When it comes to films, it’s always pleasing to see a refreshingly good acting performance in a movie. Sometimes, it happens unexpectedly. We see a film and are struck by a performance we didn’t expect to be that good; or adversely, we knew it was coming, as in we’d read heaps of reviews and were expecting it. Either way, it’s a nice surprise to get an acting performance that really strikes us as exceptional.
So I thought I’d count down the ten best acting performances I’ve ever seen in film. These are performances that shocked me, gripped me, moved me and really impressed me. Ten fantastic performances I won’t soon forget.
10: Don Birnam (Ray Milland), The Lost Weekend
Ray Milland is absolutely flooring in this 1945 film, which for its time was unexpected and startling. Directed by the cinematic mastermind Billy Wilder, it follows one man’s descent into alcoholism, and how his addiction becomes his terrifying undoing. Milland’s performance is believable and brilliant, as he drags the audience along with him in a hellish tale of addiction and therapy, mocking, ridicule, and the low depths to which addicts will sink.
9: Don Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski), Aguirre: The Wrath of God
Klaus Kinski starred in a handful of films with director Werner Herzog, but there is one performance that sticks in mind as his most powerful, and that is his portrayal of the mad Aguirre in Aguirre: The Wrath of God. Not only was Kinski’s performance astonishing (anyone who has seen the film will no doubt remember the haunting final image of him on a boat amongst corpses and rabid monkeys), but also the story that when Kinski threatened to walk off the set, Herzog grabbed a gun and said that if he did, he would shoot him and then himself. It obviously did the trick as Kinski turned in one of the most amazing acting performances of all time.
8: Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando), Apocalypse Now
Though he doesn’t show up until the final third of this hellish masterpiece by Francis Ford Coppola, Marlon Brando manages to transfix us with his presence. At first he is little more than a shadow in the darkness, with a dark voice and a feeling of madness surrounding him. We feel the evil that is inside him; it circulates and thickens the air, and renders the room inexplicably terrifying. His presence alone sends shivers down my whole body. That’s powerful.
7: Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn), Requiem for a Dream
Darren Aronofsky knows what he’s doing. He always manages to get amazing performances out of his actors, and he has most certainly done that here in Requiem for a Dream, which is essentially a modern version of The Lost Weekend, but even more nightmarish and disturbing. Burstyn’s performance is stellar; the depths her characters sinks to, and yet how consistent her acting is. She never exaggerates her performance; it is heartbreakingly realistic.
6: Julie de Courcy (Juliette Binoche), Three Colours: Blue
Juliette Binoche is one of my favourite actresses. She has worked with so many great directors, such as Louis Malle, Michael Haneke and Abbas Kiarostami, but her most powerful performance was in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s stunningly beautiful, powerful Blue. It was the first of a trilogy, and also the saddest of the three. She plays a widowed woman who desperately attempts to put the past behind her and move on, but is constantly thwarted by the shadow of her deceased husband.
5: Nikki Grace/Susan Blue (Laura Dern), Inland Empire
In 2007, when everyone was preparing for Oscar season, David Lynch was sitting at an intersection, campaigning with a live cow, hoping to get Laura Dern nominated for Best Actress for her performance in his film Inland Empire. And quite frankly, she should’ve won. Her performance in this three-hour magnum opus is indescribable. She plays an actress whose latest role begins to drive her insane, and in every single scene, she shows such a powerful presence. Though Dern did not have a clue what the film was about, she still managed to turn out a performance so haunting, so shocking, that in every single scene we are transfixed by her ability.
4: Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), The Godfather: Parts I and II
Rewatching The Godfather the other day, I was stunned by one single moment that came near the end of the film. In it, Al Pacino’s wife Kay (Diane Keaton) is asking him if he is responsible for the death of his sister’s abusive husband. We know that he is, but he looks her in the eyes coldly, and says “No.” This is a chilling moment, as we realize how smoothly and calmly he lies; like a psychopath. This eerie presence continues and becomes more prominent in The Godfather: Part II, but I’ll always remember that one moment as when it clicked how brilliant his performance was.
3: Bess MacNeill (Emily Watson), Breaking the Waves
“Everyone has something they’re good at. I’ve always been stupid, but I’m good at this.” By the time Emily Watson speaks these words in Breaking the Waves, she has already driven us through a powerhouse performance; an indescribably brilliant one that is intensely moving and personal. She plays a childlike woman whose husband is paralysed in an accident, and whose wish for her to continue to have a sex life has heartbreaking consequences. One of the few movies I can honestly say left me quite literally speechless.
2: Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), There Will Be Blood
A role that is far more than just milkshakes and bowling pins, Daniel Day-Lewis’s astonishing performance as the mad oil tycoon Daniel Plainview is riveting, shocking and terrifying. The greed constantly eating away at him becomes more prevalent in the film’s second half as we witness his descent into mania and psychosis. There is one line he speaks that for me, resonated far more than the more popular “I drink your milkshake” and “I’m finished.” It is spoken in the same scene; as Plainview is chasing his enemy with a bowling pin, he screams hoarsely and threateningly: “I told you I would eat you!” He doesn’t do that literally, but the implication of madness in the statement is scary enough.
1: Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert), The Piano Teacher
This is it. The best acting performance I have ever seen. I’m not exaggerating that. It’s not a hyperbole. I can say honestly and assuredly that Isabelle Huppert’s performance as Erika Kohut in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher is… beyond words. It’s the best, I’ve said that already. But I must reinforce it. She plays a pianist who falls in love with one of her students, but who suffers from disgusting, disturbing sadomasochistic urges that threaten to ruin her relationships with everyone, let alone the student. This is a woman who, even when she is not saying a word, is indescribably terrifying. How often can you look at a person, just look, and be completely and utterly scared to death? Well, there are several scenes in The Piano Teacher where I just look at Isabelle Huppert and feel that way. Her screen presence is astonishing. This all culminates in the final scene, which you could describe as the film’s climax, but is really not all that climactic. It sees Huppert standing in an empty hall. She stands there for a few seconds (but it feels like hours) before suddenly and unexpectedly she grabs something out of her purse. It is a kitchen knife. She then stabs herself in the shoulder and walks away. I’ve included the scene itself below (or watch on YouTube here). I want you to watch it, and watch Huppert. Watch her face. Watch the expression she gives when she stabs herself. And tell me honestly that you didn’t feel like you were gonna shit your pants with fear.
There we go. That’s my list. Now, what are some of your favourite acting performances? I don’t want to hear obvious ones, I’d much prefer for you to list more obscure ones, or simply ones that are pretty well-known, but still don’t get the amount of attention you believe they deserve.