20 Must-See Acting Performances

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Photo By Scott Beale of laughingsquid.com.

Jesse Eisenberg portraying Mark Zuckerberg in ‘The Social Network’. Eisenberg’s portrayal of Zuckerberg earned him a nomination for the Best Actor Oscar in the 2011 Academy Awards. Image courtesy of Scott Beale, laughingsquid.com.

What defines a truly great acting performance? There are, of course, many elements to stellar acting, but perhaps the most impeccable of performances are instances where you stop seeing the actor as an actor and start seeing them as a character. Movie-goers want to believe in the character that they are presented with, and actors want audiences to see them as the character they’re playing. Great dramatic roles are especially hard to pull off, and not just because there is emotion that has to be sold to the audience.  Never resorting to begging the audience for emotion, an actor’s performance simply has to naturally project a character with relatable problems and feelings. With those elements in mind, I have compiled a list of twenty actors who excelled in their roles, redefining the concept of being a great actor.

Spoilers will be included and reader discretion is advised.

 

20. Ryan Gosling, La La Land

When La La Land came out in 2016, it was getting all the Oscar pop of the season. Emma Stone had won best actress, La La Land narrowly lost best picture to Moonlight, and Gosling was nominated for best actor for playing his role as Sebastian Wilder, a jazz lover whose dream is to establish a jazz club. Gosling’s impeccable rapport with Emma Stone and his passion for music are what makes his performance truly remarkable.

19. Harrison Ford, The Empire Strikes Back

There is no actor more iconic to Star Wars than Harrison Ford. Ford’s snappy comebacks and smooth romance are perfect responses to a somewhat stale performance from some very dry Carrie Fisher lines. Ford carries this film on his back.

18. Tom Hanks, Catch Me If You Can

Tom Hanks plays Carl Hanratty in Steven Spielberg’s 2002 Crime film Catch Me If You Can. Hanks’ Hanratty is played as a serious-minded FBI agent who is put in charge of tracking down Frank Abagnale (Leonardo DiCaprio). Hanks’s portrayal of Hanratty is one of the best performances of his career. As the story moves along, Hanratty successfully catches Abagnale only to realize that Abagnale could not only be very useful to the FBI, but that he has grown to care for the young con man. His transition of being infuriated with Abagnale and his inability to track him to becoming a second father figure and Abagnale’s path to redemption is very believable and well sold. Carl Hanratty is one of Hanks’ many amazing portrayals.

17. Keanu Reeves, John Wick

Longtime beloved actor Keanu Reeves is perhaps best known for playing two iconic characters: Neo from The Matrix, and John Wick. Reeves brings an intensity to the screen with his story, but more importantly, he sells the emotional drama of John Wick in a movie that at first glance might be identified as just another Mission: Impossible film.

16. Joaquin Phoenix, Joker

Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker might be an obvious pick, but it is a well-deserved one. Phoenix portrays Arthur Fleck, a man living in Gotham City who suffers from severe mental illness in a town that is very quickly crumbling into crime and poverty. Phoenix’s portrayal of the Joker is not only stellar in the context of a villain origin story, but is also one of the very best portrayals of a character suffering from mental illness. Phoenix’s Joker is both an entertainment masterpiece and a societal wake-up message.

15. Robert De Niro, The King of Comedy

The next film featured on this list is perhaps Martin Scorsese’s most underrated masterpiece. Robert De Niro plays Rupert Pupkin, a character who ironically has some similarities to Arthur Fleck. Pupkin’s transitions between imagination and reality make him a believable character in very similar ways to Arthur Fleck.

14. Ray Liotta, Goodfellas

The King of Comedy is not Scorsese’s only movie with a stellar actor. Goodfellas stars Ray Liotta as Henry Hill, a young man who grows up to become a gangster and gets into some serious trouble. Liotta’s performance in Goodfellas makes this my personal favorite gangster movie of all time. Liotta plays a character that grows up to become a New York gangster and has to eventually rat on his friends in order to save his family. Liotta’s transition from a hard-nosed gang member to a worried, guilt-racked father makes this story gripping, and makes this film an instant classic.

13. Cillian Murphy, Inception

When people talk about Inception, the acting may not always be the first thing that gets brought up. Indeed the acting of Leonardo DiCaprio and Joseph Gordon-Levitt is good, but not superb. However, Cillian Murphy plays Robert Fischer Jr., a young man who runs a vast energy empire after the death of his father. Fischer’s arc, while not the main allure of this movie, is very well acted. Fischer’s transition from a character angry and resentful towards his father to a man who has realized that his father loves and accepts him is truly touching. It’s impressive that Fischer’s character is not the central plot point, but still manages to grab the emotion and spirit of Inception.

12. James McAvoy, Split

James McAvoy plays Kevin Wendell Crumb in M. Night Shyamalan’s Split, but McAvoy does not play just Kevin. The character of Kevin Wendell Crumb has created 23 other personalities for himself which are manifested on-screen in Split. The truly impressive element of McAvoy’s performance is that viewers will never be lost or confused in his performance. Each time there is a different personality on screen, McAvoy portrays them so individually and uniquely. The discipline required to pull this role off is incredible and McAvoy does it perfectly.

