Mike’s Favorite Male Lead Performances of the Decade (60-51)

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.

60. Joaquin Phoenix, Joker

When Joaquin’s truly committed, you’re unable to watch anything else happening on the screen. And he’s totally committed to this role. He feels like he’s done it before in a lot of ways, and the material isn’t as strong as his performance, but it’s a really compelling piece of work. A lot’s already been said about this, so I’m just gonna leave it at — he’s really good here.

59. James Franco, The Disaster Artist

This one’s kind of a gimme. The Room has become a cult phenomenon, and everyone has an experience of seeing that movie for the first time with friends, or, if you’re lucky, at a screening with the right audience. Tommy’s persona, and inflections are just perfection. So anyone who’s able to approximate that with any kind of accuracy is gonna have given a performance we all love. And I’m usually pretty critical of Franco as an actor, but this is one of the times the performance is undeniable. Is it an imitation? Sure. But it’s gotta be a good one to make it work, and he has to know what to do and what not to do to keep it funny. And you laugh your ass off during this movie. After a while you forget it’s Franco doing it because he approximates Tommy so well.

58. Tom Holland, The Impossible

Who knew the kid I thought was amazing in this movie almost a decade ago turned out to be Spider-Man? This movie was a complete surprise to me. I remember no one else at the office caring about this movie and me taking it home, knowing very little about it and just being absolutely blown away by it. And a lot of my initial love was for the incredible disaster scene and for Naomi Watt’s performance. But when I watched it again, I couldn’t get over how amazing Holland was. He’s the one that’s with Watts during the sequence and then is sort of the man on the ground in the hospital. At first he’s looking for his father and two brothers, but ends up becoming the person who goes around trying to reunite families with their missing loved ones. And he’s got some incredibly powerful scenes to pull off and becomes the sole focal point of the movie for a while. It’s a really mature performance for someone who, I think was like 15 at the time. Really fantastic stuff out of him here. One of the best performances of this year, which has some really big performances in it.

57. Channing Tatum, Foxcatcher

This is the performance of Foxcatcher nobody talks about. Carell gets all the love because he’s creepy and has the nose, and Ruffalo gets the love because he’s admittedly really amazing. But Tatum — he is the movie. He’s the main character and he’s the one that has to pull off the hardest job. Plus, this is right as Tatum is becoming this huge star. And he wasn’t really ever known for his acting by this point. And to an extent, still isn’t, even though I think performances like this make people realize he can do it. But the insecurity and inner turmoil he conveys out of this guy… it’s truly impressive. In a way it’s perfect casting and that helped a lot, but also, it’s the performance. Watch this movie again and focus on what he does. He really brings it, and he could have not done about 30% of what he did and the film still would have been as good as it is. But he really elevates his game to a level he hasn’t really gone to since.

56. Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained

He won Best Supporting Actor, but he’s the lead of the movie. It’s him and Foxx as the leads and DiCaprio is the supporting character to the two of them. For every moment Foxx is on screen from the very first scene of the movie, Waltz is right there with him. Waltz only goes away temporarily when Django reunites with his wife and then… well, that part. But that’s really close to the end. So he’s very much the co-lead of the movie to me, and obviously it’s Christoph Waltz in a Tarantino movie, he’s gonna get a great role to work with. I don’t think he achieves what he does with Inglourious Basterds here — no one could — but he’s just wonderful in this movie. His choice of vocal inflections and his movements throughout scenes are just so fascinating to watch. And, let’s face it… like most Quentin characters, he’s just so well written and someone you want to see on screen.

55. Christian Bale, American Hustle

This one’s not about technicality so much as it is that I just enjoy the shit out of it. Bale, as he apparently likes to do, gained a bunch of weight for the role and dove right into the hilarity of this character. He plays it totally straight throughout, which he has to, but it’s the other stuff that draws me to this role. That scene at the beginning where he’s doing this elaborate routine to make sure his hair looks put together is just so funny to me. And watching him react to things as everything around him just keeps getting crazier and crazier… with his actual wife getting involved and his current wife there with the FBI agent who is coked out of his mind, and actual mobsters, and fake sheiks… and all he wants is just to go home and go on his way. It’s a really great performance. Bale’s always great, but this one is just so much fun to me.

