July 15, 2012

100 Great Film Performances of the Last 25(ish) Years: Preamble

Filed under: Movies — DB @ 12:00 pm

This little project has been a long time in the making, and because I’m always over-explaining things, I’ll begin at the beginning. Four years ago, in late June 2008, Entertainment Weekly published its 1,000th issue. The theme they chose was “The New Classics”: the 1,000 greatest pieces of pop culture from the preceding 25 years. They named their picks for the 100 best movies since 1983, the 100 best TV shows, albums, books and so on. Anyone who reads Entertainment Weekly, or looks at EW.com, knows that they love their lists. We can debate the point of such lists ad nauseam, but let’s face it: they’re fun. From Rolling Stone counting down the 500 greatest albums of all time to the American Film Institute naming the 100 best films ever to Roger Ebert naming his ten best films of the year, we who consume pop culture like these lists. They provoke debate and discussion amongst fans, and they point the unaware toward work they might have overlooked. Even those who decry them probably have a few of their own they’d like to share.

EW’s list of the 100 best movies from 1983-2008 was pretty good. I was pleased with many of their choices and the placements they received, while certain omissions made me shake my head and ask what they were thinking. A few weeks later, when they published reader feedback to the list, I was happy to see that I was not alone in noting the most glaring omissions. There were four movies whose absence stunned me, and all four were listed among the five cited most frequently by other readers: The Princess Bride, The Shawshank Redemption, The Usual Suspects and Seven. Seriously. They left those movies off the list, yet included Speed, Napoleon Dynamite, Spider-Man 2 and Shrek. I like those movies a lot, but c’mon…over The Princess Bride?!? (The fifth most-mentioned title that didn’t make the magazine’s list was Jurassic Park). But that kind of reaction is just the thing about these lists. Why does it matter to me that a magazine made a list like this and left off a few movies that seem like obvious inclusions? I don’t know why. It just does.

Anyway, being that I like to read about, think about and write about movies, I started considering what my own list of the best movies since 1983 would look like. And to be fair to the folks at EW who undertook this task, it’s daunting. (But I’m sorry, The Princess Bride is a no-brainer.) And then I thought, what if I were to branch off the EW idea by coming up with a list of my 100 favorite performances of the last 25 years and writing briefly about each one? The idea had barely entered my head before I had to start typing out all the names that came spewing forth. For the next several days, it was all I could think about. In the shower, in the car, making dinner, falling asleep…I was defenseless against the tide. And what began as a casual game turned into a year-plus writing exercise (and movie-watching exercise).

The first thing I need to stress is that this is not a “Best” list. I can’t tell you what the best anything is. I can only tell you what speaks to me. So I didn’t call this The 100 Best Film Performances of the Last 25 Years, but rather, 100 Great Film Performances of the Last 25 Years. I didn’t even want to use the word “favorite” because there are just too many that I was forced to leave off.

In order to keep things from sprawling too out of control in other ways, I imposed a few rules on myself:

  • I would follow the magazine’s parameters and only go back as far as 1983. A 25 year span was plenty challenging to work within. Still, just a year earlier would have given me Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie, Ricardo Montalban in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn (hell yeah, he’d have made the list) and the puppet from E.T. (“I’ll…be…right…here.”)
  • There are movies that I’d never seen when I started this, but knew enough by reputation to suspect that if I had seen them, they would feature performances I might want to include. Early on, I thought I would watch those movies and see if that was the case, but I decided against it. I stuck with stuff that I was already familiar with, even if it was outrageous for someone who calls himself a movie fan to never have gotten around to certain films with universally praised performances. My apologies to Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot and Robert DeNiro in The King of Comedy (both of which I’ve seen since).
  • Similarly, if I had a performance in mind but didn’t remember it well, then I didn’t re-watch it to see if I should include it. Part of me felt that, for example, Laura Linney should be on my list for You Can Count on Me…but it had been a long time since I’d seen it and I couldn’t recall much about it. My ruling in that case was that it didn’t belong here. If it wasn’t a performance that was already in my heart and head, then it was out. Sorry Laura. I still love you.
  • There were a number of performances I considered citing until I decided that I’d be celebrating the character more so than the acting, if that makes any sense…though this whole thing is so arbitrary that I’m not sure I was entirely consistent with that policy. Nevertheless, early contenders like Rodney Dangerfield in Back to School, Rick Moranis in Spaceballs and Leslie Nielsen in The Naked Gun went out the window. Hmm….all comedic performances…
  • I wouldn’t include someone just because I felt obligated. There are some brilliant actors that I love, but who didn’t make the list if there wasn’t a particular performance that rose to the top.
  • I couldn’t possibly limit myself to only one mention of each actor, but I capped it at three. There are only a few people who are on the list three times, while several appear twice. In many other cases I could have cited someone more than once, but I decided to spread my affection around as best I could.

