I Am DB

July 20, 2012

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

Filed under: Movies — DB @ 12:00 pm
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Alright, we’re down to the final day. Thanks for hanging in there. Let’s bring it home…

NATALIE PORTMAN – BEAUTIFUL GIRLS (1996)
Marty
After an impressive debut in The Professional, itself fully worthy of inclusion on this list, Portman continued to show a command of her craft at a young age with her performance as the teenager whose wit and intellect platonically captivate Timothy Hutton’s late-twenties pseudo-slacker, back home for his high school reunion. Marty calls herself an old soul – and she is – but she’s also still a kid navigating the wonder years, and Portman blends maturity and insecurity to create a teen that is unique but credible. Some of the storylines are a little forced and a little silly, but Portman really glows, her relationship with Hutton forming the heart of the movie. On the heels of The Professional, Beautiful Girls solidified her standing as a young actress at the dawn of a bright career.

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MARTIN LANDAU – ED WOOD (1994)
Bela Lugosi
Landau’s touching and unexpectedly humorous performance as Hollywood’s original Count Dracula might have made people rethink how Lugosi spent his twilight years. Though his career ended in the doldrums as he starred in the comically awful movies of Ed Wood, Tim Burton’s film suggests that Lugosi’s relationship with the young director gave him a human connection he’d been lacking, and provided a sense of purpose that he had long since abandoned. The change in fortune came too late for him to turn the clock back on the damage he’d done to himself through drug abuse, but the sadness and vitality of Landau’s performance illuminate that while Lugosi still had demons to grapple with in his final days, he also had a last chance to experience happiness and bring some to those around him. Landau does him proud.

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CHARLIZE THERON – MONSTER (2003)
Aileen Wuornos
The initial shock of seeing the physically flawless Theron with bad skin, dark eyes, dirty teeth and extra heft quickly gives way to shock at how powerful the performance is. She had proven herself a fine actress by this time, but nothing she had done suggested she had this in her. As a severely damaged woman who doesn’t realize how desperate she is for an emotional connection until she meets someone who needs it even more, Theron gave the role everything she had – and it turned out she had a lot. The actress, so graceful and statuesque, changes her entire physicality to adopt Wuornos’ cocky swagger. It doesn’t take long before the makeup is forgotten and only the richly detailed character is visible – her neediness, hopefulness, anger, fear, insecurity…Theron nails it all in a gripping, career-changing performance.

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BENICIO DEL TORO – TRAFFIC (2000)
Javier Rodriguez Rodriguez
Del Toro gets no showstopper scenes or chest-thumping monologues in his role as a Mexican cop – as decent as the corrupt system will allow – who unexpectedly finds himself at the center of the Mexico-U.S. drug war. What he does get is a chance to demonstrate that even a man engaged in something as personal and internal as grappling with his conscience can be the stuff from which compelling characters are built. Del Toro’s performance is one of minimalism, but the small gestures and subtle shadings he employs to portray Rodriguez’s attempts to do the right thing make for enthralling viewing.

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HILARY SWANK – BOYS DON’T CRY (1999)
Brandon Teena
Swank had the advantage of being largely unknown when she made Boys Don’t Cry, which perhaps made it easier for audiences to accept her as a girl dealing with a gender identity crisis by passing herself off as a man. That doesn’t make it any less impressive a feat. Swank fully pulls off the challenge, making Brandon a completely believable male protagonist. Equally admirable is how she shows the excitement and possibility that comes with finding acceptance from a crowd. Discovering a new group of friends and finding your place in a circle is a universal experience that is key to Boys Don’t Cry. The acceptance Brandon found disintegrated when some of his new companions learned of his deception, but the movie captures something honest about the excitement of new friendships, first love and a sense of belonging, and that internal euphoria is made external by Swank’s convincing, committed performance.

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MERYL STREEP – MARVIN’S ROOM (1996)
Lee
It seems like Meryl Streep need only sneeze to earn an Oscar nomination, yet of the 17 she’s collected to date, one role that did not net her Academy recognition also happens to be one of my favorites. In Marvin’s Room, she plays a gruff single mother whose angry, resentful teenage son is institutionalized and whose attempts to get her life on track are disrupted when her estranged sister falls ill and requires a bone marrow transplant. As usual, Streep transforms into a different person so thoroughly that all you can do is shake your head in amazement. There’s no accent to master or hook to latch onto in playing Lee; Streep simply carries herself in an entirely different way, giving such a fully realized and specifically detailed performance that it doesn’t even feel like you’re watching a fictional character. This woman is a marvel.

