1. Gary Cole
As the excruciatingly passive-aggressive boss in Office Space, Gary Cole entered the vernacular with his drawn-out "Yeeeaaaahhhh" before every directive, but his performance has plenty of other grace notes. How about that deep inhale of middle-management superiority, which tugs hard on his suspenders? Or the way the faux-enthusiasm drains from his voice when he realizes "Hawaiian Shirt Day" may not be much of a morale-booster to his spiritually crushed employees? After a decade of kicking around in TV and film, Cole caught a break when his face looked enough like Mike Brady's to win him a role in The Brady Bunch Movie—casting agents for any future Stephen King biopic may want to look him up, too—and his facility for comedy has been well-exploited ever since. Recent scene-stealing performances include his Dodgeball pairing with Jason Bateman as an announcer on ESPN8 ("The Ocho") and a funny bit part in Win A Date With Tad Hamilton! in which he plays a small-town dad who turns Hollywood-savvy when his daughter starts dating a movie star. (Granted, that Project Greenlight T-shirt did some of the acting for him.) And yet Cole is capable of menace, too: His brief role as a crook quietly inquiring about the missing loot in A Simple Plan is chillingly unaffected.
2. Nicky Katt
Richard Linklater's Dazed And Confused famously introduced many of tomorrow's stars—Ben Affleck, Matthew McConaughey, Renée Zellweger—but the bit part given to Nicky Katt (as the bully who's at a party to "kick some ass and drink some beer") offered just a hint of his explosiveness. Linklater later cast him in SubUrbia, but his improvisational gifts didn't become apparent until Steven Soderbergh's The Limey: As an unusually verbose hitman, Katt offers withering appraisals of everyone that crosses his path, including the memorable taunt, "I'd tell you to blow it out your ass, but my dick is in the way." Soderbergh used Katt again for perhaps his funniest role, as a stage actor playing a hammy Hitler in Full Frontal. Before his long purgatory on TV's Boston Public, Katt put his motor-mouthed misanthropy to use in memorable appearances as a shady investment-firm operative in Boiler Room and an anarchist in Linklater's Waking Life. Upcoming roles in new films by Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez (Grind House) and David Gordon Green (Snow Angels) suggest that directors other than Linklater and Soderbergh are finally catching on.
3. Zooey Deschanel
Daughter of the great cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, Zooey Deschanel caught her first break playing the young hero's impulsive older sister in Almost Famous. Her appearance is brief, but the hallmarks of her screen persona are readily apparent: She's flighty and a bit of a goof, with big moony eyes for rolling, yet that innocence makes her a vulnerable, touching presence, too. When Deschanel's character leaves home with her boyfriend, the shot of her sticking her head out the car window, her past rushing away as she peels toward an uncertain future, may be the most exhilarating in the film. It took a couple years for David Gordon Green to cast Deschanel as a virginal teen in All The Real Girls, but it's hard to imagine anyone better suited to play the Eve-like heroine in Green's idyllic love story. Deschanel's silly side gets a nice workout in Elf and The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, but her heartbreaking work as a painfully shy, suicidal ward at a youth psychiatric clinic in the underappreciated Manic shows her range.
4. William Fichtner
Someone please cancel Invasion so William Fichtner can again get cast as one of the most terrifying heavies in film. A tall, lean, imposing presence with a sharp jawline and a piercing stare, Fichtner has ably played a chemist (Contact), a Delta sergeant (Black Hawk Down), and a fisherman (The Perfect Storm), but he's especially good when he's bad. The model Fichtner role may be his turn in Steven Soderbergh's underrated 1995 neo-noir The Underneath: Like Kirk Douglas in Out Of The Past, he's the man behind the man, a figure of frightening power who doesn't appear until a time of serious reckoning. Fichtner's eyes alone could probably do much of the dirty work, but his quick-fire rage is what makes him truly dangerous. Movies like Albino Alligator, Go, and Strange Days took advantage, but his potential for supervillainy remains largely untapped.
5. Charlotte Rampling
A former model, Charlotte Rampling first started appearing in films four decades ago, leaning on her beauty and sophistication in movies like Georgy Girl, Zardoz, The Night Porter, and Farewell My Lovely. But her re-emergence in recent years has been a rare pleasure: Still well-preserved enough at 57 to sunbathe around the luscious Ludivine Sagnier in François Ozon's Swimming Pool, Rampling has become a true international star, just as daring and provocative now as she was when she lusted after a chimpanzee in Nagisa Oshima's notorious Max Mon Amour. Her cloudy eyes are both seductive and a little deceiving, as evidenced by her betrayal of Paul Newman in The Verdict, but Rampling's role in Ozon's Under The Sand was a major revelation. Playing a widow grieved and disturbed by her husband's mysterious disappearance, Rampling plumbs into another dark corner in a career's worth of them. Her performance as a black widow in the Caribbean paradise may be the only redeeming facet in Laurent Cantet's upcoming Heading South.
