Though he was already nominated for an Oscar for his supporting performance in Cinderella Man, and though he is in a number of big-budget movies seen by a huge amount of people, Paul Giamatti is still a seriously underrated actor. His ability to incorporate different characters (even though he is usually cast as villainous ones) is uncanny, and he’s such a valuable player for some movies he downright elevates them just for being there.
He very rarely appears as the lead, but when he does (like on some of the examples below) he proves himself to be a leading man waiting to happen. Though Hollywood doesn’t treat him the way it should, and that probably won’t change, movie fans can and should appreciate the work he’s doing, bringing interesting characters to life on a wide range of genres and styles.
10. The Illusionist (Neil Burger, 2006)
Though all eyes were irrevocably on Edward Norton’s mesmerizing performance as Eisenheim, the titular magician in Neil Burger’s The Illusionist, Giamatti’s turn as the police inspector fascinated by the main character’s tricks on stage is just as important to the balance of this wonderful movie.
Playing a character’s whose position in the dispute between Eisenheim and Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) is complicated, to say the least, Giamatti gets to build a performance struck between two chords – the uttermost admiration he feels for Eisenheim’s art clashing with his duties toward Leopold and his pervasive attempts to solve the mystery of the film and get one step ahead of the titular illusionist.
Already a great film on its own, The Illusionist gains in weight and precision with Giamatti on its cast.
9. Shoot ‘Em Up (Michael Davis, 2007)
This one’s a real treat. Anyone looking for the absolute peak in Giamatti’s run of mischievous, demented and pesky villains can go straight to Shoot ‘Em Up, a undoubtedly tasteless, but still kind of fun, collection of insane action sequences and a plot that couldn’t stand to be thinner.
Giamatti’s one-liners and his bigger-than-life portrayal of his character’s mannerisms make for such good fun you can almost forgive Clive Owen for his by-the-numbers performance in a movie that’s anything but by-the-numbers. In a way, Giamatti even manages to keep his character grounded in a sense of reality peculiar do Davis’ script, making him a middleman as “ordinary”, in a lot of ways, as his other characters.
In a movie that offers up a fast-paced, insanely cranked up narrative, Giamatti stands as the strong center of Shoot ‘Em Up’s tone.
8. The Nanny Diaries (Sheri Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini, 2007)
Reteaming with Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, his directors in American Splendor, Giamatti does impressive work with not much screen time in The Nanny Diaries.
The movie, a well-meaning but lackluster romantic comedy, finds its saving graces in Giamatti and Laura Linney, both fantastic playing the parents to the kid Scarlett Johansson’s titular nanny cares for. They’re both written as stereotypes that later peel off into real, believable characters, showing the neglect, contempt and complicated feelings they have for each other and for their child. It’s an ugly picture painted in rich and very human colors by both Giamatti and Linney.
This is a clear case of a great actor elevating the movie he’s in.
7. The Last Station (Michael Hoffman, 2009)
Not a lot of people would highlight Giamatti’s performance in The Last Station, Michael Hoffman’s affecting account of the last days of Leo Tolstoy’s life and his contemptuous marriage with Countess Sofya.
With Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer delivering terrific performances and showing incredible chemistry, and James McAvoy providing the spectator surrogate with the quiet competence he has consistently proven, it’s hard to pay attention to Giamatti’s staunch and “loyal” advisor to Tolstoy, Chertkov. When he gets to be on screen, though, his reading of the character works like a charm – Giamatti’s Chertkov is slightly suspicious while being entirely grave, and he does ensemble work beautifully, as usual.
In a great movie like The Last Station, Giamatti’s performance manages to shine through even when stacked against so many great actors.
6. The Congress (Ari Folman, 2013)
This movie and Saving Mr. Banks are the best examples to counter the argument that Giamatti “always plays the same character” – his slimy villains, full of spiteful mannerisms, are the direct opposite of his part in The Congress, Ari Folman’s half-animated, half-live action sci fi epic.
As the doctor that treats Robin Wright’s sick son, Giamatti plays it straight and brings gravitas to the role, delivering his few but crucial lines with commitment to the weird plot of Folman’s movie. It also showcases Giamatti’s strength as an ensemble player – it’s striking how his interactions with every actor he appears with are natural and productive for every film he’s in.
Though many people think of The Congress as a misdirected effort by Folman, it’s hard to knock Giamatti’s performance as one of the best things on it.