The Ten Best Acting Performances I’ve Ever Seen

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.

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Posted on December 8, 2011, in Lists, Movies and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 49 Comments.

  1. But what if your favourites ARE obvious ones? :/

    In that case, I’d say one I don’t think gets the deserved praise is Paul Dano’s performance in ‘There Will Be Blood’; I just think he did a really good job in making this despicable character 🙂

    • If you’re absolute, top favourites are obvious ones, then sure, why not? List ’em.

      Interesting choice. Can’t say I disagree. Dano was brilliant in that film.

  2. Christian Hallbeck

    I agree that Isabelle Huppert’s performance in “The Piano Teacher” is brilliant! Personally I find the scene where she sits and listens to when the young man reads loud from her letter to him, to be the best in the film. It’s the only way she knows how to express her love. But he doesn’t understand that. It’s beautiful. And it’s sad. The way she quietly listens to his words is just so very moving!

    Otherwise I find Max von Sydow’s acting in “Pelle the Conqueror” to be the best I know on film. You can’t give a more convincing performance than that. He should have gotten the Oscar that year. Not Dustin Hoffman.

    Catherine Deneuve is not bad in “”Repulsion” either. Nor is Ingrid Thulin in “The Silence”. Or Gunnar Björnstrand in “Winter Light”.

    And what about the girl in “Mouchette”!?…

    • Glad you agree with my choice of Huppert!

      Haven’t seen PELLE THE CONQUEROR but it has definitely caught my attention.

      Ingrid Thulin in THE SILENCE was on the original shortlist for this post, but just missed the cut. I also had Liv Ullmann in FACE TO FACE and Harriet Andersson in THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY.

      I never thought of Nadine Nortier. She was fantastic in that film. It’s sad that it was the only movie she ever made.

  3. Surprise surprise there are a few I haven’t seen. But Daniel Day Lewis (or ‘don’t you dare do this’ as he is called in this house) is always good value and There will be Blood is a fine example of his elite skills… bring on Lincoln

  4. Ah, this list is filled up with so much greatness. I still need to see The Piano Teacher, which I’ll probably get my sister to get out for me when she gets out Hobo with a Shotgun for me as well (damn you, R18s). As you know Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List is my favourite (you always make me feel so guilty for picking the obvious ones!), especially after our drama class had a conversation about how good he is and how we could never have so little emotion while acting. He does a great job.

    • Fiennes is great in SCHINDLER’S LIST, of course! I wouldn’t really call it an obvious choice. I think he deserves more attention for that role.

  5. YES! So pleased to see Ellen Burstyn here. That preformance knocks me sideways! Heart-breaking indeed. Definitely need to see The Piano Teacher and really want to see Aguirre too. Great list and interesting choices, might have to see about doing a list like this myself one day!

    • Yeah, Burstyn is fantastic in that film. Her monologue about loneliness is nothing short of heartbreaking.

      Definitely see THE PIANO TEACHER. It will shock you and shake you. AGUIRRE is also brilliant.

  6. Nice selections Tyler. As usual, somewhat obscure.

    Isabelle Huppert’s performance in The Piano Teacher was unsettling and brilliant, but it’s a film I have to watch again before I’d ever include her. It’s far from my favourite Haneke, and not a film I enjoyed or had any desire to watch again. I applaud your selection of Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend. Stunning. Brando for Apocalypse Now is really interesting – many would say that On the Waterfront is his best work. How did Burstyn lose that Oscar? Definitely deserves a spot on the list. I can’t split Binoche in Blue and Irene Jacob in Veronique. Both are beautiful women, and both infuse their characters with such emotional breadth. DDL is probably my number #1. It’s my favourite performance by an actor, and one of the best I have ever seen.

    • THE PIANO TEACHER was one of those films it took time for me to appreciate. But I do love it. It’s #6 on my favorite films list.

      I could not exclude Milland or Burstyn. Their portrayals of the nightmares of addiction were nothing short of phenomenal.

      I like Brando’s 70s films more than his earlier work. He was also equally amazing in LAST TANGO IN PARIS.

  7. Day-Lewis is absolutely phenomenal in TWBB – we watched it in cinema studies at uni. No one could stop quoting him for a couple of weeks! These are some performances I’ll have to check out! 😀

  8. Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy as Ratso.

    • I considered him originally too. He is fantastic in that film. I remember seeing it when I was 16 and crying afterwards, which was strange because I never cried. But that movie had a huge effect on me. I still really love it.

  9. Okay, your #1 choice was a little obvious to me. Some of mine include:

    ~Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront
    ~James Mason in Bigger Than Life
    ~Jean Simmons in Elmer Gantry
    ~Humphrey Bogart in In a Lonely Place
    ~James Cagney in White Heat
    ~Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster in Sweet Smell of Success (naturally)

    • Really? I still think my #1 choice doesn’t get anywhere near the amount of attention it deserves.

      Whoa… classic overload… so many great films I feel guilty for not having seen!

      • What I meant was you praise Huppert’s performance enough on Twitter and here that it became obvious as to what your #1 performance would be on this list.

