July 16, 2012

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

Filed under: Movies — DB @ 12:00 pm
Tags: , , , ,

Okay, hopefully if you’re here, you read the preamble from yesterday, so you know what this is all about. With all the background out of the way, let’s get to it….

“Doc” Emmett Brown

From Taxi to The Addams Family films, Christopher Lloyd has always been one of our most inventive and underrated character actors. In Back to the Future, he put his incomparable spin on the “mad scientist” archetype and came up with something riotous and touching. Lloyd’s originality is visible in every wild gesture and bug-eyed reaction, but he can also dial it back to play the quieter moments of the genuine friendship he shares with Marty McFly. The third film in the trilogy offered him a chance to deepen the character, but nothing could top the off-kilter zaniness he brought to the original.


David Kleinfeld
After a few years away from the spotlight, Carlito’s Way saw Penn return to mainstream film with a vengeance. Almost unrecognizable behind glasses and beneath a red Jew-fro, Penn is riveting as a slick lawyer who gets his gangster friend/client released from a 30 year jail sentence after only five served. But while Carlito (Al Pacino) tries to go straight, Kleinfeld’s path becomes increasingly crooked. The tension created as a result of his actions propels the film’s nail-biting second half, and Kleinfeld’s descent allows Penn to fly high.


Verbal Kint
It’s entertaining enough to watch Spacey’s wormy con man the first time around, but only with repeated viewings is it possible to appreciate the full depth and exquisite nuance of his performance, which earned him a well-deserved Academy Award. What Spacey does here ranks among the best magic tricks I’ve seen at the movies, and he requires no CGI to create the illusion. He does it all with just his voice, his expressions, his posture and his roaming eyes.


Harvey Pekar
Paul Giamatti has made the rare transition from supporting to leading roles, emerging over the last decade as one of movies’ unlikeliest stars, and American Splendor was a key film in that transition. It also happens to feature some of his best work, as real-life comic writer and curmudgeon Harvey Pekar. He dials into the man’s eccentricities and bleak viewpoint to create a portrait that eschews mimicry in favor of inspired interpretation. Earning heavy laughs without missing that Pekar is a lonely guy swimming against the stream, Giamatti shines in this splendidly untraditional biopic.


John LaRoche
Whoever is responsible for the inspiration of putting Chris Cooper in this role deserves an Oscar to match the one earned by the actor. It’s an unexpected choice that paid off in spades, with Cooper stealing the show as the idiosyncratic flower enthusiast who changes the lives of two lonely writers. As flat-out funny as Cooper is, what makes the performance truly great are the serious touches. LaRoche could have been played merely for laughs, but writer Charlie Kaufman created something more dimensional, and Cooper identifies the man’s grief as much as his offbeat enthusiasms. Watch him as he crouches down and surveys the damage done to his greenhouse by a hurricane, and marvel at an actor’s ability to register on his face an absolute perfect expression of pain, loss and humility.


Ellen Ripley
James Cameron’s respectful yet distinctive follow-up to Ridley Scott’s 1979 Alien was a gift to Sigourney Weaver. She kicks asses both human and xenomorph as the haunted lone survivor of a freighter that played host to the galaxy’s most terrifying extra-terrestrial. Reluctantly back in action and given new purpose by the discovery of a young girl, herself the sole survivor of a similar incident, Ripley remains as tough and practical as when we first met her. But Weaver gets to deepen her as well, and in doing so she cemented Ripley’s status as one of the greatest heroines in movie history. Weaver gives her the strength and confidence of a warrior and the warmth of a protective mother, overcoming the “limitations” of the film’s genre to earn a Best Actress Oscar nomination.


John Malkovich
What I wouldn’t give to have been a fly on the wall witnessing the moment John Malkovich was first pitched this story. The actor has a field day parodying his own mystique in the incomparable story of a trio of misfits who become obsessed with a portal that takes them inside the thespian’s head for 15-minute intervals. The last third of the film, in which John Cusack’s puppeteer fully takes over Malkovich’s body, shows the versatile actor at his most brilliant. Malkovich performing Cusack performing Malkovich is a stunning example of razor-sharp comedic acting that continues to offer rewards with repeated viewings.


