10 Terrific Performances in Otherwise Bad Movies

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10 Terrific Performances in Otherwise Bad Movies

By Dustin Rowles | Seriously Random Lists | September 3, 2013 | Comments ()


Mel Gibson in The Beaver The Beaver is not a very good film, and I’d love nothing more than to lay the blame at the foot of the middle-aged white man who plays Walter Black, the depressed individual at the center of the movie. Mel Gibson’s performance, however, is outstanding, maybe the best of his career, but it doesn’t save The Beaver from its pat predictability, its trite sentimentality, and the narrative cheats that director Jodie Foster takes. There is a good script at play here, and one hell of a remarkable lead performance, but Foster slaughters the film, turning what should’ve been a biting black comedy into a simpering family drama.

Jeff Bridges in Crazy HeartCrazy Heart was originally slated to go straight to DVD, and you can understand why. It is as generic a musician biopic as they come, the tale of a washed-up country singer who overcomes his addiction for one last shot at fame, helped along by a former protege. The generic template is further busted by a needless romantic subplot involving Maggie Gyllenhaal, which does little to salvage the narrative. However, Jeff Bridges turns in such a brilliant, powerful and knowing performance (he won an Oscar for it, after all), that he does what few actors are capable: He almost single-handedly salvages a bad film (though, he gets a strong assist from T. Bone Burnett’s incredibly country music soundtrack and a surprisingly capable supporting performance from Colin Farrell).

Denzel Washington in Flight — Denzel practically owns this list, and you could probably identify 5 or six other Denzel films (at least) that are completely salvaged by his performances. Flight is only the most recent, and maybe the most striking because Denzel’s Oscar-nominating performance came in an incredibly expensive public service announcement for the 12-Step Program, a movie about the random, unexplained nature of “God’s plan.” Flight is an addiction drama, and it’s not a very good addiction drama at that. Besides the plane crash, it’s a fairly generic movie about substance abuse, replete with all the usual addiction tropes. But as always, Denzel is captivating enough onscreen that he makes it a tolerable viewing experience.

Christian Bale in Harsh Times — David Ayer’s 2005 films tough-minded drama about two friends in South Central Los Angeles and the violence that comes between them features a sterling performance from Christian Bale, who outguns the supporting cast every step of the way, bringing touches of humanity to an increasingly inhuman role, oscillating easily between raw force and surprising tenderness. But as Daniel Carlson writes in his review, “not even Bale’s considerable charisma can save Harsh Times, a sweaty, stupid, pointless film.”

Meryl Streep in Lions of Lambs, Iron Lady and Julie and Julia — You could probably add even more Meryl Streep performances to this list because, while Meryl Streep guarantees every film she’s in has at least one outstanding performance, she cannot, unfortunately, guarantee a great film. She is, however, frequently the one saving grace of otherwise forgettable films like the Robert Redford’s very bland Lion for Lambs (which also boasted an outstanding supporting performance from Andrew Garfield), The Iron Lady, an otherwise meandering, disorganized history lesson bolstered by Streep’s wondrous performance, and Julie and Julia, which was only half of a decent film (the Julia half, obvs.).

Nick Nolte in Affliction — Another ham-fisted, overwrought bleak addiction drama with heavy-handed metaphors and a murder mystery at its center, Affliction is nevertheless completely salvaged by the powerhouse performances of James Coburn (who won an Oscar) and Nick Nolte (nominated for and should have won an Oscar). It’s not an enjoyable film to watch, or even that interesting, but with Nolte and Coburn’s performances lifting it up, it’s almost impossible to recognize it as an otherwise mediocre film.

Will Smith in I Am LegendI Am Legend is a sci-fi flick brimming with great ideas, and is so good for so long that the last 25 minutes hurt doubly so because of what came before it. The last act of I Am Legend feels like a spiked wrecking ball into the left orb, puncturing your fibrous tunic and spilling eye collagen into your lap. I Am Legend is as good as it is for as long as it is primarily because of Will Smith’s performance. Most of the film is centered on Smith’s character who is isolated in Manhattan after a virus has wiped away most of the world’s population. Like Tom Hanks in Cast Away, Smith turns in a riveting, dominating performance. Unfortunately, his awe-inspiring performance is railroaded by an unforgivable last act replete with a Bob Marley tribute, an out-of-f*cking-nowhere Jesus theme, massive explosions, a butterfly tattoo, and some truly horrid Spielbergian schmaltziness.

