15 Surprise Winners of the 2015 Summer Movie Season

By  · Published on August 26th, 2015

Universal Pictures

This summer has been full of surprises, for better or worse. Who could have imagined that Jurassic World, especially given how mediocre it is, would be one of the highest-grossing movies of all time, let alone this year? And who expected Tomorrowland to be so disappointing? Or that a documentary about Amy Winehouse (Amy) would be one of the best and most successful films of the season?

This summer has also been full of winners. Not just movies like Jurassic World and Amy but the former’s studio, Universal, and its director, Colin Trevorrow, who got a Star Wars movie as a prize. Also, of course, newly minted movie star Amy Schumer, whose movie Trainwreck (also Universal) just crossed the $100m mark over the weekend. Schumer winning isn’t really a surprise, though. We predicted her to break out even before the buzz out of SXSW in March.

This summer did have plenty of winners whose level of buzz and concrete success, like Amy’s, was a surprise. Not as in we can’t believe their achievement but that we just didn’t see it coming, whether they’re new talents who broke out or familiar faces who got our attention in a new way. Here are 15 people who notably won the last few months at the movies:

Universal Pictures

Bill Hader

Not to downplay Schumer at all, but the men of Trainwreck deserve some recognition. John Cena blew everyone away with how funny he could be, and LeBron James is also a hoot. Colin Quinn, meanwhile, does some surprisingly decent acting in the hit comedy. Hader rules them all, though, and not just because he’s the male lead. Everyone expected this to be primarily Schumer’s movie, but as there tends to be in rom-coms, there’s an equality of roles between the two love interests. The SNL vet, who hasn’t topped a mainstream live-action Hollywood release before, came out as much of a movie star as his counterpart. Audiences found him charming as well as, obviously, funny. He hasn’t turned the favor into any other big roles yet, but that shouldn’t take away from the fact that between this, his part as the voice of Fear in Inside Out and his brilliant work so far on the new IFC series Documentary Now!, he’s really shining bright this summer.

Paramount Pictures

Rebecca Ferguson

Did you know about Ferguson before last month, when you became enchanted by her beauty, her brain and her brawn while watching Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation? Sure, she was in one of last year’s Hercules movies (the one called Hercules), but who still remembered that? And sure, she was nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance in the 2013 miniseries The White Queen, but still nobody seemed prepared for her to become the hottest actress in Hollywood overnight with one shot, one dress and one sniper rifle made out of a flute. And everything else she does in the action sequel.

Universal Pictures

O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins and Jason Mitchell

It was clear from the firs trailer that Straight Outta Compton would be a special movie, hardly the same old biopic we always see. But we weren’t aware of which actors portraying the members of N.W.A. might stand out and therefore break out as a result. It turns out, all three of them (Jackson as his own father, Ice Cube; Hawkins as Dr. Dre; Mitchell as Eazy-E) are terrific and deserve to go on to more great things. And will. One of those great things could very well be Kong: Skull Island, which will feature both Hawkins and Mitchell. Jackson, meanwhile, should have something of similar size to announce soon. Even if partly because of his dad’s influence.

Film Forum

The Brothers Quay

I was going to limit this list to actors and actresses, but these directors scored the kind of win that’s so extraordinary it must be acknowledged. If you’re any kind of film lover, you already know about and probably are a fan of Stephen and Timothy Quay, the twin-brother legends of stop-motion animation. While certain to remain relatively obscure by summer’s end, they definitely got maybe their biggest boost in notoriety (even bigger than when everyone thought they made the Tool music videos) thanks to a new short film (Quay) about them and their work by none other than Christopher Nolan. Now his fanboys can be their fanboys, too.

Roadside Attractions

Elizabeth Banks

Banks is another surprise winner behind the camera, as her feature directorial debut, Pitch Perfect 2, is one of the top five highest-grossing movies of the season in the US. In addition to her becoming a viable filmmaker, though, the usually comedic actress also became known for having remarkable dramatic talent, too, in the Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy. There’s even talk of a potential Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Meanwhile, she gave us more of her hilarious side with the show Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp. She was also in Magic Mike XXL.

