Our (Belated) Best Male Performances of the Decade

1. Daniel Day-Lewis- There Will Be Blood– Towering doesn’t even begin to describe Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic deconstruction of the American Dream.  He commands the screen with a ferociousness and method that makes him peerless among other living screen actors.  As Daniel Plainview, he creates a vision of greed as a replacement for love that is ferocious, haunting, and uncompromising.  Though Anderson was the visionary behind the camera, it would not have come to full fruition without the help of Day-Lewis.  Who else could belch the line “I drink your milkshake!” and make it sound like the coming of the apocalypse? Key Scene- In a three hour movie where he appears in every scene, it’s hard to choose one.  In the end, I decided between two confrontations between Plainview and the preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano).  The infamous “milkshake” scene actually takes second place the the excruciating baptism Plainview is ordered to endure to get the land he wants.  Now in Sunday’s arena, he is forced to pay for the sins of his past, namely humiliating the preacher by smacking him around in the dirt.  Now getting the sin slapped out of him and water thrown in his face in front of the whole congregation, Plainview loses that ever-important control.  In a surprising release of emotion, he appears to reach out to the son he abandoned.  Whether he likes it or not,  he’s been gotten to, and there will be… well, you get the idea.

2. Heath Ledger- The Dark Knight– A short-lived career bore many fruits for the late, great Ledger.  His performance in The Dark Knight won him a rare posthumous Oscar, though he would win the award almost any year he was nominated.  Nolan’s realistic retelling of Batman called on a new take for the Clown Prince of Crime, and Ledger answered with a vengeance.  Wielding a smile carved into his face, chipped paint, and mangy hair, he managed to create a definitive image of an already legendary character.  It’s an unforgettable performance that will haunt you forever.  Key Scene- The best scene in the entire movie is when Joker and Batman muse in a grim prison interrogation.  Ledger is terrifyingly real in the scene, laughing  as Bale’s Batman pummels him.  “You have nothing!  Nothing to do with all your strength!” he bellows.  It’s one of the best movie scenes in years thanks to his artistic dedication to this larger-than-life villain.

3. Andy Serkis- Lord of the Rings– Forget any other upset regarding The Dark Knight, Brokeback Mountain or Avatar. The biggest disgrace the Academy has to live with is not nominating the greatest motion capture performance of all-time, which is Andy Serkis’s iconic role as Gollum in Lord of the Rings. His role quite possibly posed one of the greatest challenges for modern filmmakers. First the Gollum character would have to look and feel visually convincing, and secondly he would have to be one of the most developed and conflicted characters in the film, a first for CGI. Andy Serkis, with his peculiar, snidely facial features, stepped into the skin of Gollum and created a whole new life form that was equally visually masterful as it was convincing and heartfelt. Key Scene- In the opening sequence for Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, the character of Gollum first discovering the ring in human form begins to show a crucial transformation of the character as well as the power of the ring. Here Serkis demonstrates the most animalistic, slimy and cruel characteristics of mankind and of creature in the most shocking scene in the film.

4. Heath Ledger- Brokeback Mountain– Heath Ledger’s legacy will always be remembered for his Oscar winning performance in The Dark Knight, but Nolan would have never scouted Ledger without seeing his work in Brokeback Mountain and knowing instantly that this was his guy to redefine the iconic Joker. With perfect reason too; in Brokeback Mountain he plays Ennis Del Mar, a gruff cowboy seeking work as a ranch hand who falls deeply in love with Jack Twist, another farm hand working with Del Mar for the season. It seems like a gimmick role for an Oscar hungry actor, but that is not Ledger. Using every muscle to control his facial expressions and voice, he loses himself into the role in a Meryl Streep or Daniel Day-Lewis kind of way, where we forget who he is as an actor and lose ourselves in one of the most heartbreaking forbidden love stories of all time. Key Scene- After a long absence, the old “fishing buddies” are reacquainted for first time since their time on Brokeback Mountain. Dashing out of the house where his wife is perching, Ennis runs to meet Jack and quickly takes him behind the stairwell for a passionate, intense kiss that freezes time. For the first time in the movie you really believe their love and you believe it more powerfully and authentically than any other screen romance. Like Jack says, “It’s so magic.”