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JASON SCHWARTZMAN – RUSHMORE (1998)
Max Fischer
Schwartzman has been a uniquely funny and surprising presence in films as varied as Marie Antoinette, Shopgirl and I ♥ Huckabee’s, but his debut in Rushmore was particularly thrilling because, like his more experienced co-star Bill Murray, he seemed an absolute natural for the distinctive comic rhythm of director Wes Anderson. As a wildly ambitious, occasionally self-aggrandizing, lovestruck high schooler, Schwartzman’s dry humor and carefully measured glimpses into Max’s vulnerable core enable him to toe the line between appealing and obnoxious. Extending the legacy of talent in the Coppola family (he’s Talia Shire’s son), Schwartzman’s discovery for Rushmore was a casting coup that continues to pay off.

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BEN KINGSLEY – SEXY BEAST (2001)
Don Logan
Measured in time, roughly 20 years separate Kingsley’s Oscar-winning turn as Gandhi from his nominated turn as Don Logan. Measured in character, the span is mammoth. As a frighteningly intense career criminal who travels to Spain to lure a retired colleague back to London for a robbery, Kingsley delivers a ferocious and unpredictable performance that couldn’t be further from the benevolent Mahatma. Relentless as the Terminator and as tightly coiled as a cobra, capable of striking at any moment, Logan is as bad as they come…and in presenting the depths of his depravity, Kingsley is a force of nature.

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DENZEL WASHINGTON – MALCOLM X (1992)
Malcolm X
Spike Lee’s epic biopic is a showcase for Denzel Washington, who takes us on a detailed journey through the adult life of the nationalist and civil rights leader, starting from his days as a flashy, cocky hustler and thief. Malcolm’s conversion to Islam and preaching of Elijah Mohammad’s message allows Washington to do some of his best work. The blazing speeches are powerful, but he is just as absorbing in his stoicism and stillness. Lee’s movie runs nearly three and a half hours, but doesn’t feel it, thanks in no small part to the sheer dynamism of Washington’s performance.

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STEVE BUSCEMI – RESERVOIR DOGS (1992)
Mr. Pink
Of all the great ensemble films from which it’s difficult to parse a standout performance, Reservoir Dogs may be one of the most challenging. (So was L.A. Confidential. And The Big Lebowski. And The Lord of the Rings, Almost Famous, Out of Sight…okay, nevermind.) Point is, even with all the actors expertly chewing up Tarantino’s dialogue, Steve Buscemi rises just above the rest. I think it’s the character’s pragmatism that makes the difference. I always appreciated that while the other tough guys pose and bellow, Mr. Pink keeps things in perspective. Whatever he says, he’s usually right. That trait, embodied by Buscemi in combination with a hypernervous energy, has helped this remain one of the signature roles of his prolific career.

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MATTHEW BRODERICK – FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF (1986)
Ferris Bueller
Broderick defined high school cool for a generation of filmgoers with his portrayal of a renegade senior from suburban Chicago. Ferris brims with such rock solid confidence that he could have come off as cocky and smug. But thanks to Broderick’s easy-going charisma and inherent likability, Ferris remains endearing even while pushing his neurotic best friend to the breaking point. Broderick’s onscreen persona in more recent years has often been the square or the nerd, but he will never escape the shadow of the bold, charming Bueller.

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FRANCES McDORMAND – FARGO (1996)
Marge Gunderson
McDormand won a Best Actress Oscar for Fargo despite an entrance that comes roughly 45 minutes into the film and a total of just over a half hour of screen time. The win acknowledged that despite those limitations, she still created a character that earned a place in the annals of film history. She brought great warmth and humor to her crafty, very pregnant, very upbeat sheriff who maintains a sunny worldview despite her daily encounters with the criminal element. McDormand is radiant, making Marge an unwavering positive force to all around her, from her schlubby hubby to her fellow officers to the old high school classmate with whom she shares an awkward reunion. The Coen Brothers have always been good to McDormand (as they should be, since Joel is her husband and Ethan her brother-in-law), but they really outdid themselves this time, and so did she. Heck, she’s just terrific.

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MICHAEL DOUGLAS – WONDER BOYS (2000)
Grady Tripp
In one of the best roles of his career, Douglas plays a writing professor and novelist navigating relationships with his mistress, his editor and his morose star student during one chaotic weekend. Douglas can come off as so natural and low-key onscreen that it sometimes seems like he isn’t even trying. But don’t be fooled. The looseness, dry humor and mellow vibe he brings to Grady are all carefully calibrated. Taken with Traffic, his other film from 2000, Wonder Boys showed Douglas entering his fourth decade as a star whose versatility and skill were at their peak.

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MARLON BRANDO – THE FRESHMAN (1990)
Carmine Sabatini
In this late career triumph, Brando offers a warm and affectionate tribute to his role in The Godfather, playing a powerful and mysterious businessman who takes a liking to an NYU film student and makes him an offer he can’t refuse: a well-paying job that may or may not be illegal. It’s a treat to see the actor so funny and on his game, charmingly sending up the most famous role of his career. There’s a scene in the film which finds Sabatini ice skating, and despite the heft Brando had built up over the years, he looked as light on his feet and playful as when he fidgeted with Eva Marie Saint’s glove in On The Waterfront 36 years earlier. All that time later, The Freshman showed Brando could still make magic on the screen.

