The last 27 years have seen a remarkable catalog of moving performances by some of the best actors of their generations. In the battle of Best Actor, who ranks highest amongst the cavalcade of Oscar winners?
27. Jean Dujardin — The Artist (2011)
Beyond period pieces, the ultimate throwback film in recent memory was 2011’s The Artist. Shot in black-and-white and with less than five lines of dialogue, this silent film was the highly publicized reclamation of a lost art form. As we learn at the end of the film, A-list star George Valentin’s (Dujardin) heavy French accent could be the nail in his Hollywood coffin. The film and its performances are undoubtedly fun, each frame a love letter to the bygone era in which it takes place. By staying true to the period, the emotions that Dujardin stirs up are big, and ironically scream whatever he is feeling at that moment. Given the closeups that are expected of today’s style of cinema, the theatrical level of performance seems out of place.
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26. Roberto Benigni — Life Is Beautiful (1998)
Tackling history’s darkest moments have been mined extensively to create award-caliber films. The unspeakable crimes of the Holocaust are a frequent backdrop to highlight the worst and best of humanity. Roberto Benigni’s performance, though charming, does less to show hope shining through darkness, but more to inappropriately elicit laughter. Oscar night that year showered praise and awards on the Italian film, but many have called its true impact into question. When tragedy on that scale is treated with humor, does it help us heal or does it misrepresent the suffering that millions were subjected to?
Malice was surely never intended in Benigni’s portrayal of a father trying to bring joy to his imprisoned family, but awareness of context and the overall presentation is a core tenet of filmmaking as a whole. Director Terry Gilliam once criticized Schindler’s List for treating the subject of the Holocaust with too much optimism — that is a debate for another time, but a comment that can be easily applied to Benigni’s Guido Orefice.
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25. Nicolas Cage — Leaving Las Vegas (1995)
No, your search engine has not misdirected you. Nicolas Cage, Hollywood’s most memeable actor, is in fact an Academy Award winner. In a prolonged suicide, a washed-up writer takes all the cash he has left for a bender in Las Vegas that he knows will leave him dead by the end of the film. The movie itself is a dark exploration of use of free will and addiction, with Cage’s character as the vessel to explore those themes and their dramatic consequences.
With all the makings of a great performance, this win ranks at No. 23 due to an admission from Cage himself – he spent most of this production actually intoxicated. Does actual intoxication constitute a performance when the performer is playing a character struggling with substance abuse? Art and truth are undoubtedly linked, but this is an instance where Cage may have played it too close for comfort.
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24. Leonardo DiCaprio — The Revenant (2015)
There was perhaps no name that the Oscar audience wanted to hear called more than Leonardo DiCaprio’s. The Titanic heartthrob has given incomparably committed performances time and time again (recently receiving his sixth nomination for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood). His Oscar win finally came with 2015’s The Revenant, a blistering tale of revenge set against the frigid backdrop of nature’s most challenging elements. In the press tour, Leo revealed he slept inside of a real horse carcass for a particularly grueling scene. DiCaprio’s desire for the coveted award has been well known, and many joked (perhaps accurately) that he took this role for the chance to win alone. All debate aside, most are simply content that Oscar gold has finally found its way onto Leo’s overly deserving shelf.
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23. Geoffrey Rush — Shine (1996)
Some believe genius can only be unleashed when one is pushed over the edge of their limits. David Helfgott — the renowned Australian pianist and subject of the 1996 film Shine — was raised in a home with this mentality. Under the domineering tutelage of his father, David’s skill became legendary around Australia and eventually the world; but it came with an extraordinary price. When we are first introduced to Geoffrey Rush as David, he wanders into a restaurant, muttering to himself incoherently. We soon learn he has been in and out of institutions, having suffered a severe mental breakdown.
Rush’s physicality is as manic as the character’s mind, giving us a visual exploration of the suffering he constantly endures. For all of the pain he has endured, David appreciates his gift and through pure talent is able to turn the world into his concert stage. Yet for the film in general, perhaps theatricality can only go so far. The Helfgott family has widely disputed David’s characterization, claiming his breakdowns and treatments were thrown wildly out of proportion.
