Top 10: Underrated Performances from 1999

Film fans have been partying like it’s 1999 all year, as it’s been 20 years since some great and culturally significant movies have been released. Coupled with the release of Brian Raftery’s book “Best. Movie. Year. Ever.: How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen,” it’s the perfect time to re-visit and re-examine movies from two decades ago.

Like any year, some movies persist more than others. “The Matrix” remains a staple in action filmmaking for most. Posters of “Fight Club” have adorned many college dorm room walls since its release. In a way, a lot of things haven’t really changed since 1999, with yet another installment of “Star Wars” earning the highest gross at the domestic box office. For better, or for worse (mostly the latter), “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace” is still widely discussed today.

On the Oscar front, “American Beauty” took home top honors. The movie also won Best Director (Sam Mendes), Best Original Screenplay (Alan Ball), Best Cinematography (Conrad L. Hall) and Best Actor for Kevin Spacey. Hillary Swank won Best Actress for the powerful and disturbing “Boys Don’t Cry,” Michael Caine won Best Supporting Actor for “The Cider House Rules” and Angelina Jolie claimed Best Supporting Actress for “Girl, Interrupted.” 

Every year gives us performances that don’t end up on Oscar’s radar but are memorable nonetheless and sometimes more deserving than those nominated. In the spirit of celebrating 1999, here’s a look at some performances no one really talks much about:

10Sam Rockwell, “The Green Mile” (1999)
dir. Frank Darabont

Sam Rockwell has been playing bad guys frequently the past few years. From his Oscar-winning role in “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri” to a KKK member in this year’s “The Best of Enemies,” some might be tempted to add his Oscar-nominated performance as George W. Bush in “Vice” to this list. In 1999, he played convicted killer Wild Bill. Rockwell wasn’t as well-known as he is today but he infused his signature manic energy into playing a despicable and terrifying character.

9Mike Meyers, “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me” (1999)
dir. Jay Roach

Austin Powers will likely be remembered as the greatest creation of Mike Meyers’ career. He’s often cited for “Wayne’s World” and who doesn’t love his voiceover work as “Shrek”? However, the “Austin Powers” films demonstrate Meyers as a true comedic force. “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me” is the second installment in the trilogy with Meyers returning as the titular spy and his nemesis Dr. Evil. He added a new character, Fat Bastard, to the mix and did the unthinkable and made a sequel as fun and energetic as the first.

8Michelle Pfeiffer, “The Deep End of the Ocean” (1999)
dir: Ulu Grosbard

Only an actress of Michelle Pfeiffer’s stature can elevate a film from its soapy trappings. “The Deep End of the Ocean” is a fine enough drama but Pfeiffer’s ability to convey maternal strength and fragility has made many movies surrounding her even stronger. She channels all of that into her performance as Beth, who must grapple with the disappearance of her son.

7John Cusack, “Being John Malkovich” (1999)
dir: Spike Jonze

John Cusack’s career has gone the way of Nicholas Cage. The actor seems to appear frequently in movies that receive minimal-to-no theatrical distribution and disappear in a moment’s notice. Cusack was once an unlikely, stoic leading man and one of his great performances can be seen in Spike Jonze’s “Being John Malkovich.” The movie is a great ensemble piece but Cusack shines as the hapless tour guide through Charlie Kaufman’s inventive script. The movie was nominated for three Oscars – Best Director for Jonze, Best Supporting Actress for Catherine Keener and Best Original Screenplay for Kaufman – but Cusack deserved to be in the mix.

6Ashley Judd, “Double Jeopardy” (1999)
dir: Bruce Beresford

Much like Pfeiffer, Ashley Judd knows how to elevate the movie she’s in. “Double Jeopardy” is an entertaining airport book of a thriller but Judd gives one of her most engaging performances. She plays Libby, who is framed for her husband’s murder but suspects he is still alive and tries to find him and settle the score. The pulpy cat-and-mouse thriller would never be on Oscar’s map but Judd’s performance is worth re-visiting. She starred in a string of 90s thrillers and enthralled audiences in Libby’s journey every step of the way.

5Thora Birch, “American Beauty” (1999)
dir: Sam Mendes

Thora Birch plays teenage angst and restlessness to perfection in “American Beauty.” Spacey and Annette Bening soaked up a great deal of the spotlight for the film but Birch did manage a BAFTA nomination for her performance as their daughter, Jane. Birch mines her character’s anger and frustration with her parents and attraction to the neighbor next door (Wes Bently) with pure authenticity.

4Bruce Willis, “The Sixth Sense” (1999)
dir: M. Night Shyamalan 

Bruce Willis’ work with early M. Night Shyamalan is some of the best of his career. Haley Joel Osment and Toni Collette deservedly received supporting Oscar nominations but Willis’ performance and chemistry with Osment is part of what makes “The Sixth Sense” so successful. Willis’ character is the keeper of the film’s big secret and his performance is a testament in conveying what’s on the page to the surprise on the screen.

3Tom Hanks, “The Green Mile” (1999)
dir: Frank Darabont

Tom Hanks is someone who is easy to take for granted, despite two Oscar wins and his stature as one of the great living actors. His performances seem effortless, so much so that it’s easy to forget about some of them. His performance in “The Green Mile” is one of the actor’s most emotional pieces. In a scene with Michael Clarke Duncan, Hanks gives a monologue about miracles and his performance can be seen through every expression he makes.

2Nicole Kidman, “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999)
dir: Stanley Kubrick 

In Stanley Kubrick’s final film, Nicole Kidman gives one of the most underrated performances of her career. Starring opposite then-husband Tom Cruise, Kidman makes the most out of the screen-time she has. After getting high with Cruise’s character, Kidman’s character delivers a piercing monologue about lusting after a sailor. Her voice is filled with quiet rage as she tries to instigate jealousy within her husband. It’s one of the “great one speech” performances.

1Winona Ryder, “Girl, Interrupted” (1999)
dir: James Mangold

Winona Ryder’s performance lives in the shadow of Angelina Jolie’s when it comes to “Girl, Interrupted.” Jolie is great in the play-to-the-back role of Lisa but Ryder’s work finds a balance between outbursts and internalized confusion. As Susanna, she conveys hopelessness in trying to understand her diagnosis and the reason she is committed to a mental institution. Whether she is curled up in bed or sparring with Whoopi Goldberg’s character, Ryder’s performance deserved more recognition than it ever received.

What are some of your favorite overlooked performances from 1999? Let us know in the comments below!

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