6. Scott Caan
A chip off the old cinderblock, Scott Caan is very much the son of his father James Caan; he's a fists-first musclehead whose pugnacity can be a little deceiving. Sometimes he's just a swaggering idiot—see (or don't see) Into The Blue—but Caan's irascible charm comes through in Ocean's Eleven and Ocean's Twelve (in which he's half of a Mutt-and-Jeff show with Casey Affleck), and in the recent Friends With Money, where he plays a skirt-chasing personal trainer who's so disarming that it's hard to see the scoundrel in him. Caan made perhaps his deepest impression in his little-seen but promising directorial debut Dallas 362, an energetic Mean Streets knockoff in which he plays the reckless Robert De Niro to Shawn Hatosy's more conscientious Harvey Keitel. His direction turns out to a lot like his performances: tight, punchy, impulsive, and smarter than appearances might suggest.
7. Timothy Olyphant
Nobody out-smarms Joe Pantoliano, right? And yet Timothy Olyphant stepped into the Pantoliano role in the Risky Business clone The Girl Next Door and brought transcendent levels of sleaze to the table. As a porn producer hunting down his prized starlet, Olyphant gets the kind of pleasure from terrorizing Emile Hirsch's runty adolescent hero that Joe Pesci's character gets in the "You think I'm funny?" bit in GoodFellas. Olyphant's broad features and menacing wit were used earlier to great effect in Go, which cast him as a vicious drug dealer who again enjoys the sadistic process more than he enjoys what it yields for him. Olyphant switched hats for his juicy part as a newcomer-turned-sheriff on HBO's Deadwood, but standing up to the nastiest killers in the West still requires the fortitude he has in spades.
8. Melissa Leo
When Melissa Leo was canned after five seasons as Detective Kay Howard, the tough-as-nails tomboy on TV's groundbreaking Homicide, it was a jump-the-shark moment. Leo's replacements were more conventionally glamorous actresses like Callie Thorne and (later) Michael Michele, not the earthy, streetwise types who could hold their own in the man's world of crime and punishment. A precursor to CCH Pounder's no-bullshit investigator in The Shield, Leo always kept her nose to the grindstone, a steady presence in an office often charged with self-destructive passion. As the embattled blue-collar wife of a born-again crook in 21 Grams, Leo quietly out-acted the emoting likes of Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, and Benicio Del Toro, but once again didn't get the recognition she deserved. Truly disappearing into a role as Leo does clearly has its consequences.
9. Rory Culkin
It took a couple of Culkins to get there, but the family has finally delivered a bona fide talent in Rory Culkin, who seems poised to make a smooth transition from promising child actor to committed young star. In You Can Count On Me, playing a smart and sensitive kid hung up in a sibling rivalry, an 11-year-old Culkin held his own alongside brilliant performances by Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo. His was the rare pre-adolescent performance that was intelligent but not precocious, and emotional without cloying sentiment. An older Culkin revealed some coarse edges in Mean Creek a couple of years ago, and his introspective work as an uncertain wimp among masculine father-figures in the new Down In The Valley reveals yet another facet. Though still young and unformed, he's looking to be the go-to Culkin for years to come.
10. Robert Forster
The character actor's character actor, Robert Forster has appeared in dozens of films—some great, many more terrible—but odds are, you won't find a showy moment in any of them. He never pushes for effect or lapses into Method wankery; he simply stays in character and gives perfectly modulated performances. Between his breakthrough in Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool and his glorious rediscovery three decades later in Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown, Forster appeared in such Troy McClure-sounding dreck as The Don Is Dead and Satan's Princess. Perhaps the experience imparted a humility that's ingrained in all his characters, which gives extra resonance to his Jackie Brown role as a seen-it-all bail bondsman who makes a twilight connection with Pam Grier. Forster got enough attention there that he's settled into nice run of late-career character roles, including fine turns in Diamond Men, Lakeboat, Mulholland Dr., and the TV series Karen Sisco. And as a basketball coach in the Bow Wow vehicle Like Mike, Forster again proves that he can look dignified and professional even when appearing in swill.