Let’s face it; the first year into the second decade of the 21st century hasn’t been exactly promising for cinema. In fact, the movie business is in a slump unlike ever before because of the recent pandemic that has seen the release of many films being pushed back or even cancelled completely.
While I remain optimistic that once everything is relatively back to normal, until then I have taken the opportunity to go back and see what are the best movie performances of the 21st century so far. I will be splitting the list into two, male and female performances, simply because we have been treated to so much great acting over the past two decades that I decided that just one list was not going to be enough.
I’m sure lists like these will encourage readers to leave comments reprimanding me for leaving off their favourite performances. So in the interest fairness, here is a shortlist of female performances that just missed my top ten but should still be recognized for the huge impact that they left. In no particular order, the runners up are: Leila Hatami (A Separation), Björk (Dancer in the Dark), Viola Davis (Fences), Katie Jarvis (Fish Tank), Anamaria Marinca (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days), Marion Cotillard (La Vie en Rose), Saoirse Ronan (Lady Bird), Kirsten Dunst (Melancholia), Kim Hye-ja (Mother) and Tilda Swinton (We Need to Talk About Kevin).
10. Yalitza Aparicio – Roma
Every now and then, an actor/actress bursts onto the scene with a performance so special that the whole world takes notice. One such performance was in 2018 with Alfonso Cuarón’s semi-autobiographical film Roma. But rather than making the film about this own childhood within a middle-class household in Mexico City, the film instead follows the family’s housekeeper Cleo. The role is one required a true breakout star as Cuarón auditioned 110 indigenous women for over a year before he finally found his leading lady. A twenty-four year old aspiring pre-school teacher called Yalitza Aparicio.
Aparicio admitted that before Roma she had zero acting experience or training and even stated that the only reason she auditioned for the role was because she had nothing better to do. These statements are incredibly hard to believe while watching the film, as it is immediately made clear that Aparicio has been blessed with the skill and talent that would take most performers a lifetime to perfect. Despite the many hardships Cleo faces over the film’s runtime, she always tackles her labours with extreme grace. She is seen as not only the moral centre of the film but also for the family that employs her.
Though they may underappreciate Cleo at times, in the end they realise the significance she holds to all of them after she almost sacrifices herself to save two of the children from drowning in perhaps the most famous scene in the movie. Overnight, Roma catapulted Aparicio as both a worldwide star and an icon for indigenous Mexicans. Although it is unlikely that she will continue her career as an actress, at least she leaves behind a single role that will live in the memory of cinephiles forever.
9. Kate Winslet – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Kate Winslet is certainly one of the most unique as well as acclaimed actresses working today. She achieved fame very early on in her career with her performance in James Cameron’s megahit Titanic. But with the exception of the film that launched into stardom, you will be hard pressed to find her in big studio releases.
In fact, over the years she has tended to gravitate towards smaller independent films that focus more on fully developed characters than outlandish special effects. However, one such film from her filmography that managed to blend both these traits presented the actress with her best performance yet, this is the highly influential 2004 sci-fi romance masterpiece Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Directed by the visionary Michel Gondry and the screenplay by the genius Charlie Kaufman, the film follows an estranged couple that falls back in love despite erasing their memories of each after their relationship broke up the first time. During this stage in her career, Winslet already had a reputation as specializing in playing unsympathetic ‘difficult’ women, so in a deliberate attempt to play against type she plays Clementine Kruczynski, a free spirit who frequently changes her hair colour depending on her mood.
While it is easy on the surface to disparage the role as playing into the ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’ stereotype, Winslet does justice to the script by reiterating that Clementine is a deeply flawed character, what with her reckless behavior and alcohol dependence. Despite these traits, the audience can’t help but find themselves falling for Clementine just her partner does, after all she is as much fascinating as she is endearing. Needless to say, Eternal Sunshine is a special film that defines a generation of filmmakers and Winslet’s performance is certainly a huge part of the movie’s enduring legacy.