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22. Rami Malek — Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
Freddie Mercury was the ultimate showman. His on-stage energy, his operatic approach to instrumentals, and his booming voice would give any actor a character with theatrical range to match the voice of Queen’s front man. Rami Malek stripped down the spectacle of Freddie to bring the man behind the mustache to life in an electrifying performance. At this point, you might be scratching your head – with all the positive words being used, why put his performance so low on this list?
Among the biopics that have been made about singers, Rami Malek made the choice to lip sync to a mix of Mercury’s voice and his own. Queen’s singer was able to express so much that it almost comes off disingenuous to use those prerecorded emotions. Perhaps this is a statement that will need to be revisited as countless more musical biopics will be produced in decades to come.
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21. Kevin Spacey — American Beauty (1999)
While his personal life and on-set accusations are mired in controversy at best and criminal behavior at worst, it is a fact that Kevin Spacey is an Oscar-winning actor. Suburban norms dictate that you must keep a smile plastered on your face at all times. As long as your curb appeal is beaming with sunshine, it does not matter what shadowy strife may be occurring behind closed doors. Spacey’s Lester Burnham is adrift in a sea of quiet desperation. After admiring the beauty of his daughter’s friend Angela (Mena Suvari), his midlife crisis reaches its peak. Stimulated to act on his sexual repression, unhappiness, and conformity, Lester begins a journey of rediscovery.
He is a very ordinary man, but his view of life becomes extraordinary. It is his perspective that flips and shakes him from his apathy. He is no longer content to let life remind him that his best years are gone. Spacey brings a degree of wisdom to a man who is learning to not lament what life has taken away, but to appreciate what life has given him. Spacey’s legacy as an actor is certainly in question, but this fictional character can thankfully show us the beauty behind the mess of life before it’s too late.
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20. Jeff Bridges — Crazy Heart (2009)
From Sunset Boulevard to A Star is Born, the subject of past-their-prime entertainers has created enchantment and heartbreak for audiences. Jeff Bridges — most famous for playing the overly-at-ease “Dude” in The Big Lebowski — brings his top-notch dramatic chops to the role of an alcoholic country singer struggling to keep up with music’s current landscape. Senior citizens love to comment that getting old is rough, and Bridges explores every complexity possible in that statement. The inner beauty of Bridges’ performance is that “Bad” Blake knows his faults. He has accepted them but is content to scrape through life in the waning years of his career.
In a step towards redemption, he attempts to reconnect with a scorned lover and his adult son (who he hasn’t seen in over 20 years). The twilight of success can make many prideful and embittered, but Bridges injects Blake with the fire he needs to travel down renewed roads. It is a story we are not strangers to, but Bridges makes Blake’s story a wholly unique one. The Dude gave it his all, and the Academy abided.
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19. Forest Whitaker — The Last King of Scotland (2006)
When watching any film, you want to root for your characters. When those characters succeed, we succeed — and see perhaps even better versions of ourselves. With that in mind, it is remarkable and a major testament to his talent that Forest Whitaker won Best Actor for playing real life tyrant Idi Amin. While we are never meant to fully love and embrace the character, it takes great skill to anchor a film on the shoulders of a brutal and xenophobic warlord.
We see Whitaker’s performance through the lens of James McAvoy’s Scottish doctor Nicholas, who has become the personal physician of the general-turned-president. At the beginning of his revolution, Nicholas – like all of us – hopes for the best under Amin’s new regime as president of Uganda. As Amin’s true nature begins to show itself, Nicholas is a mouse trapped in a tiger’s cage. Whitaker embraces the full fury of Idi Amin’s paranoia, letting the tension of the whole film boil until Nicholas is able to escape the country. We rooted for Nicholas and felt thrilled the mouse had left the cage – but the Academy was rooting for Whitaker’s tiger the whole time.
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18. Jack Nicholson — As Good as It Gets (1997)
Whether in his choice of roles, or in real life courtside at a Lakers game, Jack Nicholson oozes effortless charm — and age never seems to be a factor. What irony that the Hollywood veteran won Best Actor for playing a neurotic obsessive-compulsive novelist. For as often as the film and Nicholson’s performance garners laughter, he allows us to see that Melvin’s struggle to change is in fact an uphill battle. He wants to change and we root for him to. Melvin’s curmudgeonly approach to life slowly blossoms into a man more accepting of the world and people around him.
