What do an angry grizzly, a male entertainer and a pink elephant-cat have in common? They all stole the show in the movies they were in. Leading actors get so much credit when a movie is a success, but sometimes it’s the supporting roles that really make the story. This year there were plenty of second bananas and bit parts who did just that. Here are some of the standouts.
The Vuvalini (Melissa Jaffer, Melita Jurisic, Gillian Jones, Joy Smithers, Antoinette Kellermann and Christina Koch in “Mad Max: Fury Road”)
Older female actresses don’t get a lot of work, and when they do, it isn’t very interesting.
“The roles that one is offered at this age, quite frankly, you’re either in a nursing home, you’re in a hospital bed dying, you’re suffering from dementia, or in fact, in two cases, I was offered two characters who’d actually died and come back to life,” 79-year-old actress Melissa Jaffer told NPR. “So when this role came along, I thought well, I won’t get another chance like this before I die, and that’s why I took it. It was absolutely wonderful. Wonderful role.”
The role? One of the bitchin’ lady warriors in this year’s surprisingly feminist installment of “Mad Max.” The group, known as the Vuvalini, doesn’t appear until the last third of the movie, but when they do, the story shifts, introducing not just another band of killers — because everyone in this post-apocalyptic wasteland is a killer — but life-givers. They plant seeds wherever they go so that maybe one day something will grow.
But don’t mistake their hope for weakness. They’re all too happy to hop on their motorcycles and fight alongside one of their own, even if it means sacrificing themselves in order to take out a few ruthless War Boys.
Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello in “Magic Mike XXL”)
None of the supporting players got a character arc in the first “Magic Mike,” but that changed in a big way with the release of the sequel this summer. The movie is, at its core, about male entertainers following their bliss and finding their true calling. One, a new-agey reiki healer, wants to be a full-time singer; another hopes to get into the artisanal frozen yogurt business.
It was all pretty silly, especially compared to the original. But it was good for a few laughs, especially every time Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello) was on screen. During his most memorable turn, he’s just been dared to make a sullen convenience store clerk smile.
Words don’t really do it justice:
The Bear (“The Revenant”)
Director Alejandro Iñárritu put a premium on realism when filming his extreme survival story about real-life frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio). His cast and crew battled the elements, rehearsing and filming in subzero temperatures. And he didn’t want any of that green screen stuff. During a scene with an avalanche, for example, Iñárritu created an actual avalanche. Meanwhile, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki shot only with natural light, meaning that the window for filming was extremely slim each day.
But what do you know? All anyone wants to talk about — other than DiCaprio’s extreme sport brand of acting — is the computer-generated mama grizzly who attacks Hugh and very nearly kills him.
LeBron James (“Trainwreck”)
The Cleveland Cavaliers star plays himself in Amy Schumer’s summer blockbuster, which seemed like an eyeroll-inducing bit of stunt casting, as if the only way to get guys to see a rom-com was to give a basketball player a cameo. Only, it isn’t a cameo. James has a significant supporting role, and more surprisingly, he’s hilarious. He wasn’t the only scene-stealer in the Judd Apatow-directed comedy — Tilda Swinton kills it, as always — but he was the most shocking.
In the movie, he plays the best friend of Schumer’s love interest Aaron (Bill Hader), and James takes on the role typically reserved for the long-time female friend and sounding board of the lead. He’s a hopeless romantic who loves to give his bestie relationship advice, which Aaron needs constantly.
Alexandra (Mya Taylor in “Tangerine”)
The breakout star of the kinetic dramedy about transgender prostitutes is Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, playing lead Sin-Dee Rella. She gets to do most of the crazy stuff — kicking down doors, dragging her nemesis around Hollywood by the hair, jumping over turnstiles to skip Metro fare. The character of her less drama-prone best friend, Alexandra (Mya Taylor), is more understated. But Alexandra supplies the movie, which is constantly on the verge of going off the rails, with an emotional core that holds the whole thing together. Whether she’s taking in the antics unfolding around her or singing “Toyland” onstage to an almost-empty room, Alexandra may be quieter than her best friend, but she’s also more disarmingly vulnerable.
Nathan (Oscar Isaac in “Ex Machina”)
“Ex Machina” is essentially a three-hander, and each of the actors does a phenomenal job. It’s no wonder that all of them — Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac — are making major waves this year in various roles. And while Vikander will blow you away with her portrayal of an artificially intelligent robot named Ava, it’s Isaac who has the most memorable scene.
The actor plays billionaire Nathan, Ava’s creator, who has recruited programmer Caleb (Gleeson) to come to his remote compound and run the Turing test on the robot. There are a few hiccups along the way, including Nathan’s increasingly erratic behavior, which is on full display during this bizarre choreographed dance sequence. (Warning: There’s some strong language in this clip.)
Rick Ford (Jason Statham in “Spy”)
Jason Statham is hilarious. Who knew? There’s something wonderful about seeing the British tough guy satirize his usual characters. The occasional Transporter plays a CIA operative opposite Melissa McCarthy’s office drone, Susan Cooper, who’s getting her first taste of working in the field. He spends the whole movie belittling her, convincing Susan that she isn’t tough enough to be a real spy, and he does it by telling her increasingly over-the-top stories about the crazy things he’s done.