William Somerset
There are many great performances Freeman could be cited for, but I’m going with one of his most underrated. As a veteran detective on the brink of retirement who finds himself reluctantly drawn into a gruesome serial killing investigation with a gung-ho new partner, Freeman is at his subtle best. He captures the heart of a man consumed by solitude and cynicism, and imbues the character with simmering intelligence. Somerset’s terse exterior is a necessary shell to protect what remains of his humanity, worn away by too many years dealing with the underside of a grim metropolis, and Freeman goes a long way toward suggesting what Somerset has endured in those years. There are no specifics, but Freeman shows us how much more there is to Somerset then what we’ll be allowed to see. If you can extricate yourself from the intensity of the plot enough to really pay attention to Freeman’s work, you’ll see a heartbreaking turn by a master actor.


Like most of the cast in this David Lynch film, Naomi Watts was unknown when Mulholland Drive arrived in theaters. That would quickly change, thanks to her thoroughly captivating work as the goody-goody aspiring actress Betty, who follows her dreams to Hollywood and encounters an amnesiac brunette beauty who alters the course of her life in a way that can only be described as Lynchian. At first, Betty is so impossibly perfect and perky that Watts might appear to be overdoing it. But both the actress and the director know exactly what they’re playing at. If you aren’t onboard with Watts by the time her “audition” scene rolls around, prepare for a jaw-dropper. But she’s not done with us yet. We also meet Betty’s alter ego Diane, and Watts drives it all home as the troubled girl whose Hollywood dreams have disintegrated into nightmares.


Ben “Lefty” Ruggiero
Pacino’s masterful performance in this absorbing character drama ranks with the finest work of his career, worthy of mention in the same breath as titles like The Godfather, Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon. He plays a mid-level mobster teased by his buddies, ignored by the bosses and seduced by the friendship of a neighborhood jeweler who is actually an undercover FBI agent. Lefty comes to regard Donnie (Johnny Depp) as a surrogate son, and the mutual bond between the two makes the inevitable fallout all the more painful. In an era when Pacino sometimes goes big and loud, his work here, while vivid, is also wonderfully subtle, blending bravado with wounded pride.


Dr. Evil
Though physically inspired by Ernst Blofeld, the James Bond villain played by Donald Pleasance in You Only Live Twice, Dr. Evil is as original a character as they come, springing purely from the genius of Mike Myers. Though the actor is no slouch in the title role, it’s his performance as Dr. Evil that steals the movie at every turn. Whether threatening to hold the world ransom for one miiiiiillliiionnn dollars, trying desperately to relate to his teenage son or even just sitting and stroking his cat, Dr. Evil is Myers’ most inspired and hysterical creation.


Dave Boyle
A young boy is tricked into getting in a car with men he believes to be police officers, and over the course of four days, he is kept locked up and sexually abused. What would happen to that boy when he grew up? Tim Robbins answered that question in this outstanding, unshakable performance. Tentative in his gait, his speech and his relationships, Robbins plays Boyle like a walking open wound. He is too haunted by his past to help himself in the present, and we can only watch helplessly as his tragedy plays out. Robbins is a tall guy, but he makes us see the boy who has never been able to overcome what happened when he got into the wrong car.


Suzanne Stone
Kidman took her first big step out of then-husband Tom Cruise’s shadow with this wickedly sly turn as a small-town girl who believes that “you’re not anybody in America unless you’re on TV.” The film gave Kidman the most fully developed role she’d had since crossing over to Hollywood, and she displayed acute comedic skills alongside a calculating coldness and manipulative sexiness, flawlessly demonstrating that it takes an actor of depth to create a believably shallow character.


Penny Lane
I recall reading an interview with Cameron Crowe in which he said that in casting Penny Lane, he needed an actress who could light up a room. When his first choice, Sarah Polley, didn’t feel she could deliver that, Hudson – who had already been cast in the smaller role of the protagonist’s rebellious sister – asked to audition. With Hudson, Crowe got his wish and then some. Her shining turn as the seasoned Band-Aid whose wit, warmth and free spirit entrances a young journalist and a golden God of rock on a 1974 cross-country tour is the heart of the movie. She more than fulfills Crowe’s desire with her joyful performance. The movie is great from start to finish, but it’s at its best when Hudson is onscreen.


Arnie Grape
1993 was DiCaprio’s breakthrough year, beginning when he appeared opposite Robert DeNiro in This Boy’s Life. Later came What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, and a performance so authentic that the part seemed to be played by someone who really was developmentally disabled. Not a single moment Arnie is onscreen feels rehearsed or acted. While still in his teens, DiCaprio delivered an astonishing piece of work that is nearly incomprehensible in its simple power and effectiveness. Long before Romeo & Juliet and Titanic turned him into a heartthrob, Gilbert Grape proved DiCaprio was an actor of remarkable intelligence, sensitivity and depth.


