Mike’s Favorite Male Lead Performances of the Decade (100-91)

I make ‘favorite performance’ lists every year, and I get that these lists, more than the rest, are the most subjective one can make. Because it’s really about what you see in each performance and what you respond to; There’s no objective way to truly rate a performance as better than another. With whole films, it feels easier to make that distinction. So with these lists, I’m just gonna focus on some performances from the decade that I really, really enjoyed, and the goal here is just to shout them out and maybe get some people to watch the films if they hadn’t or reevaluate each of the performances the next time they watch the films.

We’re starting with male lead performances, and there was certainly no shortages of those to choose from this decade.

100. Christopher Plummer, Remember

Christopher Plummer is one of those actors everyone is appreciating much more as he gets older. And he’s turned in some great performances over the past 15 years — The Last Staton, Beginners, All the Money in the World, Knives Out — but it’s this movie that remains the biggest hidden gem and perhaps his best performance.

It’s a Hitchcockian thriller about a man with dementia living in a retirement home with his wife. When his wife dies, a fellow resident, Martin Landau, reminds him what they talked about before he got dementia: they were both prisoners at Auschwitz when they were younger. A sadistic prison guard murdered both of their families and then fled to the United States under an assumed name. There are only four people living under that name in the country, so he promised Landau (who is in a wheelchair and unable to travel) that he’d go find out which one of those people is the man they’re looking for and kill him. So you’ve got this 85 year old guy with dementia traveling around the country, having to reread this letter he carries with him like it’s Memento and go find out who the guy is that murdered their families during the Holocaust and kill him.

It’s a fantastic movie, and Plummer is absolutely terrific in it. It’s one of those movies where, the less said, the better, because the journey is so good. But trust me when I say, it’s one of the great hidden gems of the decade and features an absolutely terrific Christopher Plummer performance (though what doesn’t).

99. Nicolas Cage, Army of One

I don’t think anyone knows about this movie. That is, unless you’ve met me, and heard me talk about this movie constantly from the minute they announced it.

It’s a movie based on Gary Faulkner, a regular dude with no real military skills who decides he’s gonna go to Afghanistan and capture Osama bin Laden. It’s the most insane story. So of course they got Nicolas Cage to do it. And Larry Charles directs, which is also perfect. Here’s all you need to know. Watch this video of the real Gary on Letterman and then just imagine the things Nicolas Cage can do with that character. And know that he does.

When Nicolas Cage is motivated, the performances are really something to behold. And this performance is something else. He is, as one always says about him at his best, committed. He just gives everything he needs to this performance and the result is absolute hilarity. Not everyone is a fan of Cage, I get that, but for those who are, you absolutely want to see this movie.

98. Mark Ruffalo Infinitely Polar Bear

Terrific indie written and directed by Maya Forbes, based on her childhood and her own father. Ruffalo stars as a man with bipolar disorder who had a breakdown and is now trying to rehabilitate himself and go back to being a husband and father. And the film is about his disorder and its strain both on himself and his family. It’s a terrific performance, which we’ve come to expect out of Ruffalo, who is just one of those actors who makes things look effortless. To the point where sometimes you wonder if he’s even acting at all. But when you go back and rewatch his performances, you realize the amount of great work and detail that went into them.

97. Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl

Say what you will about the film (and people do and have), but there’s no denying Redmayne’s performance. He commits, and he’s there to bring every ounce of authenticity to this role as he can. It’s a quiet, beautiful performance that accomplishes a lot without grand, showy gestures. If there’s anything negative you can say about the performance, it’s that the film lets him down at times. But he’s there the entire way.

96. Tom Hardy, Legend

Two Tom Hardys for the price of one. He plays the Kray Twins, which just gives him the ability to go absolutely nuts and do crazy shit. It’s wonderful. If you’re willing to watch Tom Hardy in anything, this is the movie for you. Because it’s actually quite good, it’s written and directed by Brian Helgeland (who wrote L.A. Confidential and directed one of my favorite movies, Payback, as well as 42, the Jackie Robinson movie) and is one of those movies that you go in expecting the Hardy performance to be the only reason it’s worth watching but actually get something really solid out of the deal.

