Performances are a vital aspect of moviemaking. Actors are the most recognisable faces in the industry, they do much to sell tickets and are the most covered individuals in Hollywood. This past decade has seen a wealth of some of the greatest performances ever put to screen, by a huge variety of performers. Here are my picks for the top 20 best film performances from 2010-2019
20) Felicity Jones in The Theory of Everything (2014)
Eddie Redmayne hogged much of the attention for The Theory of Everything in the lead role of Stephen Hawking but what made the film stand out from the swarm of standard biopics was the contribution of Felicity Jones as his first wife Jane. Jones manages to portray a deeply conflicted character, devoted to someone she loves but also grieving for the fact that she effectively has to become his carer. She is a portrait of suppressed pain and Jones effortlessly imbues this through patient and subtle character-work.
19) Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids (2011)
Undoubtedly one of the best comedy performances of the decade, Kristen Wiig proves her ability to produce laugh out loud moments as Annie, the lead in Bridesmaids. She is deeply sympathetic as the lonely maid of honour yet also shamefully cringeworthy in her battle for the affections of her best friend against Rose Byrne’s privileged Helen. Melissa McCarthy may have gotten the Oscar nomination, but Wiig carries the spectacular female ensemble.
18) Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea (2016)
Possibly the quietest performance on this list, Casey Affleck rarely raises his voice above a mumble in Manchester by the Sea. His character of Lee is tortured by grief and torment, but what could have turned into a tedious slog is lifted by Affleck’s deeply human and relatable expressions and reactions. This is the type of performance that may not produce memorable monologues or lines, but it definitely stays with you.
17) Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Probably the best performance of DiCaprio’s movie star career, Jordan Belfort is a vile character. He’s sleazy, selfish and quite possibly psychopathic. But Leo somehow manages to make the three hours audiences are expected to spend with him a blast. With effortlessly speedy dialogue (a performance mostly sweared), this highlight performance from DiCaprio is possibly the most fun on this list.
16) Song Kang-Ho in Parasite (2019)
Parasite is at its heart an ensemble piece, but if one actor had to be chosen to exemplify this expertly performed movie, then Song Kang-Ho is the standout. As the patriarch of the poorer Kim family, Song has the most complete arc in the film. He models our set of protagonists to be the tricksters they are, and it is he that sets the agenda for many of the film’s events. Of course, as one of South Korea’s finest actors, Song manages this task masterfully. He has some of the funniest moments in the film, as well as standout monologues on the beauty of having no plan. Not to mention his dynamic with Mr Park (Lee Sun-Kyun), which provides the moral centre of the story. In all, a masterclass in screen acting.
15) Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl (2014)
It was the role that actresses across Hollywood were clamouring for: the female lead in this adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s best-selling thriller. Initially, Pike was a surprising choice, not particularly well known and without a previous star turn. But critics were wrong to have any doubts. In Pike, Gone Girl finds its spark. Taking the reins in the superior second half, the movie belongs to her Amy Dunne, a role, which without spoiling the film, has many twisted and surprising layers.
14) Yalitza Aparicio in Roma (2018)
An unknown before her performance in Roma, Yalitza Aparacio carried Alfonso Cuaron’s intimate exploration of a family and their made in Mexico City. As Cleo, Aparicio doesn’t have an abundance of dialogue to work with. She’s shy by nature and deferent to her more vocal employers, but her face is remarkably expressive, and she manages to convey a deep bond with the other characters around her effortlessly. She was an ingenious discovery in a beautiful film.
13) Jessie Eisenberg in The Social Network (2010)
Another unhinged character takes the 13th spot, with Jessie Eisenberg’s sinister portrayal of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg being one of the most unnerving performances of the decade. Many have noted Eisenberg’s lack of imitation in the role. He looks and sounds nothing like his real life subject, but he is still able to imbue the character with the blind ego and narcissism that defines him. With a razor sharp script by Aaron Sorkin, Eisenberg is able to truly excel as one of the most controversial figures of our times.
12) Naomie Harris in Moonlight (2016)
Naomie Harris doesn’t have much screentime in Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, but she is notable as the constant presence throughout the film’s three act structure. As Chiron’s drug addicted mother, Harris is both terrifying and heartbreaking. Her relationship with her son is never straightforward, and not once is the role reduced to the typical ‘bad mother’ trope. The character clearly has the capacity to love, and Harris’ interpretation is vital in bringing Moonlight’s three dimensional individuals to the fore.
11) Lupita Nyong’o in Us (2019)
One of the rare horror entries on this list, Lupita Nyong’o’s performance in Us is nothing short of sublime. Unlike many of the other performances, this is a dual role, with the actress both playing the protagonist and antagonist, who are doppelgängers of each other. In these circumstances, it would be easy for Nyong’o to create caricatures for both roles, but she expertly crafts three dimensional portraits of both. She is one minute the terrified victim, and the next the terrifying perpetrator, of the horror that defines Us.
