Sifting through the performances you’ve seen over a decade is a fraught task, but not a thankless one. How can you be certain you’re making the absolute, perfect choices? You can’t be. Are you sure you’re not forgetting a particularly sensational one? Of course you are. The idea, though, isn’t just to compute some safe, neutered collection of highlights. It’s to look back over a decade’s worth of moviegoing and to recollect how certain performances made you feel, how a certain gesture or glance managed to stick with you. Actors are regular humans with gifts that sometimes seem mysterious. Acting is a craft, a discipline that enfolds certain practical elements, but it’s often better when the viewer isn’t privy to all the gears at work, and is instead invited into a new world—into the life of a character—without even being aware of the seduction. Here are 10 movie performances that had that power over me during the 2010s, presented in order of each film’s year of release.
Tilda Swinton, I Am Love (2010)
Tilda Swinton, in her many roles and guises, can never be anything less than innately elegant. But in Luca Guadagnino’s audacious I Am Love, a reflection on crumbling cultural institutions, fading aristocracy and forbidden romance, Swinton’s black-swan refinement reaches dazzling heights. As Emma, the middle-aged matriarch of an aristocratic Italian family who sheds her old life of sheath dresses and liquid-cashmere coats to find torrid but true love with a shamelessly hot chef (Edoardo Gabriellini), Swinton is glorious to watch. She works a regal enchantment that’s also, somehow, firmly rooted in the natural world, an expression of sensuality and selfhood that’s as weightless as a dandelion seed yet as persistent as, well, a dandelion.
Denis Lavant, Holy Motors (2012)
Holy Motors, a work of cracked genius from out-there French filmmaker Léos Carax, is a love letter to movies, even though the more movies you’ve seen in your lifetime, the less sense it’s likely to make. It almost feels like a film made in a time before language, a rendering of modern lives as a kind of cinematic cave painting. What kind of actor can make a thing like that work? Only one as bold and unfettered as Denis Lavant, the gloriously acrobatic French actor—and Carax regular—who, as a mysterious individual named Oscar, is the movie’s erratically beating heart. Oscar roams Paris, driven though the glittering city in a magically capacious stretch limo, donning various disguises: one minute he’s a hit man assigned to kill a thug who will become his own double; the next he’s a dying man attended by his grief-stricken niece. At one point he becomes a sewer-dwelling troll in a ratty green velvet suit, striding angrily through Pére-Lachaise cemetery, where he storms a fashion shoot and takes a supermodel as his hostage. (She’s played by Eva Mendes.) Is Oscar an actor? A secret agent? A purveyor of dreams? Does it really matter? Lavant is a wonder here, a font of rage and beauty, of sorrow and elation, in a performance you may think you dreamed—but no, it’s for real.
Ethan Hawke, Before Midnight (2013)
Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight is the third movie in a trilogy that began with a guy and a girl meeting on a European train and embarking on a romance that might have lasted just one night (the 1995 Before Sunrise) and continued with a rekindling nine years later (in 2004’s Before Sunset). In Before Midnight, the characters we met in that first movie, Julie Delpy’s Celine and Ethan Hawke’s Jesse, are now older if not necessarily wiser—and they’re also together as partners, with twin daughters. That didn’t happen overnight: Jesse’s earlier marriage has dissolved; he has a teenage son from that union, whom he loves but rarely gets to see. And his current, committed relationship with Celine shows its cracks too: As the couple winds down a vacation in Greece, she turns on him in a rage, her furor stoked partly by the everyday micro-stresses of motherhood. Her pain is real, and Hawke’s Jesse doesn’t turn away from it. Instead, he absorbs it, even though he can barely comprehend it. His bewilderment is painful to watch, for lots of reasons. How could he not have seen this coming, you wonder? And yet his earnest cluelessness and his eagerness to do the right thing are bound into his nature. All of that is there on Jesse’s face, in a performance that proves that listening, not talking, is the greater part of acting—and one that also suggests just how hard it is, sometimes, to be a good man.
Marion Cotillard, The Immigrant (2014)
Director James Gray has a knack for wrapping up big themes in an intimate embrace, and his romantic epic The Immigrant is no exception. The film’s guiding spirit is Marion Cotillard’s Ewa, a Polish immigrant struggling to find her way in 1920s New York. Out of necessity, she finds a place for herself in a tawdry cabaret run by a man, Joaquin Phoenix’s Bruno, who claims he wants to help her, though he may really only want to possess her. As Ewa, Cotillard seems to be negotiating this strange new world through every nerve ending. Her despair and her determination meld into a kind of chisel, a tool for carving out a home in a place where she’s not welcome. Ewa may become disillusioned, but she’s never bitter; Cotillard gives a performance that’s as resilient as a length of rough wool and still, somehow, lighter than chiffon.
Philip Seymour Hoffman, A Most Wanted Man (2014)
The role of Lancaster Dodd in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master may be the most lauded late-career performance of Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died in 2014. But he’s even better as the German counterterrorist operative Günther Bachmann in Anton Corbijn’s subtle and underappreciated John le Carré adaptation A Most Wanted Man. Bachmann’s method is to recruit informants and use the intelligence they provide to move higher up the chain of those involved in Islamic terrorism, while protecting innocent people who might get caught in the web of others’ misdeeds. He’s good at what he does, but the movie hints at a perceived failure in his past, one that caused people who trusted him to lose their lives. That’s the burden carried by Bachmann, played by Hoffman as a dissolute, disheveled, crushed soul who still gives his all to his exacting, dangerous work. Hoffman carries all of Bachmann’s pain deep inside; you see it in the way he averts his eyes from the radiance of his trusted right-hand associate, Irna (Nina Hoss), or in the way he cups a glass of whiskey as if it had become part of the flesh of his hand. The Delmore Schwartz poem “The Heavy Bear Who Goes with Me” speaks of the contrast between our corporeal padding and the finer filaments of our souls: “Clumsy and lumbering here and there/ The central ton of every place,/ The hungry beating brutish one/ In love with candy, anger and sleep.” In this performance, Hoffman carries the essence of that poem in every muscle, including his heart.
