My top 20 list will probably cause some upset amongst film fans. It’s my personal favourite performances so unfortunately, you won’t find many of the conventional ones here like, Marlon Brando in The Godfather or Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Whilst, I do love these performances, they aren’t my absolute favourites. I think a lot of it has to do with the character they play too. No other actor could play my number 1 pick, for example, because the character he (or she) plays is so complex. So, please don’t have a go at me for creating such a diverse and unconventional list, but do tell me some of your favourite performances.
20. Pam Ferris- Agatha Trunchbull
Out of all the actors on my list, Pam Ferris will probably be the most surprising, but she shouldn’t be! Her turn as the sadistic, child-hating headmistress at Crunchem Hall Elementary is truly extraordinary. The film Matilda, was a big part of my childhood. My sister and I used to watch it all the time laugh ourselves silly, and we still do twelve-ish years later! Pam Ferris is normally at ease playing cuddly gardeners/detectives like Rosemary Boxer, which is why her Miss Trunchbull is so shocking. She’s pretty much unrecognisable and completely transforms herself into the cartoonish bully. She truly is a pupil’s worst nightmare. She spits on ribbons, force feeds obese students and throws kids out the window for eating M&M’s! The best moment is when Matilda and Miss Honey are hiding from the principal in her own huge house. “WHO’S IN MY HOUSE!” She roars as she charges like a bull, destroying all her furnishings in her path and even leaping from the banister with a “TALLY-HO!” Pam’s performance is genius, totally over the top and absolutely hilarious.
Best line: “You villainous sack of gob slime!”
19. Piper Laurie- Margaret White
I’m a sucker for a hammy performance and they don’t come much hammier than Pipers sensational turn as the Bible-bashing loon and mother of bullied Carrie White. The first time we see Margaret is on her daily rounds “spreading the good word of the Lord” to Sue Snell’s far too tolerant mother. “These are godless times, Mrs Snell” Margaret says to her, “I’ll drink to that!” replies Sue’s Mum, accidently wafting a glass of sin in her face. Piper Laurie is both hilarious and terrifying. We’re treated to what Carrie’s Mum is doing whilst Carrie’s at the prom. She’s obviously been pacing up and down around the house for hours on end, and ends randomly slicing a carrot like some sort of manic robot. Piper Laurie’s totally OTT performance reaches its peak towards the end though, which I won’t spoil for people who are still yet to see this masterpiece. Carrie is a film full of great performances, but Piper’s stands out as the most gloriously in your face.
Best line: “I should’ve given you to God when you were born, but I was weak and backsliding. And now, the devil has come home!”
18. Gloria Swanson- Norma Desmond
I said that performances didn’t come much hammier than Piper Laurie’s in Carrie, because Gloria Swanson’s IS the hammiest. Sunset Boulevard is an undisputed classic of cinema and way ahead of its time. Part of its appeal is the show-stealing Gloria Swanson who manages to be hammier than a pork chop tied to a pig’s ankle. I mean that in the best way possible though. Her intense stares and outrageous arm movements dare you not to take your eyes off the screen. The unhinged fading film star was pretty much the perfect role for her and she completely laps it up. Unfortunately, she lost out to the Academy Award, but in our hearts she won it. Much like Piper Laurie’s performance, it’s both hysterically funny and creepy, which is a difficult mix to master and is the reason why Gloria makes my list of favourites.
Best line: “All right, Mr. DeMille. I’m ready for my close-up.”
17. Robin Williams- Daniel Hillard/Euphegenia Doubtfire
Here’s another childhood favourite. My sister and I used have Mrs. Doubtfire on a loop! It’s probably the film I’ve watched the most, however I’m still far from fed up with it. It’s the funniest film I’ve seen and is by far my favourite comedy film. At the centre of it all though is Robin William’s tour-de-force performance as the lady in question. As the judge quite rightly puts it, Robin Williams fools us into believing he’s a 60 year-old woman! Most of the lines are improvised and all of them are side-splittingly funny, “I’m melting like a snow cone in Phoenix!”. Two cameras were used when filming because the production crew never knew what Robin was going to do next! It makes his recent passing all the more tragic. Robin Williams was one of the most genuinely funny people on the planet and Mrs. Doubtfire shows that fact off to its full effect. His performance is also surprisingly heartfelt at times, especially in the end scene. Who would’ve thought that Robin Williams dressed up as an old Scottish nanny could also be so moving!