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LEONARDO DICAPRIO – THE DEPARTED (2006)
William Costigan
When DiCaprio deservedly earned a Best Actor nomination for his work in 2006, there was only one problem: it was for the wrong movie. His nomination came for Blood Diamond, and while he was quite good in that film, it simply doesn’t measure up to his sensational work in what turned out to be his best-yet collaboration with Martin Scorsese. Doing his most accomplished adult work to date, DiCaprio completely melts into the role of an undercover cop bravely holding up his masquerade despite physical and psychological pressure crushing down on him. His shifts between the intelligent, quick-thinking cop and the somewhat dim crew member serving Boston’s most wanted gangster are distinct yet facile. He even does an impressive Boston accent, which is one of the trickiest to pull off. In case anyone still needed convincing, this performance exemplified why DiCaprio is such a supehstah.

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NICOLE KIDMAN – THE HOURS (2002)
Virginia Woolf
The simple application of a prosthetic nose somehow transformed Nicole Kidman into an entirely different person, such that watching her precise performance as the troubled writer of Mrs. Dalloway is like watching not a familiar movie star, but an unknown actress making a high-profile debut. Her inhabiting of the character is so complete and yet so unassuming that I still feel a sense of discovery when I watch it. The movie’s structural shifts in time mean we often only get Kidman in brief spurts, but while her screen time may be limited, her impact is anything but. An impassioned argument with her husband on a deserted train platform provides her meatiest scene (not to mention the clips for countless award shows), but she turns so many small moments into indelible images: the way she spins around on a staircase to look at her husband; the way she watches her young niece with simultaneous affection and detachment; the way she cowers under the silent disapproval of her servants. Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore anchor the film’s other segments, but it’s when Kidman is onscreen that The Hours seem to go by in seconds.

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SEAN PENN – DEAD MAN WALKING (1995)
Matthew Poncelet
Tim Robbins’ film finds Penn playing a death-row inmate – convicted of murdering a teenage couple – who seeks the counsel of a nun to keep him company in his final days. With his usual head-on immersion into character, Penn fully inhabits the racist and generally despicable killer who is too proud and defensive to admit his role in the murders even as he tries to let the nun see the humanity that few others can. Through challenging her, Penn challenges the audience to see something more than a monster. However you feel about the death penalty and Poncelet’s fate, there’s little other than awe to feel toward Penn’s uncompromising performance.

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SUSAN SARANDON – DEAD MAN WALKING (1995)
Sister Helen Prejean
Susan Sarandon scored her fourth Best Actress nomination in five years and finally won the prize as the nun who agrees to visit death-row inmate Matthew Poncelet when he reaches out, and then to serve as his spiritual advisor as his execution approaches. The scenes between Penn and Sarandon form a dance of two great actors at the peak of their powers, yet it should not diminish Penn to say that the movie belongs to Sarandon. This is Prejean’s story, and Sarandon gracefully plays the emotional journey that finds the character appalled and frustrated by Poncelet even as she attempts, with kindness and generosity of spirit, to guide him toward salvation. Sarandon makes simple decency and strength of character into compelling viewing.

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KEVIN KLINE – A FISH CALLED WANDA (1988)
Otto
Kevin Kline’s work here stands as one of my favorite comedic performances of all time. I’d put it in my top five, as a matter of fact. If there is a line somewhere that represents the history of comedy, Kline singlehandedly moves that line up a notch as Otto, a chronically stupid (yes, I said it) jewel thief who gets caught up in a string of double-crosses with his cohorts, hilariously butting heads along the way with a barrister who unwittingly factors into the scheme. Kline blusters through the movie with one laugh-until-it-hurts moment after another, and the cumulative result is a hysterical tour-de-force. Performances this broad and silly are rarely recognized by Academy voters, but they couldn’t deny Kline’s genius, awarding him a richly deserved Best Supporting Actor trophy.

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HEATH LEDGER – THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)
The Joker
Ledger’s take on The Joker came to theaters shrouded in the tragedy of the actor’s shocking death seven months earlier. Buzz on his performance was strong to begin with, but a morbid curiosity drove it through the roof. When the world finally got to see his creation, critics swooned and award talk was instant, but there was also a question in the air: sure he was great, but was the level of praise truly deserved, or was the loss of the actor influencing people’s judgment? Quite simply, there’s nothing to question. Whatever expectations or anticipation people brought to the film, the performance speaks for itself. Ledger deserved every word of acclaim and every accolade he collected. Taking an iconic comic book bad guy and making him as real and terrifying as any villain the movies have offered us, Ledger’s 180 degree turn from Brokeback Mountain cemented his range and left moviegoers wanting for the career that his death has denied us. With every flick of his tongue, cock of his head, flit of his hands and with every teasing word perversely spoken in mocking, unnerving sing-song, Ledger was no-holds-barred electrifying.