10) Olivia Colman in The Favourite (2018)
Brits have known for years that Olivia Colman is one of the finest actresses working today, but it took 2018’s The Favourite for the world to learn that. As Queen Anne in Yorgos Lanthimos’ best film to date, Colman is stark raving mad and painfully sympathetic in equal measure. Much of the film focuses on Rachel Weisz’s and Emma Stone’s battle for her affection, and Colman is able to portray the absolute power that the Queen has in that decision. She is clearly unstable, sometimes downright stupid, but always dangerous.
9) Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
As Imperator Furiosa, Charlize Theron becomes the coolest character of the decade, overshadowing the titular Max (Tom Hardy) himself. Despite the name, it really is Theron’s film, giving her incredible action sequences, thrilling car chases and a character arc so strong that it provides the beating heart of the film. I’m certain that in the years to come, Furiosa will be an all time classic action heroine.
8) Jacob Tremblay in Room (2015)
It’s quite frankly remarkable that a child performance can be as fully realised as Jacob Tremblay’s is in Lenny Abrahamson’s Room. As the son of an woman (Brie Larson) and her abductor, the film pivots on the young Jack and his first experiences in the outside world. The way that Tremblay plays the character is as if the young Jack entering the real world is like learning a new language. The perspective of the character requires true immersion in order to be believed, and the young actor does so exquisitely, never once leaving the audience fully believing that this was indeed a child who had grown up in a small room.
7) Margot Robbie in I, Tonya (2017)
This could very easily have been yet another standard biopic performance. Yet Margot Robbie proves herself to be one of the best actresses of her generation as the infamous figure skater Tonya Harding. The real life figure is controversial and morally ambiguous, never really admitting a role in the crime which ended her career, and Robbie balances in the grey area expertly, adding enough complexity to make Harding flawed while never removing the audiences sympathy entirely. But it’s the third act when Robbie enters another level of spectacular, delivering an emotional climax of such intensity that this will no doubt be remembered as one of the best portrayals of a real life figure.
6) Willem Dafoe in The Lighthouse (2019)
Some performances are so over the top that it’s clear the actor was having far too much fun in the role. Willem Dafoe’s euphoric turn in The Lighthouse is nothing but the actor having a blast. He shouts, screams and monologues his way through Melville-esque dialogue opposite the far quieter Robert Pattinson. Dafoe chews scenery so effectively that if any performance deserves the title of being the most virtuosic, this makes a hugely convincing case.
5) Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems (2019)
Adam Sandler has undoubtedly produced some of the worst performances of the decade (his dual role in the diabolical Jack and Jill springs to mind), but in Uncut Gems he proves to be one of the finest actors working today. The character of Howard Ratner is a vile human being, one who the audience resents watching yet simultaneously cannot keep their eyes off of. He’s relentless, getting into terrible situation after terrible situation, and Sandler manages to ratchet up the tension so perfectly that through some strange acting telekinesis, his performance causes the audience to curl up into a ball of tension and stress. It’s movie magic.
4) Timothee Chalamet in Call Me by Your Name (2017)
The world in 2020 knows that Timothee Chalamet is one of the best actors going, but only because 2017’s Call Me by Your Name left such an indelible feeling in the audiences minds that they were watching a master actor. As the precocious Elio, Chalamet luxuriates in the beauty of the Italian Summer, making his romance with Armie Hammer as real as you or I. It will take something for him to produce better work than this, but we live in anticipation.
3) Cate Blanchett in Carol (2015)
From a relative newcomer to an actress who has been delivering masterclasses in screen acting for over two decades, Cate Blanchett delivers her best work in Todd Haynes’ Carol. Donning a fur coat and blonde wig, Blanchett becomes Carol, the upper class woman who becomes embroiled in an affair with a shop worker. Being both elegant and deeply insecure all at once, her performance is one that exists on numerous levels and involves countless emotional layers. It’s a role so lived in, that one can’t help but feel like Blanchett submerged herself in the character, allowing the actress to disappear without a trace.
2) Michael Keaton in Birdman (2014)
The most meta performance on this list, Michael Keaton was the only actor who could play Riggan Thompson in Birdman. Like the character, Keaton himself was a faded actor known primarily for playing a campy superhero. That deep personal link between actor and role is what makes his performance so untouchable. He and Thompson fuse to become one entity, and the result is a euphoric standout amidst an already stellar ensemble.
1) Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn (2015)
Once in a blue moon, there is the magical instance when a specific actor in a specific role can elicit an indescribable feeling, a little like a warmth or something connecting the audience with the lives of the character that overwhelms them. Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn does just that. The film itself is fairly simple, an Irish immigrant experiences loneliness and homesickness in New York, only to fall in love and reconsider where she feels at home. But within that standard story are universal truths and points of relation, and through only her eyes, Ronan is able to convey such an immense range of emotion, and bring out that connection between audience and story. Everyone has had a moment where they’ve missed home, and everyone has felt lost. Through her performance, Ronan becomes everyone watching, and is truly transportive.