I don’t know that this needs much more introduction.
I mean, it’s the movie stars that are out there in front of us. The actors! The performers! You don’t have your elderly mom call you up asking “who’s that guy who did the directing of that one movie?”. The rest of the people involved are unseen and mostly unheard, but the actors themselves are the faces of the movie. And indeed some may say that the human face and the emotions it can communicate with the intimacy that the camera allows is the single most cinematic thing possible, so let us for now assume that is the case and honor …
THE BEST FILM PERFORMANCES OF THE 2010s
(With a quick note that in following along the adjacent Indiewire list, I have opted to stick to one performance per actor and with one exception, one performance per movie)
50. Lorraine Toussaint as Ruth in Middle of Nowhere (2012)
A film that admittedly relies on stock parts and gives the most overly familiar one to Toussaint, but she takes that role with enough tired cynicism trying hard to hide itself while delivering direct truths about the situation that we know are hard-learned and impossible to deny but told in a way that makes us understand the want to reject them. All the more impressive based on the extremely limited amount of screentime she has at the end of it all.
49. Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps in 12 Years a Slave (2013)
Only the second best performance of the film frankly (the actor who gives the best performance will come up shortly with a different performance) but nevertheless an overwhelming force of proud evil that prevents itself from seeming unrealistic largely because of how raw and crude his cruelty comes, a manner that can’t be mistaken for anything else but the sloppy human penchant to just be awful to people for the sake of how awfulness grants them a power trip in between drinks. And it allows him to be entitled to the suffering of black men and especially black women, but anybody can get it from him obligingly.
48. Trevante Rhodes as Black in Moonlight (2016)
All three of the leads who play the titular Chiron at different stages of his life are phenomenally good, but the third and final section of Moonlight is the best section and a lot of the reasons why can be specifically tied to Rhodes’ performance. It’s a role very obvious in its layers, a character who is in himself a performance for defensive purposes. Rhodes allows Black to exude burly stereotypes of black masculinity to the point that it’s clear the character is trying to convince not just others but also himself. Rhodes brings nuance to the act that can fool his screen partners to believe that’s how this character actually is, but also takes advantage of every opportunity to give off tells that Black is the same bruised child who transformed into this man when we blinked. I have no idea if Rhodes was aware of the performances of Alex Hibbert and Ashton Sanders when shooting this, but if he wasn’t, I’m even more impressed: it’s a terrific culmination of all the reservations and wounds collected from the previous two segments.
47. Ralph Fiennes as M. Gustave H. in The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
I’ve heard on a podcast that Fiennes did not enjoy acting in Anderson’s direction very much, which is a real shame as I think it’s resulted in his best screen work. The way he moves and stands in a precise and fixated way feels like the perfect performing foil to Anderson’s fussy visual style: he embodies the sort of labored sophistication one gets from trying to get things in pleasant order – something I think we only see again in Rushmore – and does so with comic stuffiness that still maintains admirable dignity. And the moments where Gustave gets vulgar or just loses control of himself are a cherry on top, feeling like the gleeful result of a wind-up.
46. Brendan Gleeson as Father James in Calvary (2014)
Both a witness and a subject, a performance where a character just sits and listens while also being someone to whom the events of this movie will HAPPEN, period. You’d think that the Christ allegory here is the most obvious possible one, especially for a film about a priest (and especially with a movie with THAT title), but Gleeson refuses to lean into it. He only finds new ways to respond to the stories he hears and the directions his investigation goes with a deeper and deeper visual sadness. He piles on to the weight that he carries with a physical shagginess that you have to assume his regular collaborator McDonagh knew he’d bring.
45. Chiwetel Ejiofor as Carlton Pearson in Come Sunday (2018)
And here we have the actor to outdo Fassbender in 12 Years and then go right on to outdo THAT performance (in a career full of great performances, honestly!) with this man of extreme internal strife, disappointing himself in several different ways that he is unwilling to communicate to anyone else. Religious turmoil is not something new to anyone who has seen a Bergman or Bresson (and it’s even a character arc that will make another appearance here), but I don’t think we see it ever filled with the sort of convinced self-indictment we have here and Ejiofor uses that core for an unforgettable intellectual journey.
