10 Little-Seen Movies That Launched the Feature-Film Careers of Ten of Today's Best Actors

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10 Little-Seen Movies That Launched the Feature-Film Careers of Ten of Today's Best Actors

By Dustin Rowles | Seriously Random Lists | April 1, 2015 | Comments ()


Independent film is great, not just because it offers a lot of new and original ideas that you won’t find at your local multiplex, but because no one spots new talent better than little-known directors desperate to make a name for themselves. Certainly, while those little films are rarely seen outside of film festivals and major urban areas, the good news is: People like Harvey Weinstein, Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan, and Jason Reitman see those films, and the best directors are dogged about finding the best talent. So, one low-budget film that’s seen not by a ton of people, but by the right people, can launch an entire career.

That’s what happened in these ten cases: Stars were born not from huge blockbusters, but from indelible performances that stuck in the minds of people that matter. Some of these actors were known already, but it was these films that transformed them into serious actors.


Tom Hardy, Bronson ($104,000) — Bronson only fails in that it doesn’t really live up to the potential of its subject. Bronson the prisoner wanted to be a star. He needed to stay in prison — that’s the only thing that he was good at in life. He tried to strangle a pedophile, so they would send him back to regular prison. Refn’s staging would have worked if he’d stuck with it — and there are moments where it’s astounding. But, truly, Bronson lives and dies on Hardy’s epic performance — which brings up the question of Oscar eligibility, since the film premiered in 2008. Plus, I can’t wait to see pictures of him standing next to a frightened Meryl Streep in magazines. It’s a fascinating watch, but you do feel as though you’re confined right alongside him. — Brian Prisco


Eric Bana, Chopper — ($246,000) — Before Eric Bana was Eric Bana, he was an Australian actor little known in America until his brilliant depiction of Mark Brandon “Chopper” Read gained him great acclaim and attention from American critics and filmmakers. Chopper Read is a fascinating Australian criminal (and bestselling crime author), who is as menacing as he is full of sh*t. Between the ages of 20 and 38, he only spent 13 months outside of prison, but it was inside the clink where he arguably gained the most notoriety, starting a prison gang war that got so out of hand that Chopper’s best friend would end up stabbing him, costing him several feet of intestine (note, too, that Chopper was only in prison because he stabbed the judge that put his best friend in prison). Killing between four and 19 people (depending on the account you believe), Chopper, as depicted by Bana, is equal parts charming and terrifying, and wholly psychotic: The kind of guy that would play a prank on you, tell you he was just kidding, and then blow your brains out, and somehow, remain a weirdly amiable character. It’s a great movie, not just for the little-seen performance from Bana, but because Reed is such a compelling nutcase.


Michael Fassbender, Hunger ($154,000) — Painters, sculptors, and video artists like Steve McQueen would seem to make natural auteurs, but cinema, and especially the feature film, is its own beast with its own methods and orientation. McQueen’s debut film, Hunger, is an incredible piece of work, commanding in both form and artistry; I’m just not sure it always occupies a filmic space. In many ways it’s more accurate to call Hunger a series of meticulous installations than to refer to it as anything more concrete; McQueen is obsessed with camera placement, composition, time, and structure in a way far more rigorous than a mere adherence to formalism would show. Hunger is a personal essay, a work of impressions whose real inspiration and narrative are forever distant. — Phillip Stephens


Amy Adams, Junebug ($2.6 million) — Cultures rarely clash the way they so often do in the movies, when a slick lawyer has to deliver a calf or a redneck has to figure out how to order off a French menu. They more often clash the way they do in Junebug, when Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz), a Chicago art dealer, visits the North Carolina family of her husband, George (Alessandro Nivola). The characters here all have good intentions, and for the most part they’re not caricatures. They just lead lives full of very different assumptions. This leads to personal conflicts and stony silences that feel genuine. Director Phil Morrison also has a deft touch with set pieces, like the one in which Madeleine watches George earnestly deliver a hymn at a church social. It’s a beautifully rendered moment of revelation for Madeleine, and for the audience as well. — John Williams


Ryan Gosling, Half Nelson ($2.6 million box-office) — OK, yes: Gosling had already been in The Notebook, and he had a career in Canada as a child actor, but it was Half Nelson that launched his career as a serious actor, that made Gosling what he is today. Director Ryan Fleck (who co-wrote with Anna Boden) knows his material and hews — perhaps a bit too closely — to the reality of addiction, without really making Half Nelson a glum addiction film, per se. Still, there are no Bobby Fischer/Finding Forrester epiphanic moments, but neither does it devolve into a Requiem for a Dream-type experience that has you looking for a 10th-floor window. Indeed, there is just enough optimism in Half Nelson to leave you feeling content, but not so much that you feel robbed. In an indie world where quirk and whimsy seem to be constantly battling it out with utter despair, Half Nelson is one of the few films that finds a satisfying middle ground.


Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Mysterious Skin — ($700,000): Because we’ve poured so much affection of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Brick. and because Mysterious Skin pre-dated (by days) the existence of Pajiba, we’ve given short-shrift to Gregg Araki’s devastating and beautiful film about the diverging paths of two boys who were molested by their Little League coach. The film that elevated JGL from child star to commanding feature-film presence, Mysterious Skin is an exceptionally understated film, given its subject material, and JGL gives nothing less than a sublime performance. And though this overlooked film deserves to be seen once for its sweetness, it may be to disturbing ever to sit through again.


Ellen Page, Hard Candy ($1 million)— Hard Candy is a resolutely focused film, and except for a brief appearance by Sandra Oh as Jeff’s neighbor, the story belongs entirely to Hayley and Jeff, and to the vicious game of cat and mouse that plays out between them. Wilson is powerful as the tortured villain forced to deal with a hellish version of karma, and Page is nothing short of magnetic as Hayley. The 19-year-old actress has a relatively short resume, but her upcoming turn in X-Men: The Last Stand as the third person to play Kitty Pryde in as many films will undoubtedly help introduce her to a larger audience. Her work in Hard Candy is somewhat reminiscent of Alison Lohman’s faux ingenue in Matchstick Men, but Page fully inhabits the role in her own ways, her awkward body language and passion verging on madness standing out as hallmarks of teenage years. — Daniel Carlson


Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone ($6.5 million) — But the acting is what makes Winter’s Bone so outstanding. It’s essentially an ensemble piece centered around young Ree. Most of the actors are relative unknowns or familiar character faces, but they imbue all the various figures with a southern dignity. A particular standout is John Hawkes, who’ve you seen recently on “Lost” as Dogen’s translator Lennon and not recently enough on “Deadwood.” Hawkes has always been a go-to guy for solid character performances, but Teardrop is unlike anything I’ve seen from him before. Usually Hawkes plays a little towards the nerdish side, but here he’s all spitfire and venom. There’s constantly an undercurrent of violence crackling just beneath the surface. But even he gets outshone by the luminous Jennifer Lawrence. Lawrence’s most recognizable credit is Lauren on “The Bill Engvall Show,” but this will be her breakout performance. She embodies Ree with a stubborn fury, but still manages to capture the frustration and fear of a teenager. She’s a child who’s been forced to become a woman early, and she honestly maneuvers the sea change with grace and class. You can see the world weariness sagging on her shoulders and in her bitter stare.


Andrew Garfield, Boy A ($113,000) — Boy A, despite launching the film career of Garfield, is so little seen that we don’t even have a review of it (nor of the Red Riding trilogy, which also helped to launch Garfield’s career), although no one has ever had anything but glowing things to say about Garfield’s performance in the film. It’s about a 24-year-old kid who just got out of a lengthy prison sentence and attempts to start his life all over again, without becoming like the person he was. Our friend Maryann Johanson spoke well of Garfield’s performance, however: “Anglo-American up-and-comer Andrew Garfield is uncomfortably heartbreaking as Jack, to whom it is distressingly difficult to grant absolution at the same time one castigates oneself: shouldn’t it be easier to forgive a child even a terrible crime?”


Elizabeth Olsen, Martha Marcy May Marlene ($2.9 million)— Not yet a huge star, Olsen will be with four projects out in 2013, including the Oldboy remake. Martha Marcy May Marlene lurches inside of you and crawls around like a nasty beetle, and much of the success of the film can be attributed to the exceptional performance of Elizabeth Olson. She’s unreal in the way she depicts Martha, quietly inhabiting the dissociate personality disorder of her character, and pulling you down into her misery. It’s almost best you don’t know who her older sisters are going in, as that’s likely to taint your perception of her performance. She’s so far removed from the troll dolls who grew up on “Full House” that it’d never occur to you otherwise that she shares the same parents. Martha Marcy May Marlene is not a movie that’s going to get a lot of attention in movie theaters this year but it will make a star of Olsen and leave you scratching your head for yet another year about how John Hawkes isn’t yet a familiar name to every filmgoing citizen on the planet.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • lorettajohnson

    rubbish list

  • Chris

    WTF is this. A year old article comprised of recycled texts that were out of date and context even then? Fo shame pajiba, fo shame!

