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Before They Assembled: The Best Performances From The Cast Of 'The Avengers'

by Oliver Lyttelton
May 3, 2012 3:59 PM
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Ghost World
Scarlett Johansson - "Ghost World" (2001)
Oft-unfairly-derided (which is not to say that she hasn't given bad performances -- the less said about "The Black Dahlia" the better), those surprised by how good Johansson is in "The Avengers" haven't been paying attention. Despite being only 27, she's been appearing on screen for almost two decades, and has plenty of strong performances behind her. Perhaps her finest remains one of her transitional early adult roles, in Terry Zwigoff's "Ghost World." As Becky, the more conventional best friend of lead Enid, she's very much playing second fiddle to the bone-dry Thora Birch (and indeed Steve Buscemi as oddball Seymour). But it's still a very strong performance thanks to the chemistry she shares with Birch, portraying a friendship that feels entirely authentic. And (arguably unlike the film itself), she avoids judging her character for the choices she makes. Between this and her under-age femme fatale in the Coen Brothers' "The Man Who Wasn't There," it became clear that the actress was a unique kind of talent, and while she hasn't always lived up to that promise, we hope she's getting back on track now.
Honorable Mentions: Two years later saw her breakthrough to the A-list in Sofia Coppola's "Lost In Translation," and it's a strong, albeit mostly silent, portrait of ennui. More recently, she was disarmingly charming in Cameron Crowe's "We Bought A Zoo," and we've got high hopes for her starring role in Jonathan Glazer's "Under The Skin."
The Hurt Locker
Jeremy Renner - "The Hurt Locker" (2009)

Now a bona-fide A-lister with three franchises to his name, Jeremy Renner hasn't exactly been an overnight success. He first started turning heads and landing studio roles a decade ago, but it was only his lead in Kathryn Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker" that got him where he is now. And it's no wonder: even alongside his superb co-stars Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty, Renner stands tall, as Sergeant First Class William James, the bomb-disposal expert. As David Morse's character puts it in the film, he's "a wild man," a ludicrously reckless danger junkie, his comrades actively consider killing him to save their own skin. And yet he's enormously charismatic, even sweet in places, and a hugely engaging person to spend a couple of hours with. But the richness and sadness of Renner's performance only becomes apparent when he returns home -- he'd like to be able to reengage with his wife and baby, but he simply doesn't know how to, and looks to be quietly dying inside. Unsurprisingly, he's soon back in action again.
Honorable Mentions: Renner's breakout came in the serial killer biopic "Dahmer," in which he's absolutely chilling and still recognizably human. He also gave a lovely (if somewhat overshadowed) supporting performance in "The Assassination Of Jesse James," and rightfully picked up a second Oscar nomination for his brilliant turn in Ben Affleck's "The Town." He's also deliciously slimy as Bobby Sharp in "North Country."

Changing Lanes
Samuel L. Jackson - "Changing Lanes" (2002)
Ooh, controversial. Jackson's roles with Tarantino might be his most iconic, and he's given strong turns more recently, but for us anyway, his finest hour is in Roger Michell's underrated morality play "Changing Lanes." Back at the height of his powers, when he actually turned down some of the jobs he was offered, Jackson plays Doyle Gipson, a recovering alcoholic trying to stop his estranged wife from moving away with his kids. On the way to the courtroom, he collides with a yuppie lawyer (Ben Affleck) who leaves him at the scene, setting off a chain of escalating revenge between the two. While the ending lets things down by being too neat, the picture's mostly a taut, surprising, complex piece of work, and while Affleck gives what still might be his best performance, it's Jackson who walks away with the film. Perfectly cast to capitalize on the "furious anger" that's become his trademark, there's a quiet, sad dignity, and increasing desperation to him, even as he does fairly reprehensible things.
Honorable Mentions: Aside from the obvious Tarantino roles in "Pulp Fiction" and "Jackie Brown," he's enormously good in mid-90s actioners "The Long Kiss Goodnight" and "Die Hard With A Vengeance," long before he started phoning it in. More recently, he's given good performances in not-particularly-great movies "Blake Snake Moan" and "Resurrecting The Champ," and reminded us of his real skills in Tommy Lee Jones' HBO Cormac McCarthy adaptation "The Sunset Limited."

