Stand Out Performances of the Decade, Ranked

8 minute read

By Nick Steinberg (@Nick_Steinberg)

As part of Goliath’s look back at the 2010s, today, we’re highlighting some of our favorite movie performances from the past decade. To be clear, this isn’t a list of the outright most exceptional performances of the last ten years (although you will find quite a few of them here). Instead, these are the performances that truly blew us away and left a lasting impact.

That being said, it’s difficult to distill an entire decade’s worth of acting into just 12 individual performances, so there will naturally be a ton that we missed. Is there a performance from the 2010s that has stuck with you? Let us know which ones we missed by leaving a comment below!

12. Leonardo DiCaprio – The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

The 2010s will go down as the decade in which Leo finally won his Oscar … but for the wrong movie. DiCaprio undoubtedly suffered for his art in the making of The Revenant. Still, he gave a superior performance a couple of years earlier in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. Playing real-life stockbroker Jordan Belfort, DiCaprio gets to unleash the full fury of his natural charisma and slick-talking energy.

It’s the kind of over-the-top performance that stands on a knife’s edge and could have quickly devolved into absurdity in a lesser performer’s hands. That isn’t to say DiCaprio doesn’t go to some ridiculous places here — the famous Quaaludes scene is a hilarious bit of physical comedy — but much like the film itself, he finds the right balance between portraying Belfort as a soulless huckster and a surprisingly sympathetic man who falls to the temptation of capitalist greed.

Source: Screenshot via Paramount Pictures

11. Charlize Theron – Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Although it’s still a rarity to find a franchise tentpole that passes the Bechdel Test, female action stars have thankfully become a more common sight on the big screen. It fits then that arguably the best action film of the last decade introduced audiences to one of the greatest female warriors to ever grace the silver screen.

Charlize Theron’s Furiosa is a force of nature so powerful she steals Mad Max: Fury Road right out from under its titular hero. All apologies to Tom Hardy, but this is Theron’s film, as her character’s emotional journey helps ground director George Miller’s heavy metal cacophony of V8 engines and explosions. Here’s hoping we see Theron reprise her role in a standalone Furiosa movie someday.

Source: Screenshot via Warner Bros. Pictures

10. Andy Serkis – Planet of the Apes Trilogy

Ever since his breakthrough role as Gollum in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Andy Serkis has been at the forefront of motion capture acting. While Gollum will likely always remain Serkis’s defining role, the actor arguably topped himself this decade with his work as Caesar, the chimpanzee in the critically-acclaimed Planet of the Apes trilogy. Throughout three films, Serkis portrayed Caesar as he evolved from a laboratory chimp to a hardened revolutionary leader, producing one of the deepest and most sympathetic protagonists in modern blockbuster filmmaking.

While there is debate over whether Serkis or the WETA animators who helped bring Caesar to life deserve more credit, Caesar wouldn’t have worked half as well as he did if it wasn’t for Serkis and his outstanding physicality and emotional depth.

Source: Screenshot via 20th Century Fox

9. Natalie Portman – Black Swan (2010)

It took some time, but Natalie Portman finally got out from under the shadow of the Star Wars prequels this past decade thanks to several career-defining performances. However, as great as Portman was in films like Annihilation and Jackie, her leading role as a tortured ballerina in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan is arguably her best.

In addition to the harsh physical demands of the role, Portman’s turn as ballerina Nina Sayers thoroughly captures the psychological toll artists will endure in the pursuit of perfection. A mesmerizing performance from start to finish, Portman deserved her Academy Award win and firmly left Padme behind with Black Swan.

Source: Screenshot via Fox Searchlight Pictures

8. Hugh Grant – Paddington 2 (2018)

Best known as the film with a perfect Rotten Tomatoes score, Paddington 2 is simply a joy from start to finish and one of the best family films of the decade. A big part of the reason why this film works as well as it does is Hugh Grant, who essentially turns in several of the best performances of his career as Paddington 2’s villain Phoenix Buchanan.

Grant devours the role of Buchanan, a washed-up actor who goes to increasingly ridiculous lengths to foil poor Paddington throughout the film. It helps that Grant is channeling his own experiences as a past his prime rom-com star in portraying Buchanan’s obsession with returning to the limelight, adding up to a performance that hints that Grant’s best work may still lie ahead rather than in his ‘90s heyday.

Source: Screenshot via StudioCanal

7. Tie: Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans – Marvel Cinematic Universe

There was no bigger cinematic spectacle this decade than Marvel’s unprecedented shared universe experiment, so it makes sense to highlight the franchise’s two biggest stars. Robert Downey Jr. truly needs no introduction, as his role as Tony Stark/Iron Man is arguably the defining superhero performance of its era. Anchored by a biting wit, Downey’s performance reached new emotional depths as he and the franchise around him evolved. And while his work was never as showy as his co-star’s, Chris Evans deserves similar recognition for taking a character as earnest as Captain America and turning him into the franchise’s beating heart.

