Some actors are chameleons. Upon first viewing of any movie Gary Oldman has ever been in, you likely found yourself asking, “Is that- is that Gary Oldman?” Then exclaiming, “Holy crap, that’s Gary Oldman!”

Other actors are whatever the opposite of a chameleon is basically playing themselves role after role, and not always convincingly. Hey, who are we to judge? If we could pull seven-figure paydays for showing up somewhere to look, act, and talk like ourselves, we’d be far too busy snorting gold flakes and mainlining liquefied money to write any of these silly lists.

But it can be truly startling when such one-note actors seem to suddenly discover all the other notes. It sometimes happens, and here’s the proof…

10. Ryan Reynolds – The Nines

This underrated 2007 psychological thriller was seen by about sixteen people, all of whose brains were on the floor by the time the credits were rolling. The film consists of three short, loosely connected films featuring the same three actors in different roles. If that sounds intriguing, take our advice and go watch the movie immediately; “underrated” and “intriguing” don’t really do it justice.

The three actors are Hope Davis (good actress), Melissa McCarthy (really good actress) and, um, Ryan Reynolds, who is usually known for genial mugging, and not much else.  Displaying a range not in evidence before or since, he creates three totally unique characters that are connected to each other in a way that … well, we won’t spoil it for you. But you won’t believe you’re watching Reynolds, who more than holds his own opposite McCarthy and Davis.

9. Jean-Claude Van Damme – JCVD

Nobody would ever accuse Van Damme of being any kind of serious actor. French director Mabrouk El Mechri conceived and wrote this film, wherein Van Damme plays a slightly fictionalized version of himself caught up in a bank heist and, for awhile, it plays out exactly like the meta-joke it sounds like. But then a moment comes when you’re not sure if you should be laughing, and the “Muscles From Brussels“, well … crushes it.

Van Damme breaks the fourth wall to deliver an uninterrupted, six-minute monologue addressing his image, failed marriages, and substance abuse problems, that is startling in its directness and authenticity. Even though it’s primarily in another language, you can feel his earnestness and seriousness throughout. Nothing we’ve seen out of Van Damme before suggests he’s capable of such a thing; honestly, this kind of makes us wish he’d get cast in some more serious films, because the dude can obviously act.

8. Kristen Stewart – Welcome To The Rileys

NSFW language and content in the video

In this small indie drama, the famously wooden and sullen (or is it sullen and wooden?) Stewart plays a 16-year-old stripper who helps a family recover from the untimely death of their only daughter. Debuting at Sundance, the film cost $10 million to make and did a whole $300,000 box office. However, no less a critic than the late, great Roger Ebert said:

“Stewart is, quite simply, a wonderful actress. I must not hold the “Twilight” movies against her. She played the idiotic fall-girl written for her, as well as that silly girl could be played … in recent film after film, she shows a sure hand and an intrinsic power. I last saw her in “Welcome to the Rileys,” where she played a runaway working as a hooker in New Orleans. In both films she had many scenes with experienced older actors. In both she was rock solid.”

So the next time Stewart plays yet another bland, barely-emotional vessel for the male lead to love for no good reason, remember that it’s a sad result of the Hollywood Typecast Machine, and she can actually do much, much more.

7. Dwayne Johnson – Southland Tales

Donnie Darko director Richard Kelly’s epic mindscrew is legendarily divisive. Depending on who you ask, it’s either the worst piece of crap anyone has ever crapped out into the crapper, or it’s some kind of twisted masterpiece (hint: “masterpiece” is the correct answer). At the center of it all is amnesiac actor Boxer Santaros, who thinks he is his character Jericho Cane, and is played by Dwayne Johnson. Yes, The Rock.

For a guy who’s built a career on his badass, cocky, uber-charismatic persona, Johnson conveys meek, befuddled powerlessness as Boxer so effectively, that it’s hard to believe it’s really him. In addition, when the Jericho Cane persona is on display, Johnson’s charisma leaps off the screen.

