Tag Team Corner (Matt and Curt): Best Male Acting Performances of the Last Decade

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Matt: I’m a big fan of powerful acting performances (who isn’t?). So with that in mind, I’d like to suggest a question for you, Curt: Favorite male acting performance of the last decade?

Curt: The last decade? Well, I think the best way to do this is stream of consciousness style. If a performance is so compelling that it is one of the first to come to mind, it must be pretty good.

daniel-day-lewis.jpgWhen I think of great acting performances, the kind that come to mind are those in which the actor embodies his character to such an extent, that there’s explicit demarcation between his own personal bearing and that of the character he plays. With that in mind, there are two performances that come to mind: Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men, and Daniel Day Lewis in There Will be Blood.

I saw both of these films within a few weeks of each other, in late 2007/early 2008. The films/performances are linked in my mind not only because I viewed them in close proximity, but also because the films feature superb performances from two top shelf actors, both of whom receive fewer kudos—relative to their skill—than one might expect. Both performances are striking in that they feature men who personify evil, yet incongruently maintain some sort of perverse integrity which, ironically, allows their characters to—in their own minds—justify their ever increasing depravity.

Matt: I concur (Dicaprio style). Both men embodied their characters so well that it was simply moving. The facial expressions, the gestures, the hesitations – all so perfect.

Lewis in particular continues to excel whether in little known movies like My Left Foot or grandiose, more celebrated movies like Gangs of New York. He has the ability to fully command the screen and keep the audience riveted.

Let me throw a curveball and move away from the Oscar-celebrated ranks for a second. What about Will Smith in I Am Legend? I say this because here you have a movie that is completely CGI and only one human (for most of the movie) with a dog. Now, the script is hardly cause for celebration and sure you can dislike it all you want, but I left that movie thinking, ‘Is there anything this man can’t pull off?’

Curt: I usually feel like a spoilsport when discussing Will Smith and I Am Legend. By a wide margin, more movie fans like it than dislike it (or so has been my observation). And I’ll try to separate my indifference to the movie from discussion of the quality of Will Smith’s acting job. I like Will Smith as an actor, though I wasn’t feelin’ it in I Am Legend. I thought Smith’s performances in Ali and Pursuit of Happyness were better. I didn’t sense the depth of genuine emotion from Smith as I did in the others. I wanted to feel Will’s pain when he had conversations with the mannequins and his dog Sam, but it wasn’t in my gut. Knowing that you “should” feel something and actually feeling it are two different things, of course.

In all fairness, it takes a special actor to monopolize screen time in a compelling way, maybe like Tom Hanks did in Castaway. As a leading man, when your primary supporting actor is a volleyball, a dog, or a blank chroma key screen, the level of difficulty goes way up.

And relative to Leo D. (we are buddies, so he lets me call him that), I have been reluctantly impressed with his ability to play a character with some machismo. In real life, he seems like a guy that might throw like a girl and maintain regular manicure appointments. In Blood Diamond, he comes off as a guy that wouldn’t back away from an invitation to fight.

Matt, what are your thoughts on Will Smith in I Am Legend and what other male acting performance would you rank highest in the last ten years?

Matt: Absolutely couldn’t agree more about Tom Hanks. That performance in Castaway was one of my favorites in years. I’d have a hard time beating Ed Harris in Pollock, Sean Penn in I Am Sam or Mystic River, Joaquin Phoenix in Walk the Line, Will Smith in Ali, David Strathairn in Good Night, And Good Luck, and absolutely anything with Russell Crowe (who I believe is the best actor alive). *Note, I would say Daniel Day-Lewis is the best actor alive but he only comes out every five years, so that makes me upset enough to give it to someone else.

I like Leo quite a bit as well, but not in that movie as much as it was celebrated. And I just mentioned I Am Legend because of the lack of supporting cast, just like Castaway. Not because I thought it was the end-all of thespianism (is that a word?).

But to boil it down to one performance? Daniel Day-Lewis as Bill “The Butcher” Cutting in Gangs of New York. You?

Curt: Nice choice, Matt. That role was good preparation for There Will be Blood. And if thespianism isn’t a bonafide word, it should be. I like it. You noted several other actors whose work I especially like, namely Sean Penn (Sweet and Lowdown and Mystic River) and Ed Harris. It’s a shame to leave out guys like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Denzel Washington (He won an Oscar for Training Day, which I see as one of his least effective films), Ed Norton (I could easily pick American History X, and leave it at that), not to mention the often subtle and understated Kevin Spacey (American Beauty), and Johnny Depp. I’d also love to pick Heath Ledger for his performance as The Joker in Dark Knight, which was stunning and creepy.

karl-childers.jpg

Despite all of these great performances, I’m going to go with Billy Bob Thornton in Sling Blade. Surprised? Granted, it’s sometimes perceived as a cult film and does have some violence and bad language, but in terms of an individual performance, Billy Bob Thornton’s work in this movie is strikingly good, almost mind boggeling. Thornton so thoroughly transforms his demeanor to the point that Thornton the person is largely unrecognizable as himself. Not only does he convincingly become Karl Childers, but he draws huge empathy from the audience for this simple, but good man. Knowing the extent to which this was truly Thornton’s film (he wrote, directed, and starred in it), helps me settle on this performance as the one that belongs at the top. Thornton won an Academy Award for Best Writing and was nominated as Best Actor. He should have won.

