Everyone’s going to see Avengers: Age of Ultron this weekend — we think it’s the law or something — and although this sequel’s inevitably massive grosses will definitely be partly driven by the prospect of witnessing the effects-assisted spectacle of a superhero team battling an evil robot, the outstanding ensemble cast definitely doesn’t hurt. In honor of all these stars reuniting (with some terrific additions) to fight for the future of the human race, we’ve decided to dedicate this week’s list to some lesser-seen critical highlights from their respective filmographies. Avengers assemble, Total Recall style!
Before they weaved blockbuster Marvel magic with Iron Man 3, Downey and writer-director Shane Black worked together on 2005’s Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, a skewed noir comedy starring Downey as a two-bit hood who repeatedly breaks the fourth wall as he stumbles from one circumstance (accidentally landing a movie role) to another (discovering a murder mystery) while trading quips with the private investigator (Val Kilmer) who’s helping him research his character. Kiss Kiss saw only limited release during its brief theatrical run, but it earned high praise from the likes of the Washington Post’s Desson Howe, who called it “the first movie since 1994’s Pulp Fiction not just to understand movie violence as a pop cultural form… but to play it like a virtuoso violinist.”
The reality of set life for actors is obviously very different from what we end up seeing on the screen, but in terms of sheer gee-whizitude, Chris Hemsworth is basically living out an eight-year-old boy’s dream vision of a sweet Hollywood career. Not only does the guy get to wield Thor’s magic hammer while zooming around the universe pummeling villains, he got to spend his Marvel vacation playing real-life world-famous race car driver James Hunt, whose rivalry with fellow racer Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) forms the spine of Ron Howard’s Rush. Even better than the chance to speed around a racetrack, the movie also offered Hemsworth an opportunity to flex a different type of acting muscle, and he proved himself more than up to the challenge; as Andrew O’Hehir wrote for Salon, “I’ve seen Brühl in several German-language films, and I’m not surprised that he’s perfect as the monomaniacal Lauda, but Hemsworth is the revelation here.”
Ruffalo found relatively steady work during his early years in Hollywood, but mainly via roles in films like The Dentist and a couple of Mirror, Mirror sequels. It wasn’t until he developed a working relationship with writer-director Kenneth Lonergan that things started to pick up — most notably with 2000’s You Can Count on Me, a small-scale, character-driven drama, written and directed by Lonergan, that eventually served as a critically lauded calling card for himself, Ruffalo, and Laura Linney (who earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her work). Ruffalo doesn’t get to smash in this story about a ne’er-do-well brother whose sudden reappearance proves a mixed blessing for his sister and nephew, but his performance is infused with the same quiet soulfulness that Joss Whedon has relied on to help ground some of the Avengers movies’ more meaningful moments. Observed Michael Dequina for the Movie Report, “Linney and Ruffalo’s rapport is warm but raw and unsentimental, capturing the unconditional tough love dynamic that can only exist between siblings.”
Evans has publicly chafed under the all-consuming level of commitment required by blockbuster superhero franchises, and lamented that the type of brave, individualistic filmmaking that used to be subsidized by our fondness for popcorn epics is far more difficult to get off the ground in modern Hollywood. In a sense, he was proven right by his experiences with Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, which found itself in the middle of a distribution battle between Bong and the Weinstein Company after the studio mandated cuts and edits to the American version that the director wasn’t willing to make. Ultimately, the movie — which blends thrilling set pieces and sociopolitical themes against an eye-popping sci-fi backdrop and freewheeling direction that left many viewers’ heads spinning — triumphed over its limited release by racking up more than $85 million and a whole bunch of rapturous reviews. For Evans, whose character makes a long march for social justice across a futuristic train shielding the remnants of the human race from a long post-apocalyptic winter, it offered the chance to play a different kind of action hero while reaping critical praise from the likes of Film.com’s James Rocchi, who wrote, “If the film has one element that never flags or falters, it’s Evans.”
If hostile aliens came to Earth and wanted to lure our planet’s men to their doom, they could do a lot worse than sending a specimen that looks like Scarlett Johansson to drive around in a van and go cruising for fresh meat. Case in point: Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, starring Johansson as an alien skulking around Scotland and gobbling up single dudes’ souls — a premise that could have tumbled to Species-level depths in the wrong hands, but in this case, holds together as a hypnotically creepy exercise in existential dread. “Johansson is phenomenal in every sense of the word,” enthused Peter Travers for Rolling Stone. “She joins Glazer in creating a brave experiment in cinema that richly rewards the demands it makes. The result is an amazement, a film of beauty and shocking gravity.”
A lavishly mounted period piece from director James Gray, 2014’s The Immigrant presents a horror-show picture of life in 1920s America for a pair of Polish sisters (Marion Cotillard and Angela Sarafyan) who are separated at Ellis Island when one is discovered to be carrying an illness. Alone and desperate to be reunited with her sister, Cotillard’s character crosses paths with a smooth-talking benefactor (Joaquin Phoenix) who takes her in so he can use her as one of the attractions in his burlesque show, which functions as a front for a prostitution ring. Trapped and miserable, she finds herself in a grueling downward spiral whose only hope for reversal lies in a good-hearted magician (Jeremy Renner) who just happens to be Phoenix’s brother. “The film is an achievement,” argued Wesley Morris for Grantland. “Its complex reckoning of moral decency deserves a bigger audience.”