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I thought it would be fitting to end with Heath Ledger’s Joker, since The Dark Knight Rises opens today and, as I explained in the preamble, this whole project began way back in 2008, the week The Dark Knight opened. I do enjoy a good example of symmetry. And there we have it, ladies and gents. That’s my list. I have some closing thoughts, but first, if you want to recap, here’s an alphabetical-by-last-name rundown. (For trivia purposes I’m noting which ones got Academy Award attention).

* = Oscar Winner    ** = Oscar Nominee

1. Kevin Bacon – Murder in the First
2. Kathy Bates – Misery*
3. Warren Beatty – Bulworth
4. Jamie Bell – Billy Elliot
5. Jack Black – School of Rock
6. Cate Blanchett – Elizabeth**
7. Emily Blunt – The Devil Wears Prada
8. Marlon Brando – The Freshman
9. Jeff Bridges – The Big Lebowski
10. Matthew Broderick – Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
11. Ellen Burstyn – Requiem for a Dream**
12. Steve Buscemi – Reservoir Dogs
13. Thomas Haden Church – Sideways**
14. Sean Connery – The Untouchables*
15. Chris Cooper – Adaptation*
16. Marion Cotillard – La Vie En Rose*
17. Russell Crowe – The Insider**
18. Jeff Daniels – The Squid and the Whale
19. Daniel Day-Lewis – There Will Be Blood*
20. Ellen DeGeneres – Finding Nemo
21. Benicio del Toro – Traffic*
22. Johnny Depp – Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl**
23. Leonardo DiCaprio – The Departed
24. Leonardo DiCaprio – What’s Eating Gilbert Grape**
25. Michael Douglas – Wonder Boys
26. Robert Downey, Jr. – Tropic Thunder**
27. Sally Field – Soapdish
28. Ralph Fiennes – Schindler’s List**
29. Jodie Foster – The Silence of the Lambs*
30. Morgan Freeman – Seven
31. Paul Giamatti – American Splendor
32. Mel Gibson – Braveheart
33. John Goodman – The Big Lebowski
34. Gene Hackman – Unforgiven*
35. Tom Hanks – Forrest Gump*
36. Emile Hirsch – Into the Wild
37. Dustin Hoffman – Hero
38. Philip Seymour Hoffman – Capote*
39. Philip Seymour Hoffman – Charlie Wilson’s War**
40. Anthony Hopkins – The Silence of the Lambs*
41. Dennis Hopper – Blue Velvet
42. Kate Hudson – Almost Famous**
43. Felicity Huffman – Transamerica**
44. Samuel L. Jackson – Pulp Fiction**
45. Michael Keaton – Beetlejuice
46. Nicole Kidman – The Hours*
47. Nicole Kidman – Margot at the Wedding
48. Nicole Kidman – To Die For
49. Ben Kingsley – Sexy Beast**
50. Kevin Kline – A Fish Called Wanda*
51. Elias Koteas – The Thin Red Line
52. Martin Landau – Ed Wood*
53. Nathan Lane – The Birdcage
54. Heath Ledger – Brokeback Mountain**
55. Heath Ledger – The Dark Knight*
56. Christopher Lloyd – Back to the Future
57. Jennifer Lopez – Out of Sight
58. John Malkovich – Being John Malkovich
59. Frances McDormand – Fargo*
60. Bill Murray – Ghostbusters
61. Bill Murray – Lost in Translation**
62. Mike Myers – Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery
63. Paul Newman – Nobody’s Fool**
64. Jack Nicholson – The Witches of Eastwick
65. Edward Norton – Primal Fear**
66. Haley Joel Osment – The Sixth Sense**
67. Al Pacino – Dick Tracy**
68. Al Pacino – Donnie Brasco
69. Guy Pearce – L.A. Confidential
70. Sean Penn – Carlito’s Way
71. Sean Penn – Dead Man Walking**
72. Sean Penn – Milk*
73. Joe Pesci – Lethal Weapon 2
74. Joaquin Phoenix – Gladiator**
75. Sarah Polley – The Sweet Hereafter
76. Natalie Portman – Beautiful Girls
77. Alan Rickman – Die Hard
78. Tim Robbins – Mystic River*
79. Mickey Rourke – The Wrestler**
80. Geoffrey Rush – Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
81. Susan Sarandon – Dead Man Walking*
82. Jason Schwartzman – Rushmore
83. Andy Serkis – The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
84. Kevin Spacey – The Usual Suspects*
85. Meryl Streep – Marvin’s Room
86. Hilary Swank – Boys Don’t Cry*
87. Tilda Swinton – Michael Clayton*
88. Charlize Theron – Monster*
89. Billy Bob Thornton – A Simple Plan**
90. Billy Bob Thornton – Sling Blade**
91. John Travolta – Pulp Fiction**
92. Christopher Walken – Catch Me If You Can**
93. Denzel Washington – Glory*
94. Denzel Washington – The Hurricane**
95. Denzel Washington – Malcolm X**
96. Naomi Watts – Mulholland Drive
97. Sigourney Weaver – Aliens**
98. Robin Williams – Aladdin
99. Kate Winslet – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind**
100. Reese Witherspoon – Election

