Lists, Top 10 Characters, Top 10 Performances, Top 10s — February 13, 2012 at 3:01 am

KAI’S TOP 10 MALE PERFORMANCES OF ALL TIME

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With everybody gearing up to hear who will be given the Oscar for best performances of the year, I couldn’t help but start thinking about my favorite performances of all time. While some of them managed to take home the trophy, others weren’t even nominated.  However, I think they all carved their names into the Hall of Fame of acting performances. Here’s my favorite performances of all time…

SIDENOTE: I have limited this list to male actors. We’ll take a look at the females at a future date TBD later.

10. DANIEL DAY LEWIS in GANGS OF NEW YORK.

DDL is the best working actor around today. He doesn’t make many movies and, to be completely honest, some of the movies he makes just don’t interest me. Yet, he can single handedly take over a mediocre film and make it so unbelievably watchable. This is the case with Gangs of New York. A film that is pretty weak despite featuring a A-list star and one of the greatest directors to step behind a camera. Still, DDL’s Bill the Butcher elevates this film to a must watch every time I come across it.

9. SAMUEL L. JACKSON in PULP FICTION.

Samuel L. Jackson is always Samuel L. Jackson… in every role he plays… mutha fucka! And we absolutely love him for it. Mainly for this role (Jules Winnfield) which he played to perfection. The thing is, I don’t think he gets enough credit for it because it is very Samuel L. Jackson-y. The fact is, it was a role that just fit and he is amazing in it. I think the entire Ezekiel 25:16 speech is one of the greatest scenes in movie history!

8. BEN KINGSLEY in SEXY BEAST.

Did anyone see this movie? Does anyone remember it? You know, the one where Ghandi plays a British gangster that no one dares to fuck with. This is an impressive performance on many levels but stands out because it is so outside of Kingsley’s typical wheel house. He’s amazing in not only every word he barks but in every move he makes. My favorite scene, that is used to “explain” the type of character we’re seeing, is one that features Kingsly just taking a piss… a real one… not the British expression kind.

7. CHRISTIAN BALE in AMERICAN PSYCHO.

From the late nineties to around 2005, Christian Bale was just out of his mind good. The only man that held a flame to him is featured twice on this list. The man could command a scene since he was but a boy yet his breakout performance was in this film as Patrick Bateman. It perturbs me that they want to remake this film because it hinges solely on a performance that seldom comes along and can never be repeated.

6. JACK NICHOLSON in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST.

Everybody loves Jack. No movie has ever featured Jack being Jack more than this film. This is the first of two performances that will actually get me to admit that film existed prior to 1980. So good that he was actually recognized by the academy for it as well. The film itself is great but it comes up short without Nicholson going above and beyond as the film’s protagonist: R. P. McMurphy.

5. MALCOLM MCDOWELL in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE.

I didn’t alway appreciate this film and by proxy the lead performance. In fact, I turned it off after the rape scene the first time I tried to watch it. Over time, I have come to really appreciate it especially the more I read about it and watch it. Learning about how the Singing in the Rain performance was totally improvised and how the “eye-drop scene” was only supposed to take a couple of minutes (it didn’t) make me appreciate McDowell’s performance even more. In the end though, it’s just a cool performance and an unflinching look at uncomfortable subject matter (aka: a bit of the ol’ ultra-violence). It was also the inspiration for the actor performance ranked #1 on this list).

4. JOE PESCI in GOODFELLAS & CASINO.

I go back and forth on which of these performances I like more. They being Goodfellas‘ Tommy DeVito and Casino‘s Nicky Santoro. Truth be told, it really doesn’t matter because they are essentially the same character. Hell, I like pretending Casino is just a sequel to Goodfellas anyway. Nobody plays a bad-ass little bastard as well as Pesci. He made these two characters so menacing that they may be the only characters under five feet tall I’m actually afraid of outside of that Asian kid who yawns like a cat in The Grudge.

3. PAUL NEWMAN in COOL HAND LUKE.

Here we go again. Every now and then, I am willing to admit that films existed before 1980. A land which I do not venture to very often. Nay, seldom. Yet it’s hard to ignore the charm of Newman in this one. The script is good but it’s made even better by Newman who plays it so damn, well, cool… hence the title.

2. DANIEL DAY LEWIS in THERE WILL BE BLOOD.

Danial Day Lewis is so intense that if I bumped into him at a Walmart I would probably just follow him around and watch him shop. In his role as Daniel Plainview, I get sucked in every time the film comes on cable. His dedication to all performances is unprecedented but this character, in particular, is mesmerizing. True, he is working with Paul Thomas Anderson but this script hinges on the performance of the ruthless character it studies. Only Lewis has the ability to take a sub-par source material and elevate to something truly intoxicating.