44. Lakeith Stanfield as Cassius Green in Sorry to Bother You (2018)
It’s not just that over the past decade Stanfield has blown up as a screen personality that nobody has been able to avoid, but it’s also the ease with which he’s able to casually sink into the weirdest fucking situations and let that inform his characters. Sometimes that can be pained like in Get Out and sometimes that can be with ease like in Atlanta which happens to be his best work yet, but y’know this is a movie list so we have to give it up to his best film performance as Cash, the man who can one moment smugly display his ability to talk white, posture as one of the elite when he gets a bone thrown, and then have an ever growing sickened look in his eyes the deeper and deeper he digs. It’s a performance that whirls with the world around the character, but not without giving us the sense that… yeah, this is just how that world works and it sucks but he’ll roll with it up until the next rug is pulled out from under him.
43. John C. Reilly as Eli Sisters in The Sisters Brothers (2018)
Part of why John C. Reilly has been a reliable comic AND dramatic actor at once is how amazingly his broad face fits either the cartoonish or the sadness that a scene will call for. And I think his work in Jacques Audiard’s first English-language picture threads that line better than anything else in his career. Taking on the brutal backdrop of a very violent story even by neo-Western standards, Reilly delivers a man who is instinctively able to brutalize others on a drop but more importantly just wants warmth in a world and lifestyle that doesn’t allow for him to encounter it. It informs a lot of his excellent verbal dueling with Joaquin Phoenix (who will show up later on this list, don’t y’all worry) – not to mention how obvious it is that Eli is the one who gets violent to protect his otherwise unrestrained brother – but it’s also particularly whenever he is indoors that Reilly is able to betray how unbelonging Eli is in anywhere remotely resembling the domesticity he desires until a very generous final beat for the character.
42. Bernard Pruvost as Van der Weyden in Li’l Quinquin (2014)
He reminds me of a French Eugene Levy. Not particularly for how he acts but for his face and how he utilizes it to keep himself looking no less quirky and amusing than anybody else in the cast. It’s maybe that familiarity from the actor – other than the fact that he’s just trying to make as much sense of it all as the rest of us – that gets me to warm up to him as an anchor in all the craziness that ensures, if only for the fact that he feels just as much a part of the craziness as the others.
41. Ben Mendelsohn as Neville Love in Starred Up (2013)
You can’t trust any Ben Mendelsohn character, but his performance in Starred Up really gets you wishing you could. Neville is complete fiend of a person and if Mendelsohn only had to portray his brutality, he would already gladly succeed. But using that brutal nature as a launchpad for the internal conflict of how to reconstruct a paternal love for his son from a history of violence that clashes with how his son is working out his own violent norms gives Mendelsohn more room for complexity out of two firmly incompatible traits and that Mendelsohn doesn’t decide to put together a comfort zone for all that is no less admirable than any other complicated monster turn over the medium.
40. Daniel Kaluuya as Jatemme Manning in Widows (2018)
Eat your heart out, Fassbender. Sure, Kaluuya’s performance is much broader than anything Fassbender delivered for his long-time collaborator Steve McQueen, but it’s a pretty broad movie to begin with. The lip-smacking that Kaluuya is delivering with his intense eyes and his casual violence is among the most fun I’ve had being scared of a thriller villain in a long while, right down to the punchline of a final beat for the character after he spends the whole movie bullying anyone he can.
39. Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
There’s this popular reading of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood as being self-reflexive regarding its own masculinity and I honestly don’t think that’s necessarily something in Quentin Tarantino’s text of the film. I do have no problem believing that to be Pitt’s approach to Booth as a personality, though. He gives Booth a swagger that goes somewhere between aimless drifter who knows he’s a nobody and smug self-assuredness that feels like a dangerous yet sad combo. Overall, Pitt gives Booth a presence that is a conglomeration between quietly pathos, desperate camaraderie, and off-putting violence that makes for one of Tarantino’s most complex screen creations.
38. Barry Keoghan as Martin in The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)
I’m sure that the cold curt dialogue of Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Fillippou – especially translated to English – is challenging to get a hold of, but by 2017 we had two movies with casts that could grasp that alien delivery and make it into the most remote language you could understand. When you’re surrounded by actors so comfortable in that mode, how do you turn it into something sinister and threatening within the very context of that environment? However that Keoghan figured it out, he figured it out but good. If I had to guess it’s the way everything Martin does feels like a fixation part of a network of fixations that adds an inhumanity and obsessive nature by how the monotony of his line deliveries just feel a bit more precise and knowing than the rest of the characters in the movie. It’s basically the Lanthimos version of a supervillain.
37. Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network (2010)
Whether or not it’s an accurate portrayal of the notorious Facebook creator (and if recent events are any indication, it is way too kind to him), it’s simply the case that Eisenberg embodies the kind of distance and anxiety that comes from wanting to be liked when you apparently have few if any redeeming qualities. With this kind of assholish genius role, it’d be very easy to present him as distanced from his surroundings and walk away but what Eisenberg’s style of acting brings to Zuckerberg is a wounded flicker every time somebody walks away from him, not necessarily because he knows he hurt them… just the knowledge that he didn’t win them over. And it could have been a hell of a wakeup call to the continued trope that intelligence is a virtue in and of itself, rather than something that has to be leavened with humanity.
36. Ryan Gosling as Dean Pereira in Blue Valentine (2010)
Now this is what method acting can ACTUALLY accomplish when it’s not just you being a prick to your castmates: a movie that portrays the raw and ugly sores of a relationship in conjuration and distintegration is going to rely very hard on the honesty and bravery of its lead actors. Gosling and co-star Michelle Williams (who is the slightly better performance, but not to worry… she will be back up here) meet that task with gusto, letting themselves drown in the intensity of falling in love and growing to hate in unsubtle but entirely heartbreaking ways.
35. Jennifer Lopez as Ramona Vegas in Hustlers (2019)
I don’t know what got in Lopez’s water to develop her into an actor of this caliber, but I’m glad it got there. We definitely wouldn’t have gotten this sort of warm maternal presence without the sort of experience Lopez brings to the role and her sudden deftness to turn dangerous and harsh as an escalation towards things makes for an excellent scene-stealing turn late in her career. But what really impresses is the way she’s willing to complicate both of these angles when it comes to conflicting with her co-protagonists, something that has to mix frustration and disappointment towards being pushed back by people she loves that sometimes wavers to betray a sense of broken trust.
34. Léa Seydoux as Emma in Blue Is the Warmest Colour (2013)
I’m not sure a single movie has aged worse in my eyes than Blue Is the Warmest Colour and not just because the director is a fucking creep. One of those reasons is because it’s clear that the performances do more work than anything else in the film and that doesn’t feel all that cinematic to me, but let’s not linger on my lamentations and focus on what excellent one of those two central performances is doing. It’s easy enough to recognize how Seydoux is being admired by a camera adopting her co-star’s perspective and that should ideally restrain the possibilities for the character from there. Except Seydoux does find new ways to imply a life outside of this framing of her and doesn’t care to give it all away, not out of impishness, but simply to give a plausible base for the emotional heights of the third act and until then allow us the presence of a full human being rather than treat as some Manic Pixie Dream Girl-like object.
33. Joaquin Phoenix as Joe in You Were Never Really Here (2017)
One of my big pet peeves as of late: somehow everyone has decided that this performance needs to be compared to Joker to make a point. They share next to nothing in common and are attempting wildly different things and frankly Phoenix’s performance is more interesting to me because of how ostensibly empty it is. Joe is nothing but pain and trauma and his refusal to let that live in his head (the editing and sound design does more of the work informing us his thoughts) means that Phoenix maintains one blank stare on his face for so long that the moment it falters and gets defensive, it feels like the film made us flinch. Besides which I don’t think he’s ever used his whole body to better effect, likewise maintaining a specific posture until it’s either time to go home and he relaxes himself for a little while or to go to work and he becomes immovable and firmly aggressive. An excellent character that I found more personal response to than anywhere else, despite receiving little character information in return.
32. Daniel Giménez Cacho as Don Diego de Zama in Zama (2017)
It’s not easy to snobbishly act like you’re the smartest one in the room and still retain any pathos as a character, but Cacho gets it done. Part of it is how he shares the stage with bounds of mud and obnoxious animals, but it’s also just the fact that he has that look on his face like somebody stepped on his private lawn and it’s a look he maintains while the movie turns him into the world’s most bored punching bag, maintaining that same stand-offish attitude the more and more he’s buried. It’s not dense work, but it’s good work and I don’t know that much of the film’s observations on class and colonialism would land without such a stubborn presence.
