Mike’s Favorite Male Lead Performances of the Decade (90-81)

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.

90. Richard Gere, Norman

Richard Gere has made a career the past twenty years of doing these hidden gem indies and delivering fantastic performances along the way. The Hoax, The Hunting Party, Arbitrage, Time Out of Mind. And this. The subtitle for this movie is The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer. Which is a wonderful subtitle.

He plays a wheeler-dealer, who is always trying to meet people and put people together and make things happen. He’s the guy that tells you he has a great idea and is friends with everyone and just sort of makes things up along as he goes, just trying to get something to stick so he can get somewhere. When you see the film, you’ll know the character within minutes. And it turns out, one of the guys he meets/helps turns out to eventually become Prime Minister of Israel. So for once he actually does have a friend in a high place. And maybe his life might actually turn around for once.

It’s a really solid film and Gere is fantastic in it. He’s low-key been turning in great performances for years and maybe once a decade the populace at large will see or hear about one of them and actually see it.

89. Paul Dano, Love and Mercy

The other half of the Brian Wilson coin. John Cusack already made an appearance on the list as older Brian and now we have Dano as younger Brian. The younger version is the trickier role, as you get to see the walls start to crumble en route to the breakdown. He’s got some really wonderful scenes and gives probably the performance of his career.

88. Mark Ruffalo, Dark Waters

Three flags here — one, the movie itself is just hugely underrated and underseen. Second flag, it’s a trial movie, and so often do the leads in trial movies get respectful notices but never really get the praise they deserve for what they bring to it. Third flag, Mark Ruffalo, an actor who never seems to command the proper respect for the level of performance he brings to every single one of his films.

The film was a labor of love for him, eventually getting made with Todd Haynes (yes, that Todd Haynes. See what I mean about this movie not being properly seen?). It’s about the lawyer who discovered that Du Pont had been knowingly poisoning people with stuff like Teflon and just covered it up and kept doing it because profits were up. And we’ve all seen these big trial movies before — the lawyer usually has a successful career, then meets that one person who convinces them to go along with their morals over their desire for profit, and then they work hard and slowly start uncovering the truths and then have to fight against the powerful corporation who wants to protect their margins.

This is exactly that. And usually, it takes a movie star to handle that central performance. Because you need to be fully aligned with them and sort of not really paying attention to them so much as paying attention to what the movie is trying to tell you. So in a way, I get it. But also… Mark Ruffalo is really fucking good in this movie. The movie’s designed not to get you to really notice his performance (and he’s not a showy actor on top of that), but man… watch this movie twice. First for the content and then for him. What he does here is really spectacular and it’s a shame he and the film didn’t get the recognition they deserved.

87. Willem Dafoe, At Eternity’s Gate

It’s Willem Dafoe playing Vincent Van Gogh for Julian Schnabel. What do you expect? Dafoe’s always great, he gets a great role and a film that’s just this beautiful series of dreamlike vignettes rather than a solid narrative, which are just wonderful and allows Dafoe to really make the most out of the character.

86. Ben Foster, Leave No Trace

A nice hidden gem, and yet another actor who never seems to get the credit he deserves for turning in great performance after great performance. Foster is incredible here as a man with severe PTSD who is unable to live in society, so he’s been living in the wilderness of a national forest with his daughter. And when they eventually get caught, he struggles to readapt to society, even as his daughter begins to find her place there. He’s… just astounding. And the film is really terrific too.

85. Tom Hardy, Locke

This entire movie is basically the Tom Hardy show. The whole thing is him, in a car, on a drive. That’s it. That’s the film. It takes place entirely in the car. He drives, and through a series of phone calls we slowly figure out where he’s going and what’s going on. It’s a fantastic film and only works because the performance works. If you don’t fully believe him and don’t find what he’s doing interesting, then that’s it. The movie’s over. But this movie is just terrific because he keeps you engaged throughout the entire drive.

84. Brad Pitt, Fury

I love this recent era Brad Pitt that learned silence and stillness. It started really with Assassination of Jesse James, continued on through Moneyball and this. It works perfectly here, because while he does get to be the hard-nosed tank commander, you also get those quiet moments where he really drives home the amount of shit this guy’s seen and the toll its taking on him whenever he allows himself to let down his guard for a minute. It’s a terrific performance that often goes overlooked because the film is just a badass war movie and tends to favor action over performance.

83. Bruce Dern, Nebraska

It’s funny that Bruce Dern has been around forever. Dude worked with Hitchcock! And also he’s one of those dudes who feels like he’s been old for thirty years. You know what I mean? But this might end up being the definitive performance of his career. He’s so wonderful here.

It’s almost a quintessentially Alexander Payne film, which is funny because this is the one film Payne didn’t write himself. It’s a father-son story about a son who accompanies his father on a trip to collect what he says is his winnings from the Publisher’s Clearinghouse. And it becomes this wonderful journey into the past, as the father travels to the town where he grew up, sees family members he hasn’t seen in years and bonds with his son in ways he never had before. Dern is incredible here. Especially in that scene pictured, where he visits the house where he grew up.

82. Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game

One of those movies that was really liked at the time but as exponentially been forgotten as we get further away from it. Go back and watch it, and you’ll realize it’s better than you remember. It’s a film about Alan Turing, his life and his help in breaking the Enigma code in World War II. And Cumberbatch is terrific here. Particularly in the scenes that get into Turing’s personal life, his homosexuality and the struggle he faces to get by in everyday society. I’m not sure why we all just sort of forgotten about this movie, but it’s really good, and he’s really good in it.

81. Chris Pine, Hell or High Water

Chris Pine is one of those actors, to me at least, who came up as a movie star with good looks, so I never quite took his acting that seriously for a while. And it was performances like this one that really made me realize how good he is.

The film is now beloved, because it’s great, and it’s filled with amazing performances. Pine is the one that might get tossed by the wayside, just because the Bridges and Foster roles are a little more overly showy. But he’s terrific here as a man who just wants to make everything all right for his kids in a world that’s not made fair for people like him. There’s a quiet determination to the performance, and there are a few scenes where the intensity of the character really shows. It’s a great performance.

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