6. Whiplash (2014)
One of the more recent (and very few) examples of an Oscar winning role that garners consistently high praise is achieved by none other than character actor (and Farmer’s Insurance commercial guy), J.K. Simmons. Director Damien Chazelle harnesses a startling tour-de-force performance from the usually kind and paternal Simmons. He holds back nothing, and while some could argue the character is way too over-the-top and is not based in reality, it is still a mesmerizing preservation of carnal energy that proves character actors are more than the sum of their parts. Given the chance, these character actors can undoubtedly compete with the George Clooney’s, Johnny Depp’s, Leo DeCaprio’s and Brad Pitt’s of the cinema world.
Whiplash in its totality is a fantastic ode to jazz, the “conflict” and the greatness that may grow if one is pushed just a little harder. Similar in this regard to Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, we are presented with an intense back-and-forth between two characters that need each other. Their attraction grows from their conflict (an otherwise sublime metaphor for the inner-workings of jazz as a whole) and the film relentlessly thrives almost unlike anything ever before seen in cinema with a cliffhanger that’ll completely depend on your outlook on life.
7. 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)
Fred Flintstone, Charlie Meadows, Dan Conner, Pops, Pacha, Walter Sobchak…
John Goodman has a career that spans nearly every genre and every character. With a voice as rich, gravelly and recognizable as anything that’s ever been recorded it’s potentially hard to argue Goodman has lacked the opportunity to shine. He is also relatively well known, but as the years have passed Goodman has chosen more and more eccentric characters and he proves to always be up to the task.
Even after all the previously listed iconic names, leave it to Goodman to perhaps shine his brightest as a regular guy named Howard. That’s it… just Howard. The usually endearing Goodman gives us a shockingly perverse turn as a low-key psychotic guy. Goodman’s subversion of the normal character he plays does wonders in 10 Cloverfield Lane and turns out to be one of the best roles of the esteemed actor’s career.
The film is cleverly structured to have us follow the vulnerable Michelle into unrecognizable places while also engineering a fantastic red herring in the heart of its plot. As a whole, it steers away from most aspects of Cloverfield and still manages to feel vaguely reminiscent. 10 Cloverfield Lane is a surprisingly great sequel to the found footage original (even if there are claims it is not a direct sequel and they just share a universe) that is all the more shocking given the almost-always friendly Goodman’s strange and disquieting turn.
8. Terror in a Texas Town (1956)
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever seen someone bring to a gunfight? Did you come up with “harpoon”? Any zealous movie-lover will be hooked in (no pun intended) when they take a gander at the plotline or watch the truly outdated trailer from 1956. Sterling Hayden, a guy who has played all sorts of crazy and hardnosed characters, is the man at the helm of Terror in a Texas Town surrounded by a wonderfully vile Nedrick Young as Johnny Crale and a troubled baddie in McNeil played by Sebastian Cabot.
The film more or less has its B-movie camp bleed through, but its darned charm and epic creativity is enough to suggest that this film is one of the great examples of a character actor in the spotlight. As the plot thickens, the film clearly becomes a riveting character driven drama. One can even argue that it’s Nedrick Young’s Crale that is the more engrossing figure (and performance). The profundity of good versus evil starts to come across as overplayed in the first half of the film until it suddenly makes a turn for the best (thanks to an emotionally stimulated performance by Victor Millan) and the writing behind Young’s leather-clad gun-for-hire. While B-movie camp is not for everyone, it’s an aspect that dwindles drastically by the time character motives are brought into the fore.
Terror is a great little piece of cinema that lingers in its simplicity, which makes the film more accessible for those who may not be into the western genre. It is also not to say that Sterling Hayden’s floundering Swedish accent is pretty bad, but the man can certainly act and any of the more glaring flaws eventually morph into the realm of so-bad-its-good. Terror in a Texas Town is an irresistible late-night showdown especially for those who love a good old western.
9. Cockfighter (1974)
Monte Hellman’s 1974 existential modern western grips you and never lets go. The tricky thing is one can be caught off guard by the ridiculous character traits of the leading man, played with dedicated fashion by Warren Oates. And yes, once again we cross paths with the wonderful Harry Dean Stanton acting slightly cross-type as a fellow with a bit of gusto. Both men fall prey to their gratuitous desires in the form of cockfighting, and one of them takes their competitive spirit a bit farther than the other. Oates manages to capture sheer frustration and unadulterated shame without speaking, and this provides his character a tragic anti-hero quality with severe hues of absurdity (and any comedy stemming from the lengths of which he will go for cockfighting).
Cockfighter is an incredibly gruesome film in its bones. It is without a doubt something we will never see in cinema ever again (due to the obvious animal cruelty). The film is simultaneously compelling and repulsive—not strictly because of the fighting scenes—but because the viewer is exponentially more disgusted with Oates’ character with every new decision or action he makes (all in the name of cockfighting). The most shocking attribute of the film is how Hellman manages to pull off such striking euphoric beauty in these fighting sequences. In this way Cockfighter reads as a graphic western poem. There is something to be said of Hellman’s execution of the film and how he absolutely did not waste the opportunity to give us something breathtaking in more ways than one.
10. And Then There Were None (1945)
Going back further than any of the previous entries have gone, And Then There Were None is a gem of a thriller from the mid-40s. Based on the Agatha Christie play that is based on the novel, the tale is a fantastic mystery yarn built with a glorious array of characters (a strong suit of the author). While many other renditions have been made of this feature since this film’s release, 1945’s entry is inarguably the most well crafted version—sticking to the brilliant source material and having the advantage of charismatic character actors in every role.
Barry Fitzgerald, Judith Anderson, Queenie Leonard, Walter Huston and Mischa Auer are the particular standouts (but seriously hard to choose when everyone is so darn good). Fitzgerald is probably the epitome of the character actor as he could shift extremes to a lovable neighborly type to a scheming conman. No matter the role his bold Irish brogue would be his most noticeable trait followed by his beady eyes, structured eyebrows and larger-than-life smile. For this writer, it’s the bombastic energy of Mischa Auer though that ignites the underlying suspense to the fore of the feature. Auer was capable of bringing anything to life usually playing a wise cracking’ sidekick or snarky musician and he shows most of those talents here with ease (while looking like he’s having a ton of fun).
To some movie goers who may be hesitant to pursue black and white films and also more dialog driven pieces, should give this one a chance. The fascination with death and the aura of mystery that almost always seems to coincide with it is an aspect that draws most people to pieces of entertainment such as this. And Then There Were None is particularly incredible because it is perhaps the godfather of the entire subgenre of mysteries (mostly) set in one place (Knives Out, Murder on the Orient Express, Sleuth, and Clue just to name a few). The film sets the imagination on fire with brilliantly written (and executed) red herrings and foreshadowing that get under the skin until the mystery is finally solved.