5. Javier Bardem – No Country for Old Men
Javier Bardem broke out to American audiences right on the turn of the century with 2000’s Before Night Falls, which gave audiences a first look at the explosive talent the Spanish actor had. Earning more acclaim over the years for his roles in Biutiful, Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Skyfall, particularly from Francis Ford Coppola who named him the heir to acting titans Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson and Robert De Niro. It’s hard to think of higher praise than that to be honest with you. However, out of all his roles there is one that stands out as his finest performance to date, that being as the hitman Anton Chigurh in 2007’s No Country for Old Men.
From a hideously bad haircut to his bizarre weapon of choice, a captive bolt stunner, it was clear that this was a character that would live long in the mind of anyone who saw it. However, what makes the role so terrifying is Bardem’s cold and remorseless demeanour. At most times his eyes seem to be so lifeless that you are almost reminded of Karloff’s Frankenstein, in fact Chigurh may be even more monstrous.
Almost anyone unfortunate enough to come across Chigurh meets his or her end; in fact many film scholars compare the character to the personification of Death itself, an unstoppable entity claiming souls wherever he goes. The only chance his victims might get to avoid a grisly fate would be if they were fortunate enough to correctly call a coin toss. Bardem deservedly won the Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars for the role, which will continue to chill the bones of film lovers for many years to come.
4. Joaquin Phoenix – The Master
To me, there is no actor that has defined the 2010’s like Joaquin Phoenix. Having just come off his explosive performance in Joker, that won him his first Oscar to date, as well as earning added acclaim for his roles in Her and You Were Never Really Here, Phoenix has further established himself as one of the most intense and committed actors working right now. However, if I were to choose one performance of his that best exemplifies his position as one of the finest actors of his generation, it would have to as Freddie Quell in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master.
Quell is a traumatized World War II veteran who finds himself out-of-place in a post-war society and is frequently shown to display erratic behavior, this includes angry outbursts and acts of brutal violence. Eventually he comes across Lancaster Dodd (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman), instantly befriending him as well as quickly taken in by his bizarre philosophical teachings and cult of personality. It is impossible to take your eyes off Phoenix throughout the film, whose own eyes are filled with sneering contempt for his fellow man while also displaying years of extreme hardship and painful memories.
The most famous moment in the movie is where Dodd ‘processes’ Quell, which is already considered as one of the finest scenes between two actors ever put on film. Mainstream audiences have finally accepted Phoenix as a must-see actor and while we wait to see what he does next, one would think that it would be almost impossible to produce a performance that betters or even matches his one in The Master.
3. Heath Ledger – The Dark Knight
Never since James Dean did an actor’s death spark so much tragedy within the film business as Heath Ledger’s own in 2008. Ledger was only 28 years old when he passed, four years older than Dean, and in such a horrifically short career he was still able to achieve a legacy as one of the finest actors of his generation.
From his breakout hit in 10 Things I Hate About You to his heart breaking turn in Brokeback Mountain, Ledger left behind a series of performances that earned respect from legends such as Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and Daniel Day-Lewis. But none of these roles matched his posthumous masterpiece. I am of course talking about his role as the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.
When Ledger was announced to play the Joker, this was met by derision from hardcore fans of the comic books. Twelve years after the film’s release, it is hard to think of anyone more perfect for the role than Ledger himself. He described the Joker as a “psychopathic, mass murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy”; the actor is all those and then some.
Audiences were immediately drawn to his magnetic energy to such a degree that they saw past the actor’s disfigured makeup and saw a character that’s so unpredictable that they fought the urge to blink whenever he was onscreen. It’s tragic knowing that Ledger never enjoyed to adulation and success that would have followed this role, undoubtedly it would have launched him into becoming the biggest actor in the world, but at least he leaves behind a performance so iconic that it will be forever etched into the history of cinema.
2. Philip Seymour Hoffman – Capote
The best kind of performances are when the audience completely forgets that they are watching an actor in make-up and costumes and believe that they are real. Even more challenging for an actor is to do this while playing an actual person who existed. Truman Capote was one of the most famous writers America has ever produced, as well as possessing one of the loudest and distinctive personalities from any celebrity in that era. Playing him in a biopic would be extremely tricky for any actor, but it turned out that one man that was able to pull off the literary icon with such conviction was none other than the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Along with Ledger, Hoffman’s death was one of the most painful losses in the history of cinema. Widely recognised during his lifetime as perhaps the finest character actor working in Hollywood. His supporting roles in Happiness, Almost Famous and The Master (also one of the best performances I have ever seen) along with many others earned him plenty of acclaim. However, with the film Capote, Hoffman finally had the opportunity to play a leading role. Needless to say, he ended up knocking it out of the park.
The actor nails Capote’s odd mannerisms and voice inflection, but the true mastery in the performance is how deep Hoffman gets into the role, playing the writer during the most troubling time in his life showing his brash bravura being stripped and replaced with sheer helplessness and grief. When most actors play an existing person, it feels like a parody. But in this case, Hoffman was Capote.
1. Daniel Day-Lewis – There Will Be Blood
When film-lovers think of the finest performances in the history of cinema, the classic choices still remain. These being; Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront, Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Robert De Niro in Raging Bull among others. However if there is one single performance from the past two decades that deserve a place amongst the pantheons of legendary performances then look no further than Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood. In a career that has earned him a reputation as one of the greatest actors of all time, the film that is most commonly seen as his crowning achievement can be nothing other than Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 epic.
Day-Lewis portrays Daniel Plainview, an oil prospector who proves to be more monster than man, sucking up oil from the land like one would a milkshake from a glass. Plainview is utterly consumed by greed, setting him on a collision course with an equally ambitious preacher (played by Paul Dano). The two men represent the two pillars that hold up society in the United States, capitalism and religion.
Day-Lewis is iconic in the role, earning him his second Academy Award for Best Actor, his third coming just five years later with another extraordinary performance in Spielberg’s Lincoln. The actor teamed up with PTA again in Phantom Thread before announcing his retirement from acting. If we truly have seen the last of Daniel Day-Lewis onscreen then at least he leaves behind a vast filmography unmatched by almost any other actor that came before him, and There Will Be Blood is the leading example of his genius as a performer.