Top 10 Screen Performances

The Hauer Brothers are back at it again! Our ranking posts seem endless by now, don’t you think?

I recently had an idea which, at the time, thought would be fun and easy.  I was severely mistaken. I suggested to Ian that we do a ranking of top performances; excluding favorite actors and characters as best we could, making a blog post purely subjective.  Trying to rank these outstanding performances was brutal, to be sure, but at some point enough’s enough, and this is the list I’m settling with for the time being (although I will hear your criticism later and wrestle with my constantly changing opinion later).  Ian makes a better argument for our subjectively on his blog post here, but I feel I need to emphasize that these are “favorite” performances and not “best” performances.

For example, the majority would call Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance in The Reverent his best on screen performance–I however think his performance in Django Unchained is better.  To each his or her own.

Before we begin, I’m going to warn you ahead of time not to expect Heath Ledger’s Joker performance on this list.  I see that performance on every list, and while I agree that it is phenomenal, I’m choosing not to include it for the sake that he is given credit enough elsewhere.  We could write an entire blog post (and more) on the big and little things that make his Joker so good, but forgive me for trying to dig deep and find you some gems you may or may not have seen before (or maybe simply forgotten).

This is including the big screen and television.  I tried to find a reasonably clip attached to each actor.  Let’s begin…

10 – CHRISTOPH WALTZ as Hans Landa (Inglourious Basterds)

Film Title: Inglourious Basterds

I don’t like this movie. I just…don’t. EXCEPT for Waltz.  The first twenty minutes of the movie opens with a mesmerizing performance from the German actor, playing courteous, self-serving, cunning, and murderous Hans Landa. Relishing in a part that, for some, seems unplayable, Waltz caught the attention of Hollywood in this Tarantino flick, and has since been prospering on the big screen.  His Academy Award win for Best Supporting Actor was well deserved.  I’m confident that when I eventually go back and watch this miss-match of a movie, it will whole-heartedly be for Waltz.

9 – PAUL NEWMAN as John Rooney (Road to Perdition)


Road to Perdition is one of my favorite gangster movies, and one of the factors that make it so is Paul Newman.  He plays the crusty old Irish mob boss, growling his laments that feed the themes and aura of the story. I don’t want to sound like I’m only lost in his character, because this blog post is designed to distinguish performances. There’s something about Newman in this that feels so right.  While you can imagine a more over-the-top performance if the role had been cast with powerhouses like Pacino or De Niro, Newman’s interpretation of John Rooney’s weariness and anger is subtle, yet he finds the time and place to show his ferociousness.  It’s probably Newman’s most farsighted performances.

8 – BILLY BOB THORNTON as Lorne Malvo (Fargo, Season 1)


First off, I can’t believe Billy Bob is being written onto my list.  Not up until this show would I ever consider him on any list.  But it would be wrong to look over his work as Lorne Malvo (also known as Mephistopheles) in the FX’s sucker-punch season of Fargo—a show we all initially assumed would be a disaster.  Thornton’s contribution to the part didn’t involve him physically altering his body or learning a tricky dialect—what impresses me about his performance is how magnetic he is throughout the entirety of the season.  The plot is engaging to be sure, and the other performances in the show are admirable, but there is something about Billy Bob that made me hold my breath for his next scene.  This entry on the list my not be as satisfying to you because Yours Truly isn’t entirely certain what makes Thornton so good in this show.  There’s a ton of great scenes in the show, but try this one out here.

7 – ANNE HATHAWAY as Fantine (Les Miserables)


We’ve all had our eye on Hathaway for years; knew what she was capable of.  I had no doubts when I first read about her casting as Fantine—I knew she would bring her A game.  And she did.  While her screen time is less then 20 minutes, it’s arguably the most memorable performance of the musical.  Hathaway plays broken and degraded like a champ in Les Miserables, crushing her solo of “I Dreamed a Dream”—if you weren’t crying up till this point, you were for sure sobbing by the end of that number.  The part of Fantine is incredibly taxing to play on its own, but Hathaway couples that with singing with what looks, to me, hard work, and thereafter, well deserved praise.

6 – DONALD SUTHERLAND as Ronald Bartel (Backdraft)


Time for the dark horse.  It’s not very likely you’ve seen this Ron Howard film, unless you’re planning on becoming a firefighter, or you’re an enormous William Baldwin fan…and the latter is a few and dying breed.  Sutherland plays Ronald, a pyromaniac in the vein of Hannibal Lecter.  The strength of his performance is based solely around his eyes, with the appropriate trembles of his voice for poignant moments. The role is small, piggybacking off of Robert de Niro’s scenes, but his part stands out with nervous pride.  Where most actors would turn the character into a giggling nutcase, Sutherland offers a soft-spoken creepo that brings you close to the fire’s terrifying and mysterious allure.

