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."
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."
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."
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."