5. Mickey Rourke- The Wrestler- Like the beer and drugs Randy “the Ram” Robinson uses to heal his broken bones and bruises from a lifetime of battered hardships, America is similarly addicted to comeback stories, especially when it comes to the male sports superstar. Rourke takes the tired, fixated characterization of the character to a whole new place and time. Instead of putting a breath of fresh air into the role, he takes all the air out, making Randy a weary, worn down, hopeless, more real version of Mickey Rourke himself. Key Scene Newly reacquainted with his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) who has disowned him for years, Randy apologizes to her at an old run down seaside boardwalk where he confesses, “I’m an old broken down piece of meat, and I just don’t want you to hate me.” The line, delivered with shocking realism and quiet intensity is raw emotion from a stone solid man. It is heartbreaking and sums up the whole character.


6. Sacha Baron Cohen- Borat– America didn’t know what to think when this Kazakh reporter hit the shores.  Baron Cohen, one of comedy’s few method actors, completely embodies his character.  It’s more to his credit that he’s encountering real people, so not only does he come up with material on the spot, he does it from the perspective of his character.  He exposes American intolerance and ignorance with his own wily comedic form of it. Key Scene- Borat arrives at a rodeo, and after exposing a rodeo guy who thinks homosexuals should be hung from trees, he struts onto the field and begins to sing the Kazakh national anthem to the tune of the American one.  It’s a terrifically offensive scene.  That Baron Cohen didn’t break character even as the crowd was ready to filet him is astonishing.

7. Sean Penn- Milk– Sure, Penn has the physical resemblance to the first openly gay politician.  But to the surprise of everyone, he could develop a character that smiles and does drama.  Not since his hilarious turn in Fast Times at Ridgemont High has Sean Penn grinned so much on camera.  His uncanny performance as Harvey Milk carries Gus van Sant’s visionary political drama to the semi-tragic finish line with gusto.  Key Scene- Nothing beats watching a man predict his own death.  Several times throughout the film we are shown clips of Milk speaking into a recording device, addressing the flock of mourners in the event of his assassination.  The haunting look on his face is one of the few times he doesn’t greet a problem with a sly smirk, and those two elements clashing bring out the diverse, three-dimensional brilliance of Penn’s performance.

8. Daniel Day-Lewis- Gangs of New York– He won his Oscar in There Will Be Blood for his iconic Daniel Plainview, but in a movie that recreated history as epically and brilliantly he played a role as villainous, nasty, dirty and riveting. In Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, Day-Lewis landmarks Bill the Butcher into a ferocious gang boss as concrete and cold as the New York streets. It is essential Daniel Day-Lewis, the kind of role where you can smell the dirt on his costume, see his fuming alcohol ridden breath and feel the cruel tension he emits so delicately. Key Scene- With ease Lewis wraps his immigrant, black-hating, America-loving body into an American flag after a night of drinking and sex in celebration of his life being saved by Amsterdam. Rocking in a chair, watching Amsterdam sleep next to Bill’s lover, Bill gives Amsterdam a speech about how fear preserves order.


9. Phillip Seymour Hoffman- Capote– Phillip Seymour Hoffman broke through the supporting roof glass ceiling with his Oscar-winning turn as acclaimed non-fiction novelist Truman Capote.  The film follows his journey into the depths of small town  murder as he writes his masterpiece In Cold Blood.  Hoffman not only captures the essence of his character, but goes beyond the call of cheap imitation into the heart of a very complicated and conflicted man. Key Scene- Capote interviewing one of the inmates, who assumes Capote is trying to get him set free.  The depth of coverage in the interviews does form an eerie and unlikely kinship between the characters, but the author later confides in his friend that if the inmates don’t die, he doesn’t have a book.

