My Top 10 Acting Performances of the Decade

It's the end of the decade and that only means one thing, it's time to reflect on what cinema has offered us over the past ten years and turn them into top 10s. I'll be doing more top 10 lists like this one in the coming days on different criteria including my top 10 films of the decade, top 10 T.V episodes of the decade, top 10 most overrated films of the decade, top 10 most underrated films of the decade and many more! If you want to see more content like this then consider supporting the page over on Patreon, I spend a lot of time creating videos, blog posts and Instagram posts for Masters of Movies and the support really does go a long way. But less of my waffling and onto the juicy part of this post. Here are my top 10 acting performances of the decade.

10. Steven Yuen - Burning

Steven Yuen as Ben in Burning

In Lee Chang-dong’s beautifully hypnotizing adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s short story. Yeun plays Ben, a smooth-talking enigma that never quite reveals himself, which is exactly what makes the character so chilling and seductive. Yuen graces the screen with heaps of pathological charm that gives Patrick Bateman a run for his money. It’s a testament to Yeun’s commitment that Ben’s mask of disquieting swagger never falls off. He yawns, laughs, speaks, smokes, shakes hands and discloses his casual pyromania all with the same air of arrogant self-possession. Not only is this one of the best performances of the decade, but probably the most overlooked too.

9. Mahershala Ali - Moonlight

Mahershala Ali stars as Juan in Barry Jenkins' Moonlight

In Barry Jenkin's heartwrenching humanist masterpiece Moonlight, Marhershala Ali plays a drug dealer named Juan who becomes a father figure to the film's protagonist Chiron. Ali embodies a man with a huge internal conflict. He sells drugs to pregnant women, and yet his fatherly treatment of Chiron is thoughtful enough to bring a tear to your eye. Throughout the film, it's Ali's masterful ability to balance his imposing physical stature with an exposed emotional vulnerability that hammers home the fact that Mahershala Ali is undoubtedly one of the greatest talents to have a breakthrough in recent years. And this performance as Joan is one that's going to be remembered and praised or years to come.

8. Lupita Nyong'o - 12 Years a Slave

Lupita Nyong'o stars as Patsey in Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave

Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave features a huge cast of high caliber performances, but it’s a true testament to Lupita Nyong’o’s acting prowess that after the film, it was her performance that everyone was talking about. Nyong’o’s performance as slave Patsey is easily one of the most harrowing and unforgettable performances to grace the big screen this decade. It’s the kind of career-making performance that many actors dream of but never succeed in reaching.

7. Jake Gyllenhaal - Nightcrawler

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Lou Bloom in Nightcrawler

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Lou Bloom, a driven young man desperate for work who discovers the dark world of crime journalism in Los Angeles. Gyllenhaal gives an unnerving and sometimes icily comic performance as the deluded antihero. But beneath the eager-beaver brightness is a feral soul, made visible in Gyllenhaal’s weird appearance grease-slicked hair, the gauntness of an insomniac ascetic and a glare that seems painted on to his eyelids, as if Lou is a recording device permanently switched on.

6. Cate Blanchett - Blue Jasmine

Cate Blanchett stars as Jasmine in Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine

Cate Blanchett is without a doubt one of the greatest actresses of her generation and put on an absolute masterclass in acting in the 2013 film Blue Jasmine. Blue Jasmine follows a woman living with the aftermath of the financial crisis. Blancett's ability to hint at the mental fragility really brings out the humanity in this pretty unlikable, snobbish character. The undeniable power of Blanchett’s performance forces us to empathize with Jasmine and see a woman whose identity has been shattered and that there’s not much left to tether her to reality. It’s a devastating, harrowing, unforgettable work of acting. 

5. J.K Simmons - Whiplash

J.K Simmons stars in Damien Chazelle's Whiplash

J.K Simmons' turn as Terrence Fletcher in Damien Chazelle's breakout film Whiplash launched Simmons into the upper echelons of the acting stratosphere. I don't think anybody has delivered such an intense and terrifying performance than this inglorious music instructor in the last ten years. It’s the kind of performance that is delivered with such an incredible balance of hilarity and intensity that only an actor of Simmon's caliber can finesse so effortlessly. Not many performances in the past 10 years were as buzzed about as this one, and it’s for a damn good reason.

4. Emmanuelle Riva - Amour

Emmanuelle Riva stars as Anne in Michael Hanake's Amour

Two years ago, we lost a true legend and icon of French cinema. Emmanuelle Riva's career-revitalizing performance in Michael Haneke's Amour indisputably left such a heavy resonance with everybody that watched it. Riva’s character Anne suffers a partially paralyzing stroke, and she has to readjust how she operates her body in the latter years of her life. Amour is difficult to watch, and the majority of that weight comes from Riva’s breathtaking performance that deserves all the praise it's received and then some. 

3. Daniel Day-Lewis - Lincoln

Daniel Day-Lewis stars as Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln

Daniel Day-Lewis' performance in Phantom Thread could have quite easily made this list too, but it’s his work in Lincoln that needs to be singled here. It's not only Day-Lewis' masterful physical and vocal transformation to be able to look, move and sound like Abraham Lincoln. But it's Day-Lewis' incredible ability to elevate this performance from just being an impersonation of Abraham Lincoln. Day-Lewis layers his performance with heeps of honest emotion that humanizes such a larger than life historical figure. His ability to do that so flawlessly really is a testament to how great of an actor Daniel Day-Lewis truly is.


2. Francis McDormand - Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Francis McDormand stars in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

This home run of a performance came as no surprise to anybody who has followed Francis McDormand's illustrious career. She has worked with some of the best actors of her generation and has never failed to outshine her onscreen peers and Three Billboards is no exception.

In Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Francis McDormand plays a grieving mother looking for justice for the murder and rape of her daughter after the police fail to find the culprit, her finely restrained anger and despair are handled with such expertise. McDormand's ferociously angry and aggressively sarcastic performance manages to be both uproariously funny and overwhelmingly heartbreaking all at once. McDormand gives a career-best performance in Three Billboards, which is saying a lot considering the quality of work McDormand continually puts out.

1. Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman - The Master

Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman star in Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master

I spent a seriously considerable amount of time debating which one of these two deserve to be at the top of this list because they undoubtedly both Phoenix and Hoffman belong here. And the longer I sat and pondered on the question, the more I started to realize that even though both individual performances are great, it's actually the chemistry and interactions between the two actors that elevate them to another level, so in my opinion, it would be nothing shy of blasphemy to put one at the top without the other.

Joaquin Pheonix's performance as Freddie Quell is far more feral and animalistic compared to his counterpart. As the lost, dispossessed Freddie Quell, Phoenix is pure need and want. Phoenix never really lets us see what’s motivating Freddie beyond a pure, animalistic compulsion to transcend his lesser qualities, and it’s that sense of lingering enigma that makes this one of the great actor’s most endlessly rewatchable performances.

On the flipside, Philip Seymour Hoffman gives a far more calm and subtle performance, containing some of the finest moments of Hoffman’s outstanding career. Hoffman plays Lancaster Dodd, a cult leader who is at first glance, a man of intellect, success and fine taste. And yet, Dodd eventually reveals himself to be a fraud of extraordinary proportions. He’s a bad father, a brutal drunk, and a man who may not even believe in the spiritual beliefs he’s preaching. Hoffman left this world far too soon, but to know he’ll be remembered for this performance (among others) is a small but genuine form of consolation.

I hope you enjoyed reading my full list of top 10 films of 2019! If you liked the content and want to see more stuff like this then consider picking up some merch from my store, it goes a long way towards supporting this page and really encourages me to make more content like this. Thank you!