  • Nadine

    Is Fassbender really one of todays best actors? Huh

  • Fabius_Maximus

    Really? An article from almost a year ago? Is this shit deliberate or some glitch in the website?

  • Bepo

    "Boy A" is great, you should definitely see it. I randomly came across it one evening on some obscure channel, and absolutely loved it.

  • Bobby

    Ryan gosling & Jennifer Lawrence maybe the most overrated actor and actress in recent history one good performance thats it.

  • Arjuna

    I can't comment on Ryan Gosling because I've only seen a little of one of his films (The Ides of March). However, in my opinion, Jennifer Lawrence is indeed one of the best young actresses working today.

    A great actress makes you believe they are the character they are playing, right?. Well, Lawrence has nailed every character she has played (besides Winter's Bone check out The Burning Plain, The Poker House, The Hunger Games). I also loved her performance as Tiffany in SLP because she reminded me so much of a relative of mine that it was scary...like Lawrence hung out with her or something. Anyway, that's 2 cents worth of my humble opinion.

  • Nicholas

    Three of these are Oscar nominees. Something tells me those film's DVD/On-Demand profits would disagree with your assesment.

  • profession: none, or starlet

    Oh, please review Boy A. It's beautiful, unsettling, and heartbreaking, and Garfield is excellent in it.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    Ok, I feel like I've been trolled...I didn't even notice most comments were from 11 months ago until one of them was complaining about a re-post.

    That being said, I don't know if it made her a star, but Emily Mortimer in Young Adam is utterly heart-breaking and gives a ridiculously vulnerable performance.

  • John W

    Great list. Still waiting for Eric Bana to follow up Chopper with something that'll take his career to the next level.

  • Todd Sikkema

    How about Tom Hardy in Deserter?

  • Recently, my roommate and I have been getting into Independent Films. One of the first of them that I watched was Winter's Bone. Please, EVERYONE needs to see this movie. It was amazing and I want to tell everyone about it. Excellent movie...
    Brian @ Denver Mortgage Company

  • Nadine

    I hadn't realise who was actually starring on Boy A.

    That film made me fucking angry as fuck.

  • Malone

    Boy A is such a harrowing movie, loosely based on the baby James Bulger killers in the UK. Eric Bana was known as a comedian in Australia before he did Chopper (see him in a great film called The Castle). I still find it hard to take him seriously....

  • carrie

    OMG i saw all these movies before their leads become famous

  • Devlin

    Jennifer Lawrence is perfection in Winter's Bone. Lawrence is such a wonderful, charismatic actress. Word on the street is that Jennifer Lawrence will be nominated for Silver Linings Playbook for Best Actress...that's two nominations for Best Actress in two years which is pretty fucking amazing.

  • Jason Malmberg

    Gosling got on my radar with The Believer a few years before that and THAT is the one that you should watch. Half Nelson is fine and all, but The Believer (while not a great film) absolutely works from the engine of Gosling's performance.

  • Artemis

    And on a big of a tangent: I'm sure that it's much more expensive/time-consuming to produce new content, but over the past year or so it does seem like there is a *lot* more of these kinds of recycled posts on Pajiba than there used to be. I'm just one person and you don't owe me anything, etc., but personally, I would rather see half as many posts every day if they had new material/substantive discussion in each of them, rather than 15 or 20 posts of which 90% are lists (with most of the blurbs lifted from old reviews) or caption contests/comment roundups or links to other sites.

    Today, for example, I would happily trade this list and a clip of an old Denzel Washington movie and pictures of babies with politicians and a caption contest for one think piece talking about the kinds of indie roles that have launched careers and whether there are patterns in which roles do that most or how actors find/get those roles or whether that's a change from how actors used to break into serious roles or something beyond "here's a list of people who (mostly) had their careers launched by an indie movie."

  • Artemis

    What I get from this is that men who want to be seen as Serious Actors should choose something involving a prison, and women who want to be seen as Serious Actresses should choose something involving poor people in a rural area.