10. Javier Bardem- No Country for Old Men– Even with relatively few lines or major speaking parts, Javier Barden’s Anton Chigurh in the Cohen Brother’s No Country for Old Men is a character of major importance.  Not since Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lector has there been a more chilling, mesmerizing villain in film. Chigurh is about as ruthless and stoned faced at they come, leaving the lives of his victims in the hands of their own fate, making them call heads or tails on a coin before deciding whether to punch a hole in theml. In a film with no soundtrack or speaking to score the mood and character, it is all left up to the careful direction of the Coen brothers and Bardem to provide tension, mystery, and emotions necessary to make the script come to life.  What is left unsaid is completely spoken for in heart stopping silence or cold-blooded stares that provide lifelessness and evil that goes beyond words. Key scene At a stop in a convenience store with an elderly man sitting behind the counter, Chigurh asks the man, “What’s the most you’ve ever lost in a coin toss?”

11. Clint Eastwood- Gran Torino– In his self proclaimed last acting role, Clint Eastwood holds nothing back. As an ignorant, racist old Ford retiree and military vet, Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, who hides his discontent for the world about as well as he hides his gun, slamming down Pabst on his front porch cursing away the Vietnamese (“Gooks” he affectionately calls them) that have invaded his old Detroit neighborhood. But don’t let the stone, grim face fool you.  Underneath the shocking, sometimes even hilarious racist remarks, intense glares and ruffs there is a man of deep compassion and love. Walt is a complex character because of the symbolism which he endows, which is the old America meeting the new America. Key scene- It takes the very end of the movie for the audience to be surprised by Walt’s character. In that scene, the messages of the film, the character’s motives and intelligence all start to come through and the audience seems him in whole new light. It is here Walt stands (or falls) for the very basic principles he originally bestowed and now revitalized with his new outlook. It is powerful and heartbreaking and is played with every bit of class and excellence a veteran actor and filmmaker with the status of Clint Eastwood would.

12. Jack Nicholson- The Departed- Jack Nicholson, in a career full of crazy, psychotic, compelling and intensely hilarious roles puts on his gangster shades and teams up with the best in the business, Martin Scorsese, for one of the decade’s best films, The Departed. Frank Costello is the last of a dying breed in Boston. With technology, the FBI and the times catching up on the Irish mob, business gets harder and dirtier. Luckily Jack puts something extra into the role to avoid clichés and tired conventions that go along with the role. Spastic, irrational, annoyed and perverted, he has a liveliness and lavishness that makes him an indelible character. Key scene­- When Frank begins to get weary of a “rat” infiltrating his operation, he sits down Leonardo DiCaprio’s Billy Costigan, who actually is a rat. His neurosis and annoyance is equally hilarious as it is endearing in a way, that is at least due to his good ole’ Jack Nicholson facial expressions. It is truly believable and twists and sums up just how he handles the stress of the job.


13. Russell Crowe- Gladiator– It could be one of the most iconic performances on the list, depending on how well Heath Ledger’s Joker ages with a decades worth of time. As Maximus, Crowe is a humble, honest and noble Roman general who is set to take over the empire but refuses. Once a new prince takes the throne, his family is murdered and he is enslaved as a gladiator. From there Maximus redeems his name with new vengeance, humbleness and honesty that drives Rome wild to join his campaign. Crowe uses the best of his abilities, his body, his lowered and softened voice and his inner heroism to deliver a convincing performance to a hungry crowd that is worthy of a standing ovation. Key scene Nothing sums up the dedication and cooled emotion Crowe put into the performance better than the final scene when Maximus squares off against the slimy prince in a nerve tightening final battle scene that blends action with the sentiments of his past. Entertained indeed.

