Tom Jolliffe looks back at 20 great performances from the past decade…
There have been plenty of legendary performances through the years. Some gain the greatest of acclaim from the off, culminating in Oscar glory. Others hit below the radar, or don’t get the marketing push required for an Oscar run. Award season is in full swing with all manner of contentious omissions and oversights sure to follow. From mainstream, to indie, to world cinema, here are 20 great performances from the last decade.
Jake Gyllenhaal – Nightcrawler
Oversights you say? The award season fate of Nightcrawler was a glaring oversight from the Oscars board. It’s one of the best films of the last decade, nay, this century – and Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance is mesmerizingly complex. He captures, with chilling immersion, the nature of a sociopath. Whilst Rene Russo did get an Oscar nomination (deserved too), Jake’s omission as well as the film in an array of technical categories, was just wrong.
Mads Mikkelsen – The Hunt
Mads could be filmed watching paint dry for three hours and it’d be unmissable. He’s one of the most enthralling actors in the game right now. As the teacher, wrongly accused of sexually abusing a child, Mikkelsen is masterful in portraying the many conflicting states of the character, who through all of it retains sympathy for his young accuser who just doesn’t understand the consequences. It’s a stunning film, with a subject Hollywood would have veered clear of. A very difficult but rewarding and intense watch.
Chadwick Boseman – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
A film which retains the feeling of theatrical stage play, that is a wonderful collection of performances. In the middle we have the late, great Chadwick Boseman who is exhilarating. His arc is engrossing and beautifully played out. Boseman was on the cusp of being an all time great and this performance would have kicked him up yet another level.
Viola Davis – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Viola Davis has well established herself as acting royalty now. An impressive career and an innate ability to take supporting roles and steal the film. Here she’s met by the immovable force of Boseman and the two take equal share of plaudits. It’s quite something too, in a cast of brilliant supporting performers, that Davis and Boseman could stand head and shoulders above the rest.
Frances McDormand – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
McDormand is never less than stellar. She’s still pitching stunning performances with great regularity with the likes of Nomadland and The Tragedy of MacBeth. In Three Billboards, her portrayal of a grieving mother, bent on finding justice for the death of her daughter, whilst police incompetence curtails the case, is immense. McDormand has an intensity and depth, few of her contemporaries can come close to.
Anthony Hopkins – The Father
There’s acting royalty and then there’s Anthony Hopkins. There was a small degree of contention about his Oscar win for The Father. A thesp of old, the kind that the traditionalist Oscar luvvies love. Not even a comeback given his ability to maintain great work, into his 80’s (see The Pope), but the more cynical felt Hopkins’ win was token, a benefit of being an old white actor. The reality is, his performance here is right up with his best work. It’s one of the best performances of the century. It’s achingly beautiful, tragic and authentic. Florian Zeller’s stunning film takes dementia into the form of a psychological drama that borders horror in moments. It’s like 60’s era Polanski mixed with Hitchcock and Clouzet. You’ll be an emotional wreck by the end and for Hopkins to be this exceptional into his 80’s is testament to his talent. Kudos too, to Olivia Colman who is also fantastic here.
Olivia Colman – The Favourite
From British TV stalwart and early 00’s crush (thanks to Peep Show) to Hollywood hitter and Oscar winner. Olivia Colman is one of Blighty’s best exports of recent years. The rest of the world can now discover what we’ve long known, that she’s just a bit good. The Favourite found the perfect way to showcase Yorgos Lanthimos’ unconventional sensibilities. Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz were exceptional, but Colman got the plum role as Queen Anne, replete with medical ailments, lurid indulgences and crumbling sanity. It’s a great film, and Colman retains sympathy even as the character threatens to lose sympathy.
Tom Hardy – Locke
A film entirely focused on the protagonist driving in his car. His encounters with other characters happen entirely via phone calls and the film happens in real time. What it might lack in cinematographic variation and scope, it makes up for in intimacy. Most of all though, a film like this lives or dies by its lead performance and here we have Tom Hardy, weighted with pressure, anxiety, tension and the fear of consequence. Hardy, a proper character actor, often hamstrung by the constraints of leading man simplicity (particularly in his mainstream work) is allowed to emit the complex tensions within the character. It shouldn’t be this enthralling, but it is and it’s largely because of Hardy (and the film’s engaging Steven Knight script).
Toni Collette – Hereditary
Ari Aster has launched himself to the forefront of modern folk horror, alongside Robert Eggers. Aster owes a big debt of gratitude to Toni Collette for taking Hereditary up to levels of cult acclaim. In isolation, perhaps a final act loses grip on greatness, owing a touch too much to Rosemary’s Baby, but Collette’s performance is one for the ages. That the Oscars ignored her entirely, is baffling. The infamous dinner scene alone was hair on the neck, standing good. When a performer can blow you away in the cinema like that, it’s special, and Collette cut me to the bone throughout Hereditary.
Willem Dafoe – The Lighthouse
From Aster to the aforementioned Eggers. If perhaps Aster has tiptoed the merry dance of potential greatness, Eggers has showed a bit more sure footing in his landings. The Lighthouse is a dank, surreal and visually resplendent masterpiece. It’s an acquired taste which has lapped up hordes of cult fans and a film that rests so heavily on the two actors in the confined setting. For Robert Pattinson it was a revelation and a step forward following years of rebuilding his brand with excellent Indie work. For Dafoe it was another timely reminder that he’s one of the greatest living character actors. As a salty sea dog with a penchant for farting and sea based superstition, Dafoe is mesmerising.