Now that the list is out there in its entirety, feel free to take me to task for performances that weren’t included. I was disappointed not to find space for people like Robert DeNiro, Ed Harris and Robert Duvall, but when it came down to it, as much as I love them and as impressive as their bodies of work are, no single performance from the timeframe I was working in rose high enough to bump anything I did include. And of course, the list I initially created to work from had many more choices that, for one reason or another, didn’t make the final cut. There are so many other actors and performances that came close or that I wanted to feature, as well as additional performances by many actors who did appear once or even twice. But such is the life of a list-making movie lover. Tough choices must be made.

So please, share your comments if you have any, and if this series inspires you – whether tomorrow or at some point down the line – to watch a movie you haven’t seen or to rewatch something and/or reconsider an overlooked performance, I’d love to hear about it. Come on back and leave a comment, even if time has passed. Also, if you’re not already subscribed to the blog, take this opportunity to sign up. Just don’t expect a post this ambitious again for a long, long time. I’ve been living with this beast for what feels like ages, and it’s nice to finally have it done and out there. Hope you enjoyed it!

Updated with Full Series Links:
Preamble
Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV

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21 Comments »

  1. Really, can’t find a stand out performance from Ed Harris. Sounds like someone needs to rewatch The Rock. Speaking of which, where’s Nick Cage?

    Comment by Dave — July 20, 2012 @ 12:21 pm | Reply

    • It’s not that Ed Harris doesn’t have any standout performances. I love him in The Rock. And he was incredible in Pollack. Great in Apollo 13, The Truman Show, so many…but none of them populate that special place that would have landed him on the list.

      Nic Cage almost made it for Adaptation, but it didn’t happen.

      Comment by DB — July 20, 2012 @ 1:32 pm | Reply

  2. DB wins the internet. This series was a tour de force! [Standing O]

    Comment by Alpine McGregor — July 20, 2012 @ 12:23 pm | Reply

    • Grazi…Grazi…

      Woohoo! Hear that, Internet? You’re mine!

      Comment by DB — July 20, 2012 @ 3:07 pm | Reply

  3. Great stuff, bro. I’m surprised how many of these I haven’t seen, so you’ve definitely given me a lot for my Netflix queue. But seriously, DeNiro’s performance in GoodFellas wasn’t standout enough to bump one of Nicole Kidman’s THREE slots on the list? Or Harvey Keitel’s in anything? Or Gary Johnson’s in Team America: World Police? Rearry, Dave? GARY JOHNSON? The world’s greatest actor? Are you sure?

    Comment by Alan Burnce — July 20, 2012 @ 1:03 pm | Reply

    • DeNiro is great in GoodFellas, but here’s the thing: this may be different for you, but for me, when I think of GoodFellas, I first think Joe Pesci. Then I think Ray Liotta. And then I think Robert DeNiro. Toss away all of DeNiro’s shitty movies/performances, just hang onto the good ones, and then rank them; GoodFellas is still way down the list. Raging Bull, Mean Streets, The Godfather Part II, Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy, Awakenings, Cape Fear, Midnight Run…I’d place all of those performances higher than GoodFellas. At the end of the day, Jimmy Conway doesn’t give him as much to work with.

      As for Nicole Kidman, her hat trick surprised even me, but I couldn’t bring myself to remove any of those three performances. I don’t even think of her as one of my favorite actresses; I always name Blanchett and Winslet. But when Kidman gets a good part, man, she can be amazing.

      Gary Johnson is obviously a huge, huge, oversight. I’ll never forgive myself for that. His gorillas-killed-my-brother monologue was harrowing.

      Comment by DB — July 20, 2012 @ 1:41 pm | Reply

  4. Actually, while I remain stunned at the largesse you afforded the former Mrs. Thetan, I am surprised at how many of these movies I haven’t seen. You’ve given me a lot of fodder for my Netflix queue.

