12 Hidden Gems Starring the Avengers Cast

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Everyone’s going to see Avengers: Age of Ultron
this weekend — we think it’s the law or something — and although this
sequel’s inevitably massive grosses will definitely be partly driven by
the prospect of witnessing the effects-assisted spectacle of a
superhero team battling an evil robot, the outstanding ensemble cast
definitely doesn’t hurt. In honor of all these stars reuniting (with
some terrific additions) to fight for the future of the human race,
we’ve decided to dedicate this week’s list to some lesser-seen critical
highlights from their respective filmographies. Avengers assemble, Total
Recall style!


Robert Downey Jr.Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2005)

Before they weaved blockbuster Marvel magic with Iron Man 3, Downey and writer-director Shane Black worked together on 2005’s Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang,
a skewed noir comedy starring Downey as a two-bit hood who repeatedly
breaks the fourth wall as he stumbles from one circumstance
(accidentally landing a movie role) to another (discovering a murder
mystery) while trading quips with the private investigator (Val Kilmer)
who’s helping him research his character. Kiss Kiss saw only
limited release during its brief theatrical run, but it earned high
praise from the likes of the Washington Post’s Desson Howe, who called
it “the first movie since 1994’s Pulp Fiction not just to understand movie violence as a pop cultural form… but to play it like a virtuoso violinist.”


Chris HemsworthRush (2013)

The reality of set life for actors is obviously very different from
what we end up seeing on the screen, but in terms of sheer
gee-whizitude, Chris Hemsworth is basically living out an eight-year-old
boy’s dream vision of a sweet Hollywood career. Not only does the guy
get to wield Thor’s magic hammer while zooming around the universe
pummeling villains, he got to spend his Marvel vacation playing
real-life world-famous race car driver James Hunt, whose rivalry with
fellow racer Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) forms the spine of Ron Howard’s Rush.
Even better than the chance to speed around a racetrack, the movie also
offered Hemsworth an opportunity to flex a different type of acting
muscle, and he proved himself more than up to the challenge; as Andrew
O’Hehir wrote for Salon, “I’ve seen Brühl in several German-language
films, and I’m not surprised that he’s perfect as the monomaniacal
Lauda, but Hemsworth is the revelation here.”


Mark RuffaloYou Can Count on Me (2000)

Ruffalo found relatively steady work during his early years in Hollywood, but mainly via roles in films like The Dentist and a couple of Mirror, Mirror
sequels. It wasn’t until he developed a working relationship with
writer-director Kenneth Lonergan that things started to pick up — most
notably with 2000’s You Can Count on Me, a small-scale,
character-driven drama, written and directed by Lonergan, that
eventually served as a critically lauded calling card for himself,
Ruffalo, and Laura Linney (who earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination
for her work). Ruffalo doesn’t get to smash in this story about a
ne’er-do-well brother whose sudden reappearance proves a mixed blessing
for his sister and nephew, but his performance is infused with the same
quiet soulfulness that Joss Whedon has relied on to help ground some of
the Avengers movies’ more meaningful moments. Observed Michael
Dequina for the Movie Report, “Linney and Ruffalo’s rapport is warm but
raw and unsentimental, capturing the unconditional tough love dynamic
that can only exist between siblings.”


Chris EvansSnowpiercer (2014)

Evans has publicly chafed under the all-consuming level of commitment
required by blockbuster superhero franchises, and lamented that the type
of brave, individualistic filmmaking that used to be subsidized by our
fondness for popcorn epics is far more difficult to get off the ground
in modern Hollywood. In a sense, he was proven right by his experiences
with Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, which found itself in the
middle of a distribution battle between Bong and the Weinstein Company
after the studio mandated cuts and edits to the American version that
the director wasn’t willing to make. Ultimately, the movie — which
blends thrilling set pieces and sociopolitical themes against an
eye-popping sci-fi backdrop and freewheeling direction that left many
viewers’ heads spinning — triumphed over its limited release by racking
up more than $85 million and a whole bunch of rapturous reviews. For
Evans, whose character makes a long march for social justice across a
futuristic train shielding the remnants of the human race from a long
post-apocalyptic winter, it offered the chance to play a different kind
of action hero while reaping critical praise from the likes of
Film.com’s James Rocchi, who wrote, “If the film has one element that
never flags or falters, it’s Evans.”


Scarlett JohanssonUnder the Skin (2014)

If hostile aliens came to Earth and wanted to lure our planet’s men to
their doom, they could do a lot worse than sending a specimen that looks
like Scarlett Johansson to drive around in a van and go cruising for
fresh meat. Case in point: Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin,
starring Johansson as an alien skulking around Scotland and gobbling up
single dudes’ souls — a premise that could have tumbled to Species-level
depths in the wrong hands, but in this case, holds together as a
hypnotically creepy exercise in existential dread. “Johansson is
phenomenal in every sense of the word,” enthused Peter Travers for
Rolling Stone. “She joins Glazer in creating a brave experiment in
cinema that richly rewards the demands it makes. The result is an
amazement, a film of beauty and shocking gravity.”


Jeremy RennerThe Immigrant (2014)

A lavishly mounted period piece from director James Gray, 2014’s The Immigrant
presents a horror-show picture of life in 1920s America for a pair of
Polish sisters (Marion Cotillard and Angela Sarafyan) who are separated
at Ellis Island when one is discovered to be carrying an illness. Alone
and desperate to be reunited with her sister, Cotillard’s character
crosses paths with a smooth-talking benefactor (Joaquin Phoenix) who
takes her in so he can use her as one of the attractions in his
burlesque show, which functions as a front for a prostitution ring.
Trapped and miserable, she finds herself in a grueling downward spiral
whose only hope for reversal lies in a good-hearted magician (Jeremy
Renner) who just happens to be Phoenix’s brother. “The film is an
achievement,” argued Wesley Morris for Grantland. “Its complex reckoning
of moral decency deserves a bigger audience.”