Tom Cruise in Rock of AgesRock of Ages is a very bad film that I happened to like because of a nostalgic affection for the cheesy music at the center of the film, and because of Tom Cruise, who is singing show-tune versions of terrible 80’s rock anthems, and he’s doing it fearlessly. This is Crazy-Cakes Cruise, the Tom Cruise that jumped on Oprah’s coach with the enthusiasm of a schoolgirl who had just been given a pony for her birthday. I love Tom Cruise for the over-amped, over-choreographed rendition of Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive” in this film, and say what you want about his acting skills, say what you want about him as a person, Tom Cruise tries harder than any guy on the planet to please an audience, and it’s that effort, that zeal, and that determination that seeps into Rock of Ages, turning what is essentially High School Musical 4: The Glam Rock Years into one uncool occassionally crowd-pleasing movie.

Leonardo DiCaprio in The Basketball Diaries and J. Edgar — DiCaprio is another one of those great actors who is capable of elevating everything he’s in (well, almost. Man in the Iron Mask), but the two best examples are one very early one, in Basketball Diaries, and a very recent one in J. Edgar. 1995’s Basketball Diaries is based on a Jim Carroll memoir about a gifted teenager that turned away from school and basketball and turned toward a hellish life of drugs. The memoir didn’t translate well at all to film, but DiCaprio’s bravura performance confirmed that his Oscar-nominated Gilbert Grape performance was not a fluke. Meanwhile, DiCaprio did his best to salvage Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar biopic, but like too many biopics, the scale of the film bit off way more than it could chew and lumbers along limply, despite a DiCaprio performance that nearly keeps the film afloat.

Sigourney Weaver in Alien 3Alien 3 was basically screwed before the movie ever got off the ground, spending $7 million in pre-production and losing director Renny Harlin, who was replaced by a little-known music director by the name of David Fincher. Basically, Fincher was asked to turn someone else’s vision into a movie, and sparks flew between the director and Walter Hill. The end product was a mess. However, Sigourney Weaver is as impressive as ever in the sequel, turning in another exhilarating kick-ass performance in a series dominated by great performances,

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Some Guy

    The entire cast of Alien 3 is stellar. Pete Postlethwaite, Charles S. Dutton (where the hell'd he go?), Charles Dance, etc. etc. They all do a great job with what they were handed, and because of it Alien 3 has a quality lacking in the second and fourth movies. Aside from Alien, it also has the best direction, if you ask me.

  • Judge_Snyder

    "a surprisingly capable supporting performance from Colin Farrell"

    Farrell can be very good if he's got the right material. It's when he tries to be a "star" that things fall down.

  • BlackRabbit

    See "Fright Night" in which he was damn good.

  • RobynRobotron

    The stage show for Rock of Ages was so much better than the movie. It's a lot more tongue in cheek, for one, but the change that makes the biggest difference (to this feminist anyway) is much more serious. In the play, Drew and Sherrie go out once before the Arsenal show and Drew neglects to make a move on here. Later, she has sex with Stacee Jaxx and Drew flips out. She gets rightfully pissed, and quits. In the movie, it's all a big misunderstanding, and Stacee had sex with the reporter instead. It really burns my garters and makes me think that there was a problem with the female romantic lead owning her sexuality. Then again, the Stacee Jaxx character in the play doesn't fare as well as in the movie and the reporter is only there to report, so I think Cruise may actually be to blame for part of this change.

    Sorry to go so off topic, but I hadn't seen either when the original review was posted and if I go post there now, it would be a purely masturbatory gesture.

  • Uriah_Creep

    So what's wrong with masturbation?

  • Pat Sponaugle

    I'm happy to read as many articles as you'll write complaining about the last part of I Am Legend. It's a cliche to just say the book was better, but the book at least had an amazing ending that lived up to the title.

  • JB

    Robert Downey Jr. in Less Than Zero

  • Naye.2 greatatforgettinglogins

    I always see his face after Andrew McCarthy catches him doing his "services" and it breaks my heart.

  • Another Jen

    I'm kind of surprised I made it past the "drug addict takes her intended last giant hit of heroin with 'Under the Bridge' playing in the background" scene at the beginning of Flight, but Denzel kept me watching. Dude's got potential.

  • Robert

    Robin McLeavy gives a knock out performance as the villain in The Loved Ones, which could have been a decent film if 90% of the run time wasn't dedicated to loving close-ups of human torture. Forks as deadly weapons are just the tip of the iceberg in that shitshow.

