11 Actors You Weren’t Expecting to Be as Impressive As They Were in These 2014 Films

By now, we’ve all likely run through our favorite performances of 2014. And ranking among these celebrated folk, we’re inclined to find the usual suspects: Julianne Moore, Tilda Swinton, Joaquin Phoenix… none too shocking. But it is worth noting that the year has fostered its share of particularly surprising turns as well — acting entries that we never quite expected to be as funny, thrilling, or otherwise impressive as they actually turned out to be. Whether we’re talking about up-and-comers who showcased their real gumption for the first time in 2014 or long destitute veterans who vied once more for performative grandeur, 2014 was a good year for underdogs.

It's time to celebrate the actors who, as we fondly recall, proved us all wrong, from the mainstays in whom we had all but lost faith to the newcomers we never quite thought much of to begin with. The comic sidekicks who we'd never have pegged to sport dramatic acumen and the leading men too handsome to be funny... or so we thought! Check out the list, and see which surprisingly great performances you might have missed out on this year.

Image: Universal Pictures

Tom Cruise in 'Edge of Tomorrow'

The ’80s would be disappointed in us for losing our faith in Tom Cruise, who was once a dynamic and vital part of the Hollywood league. Edge of Tomorrow seemed like another failure-in-the-making for Cruise, who has, of late, been relegated to performances somehow both halfhearted and overact-y.

But the science-fiction film, a surprising bit of fun in its own right, remembered what made Cruise a superstar in the first place: he is terrific at playing a jerk. And in this funny, brave, and imaginative entry, he does just that with aplomb.

Image: Warner Bros

Chadwick Boseman in 'Get on Up'

Future Marvel star Chadwick Boseman turned in a capable but altogether forgettable Jackie Robinson in last year’s 42, and promised the same song and dance for the James Brown biopic Get on Up. Not quite the case, though: as the considerably more animated character that was Brown, Boseman really lit up, showcasing a screen presence we didn’t know he had in him.

Image: Universal Pictures

Dave Bautista in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

When it came to the Guardians of the Galaxy cast, people were excited for Chris Pratt, for Bradley Cooper, and for Vin Diesel’s gig as a talking tree. But no one really expected much from former pro-wrestler Dave Bautista, who plays central team member Drax the Destroyer.

Lo and behold, the non-actor actually ranks above the lot of his stars as the funniest and most bizarrely charismatic of the bunch, raking in some of the biggest laughs with his hotheaded fish-out-of-water character.

Image: Disney

Nicolas Cage in 'Joe'

It’s still pretty hit or miss when it comes to Nic Cage. Although we haven’t quite given up on the actor we cherished in Leaving Las Vegas, Adaptation., Raising Arizona, and — I’m not embarrassed! — Moonstruck, it’s no easy feat to break away from the connotations of The Wicker Man, the Ghost Riders, and even two other movies to release this year: Rage and Left Behind. But Joe’s beautiful rambling nature is a perfect fit for the manic thespian, and it might be the best thing he’s done in years.

Image: Worldview Entertainment/Lionsgate

Everyone in 'Palo Alto'

Even with the Coppola name behind it, Palo Alto seemed D.O.A. by way of its premise and cast. A high school drama adapted from the short stories of James Franco? Starring Franco himself, Emma Roberts, Val Kilmer’s unknown son, and one of the Naked Brothers? Who would have thought that all parties, especially the latter, would turn in exemplary performances?

Image: Tribeca Film

Zac Efron in 'Neighbors'

We couldn’t really make this list without mentioning Zac Efron, who dismisses all accusations of being a “talentless hunk” with a terrific turn as Neighbors’ bad guy. Although the film’s heaviest lifting can be credited to Rose Byrne, viewers walk away impressed by Efron’s handling of the sort of terrific comic villainy we haven’t seen much since the heyday of National Lampoon.

Image: Universal Pictures

Michael Fassbender in 'Frank'

Don’t get me wrong — Michael Fassbender is one of today’s great dramatic treasures, and a movie star who preempts every role with a large dose of optimism. But how could anyone have expected Fassbender to give such a magnetic performance without even the use of his face?

Image: Magnolia Pictures

Ben Affleck in 'Gone Girl'

Ben Affleck as a suburban schlub? Oddly… it works. It works great. Despite his movie star looks and leading man gait, Affleck gives his greatest performance in ages in Gone Girl, playing a clueless, marginably likable lunkhead caught up in a careening murder mystery. His giddy proclamation (“I know this one!”) upon realizing the answer to one of the case’s probing questions is a particularly high moment for the morbidly fun movie.

Image: 20th Century Fox

Martin Short in 'Inherent Vice'

Halfway through the lunacy that is Inherent Vice, we meet perhaps its most memorable character: a perverse, coke-addled Martin Short, utilizing his talents for broad sketch comedy to make this wild, dark, hilarious caper all the more of each. In a single sequence, Short steals the show as a duplicitous (and cuckoo) dentist, commanding, even in his wackier moments, a gravity that we haven’t seen before from the Saturday Night Live star.

Image: Warner Bros

Chris Pine in Everything

While none of Chris Pine’s 2014 movies have been especially good, each one has served to prove what a dynamic comic talent we have on our hands in the long untested actor. Plagued with the sort of good looks that land him boring leading men roles, Pine is a character actor through and through, and a hilarious one at that — especially in Into the Woods and the otherwise dismal Horrible Bosses 2.

Image: Disney

Kristen Stewart in 'Still Alice'

It will take years to convince the world that Kristen Stewart is a good actress (which she is — a very good actress), but 2014 at least got the ball rolling. An even greater testament of her prowess than Camp X-Ray or the magnificent New York Film Festival release Clouds of Sils Maria is Still Alice, in which she cofounds the heart and soul with star Julianne Moore. The relationship between Moore, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, and Stewart, Moore’s loving but contentious daughter, supplies the film with its strongest material without a doubt.

Image: Sony Pictures Classics