With all of these performances compiled into one list, I am yet again amazed by just how good a decade we have had so far. We have had older actors take on the medium headstrong and younger actors show the world they already have what it takes. One thing I noticed as well is how many female performances blew me away these past five years. A year after Cate Blanchett called female performances in films a niche that she hopes we will surpass (she will appear on this list, don’t worry), it’s good to see how many dominating lead roles women have had. We also have a number of method actors going the extra mile with some astounding results. Overall, we’ve been treated to some captivated performances. Until the next five years, here are my top 25 performances of the decade so far.
Let’s take a very serious topic and make it funny while trying to have an honest discussion about it. It seems like a poor idea that could turn ugly very quickly. Tell that to George Clooney, whose character Matt King deals with the horrors of having a loved on on life support, adultery and one’s worth in land all in one depressingly funny film. King is always an unfortunate soul, and it was up to Clooney to decide when King would be a joke or when he was to be treated with respect. There is a very slim line between the two, and King is never a cartoon character to get the laughs across. Sometimes, just his frustrations are hard to not chuckle at. Clooney just knows how to trick his audience into feeling whatever he wants them to feel, and it definitely shows in The Descendants. You’ll feel awful for laughing at King’s expense, but he won’t show that he cares about your reaction. In the end, you’ll come to feel appreciative of King’s best efforts, and you can see his battles within yourself. We laugh at ourselves in the end, and that may be Clooney’s most clever trick of all.
Say what you want about this young one now, but there was a time before we even knew who Quvenzhané Wallis was, and that time came even after the first time we saw her. When we watched Beasts of the Southern Wild and saw this young child, we were in awe of this little spirit that took a good movie and made it truly special. Yes, Benh Zeitlin’s directing made this film a mature fairy tale come true, but the movie needed someone real to follow. Wallis was astounding, never mind real. What a tough child, too. Hushpuppy was a role model that represented the innocence children faced during hard times they didn’t quite understand, and her slight inkling that something was wrong was truly a child’s first look at the real world. I’m not sure if Wallis herself learned about the world while filming this, but it sure felt like she did. The media has been too harsh on this child (especially The Onion, despite being a parody site), and we often forget that this is a kid receiving this kind of attention. And so she should; Her Academy Award nomination for a performance she did when she was nine years old was well deserved, and shame on us for introducing adult judgments to a child who is simply enjoying her warranted glory.
How has this actor not won an academy award yet? She’s sure been nominated enough times. She can clearly pull off a variety of styles, as she has made us laugh, sad and furious. In American Hustle, she has the capacity to do all three of those things. As a master con artist Sydney who thirsts for bigger jobs and riskier tasks, she becomes the Lady Edith Greensly whose accent is deceiving and whose personality confuses even us. The whole thing is an act, and we can spot Sydney pretending to be Edith. Its difficult to spot Amy Adams playing either of these personalities, though. Adams is usually innocent and charming. Here she is an egotistical bombshell. We want to dislike her, but not only is she magnetic, her making a fool of everyone else is highly entertaining. She makes everyone around her sink lower than her v-neck, and we don’t know if we should blame Edith or Sydney for this. I have a feeling this won’t be the furthest America’s Sweetheart will travel outside of her comfort zone.
Being an actor during the early stages of sound cinema was rough. If you didn’t have the voice, you were out of there. Jean Dujardin made a name for himself in his native France, especially with the OSS series, as a comedic gem. Over here on our side of the world, many of us had no idea who he was. The Artist cleverly represents star power throughout all of film history, so it acted as a podium for Dujardin. As George Valentin, a silent film star, Dujardin was a comedic hero from the very start. We didn’t know his story, but we saw where he was and admired. This was his first discussion with the entire world and he made it worthwhile. His expressions say it all and he blends being suave with being arrogant so well that you can’t get angry at him. When it all comes crashing down, we feel for this character despite not being able to hear his expressions through his voice. We rely on trust, and we trusted a fallen actor struggling to match his high pride. Dujardin bounced back in the film and he overcame it all in Hollywood. It was his moment to shine and he sure made it count “with pleasure”.
