I’ve been tasked with coming up a list of the most memorable, landmark performances since 2000. Since I wanted the list to be only 7 performances, I had to set out a string of criteria to follow:
a) If the performance happened before 2005, why has it stuck with us? Likewise, if it occurred after 2005, why will we remember it?
b) No impersonations—as good as Jamie Foxx and Jaoquin Pheonix may have been in their biopics, I have to give more credit to original creations here. You may not agree with my logic, and that’s fine, but don’t expect to see famous celebrity impersonations here. Foxx’s performance will never be more memorable than the man himself, so why would it be a defining performance?
c) Academy Awards do not help your chance of being on this list. For example, in ten years we won’t remember what movie Renee Zellweger won an Oscar for (Cold Mountain), but instead will be reminded that she was great in “Bridget Jones’ Diary.”
d) And most importantly, I have to consider what people will remember from this decade a long time down the line. This goes beyond just “what was the BEST performance” of the decade. That’s a different conversation. I’m looking at predicting history.
7. Daniel Day Lewis as “Bill the Butcher” and “Daniel Plainview”
Daniel Day Lewis’ two notable performances from this decade are, back-to-back, probably the most interesting performances of the decade. The two characters from “Gangs of New York” and “There Will Be Blood,” respectively, have a couple things in common. They both are disconnected from other humans, they both are sinister and cool, and both men sport wicked mustaches. Hands down, no one rocks a mustache better than Daniel Day Lewis and that would be enough to get him on this list alone (not really, but it does help).
6. Christian Bale as “Patrick Bateman”
2000’s “American Psycho” put the “Newsies” actor on the fast track to stardom as an adult. His performance has held up over time because it’s hilarious (a quality that people don’t give Bale enough credit for is his sense of humor when he’s called to do it), chilling as hell, and so much fun. “Psycho” also served as Bale’s perfect audition tape to play Bruce Wayne. When we heard that the casting for “Batman Begins” had essentially come down to Bale and Joshua Jackson (God, can you imagine?), “American Psycho” was the difference maker.
5. Will Ferrell as “Ron Burgundy”
Hands down one of the most memorable comedic performances of the decade came from Will Ferrell in “Anchorman.” His Burgundy was a character that everybody was quoting within days and is still quoted 5 years later. Ferrell hit every note right as Burgundy, something he’s been struggling to do (consistently) with all his original creations since. Ron Burgundy will be remembered two decades from now the same way we remember Ferris Bueller today.
4. Jon Heder as “Napoleon Dynamite”
You may not agree with me here, but this just seems to make sense to me. Name a performance that made more waves than “Napoleon Dynamite” did. This movie was everywhere for a long time. Now maybe it hasn’t held up as strongly as some of the other performances on this list, but if you mention it, everyone you talk to about it will have an opinion about it. That is what I call memorable or defining.
3. Tom Hanks as “Chuck Noland”
Hanks is absolutely stellar in “Cast Away,” making a movie where he’s the only person on screen for over an hour a testament to how great he is. Yes, maybe Hanks has cooled off and stopped challenging himself, but maybe he just peaked with “Cast Away.” And you know what…that’s ok. If Hanks stopped acting today he’d still be remembered as our generation’s Jimmy Stewart.
2. Johnny Depp as “Captain Jack Sparrow”
He seemed to lose steam with the sequels, but Depp’s performance in the first “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie is just too fun to not include here. His mixture of Keith Richards and Pepe Le Pew along with the fact that his performance was visibly making Disney nervous and the terrific dialogue and fun action of the first “Pirates” script led to the creation of a truly original and fun to watch action star. Depp showed that he could carry a big blockbuster movie and still challenge himself as an actor.
1. Heath Ledger as “The Joker”
There’s no doubt in my mind that Heath Ledger’s Joker from “The Dark Knight” will be the performance of the decade. Granted, we’ll never know for sure if this performance would’ve been as memorable if Ledger were alive today, but that really has nothing to do with it. In ten years people won’t remember as easily as we do that Ledger died before the movie was released. That won’t stop them from loving every moment he’s on screen and waiting with baited breath for the next moment or monologue that the Joker gives.
Ledger is everything you want in a villain and has set the bar so high for comic book movies (or any kind of suspense thriller) that I wonder if it will be topped. Ledger’s performance essentially wiped out Javier Bardem’s performance from the year before in “No Country for Old Men” from this list. Let’s stop wondering about what could’ve been or what may have influenced us when we saw “The Dark Knight”—instead let’s just relish that one man did something that exceeded every expectation we all could’ve had and he’ll be remembered for generations because of it.
Honorable mentions: Javier Bardem, “No Country for Old Men”; Ellen Page, “Juno”; Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon, The Departed; Paul Giamatti, American Splendor; Kate Winslet, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”; Meryl Streep, “The Devil Wears Prada”; Steve Carell, “The 40 Year-Old Virgin”; countless others that I would consider “great” just not “defining.”
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