We start the Top 7. You finish the Top 10.
Ah, the Oscars. We so rarely agree on the best film of the year, and yet you know I can’t quit you. There are plenty of recent Best Picture winners that I like – even love in the case of No Country for Old Men – but my personal favorite hasn’t taken the gold in decades. The same cannot be said for the acting categories. Of course there are winners that leave me less than impressed – you sure were fine in Little Miss Sunshine, Alan Arkin – but recently there have been more than a few instances where my winner is the Academy’s winner. This is especially true over the past few years, as this list will reflect.
Case in point, unless Sally Field shocks on Sunday (February 24) and wins her third Oscar, Anne Hathaway’s performance in Les Misérables will earn a spot on future versions of this list. Even if “I Dreamed a Dream” was all Hathaway had to do, that single take would be enough for the win in my estimation. There’s more to it than that, though. She’s just as heartbreaking in “Lovely Ladies” and “Fantine’s Arrest.” It’s an unforgettable performance.
It’s important to remember that the Oscars aren’t worth getting too worked up about. Still, it’s a lot more fun when they make decisions I’m happy with. On that note, here are my favorite Oscar-winning performances of the past decade.
7. Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf in The Hours (75th Academy Awards)
Role: The depressed writer working on “Mrs. Dalloway." In the choice between Richmond and death, she chooses death. Reason: Nicole Kidman just managed to sneak in under the cutoff, but I’d have been remiss not to include her. I’ve said before that I consider her one of my favorite actresses, and it is runs like what she pulled off in the early aughts that put her there. If she had won for Moulin Rouge! or Rabbit Hole she might be higher on this list, but her performance as Virginia Woolf in The Hours is magnificent as well. Honestly, I might have slightly preferred Julianne Moore that year for Far From Heaven. Nevertheless, Kidman’s devastating scene with Stephen Dillane at the train station is enough to make this worthy. More than just a prosthetic nose, Kidman shines conveying Woolf’s depression, and manages to stand out while sharing the film (if not the screen) with great work from Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore.
6. Christian Bale as Dicky Eklund in The Fighter (83rd Academy Awards)
Role: The crack addicted brother and trainer of boxer Micky Ward. He once knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard. Reason: No matter what else happened, the 83rd Academy Awards were always going to make me happy. One of the big reasons was that Christian Bale was a near lock for the Best Supporting Actor trophy. Sure, Geoffrey Rush still had a fighting chance, but my Bale optimism could not be quashed. While this isn’t quite my favorite of his – “Do you like Huey Lewis and the News?” – it is an incredibly lived-in performance in a career full of them. Bale brings some wonderful humor to the film right from the start. The endearingly goofy face he makes while fake boxing with Mark Wahlberg's Micky never fails to make me smile. But we get plenty of touching moments too, such as the beautiful “I Started a Joke” duet with Melissa Leo. I’d have been happy to see Bale win no matter what. Winning for such a worthy performance is even better.
5. Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in Milk (81st Academy Awards)
Role: California’s first openly gay elected official. He’s here to recruit you. Reason: My fondness for Sean Penn comes and goes. I liked his work in Mystic River well enough, but would have preferred to see Bill Murray win for Lost in Translation (or Johnny Depp for Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl). His next Oscar bid had me much more excited. As much as I love Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, Penn’s performance as Harvey Milk hit me incredibly hard. He’s so charming throughout the film, something Penn isn’t necessarily known for. Whether he’s picking up James Franco’s Scott in the subway, debating Senator Briggs, or giving a rousing speech at a gay pride rally, his performance is full of warmth. It makes the conclusion that much more heartbreaking. This is work that has stuck with me since I first fell in love with Gus Van Sant’s film. And it moves me just as much now as it did the first time.
4. Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight (81st Academy Awards)
Role: The scarred, makeup wearing agent of chaos. He’s a dog chasing cars. Reason: While my affection for The Dark Knight has waxed and waned over the years, my admiration of Heath Ledger’s villainous turn as the Joker has not. It’s the type of performance that elevates the film every time he appears on screen. Stuff like the magic trick, attending Harvey Dent’s fundraiser, and the interrogation scene stand out, but smaller things are what really make the performance pop – the way he refutes Gambol’s assertion that he’s crazy or how he mumbles along with Mike Engel on the hostage tape. And his off-kilter walk away from the hospital while wearing the nurse outfit might be my single favorite moment in the film. It’s a damn shame that we couldn’t see the Joker again in The Dark Knight Rises. Had Ledger won for Brokeback Mountain, he'd appear twice on this list. Alas, it’s bittersweet, but this posthumous win earns its place.
3. Christoph Waltz as Colonel Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds (82nd Academy Awards)
Role: The cunning and ruthless Nazi officer known as “The Jew Hunter.” He waits for the crème. Reason: It feels strange to say this about a Nazi who does the horrible things Hans Landa does in Inglourious Basterds, but he sure is likable. Part of the brilliance of Christoph Waltz’s performance is how quickly he can shift from charming to terrifying. Take the masterful opening sequence with Monsieur LaPadite. Landa is so likeable complimenting the family cows and smoking his hilariously oversized pipe. Then, just like that, he drops the charade and it's chilling. It’s amazing, then, that even after he calls in “the ladies,” Landa can still come off as charming later in the film. Very few people speak Tarantino dialogue as well as Waltz, and I hope the two of them continue working together until Tarantino bids us adieu. If Waltz happens to win for Django Unchained I’d be more than happy (though I feel The Master’s Philip Seymour Hoffman gave the most deserving performance), but Hans Landa is Waltz at his most commanding.
2. Natalie Portman as Nina Sayers in Black Swan (83rd Academy Awards)
Role: The fragile ballerina who begins to unravel after being cast in “Swan Lake.” She just wants to be perfect. Reason: Back when we were talking about Christian Bale I said that he was one of the reasons I was happy heading into the 83rd Academy Awards. Natalie Portman being the favorite for Best Actress was another. Black Swan was my most anticipated film of 2010, and it ended up being one of the best theatrical experiences of my life. I hadn’t watched any trailers, so it was extra thrilling to watch the story progress and see Nina’s psyche unravel with each passing moment. Along with Barbara Hershey as her mother, Portman does a great job conveying that there is something wrong with their relationship, something rotten from long before we meet them. Nina calling her mother after getting the part might be my pick for best acted scene of 2010, and it’s one of many reasons why Natalie Portman is my favorite Best Actress winner since Frances McDormand won for Fargo.
1. Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood (80th Academy Awards)
Role: The misanthropic and greedy oil man. He drinks your milkshake. Reason: I prefer Joaquin Phoenix in The Master and Hugh Jackman in Les Misérables, but you will hear no complaints from me when Daniel Day-Lewis wins his third Best Actor Oscar for Lincoln. It’s remarkable how different Day-Lewis is playing the warmth of Abraham Lincoln and the misanthropy of Plainview. When you contrast the twinkle in Lincoln’s eye as he tells an anecdote about George Washington with the cold glare Plainview has in a campfire scene with Henry, it becomes clear why Day-Lewis is one of our finest actors. I’ve watched There Will Be Blood countless times, always finding more to love. “I’ve abandoned my child,” smacking Eli around in the mud, and the film’s wild ending immediately come to mind. That being said, some of my favorite stuff from Day-Lewis is after Henry shows up. The way he opens up to the man claiming to be his half-brother on the beach, bobs around in the water like a shark, and then wakes Henry up to ask him a question is all stunning work. There’s a lot of competition, but this is one of my favorite performances ever. And now, in the words of Daniel Plainview, “I’m finished.”