Sometimes, being a second banana isn’t so bad. After all, the starriest A-listers in a movie aren’t necessarily the ones who leave the biggest impression. A character actor with a stunning monologue or a stand-up comic in a bit part might just run away with the whole movie. That was the case with quite a few films this year. Here’s a look at nine standout favorites.
“Girls Trip” was one of the breakout hits of the summer, which means a lot of people were introduced to the incredible comic stylings of Haddish. She outshone Jada Pinkett Smith, Regina Hall and Queen Latifah, among others, with her manic energy, playing a merry hedonist who has a comeback for every killjoy trying to rein her in. A lot of her most uproarious lines were improvised — which meant a few extra takes, because she kept cracking up her co-stars, but it was all worth it. Plus, she forever altered how we look at grapefruits.
Stealing a scene isn’t always about being bombastic. Sometimes, the quietest performances turn out to be the most remarkable. That was the case in “Call Me by Your Name,” in which Stuhlbarg plays a professor whose teen son (Timothée Chalamet) falls for a grad student (Armie Hammer) staying at the family’s Italian estate for the summer. After the romance runs its course, Stuhlbarg delivers a gorgeous, bittersweet monologue that isn’t what you’d expect from the stereotypical 1980s parent. Far from discouraging his son’s feelings for an older man, the character waxes poetic about the importance of experiencing the magnitude of both first love and first heartbreak. In one small, understated scene, Stuhlbarg’s sincere delivery creates the cinematic version of a flame in the fireplace, wrapping the audience in a comforting warmth.
Jordan Peele’s directorial debut was a white-knuckle horror movie about the dangers of racism. It was also laugh-out-loud funny, thanks to “The Carmichael Show’s” Howery, who played Rod, the best friend of the endangered main character (Daniel Kaluuya). Never has a TSA agent been so lovable on film — or heroic. Not only is Rod a cunning Internet sleuth and doting dogsitter, but his special Spidey senses lead him on a quest to rescue his buddy from a terrible fate, all while delivering lines with impeccable comic timing.
In this sleeper-hit romantic comedy, the wooing wasn’t only happening between love interests Kumail and Emily, played by Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan. The more interesting banter came after Emily slipped into a coma, and Kumail was forced to win over her parents, especially her tiny but terrifying mother, played by Hunter. The Oscar winner delivers some solid laughs, thanks to her brusqueness, but she also gives the rawest performance in the movie, especially when her character takes on a heckler at one of Kumail’s stand-up shows. That scene culminates in the diminutive 59-year-old shouting expletives, then trying to tackle her smug, fratty nemesis.
There were a lot of scene-stealers in the latest “Thor,” including Jeff Goldblum’s joyfully sadistic Grandmaster and Tessa Thompson’s perpetually drunk warrior Valkyrie. But the deadpan computer-generated Korg supplies some of the best dry humor in a movie brimming with great punchlines. Voiced by Waititi, who also directed the Marvel movie, Korg is a gentle blue giant who pokes fun at Thor’s special hammer and loves a good dad joke. “I’m made of rocks, as you can see,” he says after he first meets Thor. “You don’t need to be afraid — unless you’re made of scissors!”
“Lady Bird” is likely to give Metcalf — already an Emmy and Tony winner — a shot at an Oscar. In a movie that’s ostensibly about a stubborn, spirited girl (Saiorse Ronan) coming of age during her senior year of high school, Metcalf plays her put-upon mom with just as much poignant intensity. The movie comes alive when mother and daughter are on screen together, when their interactions fuel enough rage and resentment to power the lights for the whole house. “With your work ethic, just go to City College — and then to jail — and then back to City College,” Metcalf’s Marion faux-advises her daughter during a particularly tumultuous car ride. And yet, for all their sparring, there’s never any question how much this woman loves her daughter, and vice versa.
It’s not easy to stand out in a sprawling ensemble cast, which makes Blige’s unforgettable performance in Dee Rees’s Southern epic all the more impressive. The Grammy winner is nearly unrecognizable playing Florence, the wife of a sharecropper in 1940s Mississippi. In lyrical voice-over, she talks about the pain of waiting for her oldest son to return from fighting in World War II, but she doesn’t need any words to express her complicated feelings about taking care of the children of the selfish white farmer who owns her land or pitching in on the hard work of planting crops after her husband suffers a catastrophic injury. Blige proves she can deliver an emotional wallop, not just by hitting the high notes, but with a simple searing facial expression.
The “Kingsman” sequel was a fairly middling affair, and yet every time John appeared on screen, hysterics were inevitable. Playing himself — as the mopey, foul-mouthed hostage of a ruthless drug lord (Julianne Moore) — Sir Elton is forced to perform his greatest hits to an audience of one every night. But when he finally gets a chance for revenge, the results are spectacular. Who knew the tiny dancer would be so good at doing martial arts in platform shoes?
Reilly is the kind of actor who makes every movie better, but he outdid even himself in the blockbuster “Kong: Skull Island.” His character, Hank Marlow, is an earnest, slightly unhinged World War II pilot who crash-lands on Skull Island and is marooned there for decades, until a group of soldiers and scientists show up and start causing mayhem. He’s the looniest character — primarily because he’s so out of touch with what’s been happening in the world — and yet he’s also the most endearingly human. Even with a cast filled with A-listers such as Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson and John Goodman, it’s Reilly’s childlike excitement and heartfelt delivery of even the zaniest lines that raises the stakes, making us care what actually happens to this misguided bunch.