14. Casey Affleck- The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford– There is something brilliant about the way Casey Affleck is able to play Robert Ford. So easily, effortlessly and uncomfortably for us is he able to play a thieving, jealous ridden and obsessed admirer of the legend Jesse James (Brad Pitt).  It might have something to do with him living under his own shadow of the brother to actor more famous than himself, one that he might believe (and rightfully so) he has more talent than, or it might be for the simple fact that Casey Affleck posses a set of qualities which allow him bury himself within a character. Gone Baby Gone is equally as good, and he is as equally good in it, but the characterization he undergoes is far superior in this film, and far superior to many other performances in the decade. With the slightest controls in his voice, eyes or movements, his reserved and tortured nature makes him explosive yet a weak push over. Key scene- When Jesse is invited to the Ford family’s home for dinner one night, Robert’s brothers push him to talk about his grotesquely obsessive fascination with Jesse. Not wanting the attention or to be put on the spot about such personal things, Robert goes into a child like fit and then proceeds to let his dark secrets pour out of him in a deadening silent room. It’s painful to watch.


15. Paul Giamatti- Sideways– One of the decade’s finest comedies, and comedic ensembles, could be found in Alexander Payne’s Sideways. Leading that crew is the revelatory Giamatti as Miles.  A divorced loser, Miles teaches English after failing to achieve fame as an author.  Giamatti brings touching grace notes to his complicated character, but also isn’t afraid to delve into his dark side.  It sounds as if this is a dramatic character, but there is pitch-black humor in almost everything he does.  Key Scene- When his free-spirited friend Jack talks to an annoyed Miles outside of a restaurant, it becomes hilariously evident how deep both his inner rage and love of wine go.  “I’m not drinking any fucking merlot!” he screams as if it were just suggested to him that he gut a small child.  Giamatti digs deeper than most would into a comedic role, and it shines because of it.

Be sure to check out our other Best of the Decade Features:

Our (Belated) Best Movies of the Decade

Our (Belated) Best Female Performances of the Decade

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6 thoughts on “Our (Belated) Best Male Performances of the Decade

  1. Great list although it is mostly composed of the somewhat over-flamboyant and flashy type of performances which tend to call the most attention on this kind of list. Loved all of the picks and I can’t complain with any of them 😉

  2. DDL taking two spots here, nice. Gangs doesn’t do anythign for me but still you can’t deny DDL’s great work in…well anything. To commemorate, I think I’ll get a milkshake at lunch:) DRAIIIINAGE!!
    Hated Sideways but Giamatti is always awesome. Got some Crowe love here, good, good. Also like the Ledger double dip here…and no that’s not an innuendo:P Joker was just spellbinding and fascinating. Bardem and Rourke, again great choices. Fine job Matt!

    • Even if Gangs isn’t your gig, I guess its just bonus points for such a great performance in TWBB. Haha, I had a milkshake last night as well, not to celebrate, but because I had wisdom teeth out… totally wanted to make the reference but my dad was the only one around and had not seen it 😦

      Matt and I both tackled this list, and the other two decade ones actually, using a combined system to make it have a little more perspective, even though our lists had the same number one spots each time and were very similar. We split the write ups too, it was so much fun!

  3. maybe i need to see Brokeback Mountain again, but to me i found Gyllenhaal better than Ledger, particularly as he had the harder role. Ledger played the sullen, silent type, which means you uh, have to look sullen and silent. he was good in it, i just didnt think he was completely great.
    on Giamatti, Sideways is a film i have always hated since i saw it in my early 20s. but i caught a bit of it the other night and i gotta say, i did enjoy it, maybe im getting middle aged. Giamatti is class. that bit where he throws the wine over himself is great
    can i nominate Jim Carrey in Me Myself and Irene for this list?

  4. Pingback: Five movies to watch alone « CyniCritics

  5. IMO, Milk isn’t even Sean Penn’s best performance this decade, that belongs to his role in Mystic River. Hell, even The Assassination of Richard Nixon was a better performance. I’m not hating on the guy, in fact it just goes to show you how great of an actor he really is.

    And no love for Ryan Gosling in Half Nelson? Or how about Joaquin Phoenix in Gladiator?

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