Mike’s Favorite Male Lead Performances of the Decade (80-71)
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.
80. Miles Teller, Bleed for This
Another hugely underrated film from this decade. Directed by Ben Younger, who did Boiler Room, which by now has achieved prime cult status. It’s only his second movie since that film. It’s based on the true story of an up and coming boxer who gets in a car crash that breaks his neck. But, of course, he refuses to let that end his career, so… well, you know the rest. It’s kind of like The Fighter in that it’s not just about the story but also very character-based. The Fighter was about Irish people in Boston. This is about an Italian from Rhode Island, and very much involves his family.
Teller is absolutely incredible in this movie. He’s one of those actors who seems to be at his best when he has a physically demanding role. Whiplash was not an easy performance, and neither was this. You can see he put real work into this, and honestly, in the realm of all-time boxing performances… this ranks. No one knows it because no one’s seen it, but this ranks.
79. Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything
A performance we all just kind of accept as good because it’s Stephen Hawking. And just on that alone, you kinda get it. And no one will really say a bad word about this performance because of that. But also… that means you do take it for granted, because, “Sure, it’s obviously gonna be good.” But when you watch it… it’s really fucking good. Redmayne really does do the work here, and doesn’t deliver a false note with it. Sometimes a performance is so ‘awards-y’ that it’s not even interesting, and I think that’s what happened to this. But when you really go back and watch it, it’s a tremendous piece of work.
75. Oscar Isaac, A Most Violent Year
Perhaps the most underrated great film of the decade. It’s J.C. Chandor, coming off Margin Call and All Is Lost. This movie just never got the audience it deserved is, while some people know it and know how great it is, it feels like it’s swimming just beneath the ice. You can see it, but it’s just not talked about.
This performance came during the great run that Oscar Isaac had with Inside Llewyn Davis and Ex Machina. It takes place in 1981 in New York and is about an immigrant who owns an oil company and is in the middle of trying to close a deal that will set him up for life. Only, it’s the most violent summer in New York history and a lot of his trucks keep getting hijacked. So he’s gotta find a way to make it all work out without losing everything.
It’s a quietly intense performance from Isaac, and it ranks among the best he’s given to this point.
77. Robert Pattinson, Good Time
This is the movie where everyone realized they respected Robert Pattinson as an actor. For me, it was Lost City of Z, but no one bothered to go see that and both films came out within three months of one another. So really it was the one-two punch that made me realize how committed he is. He was doing the indies before this, but this was the one where it all fully came together.
This is the Safdie brothers’ warm up for Uncut Gems. I prefer this film to that one, but I suspect it’s because I saw it first, much like how I always prefer Days of Heaven to Badlands, just because that was my first exposure to Terrence Malick and that style.
The film takes place over the course of one day, as Pattinson and his (disabled) brother rob a bank. Of course it goes tits up and Pattinson later finds out his brother is in police custody at the hospital. So he goes to break him out. And this puts him on a whirlwind of a night where he tries to keep himself out of jail. It’s… if you thought Uncut Gems was just two hours of tension… yeah. Pattinson is every bit as good in this as Sandler is in Uncut Gems. Speaking of which…
76. Adam Sandler, Uncut Gems
Might as well, right? He’s admittedly really great here, and it’s always nice to see him do real acting rather than acting in those dopey comedies that are getting increasingly unwatchable as time goes on. He’s only done ‘real’ acting about five or six times the past two decades (this, Punch-Drunk Love, Reign Over Me, Meyerowitz Stories, Men Women and Children and I’ll give him half-credit for parts of Funny People and half-credit for parts of Click). And when he’s put in the right situation with the right material, he shines.
This is the same situation as Good Time is, about a day (or in this case, a few days) in the life of a guy on the verge of really being in a bad way. He’s a jeweler who is in desperate need of a score and is trying to talk his way into one. Meanwhile, the gambling debts are piling up, and the loan sharks are coming after him, his marriage is falling apart… it’s two hours of just tension. But a different kind of tension, mostly because while Pattinson is in a tense situation, Sandler’s situation is self-made, and we watch him dig his own grave a lot of the time. So you’re just tense listening to this dude talk the whole time. That’s what I’m most impressed by, because clearly they just put Sandler in these scenes and let him go. And that, to me, is where the performance shines brightest.
75. Javier Bardem, Biutiful
This is the one Alejandro Inarritu film that everyone forgets about. He made it after Babel and before Birdman and The Revenant. Fortunately, Bardem did get nominated for it, so on that and Inarritu’s name, people do have the ability to discover it. Though I’m not sure how much that’s been done over the past decade.
The film is sort of like Ikiru — it’s about a man who finds out he is dying, and what happens during his final months. Though, maybe not as heartwarming as Ikiru is. Bardem has a bit of a rough go at it. The performance, though, is staggering. Bardem’s delivered a lot of incredible performance in his career, but this one, if it’s not his best, it’s #2. He’s that good in this movie.
74. Matthew McConaughey, The Beach Bum
This is what freedom looks like. This performance is just complete freedom. You don’t see that many performances that feel totally lived in. This one does.
It’s Harmony Korine’s followup to Spring Breakers and is about a stoner who just kind of coasts through life, and things (mostly good things) just happen to him. And that’s the film. It’s just a series of his adventures. Anchored by McConaughey’s performance, which is hard to hate. Dude’s just lovable. And he really just inhabits this character in a way that, honestly, did he not already have the career he’s already had and were the film more of a hit than it was, would probably have turned this into his ‘defining’ role, the way Lebowski became that for Jeff Bridges, despite his having decades of great roles around it.
73. Steve Carell, Foxcatcher
I love how quietly unsettling he is in this. I think the performance is the one that most people would willingly shout out, even if it’s not the best in the film, but that doesn’t make it any less great. It’s still a terrific performance. He’s so unsettlingly creepy in this movie, and I love that the movie doesn’t fully spell out some of the aspects of the relationship between his character and Tatum’s character, even though you can probably infer a lot of what it is. It’s nice when Carell gives these performances, because the people who only know him from comedy get to go, “Whoa, he was amazing.” Which is always a nice feeling.
72. Idris Elba, Molly’s Game
Everyone’s at their best when Aaron Sorkin is writing the dialogue. Idris Elba is always great, but here… he gets some great scenes to dig into. The film is, obviously, focused on Jessica Chastain, and he does get a bit of a thankless role. But watch how he handles it. It takes a movie star to pull off that kind of a part without demanding attention be paid to himself. That deposition scene alone is tremendous. He delivers what has to be about a two-page monologue that is such a showstopper that Sorkin literally wrote a silence break into the script after that speech because he knew it would get applause in theaters. That other scene where he keeps switching seats just before he becomes her official lawyer is also quite great.
71. Robert Redford, The Old Man and the Gun
Any time you get to see Robert Redford on the screen is a good time. This is meant (so he says) to be the final performance of his career. And it’s just a wonderful one. It showcases all the charm he’s carried with him throughout all his performances and is just a wonderful character. The best thing this movie does is end it where it does. If it does end up being his final performance (and I know what you’re thinking, but he shot that other one before this one. It just happened to come out afterward), it’ll be a fitting sendoff for one of cinema’s greatest legends.
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