31. Matthew McConaughey as Dallas in Magic Mike (2012)
Right there at the very dawn of the McConaissance, McConaughey invisibly returned to being an interesting dramatic actor by using Soderbergh’s reliable dissection of movie stars and their screen personas to manipulate his sex appeal, his beatific carriage, and smooth-talking Southern gentleman. The end result is a man who can appeal to the primal desires of people to see men dance naked around them and then turn around giving shady Judas ultimatums without even changing his tone of voice. He’s a salesman at the end of it all the way that the titular Mike is a worker and so delivers a fairly sleazy antagonist in the opposing way that he meets his ends.
30. Olivia Williams as Ruth Lang in The Ghost Writer (2010)
It is really really hard to explain what about this performance works so well for without spoiling the whole thriller, but I’ll try. It’s ostensibly a shallow stereotype of a role – the bitter wife behind a controversial public figure – and Williams is definitely more than capable of delivering the sharpest version of that, but it’s also very clear that she used her knowledge of what’s going to warn us that this woman is going to be something extremely formidable as our protagonist dives deeper into rabbit holes he shouldn’t even be glancing at. When we get to the place where we’re gonna get, nothing about Williams’ foreshadowing dampens the shock of it all, largely because of how she still finds room to escalate things from that point. Excellent and intelligent genre acting that we need more of in our pulp cinema.
Also, fuck Roman Polanski. I have to say that until he dies. Fuck that little jit.
29. Kristen Stewart as Maureen Cartwright in Personal Shopper (2016)
It’s undeniable at this point that Olivier Assayas and Kristen Stewart work wonders on each other as director and actor. Nothing Stewart is doing in this movie is different from what she was doing in the Twilight movies, I don’t think. It’s just that this time around Stewart was able to hone her screen personality to something appropriately melancholy and in turn something that can be guided by her to whatever anxious or depressed tone is going to be. Stewart makes Personal Shopper‘s observations on death and the afterlife richer because how her reserved habits as an actor transform to nuance and in return Personal Shopper presents a side to Stewart’s acting style we haven’t seen before (or since, to be honest).
28. Rachel Weisz as Hester Collyer in The Deep Blue Sea (2011)
A character that could easily be relegated to hysterics and parody with the familiar awakening archetype, except Weisz is no slouch and knows how to let those emotions throw Hester about but not restrain enough that we know most of the hurt is being internalized. And fortunately, Terence Davies is patient enough to follow along with Weisz’ performance rather than have the tale prescribe the path of emotional arc, which brings us to a more organic and stronger version of that character type.
27. Charlotte Rampling as Kate Mercer in 45 Years (2015)
Over the course of a few days, Rampling takes one bit of news and lets that snowball into a blow against an otherwise comfortable and certain life. If I greatly considering breaking my one-performance-per-film rule to include her co-star Tom Courtenay on this list, but as it is… I don’t regret having to select Rampling as she gets all of the film’s biggest acting moments and essentially the tension lives on whether or not she will suck it up and ask the big questions that are storming about. And particularly in the way that she continues that strife all the way past its apparent conclusion, thereby leaving us in the final shot with a hell of a lot of worries. It is the work of a very talented veteran knowing exactly how to get as much anxiety out of less physical work and just letting us stare at her conflicted face.
26. Emily Blunt as Kate Macer in Sicario (2015)
Holy shit, this list has a character named Kate Mercer and a character Kate Macer… Anyway, It perplexes me how Sicario came out and everyone was more interested in getting Benicio Del Toro or Josh Brolin awards instead of Blunt. She’s the one human center of the movie, introduced to the savagery of her apparent allies in direct way that puts us in the same shoes. Sicario doesn’t feel as complete an experience without her presence as surrogate, but even outside of that, her responses to what she witnesses are what make the character feel more involved than just stock type, whether its her shaky hands trying to light a cigarette or trying to control the pained grimace of what she smells in a house of death. The character has a purpose within Sheridan’s script but it’s how Blunt embodies the character between serving that purpose that makes it an all-timer for me.
25. Agata Trzebuchowska as Anna in Ida (2013)
Extremely challenging stuff: Trzebuchowska has to be the ground towards Anna’s journey into her true identity as Ida, which is a confusing and harrowing conflict to be faced at such a delicate moment in her life. She slips on each new discovery with shocking default and adopts every new trait into it with shocking ease, to the point that Trzebuchowska eventually illustrates the way a memory can become flesh and blood resurrection. And that’s before the movie gets deep into the decisions Anna/Ida has commit to and how Trzebuchowska faces those turns with surprising assurance that feels no less human than the quiet astonishment she swallowed prior.
24. Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln (2012)
You probably have some idea of how hard it was to pick between Day-Lewis’ performance in this or Phantom Thread, knocking it out of the park with his only two performances of the decade – his last two and almost certainly his best two. But I went with the Oscarbait one specifically because of how wisely Day-Lewis uses that Oscarbait element to his advantage: he plays a character who is – if not reflexively aware of his own gravitas, which would probably destroy the film otherwise – aware of his own stature in a local sense and the notoriety around how he is presented that he is able to cunningly used that to his own political means. That’s only one of several ways Day-Lewis takes the most mythologized figure in all of American history and reminds him that he’s a flesh-and-blood human being, but I think it’s the element that hooked me most to the performance as is… because it not only grounded the performance but gave the film a new angle in which to attack the legend of Lincoln. I am deeply going to miss Day-Lewis as an actor, whose intelligent application of concepts feels overlooked to the method acting hijinks.
23. Lesley Manville as Cyril Woodcock in Phantom Thread (2017)
Do you realize how good you have to be in a movie to outshine Daniel Day-Lewis in it? This isn’t like the Michael Fassbender – 12 Years a Slave entry where I’m only going with the second best, Manville is the top of the cream of a very impressive crop of performances (Shout out to Vicky Krieps, who also deserves high praise as one of the decade’s best breakouts here). Manville seems to fit right into Anderson’s style of phrasing while bringing along the brittle humanity of her collaborations with Mike Leigh, fitting right into Cyril’s role as the person cleaning up her brother’s sloppy childish ass that refines the cruelty of their social practices while also surprising with a sharp vicious side of her own. It was so fucking obvious that the “don’t pick a fight with me” moment was going to be Awards Clip, but that Manville gained an Oscar nomination for a role (and film) that I thought was going to go ignored was one the moment I yelped for joy hearing the nominees.
22. Elizabeth Marvel as Jean Meyerowitz in The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (2017)
Probably the biggest frustration regarding The Meyerowitz Stories is how its choice in Meyerowitz to focus on never gets close to Jean. Probably by design given some particular scenes, but it doesn’t make me happy anyway. Marvel went and turned the forgotten Meyerowitz child into the most fleshed-out person in the backdrop of her brother’s back-and-forth fighting and the only thing Baumbach could think was to make her witness and commentator on their fuckery? It’s just not enough for me, yo.
21. Patricia Arquette as Olivia in Boyhood (2014)
Sometimes the consensus is just right: Arquette’s performance in Boyhood is one of the most surprisingly raw portrayals of parenthood I’ve seen in movies, not just in the last decade of movies. One only needs to point to the urgency of the famous “I just thought there’d be more” scene to get why she earned that Oscar, but that’s at risk of overshadowing how one of the best surprises in Boyhood is how we’re not just watching one boy grow but the world and people around him as well. And Arquette’s whiplashing between objectives of raising Mason, become her own individual, and deal with different domestic atmospheres in fractured presentations makes her far outshine her co-stars.
20. Tilda Swinton as Madame Blanc and company in Suspiria (2018)
I’m gonna humblebrag a little bit up in here: this tweet is me. I’m the friend in that tweet. And I certainly stand by it: a lot of directors have been recognizing the versatility of Swinton as actor and presenting that by having her play multiple roles in a single film, but none more impressive than her latest collaboration with Luca Gudagnino. It’s a performance so full of surprises that I don’t dare to spoil them but I do want to point out that none of the characters share anything in common and yet it makes a complete sense to have Swinton bring each one to life: that Blanc herself is a stonefaced permutation of the idea of maternity and uses Swinton’s lanky frame to communicate the power of movement and dance is only one thing, but that Swinton finds ways to communicate gross monstrosity and toxic scars is another thing onward.
19. Gary Oldman as George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
I don’t mean this as an insult, but Gary Oldman in general is a showboat. When we think of him, we think of the angry shouts of stuff like Léon, the anarchy of Sid & Nancy, the Texan cartoonery of The Fifth Element, the hissing monstrousness of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the… pre-Post Malone-isms of True Romance. And it mostly works (I am personally very bitter that at his portrayal of Sirius Black in the Harry Potter franchise because of he overspills on that loudness). And yet here he is, portraying one of my favorite characters in all of literature and I don’t think he raises his voice more than once. In fact, I don’t think his version of Smiley does much of anything except sit and watch and it frankly turns out to be the most interesting I’ve ever found the actor. His presentation of Smiley’s quiet is one that brings out apprehension, one that disarms us when he finally opens his mouth and reveals how many of the pieces he’s put together, and it even has a side of smug cruelty once he knows that he has an adversary cornered without ever doing much of anything at all. Alec Guinness is one of my favorite actors of all time, so it’s not surprise to anyone that prior to 2011, I would have claimed Guinness’ performance in the role back in the old miniseries to be one of the all-time great screen performances. I think… don’t hold me to it… but I think Oldman might have beaten it.
18. Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd in The Master (2012)
I don’t think we’ll see another actor of Hoffman’s caliber in my lifetime and it’s such a shame that he died so young. And much as I know we’ve come to consider Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as the real crown jewel of The Master, I think I’ve grown to change my mind in retrospect and rewatch: Hoffman is pulling the same sorts of incredible work but in a less scene-stealing way that still maintains the consistency of a man who has to hold court wherever he goes, no matter how small the audience, and if he loses a little of control, he will snap petulantly. It’s the manner in which Hoffman tries to present a veneer of dignity to Dodd’s immaturity against Phoenix’s full-throttled animal and the way Hoffman allows that façade to peel back and wither at the worst possible moments that made Dodd the character I paid more attention to on rewatch and accept as the greatest performance in a career of great performances.
17. Agata Kulesza as Wanda Gruz in Ida (2013)
Yep, I couldn’t have just one performance from Ida. Kulesza’s Wanda is a more commanding screen presence than Trzebuchowska by default: she’s the most verbal figure in the movie, if not necessarily more active than Anna. Which is all the better since she’s a physical indicator of what awaits Anna in the real world: bitterness, coldness, cynicism all to such a magnitude that you eventually just stop fighting against and let it all cover you.
16. Raffey Cassidy as Celeste & Albertine Montgomery in Vox Lux (2018)
A bit obviously schematic, but Cassidy is evidently up to it as she presents two related characters and lets whatever we can watch them share indict them together. Certainly Cassidy does enough to distinguish the younger side of Celeste since she has more present trauma to respond to and let mold her in unexpected ways – sort of playing a bedrock for when Natalie Portman takes the role akin to the three leads of Moonlight, but in manner less indebted to realism – but Cassidy playing her own daughter means that some of that trauma has remnants within the way she responds to her mom as screen partner and the already fragile nature of their relationship. It’s an unexpectedly intelligent way to use simplicity in crafting two people and an arc between them.
15. Violet Nelson as Rosie in The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open (2019)
Heartbreaking in its minimalism, astounding in its deflection. It’s still unjust to me how few people have watched this film (I’m not even sure it received a release in its native Canada), but in any case, Nelson fills this human drama with an inescapable sense of tragic loss of direction and a totally upsetting amount of pressure just from the way she holds her shoulders and has her eyes look everywhere but the woman following her and trying to comfort her. She navigates much more impressively around the didactic nature of the dialogue than you’d expect from an amateur actor with the same degree of restraint, electing to mumble her words like the racing thoughts are barely forming early enough to communicate. She paces the gradations of Rosie’s emotional state to develop over the course of one take so that even despite the apparent fixed stare, we see the progress. And overall, Nelson’s portrayal of the strife that abused indigenous women go through in the span of two hours feels more urgent than many other message movies can stand to accomplish.
14. Paul Walter Hauser as Richard Jewell in Richard Jewell (2019)
We go into the movie knowing the true story of Jewell’s innocence and frankly Hauser never turns this into a mystery thriller with his demeanor. But he also doesn’t make it easy to like Jewell and presents to us a very uncomfortable figure: his lack of respect for personal space, the ease with which he can becoming bullying, the hair trigger way in which he can escalate a tiny thing, and the seeming lack of self-awareness he has regarding how exudes these things. It’s basically Hauser being able to turn his I, Tonya character into a flesh-and-blood misguided fool, finding ways to indict the character’s idolization of toxic and corrupt things while also allowing tiny flickers of doing the right thing.
13. Alden Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle in Hail, Caesar! (2016)
I feel really bad for Ehrenreich, the man starred in a Coen brothers movie AND a Star Wars movie and has the Steven Spielberg seal approval and yet he still can’t become an A-lister. He definitely deserves it though: playing a movie star coincidentally gave Ehrenreich to show the world his comic timing, his physical ability, his musical talent, and even his chameleon-like way of sinking into a performance so deep that he’s convincing when THAT character has no chameleon ability whatsoever. I could holler “would that it were so simple?” ’til the cows come home with how much I love this performance, except my line wouldn’t sound exactly like that.
