January 5, 2012

Best overlooked and underappreciated performances of 2011

Well, kids, it's that time of year again - lists are sprouting up left and right of the year's top achievements in cinema. And although there's been a refreshing lack of consensus so far, you're going to see the same names and titles popping up again and again. Most of them have earned it, so I'm not complaining. But as is my tradition, over here in the peanut gallery I like to give a shoutout to the ladies and gents whose fine work this year was undervalued. Thus I present my annual list of overlooked and under-appreciated performances. As always, I offer my disclaimer that these are not necessarily replacements or alternatives for this year's batch of nominees/winners - they're simply worthy of more attention. Onward!


Rainn Wilson as Frank in Super
Dwight Schrute has always had a bit of a crazy streak, but Wilson takes that all the way here as a passionate but misguided vigilante. Believing he has been literally touched by God, he starts attacking thugs as part of a greater quest to win back his wife. By day, he's the ultimate sad sack, but by night he can be found bludgeoning people with a wrench for increasingly minor offenses. You know it's wrong, but you can't help but root for him.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Adam in 50/50
The danger in making a "disease movie" is that the sick person can easily come off as a bland victim. I'm not diminishing the severity of cancer here, but it doesn't really make for compelling drama. Adam does have cancer, yes, but he also has a problem of letting the wrong people into his life and shutting the good ones out. Through JGL's skillful blend of comedy, pathos, and realism, the cancer story becomes a vehicle for a tale of a man letting others in.

Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton as Tommy and Brendan Conlon in Warrior
Both Hardy and Edgerton should really be on your radar if they aren't already - if nothing else, they're your new Bane and Tom Buchanan, respectively. This film showcasing their great fraternal chemistry slipped unjustly through the cracks, with many blaming a perceived similarity to The Fighter. While it's true that both films feature brothers who participate in ring-enclosed sports, the similarities end there - Warrior is an almost mournful film about a severely damaged family, and how MMA (mixed martial arts) might be the only thing that could bring them together. Edgerton brings a natural realism to the role of the family man with the rowdy past, and Hardy is riveting as the enigmatic, uncommunicative drifter.

Conan O'Brien as himself in Conan O'Brien Can't Stop and Steve Coogan as himself-ish in The Trip
Cuz like, isn't life just a performance, you guys?! In all seriousness, the fascinating thing about these two films (the former a documentary, the latter a mockumentary) is that it's sometimes challenging to discern what's real and what's not. I doubt Coogan is a reckless womanizer, for instance, but is he actually that dismayed by the state of his career? O'Brien, on the other hand, seems like someone who is always "on" and is especially aware of the cameras, making it seem like he's always performing. One thing's for sure: both of them are very, very funny.


Saoirse Ronan as Hanna
I never saw the point of classifying child actors separately - you've either got the goods or you don't. Ronan towers above others two or three times her age in this electrifying tale of a girl raised by her father to be an assassin. Although somewhat of a kindred spirit to Hit-Girl in last year's Kick-Ass, Hanna has been raised in the wilderness and never known anyone but her father. Thus scenes of her instinctively annihilating adults are mixed in with tender scenes where she tries to have the childhood she was denied.

Kristen Wiig as Annie in Bridesmaids
Aside from a surprise Globes nom, all of the acting love for this film has been directed solely at Melissa McCarthy. I'm not saying she's unworthy, but the fact that everyone is treating a woman doing gross-out humor as a comedic breakthrough is kind of sad. Frankly, I think Wiig's work here is much more nuanced and daring, as she's not only hilarious but fairly despicable and destructive throughout.

Jenna Fischer as Laura in A Little Help
As Pam Beesly on "The Office," Fischer plays nice. For her uglier side, turn to this indie, which is a bit uneven but shows off her acting chops. A former high school beauty turned hometown hot mess, she has petty and insulting fights with her young son and everyone else in her family, but she just wants them to like her. Fischer explores what it's like to have your life be in shambles, but not in the cutesy romantic comedy way (as in "oh no, my job is hard and I trip a lot!").

Mia Wasikowska as Jane Eyre
Confession time: despite being, ostensibly, a girl, this was my first introduction to the tale of Jane Eyre. I therefore have no basis of comparison, but I dare anyone to play the role better than Wasikowska. Naturally, it's unfortunate that we have to go back over 150 years to find a female character this strong without an obvious hook (e.g. an assassin), but I'm grateful to Wasikowska for reviving her with such intelligence and passion.


Sacha Baron Cohen as the station inspector in Hugo
Cohen does not do subtlety. And really, would you want him to? Playing a man who could easily be a cousin of his garish barber in Sweeney Todd, Cohen is operating in his typically alternate plane of existence, which dovetails nicely with the world of Hugo. And yet, he does find a balance - despite possessing utter dominion over the train station, he is still rendered helpless by a lovely shopkeeper.

