Top 10: Lead Performances of the Last 25 Years

A great performance sticks with you long after you’ve scraped the theater floor-gum off your Keds. But too often, professional drama geeks and mainstream media critics will bestow their blessing on freaky, idiosyncratic performances that hew to the party line *(cough) Heath Ledger (cough) Brokeback Mountain (cough)*, leaving the rest of us to scratch our collective heads. If that was good, we wonder, how bad do you have to be to be bad?

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What follows is a list of the Top 10 performances of the last quarter century. It focuses on lead roles, or at least substantial ones - no cameos, thank you. Interestingly, there are no straight comic performances here, and many of the roles are villains. And it is also focused on movies people have actually heard of.

So, this is not an exhaustive list – it overlooks plenty of great performances. But it is my list and based on my criteria alone – and I’m sure I’ll hear about my myriad defects of insight, taste, breeding and general mental competence in the comments. For example, Daniel Day Lewis is missing because I decided not to invest three hours into There Will Be Blood (2007) since after seeing the “I drink your milkshake!” clip I just can’t take it seriously.

Johnny Depp is missing for his Captain Jack Sparrow character from the Pirates of the Caribbean films because he’s mildly amusing for about the first hour or so of this seemingly endless series but eventually makes me long to walk the plank off into the blessedly Depp-free depths of the briny.

Leonardo Di Caprio is missing because he’s always terrible. I’m sure my passing him over will make him cry all the way to the supermodel bank.

And you film snobs out there are out of luck. This list completely ignores foreign language films – if you’re outraged at my glaring omission of Migbor Ombungliani’s shattering portrayal of Yegiv the Goatherd in the Albanian Dogme 95 epic The Thousand Meaningless Agonies of My Existence, you need to find yourself a different list. And probably a girlfriend.

Speaking of girls, there are not many here. It just worked out that way, and I’m not sure why. But this is a pure meritocracy. If you want a quota system, you probably need to hit the Huffington Post. Of course, on the HP, half the Top Ten would be performances from Brokeback Mountain with the rest of the slots spread out among the various dreary, America-hating, soldier-sliming, anti-war movies that have zipped through the theaters since 9/11 on the way to their final reward in the Blockbuster remainder bins (“At number seven, we have Ryan Phillip as the emotionally shattered, psychotic vet in Stop-Loss , followed by number six, some actor you never heard of as the emotionally shattered, psychotic vet in Redacted ….”).

So here are the top ten performances of the last 25 years, in order:

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10. Denzel Washington - Training Day (2001): Denzel Washington is so good because crooked LAPD cop Alonzo Harris is so damn bad - he’s like the Antichrist with a badge. There’s an incredible smoothness to his performance, as if all the goodness of his previous characters was seamlessly turned 180 degrees. It’s his comfort in the role that is so mesmerizing – there is nothing “actory” about his performance, though of course (minor spoiler) the character himself is pretending to be something he is not throughout the movie. The way he talks, the way he moves, his ease in that sordid world – it is all so different from the Denzel Washington we’ve known before. The movie itself is watchable, but kind of dopey. But Washington? You can’t look away.

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9. R. Lee Ermey - Full Metal Jacket (1987): Some may say that Ermey simply did in front of Stanley Kubrick’s camera what he had done for years as a real USMC drill instructor. To some extent, that might be accurate, but remember that being a drill instructor is itself a kind of performance. While the amazing barracks scene takes the Basic Training experience to the nth degree, there is a lot of truth to it, as I found out when I reported to Basic at Ft. Sill about a month after seeing this movie. I vividly recall Drill Sergeant Whittlesey fulminating to our formation about our utter inability to meet even the lowest standards of competence when, in what was undoubtedly a flash of insanity, I turned my head slightly from the rigid position of attention and saw the other drill sergeants cracking up. Ermey’s performance is dead-on and unforgettable, and not just to those of us who have experienced the delights of Basic Training firsthand.

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8. Kevin Spacey - American Beauty (1999): The Nineties were the Age of Spacey, with stunning showcases in Swimming with Sharks (1994), Seven (1995), The Usual Suspects (1995) and L.A. Confidential (1997). However, his turn as suburban loser turned rebel Lester Burnham best captures the kind of calm, semi-smarmy, cynical detachment that Spacey does better than anyone else. Through Spacey, you can feel Lester’s angst, understand his moral quandaries, and see him come out of the shell he retreated into rather than face the world. It’s a great performance in a movie that is often frustrating in its treatment of military men as sexually-repressed sociopaths, such a hackneyed Hollywood cliché that the filmmakers should have been embarrassed to wheel it out again. Spacey’s work actually makes it worth wading through that nonsense.

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7. Helen Mirren – The Queen (2006): Mirren brought to life a living person, the Queen of England, a relic of an age when people actually considered the idea of “royalty” as something more than the joke it is. The essential ridiculousness of the concept of a monarch aside, Mirren’s Elizabeth is a woman of values a half-century out of date, values that had allowed Britain to survive the Depression and the Blitz and to defeat the Axis. But Mirren shows how the Queen had grown detached from her subjects, a people who have become vulgar, sentimental and maudlin in an age of celebrity and who choose to idolize a feel-good empty vessel like Lady Diana over a monarch who symbolizes a mature, strong and faithful nation. Watching this pampered but smart, tough but cunning woman deal with the changes (mostly for the worse) in her country before the backdrop of the death of “the People’s Princess” is riveting. The Queen is a great film about a formerly great people and their descent into juvenile mawkishness (their awesome warriors excepted), and its impact largely comes from Mirren’s staggering achievement in the lead role.

