Mike’s Favorite Male Lead Performances of the Decade (20-11)

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.

20. Geza Rohrig, Son of Saul

This is another example of the actor being the film. And I find myself more impressed by the job here (more in terms of overall performance than pure acting), just because of how much he’s the film. The entire film is shot just like that image up there — it’s tight on his face and that’s it. They only go wider once throughout the entire film. Otherwise, the film is just him, always. And he’s gotta be the focal point for the audience throughout this all. Which means he’s gotta be interesting enough for us to care about but not showy enough so as to take our attention away from all the stuff we’re not seeing just outside the corners of the frame. And I think he just knocks it out of the park It’s one of the most affecting performances you’ll ever see.

19. Denzel Washington, Roman J. Israel, Esq.

I loved this movie. And I can’t understand why everyone dismissed it. I’m guessing it’s the title and the feeling you get when seeing the character and trailer. I feel like people playing disabled is always somehow downgraded immediately by people (a ‘Tropic Thunder Effect’?). I don’t know. But I thought everything about this film and performance were wonderful.

This is Dan Gilroy’s followup to Nightcrawler, and has Denzel as a brilliant lawyer who has Asperger’s. And he’s worked for this old school law firm with his mentor fighting civil rights cases for 40 years. Only, his mentor has a stroke, so now he’s left without a job. Though he ends up going from these pro bono cases for the greater good to Colin Farrell, who also worked for Denzel’s mentor, but has gone on to high-priced criminal attorney. So now Denzel has to adapt to this world that he just does not fit in. And it’s essentially a noir, like Nightcrawler, but more in the sense of watching a good person get tempted by bad things. And Denzel just does a wonderful job with it. It’s one of those times you see him stretch out of that box of ‘Denzel’. This one, though, is more fully than all the others. Because he’s completely playing someone else, and really doesn’t go into any of his usual stuff at all. It’s a tremendous piece of work that I’m glad ultimately got nominated, because now there’s a chance people might actually go back and see this one in the future.

18. Ryan Gosling, First Man

One of the most overlooked performances of the decade, and honestly, one of the most overlooked films. This’ll be one people go back and watch a bunch because it’s so rewatchable. And, honestly, this also might be the performance of Ryan Gosling’s career. He plays Neil Armstrong, which is a tough role for two reasons. One — dude’s really famous. And two, not the most charismatic of people. Any time you see him in Apollo 11 footage, he’s always straight to business, straight to the point. And so he has to find a way to play that to make it dramatic. And he (and the film) does so.

Damien Chazelle shoots him tight a lot, so a lot of the time his eyes are doing the acting, and that’s where you see all the emotion within the man. Plus, there’s that thread of his daughter having died, which really remains the emotional core of the character throughout the film. He can stay very stoic and terse, but there’s always that pain inside him, and when Gosling chooses to let it out, it really lands well. This performance not being nominated remains one of the bigger slights of the decade, because it’s one of the best pieces of work an actor gave.

17. Bradley Cooper, A Star Is Born

We’re not even two years out on this performance yet and I find myself more and more impressed by it as time goes on. Because he directed this on top of giving that performance. And he did all his own singing and guitar playing. And the performance is just… this is a character we’ve seen a bunch. Five times, ultimately. Four if you wanna count official ‘Star Is Born’ films. And you can chart the growth of the performances throughout. Fredric March performance was great for 1937. It’s very showy, and was a terrific piece of work for that time. James Mason in 1954 is still kind showy, but also very grounded when it needs to be. And then Kristofferson in 1976 adds the music element to the character, which it didn’t have before.

And here, Cooper puts it all together, and really manages to provide the most rounded version of the character I’ve seen. This one really gets into his emotional issues and addiction in ways the others hadn’t (or couldn’t). And what I think really helped it out is the addition of the Sam Elliott character as his brother. That added a level of depth to the character it never had before. But really, all around, I’m just impressed with everything Cooper brought to this movie. I said at the time, I was stunned from the very opening moments of the film, when Cooper walks out on stage and starts his performance. That told me everything I needed to know about the character in about 45 seconds. And he only built on it from there. Amazing piece of work.

16. Hugh Jackman, Logan

This performance is aided by the fact that we had 17 years of him playing this character before this. But hey, it’s no different than older actors playing on their screen personas to craft performances. Use what you have. And really, when you consider the pantheon of great superhero performances — the roles where you really only see one person as that character — it’s Wolverine and it’s Iron Man. And that’s the list. Right? Because you don’t really have one Batman that we consider the definitive one. You have your Batman, but there are others you acknowledge. When you think of Wolverine, it’s Hugh Jackman. That first X-Men film made him a star, and throughout all the different iterations of the X-Men films (both highs and lows), he’s been the one constant throughout them all. And here, he delivers the magnum opus for the character.