Scott Adkins – Avengement
Action icon Scott Adkins went next level in Avengement. A Brit Gangster film done good, among a sea of lazy Guy Ritchie riffs. Avengement fuses Western motifs and thunderous brawls to the Brit Lahndan geezer (London) sensibility, aided by an engaging script, not hamstrung by too many diversions. Craig Fairbrass, Louis Mandylor and Nick Moran provide great support but Adkins is particularly inspired. He’s an unpinned grenade perpetually about to explode. He combines his usually dazzling physical prowess, with an emotionally investing story of a character broken beyond repair and a singular mission. Great fights, snappy dialogue, but most of all, an enthralling quest that unlocked another layer to Adkins’ potential.
Steven Yeun – Burning
Burning is blessed with three great performances. The ambiguous and compelling film from Lee Chang-dong grows with every viewing as you pick up new subtleties. A film that never firmly nails any answers to the mast, ingeniously does so without proving unfairly vague. Among the aspects that many can find their own theories on, is the character of Ben. Sociopath? Psychopath? Merely a bullshit artist who revels in games and playfully elusive suggestions? Judging the literalness of his words is part of the game Chang-dong plays with the audience and Steven Yeun is so perfectly able to play the part in a way that reads in many possibilities. To one viewer he’s a calculated killer. To others he’s been taken too literally by Yoo-Ah In’s increasingly obsessive protagonist. It’s subtlety at its finest in what might the best film of the last five years.
Song-Kang Ho – Parasite
Bong Joon-ho’s masterfully playful genre mashup, Parasite, was a more than deserving Oscar winner. The ability to be riotously funny, painfully tragic, ruthlessly thrilling, exciting and thought provoking all in one, is further aided by a film boasting great performances. Central to this is long time Joon-ho stalwart, Song Kang-ho as the head of the underclass Kim family. His initial ambivalent acceptance to the life fate has dealt them is overtaken with the gleeful scheming taken to dupe a wealthy and oblivious family who live opulently, high in the Seoul hills. It’s the next turn, as fate strikes a few times more against the Kims where Kang-ho really excels. He’s great at amiable charm and playfully lackadaisical, but a lingering anger grows, triggering feelings long held and stored.
Joaquin Phoenix – Joker
Joker was lauded as as a modern masterpiece by many fans as a kind of high brow alternative to the milkshake simplicity of MCU movies. Whilst critics were a little more mixed on the film, the reality is probably somewhere between, but perhaps one reason that the former consider the film in stratospherically high regard, is down to the sheer magnetic power of Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck. Does he elevate the film? Absolutely. In fact he hoists it several rungs higher than it might have been in lesser hands, for what essentially borrows a little too heavily from early Scorsese pictures (notably Taxi Driver and King of Comedy). Phoenix is equally as electrifying in The Master, You Were Never Really Here and Her.
Scarlett Johansson – Under The Skin
Scarlett Johansson is a revelation in Jonathan Glazer’s art-house mix of Starman, The Man Who Fell to Earth and (yes) Species. She has to hold attention whilst saying very little. Her performance as the creature from space sent to infiltrate humanity and seduce males is beautifully complex, particularly the more she grows to understand and consider emotion. She’s utterly compelling, even in stretches of the film where she does little more than wander (either in the urban Glasgow streets, or rural expanses of the Highlands).
Isabelle Huppert – Elle
It’s as unrepentantly blunt as you’d expect from Paul Verhoeven, but with a growing subtlety he’s found since working back in Europe. The film explores complex ideas about a middle aged female executive who is raped in her own home. Her response to it, and the progression of the plot is interesting, a work of real craft once again from the divisive Dutchman. However, Isabelle Huppert is what brings the complex, and conflicting emotions to life so well. One of European cinemas finest, on stereotypically mesmeric form.
Lupita Nyong’o – 12 Years a Slave
A stunning and star making turn for Lupita Nyong’o, who has since proven to be one of the most interesting performers of her generation. 12 Years as a Slave is a magnificent work from Steve McQueen that is as heart wrenching as it is captivating. In a picture front loaded with superb performances, it’s Lupita who stands out.
Matthew McConaughey – Dallas Buyers Club
The McConaissance was well underway by the time Dallas Buyers Club came along, but if people needed to be further convinced that McConaughey was more than a walking six pack, this was the film to do it. Based on a true story, he is completely immersed in the role of a Rodeo cowboy struck down by Aids at the height of the diseases rise. He deals with everything associated, with the pre-conceptions to the costs and the speed (or not) of the American medical associations in green-lighting revolutionary medicines. It’s a stunning and committed performance and well backed up by Jared Leto (as a fictional trans woman suffering from Aids).
J.K Simmons – Whiplash
J.K Simmons has always had the ability to barnstorm his way into scenes and play show stopping characters. In that sense it was unquestionable that he’d make a perfect Jonah Jameson. Whiplash though, was the perfect part for an actor who up to that point was very well regarded without quite getting the attention his all consuming charisma deserved. He’s effectively the antagonist in a story of a rising musician, pushed to their limits by the harsh methods of his teacher. It’s the line between genius, bullying and sadism that Simmons’ character always skips between that makes the film so enthralling. He’s at once, the best and worst teacher the baby faced, wet behind the ears drummer (Miles Teller) will ever have.
Adam Sandler – Uncut Gems
Adam Sandler had spent years making questionable comedies with his friends, as little more than an excuse to have a holiday somewhere nice and film a few fart gags. We’d seen proof he had more in his locker with Punch Drunk Love. Enough proof for the rising force of the Safdie Brothers to build a film around him. Uncut Gems is a lit fuse kind of film. It starts frenetically and keeps building as Howard’s (Sandler) problems continue to mount. Sandler is a ball of manic energy, blag and increasing desperation. He’s superb in a film that is unbearably tense.
What are your favourite performances from the past decade? Let us know on our social channels @FlickeringMyth or on my Instagram here…