Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman
American Psycho (2000)
As one of the greatest living actors, Bale never gives anything less than his all. But this was the start of his tremendous transition from admirable child actor to an obsessive craftsman. There are lots of good actors, but few immerse themselves like he does. Here is a portrait of a man who has absolute control of every situation and uses his power to become an emperor of Soho, depraved in every possible way imaginable. But history doesn't repeat itself. In the self-obsessed '80s, no one bats an eye.
Photo courtesy of Lionsgate/The Telegraph
Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh
No Country for Old Men (2007)
Never before has a character with such a goofy haircut been such a terrifying presence. Unlike so many other kill-anything-that-gets-in-his-way sociopaths, Chigurh is a man driven by his desire to finish the job, by whatever means necessary. He's also beholden to random chance. Tough but fair if you want to look at it that way.
Photo courtesy of Miramax
Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat Sagdiyev
The word "fearless" gets thrown around a lot these days to describe performances simply because they did what the role called for (nudity, kissing another dude) but it's rarely been more applicable than comedian Sacha Baron Cohen's portrayal of a racist Kazakh journalist who, deep down, really just wants to learn about the mythic American dream. Cohen's ad-lib skills blow anyone in Christopher Guest's impressive troupe out of the water and his comedic timing is perfect. It was a trick he could only pull off once, but it worked.
Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox
Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview
There Will Be Blood (2007)
The 2008 documentary Man on Wire documents Philippe Petit's high-wire walk between the two towers of the World Trade Center. I submit that Daniel Day-Lewis's walk between over-the-top and hamming-it-up in P.T. Anderson's darkly comic masterpiece was even tougher. No one else could have tread such a fine line for such a boisterous character. He embodies a man full of ambition but equally full of it. Yet there's not a single moment when a character challenges him that a viewer could expect the slightest possibility of victory. Rarely has a character been so devoid of any morals been depicted so vividly onscreen.
Photo courtesy of Paramount Vantage
Heath Ledger as the Joker
The Dark Knight (2008)
The most telling sign of his excellence in this role: he would have won the Oscar even if he hadn't died. Ledger was an actor who bucked every trend, refusing to fit any definition or boundary. While Jack Nicholson defined the role in 1989 with a brilliantly over-the-top take on Batman's adversary, Ledger took it in a much sinister direction. Depending on which account you read, he was hoping his performance would be so dark he would be fired, but Christopher and Jonathan Nolan used that ugliness to set an unrelenting tone for perhaps the most realistic comic book movie ever made.
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.
Cate Blanchett as Jude
I'm Not There. (2007)
She wuz robbed. Though I'm certainly a Tilda Swinton fan--no one plays a woman whose world is about to unravel better than she--but Blanchett, who long ago proved she could play any role asked of her, was the most impressive and fully realized interpretation of Bob Dylan. It's more than just a gender-role reversal. Her performance is downright visionary, playing a real-life person every knows yet injecting her own verve into the interpretation.
Photo courtesy of The Weinstein Company
Julie Christie as Fiona Anderson
Away from Her (2007)
Steering as far away from TV-movie-of-the-week sentimentality, the veteran actress makes the Alzheimer's stricken Fiona a woman of tremendous depth, pride but also a twinge of sadness. The revelations of the movie are painful to watch but breathtaking to behold, but none of it would feel quite so real with anyone else in the lead role.
Photo courtesy of Lionsgate
Anne Hathaway as Kym
Rachel Getting Married (2008)
One of the most complex onscreen character's in recent memory, Kym would be a challenge for any actress of any age to play, let alone someone as young as Hathaway. So for the star of former garbage like The Princess Diaries and Havoc to not only show all those layers but elicit even the slightest bit of empathy from a woman so inherently unlikable, is nothing short of miraculous.
Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II
The Queen (2006)
I'm not always that big on performances of real-life people. To me, it's a much bigger challenge to pull off an original character. But here, I was blown away by Helen Mirren. Most people know the public image of England's monarch--regal, stoic, powerless--but here we got to see the private life. The one who at first seems unphased by Diana's death but then realizes just how deeply she was affected. The one who quarrels with newly elected Prime Minister Tony Blair, not because she doesn't like him, but because she feels unnecessary around him. This is true performance.
Photo courtesy of Miramax
Michelle Williams as Alma
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
By far the best part of a vastly overrated movie. This is no distraught housewife routine. With a mere facial gesture, she reveals the immense devastation and betrayal she feels after learning of her husband's affair and her determination not to put up with his cover-up act. You feel all her emotions: shock, sadness, anger, pride. And all this from someone who used to be on Dawson's Creek.
Photo courtesy of Focus Features