Look at this face; isn’t it gaunt? Isn’t it eerie enough to haunt? It’s a shame that name is a part of our world, because here, this character is as slimy as he can be. For Jake Gyllenhaal, though, we are reminded as to how he got so big in the first place. We all remember watching Donnie Darko in high school and seeing this awkward teenager try to take on the entire world. Well he’s grown up, and he understands how the world is run. He’s Lou Bloom, and he reacts to his name contrarily: He makes the world around him wilt. He gets the social political drive and the demographics of it all. He hunts to keep telling the world messages like a sick clairvoyant. He gets his way and we are both confused as to how he succeeds and fully aware as to how. Life isn’t fair and name knows this. In fact, he’s part of the problem. He feeds on the sick and displays their wounds for the world to see. Bloom is the equivalent of a raccoon splitting a garbage bag open in the middle of the night with its reflective eyes staring right at you. Gyllenhaal knows what sets us off and thus we like him (we just don’t like his character).
Marion Cotillard is unquestionably talented, and it’s nice to see her continue to take risks even well after her work as Edith Piaf. In Rust and Bone, she starts off Stéphanie, as an experienced whale trainer, who seems like she truly has been doing this for years. When an unfortunate accident strips her of her legs, we really sense all of what name has lost. It isn’t just about name losing her ability to walk; It’s about what walking meant to her life. She is suicidal and depressed, and her once lively expression turns into a cold glare. To see her slowly grow inspiration to live again is touching. To see her overcome her struggles is enchanting. With the many performances Cotillard has done these past few years worth noting, it is her work in Rust and Bone that shines the most because it is possibly her most daring within these last few years. That’s saying a lot when you consider that Cotillard sacrifices herself in almost anything she does (even the David Bowie music video she was in had her be a tortured soul). We may see a hurt-loving brawler in Rust and Bone, but it’s Cotillard’s fight with the medium she continues to dominate that always makes her so thrilling to watch.
To play royalty is hard enough. To play King George VI is even tougher. In order to speak with a stammer and not be truly insulting, you have to have the kind of talent Colin Firth posseses. The amount of command Firth has over the script is insurmountable. He can punch the lines out while still keeping his realistic stutter. You can tell he is a man who does not want to be so fondly sought after because of his insecurities, and when he is given the chance to shine, he is often grumpy. You can sense years of plague that have damned King George VI this whole time and we are merely seeing his breaking point (or what ends up being the point where he breaks through). The final monologue is a thrill to listen to, and a lot of that is because of Firth’s sense of depth. His approach to acting is a classic, textbook one, but he can teach a master class at this point. He always pauses when needed to, takes a breath on the right beats and raises his voice only when necessary. If anyone should have played King George VI as an exercise on vocal control, it most certainly was Firth.
Give Javier Bardem any role and he will be sure to research what it’ll take to dominate the part. Ask him to play a father who leads illegal operations and discovers that he has terminal cancer, and you’ll sadly get the part done well. It’s rough to see Bardem so weak and defeated. He shows his anguish upon his face as he has to push himself forwards just to walk. His eyes tearfully stare at things you see everyday as his perspective of what life is really about changes. He wants to appreciate it all, but he still has commitments to tend to; Both the good and the bad. You won’t fear this big guy but you definitely fear for him. Biutiful as a movie is quite a difficult one to watch, and we kind of have to blame Bardem for being so good at playing a tragic character. We feel the misery on screen and Bardem refuses for us to quit as he grabs us by the scruff of our necks and pulls us along. We don’t mind by the time the movie is over, because Bardem’s full circle revolution is well worth the watch. Bardem has played hateful characters before (see No Country For Old Men and Skyfall), and he know how to make this struggling criminal anything but.
What an understated performance. Michelle Williams’ take on the late Marilyn Monroe is so good that it is often overlooked. My Week With Marilyn is mostly cheerful but with the occasional dramatic moment, and Williams uses this blueprint to truly shine. We see Norma Jean Mortensen and her self hatred, but we also see Monroe being the loveable icon people remember her for. Williams not only impersonated Monroe, but she had to guess how she was in her private life, too. Her happy exterior is a bit hyperbolic, because it was never real. When Williams is serious, it’s pretty hard to watch. We can understand the difficulties of being so heavily sought after and not taken seriously. We learn a lot about this cinematic icon through Williams’ admiration and sympathy for her. The movie may have only shown a week, but Williams makes her Monroe feel like she has existed for a lifetime.