    Comment by Alan Burnce — July 20, 2012 @ 1:08 pm | Reply

  5. Excellent work! There’s plenty I haven’t seen so I can’t say whether I’d replace anyone, but I’m curious as to your thoughts on some of these performances that jumped to mind: Billy Bob in Bad Santa – yeah, you have him twice, but his work here is one of the most balls out comedic performances I’ve seen; speaking of comedic performances, Eddie Murphy in his dual role in Bowfinger is amazing; Tom Hanks in Big – great performance and also a career shift from straight comedy to more dramatic roles that every comic actor has been trying to emulate for 25 years; no Clooney for, say, O Brother or Three Kings?; no Brad Pitt for 12 Monkeys, Snatch, or Fight Club?; Owen Wilson in Bottlerocket; Will Ferrell in Elf or Anchorman; Vince Vaughn in Swingers; Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally; Adrien Brody in The Pianist; and last but not least, Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men. Okay…that’s a lot more than I intended and I guess I understand how hard it must have been to narrow down your list…but would still enjoy your thoughts on how ever many you feel like addressing.

    Comment by David Z. — July 20, 2012 @ 2:03 pm | Reply

    • Okay, let’s see here. Bad Santa and Bowfinger, while I enjoyed them, didn’t really stay with me upon initial viewings. I’ve still only seen them once. But I did consider Murphy for Beverly Hills Cop.

      Tom Hanks in Big – great movie, great performance, but not one that would bump anything I put here. Interesting point, though, about that movie being his transition from comedy to drama. It came out in 1988, right between two major Robin Williams performances that did the same thing: Good Morning Vietnam and Dead Poet’s Society.

      Clooney is hilarious in O Brother, but that movie has never been one of my favorite Coen flicks, and though I enjoy the performance, it’s never ascended to that Next Level for me. I like Three Kings a lot too, but same deal. I will say, though, that these movies helped make Clooney really impressive to me in terms of the career he was building. Once he stopped making generic Hollywood stuff and consciously started to build a filmography he could be proud of, he’s been on a nonstop roll. I have huge respect for how he’s handled his career, beginning with Out of Sight, and both of these movies were key early steps on that path.

      Brad Pitt came close to making it for 12 Monkeys; so close that I partly wrote his paragraph. But I ended up going with some other choices. He’s good in both Snatch and Fight Club, but I didn’t consider him for either. He was also on my shortlist for True Romance. Too small a part, really, but so priceless. “Fuckin’….condescend to me, man, I’ll fuckin’ kill you, man…”

      I do love Owen Wilson, but I’ve only seen Bottle Rocket once, and it didn’t stay with me the way Wes Anderson’s other movies have. But I should watch it again, cause I love every other film Anderson has made.

      Will Ferrell – Believe it or not, I didn’t get around to seeing Elf until this past Christmas. So that wasn’t in play…but wouldn’t have made it anyway, though I enjoyed him. And Anchorman – I love that movie, and Ferrell kills me in it, but there are still many performances I’d put on the list before that one. Ron Burgundy is a really well-conceived character, but doesn’t get to that transcendent place that, for me, Mike Myers got to as Dr. Evil.

      Vince Vaughn in Swingers and Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men both came close, but I just didn’t have room for them. Meg Ryan, as much I like her and love When Harry Met Sally, was never really in contention. And finally Adrien Brody. I thought The Pianist was a powerful movie, but I didn’t think Brody deserved the Oscar. I haven’t seen it since it was in theaters a decade ago, but my memory of it – of him – is that he was fine, but it was a very passive character. He’s an observer who just gets really lucky. So I never saw it as a particularly strong performance. Great acceptance speech, though.

      Comment by DB — July 22, 2012 @ 1:56 pm | Reply

  6. Great list, and includes some iconic performances in more comedic films like Ferris & Beetlejuice. Will definitely have to check out the rest of your entries.

    Comment by amandalovesmovies — July 20, 2012 @ 3:16 pm | Reply

    • Thanks, glad you liked it. I definitely wanted to make sure comedy got its due. Too often comedic acting isn’t taken seriously. But actors always say that comedy is harder than drama.

      Comment by DB — July 22, 2012 @ 1:58 pm | Reply

  7. This piece has really been a blast to follow. I looked forward to this every morning this week, not just to see who made the cut, but to read your thoughtful, exacting analyses. Most impressive is the monumental work that went into researching, culling, and presenting such a list. Four years in the making! Nobody does that. This series deserves to be published in, like, a magazine.

    On the eve of the Final 20, I was prepared to take dramatic action if Marge Gunderson didn’t make the cut. Had she not been there today, I would have driven to your apartment and thrown you in a wood chipper. But there is one omission that I am sad to see; I can get over Gandalf because you had Gollum, and I’m okay with Anton Chigurh’s absence because you honored three other Coen Bros. characters, but where is Tom Cruise as Frank T.J. Mackey?! I’m not even a big Cruise guy, but he was revelatory in that role. Not that he hadn’t proven himself before Magnolia, but his Mackey is a masterstroke. Boastful, bigoted, and cocksure in his misogynistic seminars, defensive and proud during the TV interview… and then hopelessly wounded and devastated at his father’s bedside. Best performance of Cruise’s career, and if you ask me, the ’99 Supporting Actor race should’ve been a photo finish between him and Osment.