Timothy Spall, Mr. Turner (2014)
How much can an actor say with a grunt, or a scowl? Timothy Spall answers that question in his astonishing performance as the great 19th-century British painter J.M.W. Turner, in Mike Leigh’s thorny-tender Mr. Turner, which is less your standard-issue biopic than a foray into the mystery of human feeling. Spall’s Turner appears to have little of this in supply for those around him; he takes more pleasure in the colors and textures of a piece of driftwood than he does in any sort of personal interaction. When he’s introduced to his first grandchild, a pink-cheeked babe with powdery, angelic skin, he dismisses her with a moderate snort—only to have another look at her a minute later, during which he betrays how subtly captivated he is. Spall’s Turner is irascible and uncommunicative, seemingly a thundercloud charged with negativity. But the performance gradually reveals that his orneriness is actually an expression of humility in the face of nature and all its glories. Turner rarely painted human figures, preferring the majesty of roaring-orange sunsets and misty, stormy seas. His paintings glow with gratitude and wonder—big feelings that are also delicate ones—and Spall’s performance captures all of it.
Mahershala Ali, Moonlight (2016)
In Barry Jenkins’ lustrous coming-of-age story Moonlight, Mahershala Ali plays Juan, a Miami drug dealer who goes out of his way to help a scrawny little kid who’s being picked on by his classmates. The boy—he actually goes by the name Little, and he’s played by Alex Hibbert—is having trouble at home, too, and Juan somehow picks up on his unspoken crisis mode. Juan may be in a rough line of work, but he has kindness to spare when it counts, and Ali pours a wealth of tenderness into the role. His Juan is open to the world, and open to this kid: He embodies the way light can cut across darkness, in the space of just an instant, when one person stops to listen.
Annette Bening, 20th Century Women (2016)
With 20th Century Women, director Mike Mills draws from his own experience as an adolescent in late-1970s Santa Barbara: Annette Bening’s Dorothea is a middle-aged woman raising a son, Lucas Jade Zumann’s Jamie, on her own, in a ramshackle Victorian house filled with boarders who are treated like family members. Dorothea—born, as we’re told in an explanatory voiceover, in 1924—is something of a 1950s-style bohemian, a woman who wears Birkenstocks with red lipstick, who has always worked outside of the home, who values her independence and who takes every opportunity to enlarge her world by learning from others. But she’s also lonely, and those feelings intensify as Jamie begins drawing away from her, as children need to do. Bening is terrific, getting at the way middle-aged loneliness and contentment can be so intermingled that it’s almost impossible to tell which is which. She walks that line with the skill of a Beatnik ballerina: there’s a gorgeous girlishness about her—her laughter has a teenager-at-the-soda-shoppe buoyancy. But her face is also marked by those little laugh and frown lines that creep up on all of us as we age, a reminder that anxiety, too, is part of living. Bening captures all the complexities of semi-happiness in this performance, acknowledging the inevitable messiness that lies behind that elusive thing we call a life well lived.
Ruth Negga, Loving (2016)
Jeff Nichols’ beautifully crafted Loving tells the story of Richard and Mildred Loving, the interracial couple whose 1958 arrest in Virginia led to the 1967 Supreme Court ruling making interracial marriage legal in all states. Loving is one of those movies that makes history feel real and lived-in. That’s largely thanks to Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, the actors who play the Lovings, but Negga, in particular, is the movie’s stealth powerhouse. Nothing she does is obvious or overt, but you can tell exactly what she’s thinking or feeling just by watching as her face reflects sun or shadow, like a meadow subtly shifting its mood on a half-bright, half-cloudy day. Her eyes reflect fear, anger, frustration, determination and all gradations in between. This is a radiant performance about the triumph of love over hate—and a reminder that we’re still fighting battles we might have thought settled long ago.
Melissa McCarthy, Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)
In Marielle Heller’s smart and wryly affecting movie, set in New York in the early 1980s and based on a true story, Melissa McCarthy plays a down-on-her-luck writer, Lee Israel, who discovers a novel but wholly illegal way to make money: she concocts letters alleged to have been written by famous figures and forges the signatures, selling the convincing phonies to eager dealers around town. The movie would be entertaining enough if it were just your classic flim-flam story. But McCarthy’s performance pushes it into deeper, richer territory, capturing a particular brand of New York loneliness—the no-money, no-lover, drab-apartment kind—but also the exhilaration of finding new ways to use skills that others have deemed worthless (in this case, being a clever writer). McCarthy reveals the vulnerability beneath Israel’s sourness, even as she recognizes that a certain kind of semi-misanthropic skepticism can be just the thing to keep you going: being able to laugh at absurd and terrible things that happen to you is the best route to survival. There’s so much cantankerous joy in McCarthy’s performance. You feel deeply for Israel. You never, ever pity her.