Coming in just ahead of photography, acting is my favourite element of cinema. A lot of actors will tell you writers and directors make them good but at the end of the day, they are the ones through whom the audience receives the story. If an actor is able to convince us of what they are saying then half the battle is won.
The 2010’s kicked off with Blue Valentine, The Social Network, Black Swan, The Fighter, Another Year and many more providing actors with terrific material to sink their teeth in to. Right through to last year’s critical darlings La La Land, Manchester By the Sea and Moonlight, the decade has been rich with amazing performances. Here are what I consider the best leading performances since 2010.
Michelle Williams – Blue Valentine – 2010
Raw, heartfelt and honest, few performances of recent years combine amazing acting ability with legitimate true-life heartbreak. Filmed barely a year after the death of Heath Ledger, the father of William’s daughter, this story of the crumbling of a marriage must surely have been difficult for her. But as sad as it all is, her real experiences hugely benefit the performance, as her character’s frustrations and sadness come across as completely genuine. What’s even more impressive is that this is almost a dual role. As young Cindy, unburdened by the weight of age, Williams is bright and bubbly, a completely different person. Hardly a joy to sit through, but a pleasure to have seen.
Ryan Gosling – Blue Valentine – 2010
Michelle Williams probably could’ve acted with anyone here but with Ryan Gosling to bounce off, both actors and the movie lucked out big time. One of the great Oscar robberies of my time, Gosling is able to simultaneously dial down and use his natural charisma to advantage as a man with an eternal internal struggle to do what’s right. Young Dean is typical Gosling, full of charm and humour and making it very easy for us to believe someone like Cindy would fall for him. As the older Dean, he makes it just as easy for us to see why she would fall out of love, whilst still showing us he’s a decent guy. A difficult juggling act that few could handle but one Gosling hits out of the park.
Jesse Eisenberg – The Social Network – 2010
To this day, The Social Network and Zombieland are the only Jesse Eisenberg movies I’ve been able to watch without him irritating the hell out of me. In Zombieland he was fresh and fairly toned down. With The Social Network, it is simply a case of a role being the ideal fit. As tech wunderkind Mark Zuckerberg, Eisenberg is certainly irritating, but it fits the role perfectly. Depicted as having a pretty severe personality-disorder, Mark’s social skills are as bad as his coding skills are brilliant. Eisenberg, undoubtedly a skilled actor, is able to give the dickish character layers, and at no point are we able to truly hate the man. I don’t imagine he’ll ever top this performance, but it is a mighty high peak to climb back to.
Emmanuelle Riva – Amour – 2012
Riva’s long and distinguished career culminated in a quietly powerful piece of work in Michael Haneke’s tale of an elderly woman dealing with the effects of a stroke. Already 84 at the time of filming, Riva does a fantastic job of depicting the physical effects of a stroke, at times making it very hard to forget you are actually watching a film. But it is the mental effects- the strains of her face, the looks of her eyes- that really set this performance apart. Riva and co-star Jean-Louis Trintignant have beautiful chemistry and while not an easy watch, they and Haneke come very close to illustrating just what it the title means.
Joaquin Phoenix – The Master – 2012
Another example of an actor able to physically embody his character is Joaquin Phoenix’ Freddie Quell. This is a desperately damaged man, yet there is still a heap of fight and spark left in him. Phoenix is able to show an unusual, awkward man that has lived a hard life and had more than his share of problems. But never gone is the glitter of his eye; Freddie possesses a childlike cheekiness that can be simultaneously infuriating and endearing. One of cinema’s great characters requiring an actor of huge talent to pull off, something Phoenix undoubtedly has in spades.
Adele Exarchopoulous – Blue is the Warmest Colour – 2013
At just 20 years old, Exarchopoulous was able to convincingly show years of trials and tribulations of a young woman, plus the growth she would go through as a result. This is a very adult film and role, one which would seemingly require an actress of experience and skill. Director Abdellatif Kechiche obviously didn’t care about the former as he cast an actress barely out of her teens with less than 10 film credits to her name. His call paid off as Exarchopoulous gives one of the rawest, most human performances you will see on screen.
Chiwetel Ejiofor – 12 Years a Slave – 2013
Another difficult piece of material- man is forced into slavery and must fight his way out- where the actor is forced to really connect with material that would be so far from everyday, modern life. Ejiofor, previously known more for supporting roles, is just as at home with the big speeches and showy material as he is when just using his face to emote. A career highlight for Ejiofor that is clearly the Best Actor winner of 2013 in my revisionist Oscars.
Cate Blanchett – Blue Jasmine – 2013
I am usually the first to criticism these kinds of performances; the showy, look-at-me ones where actors are so keen to show everyone all the tools they have at their disposal. But there is something about Cate Blanchett here- her smudged make-up, the distasteful looks on her face and her ability to retain some arrogance despite her situation- that gives it another layer. a bit of an outlier on my list, but deserving all the same.