Tom Hiddleston - "Archipelago" (2010)
While Hiddleston's only a few years into his career at this point, he's already turned in several memorable performances. He made his film debut in Joanna Hogg's 2007 independent film "Unrelated," as a teenage boy flirting with his father's middle-aged friend in Tuscany, and reunited with the director three years later for "Archipelago," in which he plays a middle-class twentysomething who joins his dysfunctional family on a holiday to the Isles of Scilly before leaving for volunteer work in Africa. Hogg's an unfashionable kind of filmmaker, indebted more to Rohmer and Ozu than more modern influences, and it's not necessarily surprising that her beautifully observed, immaculately-framed films, which examine a very particular kind of upper-middle class British life, haven't gotten much play internationally. But fans of Hiddleston as Loki should certainly try to track it down. He beautifully draws his character as a certain kind of well-meaning, nice boy, appalled by his family and yet susceptible to the same kind of flaws, and together with the rest of the (less-familiar) cast, creates a feel that's not so much drawn from life as directedly transplanted from it.
Honorable Mentions: Hiddleston was solid as F. Scott Fitzgerald in "Midnight in Paris," and was also terrific as boozing, self-loathing pilot and cuckolder Freddie, opposite Rachel Weisz in Terence Davies' "The Deep Blue Sea."

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  • Chucho | May 8, 2012 8:21 AMReply

    Downey, Jr - Chaplin, Short Cuts
    Hemsworth - Star Trek
    Evans - Scott Pilgrim/ Sunshine/ The Losers, anyone?
    Ruffalo - My life without me/ Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind/ Blindness
    Johansson - Girl with a pearl earring/ Lost in Translation
    Renner - The Hurt Locker
    Samuel L. Jackson - The Incredibles :)
    Hiddleston - Midnight in Paris, Thor

    Clark Gregg - The New Adventures of Old Christine ;)

  • Chucho | May 8, 2012 8:13 AMReply

    No "Star Trek" for Hemsworth? That's the main reason he landed Thor! Those brief minutes were heroic enough to earn him some recognition.

  • Margaret | May 7, 2012 11:53 AMReply

    Scarlet was also excellent in 'A Love Song for Bobby Long'.

  • Mike | May 4, 2012 4:31 PMReply

    Great read, though I'd probably add Collateral to Ruffalo's honorable mentions because of the great impact & pain his character injects into the proceedings in just a few scenes. Also, my favorite Sammy L performance is still Unbreakable.

  • jonathan | May 4, 2012 9:50 AMReply

    I'd just like to say that The Brothers Bloom is a fantastic movie. Other than that, this piece was a good read.

  • Katie Walsh | May 4, 2012 1:16 AMReply

    Great piece and completely spot on.

  • Steven Flores | May 3, 2012 8:20 PMReply

    What about Scarlett in "Girl with a Pearl Earring"? Her performance in that film was better than the one she gave in "Lost in Translation". It's a very near-silent but truly entrancing performance.

  • ATcinejordan | May 3, 2012 7:08 PMReply

    No mention of Downey in "Two Girls and a Guy"?

  • nechoplex | May 3, 2012 5:43 PMReply

    The spaceship in Sunshine is actually called the Icarus II. Just thought you guys should know.

  • RANDOM DUDE | May 3, 2012 5:39 PMReply

    "a six-foot-plus brick shithouse of a Norse God"


    "while there isn't an obvious visual resemblance"
    there kinda is...that's what made the movie watching experience so magical because RDJ looked so close to him.

  • Lynn | May 3, 2012 4:59 PMReply

    Hemsworth is the least experienced of the bunch, but you should have at least mentioned the opening scene of Star Trek, where he plays James Kirk's father. His character's sacrifice was emotional well-done, setting up the entire film. While he was good as Thor, I long to see him match that in terms of acting.

  • jb | May 4, 2012 2:38 PM


  • jt | May 3, 2012 4:19 PMReply

    Mark Ruffalo deserved an Oscar nomination for " You Can Count On Me." Yes, Chris Evans is very charismatic and talented, but he needs to do more challenging roles.

  • bob hawk | May 8, 2012 4:48 AM

    I second Mike on PUNCTURE, which was at Tribeca last year. Evans' performance, as an idealistic but drug addicted lawyer, was complex and devastating -- one of the best of 2011 -- and it still haunts me. Lyttelton characterizes the film as "not so hot" but I'd say it's not so bad at all, certainly more interesting than a lot of the worn-out tropes rehashed in so many indie films. Based on a true story, it deals with a corrupt medical supply system that prevents the sale of a retractable safety needle that would prevent health workers from accidental pinpricks from contaminated needles. It told me about something I had never heard about, and it has stuck with me (pardon the pun).

  • Mike | May 4, 2012 4:33 PM

    Have you seen Puncture? That role is all kinds of conflicted and Evans is fantastic in it. He also said recently he doesn't see himself taking on more blockbusters from here on kit, that he'd rather do indie work, so that's encouraging. I love that they highlighted Sunshine here, it was such a move towards maturity for him and it's but a piece of an ensemble cast of a sadly underseen movie.

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