Stuck caring for his neighbor’s dog, more and more people slowly begin to enter the writer’s overly structured lifestyle. Nicholson’s portrayal initially allows Melvin to keep people at a distance, but it is almost a revelation to see him soften and want to let people in. As he tells Helen Hunt’s character, she makes him want to be a better man. It is perhaps the most noble of pursuits to better one’s self, and only an actor as skilled as Nicholson can keep us that engaged as this man allows himself to feel the connections the world wants to give him.
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17. Eddie Redmayne — The Theory of Everything (2014)
The universe at large is a swirling array of questions and mysteries. When one chooses to think about it for too long, your mind can nearly become numb from the limitless of its complexities. Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of physicist Stephen Hawking shows us a portrait of a man who relishes in this thought process. Redmayne allows Hawking’s quietness to buzz with intensity. You see the gears working in his mind; Redmayne effortlessly indicates he’s found the answer before we as the audience even asked the question — and this is all before Stephen begins seeing signs of a disease that would sadly come to overshadow what defined him.
While investigating the very beginnings of our universe, his mind must speak more and more as his body conversely limits him. His body itself is a battleground, as Redmayne painfully shows us the balance of Stephen’s intellectual pursuits in the stars versus the inescapable truths of his failing physical reality. It is a riveting performance that allows us to appreciate the immense knowledge Hawking was able to bring to the scientific table.
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16. Russell Crowe — Gladiator (2000)
2000 saw the release of Gladiator, a film that returned to the triumphant spectacles of filmmaking – and the Academy paid attention. In his most powerfully understated role, Russell Crowe brings pathos to the war table from the moment we first see him. Despite the brutal nature of a barbaric world, Maximus finds no joy in being bloodthirsty. He believes in what Rome represents — truth, justice, and peace — and more than anything wishes to return to his farm and family. When Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) — the scheming heir to the empire — kills his father, Maximus is thrown into the conspiratorial mix. The respected general is betrayed, sold into slavery, and his family is brutally murdered to ensure silence.
Emboldened by pain and loss, Maximus fights his way through the ranks of the Roman Colosseum to enrage the masses against Commodus. Most depictions of revenge are loud and stormy. The strength of Crowe’s performance lays in the expression of Maximus’ vengeance. It is quiet, seething, focused – but no less brutal. Crowe’s unique approach to the sword-and-sandal genre made his victory just as satisfying as Maximus’.
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15. Sean Penn — Milk (2008)
Crusades for social innovation, no matter what era, have been an uphill battle. Though all causes that represent equality are distinguished and worthy of praise, we mustn’t forget that warriors of the past were not able to use hashtags, likes, and follows to champion their cause. They had only their words and their convictions. Sean Penn stars as the titular Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in California in his Oscar-winning role. Milk never intended to have political aspirations in life, but when the gay community needed a voice, he stepped up to the podium.
Penn never loses sight of the fact that Milk only ever wanted to help. As easily as he can command a crowd with his inspiring rhetoric, his true strength lies in how he communicates one-on-one. Penn almost effortlessly commands the screen — there is little bravado in the performance, but the pure kindness that pours from him draws you in instantly. Penn truly shines when a young gay man who found his campaign number calls and admits he is considering suicide. Harvey talks him down, imbuing the struggling young man with hope — and as a result, the gay community as a whole.
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14. Gary Oldman — Darkest Hour (2017)
Thus far, six biopic performances have been covered. Big names, innovators, and leaders are frequently the subjects. These films give us a look into the lives of some of history’s most famous names. Gary Oldman’s performance as Winston Churchill — the bulldog of British politics — brings something refreshing and new to the table. Almost always clouded by cigar smoke, the film shows Churchill keeping both the audience and the characters around him at a reserved distance.