“I jumped from a high-rise building using only a raincoat as a parachute, breaking both legs upon landing and I still had to pretend I was in a f—ing Cirque du Soleil show,” he recounts.
Of course, the joke’s on him, because he turns out to be clumsy, idiotic and utterly convinced there’s a real-life “Face/Off” machine.
(Warning: A lot of strong language in this one.)
Bing Bong (“Inside Out”)
Somehow Pixar turned the inner working of an adolescent brain into family entertainment, and it was brilliant. As usual, the studio behind “Toy Story 3,” “Up” and “Finding Nemo” decimated viewers, leaving nothing but a pool of tears behind. (Caution: Spoiler upcoming.) This time, that was done by offing Bing Bong, the childhood imaginary friend of protagonist Riley. The porkpie hat-wearing pink elephant-cat hybrid is goofy, lovable and naive, so watching him sacrifice himself to save Riley’s inner joy brings up a lot of emotions.
Irene (Jennifer Hudson in “Chi-Raq”)
Spike Lee’s latest is an adaptation of “Lysistrata,” the ancient Greek play about a woman who convinces her female friends that the only way to stop men from killing each other is to withhold sex. But Lee swapped the Peloponnesian War for the streets of Chicago where violence is rampant. The movie is tonally inconsistent, blending farce and bawdy humor with horrifying violence. But the acting is splendid, especially from Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson. She plays Irene, a woman whose young daughter is shot to death after getting caught in gang crossfire.
Those in the know about Hudson’s real life will be especially moved by her performance. The actress lost her mother, brother and seven-year-old nephew to gun violence.
Karl (Sam Elliott in “Grandma”)
Sam Elliott can do more than play tough, drawling cowboys. His short but unforgettable role in “Grandma” shows a very different side of the 71-year-old (and not just because he ditched his mustache). He plays the former lover of Lily Tomlin’s Elle, a woman in need of cash to help her granddaughter get an abortion. She’s clearly in desperate straits when she’s forced to go knocking on the door of the man she left without explanation decades earlier. What follows is some of the finest acting this year during a reunion that’s funny, tender and incredibly painful all in the span of about eight minutes. Never has Elliott seemed more vulnerable.
Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh in “The Hateful Eight”)
Quentin Tarantino’s western has come under fire for (among other things) being misogynist. But don’t tell that to Jennifer Jason Leigh, who plays the only major female character in the movie. She’s a murderer who’s being brought to justice by a bounty hunter called the Hangman (Kurt Russell), and during the course of the movie she gets repeatedly beaten up — elbowed in the face, hit with the butt of a rifle, punched until she loses her front teeth. And so on.
“It would be more sexist if Daisy were treated differently because she was a woman, if she were sexualized,” Leigh told the New York Times. “And she’s not. She’s just a killer.”
She’s also an unforgettable character, among many distinct personalities. We’re given some inkling of Daisy’s mettle during the first few minutes. After the Hangman hits her in the face, seemingly breaking her nose, she looks up at the man seated across from her (Samuel L. Jackson), licks the blood off her upper lip and gives him a playful smile that’s both hilarious and intensely disturbing.
Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone in “Creed”)
Sylvester Stallone hasn’t been in a good movie in a long time. And seeing that he would be making an appearance in this reboot didn’t exactly inspire confidence. But the latest installment in the “Rocky” story, which focuses on Apollo Creed’s son, Adonis (Michael B. Jordan), has exceeded all expectations, even inspiring Oscar chatter for Stallone’s supporting role performance.
That’s right. After “Expendables 3” and “Escape Plan,” Stallone has managed to turn it around. And he does it, like Sam Elliott did, by putting aside the tough-guy routine and turning in a sensitive performance that reminds viewers why they fell for “Rocky” in the first place.
Valentine (Kristen Stewart in “Clouds of Sils Maria”)
Kristen Stewart became the first American actress to win a Cesar Award — France’s equivalent of the Oscar — for her work in this enigmatic arthouse drama. She plays the assistant and confidante of a famous actress (played by Juliette Binoche), and not only does Stewart prove her acting skills, but she also manages to make some sly meta commentary on celebrity gossip.
In real life, Stewart was tailed constantly by paparazzi during her relationship with “Twilight” costar Robert Pattinson, and even more so after she was caught cheating on him with a married director. Break-ups are never fun, but to go through one so publicly seems a lot like torture, and the famously private Stewart had a hard time weathering the storm. But she got the last laugh playing Valentine, a celebrity gossip aficionado, who relishes being the first to find out a major story when she spies a rising starlet with a famous, married novelist.
Everyone else (“Anomalisa”)
Charlie Kaufman’s stop-motion puppet movie “Anomalisa” is about a man submerged in a midlife crisis and shrouded in malaise. His gloom is so all-encompassing that everyone around him seems like everyone else. Literally. To drive the point home, actor Tom Noonan voiced all of the characters except for the protagonist Michael (David Thewlis) and a woman he suddenly falls for (Jennifer Jason Leigh). But everyone else in the movie — the weather caster on the radio, the cab driver, the employee at a sex shop and even Michael’s wife have Noonan’s voice. Little kids, old women, it doesn’t matter. The effect is creepy, troubling and utterly unforgettable.