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The Top 10 of the 2010s: Best Performances

The 2010’s were packed with game changing films: debuts from independent giants that went onto blockbuster successes (such as Ava Duvernay and Barry Jenkins), and technological firsts from Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro G. Iñárritu. The decade also saw the return to form from icons such as Martin Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson. In our first list, we will be focusing on performances. And specifically, those performances that stood out from the heap and went above and beyond. (Spoiler warning ahead).

Special Mentions

(Yes, it’s a top 10 list but I had to include 3 that just missed the cut because they were simply too many.)
  • Emma Stone – La La Land

A Hollywood old school star turn: full of pure joy and heart.

  • Mahershala Ali – Moonlight

Brief yet poignant: an announcement of grace and a father figure to all.

  • Daniel Kaluuya – Get Out

Rage and calm all rolled into one: nothing is lost on his beautifully expressive face.

10th. Saoirse Ronan – Little Women (2019)

 Not only did Saoirse Ronan turn in career highlights of performance after performance during the decade, she did so whilst going from a teenager to a young adult. A performance based upon arguably American literature’s most iconic female character, Ronan breathed new life into the character and made her her own, complete with a flawless accent that instills a hefty amount of realism into every sentence she delivers. Mixed with a jumbled time narrative, she seamlessly plays Jo March from youth to young adult with ease and dignity, whilst never fully letting the audience in on everything she is thinking. As established prior to this role as a leading lady with roles in Brooklyn (2015) and Lady Bird (2017), Little Women has shown that Saoirse Ronan is an actor that doesn’t take her work lightly and one that will have a career long into the future.

9th. Joe Pesci – The Irishman (2019)

After years of not appearing on screen and taking a semi-retirement on acting, Pesci came back in full force to star alongside Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro in Martin Scorsese’s passion project. He steals the film with utter ease, slipping into the character of Russell Bufalino and bringing him to life with such subtlety, it becomes difficult to gather what characteristics are Pesci and what characteristics are Bufalino’s.  After gaining fame and notoriety for playing loud gangsters, Pesci here plays one who’s pensive and quiet, aged like a fine wine or a smooth Scottish whisky. He doesn’t take any unnecessary breaths, pauses or even steps. Every moment has a defined purpose and there is reason to each action, his presence is felt even when not present due to his God-like control over the characters’ lives and decisions. The silent aggression he carries as he dictates over everyone else’s lives, his comfortability in his position of power – all conveyed through tone and inference of voice – is something that takes a skilled actor with an in-depth eye of precision. Only he can add a level of depth to a Scorsese film and make it his own, yet not so much to steal the spotlight.

8th. Patricia Arquette – Boyhood (2014)

Set and filmed over a span of 12 years, Boyhood captured the real-life ageing of its main character’s mother (portrayed by Arquette), to great result. The subtle and believable performance may very well come from the groundbreaking method of production, however it was Arquette’s performance as a mother, who tried to provide everything for her children whilst still attempting to live an enjoyable life for herself, that kept viewers talking after the credits rolled. There really isn’t much to say about this performance other than that it makes you want to give your mum a big hug and say thank you. Arquette doesn’t hold back in her emotion or deliverance of frustration at the way your life can unfold. Based on her final scene near the end of the film alone, a wish for more, breaks the heart and carries her name into film history.

7th. Viola Davis – Widows (2018)

Well… how could you have a list about acting and NOT include Viola Davis! Her performances throughout the decade gave her so many (yet too few) opportunities to lead the charge and give you defined and emotive moments on cinema, that it was tricky to decide which performance to single out. However, after much debate it was decided that Steve McQueen’s Widows was the correct choice. Not only does she provide you with bad b*tch Viola, she also gives us outfits, muscles and an unpredictable character who surprises on each turn. Up to her head in trouble, Veronica Rawlings takes it upon herself to clear up some debts, running into trouble at each turn. Whilst the ensemble of actors takes every chance to shine, it’s truly Davis who keeps the tempo up and whose usually so emotive face stays still and pensive. She’s intimidating yet vulnerable, and up until the very final moment seems in a perpetual state of grief. Her smile at the end of the film portrays great empathy and the chance to give her the gift of closure. And after all that, Davis only got a BAFTA Nomination? Outrageous. Standing Ovation! 

6th. Rooney Mara – Carol (2015)

Now, I don’t wish to state that an actor needs to be attractive to be a star, but Rooney Mara in Carol lights up the 1950s to a whole new realm. The amalgamation of costume, lighting, cinematography, editing, direction and writing all came together to make a timeless film, one that could’ve very well been lifted from 1957 itself. However, the performances of Mara and Cate Blanchett push the film over into a masterpiece by their restraint and control and original approach to portraying a trepidatious same-sex relationship. Mara conveys every emotion with her glance: all she needed to do in this role was shift her focus and it flipped the meaning of her words into a different world. Her physicality adjusts with her moments of intrigue, and her vulnerability is her power in which her conviction of infatuation with Carol breaks through. Mara’s flawless execution of courage in someone whose exploration of their sexuality isn’t driven by over-sexualisation or for a cause, but simply for her own interest, is something that has long been missing from queer cinema. It, again, comes together in her final scene of the film, in which she arrives at a dinner of Carol and her friends, in which she simply pauses and glances until her eyes meet Carol’s, leaving her glowing in a moment of extreme joy subdued by a small grin.