8. Lupita Nyong’o – 12 Years a Slave
While we have seen plenty of breakout stars from the past decade, both male and female, I can’t think of one who made such an incredible impact in their first role in a major motion picture than Lupita Nyong’o. She has enjoyed plenty of success so far in her career; including supporting roles in box office titans such as the Star Wars sequel trilogy, The Jungle Book and Black Panther. Her leading role in Jordan Peele’s Us also deserves a mention as it was one of the best pieces of acting I’ve ever seen in a horror film. But if you want to see her finest performance to date then you will have to go back to Steve McQueen’s 2013’s slavery-based epic 12 Years a Slave.
Nyong’o plays Patsey in a role that would be incredibly difficult if not traumatic for any actress to play, as she is the victim in many brutal scenes involving sexual, physical and emotional abuse. With that being said, it is a testament to Nyong’o’s strength and resiliency as she fully commits to the role, which leaves the audience scarred from her harrowing performance.
There is one scene in particular that stands out as the moment Nyong’o solidifies herself as one of the leading actresses of her generation, this is where she stands up to her monstrous master after leaving the plantation simply to get a bar of soap so she can bathe herself. The scene is so gut wrenching that it is enough to turn even the most hardened critic to tears. 12 Years a Slave is undeniably an uncomfortable film but it is one that everyone should watch all the same and while it is full of brilliant performances, it is Nyong’o who at the heart of the story steals every scene she’s in.
7. Charlize Theron – Monster
If I had to say which actress defined the last decade in cinema, I would have to say Charlize Theron. Given her success in both blockbuster tent poles as well as earning the reputation as an indie darling, it is no surprise how Theron became one of the most valuable stars in Hollywood today. Her output in the past decade has been nothing short of impressive; whether it being as an alcoholic depressive in Young Adult, a badass feminist icon in Mad Max: Fury Road or just simply hilarious in Long Shot. However, despite her fantastic work in the 2010s, she is yet to produce a performance as close to perfection that she did in her portrayal of Aileen Wuornos in Patty Jenkins’ 2003 biopic of the notorious serial killer.
Aileen Wuornos was a former prostitute who murdered seven of her male clients within a single year and was subsequently executed for her crimes. Theron’s performance of Wuornos has been described over the years as perhaps the greatest transformation any actor has undergone to play a role. Theron gained thirty pounds, shaved her eyebrows and wore prophetic teeth for role, making her completely unrecognizable from the glamorous starlet people saw her as at the time.
But to me, what makes the performance so legendary is how she shows Wuornos as a woman plagued by personality disorders; it may in fact the most realistic depiction of mental illness in film history. Theron is both frightening and sympathetic in the role of a woman who at no point seems comfortable in her own mind and body. Unsurprisingly, it earned Theron her only Academy Award to date, but with an actress as talented and fearless as her it won’t be long until she adds another Oscar to her already vast collection of awards.
6. Sandra Hüller – Toni Erdmann
It is exceedingly rare for a foreign language comedy to breakout into English speaking markets, even rarer for one with a run time twenty minutes shy of three hours. But somehow, Maren Ade’s German comedy-drama Toni Erdmann managed to accomplish the seemingly impossible.
It was met with acclaim from critics both in Europe and America and won big at the Cannes Film Festival and European Film Awards before earning an Oscar nomination for Best Film in a Foreign Language. Much of the film’s praise was for it’s impressive character development, especially when it came to the character of Ines Conradi, played by Sandra Hüller in one of the finest performances of a comedic foil in recent memory.
The film follows a practical joke loving father who tries desperately hard to reconnect with his estranged work-driven daughter by creating an outlandish alter ego named Toni Erdmann. At first Hüller plays the straight-laced Ines as exasperated by her father antics and frustrated by her sexist work environment, however as the film progresses she gradually removes her mask by allowing herself to be taken in by her Father’s absurd antics.
This leads to her taking more power in the work place as well as seeing the pain behind her Father’s comedy. What is so impressive about her performance is that she never allows herself to fall into cliché as the humourless career woman, if anything the audience takes her side throughout the film and wants her to break out of the mundane structure of her life and accept the world’s craziness just as her father has. Hüller is the beating heart of a film that’s as beautifully funny as it is a masterpiece of complex character study.