It’s hard to define what makes something underrated. Throwing around the word “underrated” can definitely raise some eyebrows considering the subjectivity of the word. In this list, you will find performances that won’t be found on critics’ top ten lists or as nominees at major awards. In general, they’ve been more or less overshadowed by bigger, more recognized performances.
A large chunk of the entries on this list come from smaller films that simply didn’t get as much recognition as the big award contenders. Whether they’re better or worse than the most praised performances of the year is unimportant. This list solely exists to recognize performances that didn’t get enough attention.
Since the word “underrated” is so hard to define, don’t be surprised if one of your favorites gets left off. This doesn’t mean it doesn’t belong on the list. Rather, it could mean that it might not fit the author’s definition of what underrated means.
1. Peter Sarsgaard – Experimenter
Experimenter might just be the best movie you haven’t seen from 2015. This is in large part due to Sarsgaard’s fantastic performance as Stanley Milgrim, the real-life psychologist that sought to research human obedience. While the film itself is fascinating in a number of ways, Sarsgaard is what elevates it in the end. He’s what makes Experimenter a great film instead of a good one.
Sarsgaard isn’t necessarily a household name. More often than not, he’s stuck in a supporting role. While he’s shined in more prominent roles in films such as An Education and Shattered Glass, he’s never really had the opportunity to carry a film by himself. In Michael Almereyda’s latest film, however, Sarsgaard is what keeps the cogs moving. His role as the brilliant, fourth-wall breaking genius is downright enchanting.
The supporting cast, made up of folks like Winona Ryder and Jim Gaffigan do their best to keep up, but Sarsgaard outshines everyone easily. Without Sarsgaard’s magnetic personality demanding the attention of viewers, Experimenter would be nothing more than a perfectly adequate biopic. This is a film where the performances make the movie.
2. Ian McKellen – Mr. Holmes
Unlike a lot of people on this list, McKellen is (obviously) far from an unknown. From Lord of the Rings to X-Men, McKellen is one of the most recognizable actors out there. This doesn’t mean that his performances in films shouldn’t be considered underrated. While his latest film did surprisingly well at the box office and garnered plenty of praise, by the end of the year it was mostly forgotten.
Mr. Holmes, the touching story of Sherlock Holmes in his later years, benefits immensely from McKellen’s performance. While the script is solid and the art direction is breathtaking, McKellen remains the primary reason to watch the film.
This deviation of the Sherlock Holmes character is unlike any we’ve seen. While the script certainly helps give this character a distinct personality, McKellen is really in charge of bringing the iconic detective to life. Surprising absolutely nobody, he does a wonderful job. His take on the classic character is just as memorable as his younger peers.
3. Bel Powley – The Diary of a Teenage Girl
Bel Powley’s quirky, loveable portrayal as a fifteen year old girl going through a sexual awakening stands among the best breakthrough performances in recent years. Powley, a complete nobody before the release of this film, is positively electric from beginning to end. She outperforms her talented costars with ease. While she’s obviously given better material to work with considering her status as the lead, it seems pretty clear that nobody could pull off the same type of performance as her.
Powley has gotten some attention for her performance, including a BAFTA nomination for the “Rising Star Award,” but she certainly hasn’t gotten the attention she deserves. Powley refuses to give a forgettable performance. After all, coming-of-age films have become so common that there needs to be something to separate them from the crowd.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl has plenty to offer in terms of script and direction, but Powley’s acting chops truly stand out. If filmmakers are taking notes, they’ll realize that Powley is an undeniably gifted actress who should have a bright future ahead.
4. Tobey Maguire – Pawn Sacrifice
Maguire will forever be remembered as the man who played one of the most famous superheroes in existence. Those who have followed his career since he put the costume up may be pleasantly surprised by his acting abilities. While he certainly wasn’t bad in Raimi’s Spider-Man movies, he also wasn’t playing a role as demanding as some of his more recent ones. His performance in 2009’s Brothers was shockingly good, but his latest performance as Bobby Fischer in Pawn Sacrifice solidifies his status as a talented actor.
Fischer is a fascinating individual who has been seen in films before, but Maguire’s performance is the absolute best. It’s a challenging task to take on a person so complex, but Maguire does it with ease. While it’s easy to dislike Fischer, Maguire also makes it easy to feel sympathy for the controversial figure.
Pawn Sacrifice is not without its genre cliches, but given Maguire’s talented onscreen presence, the film’s flaws are easy to forgive. Numerous actors portrayed numerous real-life figures in 2015 thanks to an overabundance of biopics. Maguire’s performance as the damaged chess player shouldn’t be overlooked.
5. Maika Monroe – It Follows
When people watch horror films, more often than not they’re not doing it for the acting. In general, horror films lack big name stars with acting experience. Given the reputation of the genre, it’s not surprising Daniel Day Lewis isn’t popping up in Ouija.
While 2015 delivered a few horror films with bankable stars (Poltergeist and The Lazarus Effect come to mind), lesser-known performers once again dominated the genre. In most cases, the horror flicks with less bankable stars don’t have bad performances, but they also don’t have noteworthy performances.
It Follows is a different story. While Maika Monroe isn’t a complete unknown after starring in The Guest, she’s not quite Olivia Wilde or Sam Rockwell. Still, she delivers the best performance in a 2015 horror movie by far. In fact, she delivers one of the best horror movie performances in year.
The protagonist’s vulnerability is made evident and important thanks to Monroe’s committed performance. She portrays a character that the audience can actually care about, which is a rarity for the genre. It’s because of this that Monroe stands out among other horror movie actresses.