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A few months back, I wrapped up my Best Performances of the Decade series. But while that list included a lot of familiar names and acclaimed performances, I’ve decided to take a look at some of the performances that not everyone has seen. This list contains no Oscar or Golden Globe nominated roles, and I’ve limited myself to performances that received little or no awards attention and were relatively overlooked by audiences (as much as I think that Jim Carrey, Peter Sarsgaard, and Rebecca Hall should’ve been nominated for Oscars, they did receive a considerable awards attention elsewhere for the roles in question, which disqualified them from the list). Here are ten unfairly under-recognized performances from the past decade, in alphabetical order.
Daniel Bruhl – Good Bye Lenin!
Inglourious Basterds may have introduced German actor Daniel Bruhl to a wider North American audience, but it’s 2003′s Good
Bye Lenin! that really showcases his skills. Bruhl’s charismatic performance carries the film, and he nails the sense of whimsy that permeates every scene. Heartbreaking at times and hilarious at others, Bruhl’s performance shows enough genuine charm to cross all language barriers.
Clifton Collins Jr. – Capote
Clifton Collins Jr. is a solid character actor who has lately been favouring tiny roles in big studio films (Star Trek, Brothers). But if there’s one film that proves why he should get bigger roles, it’s Capote. Playing one of the two murderers that Truman Capote investigated for In Cold Blood, Collins makes his character Perry disarmingly and chillingly sympathetic. Collins is every bit as good as lead Philip Seymour Hoffman, and the scenes that they share together are breathtakingly intimate.
Abbie Cornish – Bright Star
Abbie Cornish’s performance as Fanny Brawne, the young love interest of poet John Keats, is just as beautiful as the cinematography in Bright Star. She revels in Fanny’s feisty modernity, but also reflects the melancholy of her restrained life. As Fanny’s relationship with Keats evolves, so does Cornish’s performance – ranging from star-struck to distraught over the course of the film. It truly is a breath of fresh air.
Robert Downey Jr. – Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
A favourite performance among his fans, Robert Downey Jr.’s work in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang proves why so many people love him. He’s hilarious, bumbling, and sexy as our protagonist and snarky narrator. Always a scene-stealer, Downey is the epitome of charisma here.
Emile Hirsch – Into the Wild
Previously best known for his work in the teen sex romp The Girl Next Door, Emile Hirsch stunned audiences with his raw performance in Sean Penn’s directorial debut, Into the Wild. Playing a young man who gives up his material possessions and sets out for the Alaskan wilderness, Hirsch is often the only person on screen throughout the film’s 2.5 hour running time. Hirsch takes what could have been a purely preachy character and injects a sense of vulnerability that makes his optimism admirable. He’s entirely charismatic and compelling.
Jared Leto – Requiem for a Dream
Ellen Burstyn received a well-deserved Oscar nomination for her work in Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream, but the unsung MVP of the film is Jared Leto. Leto’s strangely iconic turn as Jordan Catalano in My So-Called Life coupled with his foray into emo music has made him something of a critical punching bag, but he proves what an amazing actor he can be here. Much like the film itself, Leto’s performance as Harry is dark and harrowing. It easily could have become caricature, but his performance as a drug-addled optimist cuts right to the bone.
Daniel Day-Lewis – The Ballad of Jack and Rose
As one of the most acclaimed actors of his generation, it’s surprising to see how often Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance in The Ballad and Jack and Rose is overlooked. It may not be as “big” as some of the other performances that he gave in the past decade, but Lewis’ work here is just as good as anything else he’s done. Playing a quietly desperate, confused man, Lewis’ performance is heartbreaking and unforgettable.
Guy Pearce – Factory Girl
Always a chameleon, Guy Pearce’s turn as the legendary Andy Warhol is uncanny. To me, the entire film is underrated, but Pearce’s performance is certainly the highlight of Factory Girl. The character is often downright unlikeable, and Pearce’s snarky screen presence is striking.
Sam Rockwell – Snow Angels
Sam Rockwell is an actor who is just starting to get the recognition that he deserves, and it’s easy to see why with a film like Snow Angels. David Gordon Green’s story of small-town tragedy is disturbingly beautiful, and Rockwell is stunning as a recovering-alcoholic-turned-evangelist. The film’s bombastic final moments are only amplified by the quiet, desperate journey that Rocwell’s performance takes us on.
Mark Ruffalo – You Can Count On Me
You Can Count on Me is a film that I recently caught up with, and while it provided my favourite Laura Linney performance to date, the real stand-out for me was Mark Ruffalo. His character is an insufferable screw-up, yet rather than making him a downbeat loser, Ruffalo revels in his messiness and makes him a purely charming, memorable guy. There are no big “cinematic” moments in the film, but this allows Ruffalo to give an all-around great performance, rather than relying on select scenes to stand out.
Samantha Morton – Control
Michael Angarno – Snow Angels
Ryan Gosling –The United States of Leland
Keri Russell – Waitress
Jason Bateman – Juno
Benicio Del Toro – Thing We Lost in the Fire
This list is clearly skewed young, but here are ten actors (plus a few honourable mentions and rising stars) that I love watching onscreen. Feel free to discuss my choices or share you own lists in the comments!
1. Robert Downey Jr.
Essential Filmography: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), Tropic Thunder (2008), Chaplin (1992), Zodiac (2007)
Underappreciated Work: Wonderboys (2000)
2. Philip Seymour Hoffman
Essential Filmography: Capote (2005), Magnolia (1999), Synecdoche, New York (2008)
Underappreciated Work: Almost Famous (2000)
3. Daniel Day-Lewis
Essential Filmography: There Will Be Blood (2007), My Left Foot (1989), Gangs of New York (2002)
Underappreciated Work: The Ballad of Jack and Rose (2005)
4. Ryan Gosling
Essential Filmography: Half Nelson (2006), Lars and the Real Girl (2007), The Believer (2001)
Underappreciated Work: The United States of Leland (2003)
5. Casey Affleck
Essential Filmography: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), Gone Baby Gone (2007)
Underappreciated Work: Lonesome Jim (2006)
6. Leonardo DiCaprio
Essential Filmography: What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1992), The Departed (2006), The Aviator (2002), Titanic (1997)
Underappreciated Work: Romeo + Juliet (1996)
7. Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Essential Filmography: Mysterious Skin (2004), 500 Days of Summer (2009), Brick (2006)
Underappreciated Work: The Lookout (2007)
8. Ethan Hawke
Essential Filmography: Before Sunrise (1995), Dead Poets Society (1989), Training Day (2001)
Underappreciated Work: Reality Bites (1995)
9. Joaquin Phoenix
Essential Filmography: Walk the Line (2005), Gladiator (2000), Two Lovers (2009)
Underappreciated Work: Signs (2002)
10. Colin Firth
Essential Filmography: A Single Man (2009), Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001)
Underappreciated Work: Girl With a Pearl Earring(2003)
Aaron Eckhart (Thank You for Smoking)
Michael Sheen (Frost/Nixon)
Peter Sarsgaard (Shattered Glass)
Benicio Del Toro (Things We Lost in the Fire)
Edward Norton (The Score)
Guy Pearce (Memento)
Sam Rockwell (Snow Angels)
5 Promising Newcomers
Emile Hirsch (Into the Wild, Milk)
Ben Whishaw (Bright Star)
Sam Riley (Control)
Michael Angarano (Snow Angels)
Logan Lerman (3:10 to Yuma)