Many people would have you believe that movies aren’t as good as they used to be. In addition to dismissing all the great films that have come out in the past few decades, that attitude discounts some of the most intense, bizarre and captivating performances audiences have ever been privileged enough to watch. No method has been untried by both older actors really discovering themselves and newer talents capable of shaking up everything we expect from a performance.
From blockbusters to indies, there has been a surge in fantastic performances to match the experimental and exciting new direction American movies are headed. Here are the actors we’ll remember a hundred years from now, giving the 20 Best Acting Performances of The Last 5 Years.
Philip Seymour Hoffman – The Master (2011)
When Philip Seymour Hoffman tragically passed away in 2014, film fans took it as a loss as personal as that of a relative’s. We felt we knew Hoffman. He had opened himself up to us time and again in some of the greatest films of the modern era. How could someone so gifted, open and beautiful have been so tormented and kept it from us?
Of course those with gifts are all too often burdened by problems that their most ardent admirers can’t begin to understand. Hoffman’s most enduring work may be that of the title character of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, an incendiary cult leader who, whatever his faults, really does have empathy for his followers (specifically Joaquin Phoenix’s disturbed Freddie Quell). Hoffman does breath-taking work as a man of incurable appetites, whose only weakness is a desire to be loved for who he is, something his followers can’t give him.
Lupita Nyong’o – 12 Years A Slave (2013)
She may have won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, but when her part of the story ends, 12 Years A Slave may as well end, too. The movie is more about Solomon Northup’s (Chiwetel Ejiofor, also excellent) relationship to the many women in his life than it is about his specific nightmare, and Lupita Nyong’o’s Patsey is the one who represents what slavery did to the soul of a still-young nation.
Her performance is shockingly committed, pulled in every direction by what she wants, what will ease her suffering, and what is “right.” In a cast full of seasoned actors doing career-best work, newcomer Nyong’o managed to make the biggest impression. Her final scene, in which she’s reduced to a blurred image over Northop’s shoulder, is one of the most devastating moments in modern cinema. It only works because we’ve spent so much time getting to know Patsey, in what has surely to be one of the great debut performances.
Leonardo DiCaprio – The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Wolf of Wall Street is almost too much movie. Three hours of the whirlwind highs and desperate lows of one of the world’s most charming, sadistic criminals is sort of like cocaine for the eyes and ears. It wouldn’t work if not for Leonardo DiCaprio fully giving himself over to the part of Jordan Belfort, a man who treated money like pieces in a game only he knew how to play.
Investing this horrible man with the confidence of apparent invulnerability – like Daffy Duck, he always gets back up – DiCaprio is the most electrifying he’s ever been. The boyish face that America fell in love with is still hidden under all the pills and abuse and he knows it; manipulating both his duped clients, friends, family and the audience into believing he knows what he’s doing. A manic tour de force from an actor throwing himself madly into a character part Patrick Bateman, part Jerry Lewis.
Hailee Steinfeld – True Grit (2010)
When the Coen Brothers’ True Grit took home an Oscar for best lead actor, it was a case of right film, wrong performance. Sure, Jeff Bridges’ gruff, blustery Rooster Cogburn is one of the actor’s most memorable characters, but the best work in the film was done by 14-year old newcomer Hailee Steinfeld.
Steinfeld belongs to a class of young actor (think Robert Pattinson in The Rover or Emma Watson in The Bling Ring) who appear able to completely kill off anything about oneself but what a given character requires. Mattie Ross is a perfectly realized character, a girl with no sense of humor who believes in the tangible facts of humanity. Steinfeld’s every word and gesture is completely honest and guileless, and she never for a minute wavers in her mission or her manner. She’s given only stellar performances since her Oscar snub, but it would take an awful lot to make us forget Mattie Ross.
David Oyelowo – Selma (2014)
After doing time in everything from The Paperboy to Interstellar, David Oyelowo was finally given the lead in a major film to display his chops. In Ava DuVernay’s vibrant, sweltering Selma, Oyelowo plays Martin Luther King better than any previous interpretation of the character, or at the very least, a more uniquely humane version.
He captures King’s cadences (that musicality he got from his years as a preacher) and dignity while adding deep, affecting reality to what could have been an impression. The King of Selma is a man with a conscience more powerful than any police baton, and his fight to balance his inner feelings with the needs of a public against a wall and running out of options. A wonderfully savvy turn from a perennially underrated star.