It’s a brilliant way to play on what we’ve seen before, and essentially does what Joker does with Joaquin, taking a character and grounding to reality as best it can. You’ve got Logan, living in a future where most mutants have died out and he’s still alive because of his healing powers (over 200 years old, if we’re going by film canon), and he’s broken down. And you can tell he just wants to die. And he’s hiding out in Mexico, living with a 90-year old Charles Xavier, who is slipping into dementia, and he ends up becoming guardian to this mutant child. Which is just amazing. Because you get to see shades of the character you haven’t seen before. You’ve seen glimpses of them, but they really go deep into them in really surprising and beautiful ways. It’s hard, whether you’ve grown up with the character as I did or not, not to get emotional during the final moments of this film. And that’s a testament to Jackman and the amazing work he’s put into this character all these years and into this film specifically.

15. Michael Keaton, Birdman

I’ve been a huge Michael Keaton fan for years. I always sought out those little indies he did, like Game 6 and The Merry Gentleman. But really, for a solid decade-plus, he was pretty quiet. He was in stuff, but most people didn’t see a lot of it. And then here comes back with this performance. And it shows us what we all missed with him that entire time. It’s a wonderfully meta role, too, a washed up actor famous for once playing a superhero, now trying to show the world that he has another side to himself, as he puts up all his money to perform in a play on broadway. And of course, as the play gets closer and things get more chaotic, he starts losing his mind along the way. And he’s really the anchor of the film. Without him, the film doesn’t work. It’s all him. He’s got great parts around him, but it’s really just him. And you buy him all the way. It’s the performance of his career. This and Batman are the two people will talk about first. Maybe along with Beetlejuice. Those are the three.

14. Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis

There was a time before we all loved Oscar Isaac and thought he could do no wrong. And this role was the turning point for him. Before this, he’d been in stuff, but most people never really took notice of him. His biggest role was in Drive, as Carey Mulligan’s husband. But this was where he took off. He got the lead in a Coen brothers movie! And man, it’s one of the best performances I’ve seen in one of their films. He wins you over from the opening scene, when he sings ‘Hang Me, Oh Hang Me’, and you realize he’s got an amazing voice. And then he just gives the rest of that performance, which is just equal parts comedy, bitterness and melancholy. It’s wonderful watching this dude simultaneously get in his own way, get bad breaks and then wonder why he can’t get anything to go right for himself. It’s just a wonderful piece of work that sends up a huge signal to the world that Oscar Isaac is a movie star. And he’s spent the rest of the decade proving that to us, even if he still hasn’t fully come into his own in that regard yet. But still, this performance is one that holds up.

13. Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club

Remember the McConnaissance? Remember a time when Matthew McConaughey was thought of as something other than an incredible actor who delivered great performances every time out? Seems like so long ago. But he really had a great series of performances that all coalesced at the same time. This and True Detective coming out at the same time were really the icing on that cake. This one, though… this is the epitome of what he can do as an actor that people never truly appreciated before this.

The role is one that obviously is very showy — charismatic man diagnosed with AIDS who refuses to let the disease get the better of him, so he starts this ‘club’ where he starts distributing non-approved drugs to fellow AIDS patients. It’s an incredible performance by McConaughey. Once you get past the weight loss and the bait-iness of the role, there’s a really fantastic performance beneath it that ranks among the best he’s given in his career.

12. Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master

He’s a lead. I know he got nominated in Supporting, but come on. As Beanie Feldstein says in Lady Bird, “It’s the titular role!” The film is, at its core, a two-hander, and Hoffman just owns (or at least commands a share of ownership) of every scene he’s in. There’s a real presence to him in this film. He always has a presence, but here more so than his other performances, he’s got that other… thing, that a character like this is meant to have. There’s a real intensity there and a real concentration of energy in this guy. And it’s great watching him let it out in the right moments. It’s a tremendous piece of work that has to be considered top two or three of Hoffman’s career.

11. Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour

My criterion for a performance like this is simple — it’s one thing to be great, it’s another to make me forget I’m watching an actor play a person and make me think I’m simply watching that person exist. And Gary Oldman achieves that for portions of this film. You just lose track of Oldman for a while and watch Churchill. It’s a fantastic piece of work that finally got Gary Oldman all the praise he’s always deserved for decades of great work. In a way, it’s the performance you’d expect with him playing Churchill, but no one said that’s a bad thing. Great is great.

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