Armie Hammer as Clyde Tolson in J. Edgar
Not content to rest on his laurels as a man so stunningly gorgeous it's scientifically impossible, Hammer has been one to watch lately. Here, he plays nicely off DiCaprio's Hoover, being the more socially adept half of their ambiguous partnership. But the most impressive part of his performance is how well he pulls off old age. So often when actors play older, they're going through the motions but something just feels off. Not the case here - I completely bought the athletic, 25-year-old Hammer as the 70-something, post-stroke Tolson.

Ezra Miller as teenage Kevin in We Need to Talk About Kevin
Since the titular nightmarish offspring ages from 0 to 16 in the film, he is portrayed by multiple actors, including two talented children. But it's Miller as the teenage Kevin that really steals the show. Kevin is a nature vs nurture study about the origin of sociopaths that offers no clear answers, and Miller dominates every frame he's in with an utterly chilling and compelling presence.

Jon Hamm as Ted in Bridesmaids
Some people have all the luck...they're gorgeous, talented, AND hilarious. One would never expect the man playing Don Draper to have killer comedy skills, but lucky for us, he does. And they're on full display here, with Hamm as the filthiest, most degrading man you could ever date. 


Keira Knightley as Sabina Spielrein in A Dangerous Method
Frankly, I'm surprised that awards-bestowing entities aren't all over this. She plays a historical figure with both physical and mental problems, for crying out loud! But it's never for its own sake - Knightley skillfully depicts Spielrein's journey from stuttering, hypersexual patient to insightful doctor, and walks away as the true focus (and star) of the film.

Jennifer Morrison as Tess Conlon in Warrior
Typically in sports movies, the love story is in the courtship phase (i.e. Rocky, The Fighter, etc). Warrior takes a different approach here by having one of the protagonists be married, thus showing the strain of his career decisions on a preexisting relationship (with kids). Morrison transforms what could have been a throwaway role into something remarkable, balancing a love for her husband with an urgent need to sustain her family.

Ellen Page as Libby in Super
My boyfriend always explains his unconditional adoration of Tom Cruise as an actor by saying that he completely commits to every role he plays, no matter how slight. Perhaps that's why I always love Page - she has an intense "there"-ness apparent in roles from normal to deranged. And boy, this is deranged - Libby gleefully attacks people, rapes men twice her age, and generally revels in chaos. In anyone else's hands it might have just been embarrassing, but Page knocks it out of the park.

Colette Wolfe as Sandy in Young Adult
Playing a gawky townie, Wolfe only has a few minutes of screen time at the end of the film, but she certainly makes her mark. In those few minutes, she summarizes the moral of the film (which isn't quite what you'd expect), makes you laugh with her deadpan comedy, and tugs at your heartstrings.


Attack the Block
Ever wonder why aliens only seem to invade the suburbs? Joe Cornish did, so he wrote and directed a film about an invasion in a South London hood. Unofficially tasked with defending the streets are a teenage street gang and the young woman they terrorized earlier in the night. Cornish's cast is comprised almost entirely of inexperienced actors making their debut (with the righteous exception of Nick Frost), and they bring a great energy and camaraderie to the film while replacing time-worn alien-fighting archetypes.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Gary Oldman is being rightfully recognized for his performance here, but it's really more of a group affair. It's a who's who of British actors working together beautifully for the sake of the story - not even recent Oscar winner Colin Firth has that big a role, but everyone is an important piece of the puzzle.

The Ides of March
This cast is an embarrassment of riches that could easily fill a trophy case with their combined awards. Stars like Marisa Tomei and Jeffrey Wright chip in mere minutes of screen time to this well-crafted, simmering political tale. Additionally, many of the players are going against type - George Clooney as a semi-villain, Ryan Gosling tapping into his dark side without killing anybody, and Paul Giamatti being only somewhat pathetic.

What are your favorite performances of the year that you feel aren't getting enough love?


Mike Trippiedi said...

You might like this blog on overlooked actors.


Cheryl Cohen said...

Insightful, clever, informative, witty and well written. I am now hooked on your blog!

corporate video production said...

I have watched Super a couple of times and i think it is far better than kick-ass. Although, Rainn Wilson doesn't seem a guy in the role like the lead actor in Kick-ass but he played it fantastically.

ilovethatfilm said...

Yes yes a thousand times yes! Very good calls, I'm with you on may of them! Especially Rainn Wilson in Super, Wiig in Bridesmaids and the Attack the Block ensemble! Great choices!