When Barbara Walters declared Scarlett Johansson one of her favorite people of the year, it was going to be interesting to see what her take on Under the Skin was. When Walters brought up movies like Lucy and The Avengers instead, that’s when I knew that Johansson’s role as an alien on earth was almost too good for many to notice. How can such a risky and dedicated performance be so overlooked? Johanson, a sex symbol, gained weight and donned a wig before baring it all for a large portion of the film. She barely blinks, and her stare is colder than ice. When she pretends to be a human, her accent is very convincing and her mannerisms are almost an insult as to how humans react. We’re used to Johansson’s infectious personality, and in Under The Skin, we may as well have been talking to a brick wall with how unresponsive she is (in the best way possible). She doesn’t even have a name in the film, as she represents nothingness (but also represents everything about image and purity). After years of taking safer roles, her work in Under the Skin is a godsend and a message that there is way more to her than we could have ever imagined. There is so much going on in this courageous role, and that’s why Scarlett Johansson should be one of 2014s most fascinating people.
How does one deal with death and their children? How does one deal with death caused by their children? We’ve seen the first question get answered in a number of films before, but it isn’t common to see the latter one get talked about. Tilda Swinton takes on this challenge as Eva, a mother who is humiliated daily due to her troubled son’s crime. She sees the world hate her and even the walls around her scold her. She is never truly happy, and every new day is met with scared eyes. Swinton urges herself to keep going, but it is so hard. This topic had to be discussed, and We Need To Talk About Kevin was a bold enough movie to take this issue head on. Then there’s the abuse she endures from her own child (played by Ezra Miller). We forget that people on screen have to endure many of the issues their characters go through, and that not everything is shrugged off once the cameras stop rolling. I can’t imagine many people wanting to sign on such a traumatic film, but if there is ever a daring actor amidst us, it’s Swinton. Not many people could pull off the anchoring role Swinton had, and I don’t think anyone will try anytime soon.
Before The Fighter, Christian Bale was one of the few actors people were annually upset for: How has this man not even been nominated yet? His decades of work as an actor all led up to his self destructive role as Dick Eklund, and it could have been the many frustrating years chasing after the coveted award that made his take on the former boxer so authentic. Eklund had a chance to be a big name, and he missed his opportunity. Bale, on the other hand, has only ever tried his damn hardest. He’s had some media controversy, and even then he fought back to be back on his two feet. As Eklund, he shows his frustrations in a different way: Pain, not revival. He hurts himself with drugs, but it’s the only time he is happy. He is as skinny as ever (well, okay, maybe not The Machinist skinny, but close), and seeing him clean up serves as the greatest climax of the movie. He always feels ill (even after his rehabilitation), however, and if it isn’t because of drug abuse, it’s because of his destroyed legacy. “I was”, Eklund says when someone calls him great, as he walks away alone. After Bale’s deserved win, he can finally no longer worry about whether or not he is great.
Before we were graced with Noomi Rapace’s onslaught of badass female roles, we were given her best dish of strength with her take on the literary heroine Lisbeth Salander. Salander was written to be a different take on the femme fatale. This girl exudes sexuality but only with those she trusts, not those she wishes to lure. She isn’t deceptive, as she hates being conned herself. There isn’t any need to attract men here, but rather the want to push them away. Salander is tortured, and she skulks her way through the city streets with such anger. She is cold in the way she acts towards almost anyone, and it’s rare to see her astonished (but we do get a glimpse of her crack in her mask). Salander does scowl quite often, and she bares her teeth when she needs to. Rapace turned this novel superstar into a career for herself, because she treated this character with so much respect. A lot of care was given when Rapace nurtured the troubled Salander, so you never sense that Salander is some superhero who you don’t want to mess with. She’s still a real, tortured person. We’re happy we’re on her side, and we’re glad to have Rapace’s character represent both the rise of female roles in films and the more truthful representations of mental health on screen.
