Hayden Christensen, Shattered Glass (2002): This junior-high Brando was abysmal as a pissy young Darth Vader—but he was born to play Stephen Glass. Everything that’s off-putting about Christensen—his gawkiness, the way he’s simultaneously snotty and pouty—is perfect for a fraud journo prone to self-pity.
Ryan O’Neal, Paper Moon (1973): Peter Bogdanovich wasn’t able to get much out of this rent-a-hunk in the previous year’s neo-screwball What’s Up, Doc? But O’Neal magically gained—then immediately lost—real acting chops for their next picture. As a Depression-era huckster, he oozes charisma, as does his daughter Tatum in her Oscar-winning performance. He followed that up by at least not destroying Stanley Kubrick’s finest film.
Natalie Portman, Black Swan (2010): When she’s rated at all, Natalie Portman is overrated. Her childhood turns (The Professional, Beautiful Girls) lean hard on perk. But as an already-insane ballerina losing what’s left of her shit, this smugly complacent thespian finally pushes herself to actually deserved Oscar buzz.
Rebecca Romijn, Femme Fatale (2002): Recognizing her strengths (strong sexuality, general hotness) and her weaknesses (speaking, acting), Brian De Palma erected a byzantine, oft-hilarious deconstructionist noir in honor of the latest model who wanted to act. And until Romijn starts speaking regularly in the last reel, the spell holds.
Rosalind Russell, His Girl Friday (1940): Russell was a competent actress capable of respectable work, but she had a capacity for genius left untapped by everyone except Howard Hawks. For one movie, this perfectly acceptable actress upstaged Cary Grant. Then she returned to her pleasant career.
Adam Sandler, Punch-Drunk Love (2002): Sandler gets praise on the rare occasions he steps outside his comfort zone. But he shouldn’t: He’s overwrought in Reign Over Me, underwrought in Funny People and no more than credible in Spanglish. His best work is really an amplification of his frat-comedy stylings. But in Paul Thomas Anderson’s hands, his anger becomes volcanic and scary. Stick to what you know, Sandler.