Mike’s Favorite Male Lead Performances of the Decade (30-21)

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.

30. Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler

Right, though? How goddamn creepy is Gyllenhaal in this movie? He’s quietly had this incredible decade of performances, and hasn’t been truly recognized for any of them. This one in particular is just unsettling from the jump, and you watch him (appropriately so, given the subject matter) the way you watch a car wreck — you don’t want to, but you can’t look away. It’s the quintessential noir character — person on the fringe of society, right on the line between good and evil, getting by in the seedy underbelly of the big city. And it’s so great watching the true nature of the character unfold as he has the opportunity to get the kind of success he’s always wanted. It’s one of the great performances of the decade, and honestly just one of half a dozen Gyllenhaal performances that are worth noting from it.

29. Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant

It’s the physical nature of the role that impressed me more than anything else. The things he puts his body through during this performance are insane. And, also, while it’s not a powerhouse of pure ‘acting’ per se, as compared to some of the other performances around it on this list… a lot of what great acting is, depending on the type of film and the type of role, is allowing the audience to project onto you. Kuleshov Effect, kids. It’s obviously not to that extent. But here, you feel this dude’s pain because DiCaprio allows you to feel all the stuff he’s going through. Dude gets mauled by a bear, left for dead and has to deal with a dead son all in the span of like, an hour. And then dude’s gotta crawl himself to safety while basically on the brink of death. He sets his own throat on fire! It’s insane! And you feel every single thing this guy has to go through. In that sense, it’s a terrific performance. And also… dude really got fucked up by that bear.

28. Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave

Definitely one of the consensus undeniable performances of the decade. The film is just beautifully crafted from top to bottom, and anchored by Ejiofor’s amazing work. To me, the best scene is the one pictured above, where he’s at the gravesite of someone who died, and all the slaves begin singing “Roll, Jordan, Roll.” And you just see that first moment where he fully gives himself up to the situation and joins in. Which is both painful for him to acknowledge but also a catharsis of sorts, allowing him, through this spiritual, to let out all the pain he’s been feeling all this time. It’s one of the most powerful moments in a film full of incredibly powerful moments.

27. Miles Teller, Whiplash

Dedication, I think is the word to use here. And sure, a lot of what makes him great in this movie is J.K. Simmons opposite him. But… couple things: his character is not particularly likable in this movie. But you root for him the entire way. Plus, he’s just fully in this performance. He goes all out on those drum parts. This is one of those, like the DiCaprio performance a few spots down, where I’m more impressed with what went into the performance more than the ‘oh my god, look at the acting‘. I really love this performance a lot.

26. Hugh Jackman, The Front Runner

The underrated great performance of the decade. I looked at the rest of this list, and all the other performances on it are great, but most people accept them as great. This performance, and this film even — totally overlooked in every way.

It’s Jason Reitman’s return to greatness after almost a decade making movies that no one really saw or cared about (maybe you saw Young Adult, but you probably forgot about Labor Day entirely and probably don’t even know what Men Women and Children is). He had this and Tully in the same year, and I think only Tully is the one people know about. It’s nuts. This is about Gary Hart, who, for you young’ins, ran for president in 1988 and famously told reporters, “I’ve got nothing to hide. Go ahead, follow me around.” And then, two days later, he’s caught on a yacht (ironically called “Monkey Business”) in Miami with his mistress, and the entire campaign (and his political career) come to an end immediately because of it.

Jackman delivers quite possibly the performance of his career. There’s another one I’m gonna say I like better, but in terms of the full spectrum of what you want out of a performance — this one has it all. It’s crazy how good he is here. This performance should have been nominated for awards or at least been discussed for awards. And it wasn’t. He was so good as the character in this movie and so prepared for anything that came up, that at the end of the film (in the scene pictured above), he’s doing a press conference with reporters, and Jason Reitman’s direction to him during it was, “Just go out and take questions.” Because he just trusted that Jackman would handle everything he needed to handle. That’s quite the handle on a performance. Do yourself a favor and see this film, because one of the best films and performances of the entire decade is just sitting there, waiting for you to notice it.

25. Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

This performance seems so long ago, now that he’s won an Oscar. I remember thinking, “Finally, a performance we can all fully appreciate Gary Oldman for,” since for years he was taken for granted. Him getting nominated for this is one of the great Oscar moments of the decade for me. He’s so good in this movie. The character is very quiet and intense, and it’s great seeing Oldman just pour himself into the performance. Some of those scenes, he accomplishes so much through so little, and then there’s that amazing monologue in the center of the film. There’s so much there with this character, even though it almost seems like there isn’t. I almost wished they continued with more Smiley films, because there’s so much of the character to deal with.

24. Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody

On of the biggest compliments I can ever pay a performance by an actor playing a real person is ‘I forgot I was watching the actor’. And while that wasn’t necessarily the case for the majority of this performance, by the time we got to that Live Aid sequence at the end of the film, I felt like I was watching Freddie Mercury. And it’s a testament to Malek that I had that feeling. I started off a little concerned with the performance (those teeth), but it settles in nicely, and he’s very convincing for the majority of the role. And any time an actor, even for a little bit, makes you think you’re watching the real person, they’ve done their job.

23. Jacob Tremblay, Room

He was 8 when they shot this movie. That’s absolutely insane, that someone that young can give a performance this good. The two leads of this movie are him and Brie Larson, and in a lot of ways, he’s got more screen time than she does, because there’s a portion of the film where she’s off-screen. The film is largely told through his eyes as well.

The film, as I’m sure, most people know, is about a woman who was abducted and kidnapped and now lives in captivity in this tiny shed with her child (born out of rape from her captor). And the first half of the film is her trying to raise this kid as best she can while also trying to find a way to get the two of them to safety. And I gotta tell you — both actors are incredible in this movie. Tremblay is more impressive than Larson to me just because — he’s 8! And he just does this brilliant job of somehow being 8 and also giving a proper performance. It’s generally hard for kids to do both. If they’re giving the performance, it feels rehearsed or too child actor-y, or if they’re just real kids, it’s hard for them to do nuanced acting stuff. But Tremblay manages both here, and it’s one of the most impressive things I’ve seen this decade.

22. Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street

This is one of the best slapstick performances of the decade and one of the best dramatic ones. DiCaprio runs the gamut with this one. He does the movie star thing at the beginning, being the slick broker and all that. But then he’s got the great dramatic stuff throughout, culminating of course with the ‘I’m not fucking leaving!’ speech. And then there’s, most impressively to me, the slapstick sequence in the middle when he takes the quaaludes and can’t move. The scene of him crawling to his car is one of the most hilarious scenes you’ll see from this decade. And then afterward, when he gets back to his house and is fighting with Jonah Hill, it’s just so goddamn funny. Leo’s delivered some great performances in his career, but seeing him go all out with body comedy was really one of the highlights for me.

21. Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs

He outdid himself with this one. Because he’s playing Steve Jobs. And it’s an Aaron Sorkin script. So he’s gotta approximate this guy who is pretty iconic within the past 30 years of popular culture, and he’s gotta deliver what I’m sure is about 120 pages of dialogue that’s just his own, and give a performance on top of all that. And he does. Man, does he do it. And what’s great is, you see him three separate times, so he’s gotta play this guy at three separate times in his life on top of that. He’s basically carrying the entire film on his performance. Because if he doesn’t work, the film doesn’t work. This is the most impressive piece of acting I’ve seen him do.

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