Margaret Thathcher isn’t the most beloved person ever, and everyone will have a different answer about her if you asked them what they thought of her. The Iron Lady has the same kind of response, as people either loved or hated the movie. The one unanimous agreement about both Thathcher and this film is that Meryl Streep absolutely nailed the part as Thatcher throughout her life. We see Thatcher in her old age struggling with mental illness (she would end up dying as the result of a stroke in 2013), trying her best to recall the big moments of her life. Streep doesn’t play Thatcher safe, as we get a fully dimensional take on the late former Prime Minister of the UK. We also get a sympathetic side, and that’s thanks to Streep’s knowledge of how acting should be done (do we even need to go into her awards cabinet to see evidence of this?). It was a hard role to act and a difficult person to portray, and Streep accomplished both. The Iron Lady is a must see, despite the film’s flaws, because it’s truly a wonder to see Streep take on one of her best roles to date.
When Blue Is the Warmest Colour won the Palme d’Or, and both director Abdellatif Kechiche and the film’s lead actors won the award (a first for this ceremony), it was a much talked about event. How good must Adéle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux have been to have won the award along with the film’s director? Two years later, and we don’t really question that decision as much, anymore. The three hour romantic tragedy has many things going for it, and it never hurt that both ladies delivered some of the most honest performances within the past five years. Exarchopoulos has the camera on her at all times, even during her most unpresentable. She is fearless, and the movie becomes her own coming of age (she was very young when she took on the role and is only 22 now). The movie asked a lot from her, but she ended up asking the movie many more questions as she went an extra step forward. Then we have the well known Seydoux, who has been noticed before and wasn’t a new face. She takes on the hard job of being the character we all get angry at, but she also has to make it plausible that there really isn’t any reason to be mad at her. As an actor who has had success helping a newcomer out, Seydoux also opens Exarchopoulos to the world of lesbianism. It isn’t an easy task, but both women pull off the movie’s hard hitting discussions with such grace and fragility. In a sense, it’s almost as if they both co-directed the movie themselves, and thus a shared Palme d’Or is very fitting.
Emmanuelle Riva had so much going against her with this late-career defining role. She’s in her 80’s and hadn’t made it big in North America. Amour is a foreign film, and good foreign films sadly don’t get noticed nearly as often as they should be. There’s also the theme of body paralysis after one has a stroke, which isn’t easy to project within a film (for both literary and performance based reasons). Well, Amour went against the odds and won immensely. It was nominated for many big awards after topping many end of year lists, including best picture, director, and even actress. Rightfully so: Much of what makes Amour work is Riva’s ruthless take on the role. Don’t get me wrong, Jean-Louis Trintignant delivers a terrific job as Riva’s husband in the film and is just as essential. Riva’s part in the film, however, is daring and absolutely frightening. There isn’t any questioning about how it should be played, as she just goes for it and puts herself on the line the entire film. Riva is not just pitch perfect, she’s also inspirational. She is evidence that it is never too late in the art world to make an impact on the world as a whole, and her work in Amour has finally brought her over to us; We cannot thank her or the film enough.
Emmanuelle Riva may have had a whole career behind her when she acted in Amour, but Lupita Nyong’o didn’t have a career at all. With a similarly commanding performance, Nyong’o’s first big role was in a little well known film known as 12 Years a Slave. We don’t even see her for a good chunk of the movie, but once we do, we immediately see a stormy road ahead of her. We have no idea who she is, but we see a look full of dread and a dark history scribbled all over her face. As the movie progresses, we sadly see that we are right, as Nyong’o’s character Patsey is abused, manipulated and left for the vultures. It’s a difficult performance to watch, never mind act out. We never get a complete resolution on Patsey’s life, and Nyong’o’s performance makes it even more worrisome. Still, her legacy as an impact on Solomon Northup’s life is carried on by Nyong’o’s fearless rendition of this distant memory that stuck with Northup after his rescue. Riva had nothing to lose after a whole life of acting, and neither did Nyong’o who just started her career. She now has her life set for her, as we are already trusting in how she can handle any character: Anyone who can successfully play Patsey must be terrific.
