Mike’s Favorite Male Lead Performances of the Decade (10-1)

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.

10. Matthew McConaughey, Interstellar

It’s been six years now and I still don’t understand why this performance hasn’t gotten more traction. I thought he was absolutely incredible in this movie. I was more impressed with him here than I was in Dallas Buyers Club. It’s what he does with the character emotionally that gives every moment of the space stuff the proper stakes it deserves. Because ‘end of the world’ — we’ve seen that. But really it comes down to this guy and his determination to get back to his family. And that moment in the middle of the film, when he has to live with the fact that decades have passed and there’s nothing he can do about it and he’ll never get that time back with his children, is just heartbreaking. And it’s a testament to McConaughey’s strength as an actor and as a leading man that all that stuff lands as well as it does. Because Christopher Nolan — he’s not really known for emotional arcs in his films. This is really the only that has that. And it’s because of McConaughey that he has it. I stand by this as one of the absolute best performances of the decade. It’s one that’s stuck with me way more than most of the other stuff out there.

9. Leonardo DiCaprio, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

I can’t get enough of Leo in this movie. He was nominated a couple of times in this decade and won his Oscar for something else, but this is the performance that feels like his best to me. There’s just so much stuff he brings to the table here that make me love the character more and more each time I see it. It’s the fact that he has a Tarantino script to begin with and then brings all this other stuff to the table with how he plays it. It’s hard to improve on what Tarantino gives you, but he does it. It’s a comic performance, as is the Wolf of Wall Street performance in a lot of ways, but there’s a lot of real dramatic stuff just beneath the surface, and it’s that stuff that makes the character and performance fully realized. It’s this guy’s inner struggle with the fact that he’s about to become a nobody pretty soon. And I love that Leo built in that hint of a stutter during the moments when he’s at his most stressed, which is just so much of a backstory to this character without having to get into it. And then there are just those amazing single scenes, like him and Julia Butters as he describes the book he’s reading (that sadly mirrors his own life in all-too-uncomfortable ways) and the long take of the Lancer sequence. It might be my all time favorite DiCaprio performance, that’s how much I love this one.

8. Jeff Bridges, True Grit

I’ve had a full decade to sit with this one, and the more I go back and revisit it, the more I love it. This is an incredible piece of work by Bridges, and it’s a performance that really outshines the John Wayne version of the character in every way (which is both not that difficult a thing to say but also feels like a huge thing to say).

The way he plays this guy as a drunk and as a sumbitch and then as this guy who’s getting older and really coming to the end of the line is just something to behold. All the performances in this film are amazing, and that goes across the board. But he’s Rooster Cogburn. He’s the measuring stick by which everyone else is gonna be measured. And to me, this performance is better than the one he won for the year before this. It’s one I really need to live with a while before I truly came to that conclusion, but after a decade with it, I really feel that way. I think it’s just a tremendous piece of work and one of the finest of Bridges’ (amazing) career.

7. Jake Gyllenhaal, Prisoners

I can’t get over how incredible this film is. And the two performances in it — I said it at the time, they were both my favorite performances of the year. And that’s remained after seven years. This film as a whole has been both lauded and sort of forgotten about. People know it, and those who’ve seen it know it’s amazing, but it’s always just beneath the surface of the list of films and performances you’d immediately bring up as being the best of the decade.

It’s Denis Villeneuve’s first real American film, the one that sent him on that great run of Sicario, Arrival and Blade Runner. It’s crime drama about a man whose daughter gets kidnapped on Thanksgiving Day while she goes outside to play, and his retribution toward who he believes is the kidnapper. Gyllenhaal plays the detective assigned to the case, and delivers, to that point, the performance of his career. One could argue that since then, he’s delivered better ones, but for my money, this one remains his best piece of work. There’s a real quiet intensity to the performance, and I love what he brings to it. Because on paper, there’s no much here. There’s the fact that he’s married to his job and has no life outside of it, and then the hints of tattoos and backstory, that are just spare enough to give you an idea of who this guy is and where he came from. It’s a really restrained piece of work and the best pure acting, for my money, that Gyllenhaal’s ever done.

6. Hugh Jackman, Prisoners

The other half of the coin of this film. It’s hard to discuss one without the other, so we’re getting them back to back. Jackman plays the father of the kidnapped girl, and he plays a simple man of faith who has that faith tested and eventually has to resort to what he can in order to protect his family. It’s an incredible piece of work by Jackman, highlighted by his disinterest in trying to look like a movie star or be redeemable in any way. He gives himself fully to this character, going deep into the man’s despair and rage and helplessness, which manifests itself ultimately in violence and self-destruction. It’s a really powerful piece of work.

5. Daniel Day-Lewis, Phantom Thread

We all know the deal about Daniel Day-Lewis as an actor, so I’m not gonna waste my time talking about that. Instead, I’m just gonna focus on how incredible he is in this film. Consider how wildly different each of the characters he played in his last couple of films were. And yet somehow he just slips right into each new one and provides you with these really surprising and breathtaking pieces of work each time. On the surface, this is one of his most simple characters. He makes dresses and he’s an artist and he’s particular in his work and tastes. And yet, every time I go back to this film, there’s another layer of nuance I find within the performance. The best part to me is how funny it is. That’s the thing you notice about him in There Will Be Blood. I think the first time that film (and this film, in a lot of ways) hits you, you don’t really notice the humor as much in it because it’s just such an overwhelming experience. But I saw this movie three separate times in theaters (all in 70mm too, which was just incredible), and each time I went back, the more I laughed. I love every little brow furrow and fussy moment in this performance. I love everything he does with it. He’s a London dressmaker in the 1950s, but he’s basically the stand-in for any high profile creative person, be it a film director or whatever. There’s such perfection in his nuance, and honestly, nobody should be surprised, because he gives this kind of an effort every time he’s on the screen.