  • godo

    Nice job with the recycling of previous posts--and your studious efforts to re-purpose them within the context of this theme. But how fucking lazy are you nerds? You seriously couldn't take the 15 minutes to update these blurbs so they in some way reflect the unifying principle? Your bit on Junebug doesn't even mention Amy Adams--who is one of the purported subjects of your "article." Fuck you.

  • Someone also needs to take a red pen to the Winter's Bone piece and have the beginning of it actually make sense.

  • Wednesday

    I've seen all of those except Chopper and Boy A. And you're right, these are all incredible performances. Memorable in ways that you think of long after you've forgotten the other details of the movie.

  • JQ

    I would like to add Heath Ledger in Two Hands

  • poop

    RE: Ellen Page.

    Umm, yeah, no.

    Remember Juno? That insufferably twee movie about the indie slut who got fucked and knocked up on purpose? The same movie that got multiple Oscar nominations, absolutely NONE of which were deserved?

    That movie.

    After which you endlessly fapped and farted and bleated that Page was a HUGE STAR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! and would win Oscars for the next 30 fucking years.

    And then Page did that horrible piece of shit roller derby movie with Drew Barrymore and everyone discovered that she can't act for shit.

  • Jezzer

    Juno had sex with one person and accidentally got pregnant. Calling her a "slut" is the height of idiocy.

  • cicatricella

    & Whip It was fucking awesome.

  • $27019454

    I need to throw out Gerard Butler in Dear Frankie...made all the more poignant by his failure to ever ever l;ive up to that quiet, restrained performance again..

    Also, you mention Junebug's Amy Adams but dont really go into the niceties of her performance in the narrative paragraph. For anyone who has only known her as a Disney Princess type, she is AMAZING in this movie (Junebug). So is Allessandro Nivola, who I always wishe would be more used and visible...He's got so much goin on and Junebug proves it.

    And I think it's Hard Candy that has such a lovely soundtrack by Nuno Bettancourt? (Not able to surf over to IMDB at present)...?

  • leuce7

    I loved Dear Frankie! Emily Mortimer was the heart of that film but Gerard Butler's role was absolutely pivotal, and wonderfully done. I think, though, having Phantom of the Opera in wide release before Dear Frankie hit many theaters really killed Dear Frankie's prospects in the US--who would see Gerard Butler in Phantom and decide to go catch his indie flick on the strength of the Phantom performance?

    I have never before come across anyone else who's heard of Dear Frankie, let alone seen it. Also, it probably really hits close to home for me because I was raised by a single mom (widowed, but still).

  • Sara_Tonin00

    I confused Nivola and Bradley Cooper for the longest time...

  • Gina

    I don't know how many people - at least here on Pajiba - only know her as a Disney princess. She's definitely made an effort to avoid being typecast.

  • AudioSuede

    I thought Bronson was a triumph in every way. The directing marveled me nearly as much as Hardy's performance; the staging of it as a sort of clown's play up against this really horrific violence gives the whole piece a disturbing but utterly engrossing quality. Hardy clearly studied clown work for it, too; just the way he walks down the sidewalk is so absurd that it's almost impossible to take him seriously, until of course he's naked and covered in his own blood.

  • Guest


  • mb

    I absolutely adore Hunger, Half-Nelson, and Junebug. I thought Hard Candy and Winter's Bone were a bit over praised. Mysterious Skin kind of destroyed something in me. Forever amazed by JGL (or, at the time I watched it, "holy shit the kid from 3rd rock can ACT") but I could never watch it again.

  • Pookie

    A white woman in “Oldboy,” the fuck. What, Oldboy goes on a rampage after he discovers that the girl he’s been fucking is not only his daughter but she also suffers from bulimia and wears skinny jeans?

  • DarthCorleone

    Great list - thanks!

    I kept clicking back over to Pajiba and getting creeped out by that blinking .gif that heads this article atop the main page, though.

  • Slash

    I'll throw in Emily Blunt in "Sunshine Cleaning." Amy Adams was also good in that. I don't know if it launched anybody, but worth seeing anyway.

  • jcoa2

    I might suggest Clive Owen in The Croupier. Excellent movie, too.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    My thoughts exactly.

  • Monica

    Was Hardy's Wuthering Heights before or after Bronson?

  • Pants-are-a-must

    After. He carries the Bronson weight in it.