Jessica Chastain came from out of nowhere with her award clad career, and that may be why she was the best pick to play the person who reportedly orchestrated the capture of Osama Bin Laden. We didn’t have any preconceived notions of her before her career’s explosion into the masses, so we couldn’t over think if she was right for the part. There’s also Chastain’s attention to how performances should evolve, and Maya’s transformation is one of the best you’ll find these past five years. She starts off as a young graduate who is disturbed by how possible terrorists are dealt with. She finds it difficult to partake in torture, but you slowly see her toughen up when she brings herself to tell a captive that it’s his own fault. Slowly, you see Maya’s veins harden like cement and her expressions go from curious and explorative to vengeful and disgusted. She walks with more authority, and she eventually commands the final mission. When it’s all done, you see a glimpse of the innocent, open minded Maya we once knew. She questions if this was all worth it, and she doesn’t even have to say so: You can read it on her face. Chastain captured the phases a character on a television show would go through in merely only a film, and if she wasn’t big before this movie, there was no way she wouldn’t be after it.
Jared Leto has a cult fan base. He leads the band 30 Seconds To Mars and has starred in films that are few in number and eccentric in nature (Fight Club, Mr. Nobody and more). When he took on the ill Rayon in the southern drama Dallas Buyers Club, he took his ability to attract a number of followers to direct their attention to a worthy cause. Just playing a transgendered woman is difficult, but when you take it to the levels that Leto went, that’s when an important role becomes an instant classic. Absolutely everything Leto does is female in nature down to the way he blinks. He lost enough weight to be a very troublesome case, and the entire movie is spent worrying about this frail lady on stilted high heels. She wobbles and finds it hard to carry her own head, but she smiles to try and go on about her day. When times get even tougher and her shield cracks, this serves as the heaviest moments within the film: Nothing is easy about seeing a tough person crumble. In a movie that felt riddled with disease, Rayon was the sickest person there was, but we kept going just like she did. Leto’s performance is inspirational, and it will hopefully reach the millions of people that follow him.
Natalie Portman has appeared in a number of films with varying styles. We’ve seen her in action films, period dramas, comedies, romantic fantasies and even Star Wars. Was she good at what she did? Sure, but I awaited the day where Portman truly shined and blossomed. That day came in the coincidental film about maturation known as Black Swan. So, what made Portman not just pull off her greatest performance but one of the best of recent years? Seeing her cope with mental traumas. You watch Black Swan and identify with Nina Sayers. She’s a dancer struggling to keep her art alive, and when she is given a breakthrough, she worries if she can pull it off. We’ve all experienced this, and Portman’s take on the many emotions we’d feel is hyper realistic. It doesn’t end there, though. When you rewatch Black Swan and notice that the film may not be about a girl who slowly loses her mind but about a girl who was mentally unstable from the get go, you can truly see how detailed Portman’s performance is. No more is she just a wide eyed ballerina curious about what is happening around her. She becomes an eerie schizophrenic who hasn’t told anyone what she has been experiencing this whole time. It suddenly feels scary to let her take the lead of her own story. Portman’s finally reached her enormous potential, and it was a creepy trip we shall not forget.
Daniel Day-Lewis is a masterful actor. The obvious has been stated, so we shall continue. When someone like Day-Lewis wants to take on a huge figure like Abraham Lincoln, I don’t think anyone thought twice about his capabilities. Still, to see the final product still blow us away is proof that we may never fully grasp Daniel Day-Lewis as an actor. We never heard Lincoln speak, but from the ways his voice has been described, Day-Lewis’s take sounds like the closest we’ll ever get to hearing it. He stands tall and unafraid of anything, and I can only imagine the real Lincoln had the same presence. We’ve seen Day-Lewis explode in front of the camera many times, and I think my favorite part of his performance as Lincoln is just how reserved it is. He only lashes out a few times, but these tantrums are still relatively calm and controlled in nature. Lincoln had patience, but it sure was tested. Every box that could be available for someone playing Lincoln was checked, and Day-Lewis provided his own for good measure. At this point, it’d be more daunting to play Lincoln after Day-Lewis did than to ever have at all.
