Friday, October 2, 2009

Top 10 Lead Actors of the New Millenium

I have a problem. A compulsion. An abnormal preoccupation.
With listmaking.
Luckily for me, blogging is one of the very few situations in which compulsive listmaking isn't a bad habit: it's par for the course. So, in the first of many, many lists to come, I'm profiling what I consider to be the ten best performances by a lead actor from the new millenium. Please note that this disqualifies any actors that I categorize as Supporting (i.e. please don't ask me why Heath Ledger's Joker isn't on this list. That's a different list, which I'm sure he'll be on in the future). Without further ado...

10. Brad Pitt-The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Pitt's performance as Jesse James is a laser-focused character study of a man too big for his world. The Assassination... throws Jesse James into a world of half-wits and cowards, while giving him oceans of depth and nuance. Pitt doesn't shy away from the darker sides of his character: he stares into the abyss, and lets the emptiness he sees reflect in his eyes. The assassination scene is pure perfection: watch how Jesse surely knows what's about to happen, but allows his morbid curiousity to get the better of him. Really relevatory work here, and a complete travesty that the Academy didn't recognize it.

9. Jamie Bell-Billy Elliot (2000)
Every time I see this film, I'm both stunned and more than a little annoyed that a twelve year old from northern England is more talented than I'll ever be. Jamie Bell's debut performance is a knockout: he effortlessly captures the difficulties of growing up in his environment, the emotional minefield of discovering that his best (male) friend has feelings for him, and the sheer joy of doing what he loves, regardless of what the people around him think. Most people would cite the scene in which Billy recites his mother's letter, or perhaps the confrontation with Mrs. Wilkes in the changing room, as the standout acting sequence. For me, however, the award goes to saying goodbye to his brother on the bus, made all the more poignant, and difficult to act, by the fact that we can't hear what he's saying. All the audience gets is a facial expression, and a couple gestures, but it'll tear your heart out. Another fine performance that the Academy refused to acknowledge.

8. Daniel Day-Lewis-Gangs of New York (2002)
I love Daniel Day-Lewis so much it hurts sometimes. He's inarguably the best part of this admittedly flawed film. Lewis takes a character that could easily have been cliche (the heartless villian upon whom the hero seeks revenge), and turns it into one of the most memorable screen characters of the year. Bill the Butcher is a monster, but a very polite one. He brings Hannibal Lecter to mind: he's worth his weight in gold at a dinner party, as long as he decides to let you live. Bill speaks with such bizarre yet fitting diction, spinning every line into something memorable. And the physical acting quirks: his posturing, the way he taps on his glass eye with a knife. Effective stuff.

7. Jack Nicholson-About Schmidt (2002)
I love this performance for being exactly what it is: an exhibition of Jack Nicholson not doing the "Crazy Jack" persona that has brought him so much success. Nicholson's Schmidt is quiet, restrained, and bitter. He's opinionated, but bottles everything up. Just starting retirement, he begins to realize how trivial his life has been, and when his wife dies, he begins to fully comprehend his mortality. What a beautifully touching performance. Watching it, you can feel the weight of the ages on his shoulders, and you can see how inadequately equipped he is to deal with the issues he's facing. The last scene, in which he recieves a simple letter of thanks from the African child he sponsors, is a doozy.

6. Johnny Depp-Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)
After the unadulterated mess of the two Pirates sequels, it's easy to forget how blazingly original Jack Sparrow is. Reviewing the original film, however, it's hard not to stand in awe of Depp's sheer audacity. Nothing in the script suggests Sparrow's goofiness: his gambol that would make the Ministry of Silly Walks proud, the way his eyes bug out of his head, the way his tongue seems to be at odds with the rest of his face. Jack Sparrow is a masterwork of physical comedy. Every choice Depp makes is absolutely ludicrous, but somehow, inexplicably, works perfectly.

5. Bill Murray-Lost in Translation (2003)
Now the complete opposite end of the spectrum. Murray's performance is perfect for how much he doesn't do: Bob Harris could be the funniest man in the room, he could hog the spotlight, but instead, he just sits at the bar. It's astounding to see a man such as Harris in the middle of a mid-life crisis: every second, his funnyman persona is clashing with his emotional pain. The key to Murray's performance is that he rarely lets it show: Harris is a man doing his best not to let the world see that he's not happy. It's a beautiful exercise in restraint, and it plays wonderfully.

4. Heath Ledger-Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Allegedly, director Ang Lee told Ledger to play Ennis Del Mar "like a clenched fist," and that's exactly how it looks. Ennis' inner turmoil and torture is almost too much for words, but he'll be damned if that's going to show. Ledger plays Ennis as a man who struggles to embody his vision of masculinity at every moment, even as he struggles with his sexuality. This, on its own, is an achievement. What moves the performance into virtuoso territory is when Ennis lets his guard down. The moments of tenderness that he shows Jack are absolutely heart-rending. The scene involving the shirt (I'm avoiding spoilers: if you've seen the movie, you know exactly what I mean), is unbearably painful, and Ledger sells it without a word.

3. Phillip Seymour Hoffman-Capote (2005)
Most people won't agree with me here, but I have to rank Hoffman's performance just above Ledger's. That could well change with time--they're neck-and-neck. But, for now, my vote goes to Hoffman: his portrayal of Capote is spot on: the tics, the high, lisping voice, the man who does his best to appear comfortable inside his own skin. Then, he takes this fantastic impersonation and deepens it, lets Capote's emotions fester, until he lies in a hotel bed, paralyzed by his own shortcomings. His performance makes you feel like you're right in the room with him, and the way his voice breaks before the execution. I don't know about you, but I was simply dumbfounded.

2. Sean Penn-Mystic River (2003)
This entire film plays like a masterclass acting workshop, but Penn's performance is the standout of an incredibly impressive ensemble. Penn's Jimmy Markum is, above everything else, flawed. Penn portrays him as a man incapable of dealing with the emotions he's going through. Markum is a caged animal who has been tortured for too long: the only thing he knows well is pain and violence, and he inflicts those upon the people around him. Penn (literally) throws himself into this role: the physicality he displays when he finds out that his daughter has been murdered is astounding.

1. Daniel Day-Lewis-There Will Be Blood (2007)
There could only be one top spot, and if I didn't give it to Daniel Plainview, he would drink my milkshake right up. And I don't want that. There's not much that I can say about this performance that hasn't already been said. It's complete and utter perfection. Daniel Day-Lewis' achievement is to lose himself completely in the character, even beyond normal standards. The only thing more impressive than his acting is that he didn't irrevocably transform himself into this character. Daniel Plainview is just as present and valid as a real person, and that's the best tribute that I can give.

Thoughts? Opinions? Who did I leave out? Who should be higher? Let me know.


  1. I like this list, even though I have not seen several of the performances. As you know, I am not a huge Daniel Day Lewis fan, but he is a good actor. Since I really like Tom Hanks, I wish he were on the list, but he has not really done anything huge this decade. I did think he was good in Cast Away, but not worthy of a top ten listing.

  2. Man, some day you'll have to explain to me your irrational hatred of Daniel Day-Lewis. It saddens me. As for Tom Hanks: Cast Away was one of the performances I selected before I had to narrow the list down, but it wasn't enough to get to the top. And since then, he hasn't done much worth mentioning, as you so adroitly pointed out. Maybe some time, just for you, I'll profile the best of Tom Hanks :)

  3. Your bit about Brad Pitt is hard for me to believe. I really don't like Brad Pitt, though I'm sure he's capable of doing good performances if he refuses to play in stupid movies.

  4. You should see the movie. It is most decidedly not stupid.