5 – GEOFFREY RUSH as Captain Hector Barbossa (Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl)


Geoffrey Rush is a rare breed of actor who is physically able to transform into his character.  I like to imagine him as a more modern Alec Guinness or Peter Sellers.  But while I don’t want to get lost on just praising the actor and all his achievements, I want to focus on his role in the first installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean (POTC) franchise.  Now while it’s easy to get distracted with Johnny Depp’s performance as Captain Jack Sparrow, Rush delivers everything you would want to see in a classic villain, going above and beyond to portray a filthy, driven, deliciously evil cursed pirate captain. Considering only the first film, the performance is layered with small isms that make Rush’s Barbossa incredibly satisfying.  I think that’s why we all—opinions of story eliminated—cheered when he made his return at the end of Pirates 2.

4 – CHAIM TOPOL as Tevye (Fiddler on the Roof)


I’ve been trying hard to make sure Ian and I’s list are a bit more diverse than normal, but I got a sneak peak at one of his drafts and saw Topol and—dammit, I absolutely had to include him.  His performance in the musical is the perfect example of how a movie would be less than half as good if he was removed from the film.  We know that Zero Mostel fathered the original performance of Tevye on Broadway, but I personally believe Topol dialed the character up to an eleven on the big screen.  On top of his glorious booming voice, he plays comedy and tragedy with ease, all the while talking to God in between.  I fervently believe his dialogue should be put down as some of the best narration on screen of all time—on the other hand, the good book says another day another post.  Regardless, Topol’s performance and Fiddler on the Roof are, to me, are interchangeable.  Fiddler would not be nearly so grand if not for the man who brought the pinnacle Tevye to life.

3 – DANIEL DAY-LEWIS as William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting (Gangs of New York)


Up to this point, I’ve been doing pretty well but separating favorite actors from favorite performances.  However, I’m going to dive into a few performances that led these actors to my favorites.  I wrestled with this one, because any of Daniel Day-Lewis’s performances since My Left Foot could arguably be on this list (excluding 2009’s “9”), I decided to go with his take of Bill “The Butcher” Cutting in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York.  If you want to talk about electrifying performances, look no further.  Playing a mustachioed, knife-throwing, 19th Century sociopath, I can’t give enough praise for Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York.  I’m literally speechless to how great of a performance he gives.  If you want too watch one of the best scenes of all time, look no further than the rabbit scene.

2 – ROBIN WILLIAMS as Parry (The Fisher King)


Aaaaaand another favorite, I wrestled with which performance to mention for Robin Williams.  After much deliberation, I decided it to go his Academy Award nominated performance in The Fisher King, playing the unbalanced, good-hearted, head-over-heels in love Parry.  Robin clearly found the Holy Grail and used it to his advantage for years, taking off the kid gloves and “free the little guy, let him flap in the breeze!”  Effortlessly, he goes from wild to tender within seconds, wearing his heart on his sleeve for the majority of the picture.  As much as I enjoy the movie on its own, it wouldn’t be half as good if not for Robin’s Parry.  He is unashamedly unfiltered and unearthed for the entirety of The Fisher King.

1 – JACK NICHOLSON as Colonel Nathan R. Jessup (A Few Good Men)


I feel I’ll be splitting the readership with this one.  In a rather old-fashioned courtroom drama that relies on the strength of its stars, Jack Nicholson, unsurprisingly, steals the show with his portrayal of Colonel Jessup.  There are gobs and gobs of essays on Nicholson and his art of anger (YouTuber Nerdwriter1 is a prime example here), and for good reason.  The role is perfect for Jack, where he relieves a powerful relationship between body and mind.  His angry performance in A Few Good Men is mesmerizing and could’ve been easily overacted, creating something cringeworthy or, for a lack of a better word, boring.  With his familiar anger underlaid with superiority, Nicholson is at his most restrained and militant (appropriately so) peak in A Few Good Men.  I absolutely love watching him in this movie.  Take the time to watch the courtroom scene, it’s worth five minutes of your time.

Honorable Mentions:
Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Hannibal Lecter (The Silence of the Lambs), Heath Ledger as The Joker (The Dark Knight), Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh (No Country For Old Men); Patrick Stewart as Charles Xavier (Logan); Jake Gyllenhaal as Lou Bloom (Nightcrawler); Russell Crowe as John Nash (A Beautiful Mind); Joaquin Phoenix as Commodus (Gladiator); Ralph Fiennes as Amon Goth (Schindler’s List); Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes (Misery); Robert Downey Jr. as Charlie Chaplin (Chaplin); Cate Blanchett as Galadriel and Ian McKellan as Gandalf (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring); Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood (House of Cards); Evan Rachel Wood as Dolores, Thandie Newton as Maeve, and Ed Harris as The Man in Black (Westworld), Rutger Hauer as Roy Batty (Blade Runner), Danny Kaye as Hubert Hawkins (The Court Jester), Dustin Hoffman as Captain Hook (Hook)

About Morgan

January 2016 Update: This blog is under reconstruction. Please be patient while we gradually remove old material, posts, and pages, and create new ones. Thank you.
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