The 10 Best Subtle Movie Performances of The Decade

A powerful performance doesn’t need to be flashy or outlandish, but rather the complete opposite; the actor keeps all the emotions internal. They use their body and face as their main instruments instead of makeup and prosthetics to express the cathartic process, character development, or human condition on screen. Therefore, here are 10 recent of the most subtle and powerful performances.


10. On Body and Soul (2017) – Alexandra Borbely

A film that explores the depth and connection between dreams and real life between two lonely people, Borbely controls her confusion and shyness to our command. Throughout Ildiko Enyedi’s film, we go back and forth between a modern day slaughterhouse and two deer in a snowy forest. The story slowly unfolds all with Borbely at the center.

Borbely’s blank stare, awkwardness, and abnormal societal approach makes her stand out, much like her character. She is blunt and shy to the point of being cocky and clearly misunderstood. She directs her performance away from cliches or naive shortcoming as some workers comment on her looks. Thus, how does she play this part? Of course, with her companion of dreams and co-worker, played by Geza Morcsanyi, we see other sides of herself on screen.

Borbely delivers a performance that shows how so much thought is present in one’s mind while giving off very little physically or emotionally to those around her, or only those that pay attention; let’s hope one does for the latter.


9. Things to Come (2016) – Isabelle Huppert

Things To Come

Possibly the queen of using her face to convey the innermost emotions of her soul, Huppert plays a woman approaching the latter years of her life alone after her husband leaves her. The film is composed of the smallest moments of life, death, and everything in-between without losing humor and insight in Mia Hansen Love’s acclaimed film.

Sure, we see the laughter, crying, and confusion of Huppert’s Nathalie in Paris and the countryside. And we do see her family and professional life with real insight, but Huppert manages to glue us to her by relieving everything of herself despite not knowing what exactly that may be. She is in confusion, her children are older, her mother is delusional, her husband is gone, and her teaching career is up in the air, so we follow her on her daily routines.

The cathartic subtleness of Huppert comes from the smallest moments and observation such as her bond or lack thereof with her mother’s cat, the philosophical relationship with a former student, and long walks in the countryside.

Love has always showed the passage of time with a subtle, contained performance filled with humanity, and Huppert simply soared it to new heights.


8. Burning (2018) – Yoo Ah-in

After an eight-year absence from the screen, Lee Chang Dong returned for a glorious physiological thriller filled with dread, isolation, and confusion all lead by Yoo Ah-in’s performance. In the film, he plays an aspiring writer with no clear direction until he meets a girl who once lived in his neighborhood.

The film is filled with heavy themes of confusion, the modern alienation of youth culture, and the times we live in, but somehow Yoo managed to express this all through himself. He is completely unsure of what to make of the situation when the woman brings a successful boyfriend into her life, yet remains a confident approach of who he is. As the plot twists unfold, Yoo never loses sight of what he wants, without directly telling the audience in Dong’s narrative.

Yoo shows how with the slightest gestures or complacent stares can truly make an impact in the given moment and even more rewarding as the film continues to a shocking finale. Again, the ‘less is more’ approach works even better in a film of self-assuredness like this one.


7. Measure of a Man (2015) – Vincent Lindon

French lead actor Vincent Lindon has always done excellent work with directors like Claire Denis to Benoit Jacquot. Here, he excels as a recently hired security officer after a stretch of unemployment. In Stephane Brize’s film, we see the economic struggles and hardships that the world is going through a lower middle-class perspective.

As the film progresses, Lindon must report to his boss on employees who take advantage of the system. He simply observes his subordinates and peers from a distance, never interacting or correcting them. For example, an employee scanning their personal rewards card as a regular customer pays for an abundance of supplies. Lindon must report this theft and if not, he will lose his much needed job.

Lindon’s body posture softly sways back and forth as his face becomes more stern due to this moral dilemma. Brize allows the audience to figure out what is going on in Lindon’s head, but Lindon is almost telling you at the same exact time; maybe we just want to refuse it. He is able to craft an observant and demanding performance, where the audience watches much like himself, and we must decide what to make of the situation as well.


6. My Happy Family (2017) – Ia Shugliashvili

A film that explores three generations of a Georgian family as one woman repels from its tradition in Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Grob’s drama. As the film opens, Shugliashvili, the primary caregiver and mother in the household, is clearly suffering quietly. We can see it in the mannerisms and overall despair with no one else noticing.

Therefore, when she finally decides to leave and live a life on her own, we witness a rebirth in her spirit and soul. Of course, as the drama unfolds and secrets come to fruition, Shugliashvili manages to deal with them more openly, alive, and present, no matter the consequences.

There comes a simple scene in the beginning when she stops to buy an orange as she is clearly depressed. Then after starting anew, she smells all the oranges and happily buys them. The passage of time and more importantly, what Shugliashvili expresses in her body language, is on full display.

Shugliashvili is the link in this film, much like the primary link in her family; therefore, how she manages to balance everything, all within herself to the lack of notice by everyone else, is simply superb.