So Matt, let’s open up the cyber floor to Rabbit Room brothers and sisters (Rabbitheads). Do you agree with the performances Matt and I noted, or is there one that blew your socks off, that we simply overlooked? We used the last ten years as a parameter to put some focus on this fun project, but a year or two either way is okay. I’m adding that modification since I just realized Sling Blade is from a little more than ten years ago and I’d rather read your ideas than do a rewrite.


27 Comments

  1. Seth H.

    No disagreements whatsoever with any of the performances listed here. All very fine work. However, I’m here to provide a few of my personal favorites, some of which are either underrated or overlooked by most people. In rough chronological order:

    John Cusack in High Fidelity – Painful insight into what it means to not only be a contemporary man but also a music snob. Not a very sympathetic character, but somehow endearing anyway.

    Gene Hackman in The Royal Tenenbaums – Another slimy-yet-endearing character, this one with a somewhat more redemptive mindset. It’s a bonus that everything coming out of his mouth is hilarious, even when it’s also quite emotional.

    Al Pacino in Insomnia – Everyone says that Pacino does nothing but yell, but this movie proves otherwise. Here he carefully dissects the unraveling mind of his character, a formerly great man who has lost his way and now must pay the price.

    Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt – Like Pacino in Insomnia, this role defies the Nicholson stereotype. He’s not the cool bad boy at all. He’s a fairly dull old man stricken with grief and feeling very insignificant. The closing scene alone, an emotionally raw moment of clarity, is the stuff of legend.

    Andy Serkis in The Lord of the Rings – A lot of people think this is all CGI, but all of Gollum’s movements and facial expressions come from Serkis. It’s a virtuoso performance, one that was wrongly ignored by the Oscars because of the digital component.

    Bill Nighy in Love Actually – Little more than an extended cameo, but this performance has probably drawn more laughs from me than any I’ve ever seen. Every word, every gesture, every little tick is dripping with funny. And if that weren’t enough, Nighy still manages to give the man a soul.

    Jim Caviezel in The Passion of the Christ – Everyone just remembers the blood and gore from this movie, but there’s a lot of fine acting going on here. The impressiveness is only compounded by the fact that everyone is speaking (and emoting) in languages that haven’t been used conversationally in well over a thousand years. Caviezel’s work was physically and spiritually taxing, and it shows.

    Terence Howard in Hustle & Flow – In the same arena as Cusack and Hackman, playing a character that you shouldn’t like but do anyway. This is definitely not a “Christian” movie, but it does present a rather beautiful metaphor of a dead soul being brought to life.

    Ray Winstone in The Proposition – Not enough has been said about this movie as a whole, let alone Winstone. But his portrait of an ultimately noble man who is forced to do some horrible things is vivid and sad. His character is so clearly defined by one brilliant line: “I will civilize this land.”

    Brad Pitt in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford – I’m not the only one to have said this, but Pitt’s performance here is straight out of a horror movie. There’s an inescapable feeling of danger and dread whenever he’s on screen. Yet he also manages to be a tragic figure. Casey Affleck was also brilliant in this film, but Pitt’s performance was the more underrated of the two, so I thought I would bring it up.

    I could go on and on (and on), but I’ll stop now.

  2. Brian

    Ian McKellan as Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. He was one of the few characters which I was impressed with throughout the trilogy. Most of the others had a poor line here, a wimpy fight scene there, or one too many pajama pillow fights in bed.

  3. Tim

    I just read the article, but the first two performances that jumped into my head were Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump and Russell Crowe in Beautiful Mind. Oh, and just before I hit the “submit” button another one hit me – what about the Johnny Depp’s original and screen-stealing performance as Jack Sparrow. (Also Depp in Finding Neverland, or just about anything.) OK, better stop.