Captain Jack Sparrow
After three inferior sequels and Captain Jack Sparrow’s pop culture saturation, it would be easy to take Johnny Depp’s work for granted or dismiss just how good he is, and how much fun it was this first time out. That’s a mistake I’ll not be making. Everything about this movie was a pleasant surprise, beginning with Depp’s inspired creation of Captain Jack, which seemed to wake up the movie industry to the presence of an actor who had been doing phenomenal work for over a decade. It’s amazing what a little box office success will do. Depp’s originality and ingenuity have never been more evident than they are here, and watching him sashay and swashbuckle his way through the movie offers endless delights. The actor earned his first Oscar nomination – overdue but certainly deserved – playing, as one of the film’s characters observed, “the best pirate I’ve ever seen.” 


Captain Barbossa
Geoffrey Rush is an actor who feels at home in any genre, and while I initially intended to cite his excellent work in Quills, I couldn’t resist his treacherous seafarer from Pirates of the Caribbean. Haunted by an ancient curse that holds him captive between two worlds, Barbossa nonetheless possesses a wickedly sarcastic sense of humor and insatiable lust for life, gold and mouthwatering apples. Rush can barely contain the fun he’s having bringing these various facets of Barbossa to life, and like his co-star, he brings a credibility and pedigree to the film that can’t help but make it better. Depp got the lion’s share of the attention, but overlooking Rush’s contribution would be a grave disservice to the film’s success.


Celeste Talbert
Sally Field’s reputation may be as a dramatic actress, but she has a deft hand for comedy as well, and those skills are on full, glorious display in Soapdish, a sorely underrated movie that goes behind the scenes of a popular daytime drama and reveals the lives of the cast and crew to be more outrageous than their television storylines. Field is the show’s long-reigning star and resident diva who faces threats from all sides. In her manic portrayal of an aging celebrity coming undone, she offers one priceless bit after another – one of my favorites being an attempt to apply eyeshadow with hands that can’t stop shaking from stress. Field’s performance is big and over-the-top, but in the best way possible and perfectly in tune with the film’s overall tone.


Ennis Del Mar
Ledger’s performance in Brokeback Mountain is one of striking economy. His chin drawn into his chest, his words seemingly fighting to escape from his mouth, his movements tight and deliberate, Ledger’s Ennis is like a clenched fist. A great actor working with rich material might be fortunate enough to deliver one, maybe two emotionally powerhouse scenes in a given film. Ledger has at least four in Brokeback. Sure, the material is there for him to play, but the raw vulnerability he brings makes your heart ache. Ledger had impressed in earlier films, but nothing he’d done previously could prepare us for the astounding work he does here.


Peter Venkman
Ghostbusters finds Murray at his deadpan, wiseass best and deserves to be counted among his finest efforts. The movie has such legendary status that it’s hard to pull back far enough to acknowledge what an odd film it is, and how easily it could have failed to work. One of the reasons it does work is Murray and the way he fully commits to the character and the concept. The jokes aren’t typical and the lines aren’t always hilarious in and of themselves, but Murray puts a spin on them that absolutely kills. The whole ensemble is great, but when co-stars Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis wrote the script (or should I say re-wrote it, as the Venkman role was originally intended for John Belushi), they wisely saved the best role for their old friend. He came, he saw, he kicked its ass.


That’ll do it for today. Back tomorrow with 20 more, including a committed teacher, a compromised author and a well-dressed man.


Updated with Full Series Links:
Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part V


  1. No gripes here, but I must say that if I was forced to ride a bus around America with Penny Lane, I’d throw her out the damn window.

    I can’t imagine Ghostbusters being made at any time other than the mid-80s, and with any cast other than what it had. The fact that it’s so perfect is absolutely a testament to Murray (and company) — I agree wholeheartedly.

    Comment by Ryan — July 16, 2012 @ 1:01 pm | Reply

    • And the role that Bill Murray played was intended for John Belluci! It’s hard to envision that role with Belluci in it.

      Comment by Daniel — July 16, 2012 @ 10:15 pm | Reply

  2. “I think he can hear you, Ray.”

    Comment by Frants — July 16, 2012 @ 2:17 pm | Reply

    • I had the idea a couple days ago to add a line of dialogue as a caption for when the mouse hovers over each picture. Not necessarily a line from the scene depicted in the photo, although for Murray the one you wrote is exactly what I was gonna use. Anyway, I didn’t do it because it would have been way too time consuming to track down suitable lines for some of the less quotable characters. But the one I most regret not being able to use was my intended line for Chris Cooper: “Fuck fish.”

