The 10 Best Paul Giamatti Movie Performances

5. Saving Mr. Banks (John Lee Hancock, 2013)

Saving Mr. Banks

Though Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks got all the deserved praise for their performances in this affecting little drama, few people have noticed the great work Giamatti does in his small part. As the driver that Disney sends to accompany P.L. Travers about the city, he infuses warmth and character into the part, making the most of his few scenes and building quite the chemistry with Thompson, in one of her best performances.

Quietly important for the whole of the movie’s narrative, the input of Giamatti’s character and his relationship with Travers is played beautifully by these two brilliant actors, enhancing each other’s best traits and working with the script to create an affecting story.

Saving Mr. Banks is exactly the kind of movie that’s much better just for having Giamatti on it.


4. Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg, 2012)


Making his appearance by the third act of Cronenberg’s talky, misunderstood thriller, Giamatti is an essential piece of the director’s narrative and message. It’s a rare opportunity for him to deliver a bravura performance as a character that’s much more complex than just a villain for our lead, played by Robert Pattinson, to confront in the end of his journey.

He absolutely seizes that chance, chewing scenery and ably navigating the movie’s complex style of dialogue, taken from Don DeLillo’s novel. In the not-so-brief moments he’s on screen, Cosmopolis finds the verve and the rhythm it’s been missing all along, and Pattinson finds a worthy scene-partner to build his performance upon. It’s a shame it ends as soon as it does.


3. American Splendor (Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini, 2003)

American Splendor

The indie marvel that put Giamatti on every director’s radar was American Splendor, a faithful adaptation of Harvey Pekar’s autobiographic, metafictional comic book series of the same name.

Acting as Pekar himself, or better yet, as Pekar’s version of himself in his slice-of-life comics, Giamatti infuses this everyday man with ordinary greatness and everyday wonder without overplaying it or making it fussy. It’s the first in a stride of great performances whose foundation lies in understanding and expressing the very guts of believable, relatable characters, while not idealizing them.

One of the absolute best movies of its year, American Splendor works largely because Giamatti is there, doing his thing. When an actor is that irreplaceable for a movie, it’s got to be a sign of the actor’s talent.


2. Sideways (Alexander Payne, 2004)


Giamatti’s true breakthrough came with Alexander Payne’s road movie Sideways, in which the actor plays Miles, half of an odd couple of middle-aged men who decide to take a trip through California’s wine country just before one of them is about to get married.

The movie scored Oscar nominations for Giamatti’s co-stars, Thomas Haden Church and Virginia Madsen, but it didn’t get Giamatti himself on the ballot. As a flawed but adorable loser, the actor delivered a performance so mature, understated and well-conceived it led to several other times in which directors cast Giamatti to play essentially this same role.

It goes without the saying that the magic of Sideways was never quite duplicated, though. If there’s ever a one of a kind movie with one of a kind performances, it’s this one.


1. Barney’s Version (Richard J. Lewis, 2010)

Barney’s Version

Picking up a Golden Globe for his performance, Giamatti resorted to this indie dramedy for one of his few leading roles. Richard J. Lewis’ movie, based on a celebrated novel, follows a man in his search for love throughout a few decades – Barney’s a character largely distinguished by his flaws, and Giamatti doesn’t try to underplay them, delivering not only a strong, solid lead performance, but also fleshing out the character and navigating through genres with ease. It’s a complete and stunning work, largely taking upon itself to carry the film through the few bumps on the road that the script leaves behind.

As noted by Roger Ebert when the movie was released, Giamatti’s secret is that he plays “unremarkable but memorable men”, revealing the human depth and warmth behind each character he plays, and always bringing a certain understanding and sympathy for them to the table.