Undefended: The Best Performances of the Decade

As the decade comes to a close, FilmFisher’s writers will be spending the next few months looking back at the cinema of the 2010s and compiling “Best of the Decade” lists in various categories. This month, they picked the top five performances of the decade – that is, single actors in a single film, not a body of work or an ensemble.

Timothy Lawrence

  1. Oscar Isaac as Llewyn Davis in Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
  2. Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell in The Master (2012)
  3. Daniel Day-Lewis as Reynolds Woodcock in Phantom Thread (2017)
  4. Simon Pegg as Gary King in The World’s End (2013)
  5. Guy Pearce as Eric in The Rover (2014)

I was surprised to realize just how many of my favorite acting showcases of the decade are two-handers. It felt wrong not to include Hoffman opposite Phoenix, Krieps opposite Day-Lewis, Pattinson opposite Pearce (picking between DiCaprio or Pitt in Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood was so agonizing that I ultimately went with neither). Speaking of duos, an honorable mention: Liam Neeson and Harry Melling in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.

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A.C. Gleason

  1. Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown. I don’t care if this and my number 2 are cheating.
  2. Bryan Cranston as Walter White in Breaking Bad
  3. Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding in I, Tonya
  4. Leonardo DiCaprio as Calvin Candie in Django Unchained
  5. Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasin in The Witch.
Honorable mentions for a few films that have what I consider to be 110% perfect ensemble performances:
  1. Warrior (2011)
  2. Wind River 
  3. Bone Tomahawk
  4. The Social Network
  5. Green Room

James Valmassoi

  1. Rosamund Pike as Amy Elliot Dunne in Gone Girl (2014)
  2. Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twombly in Her (2013)
  3. Liam Neeson as Ferreira in Silence (2016)
  4. Greta Gerwig as Frances Halladay in Frances Ha (2012)
  5. Nicole Kidman as Celeste Wright in Big Little Lies (2017)

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Jackson De Vight

This is the most brutal Undefended list I’ve had to generate to date. This is not only because the number of possible roles exponentially outnumbers the number of eligible films, but because differentiating great individual performances from great ensembles is preposterous. Evaluating the quality of performances at this level seems either a project of profoundly arbitrary metrics or unhinged subjectivity, and so often the felt result of a performance is as much a result of how the writing and editing interact with your lived experience as it is the result of any one person’s effort. That said, I shall provide the following five performances and five ensembles with this caveat: in stark contrast to how I generally think of these questions these are my completely subjective favorites, not the best in any technical or measurable way, and are limited to performances nominated for an Oscar for acting. They made me feel something, enriched my idea of the human experience, and often elevated the films they played in. I have no justification for their inclusion beyond that, and yet I would passionately defend their qualities to anyone. I have also patently ignored any conception of limits.

Favorite Performances (chronological order):
  1. Nick Nolte as Paddy Conlon in Warrior (2011)
  2. Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady (2011)
  3. Daniel Day Lewis as Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln (2012)
  4. Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game (2014)
  5. Andrew Garfield as Desmond Doss in Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
Favorite Ensembles:
  1. The King’s Speech (2010)
  2. Django Unchained (2012)
  3. 12 Years a Slave (2013)
  4. Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
  5. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri (2017)

Robert Brown

In chronological order:

  1. Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross in True Grit (2010)
  2. Andy Serkis as Caesar in The Planet of the Apes Prequel Trilogy (2011-2017)
  3. Chris Evans as Steve Rogers in Marvel’s Infinity Saga (2011-2019)
  4. Barkhad Abdi as Muse in Captain Phillips (2013)
  5. Adam Driver as Kylo Ren in the Star Wars Sequel Trilogy (2015-2019), or as Paterson in Paterson (2016)

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William Connor Devlin

In alphabetical order:
  • Michael Fassbender as David and Walter in Alien: Covenant (2017)
  • Isabelle Huppert as Michèle Leblanc in Elle (2016)
  • JK Simmons as Terence Fletcher in Whiplash (2014)
  • Kristen Stewart as Maureen Cartwright in Personal Shopper (2016)
  • Alicia Vikander as Ava in Ex Machina (2015)

Bonus Round: Ryan Gosling as Holland March in The Nice Guys (2016)

Robert Heckert

  • Mark Ruffalo in Spotlight
  • Amy Adams in Arrival
  • Tye Sheridan in Mud
  • Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs
  • Robert Redford in All is Lost

Royce Benson

  1. Ethan Hawke as Reverend Toller in First Reformed (2017)
  2. Toni Collette as Annie Graham in Hereditary (2018)
  3. Benicio Del Toro as Alejandro Gillick in Sicario (2015)
  4. Michael Fassbender as Brandon Sullivan in Shame (2011)
  5. Jake Gyllenhall as Detective Loki in Prisoners (2013)

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Travis Kyker

  1. Michael Shannon as Curtis in Take Shelter (2011)
  2. Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd in The Master (2012)
  3. Andy Serkis as Caesar in War For the Planet of the Apes (2017)
  4. Joaquin Phoenix as Joe in You Were Never Really Here (2018)
  5. Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)

Honorable mention: Daniel Malik as Black Phillip in the best sixty seconds of The Witch (2015)

Tom Upjohn

  • Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave (2013)
  • Brie Larson, Room (2015)
  • Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn (2015)
  • Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea (2016)
  • Denzel Washington, Fences (2016)

Recent honorable mentions: Joaquin Phoenix in Joker (2019) & Willem Dafoe in The Lighthouse (2019)

Joel Bourgeois

  1. Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin (2013)
  2. Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master, (2012)
  3. Andrew Garfield, Silence (2016)
  4. Casey Affleck, A Ghost Story (2017)
  5. Ewan McGregor, Fargo Season 3 (2017)

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Joshua Gibbs

  1. Ralph Fiennes, The Grand Budapest Hotel
  2. Ralph Fiennes, A Bigger Splash
  3. Michael Fassbender, 12 Years A Slave
  4. Natalie Portman, Black Swan
  5. Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
Timothy Lawrence

A graduate of the Torrey Honors Institute at BIOLA University, Timothy Lawrence teaches great books through Torrey Academy in Southern California. He writes essays and fiction and counts the Coen Brothers and George Lucas among his personal heroes.

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