Boogie Nights
Philip Seymour Hoffman - "Boogie Nights" (1997)
Having graduated from Tisch in 1989, Philip Seymour Hoffman started racking up screen credits pretty quickly, with roles in "Scent of a Woman," "The Getaway" and "Nobody's Fool" among the most notable early on. But after an early blockbuster turn in "Twister," 1997 saw him really start to lift off, with his second collaboration with director Paul Thomas Anderson (after a small part in "Sydney"/"Hard Eight"). In Anderson's first masterpiece, "Boogie Nights," Hoffman plays Scotty J, the boom operator in the happy film family presided over by director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds). It's not a huge part by any means, but Hoffman does an awful lot with it, particularly in terms of his unrequited crush on Mark Wahlberg's oblivious Dirk Diggler. It reaches a somewhat heartbreaking conclusion in the clip below, Hoffman showing the ridiculous lengths we go to woo the people we love. More prominent (and very different) roles were to follow in the next couple of years in "The Big Lebowski," "Happiness" and "The Talented Mr. Ripley" among others, but this was really where it became apparent what a talent Hoffman was.

Rolling Thunder
Tommy Lee Jones - "Rolling Thunder" (1977)
After his screen debut in 1970's "Love Story," Tommy Lee Jones split much of the 1970s between stage roles and a regular part on long-running soap "One Life To Live." After leaving the show, he made a big-screen comeback in the Roger Corman-produced "Jackson County Jail," and played Howard Hughes in a TV movie, but the film that really grabbed the world's attention came in 1977, with "Rolling Thunder." Co-written by a post-"Taxi Driver" Paul Schrader, and a favorite of Quentin Tarantino (he named it in Sight & Sound as one of the ten best of all time, and titled his short-lived Miramax cult films label after it), it's a curious mix of "The Deer Hunter" and "Death Wish." The film toplines William Devane as a Vietnam POW who returns to the U.S. already fairly alienated, but only more so when local outlaws break into his home, looking for the silver dollars he's been given by his town to celebrate his return, killing his wife and son, and mangling his hand in a garbage disposal in the process. Once he recovers, he enlists his stoic army buddy (Jones) to seek revenge. Though not much more than a scuzzy B-movie (test audiences were so horrified that backers 20th Century Fox sold the film off), both Devane and Jones are excellent, the latter bringing a repressed trauma and general badassery to the part that would come to set the pace for much of what was to come in the actor's career.

The Gravy Train
Christoph Waltz - "The Gravy Train" (1990)
As far as most English-speaking movie fans are concerned, Christoph Waltz burst out fully-formed as Colonel Hans Landa, for which he earned his first Oscar nomination, and won. But of course, Waltz has a long career, stretching back thirty years in German film and TV, as well as the occasional English-language excursion (for example, a small role in "Ordinary Decent Criminal," a film notable for featuring Kevin Spacey, Colin Farrell and Waltz, and yet still being virtually unseen by anyone). But his biggest brush with English-language stardom was in "The Gravy Train," a short-lived British-backed TV comedy series that aired on Channel 4 back in 1990. Penned by academic and author Malcolm Bradbury ("The History Man," John Schlesinger's "Cold Comfort Farm"), and co-starring Ian Richardson, Judy Parfitt and Alexei Sayle, the show sees Waltz play another Hans, this time a young aspiring diplomat/politician who heads to the European Economic Commission to take up a junior position, and finds himself rising, and falling, through the ranks. The issue of Europe dominated British discourse at the time, so the series has dated pretty speedily, and the pace is pretty slack in retrospect (the episodes are an hour long when 30 minutes would have done just fine). But there's still some sharp-edged satire to be found, and it's worth watching just for Waltz; it's very much a hint of what's to come, the actor playing a sweetly relatable, if hapless, everyman, and showing off his deft comic chops in a big way. UK viewers can watch the whole thing via 4OD on YouTube.