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The Best Acting Performances of the Decade

By Dustin Rowles | Guides | June 5, 2009 |

By Dustin Rowles | Guides | June 5, 2009 |

Today’s Guide is one of the hardest I’ve ever tried to assemble. When you have an entire decade worth of acting performances, it’s an almost impossible task to narrow them down to the ten best. There were a lot of deserving performances I had to pass over, but in the end, I couldn’t bring myself to move any of them ahead of the list below. These ten performances, I believe, will be the ones most likely considered classic performances in the decades to come. It would’ve been a much easier Guide if I’d been able to expand it to the 20 best performances, but part of the fun of these lists is the fury and outrage of those who seem personally offended that I’d slight one of their favorite performances (which is why I’m leaving off a list of honorable mentions, sorry Rourke and Depp). There were no oversights, though. I meticulously combed over the best performances since 2000, and these I felt were the absolute best. The electric performances, the performances that made your arm hairs stand on end, and the performances that will be remembered well into the next decade and beyond.

Heath Ledger, Brokeback Mountain: Out of fairness, I only wanted to include one performance per actor, otherwise, Ledger’s Joker would’ve gotten serious consideration as well. But I think that, in years to come, comparatively, Ledger’s Joker performance will actually highlight and confirm just how amazing he was in Brokeback Mountain, as well as his overall range as an actor. Not to slight his Joker performance — he carried that film — but in The Dark Knight, Ledger had the benefit of a large ensemble, great make-up, and incredible special effects.For much of Brokeback, it was just Ledger, a spare prairie landscape, and a broken soul we could witness through his eyes. It says a lot that his low-key performance in Brokeback was even more powerful than the one in The Dark Knight, which was full of tics and idiosyncrasies and dramatic monologues. In Ennis Del Mar, Ledger conveyed the same sense of inner turmoil without any of the fanfare. And when you walked away from that movie with a brick in your chest, it was Ledger who put it there.

Kate Winslet, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: It took six nominations before she finally won an Oscar, for last year’s The Reader, but I think that was probably an Oscar she won as much for her past work as she did for her performance in The Reader. In Eternal Sunshine, a hair-dyed Winslet deftly grounded the film and, along with one of Jim Carrey’s best performances and the superb direction of Michel Gondry, turned what could’ve easily been a disastrously weird script into one of the most painfully heartbreaking films of this decade or any. “Love hurts” is a cliché notion, but Winslet swam in the ephemeral and brought real power to the cliché. And thanks to her, for a while, you knew exactly what it felt to have your heart broken. Love hurts, and Winslet made sure you knew just how badly.

Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men: If Ledger’s Joker was the best comic-book villain of all time, Bardem’s Anton Chigurh was at least the most iconic villain of the decade, the Aught’s Hannibal Lector. A man of few words, Chigurh was nevertheless a terrifying cinematic presence. As Dan wrote in his No Country for Old Men review: “Bardem is electrifying as Anton, capable of wearing a look of near-erotic joy when strangling a man or remaining stone-faced while mowing down victims point-blank with a shotgun. His presence alone is unnerving, and the Coens are smart enough to let the story work for them when it comes to Anton’s hunting of Moss: The scene where Anton approaches Moss’ door, with only the shadow of his boots visible below the door frame, is stunning in its simplicity but damn jaw-dropping in effectiveness.” In the hands of Anton Chigurh, a cattle gun was a far more terrifying weapon than Freddy’s razor hands and Jason’s machete combined.

Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood: Daniel Day-Lewis is probably the best actor of this generation, and when other critics look back on the decade, it’s probably this one they’ll single out as the very best. He’s nearly guaranteed an Oscar nomination for any performance he turns in. But as great as his performances were in My Left Foot or Gangs of New York, it was his Daniel Plainview that was most indelible. In my opinion, at least, There Will Be Blood was an often slow-moving and tedious film, but Day-Lewis’ performance trapped you. He was impossible to walk away from; every time he spoke, you felt pulled into the movie. Again, Dan sums up his performance perfectly: “Plainview is a relentless man, a monster of a human being brought to grandiose life by Day-Lewis, who barrels his way through the film like a runaway fire. For all his skill and the sheer ease and malleability with which he creates new characters, Day-Lewis is an impossibly infrequent performer. This is his ninth feature role in the 18 years since My Left Foot, but maybe that reclusiveness adds to the persona he creates in the viewer’s mind: He’s both instantly recognizable but also somehow forgettable. I’ve seen many of his films, and I couldn’t have described his voice or mannerisms to you before having this latest version of them imprinted on my mind. In Anderson’s film, he gives a towering performance, oscillating between a reserved introspection and a purposefully insane, over-the-top turn designed to sell the character’s individual shortcomings as representations of the generation of men who gave their souls for crude fortunes.”

Ellen Burstyn, Requiem for a Dream: It’s difficult to write about Burstyn’s performance in Requiem because both she and the movie were so effectively bleak that I haven’t been able to revisit it since it came out nearly a decade ago. Requiem for a Dream, for almost anyone who has seen it, is the first example one thins of when asked “What great movie would you never see twice?” Burstyn was nearly unrecognizable in Requiem, a mother and amphetamine addict trying desperately to lose weight so she could appear on her favorite weight-loss infomercial. It was a great all around cast, but Burstyn was transcendent. It was a heartbreaking, painfully vulnerable performance, and I don’t even know how to properly explain it. Just watch this scene and you’ll understand.

