10 Incredible, Underrated Film Performances From 2014

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As the movie year is drawing to a close and every day begets more Top 10 lists and critics awards, it’s becoming easier and easier to take some fairly educated guesses as to how the Academy Award nominations are going to shake out. Reese Witherspoon, Rosamund Pike, Julianne Moore, and Felicity Jones (and maybe Marion Cotillard, hopefully?) will probably get Best Actress noms. Steve Carell, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Keaton, and Eddie Redmayne will probably get Best Actor. J.K. Simmons may as well pick up his Supporting Actor trophy now; ditto Patricia Arquette for Supporting Actress. And so on. It can all start to seem a little predetermined, with the feeling that we’re just gonna keep hearing these same names over and over for the next few months — and as if there’s nothing else worth discovering or celebrating, which is just plain bunk. So in the interest of year-end spotlighting, your film editor humbly submits a few more great performances that aren’t getting the love they deserve.

Tessa Thompson in Dear White People

Thompson — an endlessly charismatic actor who’s been killing it since Season 2 of Veronica Mars — holds perhaps the trickiest role in Justin Simien’s razor-sharp satire, brilliantly inhabiting the role of the campus rabble-rouser whose allegiances and politics are a little bit more complicated than they seem. Thompson plays the comedy absolutely correctly (dead serious) and doesn’t overdo the pathos, as a lesser actor would. (Plus, there’s something utterly delicious about watching her play the centerpiece “Fuck Tyler Perry!” scene, considering her supporting role in Perry’s nightmarish For Colored Girls adaptation.)

Don Johnson in Cold in July

The Don Johnson revival is long overdue, and several presumptive motivators for one — even the classic Quentin Tarantino role — haven’t made it happen like they should. But he’s never been better, more absurdly watchable and effortlessly entertaining, than he is in Jim Mickle’s ‘80s-style action noir; Johnson roars into the picture halfway through as loudly as the red Cadillac that carries him, perfectly counterbalancing the uncertainty of Michael C. Hall and the quiet menace of Sam Shepard. It’s the kind of role that seems designed to steal the movie, and Johnson is more than up to the task.

Fatima Ptacek in Before I Disappear

Ptacek is best known by an audience far younger than you: she does the voice of Dora on Dora the Explorer. But she’s no one-trick pony, nor anything as simple as a “child actor.” In this star-making turn in Shawn Christensen’s woefully underrated comedy/drama, she plays a familiar type — the hyper-serious straight-A student. But she makes that character live and breathe, and as a result, the inevitable turnaround feels less schematic and more authentic.

Albert Brooks in A Most Violent Year

There’s a scene, late in J.C. Chandor’s Lumet-esque ‘80s New York story, when Albert Brooks says one word: “Yes.” It’s a simple line, obviously, but there’s nothing simple about the way Brooks reads it; the specific way he says that word, the weight he puts on it and the sadness and resignation within it, tells us not only everything we need to know about the character, but the world he inhabits. Brooks didn’t get the Oscar nomination he so richly deserved for Drive, a far showier role than this one, so it’s not surprising this performance isn’t getting much chatter. But perhaps that’s for the best; it’s the kind of quiet, professional turn you’d expect from what Brooks has, happily, become: a hard-working, first-rate character actor.

Uma Thurman in Nymphomaniac

Thurman, whose film appearances have been far too infrequent over the past few years, only has one sequence in Lars von Trier’s two-part orgy of sex and crazytalk — but what a sequence it is. Roaring into the picture as the abandoned wife of one of Stacy Martin’s conquests, Thurman weaponizes sarcasm and anger, turning the role into a piece of primal-scream acting reminiscent of Gena Rowlands at her most raw and bristling.

Tom Hardy in The Drop

Hardy was a surprise winner for Best Actor from the LA Film Critics’ Association, for his ace turn in Locke — he hasn’t really been in the conversation much, but their enthusiasm is understandable, as it’s the only onscreen role for the entirety of that quietly intense picture. Yet he’s even better in Michaël R. Roskam’s adaptation of Dennis Lahane’s short story Animal Rescue, a film noted back in September primarily for the posthumous work of James Gandolfini. Yet Hardy is downright astonishing, unpredictable and vulnerable and putting across his Brooklyn dialect so convincingly that you’d never guest he wasn’t a neighborhood guy. “They never see you coming, do they?” asks someone of Hardy’s character in the film; you could say the same about this exquisite actor.

Pat Healy in Cheap Thrills

E.L. Katz’s spring sleeper is part black comedy, part genre can-you-top-this picture; either way you (pardon the pun) slice it, it’s not the kind of genre movie that often gets acting accolades. But there’s nothing easy about the work skilled character actor Healy (Compliance, The Innkeepers) does in the leading role; it’s a character driven to the absolute depths of his humanity by the desperation of his station, and Healy lets that intensity anchor the performance. You don’t necessarily sympathize with him (particularly not in the very dark closing scenes), but Healy frames the character’s humanity in such a way that it’s tragic to watch it stripped away.

Melanie Lynskey in Happy Christmas

For 20 years now, New Zealand-born Lynskey has been doing quietly mesmerizing character work on screens small and large, in pictures budgeted low and high. She doesn’t push, and she doesn’t show off; she just becomes these characters, and that’s that. In Joe Swanberg’s modest family comedy/drama, she takes on the role of a stressed-out young mother trying desperately to keep her sanity and identity intact. As an actor, she’s seemingly incapable of sounding a false note — which makes her an ideal match for Swanberg’s low-key, semi-improvised style, and this thoughtful contemplation of gender roles and family dynamics.

Gene Jones in The Sacrament

Ti West’s latest was a kind of found-footage reenactment of the Jonestown massacre, but that’s no easy feat — especially since such a story requires a central figure whom you actually believe could convince a horde of people to follow him into the jungle and commit mass suicide on his command. Jones, an actor whose previous credit of note was as that gas station attendant Anton Chigurh terrorizes in No Country for Old Men, doesn’t seem dangerous or even terribly charismatic; he’s sort of shambling and folksy and harmless, and initially, that’s it. But of course, that’s exactly the kind of guy he’d be, before his true power (and dark nature) reveals itself.

Kristen Stewart in Camp X-Ray

The (rather lazy) rap on Ms. Stewart is that she’s a dull, bland, terrible actress, a theory burnished by her bored turns in the loathsome Twilight movies. But you’d be hard-pressed to find any actor, short of a miracle worker, who could sell that load of toxic sludge; Stewart was simply miscast in those pictures, and just needed to find a role that was properly suited to her skills. She found it in this modest drama, a Gitmo-set two-hander which puts Stewart into the skin of an inert soldier who can’t quite fit in with her rah-rah colleagues. It’s a character with something to prove, and that challenge was clearly felt by the actor as well. It’s a challenge she rises to, admirably.