    But I ain’t mad at ya. Mackey had to be on the barely-missed list… right? Right?

    Comment by Ryan C. — July 20, 2012 @ 3:36 pm | Reply

    • Thanks for the kind words. The fact that anyone was actually anticipating these posts on a daily basis is a humbling thought. Four years in the making, yes…but it’s not like I was working on it every day. The bulk of the work took place probably over the course of a year, with wide gaps. After that, it was basically done and I just needed an outlet for it. But since it was sitting around, I’d continue to revisit it and tweak the writing.

      Ian McKellan’s Gandalf was definitely considered, but I just didn’t have the room for him, whereas Serkis was absolutely going to be present. I mentioned in another comment reply that Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh came close too. As for Tom Cruise as Frank T.J. Mackey, yes, he was definitely among those that barely missed. I considered Cruise for both Magnolia and Jerry Maguire, and in fact I had a finalized write-up for the latter performance ready-to-go, but it got cut in the end.

      Regarding Mackey specifically, I think this is the thing that led me to keep him off. As fantastic as Cruise is in that part – and he really is – my feeling is that it’s such a phenomenally written role that any decent actor would have hit a home run with it. That’s not to say that anybody could have played it, because it still requires a certain intensity and a certain type of presence that Cruise has. John Cusack, for example, couldn’t have played that part, great as he is. But…give it to Sean Penn, or Philip Seymour Hoffman (who was already in the movie, of course), or Christian Bale or Sam Rockwell (both would have been too young at the time, but I’m just trying to make a point) and I think it would have been as amazing a performance as it was in Cruise’s hands. So, being forced to make tough calls as to what I would and wouldn’t include, that’s why Mackey missed.

      Now…I readily admit that if we were to start going through the 100 that I did feature, we would find examples where I completely contradict myself; performances that are so well written or conceived that they would have been sensational in other hands as well. That’s probably true. But all I can say is that with the role of Mackey, it’s always been something I’ve thought about….probably going back to the Oscar race that year and my feeling that Haley Joel Osment deserved to win because he, more so than any of his fellow nominees including Cruise and ultimate winner Michael Caine, was irreplaceable.

      So…I’m sure that doesn’t soften the blow of Mackey’s absence, but that’s my justification. I do feel a bit guilty for not including it (as I feel about many others, as well), but to borrow your own description, I definitely agree that it’s a masterstroke. One of Cruise’s best performances, and the best thing about Magnolia (with John C. Reilly’s performance a close second…and he was considered for the list too).

      Comment by DB — July 22, 2012 @ 2:25 pm | Reply

      • Interesting methodology by which you eliminated Mackey. I see what you’re saying about someone else maybe playing the role just as well (Bale would kill it, I’m sure, and I can see McConaughey as Mackey, too), whereas someone like Osment was definitely irreplaceable. But when you just look at the performance itself, Cruise did everything he needed to and positively, unforgettably nailed it, so I wouldn’t have held any extraneous factors against him. And Mackey is such a unique creation, too — unlike anyone else on this list — which adds a certain heft to the performance. But it’s not my list, so you’re entitled to make cuts however you see fit.

        As for Jerry Maguire, he’s good in that role, but I think that’s totally something where a bunch of dudes could put forth a reasonably similar performance. Cruise is way more valuable to Mackey than he is to Maguire. If they made that movie in 2012 it’d be, like, Ryan Reynolds.

        Comment by Ryan C. — August 3, 2012 @ 6:35 pm | Reply

  8. great show db! i feel like you saved the best for last. lots of great stuff here, including arguable my favorite performance, male or female, of the last 25 – frances mcdormand wonderful role as margie.
    kevin kline – nuff said.
    martin landau, “alright, let’s shoot this fucker!”
    benecio, wonderfully subtle performance.

    trying to think who i would add (i’m not as good at recalling this kinda stuff – have to check the interwebs).
    definitely would add duvall for the apostle and notle for affliction. i’d swap eastwick for schmidt for nicholson. ohh, of course, nic cage for raising arizona! maybe laura dern for wild at heart (or her mom). geoffrey rush in shine. hoffman for wag the dog (“this is nothing!”). kathleen turner, william hurt, and especially geena davis for accidental tourist. i think someone else mentioned malkovich for ‘in the line of fire’ and i’d have to agree.
    i recall stockard channing being really good in six degrees of separation, but it’s been a while since i saw that.
    oh yea, glengarry. gosh, i gotta just give a honorable mention to everyone who starred in it (think about it, kevin spacey is over shadowed by like five other actors in that movie – that’s how deep the talent was!).

    Comment by ggears — July 21, 2012 @ 3:00 am | Reply

    • I acknowledge that Nicholson gives a better performance in About Schmidt, but while that movie – like all Alexander Payne movies – is so good, it’s not as special to me, and the list was of course a combination of performances that I respect or admire but also ones that have stayed with me in a major way. When I watch Nicholson in Schmidt, I’m totally into it, but I’ve never carried it around with me, if you know what I mean.