  • weetiger3

    Another fun Pajiba list that I find spot on, especially the mentions of Mel Gibson in The Beaver (if he hadn't hijacked the crazy train before this film was released, his performance at the very least would have gotten some respect), as well as Tom Cruise in Rock of Ages. I liked the film for the same reasons you did (the affection for the cheesy music) and whole-heartedly agree with your assessment of Cruise. Fearless is right. For good or ill, he's the biggest movie star in the world, but he never stops trying.

  • VohaulsRevenge

    Re Alien 3: I'm going to have say it's a tie between Weaver and the sorely-underused Charles Dutton. Their performances were inseparable.

  • VohaulsRevenge

    Can only agree with the assessment of "I Am Legend"; I can't remember the last time I was as let down by a movie that started as well as that one did. It's like J.G. Ballard started it and a typewriter monkey finished it.

  • Pitry

    Well, they did completely change the ending and with it the entire point of the entire story - that point which appears in the title, damnit! - after test screenings. So, in a way, it IS like a typewriter monkey finished it, as this is pretty much what happened...

  • Holly Martins

    Christopher Walken in too many of his movies...

  • e jerry powell

    I give Leo a lot of credit for a lot of things. His turn as Arthur Rimbaud in Total Eclipse showed a level of commitment that seems truly atypical for actors of his age at that point in their careers. He just went there with every aspect of the character.

  • lowercase_ryan

    I've only seen 2 of these, Legend and Aliens. My impeccable taste wins the day yet again.

    *runs to watch The Replacements for the 500th time*

  • $27019454

    Ana Farris in "Just Friends." She goes balls-out and I LOVE HER.

  • RobynRobotron

    This, absolutely!!! I own that movie just for her.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    into the left orb, puncturing your fibrous tunic and spilling eye collagen into your lap.

    so today was "eyeball" on your Anatomy Page-a-Day calendar?

  • $27019454

    Or "ew, gross" day.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    "ew, gross" day happened when the phrase "the lower bean garden" slid into my brain.

  • GDI


  • Sara_Tonin00
  • GDI

    I know.

  • Jifaner

    The Basketball Diaries is one of my all-time favorite movies. Any time someone crapped on DiCaprio as an actor after Titanic I pointed to that movie and to Rimbaud. I also really liked Crazy Heart, but I have a soft spot for Jeff Bridges.

  • The patron saint of this category is Michael Moriarty in Q: The Winged Serpent.

  • indarchandra

    can we add Ryan Reynolds in Blade 3 to this list, or will that just get me a angry mob of pajibans outside my door with pitchforks and comic books?

  • VohaulsRevenge

    YES. Reynolds is the *only* reason to watch that movie. If every protagonist except him had gotten killed in the first five minutes, it would've been the best Blade movie, ever.

    I've proudly added his "This is the Honeycomb Hideout" to my everyday lexicon.

  • axis2clusterB

    Totally agree. Ryan Reynolds owned that movie.

  • i might also add jodie foster in 'nell' and...


    heath ledger in 'the dark knight.' i hated virtually minute of that movie. i maintain that it will age very, very poorly.

  • junierizzle

    Well it's been five years and it is still regarded as the best comic book movie ever. It will age like a fine wine.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    I know I aged *during* that movie.

  • $27019454

    I'm with you on Dark Knight (sorry...no go on Nell). I am one of the maybe 3 people on the planet whow dislikes (intensely) Bale in this role. Just STOP with the put-on-serious-raspy-portentious-doom voice, OKAAAYYY??? But Heath was pretty good. *duckandcover*

  • cicatricella

    you are not alone. I long for the day when I no longer have to endure Bale with bat-ears. That voice. It's like fingernails on a chalkboard.

  • mats19

    Here, Here!

  • Carrie/Teablly

    I'm right there with you. I start to get irrationally angry about those films and how much people enjoyed them, when for me they are merely ok at best. And Bale...god, not a fan of his as Batman or Bruce Wayne. Ack.

  • Sars

    That scene with the dog.. why did they have to do that to me-- for the rest of the movie I couldn't even focus- It made me numb and all I wanted was to leave and cry in the bathroom.

  • Melissa D

    Me too. And my aunt has a beautiful german shepherd who owns me, and I have a hard time watching that movie at all now.

  • I (regrettably) watched Pain & Gain the other week. Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson is legitimately engaging in this otherwise tepid turd of a film. Come to think of it, the Rock is the best part of a lot of crappy films -- GI Joe 2, Be Cool, Fast & Furious. The dude is an actual screen presence.