Joan Allen, The Contender: When I told my wife I was putting together a list of the best performances of the decade, the first thing she asked was if I was including Joan Allen in The Contender. How could you not? She turned an average political thriller into a top notch one (except for the ending) with one of the best dramatic performances of the decade. You’ll pardon me for saying so, but it was a daring, ballsy performance. She transcends the script and the direction, and rises above even the most accomplished actors around her (Gary Oldman, Jeff Bridges). It was definitely a movie that could’ve been weighed down by all those speeches, but when Allen was delivering one of them, it was impossible not to get caught up in it. The Contender could’ve been pure leftist agitprop, and maybe it was, but under the command of Joan Allen, it never felt like it.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Capote: A lot of folks, including myself, were so upset that Hoffman took the Oscar home in 2005 over Heath Ledger that we overlooked one of the best performances of the decade. For those who complain that Hoffman plays the same characters over and over, Capote is the perfect anti-illustration to that quibble. I could’ve never imagined Hoffman in the role before he took it, inhabited it, and completely owned it. It was a precise performance, but not imitative. As Jeremy C. Fox wrote in his review, “Philip Seymour Hoffman delivers a completely effective recreation of the writer’s manner and high, slightly nasal voice. The externals all fit: the swayback stance, the fluttery hands in conversation, the arms clasped across the chest when in repose. (And from certain angles, with the right lighting, Hoffman looks uncannily like the middle-aged Capote.) It’s a remarkably subtle, restrained performance, given that the actual Capote’s manner so often verged on self-parody.”It was a career-defining performance, even in a career full of highlights, one of which — his Lester Bangs in Almost Famous — that was nearly as deserving to be on this list as his Capote performance.

Adrien Brody, The Pianist: Losing 30 pounds to Oscar grub has almost become as cliche as playing a serial killer or a mentally challenged individual. A lot of actors can lose the weight to look the part, but few inhabit a role as well as Brody inhabited Wladyslaw Szpilman, who clings to normality in the midst of a Holocaust ravaged Warsaw ghetto. Szpilman’s only mission was to stay alive, as he watches with detached glum the worst atrocities you can imagine. His family is taken away from him; his mother dies in a concentration camp; Jews around him are shot in the face; And Szpilman only wants to persevere long enough to enjoy one last moment of joy. Perhaps no single scene this entire decade better personifies the triumph of the human spirit better than the one in which Brody’s gnarled fingers strikes the first notes on that piano at the end of the movie. It is a quiet but defiant performance, haunting but beautiful. You’d never imagine a Holocaust movie could be hopeful, but thanks to Brody’s remarkable performance, that’s exactly what The Pianist is.

Amy Adams, Junebug:Junebug introduced Amy Adams to the acting world in a real way, and it’s appropriate that she’s starring alongside Meryl Streep in Julie and Julia. If there was one actress from this generation that Streep could pass the torch to, it’d probably be Adams, who has already been nominated for two Oscars, was the best part about the surprisingly magical Enchanted, and the only reason to see Night of the Museum II. But Adams’ performance in Junebug is touching and sublime. It’s such an honest, delicate movie, and Adams so perfectly captures the chatty, vibrant, bubbly spirit of so many perpetually cheerful, hopelessly optimistic Southern women that it aches. She’d almost be obnoxiously giddy if you didn’t love her so goddamn much. It’s a character I know from real life, but it’s the only time I’ve ever seen it translated onscreen. And it’s pitch-perfect. It’s a tender, layered performance full of subtlety and nuance, and it deserves to be seen by any aspiring actor or actress.

Ryan Gosling, Half Nelson: Day-Lewis may be the best actor of this generation, but Gosling is my favorite. Here’s what I wrote in my Half-Nelson review a few years ago, and it still stands: “The audience is equally transfixed with Gosling, who turns in one of those rare performances that makes you feel giddy just watching him onscreen — honest to God, it’s a head-shaking, awe-inducing accomplishment, the rare drug-addled, self-destructive character that you find yourself completely invested in. I suspect that anyone who has only seen Gosling in The Notebook might be as skeptical as I was walking in, expecting a smirky, self-referential Breckin Meyer-type performance. You have to see it to believe it, but somehow Gosling manages to be both subtle and dominating, commanding a Pacino-like screen presence with the flash of a simple smile of vulnerability. And unlike a lot of other attractive actors who are so obviously taking the role of drug addict to attract some Oscar buzz, there is no outward indication of self-awareness in Gosling’s performance — he’s self assured, to be sure, but even that aspect belongs in the character. Indeed, Gosling is just flat-out flooring, the best acting job I’ve seen since Heath Ledger’s turn in Brokeback Mountain, and both performances share the same wow-like understatement that leaves you wondering how a guy like Gosling could end up in the current wave of teen heartthrobs.”

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.