1. HEATH LEDGER in THE DARK KNIGHT.

There was a lot working to help this performance such as a great script from a great director and a strong supporting cast. There was also a built in fan base though that can be just as detrimental as it is supportive. Fans can turn on these movies at the snap of a finger and stepping into a role that had been played satisfyingly years earlier could have worked against it. It’s a true testimony to Ledger’s spot on Joker that he was able to elevate above it all. Some might argue even above the movie itself. Going so far as to even, quite deservedly, take home an Oscar for a role in a comic book movie. Now, that is no small feat.

Remember, we here at Man, I Love Films don’t do definitive lists. We do our favorites and we want to hear yours. So, make sure and tell us about them in the comments section below.

18 Comments

  • Great list. I don’t know exactly what my list would look like, but I’d probably do something obvious like put 5 De Niro performances in there: Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, The Godfather Part II, and Mean Streets. Few other actors could so disappear completely in a role like De Niro in his prime.

  • I find it sad to see that not a single actress made this list! That’s pretty ridiculous considering all the amazing performances made by many talented actresses over the years.

      • I’m not trolling, but as a fellow cinema lover I had to speak the obvious! There are so many amazing performances by females, it seems unbelievable that not one made the list. And… Meryl Streep, yes, she should be on here for any number of roles. Out of Africa, Sophie’s Choice, Julie & Julia, The Iron Lady, The Deer Hunter. I could go on. I realize Kai likes “man” films, but really? One last thought, Sigourney Weaver in Alien, HELLLO!

        • The name of the article is “Kai’s Top 10 MALE PERFORMANCES of All Time.”

          Please provide one good reason why a woman should appear on a list of great male roles.

          • In fairness to Hillary, we added the “MALE” to the title. Though I did state the following at the top of the post:
            “SIDENOTE: I have limited this list to male actors. We’ll take a look at the females at a future date TBD later.”
            I have decided that will be two weeks from the date of the post as next week is set aside for Oscar predictions.
            And, Hillary, SPOILER ALERT…. Weaver will be on the list. My dogs are named Ripley and Noot. 🙂

  • While this is an incredibly hard list to make, I cannot bitch at all since you included the greatest actor in cinema history, twice. Good call with Sexy Beast, as well.

  • Although I do have to follow up and say that Meryl Steep should be on here.

  • I’m with Steve… I think people are missing the fact that this is the Top 10 MALE list, and he even states that the FEMALE list will be done later.

    Also… good list, Kai. I approve.

    • Thank you very much. It was a tough one to make but I think it’s solid. I like some performances better like Pitt in Fight Club but I based the picks on pure acting ability and these are all top notch!

  • Interesting that you chose Bale in American Psycho. It’s a great performance, to be sure, but the first one I think of with Bale is The Machinist. The guy turned himself into a skeleton for the role. It was frightening and impressive. That’s when I really started to take note of who he was.

    I have to tip my cap- four of my favorite movie characters of all time are on here. Nicholson in Cuckoo’s Nest was what turned me on to really good movies, along with Newman in Cool Hand Luke. Ledger… wow. He owned that role like few others ever have. And DDL in There Will be Blood brought PT Anderson’s vision to life in ways that nobody else could have.

    • I love him in The Machinist but I feel like his performance gets more credit because of the ridiculous amount of weight loss (which deserves it’s own recognition for being amazing). Whereas I feel like he just owned Bateman but I can’t knock you for digging that film. He’s great in it!
      As far as DDL, I have to just watch those movies when I stumble across him because he’s so damn captivating!

  • It’s worth noting that usually on a list like this, I have an old-school addition for you…and while I can think of a couple, I’m not sure they’re better entries–sort of a straight up, even trade.

    As for Brad Pitt, I love him in Fight Club…but I love him in about half his films. Is his performance in Fight Club really better than his performance in 12 Monkeys or Snatch? Hard to choose.

  • Can’t complain about any of these, each of them are great performances! Also agree that American Psycho is Bale’s best work to date 😀

  • I’m not surprised Daniel Day Lewis appears more than once on the list…great actor. Perhaps Christian Bale deserved another appearance too – The Machinist perhaps.

  • I can get behind #1 with complete agreement and perhaps 3, 4, and 6 but Daniel Day twice … sorry no.

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