The 10 Best Male Movie Performances of All Time

5. Al Pacino in “The Godfather: Part II” (1974)

The Godfather Part II

If you think that Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone is the best performance in the Godfather trilogy or the best in Brando’s career, this writer respects your opinion very much, but politely disagrees (check number four on this list).

In “The Godfather: Part II,” we keep following the story of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), who now tries to expand the business of his family to Cuba, Las Vegas and Hollywood.

If in the first film of the trilogy we see Michael getting rid of his innocence (if there was innocence at first) and becoming the head of his family, in this movie we see how power is able to transform him into a person completely out of control.

From his angry temper to his cold decision to murder his brother, Pacino brings all the nuances necessary to make Michael Corleone one of the most complex characters in film. This is the best performance of Pacino’s career and surely one of the best in cinema history.


4. Marlon Brando in “On the Waterfront” (1954)

I Coulda Been a Contender - On The Waterfront (1954)

This movie that won eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director for Elia Kazan and Best Actor to Marlon Brando, is among the best made in the United States in the second half of the 20th century.

Marlon Brando is normally remembered as one the best actors of all time and Elia Kazan is one of the best in directing actors. The result could not be anything but outstanding.

“On the Waterfront” follows the story of Terry Malloy (Brando), a man who dreams about being a fighter and who works for the corrupt boss of the dockers union. One day, he witnesses his boss’s thugs killing a man and feels guilty about it. The thing is that he develops a relationship with Edie (Eva Marie Saint), the sister of the man he saw being murdered.

This film has many iconic scenes, but in particular, the car scene where Terry talks to his brother and the park scene where Terry takes Edie’s gloves show that we are seeing some of the best acting in history. “On the Waterfront” has the best performance in Brando’s career and should without a doubt be watched by any cinephile.


3. Takashi Shimura in “Ikiru” (1952)


How subtle, beautiful and brilliant is Takashi Shimura’s acting in Akira Kurosawa’s “Ikiru”?

Following the story of Kanji Watanabe (Shimura), “Ikiru” shows us a civil servant who has a very monotonous life until he discovers he has less than a year to live due to cancer in the stomach. After the initial shock, Kanji notices that even though he does not have much time, it doesn’t mean he can’t do significant things.

The humanistic approach in this film, directed by Japanese master Akira Kurosawa, is naturally alluring. Shimura’s quiet and profound performance is able to transmit all the pain of a man who sees his time is running out and, even with all the suffering, finds the will to live.

In one of Kurosawa’s greatest films, Shimura delivers one of the best and most beautiful performances in cinema history.


2. Charlie Chaplin in “City Lights” (1931)

city lights

When we watch this film, and especially when we watch its last scene, we can easily notice that we’re watching one of the greatest artists of the 20th century.

In this film, Charlie Chaplin is a tramp who falls in love with a blind woman who has financial trouble. With the support of a friend who is a wealthy tippler, he is able to help the woman he loves.

This “comedy romance in pantomime” (as described in the title sequence) that was written, directed and starred by Chaplin is surely one of the best films of his career (if not the best). The way he is able to control the mise en scène even when he is in front of the camera is truly extraordinary.

As mentioned above, when we watch the last scene of this film, when we see the tramp’s expression of true love and happiness, there is no doubt we’re watching one of the best performances of all time.


1. Jack Nicholson in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975)

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

In this film that won five Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director (Milos Forman), Best Actor (Jack Nicholson), Best Actress (Louise Fletcher) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Bo Goldman and Lawrence Hauben), Jack Nicholson delivers the best performance of his career and one of the best in history.

On “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” we follow the story of McMurphy (Nicholson), a criminal who once again gets himself in trouble, but this time pleads insanity to escape labor duties in prison. He is then sent to a ward for mentally unstable people and witnesses the abuse suffered by the inmates in the hands of Nurse Ratched (Fletcher).

Nicholson is truly at his best on this film. Every expression, every line, every time he moves his mouth or his eyes in this film helps create one of the most intriguing characters we’ve seen in the history of cinema. As McMurphy, Nicholson completely takes over the screen (but does not totally steal the show because the other performances, particularly Louise Fletcher’s, are superb).

“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is a classic 70’s film that should definitely be watched again and again. And the performance by Jack Nicholson is simply astonishing. Is it the best of all time? Please, share your thoughts below.

Author bio: Vítor Guima is a filmmaker, writer and musician from São Paulo, Brazil. Every day he watches a movie, reads a few pages from a book, listens to an album and freaks out with the feeling of not having enough time to see everything. You can follow him on Instagram on @ovitorguima.