Ann Dowd – Compliance (2012)
There is no tiptoeing around the stark grotesquery of Compliance. It’s an incredibly difficult film to watch, and even more nightmarish to consider the events from which director Craig Zobel took inspiration. But the film must be seen, if for no other reason than Ann Dowd’s unbelievable naturalistic performance. Dowd plays a manager at a fast food restaurant who receives a phone call from a man who insists he’s a police officer. She follows every absurd thing she asks of him because she believes in authority, which after all, is what makes her good at her job.
Everything from her walk to her little facial tics when the requests become outlandish and invasive suggests that Dowd really is this woman and that she believes in the boundaries of the world she inhabits. A stunning piece of character work that makes your sympathize with someone who couldn’t see past their stubborn insistence in a rational order to the world.
Ralph Fiennes – The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
In Wes Anderson’s world, everything is ordered, neat, symmetrical and pleasing to the eye. Everything but the deliberately abrasive characters at its center. There was no more delightfully asymmetrical a protagonist in all of Anderson’s world than Ralph Fiennes’ Gustave H, the proprietor of The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Fiennes bristles through each of Anderson’s divinely upholstered environment,s living by a strict moral code and never letting a hair out of place. He’s a man guided by a love of decadence and a belief that great service should be repaid with confidence and loyalty. Gustave H’s clipped diction and unflappability eventually reveal a depth of feeling he wouldn’t ordinarily make plain. Fiennes has proven his bonafides as a dramatic actor time and again over his decades long film career, but his comedic gifts aren’t praised nearly enough. He carries this splendid movie nimbly and ably.
Isabelle Nélisse – Mama (2013)
Frequently, when people aren’t scared by a horror film, which for too many people is the genre’s only function, they don’t reward any of its other merits. So not only did Mama, a remarkably well-crafted movie, not get its due as art, its three central performances were basically written off.
Jessica Chastain is typically excellent as an aimless goth dealing with unexpected motherhood. Megan Charpentier is absolutely brilliant as the eldest of the two children Chastain comes to shepherd. But it’s Isabelle Nélisse who handily walks away with the film. As feral infant Lilly, Nélisse gives an astonishingly accomplished rendering of a creature more animal than human.
She was 9 at the time of filming and communicates lifetimes of instinct and experience, slowly realizing that being human means dealing with unplanned contradictions that arise in the heart. Because this astonishing piece of work was given in a film that didn’t scare enough people, Isabelle Nélisse was robbed of her justly deserved accolades. Lilly is a jaw-dropping creation.
Benicio Del Toro – Sicario (2015)
Benicio Del Toro has always been an intense actor, demanding your attention like a modern day Robert Mitchum. In Denis Villeneuve’s unbearably tense Sicario, Del Toro is a sly puppet master. His apparent distance from everything is revealed to be a strategy to remain a step ahead. Del Toro is like a wolf in hibernation, choosing to seem asleep so that prey walks by without fear. His intelligence is hidden behind half-closed eyelids and a calm demeanor.
This is his strategy, to keep his poker face while he navigates a cursed, lawless world until he’s exactly where he wants to be. Though he’s supported quite ably by Emily Blunt and Josh Brolin, doing superlative work, Del Toro’s shadowy third wheel gives Sicario bite and proves once more why he’s one of our most important actors.
Jennifer Lawrence – Winter’s Bone (2010)
Jennifer Lawrence has been given much bigger, more showy roles since her start – winning an Oscar for her work in David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook and acclaim for her enormous turn in the same director’s American Hustle – but Jennifer Lawrence’s best acting remains the subtle, lived-in work she did as Ree Dolly, the hero of Debra Granik’s marvelous Winter’s Bone.
Effortlessly communicating the world-weariness of someone used to disappointment (despite not being old enough to buy cigarettes), Lawrence was clearly already a star. No one’s asked her to repeat the magic she makes in Winter’s Bone, which is a shame because as fun as her wild work in Russell’s films has been, Ree Dolly is such a marvelously fine-tuned character and it would be great to see her go in for small details again. She’s really good at expressing inner life quietly.
Brad Pitt – The Tree of Life (2011)
Critics and fans of Brad Pitt have been engaged in a career long tug-of-war over whether he’s actually any good at his job or just a surreally pretty face. The films where he does his best work frequently get microscopic releases. That may be why The Tree of Life didn’t net him a richly deserved Oscar.