        As for my choices, get on them! At least see Bigger Than Life. You’d be amazed a movie of that subject was released in the wholesome 1950s.

  10. Hi, Tyler and company:

    Excellent choices!

    Nicely spread across the board.

    Could it be that my comfort zone and niche of older, obscure film could be threatened? 🙂

    • I wouldn’t know Jack, do you feel threatened? I would like to see you do a top ten list of obscure but great performances, as you have seen quite a few films that most others haven’t.

      • Hi, Tyler:

        I don’t feel threatened. Though I was pleasantly surprised by a few of your choices.

        If you’d like a Top Ten List of obscure but great performances, I’m sure I could have it off to you by Monday or Tuesday.

      • Hi, Tyler:

        #10: Nick Nolte as Ray Hicks in ‘Who’ll Stop The Rain’ (1978). Nolte leads Tuesday Weld and a gaggle of character actor bad guys and five keys of Laotian Heroin from San Francisco to L.A. and south to Mexico. The post Vietnam flip side of ‘Forrest Gump’.

        #9: Dustin Hoffman as Max Dembo in ‘Straight Time’ (1978).. Hoffman plays a just released parolee trying to stay straight, but quickly back slides into smash & grab robberies.

        #8: Ellen Page as Haley Stark in ‘Hard Candy’ (2005).. Ms. Page plays Red Riding Hood in an updated tale of vigilantism against a date raper who prefers young girls.

        #7: Don Cheadle as Mouse in ‘Devil With A Blue Dress’.(2005). Steals every scene he
        shares with Denzel Washington’s Easy Rawlins while presenting a complete, intriguing character.

        #6: Jeanette Goldstein as Pvt. Vasquez in ‘Aliens’ (1986). Came out of nowhere to create an iconic a** kicker.

        #5: Fred MacMurray as Lt. Tom Keefer in ‘The Caine Mutiny’ (1954). The silver spoon, sophisticated, smarmy schumck behind the fall of Captain Queeg. May have led to his playing nice guys immediately thereafter.

        #4: Audrey Hepburn as Susy Hendrix in ‘Wait Until Dark’ (1967). After a career of playing the perfect princess. Ms. Hepburn turns in a bravura performance as a blind housewife unraveling a mystery and taking on one of Hollywood’s slimiest fiends. Alan Arkin as Harry Roat Jr. from Scarsdale.

        #3: Rober Mitchum as Jeff Bailey in ‘Out of the Past’ (1947) Mitchum agrees to find Kirk Douglas’s old flame, Jane Greer and get a whole lot more than he bargained for in a superior Noir.

        #2: Linda Fiorentino as Bridget Gregory in ‘The Last Seduction’ (1994). The femme fatale’s femme fatale! Who steals a boatload of money from her slimy, drug dealing husband. Then goes to great lengths to keep it while finding a sap to be framed for his murder.

        #1: Humphrey Bogart as Fred C. Dobbs in ‘The Treasure of the Sierra Madre’ (1948).
        Bogart gives a flawlessly chilling performance as an unlucky every man who spirals into greed and paranoia after succumbing to Gold Fever.

        • Impressive list, Jack! I’ve only seen one of those movies (ALIENS) but I’ve heard a lot about all the others. I plan to see THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE soon, as it’s one of my Dad’s favorite films.

  11. Gabrielle Union in Cadillac records. I actually made a post about that one a while back

    Also Tobey Maguire in Brothers. Seriously, i became a fan of his after that one performance.

  12. Interesting list, Tyler! Off the top of my head I’d struggle to think of a Top 10. Maybe it’s a future post…

    While I haven’t seen all of these films I do know the actors and I’d completely agree with you about Burstyn and Day Lewis. I had the pleasure of seeing Burstyn in a London in a play with Keira Knightley and Elisabeth Moss. While the play was flawed, Burstyn was very, very good.

  13. Some of the best performances I’ve ever seen:

    Bette Davis in All About Eve
    Al Pacino in The Godfather
    Denzel Washington in Malcolm X
    Edward Norton in American History X
    Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry
    Adrian Brody in The Pianist
    Imelda Staunton in Vera Drake
    Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight
    Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds

    • Great choices. I’ve seen all but two of those films, and I agree with most of them. Swank and Waltz are probably my favorite two of the ones you listed.

  14. Thanks 🙂 I forgot to add Ellen Page in Hard Candy and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Mysterious Skin to my list before.

  15. What a goddamn bloody brilliant post. Every single one of your choices is masterful, but I am oh so happy that you pointed out Ray Milland’s flawless work in The Lost Weekend.

    Not too many people have seen that film, and what an ass kicker it is.

    Well. Done.

    • Fuckin A, that movie is brilliant. When I first saw it, it jumped right up to my top 20 movies of all time, but it’s fallen off the list since then. Still fucking love it though.

  16. Great post, glad you included Pacino in there as he is just amazing in the Godfather.

  17. I read that Breaking the waves was Watson’s debut. What a debut performance so full of deep emotion!

  18. I’m sorry but really? Al Pacino, for me, ruins the Godfather Part II. He was just so fucking irritating. Day-Lewis in TWBB is my favourite, then Jack Nicholson in Chinatown.

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