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updated: 8/3/2014 10:13 PM

Liam Neeson the actor, not the action star

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  • "The Grey," a survival drama, features one of Liam Neeson's best screen performances.

      "The Grey," a survival drama, features one of Liam Neeson's best screen performances.

 
 

Liam Neeson, who rose to considerable fame and acclaim in 1993 with Steven Spielberg's Oscar-winning "Schindler's List," has in recent years found a lucrative niche playing middle-aged action heroes in movies like "Non-Stop," which opens today.

His most iconic roles -- as opportunistic businessman-turned-savior Oskar Schindler, Jedi Knight Qui-Gon Jinn in "Star Wars: Episode I" and a vengeful father with a "particular set of skills" in "Taken" -- have perhaps overshadowed a career full of fine and diverse performances. Here are my five favorites:

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"The Grey" -- The ads wanted you to think Joe Carnahan's 2012 film was an action movie about Neeson fighting wolves with his bare hands. But it's actually a brooding, at times almost meditative adventure tale about a group of plane crash survivors who face death in the Alaskan wild. Neeson gives a wounded performance as a survivalist working for an oil drilling firm, and character actor Dallas Roberts impresses in a role much bigger than he usually gets. (Check him out opposite Colin Farrell in "A Home at the End of the World.")

The film's ambiguous ending infuriated audiences who thought they were getting "Taken" with wolves; adjust your expectations, and you just might find one of the most underrated films of recent years. (Available on Blu-ray, DVD, VOD and Netflix streaming)

"Kinsey" -- Neeson and Oscar-nominated co-star Laura Linney hold nothing back in this biopic about sexologist Alfred Kinsey that also boasts performances by Peter Sarsgaard, John Lithgow and Oliver Platt. Kinsey published groundbreaking books on human sexuality, and this movie examines his life with brutal honesty. (It's definitely not sexy, though, so don't get your hopes up, "Masters of Sex" fans.)

The film was written and directed by Bill Condon, who would later go on to make -- gulp -- the last two "Twilight" movies. (Available on DVD and VOD)

"Les Miserables" -- No, there's no singing in this one. But there are two fabulous performances by Neeson (Jean Valjean) and Geoffrey Rush (Inspector Javert) in Bille August's 1998 dramatic adaptation of Victor Hugo's novel. Like all versions of this story, the first half is far more interesting than the second -- Valjean's confrontation with the Thernardiers is particularly satisfying in this version -- but I'll take Neeson's strength and Rush's anger over Russell Crowe's "singing" any day.

And hey, special bonus for you "Homeland" fans who can't get enough of Claire Danes' cry-face: She plays Cosette! (Available on Blu-ray, DVD and VOD)

"Love Actually" -- Yeah, I know, I've written about this before, and Christmas is over. But how can you not love Neeson as the grieving husband who teaches his son about love with Kate and Leo's help? (Available on Blu-ray, DVD, VOD and Netflix streaming)

"Rob Roy" -- This tale of a Scottish Highlander fighting his evil landowners had the misfortune of coming out in 1995 -- the same year Mel Gibson's "Braveheart" won the best-picture Oscar. While "Rob Roy" is not a crowd-pleaser, it is a showcase of beautiful photography and incredible acting. Tim Roth was nominated for best supporting actor for his turn as Archibald Cunningham, a foppish villain with a deadly blade. Perhaps even better is a chance to see "American Horror Story's" mercurial Jessica Lange as the title character's wife.

The climactic swordfight between Neeson and Roth is exhausting, not exhilarating -- a stark contrast to "Braveheart's" rousing action. (Available on Blu-ray, DVD and VOD)

• Sean Stangland is a Daily Herald copy editor and a tireless consumer of pop culture. He has a low midichlorian count. You can follow him on Twitter at @SeanStanglandDH.

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