Playing a suburban dad consumed by rage, Pitt is superb. He captures an entire generation’s resentment as they realized that the American dream is just that: a dream. He believes he’s owed better fortune and the world will not relent and give it to him. Director Terrence Malick allowed Pitt to simply live as this man and get to know him inside and out (the same trick got the best work of Ben Affleck’s life in To The Wonder). The result is an extraordinary portrait of an ordinary man living an ordinary life. Acting like this, where you can’t see the strings, don’t tend to win awards but it is mesmerizing.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw – Beyond The Lights (2014)
After languishing for years in middling TV shows and genre films, Gugu Mbatha-Raw finally broke through to the mainstream thanks to her heartfelt portrayal of the title character in the historical drama Belle. She took a quieter route for her next film, playing a celebrity getting tired of the constant assault on her privacy in Gina Prince-Blythewood’s excellently understated Beyond The Lights.
As pop star Noni, she has to project confidence that is plainly all part of her persona. It takes quite a bit of wearing down by everyone in her life before she cracks and reveals the human being behind the tabloid scandals and over-sexualized public image. She wants to be loved for who she is, not who people see in music videos. Mbatha-Raw does supremely compelling work as someone relearning who she is underneath the many layers of artifice she spent so many years building around herself.
When we meet her she’s ready to just kill herself rather than do the work necessary to find her identity. This isn’t an easy thing to play without histrionic or clichéd emotional decisions, but Mbatha-Raw is totally unphased by the challenge and nails the specificities of Noni’s personality. It’s impossible not to want to watch her succeed.
James Gandolfini – Enough Said (2013)
Dearly loved and missed, James Gandolfini closed his all-too-brief career with a series of excellent supporting performances in sprawling ensemble pieces like Zero Dark Thirty, Not Fade Away and Killing Them Softly. But his last lead performance in Nicole Holofcener’s underrated Enough Said proved he had untapped potential as a romantic lead.
The greatest aspect of his character (a divorced parent looking for a second shot at love) is that Holofcener doesn’t force him into a rom-com mold. He’s just a guy and Gandolfini finds his modest desires, hopes and irrepressible dignity heroic. Watching him do such spectacular work as a working class parent, one also gets a window into what a kind and gentle soul Gandolfini was in his private life. He changed the face of TV as Tony Soprano. He could have done the same for movies if we hadn’t lost him so tragically young.
Kate Lyn Sheil – Silver Bullets (2011)
To most people, Joe Swanberg may now be known as the guy who makes low-key comedies like Happy Christmas and Drinking Buddies. And to some, Kate Lyn Sheil may only be a bit player in Netflix’s House of Cards, not the greatest actress under 30 in America.
But before most of America found out who they were, they paired up to make one of the most unforgettable movies about movies ever made. Silver Bullets is the fractured account of an actress trying to choose between two directors who have feelings for her – one is her boyfriend, the other wants to put her in a horror film. Sheil is a live-wire, totally fearless and fascinating in one her earliest lead showcases. It’s little wonder every young American director wants to work with her (her resume is like a sampling of independent American filmmaking in the 21st century).
Her work in Silver Bullets revealed an actress willing to sink into the depths of a character’s confused psychology. When she can’t express herself in words, she lets movement and gesture take over and speak for her. Silver Bullets is an uncompromising movie buoyed by a truly remarkable talent.
Oscar Isaac – Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
Think-piece writers tried to sell Oscar Isaac’s performance in A Most Violent Year as the heralding of a new talent that had somehow been slept on. This was unnecessary. Isaac had been good in Suckerpunch, after all, so anyone who had waited until 2015 to fall in love with him had missed out. Fans knew he could do anything after watching him in Inside Llewyn Davis and make the most miserable misanthrope seem lovable.
As Llewyn Davis, a folk singer who can’t quite seem to catch a break, Isaac is effortlessly charismatic. Failing to recognize the decisions that will come to haunt him, Isaac lashes out at those who tolerate him and takes advantage of every new face he encounters. His anger and self-pity creep up from behind heavy eyes and a wall of cigarette smoke, as slowly his defensiveness is eroded by the realization that life has nothing good planned for him. Isaac is all offensive sociability and defensive interior logic and it’s deeply interesting just watching this character think about what’s happening to him.
