The 20 Best Male Movie Performances of All Time

Cinema is full of great and compelling acting, as acting is a substantial part of filmmaking. Actors are the ones who give life to the characters who experience love and hate; great acting involves complex and beautifully created characters. Here is a list of the greatest male performances of all time.


20. Jérémie Renier in L’Enfant

The leading character of this film by the Dardenne Brothers is a unique one; he gives the name to the film as he is a 20-year-old man with the mentality of a child. Through the film, we see him solve his problems with the naivety and creativity of a kid, and take decision with it as well. Criminal actions such as selling a baby are seen under a different filter because of the nature of this character, who appears to not understand the gravity of the situation.

Jérémie Renier helps the Dardenne Brothers create this unique character who mostly communiques through his body and gestures, delivering a compelling and painful ending that relies solely on acting.


19. Dirk Bogarde in The Servant

The Servant

“The Servant” is a 1963 film directed by Joseph Losey in which Tony, a young and rich man played by James Fox, hires another young man named Hugo Barrett to be his servant, played by the virtuoso Dirk Bogarde. “The Servant” displays a complex dynamic between the characters in which a very special bond is created between Tony and Hugo.

The transformation arc of this bond is the main attraction of the film, and implies that the character of Bogarde goes from being dominated to dominating. The role of Servant is played by Bogarde with all of the passion and subtlety that he was able to achieve.


18. Bruce Dern in Nebraska

Nebraska (2013)

This 2013 black-and-white film by Alexander Payne is an achievement for modern filmmaking due to its simplicity and humanity. The film is about an old, almost catatonic man named Woody Grant, played by Bruce Dern, who is convinced that he has won a million dollars and must go to Nebraska in order claim the prize.

Throughout the film, the relationship of Woody with his past and his family is transformed; its constant disconnection is interrupted by brief moments of honest understanding, especially between Woody and his son. For this part, Dern received an award at Cannes for Best Actor.


17. Tony Leung in In the Mood for Love

In the Mood for Love film

This wonderfully written film by Wong Kar-wai is about a husband and a wife who first discover that they have been cheated on by their spouses with each other’s spouses, and who later developed a romantic but platonic bond. Through the film, much of the characteristics of the leads are delivered through subtext, and thus it demanded not only great writing but also great acting.

Tony Leung plays Chow Mo-Wan and Maggie Cheung plays Su Lizhen. In several scenes, Leung displays his ability to deliver subtle yet expressive reactions; he also is able to do simple actions such as smoking with the tone that matches the romantic and slow-passed atmosphere of the film.


16. Anatoly Solonitsyn in Andrei Rublev

Andrei Rublev

“Andrei Rublev” is a masterpiece by Tarkovsky, composed of several short tales involving the life of Andrei Rublev, sometimes as a protagonist and sometimes as witness to external events such as the construction of a bell.

The character of Rublev is played by Anatoly Solonitsyn, who collaborated on many films with Tarkovsky. For this character, Solonitsyn had to be in a permanent state of crisis, but it had to be a silent one, as he is doubting of his craft, his god, and his society. Solonitsyn is able to deliver moments of hope and understanding, and also of deep crisis.


15. Joe Pesci in Goodfellas

One of Martin Scorsese’s great masterpieces is “Goodfellas,” and in this film he presents us a dark world of gangsters with extremely violent and interesting characters. One of these characters is Tommy DeVito, played by the talented Joe Pesci.

The unique character that Pesci was able to depict was why Scorsese chose him for many collaborations, and this was one of the greatest. Tommy is a unique character and with a unique way of talking and moving, which could only be done by Pesci.


14. Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’S Nest (1975)

Jack Nicholson plays Randle Patrick McMurphy in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” a film by Milos Forman in which the life inside an asylum for the mad is depicted.

The character played by Nicholson has gotten into the asylum trying to avoid jail, and as soon as he arrives, he tries to take control of the place and manipulate the people inside it. Nicholson delivered many great parts through his career, and one of the greatest is this one, in which his ability to display rage and to create unique and disturbing interactions with other character is seen at its highest.


13. Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca


Rick Blaine is a man who only looks for his own neck, or at least that is what he says about himself. Through the great classic that is “Casablanca,” we see Rick transform from the selfish character he claims to be into a man who sacrifices even himself for the greater good.

Rick is played by the legendary Humphrey Bogart, who had to build a character who is at the same time a deep-rooted idealistic and an intelligent businessman who’s able to hide this idealism. He also built the wound that Rick has for his past with Ilsa Lund; this wound is wonderfully depicted through the film, but also in a scene where Rick is drinking and there is nothing but internal action.


12. Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds

Inglourious Basterds

One of the greatest villains in film history is the fearsome Hans Landa from Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds.”

The Jew Hunter is played by the multifaceted Austrian actor Christoph Waltz, who created a villain of the best kind, those that we like and at the same time despise. Landa has a unique operating way of leading conversations, always taking control of the subtext of what he is saying; this allowed Waltz to display his acting skills as he had never done before.


11. Harvey Keitel in Ulysses Gaze

Ulysses' Gaze

It is indeed strange to think of a collaboration between the great Greek master Theo Angelopoulos and American star Harvey Keitel, but this collaboration indeed happened and it led to one of the greatest films from both of them.

The unnamed character of Keitel is on a unique trip in search of his origin, and this has him facing several elements of his past. The character is faced with the tragic destiny of being the subject of time, which allows Keitel to display his ability to deliver compelling monologues and to fill his actions with a sensitive and tragic tone.