Top Ten Movie Performances

Sometimes in film there are performances that prove that performance isn’t just an aspect of the art form known as film, but also an art form on its own. This is a list dedicated to that art form. Its a list that perfectly exemplifies the idea of performance as an art form. These are the performances that will be remembered till the end of film itself. These are the performances that, just for a split second, make you forget you’re watching a movie because of how much raw emotion is encapsulated in a single movie character. Each and every one of them deserves endless amounts of praise.

10. Ralph Fiennes (Schindler’s List)

Ralph Fiennes doesn’t get nearly the praise he deserves. He’s one of the greatest actors and deserves to be held right up there with Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Marlon Brando. If you don’t believe me, take an in depth look into the antagonist of the masterpiece, Schindler’s List. Truly look at every choice Fiennes makes and you’ll see that the man became Amon Goeth, Ralph Fiennes take on nazi Amon Goeth is nothing short of the most realistic portrayal of evil and hatred ever put on screen.

9. Robert De Niro (Raging Bull)

Robert De Niro’s work in Raging Bull is the kind of performance you look at and say, “that’s not Robert De Niro, that’s Jake LaMotta”. There are so many moments where you’re watching Raging Bull and you just stop breathing at risk of missing a single line De Niro utters because everything is so real. Robert De Niro is one of the greatest actors there ever was and this stands as his greatest performance. He threw every piece of talent he has into it and it shows.

8. Kevin Spacey (American Beauty)

It’s simply common knowledge that Kevin Spacey is a genius when it comes to acting. He’s brilliant in everything he’s in whether its a limping cripple in The Usual Suspects or the voice over of a villainous grass hopper in A Bug’s Life. You’ll find his greatest performance in the fascinating film, American Beauty. American Beauty studies one of the most interesting characters ever put on screen and in order to have an amazing film, which it was, it needed a brilliant performance. Spacey managed to give more than just that.

7. George C. Scott (Patton)

George C. Scott has had a very illustrious career and he’s very well known for the way he gives the middle finger to the award shows, but for some reason always still managed to win them. The reason is because no one, especially the academy, can deny that the man is one of the greatest actors known to film. You’ll find his greatest performance as american rebel and hero. General George S. Patton. Patton was a man who knew war and war alone. Patton extensively looks looks into this brilliant General and Scott plays the character incredibly.

6. F. Murray Abraham (Amadeus)

Until the end of the art of performance you’ll see actors playing great artists, whether that be Beethoven, Shakespeare or even Michelangelo. Rarely will we see actors play mediocre artists and never will we see one played as well as F. Murray Abraham played Wolfgang Mozart’s rival, Composer Antonio Salieri. The movie touches on every spectrum of the character and Abraham relentlessly plays it with such spectacle that at times your heart skips a beat. What you’re watching when you watch Abraham in Amadeus is pure art in every way.

5. Joaquin Phoenix (The Master)


Whether he’s Johnny Cash or a despicable emperor of Rome, it’s almost disturbing how gloriously Joaquin Phoenix is able to envelop the characters he portrays. Paul Thomas Anderson manages to get the career-best performance out of at least one of his actors and that’s the case with Joaquin Phoenix’s turn as Freddie Quell. Quell is a very confused man, a drifter looking for his way after WWII. He knows drinking, fighting and sex. He’s lacking in purpose and compass and Joaquin Phoenix dives into the character with astounding results.

4. Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds)

At one point in auditioning for the character Col. Hans Landa, Quentin Tarantino literally thought that he might have written an unplayable character. He told himself that he wasn’t going to make the film if he wasn’t able to get the perfect actor for the part. Luckily he found Christoph Waltz who managed to give cinema one of the greatest performances of all time. What you get in the character Col. Hans Landa are so many intricate layers that its understandable that Tarantino had a hard time finding an actor to not only understand every aspect of the character, but also to perform it to perfection. Waltz did just that and more.

3. Jack Nicholson (One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest)

After many trials, finally in 1975 one of literature’s most treasured books was finally put on screen. One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest is one of the greatest films ever made and one of the main reasons that is, is because in it you’ll find the greatest performance from one of the greatest actors known to cinema. Everything Nicholson does in the movie is so human and real. That makes the character all the more likable and relatable as he rivals my most hated character in cinema history. Nicholson holds nothing back and throws everything he had into a performance that desperately needed every single bit of talent an amazing actor could give. Jack Nicholson is always brilliant, but him as R. P. McMurphy is perfection in every sense.

2. Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood)

There Will Be Blood is arguably the most extensive character studies into the mind of one the most despicable basterd’s ever depicted on screen. Daniel Day-Lewis is not just one of the greatest actors known to cinema, he is the greatest actor known to cinema and his portrayal as oilman Daniel Plainview proved once and for all precisely what a performance can be. And what a performance can be, I would never be able to put into words, but the best way to put it in one word would be to say masterful.

In watching There Will Be Blood, we’re not watching Daniel Day-Lewis, we’re watching Daniel Plainview. Its almost magical that someone can truly be as fully engrossed in a character as Daniel Day-Lewis is when he acts. We get to learn every aspect of character that is Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood and with Daniel Day-Lewis’ acting he makes almost all performances before it seem like child’s play in comparison. Daniel Day-Lewis is the greatest actor known to cinema and what he achieves in There Will Be Blood is nothing short of one of the greatest performances of all time.

1. Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight)

The true art of performance was never truly as prevalent as it was when Heath Ledger played the villain in the greatest movie of all time. Never, and I mean never, was pure evil encapsulated as well as it was in the character The Joker in The Dark Knight. Every movement, gesture, nervous tic, and  line is calculated and made memorable by a truly brilliant performance. Heath Ledger deserves every bit of praise he gets for his portrayal as The Joker, not because of his unfortunate death, but because Heath Ledger played the greatest character ever put on screen to literal perfection.

Behind the masks and make-up of The Dark Knight, it is unquestionably the greatest example of good vs. evil that any story ever written or told has ever offered. Batman is good for the sake of being good and The Joker is evil for the sake of being evil. They need each because one is nothing without the other. Truly look into the stories of Batman and you’ll see that The Joker is just as important to the mythology as Batman is. The are the perfect example of enemies that other films aspire to have, but never will.

The Joker is a part played many times in the past, from Mark Hamill to even Jack Nicholson. He is the most important villain, not just in cinema, but in literature because he encapsulates the very idea of evil itself. Heath Ledger had a lot of work to do. In being asked to play The Joker, you’re being asked to give a truly magnificent performance or else its nothing we  haven’t seen before. Heath managed to give the greatest of all time due to the use of every single ounce of ability he had. Every emotion is the purest of all evil is felt due to a man showing as that performance is an truly an art form. All I can do is thank Heath Ledger and say that I undoubtedly feel that with The Joker, he gave us the greatest performance known to cinema.

15 thoughts on “Top Ten Movie Performances

  1. Wow. Awesome list my friend. Well written too. Only thing i would change is swap 1 with 2 though your argument for Ledger being number 1 is quite convincing.

  2. Aside from the fact that I disagree pretty strongly with a few of your picks, I’m more interested in the fact that there are NO females on your list. Really? Every performance ever and not a single female warrants mention? I could think of 2 or 3 Meryl Streep performances off the top of my head that I think could easily replace a few things. And she’s the easy one.

  3. Robert De Niro in Raging Bull should be a top 5 at least.

    Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice?

    Al Pacino in The Godfather Part II?

    Both Heath Ledger and Daniel Day-Lewis deserve to be on this list, but the three I listed are better for a number of reasons.

  4. Its clearly a very subjective matter. I find these performances more compelling while others don’t. And I’m not putting my own personal enjoyment into the equation here. If that were the case I would have Samuel Jackson in Pulp Fiction, Brad Pitt from Fight Club, Javier Bardem in No Country, etc. I judged this list on the basis of the art of performance alone. Not to say that Brad, Sam, and Javier’s performances weren’t amazing because they were. I just strongly believe these are the best when it comes to becoming another character.

  5. I think you really did great! but… I would mention Meryl Streep as well, De Niro for Travis Bickle(Taxi Driver) for art of the performance definitely.

  6. Great list. Maybe switch a few of the performances around, but you definitely got the greatest performances of all time here.

  7. i agree with the top two, but i would add in bale in the fighter. watching it he reminded me of ledgers roll as the joke, with all the little things they do

  8. Well i am an indian and i have not watched all the 10 movies mentioned above.But any way this is a great list.Heath Ledger’s performance in dark knight certainly blew me away but i must say if there is any character,any actor which constantly made me think how on earth did he do that,that was one hell of a show it has got to be daniel day lewis as daniel plainview.This was not acting,He was simply living as plainview.

  9. First of all, you ARE putting your personal enjoyment in there as a factor. That’s what “subjective” is.

    The Joker is NOT the greatest film character of all time and The Dark Knight most certainly is NOT the greatest film of all time. It might be your favorite, but the greatest? I’d really like to see an argument for such a claim.

    Anyway, I won’t spend too much time giving my thoughts on your list, as I’d be here forever. But I’ll name a few of my favorites just for the hell of it.

    Jude Law in Gattaca – His first American film and he was fantastic in it.

    Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in the Before trilogy – There’s all this talk of “embodying” characters but no actor or actress has ever embodied normal people like Ethan and Julie did for three films.

    Tom Cruise in Collateral – It’s hard to get a read on Tom Cruise sometimes. A lot of people have trouble seeing the characters he plays instead of just the actor himself. But I challenge anyone to watch Collateral and not say that Tom Cruise was damn near perfect.

    Kevin Costner and Susan Sarandon in Bull Durham – A lot of has been made about Kevin Costner being a terrible actor. It’s been hard to argue against it the past decade and a half or so. Which is a shame since he showed a lot of promise. His performance in Bull Durham is certainly one of the best performances in any sports film. Susan Sarandon might of given the best one though. She, in my mind, is definitively the best actress to ever touch a sports film.

    Guy Pearce in Memento – Christopher Nolan is overrated. He always has been. Memento isn’t a perfect film and it might not even be his best one, but it is his most ambitious. At the heart of it all is Guy Pearce, one of the more underrated actors working today, who carried the film through its intricate plot structure and complexities. It takes a great performance to make you interested in how the plot is presented. He pulled it off.

    Just some of my favorites.

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