10 Great Performances in Not-So-Great Movies

Film discussions on the internet have become a fight of extremes: if you were to believe some reviewers and commentators, every movie that comes out is either an absolute masterpiece or unredeemable trash. The truth, however, is a little more complex.

The fact is that almost every movie has both good and bad elements to it. It may be poorly written but have amazing cinematography, the score might be magnificent even if the characters aren’t great, and so on.

One of the most commonly looked at aspects of any movie is the performances, and that can make or break a movie for a lot of people. If the acting is good, the movie is good. If not, then it doesn’t work.

However, it is possible for a movie to be bad and have great performances, as this list will show.


10. Michael Fassbender – Prometheus


Though it has its share of admirers, Ridley Scott’s return to the universe of “Alien” has mostly been met with diminishing returns, both with the critical response and the box office numbers, and it all started with 2013’s “Prometheus.”

The movie is frankly a mess: most of the characters behave illogically, there are several loose plot points that never connect, and the philosophical undertones are never really developed. But in midst of the chaos, an absolute standout element was Michael Fassbender’s performance as the ambiguous android David.

Fassbender manages to infuse thoughtful nuance in what could have otherwise been a common villain, making David a complex character you can never really figure out, no matter how much you want to. It’s an intriguing and captivating performance, and it’s no wonder he is the only cast member to return (in dual roles) for this year’s sequel “Alien: Covenant.”


9. Tom Cruise – Rock of Ages

Tom Cruise - Rock of Ages

A textbook case of a great theater piece that doesn’t translate well to the screen, “Rock of Ages,” one the most successful and beloved Broadway musicals of all time, became a boring, sloppily made movie in 2012. Almost nothing works: the musical numbers are lifeless, the plot is meandering and predictable, and the camera work is abysmal.

The one salvageable part is Jaxx, a wild, decadent rock star played by a great Tom Cruise. It’s an already interesting character that Cruise elevates to new heights, capturing the musician’s sadness, but making it funny without being mean. It’s more complex than it seems on the surface, and it reminds the audience that, when he wants to, Cruise can truly be a good actor.


8. Daniel Day-Lewis – Nine

Nine (2009)

Nobody in their right mind would ever argue that Daniel Day-Lewis is not one of the greatest actors of all time. His commitment to his roles have already become legendary, and he is one the few actors who chooses his movies very carefully, which led him to almost always star in masterpieces, from “The Last of the Mohicans” to “There Will Be Blood.”

And that’s what makes his decision to join Rob Reiner’s “Nine” so baffling: to mess with one of the best movies of all time, Fellini’s “8 ½,” is already a bad idea, but Reiner makes it even worse. Chaotic, episodic and formulaic, the movie utterly wastes its impressive cast, which mostly tries and fails to make something out of their one-note characters (the exception being Marion Cotillard and Oscar-nominated Penelope Cruz).

Anchoring it all, however, is Day-Lewis, who turns in a sensitive performance as Guido Contini (but really, Federico Fellini), communicating his character’s anguishes and doubts with incredible subtlety.


7. Jake Gyllenhaal – Southpaw


Antoine Fuqua’s sensibilities, when guided by the right script, can turn into great movies, most notably “Training Day.” “Southpaw,” however, are his worst instincts combined: cliched, heavy handed and overtly sentimental. It’s a mediocre boxing movie that would have been a disaster if not for Jake Gyllenhaal’s committed performance.

Bulking up for the project, Gyllenhaal lends incredible believability to the fight scenes and brings an intense physicality to the character, creating a brutal man even when he’s out of the ring. It’s a smart performance in a very stupid movie.


6. Viola Davis – The Help

The Help (2011)

“The Help” was certainly made with good intentions, but what ended up on screen is a mediocre Lifetime movie that employs some very tired cliches, and reduces its very important and complex subject matter to simplistic notions.

The almost all-female cast, however, rises above the material (including Oscar winner Octavia Spencer), but, good as they all are, it’s really Viola Davis’s movie.

Her amazingly soulful performance lends real emotion and pathos to an otherwise very artifical film. Davis makes us care deeply for her, yearn for her happiness, and lament when she suffers. It’s the kind of connection with an audience that other actors would kill for, and it turned the world’s attention to Davis, one of the best working actresses out there.