The Best Performances of the Decade – So Far

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Earlier this week, Robert MacFarlane asked the Twitter void for the greatest performance of this decade now we’ve reached the midpoint to delightful results. Many of these picks came from films without Oscar or box office heights, so there’s also something to be said about how a performance or film can achieve longevity in our minds. It’s about that itch that can’t be scratched, the way the performance evolves over time and reveals itself. With only a small sampling of recurring choices, the selections were exciting reminders that we’re in a new golden age of acting and filmmaking in general.

Close calls were Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty), Michael Fassbender (Shame), Dwight Henry (Beasts of the Southern Wild), Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene), and Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher). I don’t have any 2015 releases included, sometimes things just need time to take root.

So the conversation has freshly brought up recent performances to my mind, and here are the 10 that won’t go away (though dwindling down is agony). Should I continue onto films? Screenplays? On to the list…

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10. Philip Seymour Hoffman – The Master as Lancaster Dodd

A tight coil of control and rage, a superego operating both on the film’s nebulous wavelength and on his own steadfast path. One of his highest degrees of difficulty in his career. It’s still so heart-crushingly sad that he’s gone.

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9. Matthew McConaughey – Magic Mike as Dallas

The pinnacle of the McConaissance. He plays the crowd, his crew, and filmgoer in different ways all simultaneously. Dallas is every bit a play on the stereotyped McConaughey personawe’ve mocked, but reveals something entirely unexpected – cruel, uncompromising, and entirely controlled.

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8. Lesley Manville – Another Year as Mary

She plays Mary as if she never hears a damn word anyone ever says, even in the ultimate tough love moment from Ruth Sheen’s stalwart. For a film about connection and aging in community with loved ones, Manville keeps appropriately on her own field in her own movie. One of the most eerily spot-on portrayals of narcissism in a decade full of them.

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7. Brad Pitt – Moneyball as Billy Beane

It’s not just Pitt’s obvious charisma, but Moneyball is a showcase for his deep soul. Without tics or showy emotionality, we click into his passion, rage, and pressure thanks to the under-appreciated gifts that Pitt brings as a natural presence. This performance could skyrocket up this list in time, and it should have gotten him his Oscar.

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6. Scarlett Johansson – Under the Skin as The Female

How does an actor play a machine?? At a complete disconnect of body, mind, and soul, Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin is an almost unhuman performance – devoid of a human toolkit of expression in the extreme. She delivers an original take on alien curiosity and adroit physicality, but also the empty focus of a worker bee. Combined with her vocal dexterity in Her, Johansson is the new superactor of deconstructed performance.

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5. Cate Blanchett – Blue Jasmine as Jasmine

An undeniable inclusion. You can feel the actress rushing past even the already enthralling characterization on the page. It takes something rare to rush to the top of all-time Woody Allen performances, but damn. “I saw you, Erica!”

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4. Julie Delpy – Before Midnight as Celine

It’s not the accrued time with the character over two previous films or writing of the character that makes her work as Celine in this installment so alive, it’s Delpy’s ability to be present and real in the moment to the point of seeming real. The shed of artifice, of performer/character barriers is unparalleled. She makes us feel Celine’s full life on the fringes filled with regrets, resentments, joys, and passions, with every turn of conversation flowing naturally – you wouldn’t even need the first two to understand her.

3. Oscar Isaac – Inside Llewyn Davis as Llewyn Davis

The music speaks for itself, but it’s also Isaac’s full-bodied explosion of Davis’s aching soul. There are certain emotions only music can express, but it’s not like Isaac’s singer would make much effort anyway. Music may be Davis’s motivator, but is the heart of the song the same one freezing over (or long since frozen) inside the man? Such an enigma would never would without Isaac’s never richer dynamism.

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2. Anna Paquin – Margaret as Lisa Cohen

An embodiment of post-9/11 American guilt and the film’s thesis of “America as teenager”, Paquin’s Lisa Cohen is an insufferable loose cannon of good intentions. The infuriating aspects of Lisa are never shied from or excused, but her humanity is never compromised. Paquin’s grasp of the pre-adult mind is terrifying and complex, coherently crafting what is (at least on the page) the most challenging role of more than just this early decade. An intellectual and emotional marathon of a performance that hasn’t evaporated in the slightest since its storied release.

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Best Performance of the Decade: Charlize Theron – Young Adult as Mavis Gary

Never is Charlize Theron telling you a single thing about Mavis Gary – everything grimace, every delusion, every frustration projects her pain, her hatred, her need to be loved. This decade has seen golden comedy in depression from Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids to Amy Schumer in Trainwreck, but Theron is not known to be so naturally gifted with comedy. The belly laughs come as deep as the pathos, and she’s served fully by the never-better talents of director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody. A rival to her Oscar-winning turn in Monster that never got her the deserved equal acclaim, Theron’s portrayal of Mavis is every bit as acidic as it is humane. The baby shower monolouge is fire – the full cannon power of Mavis’s hilarious hatred and her heartbreaking lack of self-awareness.

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