Mads Mikkelsen – The Hunt – 2013
A more fitting example of the kind of performance I like is Mads Mikkelsen as a man wrongly accused of the most sickening of crimes. The film, one of the best of the decade, shows us how quickly society can turn on someone so quickly and with so little evidence. Mikkelsen, natural blessed with a pain, well-lived face, is perfect as the everyman put into the most trying of circumstances.
Ralph Fiennes – The Grand Budapest Hotel – 2014
Another showier performance, but Fiennes best moments in Wes Anderson’s esoteric comedy are when he tones it down a bit. He is a fine dramatic actor with a terrific sense of comedic timing, and it is used to full effect here. Sharing tremendous chemistry with his lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori), it is an endlessly watchable piece of work that may be the one we look back on and point to as the crowning moment of a stellar career.
Rosamund Pike – Gone Girl – 2014
Possibly more a case of a great role, but the actress still has to nail it. Rosamund Pike, no stranger to grittier work but more at home as the English rose, does just that as the fed up Amy Dunne. Although ostensibly a psychopath, the use of Amy as narrator helps to almost justify her questionable actions. But without Pike’s ability to humanise the character, it simply wouldn’t have worked. Pike is a hugely capable actress and it was great to see her able to show what she’s got in a big role such as this.
Jake Gyllenhaal – Nightcrawler – 2014
Although he was winning critical acclaim as far back as 2001 (for Donnie Darko) and was an Oscar nominee in 2005 (Brokeback Mountain), Jake Gyllenhaal’s career really took off in a big way in the 2010’s. Nightcrawler is I think, his best work. Another domestic psychopath, his Lou Bloom gets his kicks out of following the trial of violent events in LA and selling the stories to newspapers. Gyllenhaal uses his hugely emotive face to perfection, always imbuing Bloom was a constant sense of menace, even when there is a giant smile stretched across his face.
Rooney Mara – Carol – 2015
The craziest thing about the 88th Academy Awards is not that Rooney Mara was in the Supporting Actress category, it’s that she wasn’t even able to win that! Her work as the delicate, “alien” Therese is my pick as the best performance of 2015. A small role in The Social Network showed the talent in Mara and she has exploded since. Her career still has potentially decades left, but she shouldn’t be disappointed if she never tops this. Delicate yet strong, reserved yet driven, a girl yet a woman, it’s a lovely performance that helps push the film into great territory.
Cate Blanchett – Carol – 2015
The most impressive aspect of Blanchett’s performance as the eponymous Carol is that she is basically playing a role within the role. It is only when she is with Therese that the veil is lifted and Carol is able to be Carol. Blanchett is still able to do her showy best, but it’s a layered, complex performance that really allows the audience to believe and root for the two women’s relationship.
Michael Fassbender – Steve Jobs – 2015
When they land, roles depicting real and well-known figures are critical and awards gold. But for whatever reason, they seldom hit the spot for me. As notorious billionaire and founder of Apple, Steve Jobs, Fassbender is able to nail the impression, if you will, without ever having to sacrifice selling the story. Possibly the preemptive actor of his generation, Fassbender’s work here would be very close to my favourite male performance of the decade so far.
Saorise Ronan – Brooklyn – 2015
After nailing a supremely difficult role in Atonement at the age of 12, it was evident to all that Saorise Ronan would be a force be reckoned with for years to come. Really great roles eluded her until Brooklyn came along. Able to speak in her native Irish accent, Ronan is hugely effective as a young woman torn between not only two men, but two entire countries. In lesser hands both the film and role could’ve been sappy, but Ronan and director John Crowley know just when to hold back and when to give it their all.
Emma Stone – La La Land – 2016
Since bursting onto the scene in Super Bad and Easy E, Emma Stone has lit up the screen no matter what she does. In La La Land, Damien Chazelle harnesses that “ability” to full effect, using her effortless spark, relatability and likeability to light up the screen whenever lightness is needed, and to effectively move you when the shade is come. Much like Chazelle’s film as a whole, Stone is serious when she needs to be but never loses that sense of fun. Whilst secondary in my view, her singing is also strong, and her delivery of each number is spot on.
Ryan Gosling – La La Land – 2016
Not a great singer or dancer, but as talented an actor as is around right now, Gosling forms a perfect pair with Stone to play a huge part in the great success of the film. His Sebastian is in turns petulant, arrogant and pretentious, yet Gosling never allows us to dislike him. Just the opposite, we root for him to succeed, in life and love. A second appearance for Gosling here, and The Nice Guys was very closing to getting him a third.
Casey Affleck – Manchester By the Sea – 2016
Right up there with Fassbender and his good friend Phoenix is Casey Affleck’s heartbreaking turn in Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea. Flashbacks allow us to see the easy-going, happy young Lee, enhancing our take on his performance as we see what he has become following unspeakable tragedy. Say what you will about his personal life, there’s no denying just how great Affleck is here.