "based on a true story" piece of Australian cinema, takes us into the world of drug smuggling, where a timid and friendless Ray Jenkins (Sampson) reluctantly agrees to be a first time drug smuggler in order to gain some semblance of social acceptance. But after he begins to act a little strange in the airport, the authorities take him in for questioning and are granted one week's time to hold the suspect in custody. This week-long showdown pits Ray against the police in a match of psychological and physical restraint as he struggles to hold his bowels for seven days. It's a bizarre concept that translates mightily well to the big screen thanks to a highly committed performance from the film's leading stars and co-director, Angus Sampson.

#5. Juliette Binoche - Clouds of Sils Maria

In an over-extended and undeniably drawn out affair that still manages to resonate well, Academy Award winner Juliette Binoche gives another remarkable turn in the drama Clouds of Sils Maria. Binoche stars as an aging actress forced to overcome father time and her ego as she reluctantly accepts a role in the revival of a play that sparked her career. Only, this time, she will be taking on the character of the older manipulated female in the play, something she struggles to come to terms with. Action-less and heavy on dialogue and emotion, Clouds of Sils Maria paints an honest portrait of experiencing the other side of the proverbial "hump". And what could have been an utter disaster and bore-fest, actually unravels as a complex and genuine story thanks to towering performances from Binoche and her onscreen sidekick played by Kristen Stewart.

#4. Tom Hardy - The Drop

In what's become an understandably polarizing film, The Drop is best known as the late James Gandolfini's final feature. And while Gandolfini delivers another fine role in his last go-around, the film is actually an opportunity for Tom Hardy to showcase his talents. Hardy stars as Bob Saginowski, a bartender in a rough neighborhood who's robbed at gunpoint while closing up the shop. Through the repercussions of this incident we discover all of the many secrets revolving around people in the neighborhood, including Bob. Hardy offers up a multi-layered character that's utterly fascinating and he dominates every second of screen time he's given. No matter how you felt about the film, you can't deny Hardy's unique ability to perfectly capture his character.

#3. Sam Rockwell - Laggies

Another year and another spot on my Most Underrated Performances list for the great talent, Sam Rockwell (2012 for Seven Psychopaths and 2013 for The Way, Way Back). This time around it's a much smaller role in Lynn Shelton's Laggies, but an almost equally effective result. It's really Keira Knightley's film as a twenty-something woman who's oddly thrown for her loop when her high school sweetheart and long-time boyfriend proposes to her. In an attempt to sneak away during this crucial time in her life, she makes up a lie and spends a week shacking up with a new high school-aged friend she meets on a random evening. This is where Sam Rockwell is introduced and the entire film begins to take off. Laggies is a soul-searching effort that benefits greatly from Rockwell's energy and charisma. He's one of Hollywood's most overlooked actors and his role here is yet another example of just how spectacular he really is.

#2. Ansel Elgort - The Fault in Our Stars

One of 2014's most profitable features was the worldwide phenomenon, The Fault in Our Stars. Adapted from a best selling novel of the same name, teenagers flocked to theaters to see what is actually a really impressive film from Josh Boone. At its core are a pair of spectacular lead performances from Shailene Woodley and her lesser known counterpart, Ansel Elgort. While Woodley has the longest of shots at an Oscar Nomination, Elgort's name has been virtually absent from the awards season discussion. Although it's slightly understandable since the Best Actor race is flooded with superb talent, I will admit that I was floored at just how fantastic he is in The Fault of Our Stars. The film follows a pair of unlikely lovers in teenage cancer patients who are unsure of what the future holds for them. Clearly this spells a recipe for sentiment that is handled with extreme care thanks to the onscreen brilliance of Elgort and Woodley, both of which are unquestionably excellent.

#1. Jeremy Renner - Kill the Messenger

Finally, my list concludes with the two-time Oscar Nominated talent, Jeremy Renner. This year Renner captivated audiences with the conspiracy thriller, Kill the Messenger. While I'm not the type of person to fall for a government conspiracy theory, I am always interested in viewing Renner's work. In the film he stars as journalist Gary Webb, who printed a blistering news story that accused the U.S. government on knowingly aiding the crack epidemic that swept across major cities during the 1980s. Afterward, Webb's flip-flopping sources and paper-thin story was ripped to pieces by the news community and a devastating smear campaign ruined Webb's career. But was the story really fabricated, or did the government orchestrate a public destruction of Webb's work? Although the truth will never be known to a certainty, it's a cold-hard fact that Jeremy Renner delivers a fully committed turn as a man with conviction, one that does justice to Webb's legacy. Even though all of the awards season voting blocks managed to completely ignore Renner's unbelievable work in Kill the Messenger, I simply refuse to.


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    1. Concerning Sils Maria, I think I'm in the minority who perceives that the film was not as great as many see it as. It's unfortunate, really, because I want to.

      First, I thought Stewart's performance was overrated/overpraised. I really went into it with an open mind and I truly think that Binoche was the much stronger of the two. Stewart was fine, good even in some scenes, but overall a bland performance. I also didn't think much of the movie -- and interesting script but it never "lifts" off the page (irony, because Maria and Val are rehearsing for a play) -- in that I would love to see this as an actual stage production. I feel the dialogue would suit such a medium better.

      What do you think? Maybe I'm being unfair and blind. Maybe Stewart is really great in this (she did win the Cesar Award for Best Supporting Actress if we look at awards as any indication) and maybe Sils Maria is a great film.

  2. First and foremost, thanks for commenting. I always enjoy discussing film. I went into Sils Maria with low expectations and found myself rather consumed by the film. I loved Binoche and thought Stewart gave her finest role that I've ever seen (I'm not sold on an Oscar Nom just yet, though). You're correct about the film unraveling in a dialogue-heavy manner that would be better suited for a stage production, yet I found enjoyment in it either way. It probably won't find its way onto my Top 10 list of 2015, but I was glad I took a chance on it at the film festival I was at. As you state it, though, I agree that Sils Maria is by no means a "great" film and Stewart's performance has been slightly over-praised (although I thought she showed much greater range and depth than I have in the past). I think you're viewpoints are more than fair.

  3. *** much greater range and depth than I have SEEN in the past

    *** YOUR viewpoints