  4. Shawn

    I must concur with most of the selections listed – especially where Daniel Day-Lewis is concerned. His work in “In the Name of the Father” is one of my favorites. The same is true of Russell Crowe. “Master and Commander” was a phenomenal film – one that holds up well to repeated viewings. Since you added “a year or two” how about four so I can pick Tim Robbins in “The Shawshank Redemption” since it stands as a favorite. If not, I’ll have to add Kevin Spacey as Verbal Kent from “The Usual Suspects,” the ensemble led by George Clooney in, “O Brother Where Art Thou,” and Ryan Gosling from “Half Nelson.” And yes, some of those are just because they’re from favorite films.

  5. Shawn

    Oh, and I liked “I Am Legend” okay, but the original ending that was cut makes it a much stronger movie. It works so much better as an overall concept and brings the theme full-circle while ‘humanizing’ the CGI ‘monsters’ and also leaves it open to a lot more potential for future dread. Definitely worth a web-search as several sites have the ‘alternate’ ending available for view.

  6. Vicki in NC

    I am a drive-by visitor, but when I read subject of this post, my first thought was also BB Thornton in Sling Blade. Excellent choice, Curt, I’ll be back to visit.

  7. Chris Slaten

    I agree with most of the above. I would also throw in Nicholas Cage in Adaptation. His conversations with his polar opposite brother, who he also played, were impressive and I was pretty emotionally drawn in by his performance from the very first lines of the movie until the end.

    I want to say Christian Bale too, but I’m having trouble picking which movie. If I had to pick his best performance it would be his first, Empire of the Sun, but that was over ten years ago.

    I was also underwhelmed by I Am Legend and Will Smith’s acting in it. To me he seemed like he just put on his old summer blockbuster self, though I’m sure I may appreciate it more if I knew what he might have had to go through to pull off that part alone.

    Ryan Gosling from Lars and the Real Girl is another one I would consider nominating.

  8. Bret Welstead

    You guys are missing some great ones!

    What about the layered and deep Mr. Anderson in The Matrix, skillfully played by Keanu Reeves? What about the graceful portrayal of a mentally handicapped and sheltered young man by Adam Sandler in Waterboy? Or the conflicted action hero in xXx, triumphantly captured by Vin Diesel? And let’s not forget the multi-dimensional character of Dr. Reed Richards in Fantastic Four by Ioan Gruffudd, struggling to confess his love to Sue Storm while dealing with his new superpowers and saving the world!

    Okay, now no more tongue in cheek…

    I thought Mel Gibson in Signs delivered a great performance as a grieving widower struggling with his faith.

    I think Don Cheadle was fantastic in Crash and Hotel Rwanda (especially in Crash).

    I was going to say Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan, but I think that’s more of an ensemble cast performance that sticks out in my mind: every character lends to an incredible story, and it wouldn’t be the same without each piece of that puzzle.

    I wanted to look past the hype, but the fact is that Heath Ledger was phenomenal as the Joker in The Dark Knight. I kept having to remind myself that it was him beneath that makeup.

    Russell Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix were awesome in Gladiator. Again, though, they wouldn’t have been the same without the other.

    Denzel Washington in Man on Fire was great.

    Phillip Seymour Hoffman shows an incredible range in his performances.

    And for the record, one of my favorite performances IS Adam Sandler, in Punch-Drunk Love. It’s probably just an extension of his usual characters minus the silliness, but I thought it was well done and redeeming.

  9. becky

    Edward Norton in American History X (or Primal Fear, or The Painted Veil, or anything else he is in). This guy is amazing to me. In these three movies alone he plays characters that are completely different from one another, and from the way he seems in interviews. All three are completely convincing.
    Tom Hanks in Castaway, for the reasons you mentioned above.
    Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind.
    Sean Penn in I Am Sam and Mystic River. Two characters that are total opposites, both played perfectly. His eyes tell the whole story before he speaks any lines.
    Everyone in Seabicuit. I love this movie. The performances, like the film, are quietly beautiful.
    Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote.
    Leonardo DiCaprio in The Aviator.

  10. Steve Narrow

    Curt, my brother, you have overlooked the performance of the century… Jeff Bridges as “The Dude” in The Big Lebowski.

  11. Dan K

    It sounds silly but note Matthew Lilliard as Shaggy in Scooby Doo. Full interaction with a CGI dog; to the point where he seems to have been just created in the film as part of the CGI.

  12. Russ Ramsey

    @russramsey

    I love the props for Tom Hanks in Castaway, and whole heartedly agree.

    Also, I’d seriously throw in Bill Murray in “What About Bob?” (Was that too long ago?) I know the movie was a comedy, and absurd. But come on. He was brilliant– even down to the way he sidled when he walked. The corn on the cob scene still makes me feel all nervous inside.

    It seems, though, that Daniel Day Lewis kind of operates in a different strata than everyone else. “There Will Be Blood” was a haunting movie.