Joaquin Phoenix quit acting to become a rapper. We thought it was hilarious. We discovered that it was all a ruse for the mockumentary I’m Still Here. We laughed at his expense. A talented actor like Phoenix had it rough when this decade first started, and his switcharoo plans fell flatter than a textbook. There’s a reason why we’ve forgotten all about that stunt and have remembered him for the exceptional actor that he is, and that is due to his work as Freddie Quell in The Master. He was a deranged mental case who stumbled with his hunched back and his inebriated head, that pulled him in every direction. He was an unstoppable force, and not in a good way; He was a time bomb that would have hurt everyone when he went off. Something truly pushed this opus of a performance, though, and it’s likely Phoenix’s expulsion from the public radar. He didn’t just disappear; He disappeared without the amount of people caring as he had hoped. His want to return to his former status is heavily projected in this film, where he gets frustrated, frantic and absolutely flustered. Quell is nothing like Phoenix at all, and yet we can feel Phoenix’s worries here. Quell is a real antihero that is despicable in every way, but it is Phoenix’s rough road and raw talent that makes this performance so memorable. Welcome back to your rightful place, Phoenix; Your work was absolutely sublime.
Of course Cate Blanchett would end up on an acting list like this. Who ever thought she wasn’t a good actor? However, while she always has a place on lists of great performances, who expected something as special as Blue Jasmine to come out and have her truly dominate the world again? As Jeanette Francis, the woman who denies her identity and wishes to be called Jasmine, Blanchett is both a real socialite struggling within the world of the working class and a take on a 50’s female role being placed in today’s harsh times. Her accent is that of a golden age starlet’s, and her body language, too; She just looks like a mess trying to play the part. Her hair is all over the place and her make up drips more than her soaking lies. She drinks her brain away, and she’s already battling to be all there. We feel sorry for Jasmine because we are witnessing old Hollywood being murdered by modern times. Like the days of cinema’s past, Blanchett’s Jasmine clings onto old memories for too long and forgets where she even is. There is way more to Jasmine than just a rich woman with power suddenly going broke and mentally unstable, and that’s because of Blanchett’s homage to the starlets that came before her. She isn’t just one of the best of her generation at this point; She knows what makes performances survive, too.
For a 2014 entry to have made an impression great enough to be posted so high on a decade-so-far list, they have to have truly taken me aback. After watching Foxcatcher and witnessing the final few moments, I hated everything in the world. That’s the work of Steve Carrel’s cold, menacing and lifeless stare that coated the climax of the movie. His lack of sympathy was so real and hit so heavily without making a big scene that it almost felt like he snatched the life out of everything around him, too. Misery surrounded John du Pont, whether he spawned it himself or if others gave him a cold shoulder. Either way, no love can be found within or around du Pont, and Carrel makes this both a key feature and a reason to feel sorry for him. You get swindled in trying to find remorse for him, and that ends up making the betrayal at the end all the more powerful (as he backstabbed you, too). Du Pont’s search for compassion is from Carrel’s knowledge of how to make people love you. He’s made us laugh for many years, so it should come as no surprise that he knows how to do the complete opposite, too. And yet it does, because it may never make sense as to how disgraceful Carrel made du Pont, and that’s enough proof that he deserves to be so high on this list already.
We’ve had classic actors of the past sustain their praise permanently. We’ve seen actors nowadays keep their titles of respect from years before. We have wonderful actors still, but it’s a rare and beautiful thing to see an actor solidify his or her self as an icon in front of our very eyes. Michael Fassbender did so quietly and he did so carefully, but he went from being the face of an exciting co star to being an exceptional name; one synonymous with brilliance. Every year this decade thus far, he has been on my list of top performances at the end of that respective year. He was the sole aspect of substance in 2010’s Jonah Hex. He brought life to the artificial as David in 2012’s Prometheus. He was both the monstrous plantation owner in 12 Years a Slave and the quirky musical genius in this year’s Frank. Time and time again, Michael Fassbender has wowed, and he has dominated.
Back in 2011, however, was his crowning achievement thus far. He pulled off a performance of towering proportions as the sex addict Brandon in Steve McQueen’s Shame. He is a jerk, but sadly he is a jerk we have all identified as being. We all have our addictions, whether it be caffeine or technology related and then some. Brandon is guilty of fantastical perversions. He feels fake when he is nice and he is stone faced and angry otherwise. Every word said is forced out of a depressed and self loathing body. Fassbender turns Brandon into a modern embodiment of a performance from back in the 50’s, where not every line has to be dramatic. He shows thought processes through his cold stares. He feels like a real person with a real problem. Brandon is the best performed character of the decade so far, because Fassbender, being the class act that he is, didn’t make him into the villain but instead into the person we fear we could easily become any second now with our own personal demons, and there’s no shame behind his honesty and realism.