Samuel L. JacksonJungle Fever (1991)

While far from his first film role, Samuel L. Jackson’s work in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever
could arguably be called his breakout appearance; in fact, so
compelling was his portrayal of Gator, the drug-addicted brother of Fever
protagonist Flipper Purify (Wesley Snipes), that Cannes created the
Best Supporting Performance Award award just to honor him. It’s all the
more remarkable considering that Jackson had only just gotten out of
rehab himself — as he’s told the story, he exited treatment mere weeks
before the cameras rolled on Jungle Fever, adding an additional
touch of realism to a tale of interracial romance that already
fearlessly latched on to timely and too-rarely explored themes. “The
result, for the most part,” observed the Washington Post’s Desson
Thomson, “is a provocative, quintessentially Spike symphony.”


Aaron Taylor-Johnson: Nowhere Boy (2010)

It takes chutzpah to play a real-life celebrity in a film, especially
one as beloved — and as complex — as John Lennon, so even if he’d
muffed the execution, we’d have to give Aaron Taylor-Johnson points for
bravery with Nowhere Boy, director Sam Taylor-Wood’s biopic
(filmed from a script by Matt Greenhalgh) about Lennon’s turbulent
teenage years and musical beginnings. Happily, he was up to the task,
delivering a performance that presented the young Lennon as a troubled
yet talented kid rather than rock ‘n’ roll royalty in the making. As
Christopher Lloyd put it for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, “It succeeds
as a moving story of a boy, expressively played by Aaron Johnson, whose
life would have been interesting enough to justify a movie about it even
if he’d never gone on to be one of the Beatles.”


Elizabeth OlsenMartha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

Plenty of future stars have humble beginnings tucked away at the front
end of their résumés, but few can boast the rocket-like arc of Elizabeth
Olsen, whose filmography soars from a cameo appearance in 1994’s How the West Was Fun
— one of the countless direct-to-video efforts filmed by her older
twin sisters Mary-Kate and Ashley — to her wildly acclaimed starring
role in 2011’s Martha Marcy May Marlene. Before she filmed this
haunting drama about a young woman’s struggles to cope with her past
after escaping from a cult, many people didn’t even know the Olsen twins
had a sister; after its critically heralded arrival, she was a bona
fide star. “The story hinges on a believable lead performance, and Olsen
is mesmerizing in her first film role,” enthused USA Today’s Claudia
Puig. “She starts out wide-eyed and vulnerable and eventually assumes
the look of a captive, communicating raw paranoia with subtle gestures.”


James SpaderSecretary (2002)

Before E.L. James built a publishing empire out of Anastasia and
Christian’s sadomasochistic exploits, the film world had its own
celebrity dominating/submissive couple: E. Edward Grey (James Spader)
and Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal), whose decidedly unorthodox love
affair is chronicled in Steven Shainberg’s 2002 film Secretary. Expanded and adapted from author Mary Gaitskill’s short story Bad Behavior,
it earned a small mountain of acclaim (including a Sundance Special
Jury Prize) while raising countless eyebrows with its depiction of a
relationship that, loosely speaking, begins with the new confidence
awakened in an emotionally troubled young woman after her boss gives her
a spanking in the office. But under the surface, wrote Karen Montgomery
for Cinerina, “It’s an interesting exploration of people finding and
accepting themselves and then finding the puzzle piece that fits this
new shape.”


Paul BettanyThe Young Victoria (2009)

When you can marry your first cousin in front of the entire world and
still be awesome enough to have an entire era named after you, you
deserve a solid biopic — and that’s what Queen Victoria got with 2009’s
The Young Victoria, starring Emily Blunt as the young monarch
and Rupert Friend as her eventual king. As the reform-minded Prime
Minister (and one of the Queen’s earliest close advisers) Lord
Melbourne, Bettany took a supporting role among a solid cast that
included Miranda Richardson and Jim Broadbent, helping Victoria earn the
praise of critics like Christopher Kelly of the Dallas Morning News,
who wrote, “If The Young Victoria never transcends its fussy trappings — it’s still a familiar costume drama — it remains brisk and intelligent.”


Don CheadleTalk to Me (2007)

Though he’s often appeared as part of ensemble casts, Cheadle has
occasionally had the opportunity to take the spotlight for himself — as
with 2007’s Talk to Me, which dramatized the life of radio
host and Emmy-winning television personality Petey Greene. Though his
fame was mostly restricted to the Washington, D.C. area, Greene was an
influential figure for many years, using his gift of gab and
inspirational journey from prison to the airwaves as the building blocks
for a career that earned him acclaim, a visit to the White House (where
he famously joked he stole a spoon), and the admiration of followers
such as Howard Stern. It wasn’t a huge hit, and members of Greene’s
family criticized its historical inaccuracies, but as far as most
critics were concerned, Talk to Me was well worth watching. As
Neil Smith wrote for Total Film, “If the picture doesn’t ultimately live
up to the raw vitality of Cheadle’s performance, it remains an
uplifting snapshot that broadcasts its message with zero distortion.
Tune in and you won’t be turned off.” – Rotten Tomatoes

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