Best line: “Oh, thank you dear! Yes, touch me again, and I’ll drown you, ya bastard.”
16. Bette Davis- Baby Jane Watson
Here’s another queen of ham, the brilliant Bette Davis. For some reason Whatever Happened to Baby Jane seems to get overlooked in the horror community. Other horror classics from Hollywood’s golden-age such as, Psycho and Les Diaboliques always get talked about, but Baby Jane doesn’t. It’s a shame because it deserves to be! The film pitches two actresses (who genuinely despise each other) together and it makes for truly extraordinary viewing. They played tricks with each other on set all the time and Bette is clearly loving every minute of it! Just look at her jovial face when she gives Joan the rat! Bette Davis won two Oscars in her prolific career, however I don’t think she’s ever been as good as she is here as crazy woman-child, Baby Jane. She suits the deluded and psychotic character perfectly. Her natural OTT acting also really suits the role. There’s also a tinge of sadness to her character towards the end where she finally turns completely bonkers. Bette makes the role funny, scary and tragic.
Best line: “Oh really! Did she like it!?”
15. Johnny Depp- Sweeney Todd/Benjamin Barker
Johnny Depp has played his fair share of pale-faced weirdos (thanks to his best friend Tim) however, none have been as brilliant as Sweeney Todd. I’m most definitely biased here as Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is quite possibly my favourite film of all time and so I know Johnny’s performance inside-out, and I love every second of it. I love the way he takes his jacket off whilst saying, “It’s Todd now. Sweeney Todd. And he shall have his revenge!” I love his sullen look in every scene, I love his look of calculated surprise when he sees Judge Turpin first enter his establishment, I love the way he screams, “BENJAMIN BARKER!!” Towards the end and I love the tragic look in his eyes when the film reaches its shocking climax. Johnny’s performance is full of tiny details which all help to bring the wonderful character to life. It’s a deliciously dark role, and is completely different to say, Jack Sparrow and Willy Wonka, yet he kills it. Almost literally.
Best line: “At last! My arm is complete again.”
14. Emmanuelle Riva- Anne Laurent
The most recent performance on my list is this one from Michael Haneke’s masterpiece, Amour. For those of you who don’t know anything about it, it follows an elderly couple who bobble along happily in life until Anne is viciously attacked by a stroke at breakfast time. It leads to a slow and unbearable deterioration of her body and mind, right in front of her loving husband’s eyes. It’s probably not everyone’s idea of a good time at the movies, but Michael Haneke never gives the viewer an easy time in his films. At the centre of it all though is Emmanuelle Riva’s extraordinarily moving performance. I believed that she really was dying before our eyes. The scene where she’s trying her hardest to talk to her daughter (played by Isabelle Huppert) but only gibberish is coming out is both moving and powerful thanks to just how convincing Emmanuelle is! It also helps that Michael Haneke hardly moves the camera, so that we can really soak up her exceptional performance. She even lived on the set during the entire shoot! I’m unashamed to admit that Emmanuelle did move me tears, and I don’t cry in films! I haven’t seen Jennifer Lawrence’s performance in The Silver Linings Playbook, but I doubt that she deserved the Oscar over Emmanuelle Riva.
Best line: “It’s beautiful. Life. So long.”
14. Linda Blair- Regan Mcneil
From the oldest girl on the list, to the youngest. Linda was only 11 years-old when The Exorcist was filmed and clueless about what half the filth that came out her mouth actually meant! Unlike most child stars, she didn’t grow up to be a tree hugger or drug-addled wild child, she has continued to act and has appeared on over 70 films (and counting)! However, she did peak in The Exorcist playing the innocent girl who’s violently possessed by an ancient demon. Her performance is now the stuff of legend. Whilst the special effects do help towards making the film so convincing, it’s Linda Blair who seals the deal. We feel her pain as Holy Water is sprinkled upon her, and her tongue wiggle is second to none! Linda gives it her all during the infamous exorcism scene, anyone would’ve believed that poor old Linda was actually possessed! It’s undeniable a fantastic performance. Once again she lost out at the Oscars to someone no one remembers.
Best line: “Your mother sucks cocks in hell!”