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6. Val Kilmer – Tombstone (1993): I have no idea what “I’m your huckleberry” is supposed to mean, but I do know that Val Kilmer was incredible as the tubercular sawbones Doc Holiday in this retelling of the legendary gunfight at the O.K. Corral tale. It’s no one note performance – you can see he’s sometimes scared even behind the smartass, ironic demeanor, but that dose of reality (compounded by the toll he shows his vices and his consumption taking upon him) only makes the character come more alive. Mention Tombstone to anyone and the first thing you’ll hear is the name “Val Kilmer.” That says it all.

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5. Meryl Streep – The Devil Wears Prada (2006): Yeah, I saw this movie about ladies in the fashion industry and, dammit, I liked it. They'll probably take back my Airborne wings and break my cavalry saber for admitting it. But you gotta give credit where credit is due, and Streep deserves it. Her Miranda Priestly is best known for overbearing arrogance, but that’s only a part of her character. Streep actually lets us peer inside and see her humanity, to understand why she demands excellence, and to see the price she pays for holding herself to her own exacting standards. The movie wimps out a bit by not forcing the heroine to really confront and deal with the choices the Miranda character faced – things just sort of work out for the heroine deus ex machina-style thanks to an unconvincing, off-screen intervention by Miranda herself. But while the movie finds an easy way out, Streep’s performance takes the character down a hard road and turns a caricature into a character.

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4. Steve Coogan - 24 Hour Party People (2002): This is probably the “smallest” of the pictures on the list, but it’s one of the best. Coogan plays the real-life British music impresario Tony Wilson, who discovered and championed bands like Joy Division in the late-70s and 80s. Coogan takes the role and runs with it, totally inhabiting the character in an often surreal portrayal that captures all the excitement, excess and exhilaration of the times. Beyond the fascinating story (especially the first half involving Joy Division) and the incredible music (buy the soundtrack now), Coogan’s performance sticks with you as a real, larger-than-life character made both human and more than human by an incredible actor.

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3. Sharon Stone – Casino (1995): Stone got a bad rap for Basic Instinct (1992), where her cervix seemed to overshadow what really was a great femme fatale turn in a really good, really pulpy film noir classic. In her heyday in the '90s, Stone was actually Hollywood’s only real movie star, in the way actresses used to be stars. She was talented and beautiful, but distinctive too – she had that intangible something that put her on a plane above her peers. In Casino, as De Niro’s harpy of a wife Ginger, she uses that glamour to show why De Niro’s character would fall for – and keep being drawn back to – a woman who redefines the term “bad news.” It is a relentless, heartfelt, devastating performance that makes you care (a little bit) for her as she meets the fate she has earned even as you let out a sigh of relief knowing she won’t be back to wreak more havoc.

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2. Heath Ledger - The Dark Knight (2008): Even the conventional wisdom gets it right once in a while. Since just about everyone on Earth has seen it, there’s no real reason to talk about why it’s such an incredible performance. Ledger got a lot of praise for Brokeback Mountain (2005), but his performance there was just a collection of scowls, tics and mumbles that constitute nothing more than what Hollywood thinks real gay cowboys are like. As with the movie itself, most of the acclaim was simply wishful thinking – they loved the subject so they had to praise the portrayals. There’s no wishful thinking here – this was acting far beyond what some comic book movie had any right to incorporate. And it makes the loss of Ledger to the scourge of drugs that much more of a waste.

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1. Ralph Fiennes - Schindler's List (1993): This is the most terrifying portrait of pure evil ever put on the screen, made all the more horrifying by a performance that shows how a real-life normal man consciously chose to immerse himself in darkness and luxuriated in it, who willingly paid a terrible price in exchange for becoming, for a time, a dark god with the power of life and death. Fiennes earned a Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of the real war criminal Amon Goeth, but this was truly the lead role. Goeth was the Nazi commander of a forced labor camp that he turned into a private kingdom subject only to his cruel and sick whims. In scenes like where Goeth uses a high powered rifle to amuse himself by picking off victims from the porch of his mansion, Fiennes shows us a cultured, intelligent man who makes a deliberate decision to embrace evil. He shows us that the potential for evil lurks inside all of us just as Oskar Schindler’s example teaches that the potential for good exists there too. What is so powerful is how Fiennes shows that Goeth chose to experience the transitory joy of wickedness knowing it would lead to his death. It is a performance that will leave you shaken.

And here are some honorable mentions: Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction (1987), Bill Murray in Groundhog Day (1993), and Tommy Lee Jones as Sam Gerard in The Fugitive (1993) were all memorable. Robert De Niro was great as the taciturn criminal in Heat (1995) (Al Pacino also deserves a shout-out for his ferocious and highly entertaining scenery chewing, but I would not call it “good” acting). As great as Anthony Hopkins was as Hannibal Lector in Silence of the Lambs (1991), Brian Cox was even better in a smaller role as the cannibalistic convict in 1986’s Manhunter. The less said about the sequel Hannibal (2001) the better, though it also featured Ray Liotta. Liotta gets a nod for Goodfellas, as do Bobby De Niro and Joe Pesci (and for that matter, those last two should also be mentioned regarding the aforementioned Casino).

And to further rile the members of Team Snooty, let’s not forget Alan Rickman in Die Hard (1988). Yeah, artistes, I went there.

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