  13. Chad

    No need to rehash movies already mentioned (although I agree that Daniel Day Lewis is one of/if not the best around), but how about William Hurt’s performances in The Village and Into The Wild? I think he nails that aging father figure who is keeping secrets from his children for their protection, but also to their peril. In The Village he has some great lines spoken with such conviction that I feel the weight of every word. I also think that William H. Macy is phenomenal in Fargo as car salesman Jerry Lundegaard.

  14. whipple

    I feel like I’m going to re-emphasize any geekiness that vanished like smoke when you guys started mentioning Philip Seymour Hoffman.

    I liked both David Thewlis and Michael Gambon in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Also, Timothy Spall translating from one character in that film (Peter Pettigrew) to Mr. Graham in The Last Samurai at least proves that he has great range, and I often find that actors who play side characters are truly great when given a role with depth.

    That said, I think Hoffman’s performance in Magnolia was one of my favorites of his.

    I also liked Jeff Daniels in The Squid and the Whale. Shoot, everybody in that movie did a fantastic job, but he has to be the guy whom we both loathe and pity in the end.

    Vincent D’Onofrio as Private Pyle in Full Metal Jacket also gave one of those blood-curdling performances you were talking about (especially at the his last scene in that movie).

  15. Benjamin Wolaver

    What about the fantastic performance from Master and Comamnder? Paul Bettany embodied the good doctor of the H.MS. Surprise. Not to mention Russell Crowe’s wonderful portrayal of Captain Aubrey. And I second the motion on Johnny Depp’s rare turn as a relatively “normal” person in Finding Neverland.

    But if I were to name one male performance as the most incredible I have ever seen on screen in the last ten years, undoubtedly the answer is Ulrich Muhe in The Lives of Others. The journey that his character, Gerd Wiesler, takes from being one of the most rigorous legalists of the German Stasi to actively seeking to protect those he is monitoring is fascinating.

    Left field roles like the Joker, while amazing when done well, are, in my own opinion, less worthy of praise than the subtle roles that breathe reality and plausibility. And when you add a monumental character arc that starts a role at Point A and ends at Point Z, you have a performance on the level of Ulrich Mulhe’s Gerd Wiesler.

    Also of notable mention:

    Edward Norton in The Painted Veil and The Illusionist.

  16. Stephen Lamb

    @stephen-lamb

    I agree, Benjamin, Ulrich Muhe was great in The Lives of Others, one of the best films of last year. I was sad when he died shortly after the film came out.

  17. Aaron Roughton

    Nice Arthur. Not too many comedic performances in here…But I sure did like Will Ferell in Elf. I know, I know.

    As long as I’m not earning points with anyone here, I might as well say I thought Hugo Weaving did a great job in his supporting role in the Matrix movies.

    And right now I’m on my second viewing of Tropic Thunder. Between that, Iron Man, and Weird Science, I’m a big Robert Downey Jr. fan. I’m also a fan of that guy who was one of the crew members in Hot Rod. He reappeared as the demolitions expert in Tropic Thunder. Hold on…IMDB…sorry for the ellipses…His name is Danny McBride. And from his IMDB page, it looks like he basically plays himself in every movie that he stars in.

    On a more serious note, I really enjoyed Anthony Hopkins in The Fastest Indian.

  18. becky

    I second Benjamin W.s vote for Master and Commander, especially Paul Bettany. That was an amazing year for films and for male acting performances. How do you choose the best when your choices are LOTR: The Return of the King, Master and Commander, Mystic River, and Seabiscuit? In any other year, any of these films would have dominated the Oscars. And all featured truly great performances.

  19. Duane

    I like some of the actors mentioned. I think playing a character with developmental delays are easy…Sean Penn in I AM SAM, Hoffman in RAIN MAN and Billy Bob in SLINGBLADE. I don’t get mesmorized by that. Don’t think it’s that challenging.

    Pete said Downey Jr in Tropic Thunder. I’ve been touting him for an academy award since I saw that disappointing flick (he really was great). Daniel Day in anything. Denzel in GLORY is one of my favorite performances (but more than 10 years ago).

    Those are my humble opinions

  20. Kevin E

    Many great performances have already been noted. Someone mentioned William Macy and it brought to mind his hillarious performance in Wild Hogs where he outshone other perhaps more notable stars. It speaks to his amazing versatility.

    Kevin

  21. Kristin

    I’ve visited this site and read it for hours before, but I’m a newbie with the commenting. (Am I even allowed to do this?) I just had to mention one of my new favorite movies which I believe has incredible acting by Ryan Gosling. It’s called “Lars and the Real Girl”. Every time I watch it I am blown away at his faces, his speech, his movements–everything is perfectly performed. Ryan Gosling floats away when I see his depiction of Lars in this movie. Fantastic.

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