12. Naomi Watts- Diane Selwyn/Betty Elms
It’s a travesty that relative newcomer, Naomi Watts, didn’t even receive an Oscar nod at the 2002 Academy Awards. In fact, it’s a travesty that Mulholland Drive didn’t at least receive an Oscar nod in every single category, because it deserved to win them all! David Lynch’s masterpiece is one of the finest films to be shown on the big screen, and Naomi Watts’ beautifully layered performance is all part of that. She plays chirpy Hollywood hopeful Betty Elms, on her way to become a big star (ironically just like Naomi Watts at the time) however, she gets herself embroiled in a mystery and passionate romance whilst she’s there too. If the audition scene was a short film then Naomi would’ve deserved to win an Oscar. It’s such a compelling and powerful moment, made all the more extraordinary once the film reaches its shocking revelation. I won’t spoil it for anyone who’s yet to see it, but once Mulholland Drive reaches its bemusing/moving climax, David Lynch makes sure that he squeezes out everything Naomi has to offer and it’s intense to watch.
Best line: “It’s strange calling yourself.”
11. Christoph Waltz- Colonel Hans Landa
It’s strange to think that until Quentin Tarantino threw Christoph Waltz into the limelight in 2009’s Inglorious Basterds, Christoph was a relatively unknown star in TV. Now he’s one of Hollywood’s finest actors with two well-deserved Oscars under his belt. He’s played some great characters, however Hans Landa AKA ‘The Jew hunter’ has to be his most memorable. Christoph deserves his Oscar for the opening scene alone where he slyly intimidates a French farmer who’s hiding Jews under the floorboards. It’s an exhilarating scene packed full of tension thanks to the enormous presence of Hans Landa. Because of this, the spirit of Hans is lurking in every scene and whenever he’s shown, we duck our heads in fear! Christoph relishes the role and adds a darkly comedic edge to it too. He’s quite obviously playing an unashamedly cartoonish villain and that’s exactly how he plays him.
Best line: “Ooh! That’s a bingo!”
10. Anthony Hopkins- Hannibal Lecter
Famously, Anthony Hopkins stars in The Silence of the Lambs for only 16 minutes, however if anyone ever utters the title of the film, all anyone ever thinks of is Hannibal Lecter. Anthony completely owns the role as the creepy cannibal. However, he doesn’t play him as a complete cardboard cut-out. During the scene where Hannibal escapes (the best scene EVER!) we’re almost rooting for him, and we don’t really know why. He’s a cold, calculated and supremely cool villain. Anthony’s portrayal of him is chilling. We hang on every word he says and are completely glued to the screen whenever he’s on it. Just like Christoph Waltz as Hans Landa, he makes such a first impact that his presence is still looming in every single scene. It’s absolutely no surprise that he won an Oscar, because they’d be total uproar if he didn’t! Anthony Hopkins brought a unique life to role and has made it utterly iconic.
Best line: “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti”
9. Dennis Hopper- Frank Booth
Whenever someone mentions Blue Velvet, chances are that Frank Booth immediately pops into your head. That’s only of course if you’ve seen David Lynch’s seminal masterpiece, otherwise you probably just think of… Well… Blue velvet. The late and great Dennis famously got the role by going up to David Lynch and saying “I AM Frank Booth!” Which is a brave and frightening thing to admit to, giving the fact that Frank is sweary, nitros-oxide sniffing, misogynistic, murdering rapist! Dennis Hopper manages to bring a sympathetic layer to the role by playing him as a big toddler. You almost feel sorry for him when he’s sat in tears, whilst watching Isabella Rossellini sing in The Slow Club. Dennis Hopper does play him as a mass of unpredictable energy for the most part though, and it’s both frightening and compelling to watch. Dennis Hopper’s performance is intense and powerful. He becomes the character and it’s a marvel to behold.
Best line: “DON’T FUCKING LOOK AT ME!”
8. Heath Ledger- The Joker
Part of what makes Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight so acclaimed is Heath Ledger’s legendary performance as The Joker. There are a few cynics who think that he only won the Oscar because he died shortly after the film was released, however I think that’s nonsense. You’d have to be blind (or a little bit thick) not to see the just how incredible Heath is in the role. He completely transforms himself into the psychotic clown, looking and sounding completely different to himself. Who would’ve thought that pretty boy Heath would be so terrifying! Everything thing about the performance is phenomenal, from the constant tongue wiggling to the Chicago accent, it’s just brilliant. Heath completely trumped Jack Nicholson’s performance, which was no mean feat! I often wonder which films today will be seen as iconic in twenty or thirty years’ time, and I have no doubt that The Dark Knight will, largely down to Heath. He’s intense to watch, darkly humorous and utterly compelling. Heath Ledger’s Joker will be forever cemented into pop culture.
