The Most Underrated Film Performances of 2015


As the movie-going year draws to a close, we’re seeing the customary flurry of year-end lists and awards — and, as usual, a lot of the same names on all of them. This isn’t an altogether bad or unexpected thing; consensus opinions often form because things are legitimately great, so you can’t blame the critics’ groups and awards bodies for all the kudos they’re bestowing upon the likes of Carol and Spotlight. But it’s also worth nothing some of the performers who did legitimately great work this year, yet aren’t, for whatever reason, part of the “awards conversation.” These are a few of our favorites.

Teyonah Parris in Chi-Raq

Parris is turning into one of our most reliably and breathtakingly chameleonic actors; if you (like me) did a double-take when you realized Coco from Dear White People was Dawn from Mad Men, then maybe you were prepared for the exciting possibilities of her tackling the lead role in Spike Lee’s modern-day take on Lysistrata. It’s not just that Parris so intoxicatingly captures the intelligence, toughness, humor, and sensuality of the role. She manages to take the trickiest elements, which could feel telegraphed and clumsy in the hands of a lesser actor — the rhyming-verse dialogue, the political proselytizing, the movements of metaphor — and make them feel fresh, instinctive, and alive.

Kristen Wiig in Welcome to Me and The Diary of a Teenage Girl

When Wiig departed Saturday Night Live back in 2012, she could’ve very easily played it safe, cranking out mainstream comedies and Bridesmaids sequels. And she’s done a handful of the former — but she’s spent most of her time, particularly the past year or so, on a series of delightfully risky and remarkably bold seriocomic dramas, and exhibited serious acting chops in the process. Welcome to Me is one of the year’s strangest and tartest films, reveling in its own peculiarity without alienating the emotion at its core, and you can’t imagine anyone other than Wiig at its center; maybe it just took the creator of such uncompromisingly odd characters as Gilly and Dooneese to go all the way with it. Her supporting turn in Diary is, in many ways, its polar opposite, with Wiig all but disappearing into the role of an unhappy and often self-destructive single mother, investing it with the kind of tossed-off depth and emotional truth we’d expect from not an SNL alum, but a Gena Rowlands or an Ellen Burstyn. Wiig is no longer a comedian trying her hand at dramatic acting; she’s an actor, and a great one.

Robin Williams in Boulevard

And speaking of performers who shook off that label: this year brought us the final live-action performance by the late Robin Williams, in a film so small and released so quietly that it didn’t get the praise it was due. But this is some of Williams’ finest and subtlest work, as he quietly inhabits the beige life of a mild-mannered, small-town banker who, almost by accident, unlocks the closet door he’s kept bolted and locked his entire life. To watch the scenes between him and his wife of decades (played by the perpetually undervalued Kathy Bates) is to see two performers working at the peak of their powers, investing every economical gesture and loaded line reading with years of both resentment and love.

Ben Mendelsohn in Mississippi Grind

One of the true joys of the past couple of years has been watching the great character actor Ben Mendelsohn make the transition from “that one guy” to “that guy,” if you know what I mean — he’s become one of those actors who makes audiences sit up and pay attention when he appears onscreen, whether it’s for ten minutes or 100. This late-summer gambling drama thankfully falls into the second category, with Mendelsohn in the dream role of a sad-sack born loser; our first look at his hangdog mug tells more backstory than reams of dialogue, and even his most casual line readings have a deadpan simplicity that’s endlessly engrossing. Mendelsohn knows this guy backwards and forwards, and resists any impulse to overplay. Who knows how many honest-to-God leading roles he’ll get, but this one is worth cherishing.

Regina Hall in People, Places, Things

Hall is another actor who’s so effortlessly good, so often, that we tend to take her for granted, and the modest single-dad dramedy People, Places, Things wasn’t exactly awards bait. But she’s absolutely enchanting as the unexpected object of protagonist Jemaine Clement’s affection, coming on like a hurricane (their first “date” does not go particularly well), gradually revealing the complexities and vulnerabilities under her wise, knowing surface.