54. Denzel Washington, Flight

He got nominated for this in a category that was insanely strong (all four of the other nominees made the top 40 on this list). But people forget just how great a performance this is out of him. It’s totally unlike everything he’d done before. He’s always gonna be ‘Denzel’, but rarely does he pull out all the acting stops as he does here.

He plays an alcoholic airline pilot who deals with a plane malfunction just after takeoff. And his quick-thinking (albeit risky) maneuvers manage to save the life of almost everyone on board. However, now they’re looking into the crash, and he finds himself under investigation. So now he’s gotta find a way to keep his problem from coming out. Which is easier said than done.

The work here is just tremendous, and as much as it may seem like he got nominated because he’s Denzel, this is one of his best performances and one of the great performances of this decade. Don’t sleep on this one.

53. Brad Pitt, Ad Astra

He won for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but this is the performance of his this year that might be the best. He’s really great here, and no one took notice of this movie. I’m guessing because people thought they were getting Gravity and instead got this meditative movie that’s more internal than ‘action’. He plays a completely measured astronaut who is sent into deep space to look for his father, presumed dead for 30 years but who may be alive and may be involved in this cosmic flares that are causing immense damage throughout the solar system. And you watch this performance throughout the film, and slowly start to see him lose his composure. Which works two ways — you start to see him become a person over this time (because when you first see him, he’s so collected that he almost falls like 70,000 feet and his pulse never rises above a resting level), and also he becomes emotional to the point where you don’t know how he’s gonna react when he finally sees his father alive in deep space. It’s a really terrific piece of work that I think ranks among the best of Pitt’s career.

52. Daveed Diggs, Blindspotting

This is one of the most underrated films of this entire decade. Written by Diggs and Rafael Casal, who both star, it’s a buddy comedy with very serious overtones. They find a way to make it both deadly serious with a lighter surface. So it feels like a buddy comedy, but also… the main character is a convicted felon just trying to keep his life together and he witnesses a policeman shoot an unarmed man in the street. And there’s this whole thing where the black guy is the felon, but you realize what he went to jail for is complete horse shit, and the white guy is the dangerous one in the relationship and the one who should be stayed away from. And it’s Digg’s performance that really lands most of all in the film, because you get to see him do the buddy stuff, and you see him do the indie drama stuff. But the real work is when you see him deal with all the societal shit, especially at the very end of the film, when he delivers this incredibly powerful monologue that is one of the best pieces of acting you’ll see from this entire decade. More people need to see this film and this performance. They’re wonderful.

51. Vince Vaughn, Brawl in Cell Block 99

While we’re on the subject of hidden gems… my god. This is one of the best theater experiences I’d had, and I’ve shown this movie to at least a half-dozen people, all of whom came out going, “Oh my god, that was amazing.” Because you just don’t know what you’re in for with this movie. And Vince Vaughn — talk about a revelation. It’s not that it’s his best dramatic work ever, but it’s how the performance comes across that’s so powerful. He’s got the shaved head and they shoot him full frame, using every bit of his 6’5” stature and size to truly make you think this dude can beat the shit out of anyone who gets in his way. And the script puts him through these scenes where they’re just trying to make him lose his shit, so you’re constantly waiting for that time bomb to go off. And there’s that opening scene with the wife, when you see him straight up just destroy a car with his bare hands. You know what this dude is capable of. And then the movie slowly builds to the point of violence, and you’re just there for it the entire time. It’s not a performance that’s gonna win any awards, but it’s impossible to watch this movie and not come away impressed by what Vaughn does with it. It’s a side of him you’ve never seen before.

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