Best line: “Come on hit me! HIT ME!”
7. Jack Nicholson- Jack Torrance
Here’s yet another classic on-screen psycho. The Shining was slated when it was first released, but thankfully it has been hailed as a masterpiece and possibly even the finest film the horror genre has to offer. Stephen King was infamously disappointed with the film and didn’t think that Jack Nicholson suited the role. He was wrong. Jack Nicholson looks so utterly psychotic because Stanley Kubrick drove him to it! Apparently, he made them do each take about thirty or forty times, so Jack and the other actors would start doing crazy things in the takes, and these are the takes that were used in the finished film. Jack Nicholson’s performance is probably my favourite performance in a horror film ever. He’s just so convincing and really digs his feet into the character’s deranged shoes. He certainly more than makes up for poor old Shelley Duvall’s hysterical performance!
Best line: “Heeeere’s Johnny!”
6. Laura Dern- Nikki Grace/Susan Blue
David Lynch campaigned for Laura Dern to be recognised by the Academy for her performance in INLAND EMPIRE by going on the Hollywood walk of fame with a cow. Unfortunately, even this bizarre act didn’t land her an Oscar nomination, because she should’ve been nominated and she should’ve won too! She had no idea what was going on in David Lynch’s ultimate mind f**k film, yet she plays the role incredibly. Is she actress Nikki Grace? Is she prostitute Susan Blue? Or is she someone else altogether? You’ll need a lot of patience to work out what’s going on, but it’s completely worth it. Laura Dern has never been finer and shows more range in this film than she has done her whole career. She sucks us into the film and we feel like we’re stuck in a strange labyrinth which transcends space and time. She shows astonishing gusto and it just has to be the best performance in a Lynch film!
Best line: “Damn! This sounds like a dialogue from our script.”
4. Ellen Burstyn- Sara Goldfarb
Requiem for a Dream is in my top 10 films ever! It’s a huge leap from the stylish, yet problematic Pi for Darren Aronofsky. Part of what makes Requiem for a Dream so powerful and emotionally devastating is Ellen Burstyn’s outstanding performance as Sara Goldfarb. She’s the mother of heroin addict, Jared Leto, however little does she know that soon her life will spiral out of control due to addiction. Sara gets addicted to slimming pills, thanks to a careless doctor, and the results are profoundly haunting. Ellen’s performance is the definition of ‘powerhouse’ and the way she slowly becomes insane is so convincing and moving. Things get almost unbearably intense in the last thirty minutes, where Sara becomes mentally unhinged and grinning like a madwoman on the tube. “I’m going to be on television!” She says with a childlike excitement, and your heart just breaks a little for her. I won’t spoil it, but the ending will certainly leave a mark and not only is due to the exceptional writing, directing, editing and music, but it’s also Ellen’s heart-breaking lead performance. How the heck did Julia Roberts win an Oscar over her!?
Best line: “I like thinking about the red dress and the television and you and your father. Now when I get the sun, I smile.”
4. Emily Watson- Bess McNeil
The second part to Lars Von Trier’s ‘Golden Hearts Trilogy’ is often referred to as his best. Whilst I personally still prefer the cinematic cannonball-to-the-gut film that is, Dancer in the Dark, there’s still no denying the extraordinary power of Breaking the Waves. Emily Watson’s first role was that of Bess McNeil. A simple-minded young Scottish woman who is madly in love with Stellan Skarsgard until he suffers a horrific accident which leaves him paralysed and slightly groggy. He convinces Bess to have sex with other men, which leads her down a tragic road of prostitution and degradation. Interestingly, Helena Bonham Carter was Lars’ original choice for the role, however she felt uncomfortable with the amount of sex, luckily for us randy Emily Watson wasn’t bothered at all! What makes Breaking the Waves so powerful and unbearably sad is how likable Emily makes Bess. We want nothing but the best for her, but nothing but the worst happens. Lars films it like a documentary too and Emily Watson brings a quality to her performance which is all too real! As good as Frances Mcdormand was in Fargo, she still had nothing on Emily Watson.