6. Hayden Christensen – Shattered Glass

Hayden Christensen is most famous for playing a sentient block of wood in the Star Wars prequel trilogy, and he’s one of the main reasons that trilogy is oft-maligned. However, in 2003, Christensen turned in a nervous, mannered performance as disgraced journalist Stephen Glass, the New Republic reporter who literally fabricated most of his stories. Hayden acts circles around veterans Peter Sarsgaard and Hank Azaria, and proves that sometimes, having the wrong director can make an otherwise-good actor look really, really bad.

5. Jet Li – Ocean Heaven

Jet Li is famous for playing 12 different types of “vibratingly psychotic,” while punching things until they die. Martial arts heroes are supposed to be intimidating, but Li definitely tops that list of people who we would not call a “wussy,” even if we were forced to at gunpoint.

The 2010 Chinese film Ocean Heaven is a touching character piece about a father dying of cancer, trying to pass on life lessons to his autistic 22-year-old son, starring. .. Jet Li. Note: it is the very same Jet Li we were discussing in the previous paragraph, and he acquits himself damn well in his first dramatic role.

4. Dolph Lundgren – Johnny Mnemonic

If this film is “famous” at all, it’s a famous flop. Famous for being a crap movie, made from a terrible script, featuring lots of awful acting. This is one of the films that really cemented Keanu Reeves’ reputation as a walking plank with a perpetual “whoa, dude” demeanor, and he doesn’t get a heck of a lot of help from the rest of the cast, either. Or the director, or the writer, or even the key grip.

In the middle of all the crap, Dolph Lundgren turns up and actually acts his ass off, playing a wild-eyed crazy with total commitment, and deviating completely from his usual ass-kicking-machine-made-of-stone roles. Nearly every (universally scathing) review of the film singled out Lundgren’s performance as being far and away the best thing about the film.

3. Corey Haim – Lucas

Before his unfortunate progression from crappy child actor to train wreck to casualty, Haim — at the age of 14 — blew away critics in the title role of the 1986 film Lucas, as a shy, nerdy boy with a crush on a beautiful popular girl. Known primarily for his cheesy, cutesy child acting, Haim created such a singular character that many critics, including Ebert, predicted great things for him in the future, things that sadly would not come true. Again, Mr. Ebert:

“He does not give one of those cute little boy performances that get on your nerves. He creates one of the most three-dimensional, complicated, interesting characters of any age in any recent movie. If he can continue to act this well, he will never become a half-forgotten child star, but will continue to grow into an important actor. He is that good.”

2. Sylvester Stallone – Copland

The formidable cast of this 1997 ensemble drama includes Robert DeNiro, Harvey Keitel and Ray Liotta, so there is obviously quality acting on display throughout. One of the central characters, however — small-town, washed-up sheriff Freddy Heflin — is played by a slow, paunchy (he gained 40 pounds for the role) Sylvester Stallone, who shows all his heavyweight co-stars why (lest we forget) he was once nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for Rocky.

Sly’s character’s arc is absolutely central to the plot of the film, and provides its resolution in a highly satisfying manner. Despite all of the incredible talent around him, it’s Stallone’s performance that elevates Copland from a serviceable drama, to something strongly resembling a classic.

1. Keanu Reeves – The Gift

Near the beginning of Sam Raimi’s 2000 thriller The Gift, there’s a scene where widowed psychic Annie Wilson, played by Cate Blanchett, is at home after counseling her friend Valerie to leave her abusive husband, Donnie. There’s a soft knock at the door, and it’s Donnie. We just get a glimpse of him as the chain is on, and Annie’s wary of letting him in. He’s speaking softly, this has all been a big misunderstanding, he just wants to talk — then suddenly, the door comes exploding in, the chain snapped in half. Donnie is six feet of hulking redneck, and he threatens and terrorizes the hell out of Annie in front of her kids. And as this scene plays out, it slowly dawns on us — that terrifying, intimidating redneck? It’s Keanu Reeves.

It’s a performance that has to be seen to be believed, and the introduction to Reeves’ character is simply jaw-dropping. This ain’t Ted “Theodore” Logan; we had no idea Keanu Reeves could be so scary. A very good performance in a very good film, from the last dude you’d expect.

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