Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, The Amazing Spider-Man and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 — The Spider-Man reboot was not good, in part because they chose to tell yet another origin story and because the sequel seemed to be slapped together too quickly. The scripts were bad, Marc Webb was out of his depth (and those first-person POV shots were inexplicable) and the villains weren’t particularly compelling. However, Garfield and Stone were magnificent in both films, and translated their real-life chemistry into one of — if not the — best superhero-movie couple ever. I’m glad there won’t be a third installment, because it probably wouldn’t work at all without Garfield and Stone together.
Jake Gyllenhaal, Southpaw — Southpaw doesn’t have an original bone in its body, the blunt Kurt Sutter dialogue is painfully hamfisted, and it’s often a needlessly morose boxing movie. But Gyllenhaal (and to a smaller extent, Rachel McAdams) is masterful in a transformative role. What’s so remarkable is not how he got ripped for the role, but the way he imbues the character with so much hurt and anger. It’s not often that a single performance can salvage a bad film by itself, but Gyllenhaal really does make every second of Southpaw worth watching.
Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart — Crazy 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).
Ryan Reynolds in Blade Trinity — Terrible movie, but if you want a preview of what to expect of Reynolds in Deadpool, go see Blade Trinity. It’s vintage Ryan Reynolds wise-assery, as he steals every scene he’s in. I also think it might have been the first major Ryan Reynolds role with a beard. He should’ve never shaved it off.
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 not even Bale’s considerable charisma can save Harsh Times, a sweaty, stupid, pointless film.
Meryl Streep in Lions of Lambs, Iron Lady, Ricki and the Flash 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.). I wouldn’t call Ricki and the Flash a bad film, but 75 percent of why it’s so enchanting is because of Streep.
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 Legend — I 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 Ages — Rock 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.
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 anti-Semitic 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.
Sigourney Weaver in Alien 3 — Alien 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.
The Entire Cast of The Help — I’m sorry, it’s true. That movie was balls (and offensive), but that entire main cast — Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Emma Stone, Jessica Chastain and Bryce Dallas Howard — was fantastic, and enough to make you forget you were watching a mediocre Lifetime film.