      Comment by DB — July 16, 2012 @ 5:37 pm | Reply

  3. Can’t agree more with the majority of your choices. As always, well done (I especially love the nod to Bill Murray, I hadn’t really considered the effectiveness of that part although you’re totally right). My favorites on your list are Naomi Watts and Leonardo DiCaprio. I’m still stunned by those performances every time I see them. Not so keen on Geoffrey Rush though. He’s never really broken through to greatness for me in any of his roles.

    Comment by maestro122 — July 16, 2012 @ 4:14 pm | Reply

  4. Great list, I love the idea of recent classics (although no 1982 means no Conan!!!).

    I still don’t get the love around Kate Hudson and Almost Famous. I thought she did very little in that movie.

    Comment by ggears — July 16, 2012 @ 4:54 pm | Reply

  5. great choices esp..Heath L and Leo D..missed English Patient and Sophie’s choice..other performances by Philip Seymore Hoffman in Capote..Ms T

    Comment by Connie Tavanis — July 16, 2012 @ 5:36 pm | Reply

  6. I love the list Burncey! Some call outs:

    Leonardo DiCaprio – As I watched the movie I wondered how they got that mentally challenged kid to say his lines. I was shocked, SHOCKED, when I saw a very sharp young actor interviewed to promote the film.

    Kate Hudson – I fell in love with her during this film. And that love has persisted to present day, despite the string of (mostly) terrible films she’s appeared in since.

    Heath Ledger – The final scenes of BBM, when he portrayed a much older man, are some of the finest moments of acting I’ve seen. Aided by virtually no makeup he turns in a performance that is on par with Orson Welles’ depiction of the aged C.F. Kane in Citizen Kane 65 years earlier.

    Excellent, and very well rounded list indeed. I can’t wait for more…

    Comment by Bryan C Davis — July 16, 2012 @ 6:47 pm | Reply

    • I must have seen Gilbert Grape a dozen times, and I still have no idea how DiCaprio did what he did. Excellent actors will go their entire lives without ever giving a performance as good as that one, which he filmed at age 18. Eight-fucking-teen. Unbelievable.

      Glad to see someone else has some love for Hudson in Almost Famous.

      Those last couple of scenes in Brokeback – when he goes to see the parents, and when his daughter visits him (and right after she leaves) – are perfect. Perfect. And the argument he has with Gyllenhaal the last time we see them at the lake…so, so, so, so, so, sad. If ever in the 84 years of the Academy Awards there should have been a tie for Best Actor, it should have been this year: Ledger and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

      Comment by DB — July 16, 2012 @ 7:31 pm | Reply

  7. Paul Giamatti as Harvey Pekar. I remember watching that with my wife’s family and everyone fell asleep, but I was still enraptured. He really captured Pekar with all of his idiosyncrasies.

    Comment by Daniel — July 16, 2012 @ 10:17 pm | Reply

    • American Splendor isn’t what most people would consider a laugh-out-loud comedy, but Giamatti just kills me in it. I bust a gut every time I see it. He’s so funny. And that scene where he and Judah Friedlander, as Toby, walk out of the scene and onto the set where the real Harvey and Toby are hanging out is pure genius.

      Comment by DB — July 16, 2012 @ 10:53 pm | Reply

  8. I say go ahead and add the quotes when you have an easy time recalling them – we all know Doc Brown would be “1.21 gigawatts!!!!” (though I was always partial to “If my calculations are correct, when this baby hits 88 miles per hour… you’re gonna see some serious shit.”); if a character isn’t memorably quotable and you have to dig and dig and dig to find one, what’s the point in attempting to quote them in the first place? You might eventually find a peach of a quote for Harvey Pekar or Dave Boyle, but it won’t ring as true as a Venkman or a Dr. Evil, quotes from either of which would immediately bring the character to mind.

    Also have to agree on Ledger – his performance in Brokeback was astonishing and would appear on any great performances list regardless of the time frame (um, unless the list started in 2007 I guess).

    Comment by David Z. — July 16, 2012 @ 11:10 pm | Reply

  9. Incredible series of posts, man.

    Worth noting that Dr. Evil also seems to be an extremely demented Lorne Michaels impression.

    Comment by Alpine McGregor — July 19, 2012 @ 6:35 am | Reply

  10. Christopher Reeves – Superman

    Comment by Daniel — July 23, 2012 @ 10:02 pm | Reply

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