Marvel Studios

Michael Pena

Ant-Man and its star, Paul Rudd, were also winners this summer, but we had really hoped if not totally bets on that happening (like Banks, Rudd also won on TV with Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp). I don’t think I was even aware Pena had a part in the Marvel superhero movie, or at least I didn’t think much of it. He’s always been a dependable actor, but he’s also often underused. Here, however, he was allowed to sparkle and as a result he stole the whole movie, providing comic relief that probably shouldn’t have been necessary with Rudd in the lead. Now, someone should let him be the lead in another superhero movie.

Marvel Studios

Judy Greer

Greer is also in Ant-Man, though not nearly as memorably as Pena. And she’s in Jurassic World, Tomorrowland and Entourage, all even less prominently than the movie where she merely plays Rudd’s ex-wife. But the fact that she was in four major releases this summer and didn’t have a substantial role in any of them garnered her some of her best publicity in ages. People were talking about the actress a lot, maybe enough to influence Hollywood she truly deserves better. Of course, she does also happen to be winning in a new season of Married and appears briefly yet much more memorably in the just-released indie Grandma.

Marvel & Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Toby Kebbell

It’s hard to believe that anyone is coming out of Fantastic Four a winner, but Kebbell does appear to be doing just that. Like the four actors playing the title superheroes, he isn’t really a fresh face, though he’s still by far the least famous of the bunch. He also wound up with some of the only positive notices the fantastic flop received. He’s already been slated for bigger and hopefully better things, such as Warcraft, yet his being cast in Kong: Skull Island so soon after Fantastic Four dropped with a thud in theaters was a triumphant bit of spin in his favor.

Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Cara Delevingne

It’d be nice if she was a winner this summer because of her performance in or the performance of Paper Towns, which at least was a modest, profitable hit at the box office. But Delevingne came out of the summer a winner because of an accidental boost to her fame. Everyone learned who she was thanks to an awkward morning-show interview while promoting the John Green adaptation. Now people will pay her more notice in her smallish role in Pan this fall, as well as her part in the ensemble of Suicide Squad next year. Oh, and maybe one of the many smaller films she’s done, too.

Sony Pictures

Rick Springfield

Audiences go to Meryl Streep movies with the understanding that at least Meryl Streep will be amazing. Nobody goes to any movies ever thinking that Rick Springfield will be. With Ricki and the Flash, both of them are, yet because Streep is Streep it’s the ’80s rock star who has been the focus of most of the chatter. He probably won’t be up for any Oscars, a la Streep, but he’s worth watching out for from now on.

Warner Bros.

Charlize Theron

How does a well-established movie star like Charlize Theron still surprise us while winning the game? For one thing, she can follow-up a number of less-than-loved blockbusters like Prometheus and Snow White and the Huntsman (both of which I love, by the way) and especially A Million Ways to Die in the West with a stunning, near-perfect spectacle like Mad Max: Fury Road. For another, she can be the surprise lead in an action movie that everyone thinks is going to be fronted by the title character (Tom Hardy is no loser of the summer, at least). And she can be a freakin’ bad ass in the thing. The Oscar-winning actress was taken for granted for a while, but now she’s a fan favorite to play Captain Marvel, among other roles, and also simply someone to be celebrated fully as one of the coolest, most talented and often funniest leading ladies in Hollywood once again.

20th Century Fox Film Corporation

Jason Statham

Melissa McCarthy is obviously a big winner with the hit action comedy Spy. Rose Byrne once again delivered a memorable comedic performance, for which she can be depended on even if she still fails to have a proper reputation for that talent. And then there was Jason Statham, who stunned even his biggest fans by being the breakout comedy star of the movie. Spy could be – it should be – the movie that elevates him from just being a guy who punches a lot of people as a so-so action hero. Not that he can or ought to do any sort of comedy (no team-up with a baby, please), but he needs to be given more genuinely comedic action

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.