Best line: “Everyone has something they’re good at. I’ve always been stupid, but I’m good at this.”
3. Natalie Portman- Nina Sayers
Black Swan is a sensational film, full of sensational performances. The most sensational of them all, however, is Natalie Portman! Who would’ve thought that old Nat had it in her? Known for her wooden acting in Star Wars and crappy rom-coms, Darren Aronofsky must’ve seen some potential in her, and he certainly dragged it out of her. Natalie trained in ballet for months and went on a strict and intense ballet-dancer diet to get a long and lean body. She also actually injured herself many times on set and the scene with the medic is actually real! Natalie completely gives it her all as the loopy ballerina and completely sells it to the audience. Her transformation from timid, childlike young lady to full-on aggressive lunatic is incredibly convincing and often intense to watch. Portman totally loses herself in the role almost like Nina loses herself in her role! Even the Academy couldn’t screw up the winner in the best actress category on this one! Apparently, bookies banned anyone placing bets on Natalie winning the Oscar because it was that obvious she was going to win.
Best line: “I was perfect.”
2. Isabelle Huppert- Erika Kohut
Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher is a similar tale to Black Swan, although a lot more detached. It tells the tale of Erika, an uptight piano teacher who lives with her overbearing mother. She has some seriously strange fetishes behind-the-scenes though which include self-mutilation and watching people have sex in their car. Everything gets a little too weird though when she develops feelings for her handsome pupil, Walter, which I shan’t spoil. The Piano Teacher is one of Haneke’s finest and it’s largely thanks to Isabelle Huppert’s extra extra-ordinary performance as the title piano teacher herself. Isabelle completely becomes the role and you end up thinking that what you’re watching is real! The entire film is seriously uncomfortable to watch and is enough to make your toes curl. It’s all in the eyes with Isabelle though! The looks she gives are intense and it dares you not to look away. You can see the internal conflict behind her face which makes Erika one of the most fascinating characters to be put on film. Most of the time she remains completely expressionless, yet somehow you can see what she’s thinking and it’s incredible to watch. Isabelle carries such a powerful presence that will leave you feeling breathless and bemused.
Best line: Forget lines! Isabelle’s wordless final scene is one of the most haunting things to ever be captured on film!
1. Daniel-Day Lewis- Daniel Plainview
Here it is! The greatest screen performance of all time, according to me, is Daniel-Day Lewis in Paul Thomas Anderson’s seminal masterpiece, There Will Be Blood. Daniel is probably the greatest actor on the planet. He literally becomes the role and goes to extreme lengths to appear as convincing as possible. In Gangs of New York he regularly chopped up meat behind the scenes, as he was playing a psycho butcher, and in Lincoln he made out letters to people using a quill feather. I wouldn’t like to be friends with Daniel when he was playing the scheming madman that is, Daniel Plainview. Absolutely no one could play the role, because the character is so complex. Paul Thomas Anderson even said that he wouldn’t go through with the film if Daniel didn’t accept the role. Thank god he did though, because There Will Be Blood is one of the greatest films of all time. Right down to the voice, and the walk, Daniel-Day Lewis becomes Daniel Plainview in every fibre of his body. It’s frigging intense to watch at times! The baptism scene gives me chills just thinking about it! It’s in the last half hour though when Daniel completely knocks it out of the park and into the stratosphere. He transforms himself into an old bitter and loony mad man, yet he does it in the most convincing way. The bowling alley scene is now infamous and by far one of my favourite movie scenes ever, and it’s all down to Daniel’s performance. The way he delivers his lines is just incredible, “I drink your MILKSHAKE!! I DRINK IT UP!! SHLUUURP!” and the way he slurs his lines is classic, “You’re my competitooorr”. The bowling alley scene is so so intense and much of it is improvised. Paul Dano screaming and running is NOT acting! It’s genuine fear! Did you think that he was supposed to throw those pins at him!? NO! I know my explanation has sort of turned into a passionate rant now, but it’s just how I feel. This is my favourite performance ever and I don’t think it’ll be beaten… Unless there’s a There Will Be Blood 2.
Best line: “I’m finished.”
And what an apt quote to finish on! I hope you’ve enjoyed my list. Please feel free to verbally bash me in the comments 🙂