    *don't anyone dare add The Rundown to my list because The Rundown is an utterly awesome movie

  • van1968

    And Snitch, from earlier this year. He really does personify the concept of this column.

  • Sean

    At this point, I don't think anyone would say anything bad about the Rock. Other than the fact that he makes 10 movies a year. He is the best part of them, but that is still too much.

  • lowercase_ryan

    Seann William Scott saves everything. He's a hero.

    See: Stark Raving Mad

  • Skyler Durden

    I watched P&G because I was completely mesmerized by the actual events that it was based upon. And I don't regret that decision. The original article was bonkers, and so was the movie.

    /I also loved him in Faster.

  • NateMan

    Yeah, but Faster was a genuinely good movie, a throwback to the revenge flicks of yore. Otherwise I agree with everything above. Dwayne Johnson is a damned national treasure.

  • PDamian

    I don't think I've ever agreed so wholeheartedly with any Pajiba list as much as I do with this one. Spot on. And I'd have to add Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine, Hanna, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, and others to this list. Always fierce, always inspiring, and so often let down by lousy scripts and/or directors. I saw Blue Jasmine on Monday, and while she was hilarious and heartbreaking, and the other actors were terrific (Andrew Dice Clay was touching? Get outta town!), it really wasn't Allen's best.

    [Dammit, Cate, why you gotta be so good? I went to see an aging pedophile's work just to see you!]

  • van1968

    Blue Jasmine was pretty pedestrian stuff, sure, but "not Allen's best" is a far cry from being a terrible movie. (Not that he hasn't made terrible movies.) You're right, though, that Blanchett's spectacular performance towered above the rest of the film. If Allen didn't seem impervious to the practice, I'd almost say it was just another fawning Oscar-bait movies that exist solely to draw awards for the star.

  • BuffyloGal

    Thanks for the warning. Going to see it tonight.

  • dagnabbit

    Leo's performance in Basketball Diaries is fantastic. I wouldn't say the movie is no good otherwise though....quite the opposite.
    I've never read the memoir, but as a movie with a sequential narrative the Basketball Diaries is very effective. Bruno Kirby, Marky Mark, Ernie Hudson, and especially Lorraine Bracco turn in fine performances.
    Spot on with the Beaver analysis...the movie could have gone somewhere really interesting and surprisingly, Gibson could have taken it there were he allowed to.

  • junierizzle

    I love Basketball Diaries too, it's one of my all-time time favorites. Who knows how many indie films IT has influenced.

  • $27019454

    I loved this movie. But yes, I would say that DiCaprio is the best thing in it (he's so solid and consistent in everything...) But it is filled with GREAT for all of the reasons/actors you list. I did not know it was not considered "not great..." in fact, I thought it was just criminally overlooked.

  • Milly

    Tom Cruise may not be much of a Thespian, but the fella is undoubtedly a movie star.

    When asked I would probably say I don't like him, yet I've probably seen everything he has been in and enjoyed him every time. I have no idea why. Maybe it's, as you highlight, the effort he puts in. You know he isn't half arseing it and that seems to make me appreciate him more. The running along the Burj Khalifa for MI was ridiculous and that dedication is apparent in everything he does.

    And yet I don't like him and wouldn't go out of my way to see a film of his ... It's a bloody paradox.

  • socallmeshirley

    Your point about Tom Cruise is completely dead-on. He might be terrifying and crazy and very possibly a bad person, but god damn if he doesn't work his ass off to put on a SHOW. I was grinning like a maniac all the way through MI:4, which was obviously a ridiculous movie, but Tommy gave it 200% throughout the whole movie. It actually made me a begrudging Tom Cruise fan.

  • Helo

    I've discussed Tom Cruise's filmography at length with my fellow cinephiles and movie lovers. I've come to create this theory about it, creatively titled "The Tom Cruise Theory", which goes like this:

    Chances are, a movie WITH Tom Cruise is going to be better than a Tom Cruise Movie.

    For instance... movies WITh Tom Cruise: Born on the 4th of July, Interview with A Vampire, Tropic Thunder, Collateral, Magnolia, A Few Good Men, Rain Man.

    Tom Cruise Movies: M:I series, Top Gun, Jack Reacher, etc. etc.

    Point is, the man's more than capable of delivering a solid performance as part of an ensemble or with a very good director. His solo vehicles that are designed for profit, well, your mileage may vary on them. Public perception of his private life shouldn't affect judgment of his professional abilities.

    This same theory can apply to any number of actors...

