The 50 Best Movie Performances of the Decade

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From Cate Blanchett in “Carol” to Philip Seymour Hoffman in “The Master,” these are the performances that will stay with us forever.

Today, we begin a more granular exploration into some of those movies — and a handful of others — by highlighting the actors who made them possible. Not all of these performances have been pulled from the films that made it onto our list of the decade’s best, but every single one of them has stayed with us in the time since they first touched down. From immortal turns from acting giants who are no longer with us, to stunning debuts that already have us looking forward to the next decade of movies, these are the 50 best film performances of the last 10 years.

1. Philip Seymour Hoffman (“The Master”)

Every new Philip Seymour Hoffman performance was a cause for celebration, and it surprised no one that the chamelonesque performer’s greatest (and sadly final) collaboration with Paul Thomas Anderson delivered on expectations. However, the most exciting outcome of Hoffman’s turn as enigmatic cult leader Lancester Dodd was how unexpected it felt all the way through. Hoffman’s fictionalized riff on Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard was simultaneously eerie and comforting, loaded with the contradictions of the organized religion in which Joaquin Phoenix’s wayward seaman finds some kind of solace.

2. Cate Blanchett (“Carol”)

The greatest performance in a career where almost every role feels like a legitimate contender, Cate Blanchett’s take on Carol Aird is a veritable symphony of repressive silence. A regal 1950s housewife whose mutual attraction to a Manhattan shopgirl inspires her to peek back out of the closet at a very inopportune time, Carol is defined by the things that she can’t say. For Blanchett, that wasn’t an obstacle so much as a divine opportunity. The actress put on a master class in the space between words, punctuating the film with perfect gestures, furtive looks, and an entire love language of things that have to remain unspoken; her watchful eyes provided a window behind the mask, negotiating the Carol’s public identity and private desires as lucidly as they navigate a course between the movie’s classic veneer and modern heart.

3. Daniel Day-Lewis (“Lincoln”)

Here is a list of things the lauded British actor reportedly did during his predictably Method-esque tenure as the beloved American president: texted co-star Sally Field in character as Honest Abe, requested that no one on set tote around modern technology (which confuses the texting question), didn’t break character for three months (even with director Steven Spielberg), never stopped using Lincoln’s voice during filming (even during breaks), grew a beard (easy), and didn’t speak to anyone with a British accent (lest he “lose” his adopted Lincoln voice). Here is how that all turned out: he won his third Best Actor Oscar for the role (the only male actor to pick up three wins for leading roles), while handily continuing the mythos of “Daniel Day-Lewis, real immersive guy.”

4. Isabelle Huppert (“Elle”)

When Paul Verhoeven wanted to make a psychosexual revenge thriller about a woman who pursues a relationship with her rapist, no American actress was willing to play her. It was, almost inevitably, a job for Isabelle Huppert. The director was so eager to work with her that he turned “Elle” into a French movie and learned his star’s native tongue. Huppert’s performance made the effort worth Verhoeven’s while.

It’s hard to imagine anyone else being able to pull off the role of hard-driving video game entrepreneur Michele: She’s wicked, flawed, impish, fierce, frightened, flirty, elegant, turned on, angry, loving, brusque, imperious, and determined, sometimes all in the span of a single scene. She will not be a victim of rape. She will not let her violent assailant get the better of her. She will keep going forward, strong and self-reliant — she’ll buy pepper spray and learn how to shoot a gun. She won’t let rape make her hate sex, or deny her joie de vivre.

5. Mahershala Ali (“Moonlight”)

In 2016, “Moonlight” introduced moviegoers to a Bay Area college basketball player who earned a Masters in acting from NYU named Mahershalalhashbaz Ali. Mahershala for short. Some clued-in viewers might have seen him before, but after that year — in which Ali also appeared in “House of Cards” and “Hidden Figures” — he was impossible to miss. But it was the time he spent with Barry Jenkins over the course of three successive Miami weekends that changed his life forever. And possibly yours as well.

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