Mike’s Favorite Male Lead Performances of the Decade (40-31)
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.
40. Mahershala Ali, Green Book
Mostly what I’m impressed about with this movie as a whole is how… it should not have been as good or as entertaining as it is. I thought it was a joke a year out when I heard of it, but figured there had to be a reason both actors wanted to be in it. And then I watched it and went, “Oh, shit.”
Mahershala…. it’s interesting because he doesn’t show up until about a half hour into the movie. But still, it’s a two-hander through and through. I know he won the Supporting Oscar for it, but that was just so both could potentially win. They’re both leads and I don’t think anyone would question that. What I love about Mahershala’s performance here is the dignity he brings the character. Because he could have played it a certain way that played up his idiosyncrasies or the fact that he was gay, but instead he played up the fact that this man knew who he was and knew his worth and didn’t sacrifice that for anybody. And it brings a real truthfulness to the character and the story and really helps solidify why these two guys became friends. In a lot of ways, both his and Viggo’s performances in the film are the reason it went over as well as it did. You put lesser actors in there… I’m not sure it works.
39. Viggo Mortensen, Green Book
It’s a Green Book two-fer. I figure you can’t really have one without the other, since each character informs the other so much. Plus, who cares about the rankings, it’s more about shouting stuff out anyway.
Dealing with Viggo in particular… he’s always taking interesting roles, but you’ve never seen him do this. He plays a guy who’s like 70% of the way to cartoon character but yet never once makes him feel completely unrealistic. It’s broad within the realm of reality, but Viggo always keeps him believable. And if there’s any real nit I can pick with the performance, it’s something within the writing in the early stages of the movie that is completely contradicted by every other way he plays the character. Otherwise, I think he did an amazing job with this.
38. Ryan Gosling, Blade Runner 2049
At the moment this article is being released, Ryan Gosling’s two most recent performances are the best of his career. He’s had this really interesting career where he was the teen actor who tried really interesting things (like The Believer), then had some success in stuff like The Notebook, but kept doing offbeat things like Lars and the Real Girl. And he’d alternate between these interesting indies and then sort of mainstream stuff where he was the charming guy. And then Drive took him to another level, but the knock on him was always, “He just plays the same guy.” But it’s really those recent two performances where I think anyone who disliked him would go, “Okay, I see it.” Because they’re both these really internal, quiet performances.
This one in particular… he plays a replicant. So there’s a certain limitation to what he can do there, emotionally. But then you have the character arc, where his entire worldview about who he is starts to slowly break down, which crescendos in that one fantastic moment when he realizes the truth. It’s a great character, and what Gosling does with it is fantastic. This is one of the better character arcs I saw this decade and I thought what he did with it was spectacular.
37. Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook
This was the first time we took Bradley Cooper seriously. Before this, he was the Hangover guy. He hadn’t done anything particularly dramatic. But then this movie changed everything. The funny thing is, this was originally gonna be Mark Wahlberg, because David O. Russell had made his last three movies with Wahlberg, but he decided to go with Cooper instead (and I’m pretty sure it ruined their relationship, but that’s beside the point). And man, did that work out. Because Cooper gave, to that point in his career, the best performance he’d ever given on screen. Of course, he’s surpassed that a couple of times since then, but it still remains an impressive piece of work.
This is a hard film to explain, because it’s about a dude who had a mental breakdown and is bipolar who… just sort of puts his life back together and meets another woman and they train for a dance competition together. And yet, if you’ve seen it, it all just kinda makes sense. And Cooper is the anchor of the film, and his performance is strangely possibly the best of the bunch. De Niro is there, doing the best work he’d done in years, and Lawrence is a force of nature. But in terms of pure performance… I think Cooper takes that prize. There’s a real honesty there and you just sort of buy it all. He’s never too comic and never really feels like he’s ‘acting’ with a capital A, if you know what I mean. It’s a really fine piece of work that showed us the kind of actor Cooper really is and highlighted what was to come from him the rest of the decade.
