This was a nearly impossible task, picking between lead and supporting turns, comedic and dramatic. But here are my top 5 male and female performances of the decade.
Moonlight – Mahershala Ali
The platonic ideal of a supporting performance, Ali makes his presence felt on-screen, but even more intensely off-screen. It’s even trickier than it appears because Juan both improves and dismantles Chiron’s life with his love and business, respectively.
Beginners – Christopher Plummer
One of my all-time favorite Oscar wins, Plummer’s performance – as an elderly man finally living his truth while dying of cancer – bursts through every cliché to bring joy into the heart of every viewer. It would have been the perfect career-capping role, but Plummer has kept right on going into his 90s.
Whiplash – J.K. Simmons
Simmons has an uncanny ability to play gentle (Law & Order: SVU), dopey (his long-running voice work as the Peanut M&M) or absolutely terrifying (Oz). He’s the latter here, playing an absolutely brutal director at a prestigious music school. He abuses his young protégé (Miles Teller) mercilessly, and never acknowledges any wrongdoing. And why would he, when he gets the performance of a lifetime out of him? He’s one of the most despicable characters of the decade, and Simmons played him perfectly.
Flight – Denzel Washington
Denzel’s best performance this decade by a mile, his daring but disastrous pilot saved lives while wrecking his own. His Oscar clip was his admission “I’m drunk now.” But the moment that always sticks with me is when he tries to convince a flight attendant (Tamara Tunie) to tell authorities he had only had “two glasses of wine at dinner,” and she completely dresses him down, because she’s known about his alcoholism for years, and suddenly he realizes he won’t be able to charm his way out of this situation.
Burning – Steven Yeun
Chilling and enigmatic, Yeun uses his considerable charm and good looks to craft one of the more sinister villains in recent memory. Of course, part of the pleasure and mystery of Burning is whether Ben is even a villain at all. He clearly is to Lee (Yoo Ah-in) as a romantic rival, but whether he’s evil or just a dick is all in a yawn, or is it?
Christine – Rebecca Hall
An absolutely masterful performance, Hall takes us down slowly into one woman’s descent into mental illness. Feeling the pressures of work, and with friends and co-workers missing the signs of her violent intentions, she makes you feel every bit of her crushing loneliness and anxiety.
Phoenix – Nina Hoss
Delicately layered, Hoss gives a performance inside a performance inside a performance. Nelly has survived Auschwitz, but with horrible disfigurement. Plastic surgery makes her resemble who she once was, close enough for her boyfriend (who may or may not have given her up to the Nazis) to try to pass her off as Nelly and claim her family’s inheritance. Every silent movement registers, and that performance of “Speak Low”? Devastating.
If Beale Street Could Talk – Regina King
King has been giving great performances for nearly three decades, but she’s really been on a roll lately with this and some especially strong television work. As Sharon, the mother of Tish and soon-to-be grandmother, she’s reserved when she needs to be, but doesn’t hold back when dressing down Fonny’s rude mother-in-law or pleading with the woman falsely accusing Fonny of rape to recant. It’s another ideal supporting turn.
12 Years a Slave – Lupita Nyong’o
It’s still mind-boggling that this was her first performance in a feature film. As Patsey, the “favorite” slave at the plantation run by Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), she’s the brightest spot in a film that’s unrelentingly grim. Even in a position where she’s subject to relentless abuse, she stands bravely against her tormentor.
Gone Girl – Rosamund Pike
What else is there to say? The performance of the decade. To reveal too much about her deep, hilarious, bruising turn would be to give away many of the film’s delightful twists, so I’ll just leave it there.