4. Christian Bale, Vice

This one’s pretty simple — after about fifteen minutes I just felt like I was watching Dick Cheney on screen. It’s an incredible transformation by Christian Bale. You just completely forget it’s him, and then you’re just watching Cheney do these things on the screen… which brings about its own emotional reaction, but that’s a discussion for another article. Bale is absolutely tremendous here, and really the only thing that’s shocking to me about the performance is how he somehow didn’t win an Oscar for it. And I suspect that has more to do with the tone of the film than the performance. Because, my god… talk about truly becoming someone else. It’s easier when you’re playing a fictional character, but having an actor play someone that well known, and truly make you forget you’re watching them… that happens maybe once, twice in a decade. Some actors achieve it for portions of the film, but rarely do you get almost the whole thing where you just forget it’s them. And this, to me, is really close to being one of those performances.

3. Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea

This performance is just devastating. The amount of grief just radiating off the screen is almost too much to bear. you really don’t know what you’re in for when this film starts, and by the midway point and that police station scene… man, does it rip your heart out. And then you get that entire second half where you just completely understand why this guy is the way he is. And then those scenes at the end, first with Michelle Williams and then the one with Lucas Hedges — I’m not sure there are any four words spoken this year that are as devastating as “I can’t beat it.” What a hell of a performance this is.

2. Joaquin Phoenix, The Master

There’s a bit of context to this one for me. Joaquin had been an actor who we all thought was good, but he never really was at that level that he is now, where we acknowledge him as great and look forward to whatever performance he turns in next. He had Walk the Line, which was fantastic, but really the rest of the 2000s was pretty quiet for him in terms of films people saw. We Own the Night, Reservation Road, Two Lovers… maybe you saw them, maybe you didn’t. And then he had that thing on Letterman, where he grew out the beard and went and did the ‘I’m gonna be a rapper’ thing. Which turned out to be a giant bit for the documentary he did. But it was him trying a different style of acting and him trying to break out of the rut he’d gotten himself into. And so when they announced he was gonna come back to acting, it felt like a big deal. You were interested in what that first performance was gonna be. And for a minute, people thought it might be as Banner in Avengers, but that never panned out. And then they announced it would be this. And Joaquin Phoenix coming back in a Paul Thomas Anderson movie, Anderson’s first film after There Will Be Blood… really big deal.

Of course, all we really knew about this film was that it was based on Scientology in some way. And then it starts, and you get those opening scenes with Joaquin… on the ship, making liquor from jet fuel, passed out, jerking of into the ocean, trying to be a civilian, and that incredible scene at the mall where he’s taking people’s pictures… and you’re just completely riveted. Watching him in those scenes is like watching a child or an animal — you truly don’t know what he’s gonna do at any point in time. And he’s got that weird way he carries himself — that posture, and the sort of half-closed eye… you just can’t look away whenever he’s on the screen. It’s one of the most surprising and jaw-dropping performances I’ve ever seen. Within thirty minutes of this film starting, he elevated himself from ‘very good actor who’s in some great stuff’ to ‘one of the greats that we have’.

This is one of those performances that’s so good that you wouldn’t even want to show it to someone who wants to study acting because it’s just so far beyond the realm of possibility. It’s like me whenever I read an Aaron Sorkin script. It’s like, “I’ll never be this good so there’s really no point in doing anything other than marveling at its greatness.” That’s how I feel when I watch this performance. I just marvel at everything he achieves in it and how he went from essentially persona non grata to ‘one of the finest actors in the entire world’.

1. Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln

It couldn’t have been anything else. This is the one performance throughout the entire decade where I fully believed I was watching a real person on screen. Everyone else, I always had to get into the performance and maybe lost myself in it for part of it or most of it. Here, he was President Lincoln. It was just a given, right from the very first moments of the film. And while you expect that from Daniel Day-Lewis, losing himself within a role, there’s an extra level of it here, considering who he’s playing. It’s perhaps his most towering screen achievement, which is saying something. There’s not a single false note in the entire performance, and the fact that I almost don’t even want to call it a performance highlights just how incredible he is here. This dude is Lincoln. And it’s the single greatest performance of this entire decade, and it isn’t even close.

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One response

  1. Connor Olen

    Joaquin Phoenix has the most mentions on this list with five. Three people have four mentions. (Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Hugh Jackman) Four people have three mentions. (Leonardo DiCaprio, Matthew McConaughey, Brad Pitt, Denzel Washington)

    The following people all have two mentions: Nicholas Cage, Bradley Cooper, Daniel Craig, Matt Damon, Daniel Day-Lewis, Michael Fassbender, Richard Gere, Jake Gyllenhaal, Richard Gere, Jake Gyllenhaal, Tom Hardy, Oscar Isaac, Gary Oldman, Robert Pattinson, Robert Redford, Eddie Redmayne, Mark Ruffalo, Michael Shannon, Miles Teller.

    March 17, 2020 at 1:17 pm

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