Oldman puffs his portly chest with bravado even in private. Driven by compelling confidence, Oldman’s performance navigates the rocky politics of the era with one goal in mind — victory. Through Oldman, we see a man that knows budging an inch could give the Third Reich a mile. His Churchill understands that the cost of war is steep, but victory cannot be achieved if someone does not make the difficult choices. History was lucky to have Winston Churchill, and we are lucky as moviegoers to see a fresh take on the typical biopic performance.
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13. Jamie Foxx — Ray (2004)
Despite avenues introduced through YouTube and other social media platforms, the path to becoming a musician is never easy for anyone. No matter what generation he could have been in, the story of Ray Charles is simply incredible and perfect for an Oscar-worthy performance. Jamie Foxx lends his own fantastic singing voice to Ray’s iconic discography while bringing a tortured performance to life. Never letting the fact he was blind put him down, Ray is instead haunted by the memory of accidentally letting his brother drown.
He masks the pain with the highs of musical stardom and the lows of heroin addiction. Foxx is never afraid to show the most troubling aspects of the character. As an actor, he does not judge his character, but seeks to understand the pain that would bring a man to those depths of addiction. Able to achieve sobriety, Ray Charles cemented himself as a musical marvel — and Jamie Foxx’s performance cemented him as one of our best leading men today.
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12. Casey Affleck — Manchester by the Sea (2016)
Grief is the shadow of trauma and pain; it can unveil itself whenever, wherever. How we deal with it — or more accurately attempt to deal with it — is the overriding theme of Kenneth Lonergan’s 2016 film. Affleck’s Lee Chandler is the avatar for exploring the tragedy of loss. Resolution is often expected of films. Their characters go on a journey, they learn, and they grow. Affleck masterfully navigates a degree of truth rarely seen in most dramas. Many of us never move on from tragedy. It stays with us no matter how hard we fight it. Through the film we learn Lee was intoxicated the night a house fire broke out, killing his three children.
The powerlessness Lee felt is present in every moment of Affleck’s performance. He so fully realizes and enriches his character that our hearts cannot help but break for him. Confronted with the possibility of being the guardian of his teenage nephew after his brother’s death, Affleck strikes the perfect balance between character growth and the bitter reality that sometimes we cannot let go of our demons.
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11. Daniel Day-Lewis — Lincoln (2012)
Originally meant to be played by Liam Neeson (reuniting him with his Schindler’s List director Steven Spielberg), Daniel Day-Lewis instead claimed the role of America’s 16th president — and it took him straight to that revered podium on Oscar night. Set in the last few weeks of the Civil War, we see America’s most famous president reflect upon the destruction of battle and the choices he made. Lincoln frequently muses on what he could have done differently while using his nearly bottomless optimism and wisdom to teach his cabinet – and himself – that certain actions had to be taken to save the Union. The notoriously method Day-Lewis fully committed to the role, even demanding to be called “Mr. President” while on set.
While a majority of actors in biopics have the benefit of watching interviews or films of their subjects, Day-Lewis had no such luxury. This is, in fact, what works so much to his benefit; after all the research from books was done, Day-Lewis gave us a character that represented the grace and importance of wisdom at a time when a nation was floundering in its own blood. None of us saw the actual Abraham Lincoln, but if Day-Lewis’ consistently peaceful demeanor is to be believed, it is no wonder why the Great Emancipator is among our most revered leaders.
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10. Matthew McConaughey — Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
While warnings were posted before the slide discussing Nicolas Cage, the opposite must be noted for Matthew McConaughey. For a time, the Texas-born actor was the face of middling to average romantic comedies, with a few strong roles in between. With good looks and a notably muscular physique, McConaughey could have settled to be nothing more than a blockbuster spectacle of an actor, a glorified stand in for overly green-screened films. But we are officially living in the McConaugh-sance, and one of its main architects was his entirely transformative portrayal of AIDS patient Ron Woodroof. Losing nearly 50 pounds for the role, that is quite literally just the surface of his poignant performance.
While Woodroof works tirelessly to distribute experimental drugs to the under-researched and marginalized AIDS community, McConaughey ignites the screen with the fervor of a wild cowboy. He is a boxer entering a match he knows he will lose but intends to go down with a smile on his face. A battle for self-preservation becomes a crusade as Woodroof learns to love the community he has become a part of – and as the audience, we learned McConaughey was one of cinema’s strongest performers working today.
