Every year of movies brings with a lot of bad stuff, and when you write about movies for a living like we do, you wind up seeing a lot of garbage that you never, ever would have chosen on your own. But even when you walk into a film you know is probably going to suck, you're always hoping for some bright spot, something that means the entire two hours weren't a waste. More often than not, it's one spectacular performance that does the trick-- when one actor manages to turn in something great despite everything going wrong around them, you can feel the clouds part and the angels sing, at least until the next dumb thing happens and you remember what an awful movie you're sitting through.
There are plenty of actors who make bad movies while still being fairly likable-- Nicolas Cage and now Liam Neeson are making careers of this-- but only a select few who pop up out of the mess and do something great. We're kicking off our end of the year coverage, but instead of first starting with our 10 best movies of the year or anything like that, we've got the 10 best performances in movies that were otherwise terrible. Check out our picks below, and let us know who we might have forgotten in the comments below.
#1: William Fichtner as The Accountant Drive Angry 3D
Drive Angry 3D was a movie made of missed opportunities. Nicolas Cage as vengeful undead father Milton wasn’t nearly as crazy as we hoped he would be, it was missing an effective soundtrack, and the story was all over the place. One element that it got absolutely right, however, was the casting of William Fichtner as The Accountant. Playing an agent sent from hell to bring Cage’s character back, Fichtner is cool, calm and collected for the entire film, but he plays the demon with just the right level of smirk to make him a perfect mix of badass and wit. If only Patrick Lussier and Todd Farmer had made the script about The Accountant instead of Milton it could have been a much more interesting film.
#2: Michael Parks as Abin Cooper Red State
Say what you will about Kevin Smith – and this year, it seems we had plenty to discuss – the indie filmmaker’s still capable of scripting a riveting monologue. And in Michael Parks, Smith found his most compelling mouthpiece since Dwight Ewell’s Hooper X (Chasing Amy). Forget the fire-and-brimstone that actors reflexively slip into when playing men of faith. Parks brings a subdued but resolute belief in the words Smith hands him. And that’s more chilling than any of the wanton violence that overwhelms Red State in time.
#3: Mark Strong as Sinestro Green Lantern
I was so excited to see my favorite superhero finally hit the big screen and then, well, we got that Green Lantern. As the film unfolded, misfire after misfire, I was readying my fiery fanboy hatred until Mark Strong's Sinestro was finally introduced. No way could he salvage the terribly misguided script, special effects or over-acting but his commanding presence as the greatest Green Lantern who becomes their greatest adversary was pitch perfect. From the practical make-up to his unflinching delivery, Strong made Sinestro a character I'l remember in a film that I've been desperately trying to forget. He even inspires hope for a possibly great sequel, even if it's just a tiny, yellow glimmer.
#4: Bruno Ganz as Ernst Jurgen Unknown
Unknown is a deeply silly movie from beginning to end, and even when an international conspiracy plot and some rogue spies get involved in the story it's really nothing but a chance to see Liam Neeson beat up some Europeans. But there's one scene where the movie finally slows down and makes room for some acting, when mysterious characters played by Frank Langella and especially the German actor Bruno Ganz sit back and talk about their shared history and animosity. To say more would be to spoil it, but Ganz's inherent gravitas makes this the only scene in the movie worth watching, enough to make you wish you were watching a movie about him instead.
#5: Anthony Hopkins as Father Lucas The Rite
Thanks to a few dreadful scenes and some unnecessary supporting characters, The Rite doesn’t really work. In fact, I probably should have forgotten it existed by this point, but thanks to a truly incredibly performance by Anthony Hopkins, I kind of want to watch it again. Right now. Beaten down by years of doubts, disappointments and demons, the Academy Award winner’s Father Lucas is riveting every time he’s on screen. Sometimes he spews well-crafted philosophical yarns. Sometimes he rids bodies of satanic presences, and sometimes he hits children. There’s no guessing what he’ll do next, but when it comes, you’ll sure as hell believe it.
#6: Neil Patrick Harris as Will Beastly
Neil Patrick Harris has suited up on CBS’ How I Met Your Mother for seven seasons, meaning he’s had to be choosy about side projects. Which is why it’s a little surprising Harris took a small role as the protagonist’s mentor in 2011’s very forgettable Beastly. Maybe he just wanted to rock out as a blind guy with more confidence than Michael Jordan, or maybe he was just excited about hitting golf balls off of a tall building. Either way, his character says enough funny shit that it periodically propels the movie into momentary atonement.
#7: Channing Tatum as Zip The Dilemma
A lot of moviegoers have rejected the idea of Channing Tatum as a leading man, mostly because they see him as a beefy lunkhead without two brain cells to rub together. In The Dilemma, a movie that's otherwise borderline unwatchable, Tatum is finally in on the joke, playing a wifebeater-wearing hunk of meat named Zip who mostly just wants revenge at the guy who killed his fish. In a movie where everyone else seemed to be on autopilot, Tatum threw everything he had into playing this idiot, creating the only sign of greatness in both the movie and his entire career.
#8: Rosario Dawson as Kate Zookeeper
The love interest in a Kevin James vehicle is the definition of “thankless role.” So why is Rosario Dawson having so much fun alongside James in Zookeeper? Maybe because she’s picking and choosing her moments as the “ordinary” girl our leading man eventually pursues. (Only in a comedy could a sparkling, charismatic beauty like Dawson play the “other” girl, even to a stunner like Leslie Bibb.) No matter the reason, Dawson is the springboard that occasionally allows the goofy Zookeeper to soar on the wings of effervescent love.
#9: Tom Hanks as Larry Crowne Larry Crowne
It isn’t so much that Larry Crowne is a terrible movie as it really wouldn’t be worth watching if not for Tom Hanks. The film is nothing but a series of amusing moments, but Hanks’ performance stands out since it seems like it’s been an eternity since we’ve seen his lighter side. The scene where he re-programs Julia Roberts' GPS system is reminiscent of Big and makes me think, as amazing as Hanks is in dramatic roles and successful as he’s been as a producer, I hope he considers returning to comedy soon. In the meantime, Hanks (and to a lesser but notable degree, Rami Malek and George Takei) is the only reason to see Larry Crowne.
#10: Clive Owen as Spike Killer Elite
Who knows what left turn Clive Owen took to go from classics like Children of Men to nonsense like Killer Elite, but at least he hasn't lost his dignity along the way. Paired up against Jason Statham Owen plays an erudite but still kick-ass spy who's just trying to do his job, but happens to get into a lot of fistfights along the way. He can't save the movie from being boring, but he manages to keep his head held high, and maintain the promise that maybe next time, he'll find some material that's worthy of what he's bringing to it.