      I came very close to putting Jack Lemmon on the list for Glengarry Glen Ross. I had his paragraph party written. The thing is, much of this exercise was, admittedly, really arbitrary. I could probably take 20 of the included performances, swap them out for a different 20, and be just as satisfied with the result. In some cases, it literally came down to whether or not I was able to come up with decent commentary. I think in Lemmon’s case, I could never figure out what I wanted to say…and since he wasn’t in that Absolutely Has To Be Here space, I let him go in favor of something for which I was better able to articulate my feelings.

      I also considered doing an offshoot of this list – sort of like a sidebar in a magazine article – that would have been Top 10 One Scene Wonders – actors who just have one or two scenes but leave a hugely lasting impression. And top of that list would have been Alec Baldwin in Glengarry. Other considerations for that were Christopher Walken for True Romance (and Pulp Fiction, I suppose), Bill Murray for Little Shop of Horrors and Billy Crystal for The Princess Bride.

      Funny you should mention Wild at Heart, because I caught the first half hour or so of that on HBO during this week of publishing the series, and had that thought of regret about both Dern and Diane Ladd. I do love Dern in that movie. Cage in Raising Arizona is also a really good call.

      Shamefully, I’ve still never seen The Accidental Tourist.

      Comment by DB — July 22, 2012 @ 2:44 pm | Reply

  9. Here are a few others that I might have included:

    Parker Posey – take your pick, but I’d probably take The Daytrippers
    Matthew McConaghuey – Dazed and Confused
    Rory Cochrane – Dazed and Confused
    Diane Wiest – Bullets Over Broadway
    James Spader – Sex, Lies, and Videotape
    Robert DeNiro – Cape Fear
    Judy Davis – Husbands and Wives
    Matt Damon – The Talented Mr. Ripley
    Peter Dinklage – The Station Agent (I’m surprised you left this one off)
    John Turturro – Quiz Show
    Randy Quaid – Kingpin
    Chris Cooper – Lone Star
    Jack Lemmon – Short Cuts
    Stanley Tucci – Big Night
    Julianne Moore – Boogie Nights

    Comment by Alan Burnce — July 21, 2012 @ 9:42 am | Reply

    • Yup, lots of good choices there. Julianne Moore came close, for both Boogie Nights and Big Lebowski. Jack Lemmon too, but for Glengarry Glen Ross. But you remind me that I did think of his Short Cuts performance for that One Scene Wonders list I mentioned in the previous comment reply.

      McConaughey in Dazed and Confused definitely crossed my mind, as did DeNiro for Cape Fear (and Juliette Lewis for the same).

      Peter Dinklage…good call. Much as I adore The Station Agent and its three central performances, I didn’t really consider any of them for this. Now if Game of Thrones was a movie and not a TV show (and if it came out prior to 2008), Dinklage would have been a sure thing.

      Great call also on Chris Cooper for Lone Star and Stanley Tucci for Big Night. Both excellent, excellent movies.

      Comment by DB — July 22, 2012 @ 2:52 pm | Reply

  10. Great concluding part to really great posts, some many amazing performances and some that I stil need to see.

    Comment by vinnieh — July 22, 2012 @ 9:42 am | Reply

  11. I think I wrote it on one of your other pages, but Christopher Reeves as Superman. That is pushing the 25ish years, but “ish” right? I can see why it’s not a performance commonly on a list like this, but it does always strike me how completely he defines that role and how he well he covered the two characters that make up the role.

    I am horrified that DeNiro in Raging Bull is not on here. Again 25 “ish” years right? As a result, I may have to go Jake LaMotta on you the next time we get coffee at Starbucks. I feel as though there are performances on this list that I’d knock off in favor of Raging Bull, but that’s the difference b/t my list and yours!

    Finally, since you mentioned the thought of “Top 10 One Scene Wonders,” the first thing this reminds me of is Christopher Walken, not in True Romance or Pulp Fiction, but Annie Hall (I’m all about pushing the 25 “ish” year limit). I wonder if that’s how you can define Walken’s career, with one scene wonders.

    Comment by Daniel — July 24, 2012 @ 7:53 am | Reply

    • Hmm…I’m guessing you didn’t read the preamble, or you’d understand why it was “25ish” years. The list covers movies from the 25 year period of 1983-2008. But since I’m publishing it in 2012, I couldn’t say “the last 25 years.” So…Raging Bull is ineligible. But rest assured, it would be here if 1980 were fair game. The time period also eliminated Superman and Superman II. Superman III was 1983, and Christopher Reeve does get to do that great, evil Superman bit in that movie alongside his usual charming heroics. But I don’t think he crossed my mind as I was putting this all together.

      Comment by DB — July 24, 2012 @ 10:39 am | Reply


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