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9. Anthony Hopkins — The Father (2020)
Nearly three decades after winning the Oscar for Best Actor for his haunting performance as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, Anthony Hopkins once again claimed the industry’s top individual award. Between winning his first Oscar in 1992 and claiming his second golden statue in 2021, Hopkins came up short four times. However, Hopkins’ performance in 2020’s The Father was undeniable. The 83-year-old Hopkins played the role of Anthony — a man who is struggling with dementia and the reality that his life is unraveling. Hopkins’ work in this film is incredibly stirring and truly masterful. With his second Oscar triumph, Hopkins became the oldest Oscar winner in a competitive acting category.
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8. Joaquin Phoenix — Joker (2019)
Joaquin Phoenix accomplished something that many people thought to be impossible — win the Oscar for Best Actor for playing a comic book character. Following Heath Ledger’s transcendent performance as Joker in 2008’s The Dark Knight, it was widely-assumed that we would never see another portrayal of the villain reach Ledger’s standard. And then, 11 years later, Phoenix put together the performance of his life. Playing the titular role in Joker, Phoenix dazzled as the Clown Prince of Crime. The star brought a new edge to the famed character — acting with an intensity that hasn’t been seen in a very long time. After coming up empty the first three times he was nominated for an Oscar, Phoenix finally reached the mountain top.
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7. Denzel Washington — Training Day (2001)
Denzel Washington operates in a tier of actors that when you see them come on the screen — regardless of the role — you pay attention. You know something unique is going to come forth. Denzel uses that gravitas to his ultimate benefit in 2001’s Training Day. Set in a 24-hour period of taking the new rookie (Ethan Hawke’s Jake) on a ride along, Jake can’t help but become seduced by Harris’ policing style – and the audience can’t either. He is so magnetic that you want to see him keep going, even at the detriment of the people around him, those who — as a detective — Alonzo is supposed to help.
Late in the film, Alonzo likens himself to King Kong, the ruler of the urban jungle who keeps all the other scurrying creatures in check. Denzel’s performance gives that line new meaning – when Alonzo enters a room, or when he simply says he is on his way, the air around the other characters changes. He threatens with a smile, but keeps you in check with quiet, menacing advice. Alonzo’s hot streak eventually catches up to him, and thankfully the shine of Oscar gold caught Denzel too.
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6. Colin Firth — The King’s Speech (2010)
In this time of questionable authority and social media giving us the power of immediately traceable words and actions, this current generation has struggled to understand and accept its place – if any – in the current political climate. In countless films, there are scenes of the general public looking to their leaders for guidance and hope. At this point in time, it could seem like pure fantasy. For England on the eve of World War II however, this became their reality. King George VI — known as “Bertie” to his friends and loved ones — was never meant to be England’s leader.
With a speech impediment and an older brother who had just abdicated the throne, Colin Firth plays the internal conflict with such doubt and poignancy that we nearly cheer every time Bertie is able to speak without stammering. England needs a rousing voice to support them more than ever, and Bertie throws himself into intense speech therapy to be the king they need him to be. While many thought Firth should have won for 2009’s A Single Man, his commitment to Bertie’s endurance of the Atlas-like pressure of being the voice of a nation was pitch perfect.
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5. Philip Seymour Hoffman — Capote (2005)
Chronicling the events that helped to cement him as one of America’s most famous writers, Truman Capote becomes infatuated with discovering the method behind the madness of two killers. Though Hoffman gives Capote a gleeful and lighthearted nature, he doesn’t ignore that the writer spent years making bribes and calculated efforts to get the truth from these two men. He wants to understand them more than anything — and certainly not for their benefit.
Despite making attempts to get them to appeal their death row convictions, it is for his own personal gain to complete his narrative. As their execution approaches, Capote is left with a book — and it leaves him feeling morose. Hoffman’s portrayal of Capote both charms and challenges us, as many of his performances did. Perhaps the greatest actor of his generation, the void left after Philip Seymour Hoffman’s passing in 2014 still has yet to be filled. And this film proves why.