36. Michael Fassbender, Shame
This is that other performance from 2011 that I mentioned further down the list. Him and Michael Shannon were the two where we all went, “Oh, shit, look at this.” And then both performances in specific kinda got forgotten about even though both actors went on to much greater and higher profile work over the rest of the decade. Fassbender, of course, had Inglourious Basterds and Hunger before this, so people both knew him as a good actor and knew him from other stuff. Still, this film just got completely ignored, probably due to the subject matter.
Fassbender plays a sex addict whose life starts to spiral out of control once his sister shows up back in his life. Fassbender is just so good here. I think anyone who saw (and sees) this movie would tell you the same. This is that rare combination of great acting and ‘movie star’. He does it all in this movie (and also, kinda literally ‘does’ it all).
35. Jean Dujardin, The Artist
Dude gave a silent performance in 2011. That’s insane. And it just totally works. There’s a whole other discipline to silent acting, and Dujardin has the face for it. If you’ve seen him in the OSS 117 films, you know he’s got the face for it. And he just does a great job charting this guy’s… I was gonna say rise and fall, but it’s pretty much just his fall. It’s a really wonderful performance that, even if you have issues with the film (though almost a decade later, does anyone really care that much?), it’s hard to ignore the work he put into it.
34. Brad Pitt, Moneyball
It’s a quiet performance, and you kinda forget how great he is in this movie, but when you go back and see it, you realize just how amazing he is in it. It’s that same thing he did in Assassination of Jesse James… stillness and quiet. And he just makes it work wonders. Especially here, in what is essentially a cerebral kinda movie… it’s about baseball analytics. I mean, it’s about more than that, and you also get the sense of that through the performance, but you know what I mean. You feel this dude’s love of the game and his regret for not having been able to make it as a player. It’s also the kind of performance where… he didn’t have to give to it what he gave to it. But the movie is all the better for it because he did.
33. Hugh Jackman, Les Misérables
It’s a stunning performance by any measure. You realize it within the first half hour. Because Tom Hooper does a lot of his songs in a single take, allowing the actors to sing live and incorporate performance into the singing, which really elevates the performance of every actor in the film. Jackman in particular — you see it in ‘Valjean’s Soliloquy’ — he brings it. And I’m a huge Jackman fan. He must appear four or five times on this list in total. And I think somehow he’s still underrated as an actor. But I do think this was, for a time, the performance of his career. Now, it’s one of the hallmark ones and I think he’s got about three or four different ones you put up there at the top. But this one in particular is an impressive piece of work because it’s entirely sung, but he still brings every ounce of performance to it. 2012 has some of the best performances of the decade in it (all five are in the top 55 of the decade, and we still have two to go), and this is one of the best performances of that year. It’s an extraordinary piece of work.
32. George Clooney, The Descendants
This is, to this point, the dramatic work of Clooney’s career. He’s given dramatic performances, and he’s given comedic performances, and he’s given movie star performances. This one’s a combination of all three. He tries to tamp down the movie star of it all for a lot of it, and it largely works. The comedy is apparent throughout the film. But it’s the dramatic stuff that sneaks up on you. That scene at the end is a really powerful piece of work.
31. Timothée Chalamet, Call Me By Your Name
I can’t argue with this one. At all. It’s just an astounding piece of work. He goes from this regular kid on summer vacation to this devastatingly poignant figure in that final scene. And it’s really that final scene (pictured above) that shows you just how incredible the performance is. Because the fact that they hold on him throughout the entirety of the credits, and he’s just sitting there for like six straight minutes, the only way that works is if you’ve bough into everything he’s done and that’s happened to him before that. And so, while he’s sitting there, you’re just completely heartbroken and stunned and feeling all these emotions for this kid. And that’s a testament to the performance. It’s a really incredible piece of work.
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