Gargantuan doesn’t even begin to describe a Daniel Day-Lewis performance. One of the greatest living actors, if not the greatest, he towers over other actors of his generation with a surreal dedication to his roles. Known as a definitive method actor, he stays in character from the time a movie starts shooting until the time it finishes production. This practice has won him 2 Oscars out of four nominations. He only does a project when he can truly commit himself to the grueling experience he goes through to prepare, which is why we don’t see him every year. When we do though, it’s one goddamn hell of a show.
There Will Be Blood
Day-Lewis’ greatest performance is also one of the best in movie history. As oil tycoon and consummate asshole Daniel Plainview, he gives us a Charles Foster Kane for the modern age. Guided by the artful direction of Paul Thomas Anderson, Day-Lewis holds the screen for nearly three hours, never once losing his footing. He bellows “I drink your milkshake!” at the movie’s end like it’s the coming of the apocalypse. His seething anger erupts like a tapped oil reserve lit ablaze, only there’s no way to put it out.
Gangs of New York
Another period drama, another personification of the American Dream run amok- Day-Lewis’ performance in Scorsese’s brutal drama is somehow different enough from There Will Be Blood to still make it on this list. The New York accent, the glint in his eye, and the damaged, broken soul beneath the gruff are all masterful touches on a character that could’ve been played as sheer evil. Instead, Bill the Butcher becomes what all of the scariest movie villains are: distinctly human.
The Last of the Mohicans
This is Day-Lewis’ most famous performance even if it was him before his hay-day. In Michael Mann’s superbly crafted action film, he plays big-screen action hero with the off-beat dedication you don’t get from most actors. Watch him have a ball darting across the battlefield to rescue Cora, his true love. You can tell he prepared for weeks just so he could these scenes himself, and that he actually enjoyed it.
In this cautionary tale skewering McCarthyism, Day-Lewis shows the human element as John Proctor. When his wife is accused of being a witch during the Salem Witch Trials, Proctor squares off with Abigail Williams (Winona Ryder) over her actions. Williams loves Proctor, and holds the town in a trance as she plays innocent and pretends to see the witch. As the movie moves along to its searing conclusion, he has perhaps the finest moment of his career as he decides whether he will confess to the crime or protect his family name.
My Left Foot
Day-Lewis won his first Oscar and the Hollywood spotlight for his portrayal of Christy Brown, a paraplegic who makes his living drawing with… his left foot. Boring biopic, maybe, but there’s no doubting that he went the extra mile to become this man. Many Oscars for portraying real-life people are undeserved, but Daniel Day-Lewis earns ever last trophy he got for it.
Other notable performances: Nine, The Boxer, The Ballad of Jack and Rose, and In the Name of the Father.