While far from his first film role, Samuel L. Jackson’s work in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever could arguably be called his breakout appearance; in fact, so compelling was his portrayal of Gator, the drug-addicted brother of Fever protagonist Flipper Purify (Wesley Snipes), that Cannes created the Best Supporting Performance Award award just to honor him. It’s all the more remarkable considering that Jackson had only just gotten out of rehab himself — as he’s told the story, he exited treatment mere weeks before the cameras rolled on Jungle Fever, adding an additional touch of realism to a tale of interracial romance that already fearlessly latched on to timely and too-rarely explored themes. “The result, for the most part,” observed the Washington Post’s Desson Thomson, “is a provocative, quintessentially Spike symphony.”
It takes chutzpah to play a real-life celebrity in a film, especially one as beloved — and as complex — as John Lennon, so even if he’d muffed the execution, we’d have to give Aaron Taylor-Johnson points for bravery with Nowhere Boy, director Sam Taylor-Wood’s biopic (filmed from a script by Matt Greenhalgh) about Lennon’s turbulent teenage years and musical beginnings. Happily, he was up to the task, delivering a performance that presented the young Lennon as a troubled yet talented kid rather than rock ‘n’ roll royalty in the making. As Christopher Lloyd put it for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, “It succeeds as a moving story of a boy, expressively played by Aaron Johnson, whose life would have been interesting enough to justify a movie about it even if he’d never gone on to be one of the Beatles.”
Plenty of future stars have humble beginnings tucked away at the front end of their résumés, but few can boast the rocket-like arc of Elizabeth Olsen, whose filmography soars from a cameo appearance in 1994’s How the West Was Fun — one of the countless direct-to-video efforts filmed by her older twin sisters Mary-Kate and Ashley — to her wildly acclaimed starring role in 2011’s Martha Marcy May Marlene. Before she filmed this haunting drama about a young woman’s struggles to cope with her past after escaping from a cult, many people didn’t even know the Olsen twins had a sister; after its critically heralded arrival, she was a bona fide star. “The story hinges on a believable lead performance, and Olsen is mesmerizing in her first film role,” enthused USA Today’s Claudia Puig. “She starts out wide-eyed and vulnerable and eventually assumes the look of a captive, communicating raw paranoia with subtle gestures.”
Before E.L. James built a publishing empire out of Anastasia and Christian’s sadomasochistic exploits, the film world had its own celebrity dominating/submissive couple: E. Edward Grey (James Spader) and Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal), whose decidedly unorthodox love affair is chronicled in Steven Shainberg’s 2002 film Secretary. Expanded and adapted from author Mary Gaitskill’s short story Bad Behavior, it earned a small mountain of acclaim (including a Sundance Special Jury Prize) while raising countless eyebrows with its depiction of a relationship that, loosely speaking, begins with the new confidence awakened in an emotionally troubled young woman after her boss gives her a spanking in the office. But under the surface, wrote Karen Montgomery for Cinerina, “It’s an interesting exploration of people finding and accepting themselves and then finding the puzzle piece that fits this new shape.”
When you can marry your first cousin in front of the entire world and still be awesome enough to have an entire era named after you, you deserve a solid biopic — and that’s what Queen Victoria got with 2009’s The Young Victoria, starring Emily Blunt as the young monarch and Rupert Friend as her eventual king. As the reform-minded Prime Minister (and one of the Queen’s earliest close advisers) Lord Melbourne, Bettany took a supporting role among a solid cast that included Miranda Richardson and Jim Broadbent, helping Victoria earn the praise of critics like Christopher Kelly of the Dallas Morning News, who wrote, “If The Young Victoria never transcends its fussy trappings — it’s still a familiar costume drama — it remains brisk and intelligent.”
Though he’s often appeared as part of ensemble casts, Cheadle has occasionally had the opportunity to take the spotlight for himself — as with 2007’s Talk to Me, which dramatized the life of radio host and Emmy-winning television personality Petey Greene. Though his fame was mostly restricted to the Washington, D.C. area, Greene was an influential figure for many years, using his gift of gab and inspirational journey from prison to the airwaves as the building blocks for a career that earned him acclaim, a visit to the White House (where he famously joked he stole a spoon), and the admiration of followers such as Howard Stern. It wasn’t a huge hit, and members of Greene’s family criticized its historical inaccuracies, but as far as most critics were concerned, Talk to Me was well worth watching. As Neil Smith wrote for Total Film, “If the picture doesn’t ultimately live up to the raw vitality of Cheadle’s performance, it remains an uplifting snapshot that broadcasts its message with zero distortion. Tune in and you won’t be turned off.”
Check out our interviews with the cast, including Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, James Spader, and more.