It’s fitting that both actors decided to part ways with Marvel in Avengers: Endgame, a film that not only close out both of their characters’ stories beautifully but wrapped up (at least symbolically) an entire decade of franchise-building. While the MCU has no shortage of stars waiting in the wings to take the reins, they’ll have a hard time living up to Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans’ legacy.

Source: Screenshot via Marvel Studios

6. Daniel Day-Lewis – Lincoln (2012)

Thanks in part to the much-publicized on-set antics of Jared Leto in Suicide Squad, method acting is now primarily viewed as shorthand for being an abusive co-worker. However, even though it’s fallen out of favor in Hollywood, the so-called method acting has produced some truly incredible performances over the years; many of which have come from Daniel Day-Lewis.

Day-Lewis has built a career of disappearing into his characters, and that distinction holds for his lead performance in Steven Spielberg’s 2012 biopic Lincoln. From his dramatic use of voice (Lincoln reportedly had a “reedy, high-pitched voice”) to his understated body language, Day-Lewis brings the 16th President of the United States to life in stunning detail. Justifiably, playing Abraham Lincoln earned Day-Lewis a third Oscar and stands as one of the all-time great biopic performances.

Source: Screenshot via Walt Disney Studios

5. Lupita Nyong’o – 12 Years a Slave (2013)

Steve McQueen’s Best Picture-winning epic 12 Years a Slave has no shortage of standout performances from its ensemble cast. Chiwetel Ejiofor has never been better as the heroic Solomon Northup, while Michael Fassbender explodes off the screen as sadistic slave owner Edwin Epps. But it’s Lupita Nyong’o’s harrowing performance as lifelong slave Patsey that steals the show.

In her breakout role, Nyong’o goes to emotional and physical extremes to portray a character who must endure unimaginable horror every day of their life. Nyong’o won a Best Supporting Actress award for her work and went on to star in some of the decade’s biggest films, including Black Panther and the new Star Wars trilogy.

Source: Screenshot via Fox Searchlight Pictures

4. Jake Gyllenhaal – Nightcrawler (2014)

Jake Gyllenhaal began the decade on a down note, thanks to his ill-advised starring role in Disney’s whitewashed Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. Thankfully, the affable star would go on to select bolder and more challenging parts throughout the 2010s and, in 2014, teamed up with first-time director Dan Gilroy to give the performance of his career.

Visibly gaunt and wide-eyed, Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom is a reprehensible opportunist who establishes his sociopathic tendencies right off the jump when he attacks a security guard and steals his watch. Showcasing the worst aspects of hustle culture, Nightcrawler is one of the decade’s best pieces of pulp cinema, and it only wouldn’t be half as good without Gyllenhaal’s manic lead performance, which somehow didn’t earn an Oscar nomination.

Source: Screenshot via Open Road Films

3. Mahershala Ali – Moonlight (2016)

2016’s Best Picture winner Moonlight (not La La Land!) is a film dominated by riveting performances, including those of its three co-leads — Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes — who all play protagonist Chiron at different stages of his life. However, much like the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which awarded him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, we have to give special attention to Mahershala Ali’s performance.

Playing a drug dealer who takes a young, fatherless Chiron under his wing, Ali brings an indescribable tenderness to his role. Alongside his role as the villainous Cottonmouth in the first season of Luke Cage that same year, Moonlight helped put Mahershala Ali’s name on the map, and he has since emerged as one of the decade’s most exciting breakout stars.

Source: Screenshot via A24

2. Cate Blanchett – Carol (2015)

When it comes to consistency, few actors can rival Cate Blanchett, who seems to turn in near-perfect work no matter the role. Yet, Blanchett arguably reached another level this decade thanks to two exquisite performances in particular: the title roles in Blue Jasmine and Carol, the latter of which may be her best to date.

Playing a wealthy 1950s housewife who falls for a Manhattan shopgirl (Rooney Mara, also outstanding), Blanchett’s performance is one defined by the moments between words, in her furtive glances and strained silences. It’s an exhaustive portrait of quiet suffering and truly one of the finest performances of the decade.

Source: Screenshot via StudioCanal/The Weinstein Company

1. Philip Seymour Hoffman – The Master (2012)

One of the greatest actors of his generation, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s untimely death in 2014, was a significant loss for both the film and stage. Although it wasn’t his final performance, Hoffman’s role as enigmatic cult leader Lancaster Dodd in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master may well be the late actor’s crowning achievement.

As Dodd, Hoffman casts a spell over Joaquin Phoenix’s impressionable Freddie Quell and viewers alike, as his performance so elegantly captures the strange pull charismatic men can have on the lost and vulnerable. Pardon the pun, but it’s truly a masterful performance, and one can only imagine what other cinematic feats Hoffman could have accomplished had his life not been so tragically cut short.

Source: Screenshot via The Weinstein Company

Nick Steinberg (@Nick_Steinberg)