Recently, I’ve written lists of the best actors and actresses under 50 working right now. Controversial and naturally limited as they proved to be, they still reflected my most sincere opinion and best effort at the time. While thinking about those lists, I’ve realized that a lot of these actors have made great underappreciated films.
On that note, this list seeks to elect the most underseen movies of a few of those actors’ careers, and highlight great pieces of cinema (and especially acting) that went largely under the radar. From independent dramas to early gems to misunderstood masterpieces, these films all deserve a better look if you are willing to give them.
Here they are:
1. Ewan McGregor – Perfect Sense (2011)
Mr. McGregor long and diversified career has produced a few other underseen great films, but Perfect Sense seems like the best one to date. If you’re experience of British helmer David Mackenzie is limited to the newly released Hell or High Water, then you’re missing a lo-fi sci-fi masterpiece in Perfect Sense, a well-balanced, sincere romantic drama with apocalyptic overtones.
The plot revolves around a world in which humanity starts losing the five senses, one by one. As their experience of the world becomes more limited, two people (played by Ewan McGregor and the also great Eva Green) get tangled in a complicated love affair that ends in a unique and wonderful kind of tragedy.
For that ending alone, Perfect Sense would be worth seeing, but McGregor and Green’s performances elevate it to an unforgettable story about love, acceptance, isolation and pain.
2. Saoirse Ronan – Stockholm, Pennsylvania (2015)
Stockholm, Pennsylvania had the misfortune of being released on the same year of Brooklyn, Saoirse Ronan’s spectacular Oscar contender. It deserved more attention than it got, though, especially for both Ronan and Cynthia Nixon’s performance as mother and daughter reunited after the former spends longs years in captivity, kept close by a dangerous criminal.
Stockholm, Pennsylvania has difficult undertones and sometimes slips into the melodramatic, but it’s still a noteworthy effort by first time writer and director Nicole Beckwith. As Ronan expertly navigates between the complicated emotions of this young girl who doesn’t feel at home in her own home, the film becomes a more powerful fable by the minute.
3. Leonardo DiCaprio – Total Eclipse (1995)
This is one of the early gems I talked about earlier. Soon after his first Oscar nomination for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, DiCaprio made the bold choice to play Nineteenth Century poet and certified enfant terrible Arthur Rimbaud in Total Eclipse. Agnieszka Holland’s film is a flawed one, as it tells of Rimbaud’s teenage love affair with the much older Paul Verlaine (David Thewlis) in a manner that lacks some of the passion involved on that relationship.
DiCaprio and Thewlis, however, are truly phenomenal. DiCaprio’s expansive performance captures the excitement of Rimbaud’s era as much as it does his free spirit. A James Dean of his time, Rimbaud becomes electric and magnetic in DiCaprio’s portrait, as much as Verlaine becomes pitiful and yet so engaging in Thewlis’ incarnation. If it had the impetus of its two leads, Total Eclipse would be a brilliant film.
4. Nicole Kidman – Birth (2004)
It’s officially time for us to start apologizing to Jonathan Glazer for the scathing reception we have to Birth at the time of its release. Back then, Nicole Kidman was on the nosedive part of her career, after winning the Oscar, and playing a grieving wife who’s convinced that a young boy is her husband’s reincarnation didn’t seem like a fitting choice to turn the tides.
Nevertheless, it’s creepy (in a good way!), weirdly transcendental and completely unique, as Glazer flexes all of the muscles he would later showcase in the fabulous Under the Skin. Kidman is also great in it, in a similar way she is great in The Others, as she embodies this character with unfiltered emotion pouring through her performance, something we don’t often see from her nowadays.
5. Naomi Watts – The Painted Veil (2006)
How The Painted Veil escaped from being an Oscar contender I’ll never understand. Not only it’s a damn good movie, it’s also right in the Academy’s wheelhouse: the adaptation of a classic with two prestigious leads (Edward Norton and Naomi Watts), great supporting players (mainly Toby Jones, but he’s more than enough) and some tasteful direction from the very talented and often underappreciated John Curran.
Even more so, Watts is just amazing as the unfaithful wife of a doctor trying to fight a cholera epidemic in China. It’s one of her earliest stunner performances, along with, of course, Mulholland Dr. Measuring up against the always superb Norton, she becomes the bright light of the film and takes on a role that was played before by none other than Greta Garbo with extraordinary nuance and sensibility. It’s a sad story with a gorgeous look, and it deserves way more attention than it got.