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10 Best European Performances of the Last Decade

08 November 2012 | Features, Guest Posts, People Lists | by David Zou

Max Von Sydow.  Marcello Mastroianni.  Toshiro Mifune.  LivUllmann.  These names may not ring a bell with the majority of American filmgoers, but devoted cinephiles know them as four of the greatest actors to ever grace the silver screen.  Of course, they were far more well known within the international cinematic circle, given that they worked with directors the likes of Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini and Akira Kurosawa.  The sad news is that none of these actors ever won an Academy Award, not surprisingly.  Thankfully, “American Idol” cast-off Jennifer Hudson has one.  It’s not easy for foreign actors to win Oscars; only seven actors have ever won Oscars for performances using a language other than English.  That doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of Oscar worthy performances.  Here are ten of the best performances from European films over the last ten years.


Niels Arestrup in “A Prophet”


While the star of this 2010 hit, Tahar Rahim, merits inclusion as well, longtime French character actor NielsArestrup steals the films.  Playing an imprisoned Corsican mob boss struggling to maintain what little power he has left, Arestrup brings an intensity that burns the screen.  Even in his quietest moments, he enthralls you and leaves you guessing.


Francois Begaudeau in “The Class”

Francois Begaudeau

Many acting coaches would contend that the hardest part an actor can play is him or herself, but in this 2008 Palme d’Or winner, first time actor Begaudeau makes it look easy.  In “The Class,” which is based off of his memoirs as a middle school teachers in one of the roughest arrondissement of Paris, Begaudeau plays a version of himself, and he is unafraid to show his flaws.  He skillfully plays with our sympathies, and the film, which he co-wrote, is the better for it.


Juliette Binoche in “Flight of the Red Balloon”

Flight of the Red Balloon

Well you can’t make a list like this and not include this perpetual French stunner, right?  In her case, it’s a question of for which film.  In Hou Hsiao-Hsien 2008 marvel, Binoche once again creates a character so vivid that it feels that we in the audience have known her for years.


Marion Cotillard in “La Vie En Rose”


One of those aforementioned seven Oscar wins for foreign actors came in 2008 for Cotillard’s tour-de-force turn as famed French chanteuse Edith Piaf.  Cotillard plays the roles from ages 20 to 48, and does so beyond convincingly.  She simply seeps into Piaf’s skin, right before our eyes.  It’s one of the most thrilling mergers of actor and character in recent cinematic memory.


Penelope Cruz in “Volver”


Cruz may not have won the Oscar, but she was nominated for her vivacious performance in the masterful 2006 seriocomedy “Volver.”  Under the direction of frequent collaborator Pedro Almodovar, Cruz sparkles as a mother attempting to cover up the murder of her boyfriend.  Most actors don’t have the skills to handle the various elements Almodovar brings to the table here.  Thankfully, Almodovar has chosen his muse appropriately.


Anders Danielsen Lie in “Reprise”


This overlooked 2006 Norwegian gem, about two college aged writers looking to make a name for themselves, features terrific performances across the board.  Yet it’s Danielsen Lie, as a published author who suffers a mental breakdown, that is the film’s MVP and emotional core.  The young actor is electric, and handles the films severely dour moments with infinite grace.


Sergi Lopez in “Pan’s Labyrinth”


This 2006 fantasy sensation garnered a significant amount of acclaim for its technical elements and its creative story.  But as the strict and vicious captain in Franco’s army, Sergi Lopez delivers a memorable performance.  There are no shades of gray here; his character is the villain.  Yet Lopez delves in and embodies the repulsive components of his character and serves the film extraordinarily well.


Anamaria Marinca in “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days”


No offense to CristianMungiu’s directorial abilities, but his 2007 masterpiece wouldn’t have reached the glorious heights it attained without the stellar performances courtesy of his actors. As a college aged woman who makes enormous, gut-wrenching sacrifices to secure an illegal abortion for her roommate, Marinca is the emotional centerpiece of this film.  She guides us through uncomfortable terrains using her vulnerable eyes and a fierce command of her dialogue.


Ulrich Muhe in “The Lives of Others”


It’s sad to think that this was the last performance for this tragically departed accomplished German actor, but what a swan song.  As a Stasi captain listening in on a playwright who may commit a treasonous act, Muhe explores the complications of the story with exquisite precision.  He was never better, and he will be missed extraordinarily so.


Aggeliki Papoulia in “Dogtooth”


Surely, this macabre and oddball blacker than black 2010 Greek comedy couldn’t have been easy on the actors.  The themes explored can be pretty, um, uncomfortable.  But as twentysomething woman living under the strict rules of her domestically fascist father, Papoulia is able to make this film remarkably relatable for the audience.  She imbues the character with the requisite naivety and rebellious spirit, and brings more complex components to the table.


It’s Your Turn

What are some of the most impressive performances from European films in the last decade you have seen?


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  • Steven Flores

    That’s a great list. I would also put Mathieu Almaric for The Diving Bell & the Butterfly, Mads Mikkelsen in Valhalla Rising, Isabelle Huppert in The Piano Teacher, and Tahar Rahim in A Prophet.

    • David Zou

      Thanks Steven,I absolutely adore Mathieu Almaric and Isabelle Huppert,and A Prophet is such a fantastic film with strong performances,great additions!

  • Chris

    My favorite performances of the ten you picked are Sergi Lopez in “Pan’s Labyrinth” Ulrich Muhe in “The Lives of Others”.
    French actor Omar Sy in Intouchables (2011) I also think deserves a mention.

    • David Zou

      I haven’t seen Intouchables yet,quite impressed with its box office figures,its competitor in the Oscars is too strong,but I definitely would take a look at it.

  • michaelgsmith

    The only films I haven’t seen here are Reprise and Dogtooth and it’s hard for me to argue with any of your choices. To your list I would add Denis Lavant in HOLY MOTORS!

    • David Zou

      HOLY MOTORS,I really hope to say good things about it here when I get a chance to watch it.