95. Nicolas Cage, Mandy

There’s Nic Cage again. He spent a lot of this decade doing forgettable VOD fare, with occasional worthwhile films and performances thrown in, but this is the one everyone agrees on. Because, the key with him is, even if the movie is schlock, if he has a director with a vision, who can rein in his chaos and let him channel it properly, the results are magical. And he and Panos Cosmatos were made for each other. Cosmatos takes a simple revenge story and makes it an acid trip of epic proportions. And Cage is willing to match it, dialing himself up to 11 at the right times, particularly in the scene pictured above, which is a wordless scene that features him entering a bathroom in his underwear, pulling out a bottle of liquor, swigging it and then beginning to scream and cry uncontrollably for about 60-90 straight seconds. It’s…. everything I want when I watch a Nic Cage movie.

94. Matt Damon, Ford v Ferrari

I love Damon in this movie. It’s funny because he is the lead, but somehow it doesn’t feel like his movie. It’s him and Bale, but the movie is clearly his in a lot of ways. And he’s really great here. He’s one of those actors who you maybe take for granted because he’s so consistently good that you don’t notice the great work he’s doing. And the great thing about this performance is that he shows you the great driver, the guy who is committed to his craft and the guy who can talk his way around anything… but then there’s the quiet moments that you don’t necessarily pay attention to. Bale wakes up in the middle of the night before the big race and goes to the track to calm his nerves. Damon’s already there. He’s probably been there for hours. That’s the kind of stuff that really fills in the gaps to this character and makes it one of the great performances of Damon’s career.

93. John Cusack, Love and Mercy

I love this movie and I wish more people know how amazing it was. It’s a biopic of Brian Wilson, told during two periods of his life: the Pet Sounds era of the late 60s, and the 80s, post mental-breakdown, when he was under the control of his psychiatrist who ran his life. Cusack plays older Wilson in those scenes, and he’s just wonderful. It’s the best I’ve seen him in years. And admittedly, most of us haven’t really seen him in years. But he reminds us here of what a great actor he is. The brilliance of the performances in this movie is that the two actors playing Wilson (Cusack and Paul Dano) look nothing alike. And you know what? Doesn’t matter. They’re both so good that you don’t even care. Because the feel is there. Everything about this movie is underrated, and that starts with the performances.

92. Ryan Gosling, The Nice Guys

Sure, it’s Ryan Gosling doing the Ryan Gosling thing… but here he’s doing it with Shane Black dialogue! Sometimes it’s not about having to show something new or go hardcore method into something… sometimes just being awesome is enough. And this performance is awesome.

91. Daniel Craig, Skyfall

The Craig Bond movies have always been marked by a seriousness to the acting that you hadn’t seen in the franchise before. The Connery movies were always about style, the Moore movies were always kinda funny, the Brosnan movies were always kind of sly and cocky, and no one really remembers the Lazenby or Dalton eras. Craig was always the Bond that infused a level of emotion to the performance. From his first film, he falls in love and then watches her die. And then his second film, he’s out for revenge. So now, this third film, you’ve got something you haven’t really had in the franchise before — continuity.

Quantum of Solace began moments after Casino Royale ended and was essentially a wrapping up of that story. Here, they do something you haven’t seen in Bond before (even when Roger Moore was pushing 60!) — aging. Bond is older. He’s lost a step. His body is breaking down. There’s real doubt he’s gonna be able to get through this mission. He’s vulnerable. And Craig leans into that. He’s physically and emotionally scarred. He’s still Bond. He’s still picking up women and still making quips and still kicking ass. But there’s a fragility there you never saw with other Bond actors. Plus… the film gets into his backstory. The finale takes place at his childhood home. He loses his mother figure. Craig is really incredible in this movie. He’s great in all of them, but this one in particular is where the performance is really elevated from the level we’d expect to get out of one of these movies.

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