  • zeke_the_pig

    I remember a few years ago breaking into my university's lecture theatre at night with a bunch of friends, a couple of beers and a laptop with a downloaded copy of Bronson on it. We plugged the laptop into the big projector usually used for presentations and sat back to enjoy one of the most memorable movie experiences of my life. Boy, does that film fucking skullfuck you in the head, in the best way possible. I am goddamn happy that Hardy rode the wave of success that he deserved.

    Winter's Bone was harrowing as fuck. Everything Lawrence has done since, no matter the quality, has in fact been a letdown for me.

  • Fredo

    You can go back and see Hardy as "Handsome Bob" in Ritchie's RocknRolla. Do that and then see Bronson. It's like night and day -- not just on his physical transformation but in his levels. Handsome Bob is all smirks and sexual innuendo. Bronson is a tornado, looking for a house to fall upon.

    The thing is Bronson isn't that great a movie. Refn lets it get away from him because he really has no plot to go through. But watching Hardy in it, you might not care.

  • AudioSuede

    RockNRolla is a really underrated movie. It might be my favorite Guy Ritchie flick.

  • Pants-are-a-must

    Forget RocknRolla. Watch Hardy as Bronson and then as Stuart Shorter in Stuart: A Life Backwards and try to reconcile that it's the same man in your mind. Tom Hardy has been one of the most underrated actors of this generation for a better part of a decade now.

  • RudeMorgue

    Boy, I can't wait to see Ellen Page in X-Men: The Last Stand.

  • Indeed - that 19-year old is going to be big!

  • Pookie

    I bow to your greatness!

  • Guest


  • Abbey Road

    Gosling - The Believer??

  • Jelly

    Yeah, the Believer was an excellent film and a great performance for Gosling while still having a lot of action, plot, and conversation. Half-Nelson is probably a better representation of his adult career though. Ambiguity is there, but with a lot less talking and action. Half-Nelson is the beginning of Gosling just reacting to things. What do you call cheese that's not yours? Shareeka Epps was so good in that movie.

  • ZbornakSyndrome

    The Believer blew my little teenage mind.

  • mb

    Another great one!

  • PDamian

    I'm not sure if Rebel Wilson was known for anything prior to Bridesmaids, but damned if that performance didn't blow me away. She was terrific in Pitch Perfect, too. I predict great things.

  • TSF

    Hunger is one of the greatest films I have ever seen in my life. I cannot heap enough praise on it.

  • Mrs. Julien

    It was incredible and I never, ever want to see it again.

  • Pants-are-a-must

    Mysterious Skin is equal to Requiem For A Dream in my mind. Equally compelling, superficially beautiful and resoundingly disturbing. Cannot watch either of those movies ever again, but my mad respect for JGL is forever sealed.

    Bronson, on the other hand, is all Hardy. Not even Refn that much (as obvious by his choice of Gosling as his muse). And Hardy is having the time of his life, playing Bronson. His delight is infectious.

  • John G.

    I've heard people can't watch Requiem for a Dream ever again, but I watch it every year, so I don't understand. Can you explain what specifically is so horrible in that film?

  • Anonymous

    I saw it premiere when I was living in Germany, and didn't know exactly what all it was about. At the time, I was battling a cocaine addiction, so it hit my ass HARD.
    When I left the theater after it was over I was BAWLING...

    But I still love it and watch it.

    But I can see where people can't.

  • Pants-are-a-must

    Some movies are just too emotionally difficult to watch. They vary from person to person. I personally get too emotionally invested in the characters of Requiem, and the compound sorrow is too much for me to bear while watching. I know other people who react to it the same way you do, though.

  • Natallica

    I don't know if it's something easy to explain. It's not like "I just don't want to see Jared Leto lose his arm again". It's like your unconscious mind it's the one who refuses to watch the goddamn movie again, and you just don't realize it

  • zeke_the_pig

    Ditto on both counts.

  • John W

    Bronson was amazing. So was Hard Candy.

  • What about Tom Hardy in Star Trek: Nemesis. I'd say Hardy and Gosling do not particularly belong on this list.

  • danobc

    "Oh, good old Shinzon" - Mike (RLM). Shinzon was pretty much the same as Bane.

  • Jemiah Jefferson

    Shinzon is Bane's goth little brother.

  • You're missing the wonderful Anna Kendrick in Rocket Science.

  • e jerry powell

    Camp, Rocket Science, tomato, tomahto.

  • pajiba

    You're so right. One of my favorite movies

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