5th. Regina King – If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

 “Yeah baby” … purely for her deliverance of this line alone, when her daughter is about to tell her she is expecting a child, King reverbs her dialogue into something lyrical. The typical expectancy of either over reaction or under reaction is just not present in this scene – she carries all the weight and pain of years through a lift of her eyebrow. King is blessed with an expressive face and a voice that’d make honey jealous. She not only becomes the beating heart of the entire film, her moments of pleading and supporting fuse to one, and portray that of someone who will not stop at any cost, will carry on no matter the consequences. Going to Mexico to find answers, helping with the birth of her grandchild, she will clearly stop at nothing to help her daughter. Out of all these moments though, the most arresting is in which she removes her makeup and her wig and stares directly into camera. You see the years of hard work and soul that rests on her face. King is an actor with a deep well of emotional depths to pull from, no wonder she walked her way to an Academy Award. Chef’s Kiss.

4th. Géza Röhrig – Son Of Saul (2015)

A wholly original take on the holocaust? Who’d of thought in 2015 this Hungarian film would’ve been the one. But performance wise, Saul speaks very little dialogue and expresses everything through his drastically constantly searching gaze. A film that either takes place on Röhrig’s entire face or sitting on his shoulder, we never leave his side in his desperation to bury a body – which he believes to be his son – while working at a concentration camp. The film highlights inhumanity reduced to background noise, focusing on the duties of the people who were left to do the ‘clean up’ after the gassing of innocent people. Grim and unsettling, it doesn’t leave the viewer any peace of mind or comfort in seeing such things. However, Saul is a character who keeps his head down, eyes averted and his breath low. Familiar to Meryl Streep in Sophies Choice or Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years A Slave, Röhrig wears grief like silk. We never know what he thinks or has planned next, but you feel with him with every step, and are just as broken when his time comes. His eyes pierce into the viewer and haunt them long after the film has ended.

3rd. Amy Adams – Arrival (2016)

Its Amy Adams for f**k sake. As Paul Thomas Anderson said in Interview Magazine, filming with Adams is like setting off a firework. A linguist that’s brought in to decipher an alien language in a race against time, set amongst a political and militant backdrop, Adams sways in amongst the nonlinear timeline with utter ease and drives the film with her discovery of her life to come. A gifted actor portraying a gifted individual, Adams shines with her red hair and orange hazmat suit to new levels, each line carries much weight and drive. A performance that carries grief and hope, rolled into one, proving for a timeless portrayal itself.

2nd. Jonathan Majors – The Last Black Man In San Francisco (2019)

Jonathan Majors crashed onto the screen with a thunderclap in TLBMISF back in 2019, and has since had a meteoric rise to mainstream praise with performances in Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods (2020) and HBO’s Lovecraft Country. And you can easily see why from this very performance. In the film, Majors portrays the best friend and confidant of the lead Jimmie, a gentle soul who supports his friend through thick and thin. A talented writer and artist himself, Majors’ character Mont isn’t just the typical supporting friend character. He has his own autonomy and goals that are given space in the narrative to breath. Mont is a softer soul, that Majors manages to capture and layer so thoroughly into the seams of the film that he makes it look effortless. Simple yet individual, there truly seems to be no other actor’s performance that is similar. The true shining moment for Majors is in a scene in which Mont performs a play he wrote in the loft of the house Jimmie claims to be his family’s. Mont delivers a long, energetic and tragic monologue of letting go and moving on. Instead of delivering it as a grief stricken or painfully spoken monologue, Majors infuses it with so much gravitas and personification of each word that it comes across as right from the heart. Faultless and a comfort to watch, Majors marks his star turn from the very opening scene.

1st. Joanna Kulig – Cold War (2018)

Finally, the number one slot. Now, any number of performances could’ve held this spot and many that have been missed off the list too. Yet, it was Joanna Kulig’s breakout performance in Cold War that managed to edge forward in the very close race. Performing in both Polish and French, Kulig’s Zula sways from post-World War II life as part of a folk music ensemble, to the Parisian jazz scene, and later as a cabaret performer back in Poland. The film spans many years of her life and rollercoaster of a relationship with Wiktor, eventually ending up together. This performance has hints of Lauren Bacall, Bette Davis, Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore rolled into one fine masterclass of acting from Kulig herself. And to top it all off SHE CAN SING! The signature song of ‘Dwa Serduszka’ (translates as ‘Two Hearts’), haunts the film as it does its characters. Zula lets her voice ring out as a siren of love’s tragedy. She’s fierce at times, romantic at times and sorrowful at times. Yet the character of Zula shines most brightly when drunkenly dancing on tables in a Parisian bar, which one can only describe as pure class. Heart-breaking, yet bittersweet enough as to where you know there’s not a fault or sour note in her performance. In fact, you could go as far as saying it saves the film from being too dark or slow: she lights up the screen and serves style to every individual moment she inhabits. Truly stunning at each unpredictable turn, a performance robbed of awards glory but hopefully frozen in film as a reference of the closest thing to a human performance. 

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