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4. Tom Hanks — Forrest Gump (1994)
Right on the edge of exploring 25 years of remarkable performances, this list thankfully gets the chance to discuss the most famous role from America’s favorite actor — Tom Hanks. A subject of countless parodies and poor impersonations, one needs to only sit down and watch the film to see why it’s staying power has moved generations. Consistently optimistic and kind almost to a fault, Forrest’s marginal intelligence would never make him seem like a candidate for being both present at and influential to so many 20th century milestones. Where the satire around this film and performance get it painfully wrong is in regard to Forrest’s understanding of the world around him.
His aforementioned optimism and kindness doesn’t stem from ignorance. In perhaps the film’s most powerful scene, Forrest meets the son he didn’t know he had with his childhood love, Jenny. Voice shaking, Forrest asks Jenny if their son is like him. In that moment, we realize Forrest is fully aware of the limits of his mind, and nearly weeps when he hears his son is one of the smartest in his class. As we are explained to by Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder, a lesser actor would have made this performance crude and disgustingly offensive. We should be fortunate to have a character like Forrest to teach us limitless, timeless virtues.
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3. Adrien Brody — The Pianist (2002)
Adrien Brody gave audiences a true examination of strength in this 2002 film, both in his preparation, and the role itself. A famed concert pianist (which Brody learned by practicing four hours a day for months), Szpillman and his family believe their good fortunate will keep them safe from the rumblings of the Nazi regime targeting Jewish communities. From the separation of his family to his eventual liberation, we see Szpilman’s horrifying journey from beginning to end.
Finding refuge in an abandoned neighborhood, his talent becomes his salvation. A Nazi officer finds him but keeps his location secret in exchange for private performances. Brody ignites the flame of hope in Szpilman as he overcomes illness, starvation, and isolation each day just to face them the next. In the modern film landscape, strength is often associated with an overpowering victory. Brody’s sensitive exploration of survival shows us that survival is the victory.
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2. Sean Penn — Mystic River (2003)
An actor’s job is not to cry on command; their true skill lies in making YOU — the audience member — cry when they want you to feel the inner turmoil of their character. In Mystic River’s most iconic moment, Sean Penn’s Jimmy Markum learns about the death of his daughter and the police on site struggle to restrain his grief. Jimmy is propped up by the officers – the audience is left on their own to crumble to the ground in emotional agony. When we first meet Jimmy, the script and Penn’s performance dictate major details: he is a convenience store owner who loves his family and he is an ex-con. In his immediate Boston community, he’s known as a good man just trying to make his way in the world.
But as his own vigilante-esque investigation into his daughter’s murder unfolds, the man transforms from concerned father into a dangerous monster ready to burn all in his war path. After wrongfully suspecting and killing his childhood friend (that year’s Best Supporting Actor winner Tim Robbins) for his daughter’s death, the unveiling of the truth does little to bring guilt into Jimmy’s heart. Sean Penn effortlessly brings us what feels like a twist revelation by the end of the film – Jimmy’s brutality isn’t an alter ego; this is who he is, and the store owner is the true front.
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1. Daniel Day-Lewis — There Will Be Blood (2007)
In the midst of growing up, we are taught to succeed but also play fair. We are taught that triumph and kindness should consistently go hand in hand. Daniel Plainview would prefer to spit on those niceties rather than follow them. The moral dilemmas of business and personal gain are all at the forefront of Daniel Day-Lewis’ incredibly captivating and predatory performance. Plainview represents the worst of the American Dream – unstoppable capitalistic ambition that is consistently anchored by greed.
Much like the oil he is attempting to find, Day-Lewis gives Plainview the fury of a brewing eruption. He bursts forth and controls himself again and again, an emotional seesaw of rage and barely-there calm. Day-Lewis plays with cacophony and subtlety better than any actor, allowing himself to be bombastic just as much as he forces his passion to quietly curdle. Thanks to the pure magnetism of Day-Lewis as the oil man, we realize just as it’s too late that this wasn’t our hero — it was our villain. Day-Lewis makes us despise Plainview and all his corrupt victories by the end — and we never want to look away.
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