This is part of our Decade Rewind, which runs throughout November. Keep up as we look back at the best, worst, and otherwise interesting movies and shows of the 2010s.
Maybe it’s the adrenaline talking, but performances in genre film really stick with you. They’re often at the center of my sales pitches when I’m trying to sway folks to freakier tastes (“Have you seen The Frighteners? You should! Jeffrey Combs is fantastic!”). And it’s a fact: genre film has always been flush with scene-stealing performances. And this past decade was no exception.
“Genre film” can be a fuzzy, gatekeep-y term, so let’s all get on the same page: what is a genre film, anyway? A lot of devil’s advocates with bachelor’s degrees will tell you a genre film is “any film that intends to fit a certain genre.” Which, while technically correct, unhelpfully fails to capture what a lot of us schmucks actually mean when we call something a “genre film.” If you referred to a rom-com like 50 First Dates as a “genre film,” you’d probably get a lot of weird looks, and I would definitely steal your lunch money and tie your shoelaces together.
Genre film has a pulpy bent to it, a B-movie sensibility, and a well-worn home in the midnight slot. Genre films are not defined by a low standard of quality, but they do participate in a kind of inherent lowness. The same lowness that keeps the word “horror” out of the mouths of directors like Ari Aster and Darren Aronofsky. I don’t say any of this to fan the embers of the “elevated horror” debate but merely to underline that genre film, as a genre, has a forbidden flavor to it; a sense of transgression that to some extent excludes it from being taken seriously in the big leagues.
Case in point: none of the marvelous performances on this list nabbed an Oscar. Or, in the case of our 2019 entrants, are likely to. This is a crime because these performances deserve to be celebrated, and the actors below have more chops than a butcher’s shop. Speaking of which, let’s get this show on the road. Big thanks to Kieran Fisher, Jacob Trussell, and Anna Swanson for joining in the fun. And remember: if you disagree with how the cards fell, please whisper your grievances into a jar and bury it in a field. I’ll find it. I always find it.
25. Lauren Ashley Carter in Jug Face (2013)
Jug Face is one of those little gems that crept under the radar when it was released. So perhaps that’s why people have been unaware of Lauren Ashley Carter’s magnificent performance all this time. Like Anya Taylor Joy in The VVitch, she plays a girl on the cusp of adulthood who begins to have doubts about the nutty ideology that everyone around her has been conditioned to believe in. I mention Joy here because there are some parallels between her character and Carter’s, but the latter performance hasn’t received the attention that it deserves in the grand scheme of things. (Kieran Fisher)
24. Mark Duplass in Creep (2014)
We have a couple of creeps and serial killers on this list, and they don’t come much creepier than Mark Duplass’ mumblegore maniac Josef. Creep sees Aaron, a strapped-for-cash filmmaker, lured under false pretenses into the clutches of a deranged killer. Despite the sea of red flags, Aaron persists, in part out of politeness, but also because damn if this weirdo ain’t kinda charming. Duplass easily sparks fear (it’s in the eyebrows) while simultaneously luring you into his strange, goofy world with contagious energy and an enigmatic grin. Gear-shifting through eccentricities and manipulations, Duplass’ uncomfortably naturalistic performance absolutely owns. This is a film that lives up to its title.
23. Kevin Bacon in Cop Car (2015)
Pure cinema is a lot of things, and one of them is Kevin Bacon screaming the words “COP CAR!” into a police radio. Directed by Jon Watts, Cop Car revolves around two misspent youths doing what kids do: taking abandoned cop cars on joyrides. But guess what? This car wasn’t abandoned. And Bacon’s Sheriff Kretzer would very much like it back. It may be the kid’s story, but it’s Kevin Bacon’s film. He fills the screen with seething kinetic commitment in a way that we haven’t seen since The River Wild. You could say it’s Nic Cage energy in a Kevin Bacon package, but that discounts Bacon’s own brand of unbridled vitality that he funnels into this role. He’s confident, he’s feeling himself, he’s clearly having fun, and it all makes for one of the most insanely entertaining performances of his career. (Jacob Trussell)
22. Lupita Nyong’o in Us (2019)
From Dead Ringers to There Will Be Blood, a surefire way to impress your acting prowess on an audience is by playing twins. Or doubles. Or a tethered jumpsuit ghoul. You get my drift. Lupita Nyong’o puts in double duty as Adelaide Thomas, a jittery young mother with a fear of carnival warfs, as well as her doppelgänger Red, a wheezing maniac intent on ruining Adelaide’s life. Nyong’o hits some marvelous character highs: pitching Red’s voice to a gnarly whisper and infusing Adelaide with enough pause to clue us in that something’s a little off. She effortlessly commands not one, but two pivotal roles, both of which are downright outstanding.
21. Scarlett Johansson in Under The Skin (2013)
As we’ve seen time and time again, sometimes Scarlett Johansson’s best work comes to us when she speaks as little as possible. In Under The Skin, she plays a human shell inhabited by an alien life form adapting to Earth while luring men to be harvested. Her subtle gestures capture the being’s curious nature as she observes people interacting with one another; she watches her prey with less of a personal hunger and more of a fascination. With minimal dialogue, her expressive face communicates her bewilderment. Conversely, in some of the film’s most harrowing moments, her vacant stare is as cold and unsympathizing as they come. Johansson is in full command of her performance. She keeps her cards close, staying in line with the slow-burn structure of the film, but offering enough glimpses to remind us there’s a hell of a lot more to be found under her surface. (Anna Swanson)
20. Neil Maskell in Kill List (2011)
Neil Maskell is a talented actor in general, but he excels at playing psychopaths. As such, he’s often typecast in thug and gangster roles, sometimes in movies that don’t deserve his services. However, in 2011, Ben Wheatley wrote a part specifically for Maskell that allowed the actor to sink his teeth into a meaty character. In Kill List, he plays Jay, a hitman who becomes embroiled in an occult scheme. Throughout the film, we witness Jay gradually lose his mind, becoming more violent with every kill. In many ways, this is a typical Maskell role, but Jay is a character who evokes repulsion and sympathy in equal measure, and Maskell’s performance is masterful. (Kieran Fisher)
19. Dan Stevens in The Guest (2014)
Let’s be honest: my first reaction to Dan Stevens in The Guest was, “Goddamn this man’s body is ridiculous.” But as the titular tall, dark stranger, Adam Wingard’s film really is a calculated turn for Stevens, who at the time was best known for stuffy costume dramas. This film vibrates with modernity, reflective not only in its style but the way masculinity is addressed in Stevens’ magnetic central performance. The character’s heightened machismo is countered by these fleeting glimpses of emotive compassion, which Stevens naturally exudes. The vapor point between his tenderness and rage is where the film’s explosive violence and humor erupt. Not only is he playing against his type, but he does it so well that it eviscerates any preconceived notions you may have had about him from his Masterpiece Theatre days. Dan Stevens is making a declaration in The Guest to say, “I’m here! I’m handsome! And goddamnit, I want to be a character actor!” (Jacob Trussell)