11. Tom Felton, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

The Harry Potter movies aren’t exactly the best movies where acting is concerned outside of Daniel Radcliffe and Alan Rickman, but one actor that absolutely knocks his role out of the park is Tom Felton as Draco Malfoy. Felton is the symbol of every child or teen who suffers from an internal struggle brought about by his family’s conflicting views and morals. Draco’s own moral compass vs. his conflict to be accepted is a struggle that Tom Felton pulls off perfectly. Felton’s performance as Draco is one of the very few things that the movie does even better than the book.

10. Steve Carell, Beautiful Boy

Steve Carell plays David Sheff, the father of a boy who descends into a life of drugs and depression. Carell really sells the role of a father that wants nothing more than for his son to get clean and start getting his life together, all while juggling difficulties with his ex-wife and current family. As Carell starts to realize that the only way to help his son is to let him descend to his lowest point, his acceptance of his son’s potential fate and his own struggle to forgive himself for his son’s sins is a heart-wrenching performance that everyone needs to see.

9. Brad Pitt, Fight Club

Brad Pitt plays Tyler Durden, the leader of a cult called Fight Club. Pitt plays possibly one of the most charismatic, likable villains of all time, and in addition, he’s also just hilarious in his role. This may not be an emotionally stirring character, but for anyone looking to be mesmerized in the character’s plot and forget the actor, Tyler Durden is the way to go.

8. Samuel L. Jackson, Pulp Fiction

“Say what again! Say what again, I dare you, I double dare you”. Jackson’s beginning monologue in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction is quite possibly the most iconic monologue of all time. Who knew that a guy with an afro rambling on about Kahuna Burgers, bible verses, and some guy named Marsellus Wallace could be so incredibly entertaining?

7. Matthew McConaughey, Mud

When people talk about McConaughey’s greatest performance, the movie that often gets brought up is Dallas Buyers Club. Fortunately, his role as Ron Woodruff is not his only great performance. This film shows Matthew McConaughey as a man simply referred to as Mud, a homeless nomad who moves to Arkansas to find his true love. McConaughey plays a kind of rough-along-the-edges survivor role, but when he meets Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and grows to care for him and his friend, he turns into a very touching father figure whose performance is a heartbreaking masterpiece from top to bottom.

6. Leonardo DiCaprio, Django Unchained

Tarantino really knows how to bring out great acting talent. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Calvin Candie, a slave owner who runs the infamous Candyland slave plantation. DiCaprio’s rapport with Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) and Steven (Samuel L. Jackson) along with his quick wit and snobby rich attitude might be the most comical performance I have ever seen. 

5. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, 50/50

In my opinion, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is one of the most under-appreciated and undersold actors working today, and he has at least three Oscar-worthy performances. Gordon-Levitt plays Adam, a man who has discovered he has cancer and has a 50/50 chance of survival. Gordon-Levitt sells the emotional torment of this man in so many different ways. From his girlfriend’s betrayal, the death of a friend, and his feelings of inadequacy and incompleteness, they are gut-wrenching and extremely relatable to audiences, even for people who have never had a fatal illness. 

4. Adam Driver, Marriage Story

Ask anyone who has seen this movie and they will tell you how amazing Adam Driver’s performance is. Driver plays Charlie Barber, a man struggling with a divorce from his estranged wife Nicole Barber (Scarlett Johansson). Driver’s performance builds on you for the entire film, and as the emotional tension is released in one of the most emotional, climactic arguments in cinematic history, Driver’s pain and anguish are the ultimate representation of the tragedy of divorce from someone you once loved.

3. Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network

The Social Network might be the best-acted movie I have ever seen. The film features outstanding performances from Andrew Garfield, Armie Hammer, and Justin Timberlake, but Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg is the film’s heart and soul. It is impossible to determine whether Zuckerberg should be loved or hated throughout the film. On one hand, his snappy comebacks and sharp wit make him a character that gets a lot of chuckles, but the central moral conundrum of the film can very easily make Zuckerberg look like the enemy, and consequently, extremely unlikable.

2. Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler

In Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler, Jake Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, a man who finds a career in filming crime scenes and sells them to television news to be broadcast. His character very quickly turns from a character easy to root for to someone that reveals himself to be a complete sociopath, placing his team in danger and actually getting people killed in the midst of his desire to film the perfect crime scene. Gyllenhaal’s performance is the most unsung performance of all time.

1. Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight

For those who have never watched The Dark Knight, Heath Ledger’s acting performance is the best acting job of all time. Period, no question about it. Ledger plays the Joker, a mastermind of Gotham who dresses in clown makeup and is the arch-nemesis to Batman (Christian Bale). The first time I ever saw The Dark Knight, I was quite literally on the edge of my seat with excitement and frankly, fear. Ledger loses himself in the role of the Joker and makes you think there is nothing that the clown prince is afraid to do.

 

Whether the character being portrayed is simply a grieving father yearning for his son’s return to sobriety, or a clown mastermind from a simple superhero movie, great acting is a marvel to behold. The thing that sets these roles above all others is that there’s something unique and refreshing about each and every one of them. Nobody is ever going to portray Malfoy as well as Tom Felton, and there is no way anyone is going to play a character with 23 personalities better than James McAvoy. Performances like this are scarce, and truly special to come by. 

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