12. Cate Blanchett as Jasmine Francis in Blue Jasmine (2013)
The last time anybody felt comfortable admitting a Woody Allen movie was good and it’s not even Allen’s fucking movie. No, it’s his script but there’s nothing in Blanchett’s performance that resembles the sort of acting Allen has directed before or since: she’s too cold and distanced as a protagonist in a very clipped way that contains enough “I Am a Big Personality” magnetism to keep us fixed on her despite how her off-putting elitism and refusal to grant any psychological depth makes her impossible to root for. It’s just that her performance makes her impossible to turn away from to, demanding every amount of focus from beginning to end.
11. Ethan Hawke as Pastor Ernst Toller in First Reformed (2017)
Now this is shocking, but not only did Hawke give a performance better than anything he did for Richard Linklater, but he gave it for Paul Schrader of all people. But y’know, I have to admit I don’t think this performance by anyone other than a Calvinist… it has too much internal turmoil, the kind that makes Hawke look like he’s poisoned and about to collapse any second. Since First Reformed basically plays off the “austere European art film about faith and suffering” playbook, Hawke decides to pull from that same playbook himself but since those are also movies from the 1950s and 60s, he has a pained modernity to his visual bleakness and it gives Toller as a character sense of being out of time that is unlike anything else I’ve ever seen on-screen. I would not be surprised if on rewatch I don’t consider this to be in my top ten, honestly.
10. Oscar Isaac as Llewyn Davis in Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
I feel like by this point, it’s being clear that this list is full of tragic asshole types, but what can one say? It gives actors a lot of interesting stuff to work with. And Isaac here has turned out to work with not just the material on the Coen brothers’ page – whose sarcastic dialogue fits him like a glove – but also bring a self-awareness that just isn’t enough to redeem Llewyn as a figure who ruins everything around him. It’s only enough to give him the knowledge that he could be better. And when he gets to play that against the sort of cyclical presentation of incident and failure that the Coens throw Llewyn in, well, at least Isaac’s irritable tongue against everything he meets keeps the movie from turning depressing. Plus for somebody who doesn’t like cats, he plays extremely well as a screen partner against one.
9. Sandra Hüller as Ines Conradi in Toni Erdmann (2016)
I honestly think that if Hüller didn’t find the space to portray Ines’ feeling of losing herself within this cold impersonal world of hers, Toni Erdmann could have become pretty fucking grating of a film and could not survive. Instead, Hüller communicates exactly what’s at stake within her character and then continues to let herself get lost in the emotional tug-of-war with her dad while trying to decide for herself. It’s a performance that deeply wants to appreciate the influences in her life while also recognizing her own autonomy and Hüller acquits herself excellently. Plus, much as Peter Simonischek is an excellent comic foil with amazing energy… Hüller is funnier. Both of her big comic sequences are absolute slam dunks, two of the funniest scenes of the year for me.
8. Anna Paquin as Lisa Cohen in Margaret (2011)
Transforming the teenage lack of identity and form into the bombast of opera! But of course, it has to work as a teenager and Paquin is as excellent dealing with the sort of loud whirlwind of emotions and revelations that somebody has trouble with at that age. Which is maybe the closest to truth that a movie could get regarding that time of one’s life: you think you’ve absolutely figured yourself out and then get hit by some trauma that turns you into an entirely different person and then once more you learn some bitter lessons about how the world actually works and dive right into a different demeanor. And all while Paquin refuses to give Lisa the distance to recognize that she’s picking the worst possible scenario to dig her heels in regarding, so that all of Lisa’s flaws as a person feel honest. But also her strengths, let’s not forget, just ones that the movie recognizes rather than Lisa does.
7. Leila Hatami as Simin in A Separation (2011)
More of a witness to things going wrong who is forced to be involved by the end of things rather than an active player, but Hatami uses that position in intensely involving ways. Even before everything gets fucked up, she shows herself to be one of the best subjects for the close-up style of direct address of the decade with the opening shot, addressing the audience with a firm indictment for judgments we haven’t made yet but knows we are capable of making (then again… she is staring at a judge in the shot). It’s so easy to say that it’s a performance that hits us directly with all the social implications of being a woman in Iran, but y’know, it’s the truth and it’s something that Simin as a character wouldn’t be able to do if Hatami wasn’t such a commanding screen presence.
6. Cynthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson in A Quiet Passion (2016)
It’s kind of delightful to me that we saw two different portrayal of the great poet Dickinson that seek the same goals from different approaches (Shout out to a never-better Molly Shannon in Wild Nights with Emily only two years later), but I think the quieter film is the one that I found more cutting. For one thing, it plays fair with Terrence Davies’ and company’s gloomy aesthetic while being able to tear out of it. And how it tears itself out is by allowing the wit and intelligence of the character out of the shadow. Nixon keeps the recognition of Dickinson’s sufferings intact, but refuses to paint the miserable figure history has somehow prescribed Dickinson to be. Instead, she takes the only sources of which we know Dickinson by and delivers something with more fight in it.
5. Michelle Williams as Randi in Manchester by the Sea (2016)
She’s barely in it, but after spending a whole movie watching Casey Affleck lug around his life-long depression and sadness, Williams pops in out of nowhere and shows Affleck just how its done: the way her body crumples, the way she struggles to finish her lines, the way she tries so hard to convince her screen partner that there is a different way to go instead of drowning the way that they are. She makes a character who we feel so much for, we want to grab her hand and pull ourselves out of whatever self-punishment we’re going through.
4. Viola Davis as Rose Lee Maxson in Fences (2016)
Absolutely unfair since this is a role she’s played for 13-weeks straight so by the time she reclaimed it for the film adaptation, it was a person she knew like the back of her hand. But that means that she also brings in an experience to the character that informs so much how she swallows up every transgression she suffers under her husband and this roof, silently letting that weight paint the tragedy of the paths she didn’t take, and then finally letting all of these stopped reactions shake up and explode in that one scene. You know the scene. You really definitely know the scene. The one that won her the most deserved Oscar of the decade.
3. Timothy Spall as J.M.W. Turner in Mr. Turner (2014)
It’s a biopic but it’s a complex one and a lot of that complexity comes specifically from the crude way that Spall embodies the famous painter without an identifiable center. Spall’s Turner swings out different sides of him in response to what’s going on: one moment he’s a sensitive being who is brought to tears by how a thought materialized, one who shows a quiet intense interest into a piece he witnesses without any acknowledgement of the environment around him, deliver acts of cruel misogyny out of boredom, bully a man out of elitism and so on… there’s no active consistency within even the way that Turner snorts between two scenes. And somehow that crudeness about him, both as a personality and as a character, is what makes him feel no less believable as a human being as any other character from Mike Leigh’s film – a career with no shortage of complexity and understanding.
2. Denis Lavant as Mr. Oscar in Holy Motors (2012)
It’s unfair, isn’t it? Lavant has basically got a movie handed to him on a silver platter to just show off and flaunt his limitless versatility, weaving in and out of characters and personalities effortlessly just for the sake of portraying the transformative power that moviemaking can have one person. Which means that if Lavant wasn’t capable of doing all that shit with a smile (and even the one time he doesn’t smile – the obvious motion-capture diss track – wows us with the capabilities of his body to perform dizzying martial arts and indulge in off-putting but interesting poses of inhuman sexuality), the movie fall apart but Lavant gets to carry it all to the finish line. The fact that it never loses track of how we are in the end watching one man – both as actor and as character – only makes it more impressive that the performer has a continuous grab bag of tricks and ticks and looks to give us.
Willem Dafoe as Thomas Wake in The Lighthouse (2019)
I’m in absolute love. Practically everything about The Lighthouse appeals to all my conscious aesthetic loves but it even introduced me to some aesthetic loves I didn’t know I had deep inside and the biggest one is having famous New Yorker Willem Dafoe deliver Ye Olde English with the most obnoxious seaman’s voice and let every single line continue to crinkle the old age on his face, from the lines to hairs especially of that great big bushy beard. And he does it with unavoidable bombast, stealing every possible scene he can to the degree that even the movie has to oblige by the way it frames and lights him compared to his co-star. Wake is a complete character, pure presence, animated into the craggled black-and-white flesh by the force of will with which Dafoe’s spits salty sea insults like a German Expressionist Mr. Krabs. It’s all I’ve ever wanted from a movie character and god bless ye fer givin’ it to us!