Melanie Lynskey – Hello I Must Be Going (2012)
Though unfortunately relegated to small parts in big films and big parts in small films, Melanie Lynskey may actually be our greatest living actress. No one knows how to handle someone who can showcase crippling earnestness into mere seconds of screen time (her appearance in a late Key & Peele sketch proved this to be literally true). The greatest showcase of Lynskey’s talent is in the underseen Hello I Must Be Going.
The story isn’t revolutionary, but that hardly matters: it has Melanie Lynskey in the lead. She plays a woman who has to move home after a messy divorce to rebuild herself. This presents problems as she has to endure the judgment of her mother and an unexpected romance with an actor many years younger than she. Lynskey is constantly braced for life’s disappointments so she won’t be hurt when they jump into the road ahead of her. So when she finally lets her guard down, her fragility is nearly intolerable.
Chadwick Boseman – Get On Up! (2014)
Chadwick Boseman seemed to appear out of nowhere, but he’d been a staple of daytime TV for a decade before he played Jackie Robinson in the well-intentioned but too well-behaved 42. That, though commanding, was an appetizer compared to his work as James Brown in Get On Up! Taking to the God of Soul’s hypersexual youth and his untethered, infirm old age with equal glee, Boseman devours the part with fork and knife. He gives an impression of who this man was through unhinged movement. He changed the entertainment industry by telling a story with his voice and his body, and Boseman’s rich inhabitation of Brown’s dynamic presence on stage and in life.
Anna Paquin – Margaret (2011)
Critics of Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret (his years-in-the-making follow-up to You Can Count On Me) pointed to its mangy structure and lack of focus as shortcomings, not realizing that they were the point. It’s a film about life’s messiness as a girl realizes that everything doesn’t revolve around her. This is naturally an ugly process and Anna Paquin makes us feel every cut, scrape and bruise to her ego as she begins to realize where she fits into things.
Paquin won an oscar for her work in The Piano at age 11, and her intuitiveness had only sharpened when she began shooting Margaret in 2006. Fate intervened, keeping this, one of the great performances of our era, out of the public’s hands until 2011. Audiences had to watch True Blood if they wanted to watch Paquin, and that isn’t a patch on her work in Margaret, which is among the most blistering expressions of a teenager’s inner life and all its contradictions ever produced.
Daniel Day-Lewis – Lincoln (2012)
Daniel Day-Lewis earned his reputation (along with a passel of awards) through a commitment to cinema that would shame most married couples. He gets under the skin of his characters, experiences life the way they would have.
His fans would likely have sold their cars to spend time on the Lincoln set where they would have been treated to weeks and weeks of Daniel Day-Lewis in character as the great emancipator. The great Irish thespian found the burbling humanity of the American legend by finding the pain he covered up with his folksy good nature. Sure, there is great warmth in this Lincoln, but he makes mistakes, he’s ornery and he doesn’t like losing because he’d gotten a taste for it. This will live on as one of the best works from an artist who routinely and thoroughly transforms himself into larger than life creations.
Tallie Medel – The Unspeakable Act (2012)
Tallie Medel is not yet a household name, but she will be. Currently blazing a trail across American independent films and web series, the actress/dancer is very easy to watch. Big eyed and versatile, she’s been in a few small films giving performance with huge wells of emotion that are gently prodded by circumstance until they come flooding out, show-stoppers of broken reserve and daring openness.
Her greatest work is in Dan Sallitt’s little miracle of a movie, The Unspeakable Act. As a girl with a crush on her brother, she has a burden she can’t possibly share with anyone. Her brother (Sky Hirschkron), her closest confidant and only real friend, has been patient with her, but he doesn’t know how seriously to take her. Medel plays her as a woman overwhelmed by her own depth of feeling, struggling with a desire she wishes she weren’t plagued by. When she finally runs out of ways to hide what’s inside her, try not to let your heart shatter.
And this is really, only the scratching of the surface of great acting in American movies. Aaron Eckhart and Nicole Kidman did better work than anyone remembered they were capable of in Rabbit Hole. Andy Serkis is changing the very idea of performance itself in both Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Michael Keaton is back in action for Birdman and Spotlight. Joaquin Phoenix is good in literally everything. Peter Sarsgaard and Cate Blanchett are about to break hearts in Experimenter and Carol respectively. Who did we forget? Who has broken your heart with a little false stoicism? What actor do you think will be huge in years to come?