Why has this exercise has taken so long? Soon after I started writing, I realized that I needed to see many of the movies again in order to figure out what I wanted to say. My home movie viewing for much of 2008-2009 was almost exclusively dedicated to this project. It’s sort of stupid, I admit, but it was also kinda cool to have an ongoing movie-watching/writing endeavor. And there proved to be some cases where I had strong memories of something from the first time I’d seen it, but decided not to include it after re-watching. Then of course, I had basically written it all and had no place to put it. Knowing by then that I’d be starting a blog sooner or later, I just tucked it away until the right time came. Seeing as it was exactly this week four years ago that I started, it seemed like the right time was now. (I remember the timing because it was the week The Dark Knight opened, and I was back east on vacation. Now here we are, with The Dark Knight Rises opening on Friday.) Maybe I should have readjusted the 25 year period to be up-to-date and include post-2008 movies, but I decided to keep the list intact as I’d conceived it. Hence the “Last 25(ish)” moniker.

So anyway…that’s the genesis of the list. I decided it would be way too overwhelming for one post, so I’m spreading it out over the next week. Five days, 20 performances per post, beginning tomorrow. But don’t expect a ranked countdown; the order is random. And for what it’s worth, there’s nothing here wildly outside the mainstream. 24 of these performances won Academy Awards, and another 30 were nominated, so it’s not like I’m trying to champion underseen or obscure work. I’m just paying tribute to some of my favorites, even if every other movie watcher in the world would name some of them as favorites too. On that point, please, don’t be shy with the comments. You’ll have to wait until the last day, when the full list is revealed, to take me to task for any omissions. But throw me some bones by jumping in along the way and letting me know which selections you have thoughts of your own on, positive or negative.

Okay…back tomorrow with the initial 20, including a couple of eccentric scientists, a weary detective and a haunted space traveler.

Updated with Full Series Links:

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part V


  1. As much as I loved Back to School (which I saw in a $2 double-feature with Ferris Bueller…now THAT’S a double-feature!), Rodney was more or less playing himself (or at least his standard Rodney persona); as much as I loved Spaceballs and Moranis, that’s a movie where you embrace the goofiness of the entire cast rather than just one actor; but I suspect I’ll be annoyed you didn’t include Nielsen – his performance was fantastic: that clueless deadpan is not easy to credibly pull off and make people crumble with laughter (and while I wouldn’t necessarily include him in a “great performances” list, let’s take a moment to recognize George Kennedy – how Dragline from Cool Hand Luke ended up as Nielsen’s loyal sidekick is beyond me, but when he tearfully says “Oh Frank! It’s horrible! It’s so horrible!…My father went the same way” it just slays me every time).

    Also, if you didn’t include Jeff Bridges for Big Lebowski, I’m gonna slap you upside the head.

    Comment by David Z. — July 15, 2012 @ 10:46 pm | Reply

    • Good point about Leslie Nielsen. And yes indeed, props to George Kennedy. He popped up last year in this star-studded indie flick called Another Happy Day. It had Ellen Barkin, Ellen Burstyn, Demi Moore, Thomas Haden Church, Kate Bosworth, Ezra Miller…it was a small part, but it was really nice to see him again.

      Comment by DB — July 22, 2012 @ 3:23 pm | Reply

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