Sandra Bullock in Our Brand Is Crisis

David Gordon Green’s loose narrative adaptation of Rachel Boynton’s political documentary was so summarily dismissed, by both critics and audiences that Sandra Bullock’s best film work to date (better than her nominated turn in Gravity, miles better than her winning performance in The Blind Side) has already been forgotten. That’s a shame — this is a scrappy spark plug of a performance, a take-no-prisoners piece of work that finds America’s former sweetheart giving no fucks about likability or “relatability,” in favor of chewing up and spitting out her spiky dialogue (as well as anyone who gets in her way).

Rachel McAdams and Liev Schreiber in Spotlight

The evenness of the ensemble in Tom McCarthy’s crackling, first-rate newspaper picture has challenged the leading/supporting framework of critics’ awards; is Michael Keaton a lead? Is Ruffalo supporting? Is everyone supporting? And in all of the (deserved) praise for those two fine turns, two others aren’t getting the notice they deserve. McAdams, who’s becoming one of our sturdiest and most reliable actors (wherever you land on True Detective, Southpaw, and Aloha, she was great in all of them — in wildly different ways), shoulders two of the picture’s most morally searching scenes; the questions she’s asking in that porch scene with Ruffalo get at the heart of this story, and the answers she finds when she puts that newspaper in front of her grandmother aren’t easy. Meanwhile, Schreiber slips so easily into the skin of outsider editor Marty Baron that he all but disappears; watch how carefully he handles himself during that audience with Cardinal Law, or when he first proposes the big story to the Spotlight editors, and observe how he delicately he manages to simultaneously seem agreeable and make it clear he’s no pushover.

Chiwitel Ejiofor in The Martian

With Matt Damon becoming an unexpected Best Actor possibility for Ridley Scott’s sci-fi hit (he scored the prize from the National Board of Review, and a nomination from the Online Film Critics Society), maybe it’s a good time to talk about the best performance in The Martian: Chiwitel Ejiofor, who’s having a pretty great year all in all (he’s excellent in the very good Z for Zachariah , and in the not-very-good Secret in their Eyes ). But he’s at his best in The Martian, working his smartest-guy-in-the-room vibe to its full potential, effortlessly conveying his character’s brains, wit, and heart even in the briefest of reaction shots and emptiest of exposition.

Tom Hardy in The Revenant

Similarly, everyone seems to agree that this is the year Leo Finally Gets His Oscar (or at least another nomination), and boy, you can see him straining for it in every snot-soaked frame of The Revenant. But I came away from the picture thinking not about his turn — perfectly serviceable, hard-working, and utterly forgettable — but about Tom Hardy, who is menacing, funny, and splendid as his antagonist. Sporting yet another utterly convincing American accent and again exploring the nuances of the grunt and growl, Hardy’s characterization of a greedy Southern killer pulses with the energy, electricity, and unpredictability that too often eludes Iñárritu’s sloggy survival tale.

Kathryn Hahn in everything

Livewire Hahn has been a secret weapon for countless film- and television-makers for years now, and she puts a jolt into any project she waltzes into. But this year, she was particularly on fire. Her single scene (with an equally welcome Keegan-Michael Key) was a highlight of the unfortunate Tomorrowland, her brief but effective turn in the elder jumper The Visit dug out that picture’s surprising soul, and she turned what could’ve been a one-note throwaway role in The D Train into a real gem. But her best work of the year came in Peter Bogdanovich’s She’s Funny That Way , where her spurned wife is an ebullient screwball confection; Hahn rattles off her rat-tat-tat dialogue, slings accusations and insults like well-aimed arrows, and exudes both stymied anger and elegant sexiness without breaking a sweat. She’s been doing bit roles and second bananas for over a decade now, but it feels like we’re just staring to get an idea of what she’s capable of.