  • Sean


  • BuffyloGal

    Say what you will about his personal life, the reason he has been so successful is also in part because he surrounds himself with really talented people. His supporting casts are usually pretty amazing.

  • Krissy

    Just like the Tom Cruise in Tropic Thunder...totally brilliant performance. When he goes balls to the wall and stops taking himself seriously he creates magic

  • Sara_Tonin00

    Respect the Cock.

  • wspanin

    That dog in the bathtub kills me! My friend still laughs at me because when he had to take that dog out I got the ugly cry. Sobbing. You can kill any human in a movie and I am unphased, but the animals always get me to my core.

  • Finance_Nerd

    My initial reaction was that they were going to talk about the terrific performance from the dog when I saw this. I really thought the dog did a better job in I
    Am Legend AND was much more disappointed when he died than when W. Smith bought it.

  • Miss Jane

    We had an in house screening of the movie and when I realized that I was probably going to ugly cry in front of my colleagues and the distributor I had to get up and walk out of the theater.

  • Aaron Schulz

    homeward bound still makes me tear up, im 30 years old and the even the thought of a dog dying just ends me. If you get me and my 10 year old niece who loves dogs more then people to watch that movie youd swear our parents died.

  • Sars

    I've had German Shepherds all my life- abour 4 growing up- and watching that scene jsut destroyed me. Seriously I couldn't handle it, I felt like my heart was getting ripped out of my chest. GSs are the best dogs in the world . They are so sweet, and so kind, and losing one (like I did to a car-accident), just kills you.
    Plus you found out Sam was a GIRL .... :(

  • Krissy

    I pretty much always care more about the animals than the humans. That part of the movie WRECKED me. It was even more heartbreaking in the book though.

  • I'm embarrassed to love BOTH halves of Julie and Julia. Amy Adams steals my heart in every thing she is in!

  • BWeaves

    We agree to disagree. I could have lived without the Julie part of the movie entirely, and just watched a biopic of Julia. I would never have cast Meryl Streep as Julia Child, and yet she was brilliant.

  • apsutter

    Seriously, they should have just adapted "My Year in France." And ever since J&J was released I've been wanting a biopic starring Streep before she ages out of it.

  • Bananapanda

    A thousand times yes! I kept thinking I wanted a straight up Julia Child movie.

    Then it would go back to whiny Julie who's never eaten an egg (wtf?! was she raised by wolves?) and flings her fork around while talking. I couldn't get past her horrendous table manners, which made all the eating scenes cringe worthy.

  • $27019454

    I can't stand the guy who played her husband even tho Pajibans seem to llllurve him. He talked and chewed with his mouth open and smacked when he ate and he looked like a neanderthal. Ew ew ew.

  • Wigamer

    Especially when you know the real Julie is all kinds of asshole.

  • Skyler Durden

    The first thing I always think of is Gwyneth Paltrow in Shallow Hal. Seriously, she broke my heart in an otherwise dumb and forgettable movie.

  • $27019454

    I get the feeling it's just you and me on this one. Seems like this movie is universally reviled but I LOVE it and I love her in it.

  • apsutter

    I'm totally with you on this one. I freaking can't stand Goop but I'll watch that everytime it's on.

  • sanity fair

    Not just you two. It's one of the few times I've actually really liked her and Jack Black in anything.

  • lurker_erin

    You can't trap a fire phoenix.

  • kushiro -

    Will Smith always gives a great performance, because nobody plays Will Smith in a Will Smith movie like Will Smith.

  • catherine751

    my best friend got a nearly new green Lexus RX 350 SUV from only workin parttime on a pc. helpful site w­w­w.J­A­M­20.c­o­m

  • van1968

    Oh, a green Lexus? Why didn't you say so earlier? Sign me up!

  • NateMan

    Except maybe for Will Smith.

  • lowercase_ryan

    How long until Jaden takes a role from his old man? That would be deliciously awkward.

  • mats19

    That child does not have the Will Smith charisma... as much as they try to make him happen.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    That is because he didn't have to hustle and struggle on the mean streets of Killadelphia. He is growing up a Carleton, not a Fresh Prince.

  • Mrs. Julien

    Technically, he's growing up an Operating Thetan in a world of Suppressive Persons. It could produce the same result.

  • lowercase_ryan

    Illadelph - says The Roots

  • Long_Pig_Tailor

    And he can't even invent his own Carlton dance. It's really sort of sad.

  • linnyloo

    I think if he were to ever learn how to close his mouth, he'd be in much better shape.

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