The finest male performances of the decade are listed below, but first I must begin with a word for the great performances that just failed to make the cut. These include the following: Bruno Ganz (Downfall); Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Mysterious Skin); Billy Bob Thornton (The Man Who wasn't There); Paul Giamatti (American Splendour); Tony Leung (In the Mood for Love); Choi Min-sik (OldBoy); Leonardo DiCaprio (The Aviator); Adrien Brody (The Pianist); Aurélien Recoing (Time Out); Jack Nicholson (The Pledge). That group of actors delivered a series of amazing performances, and the variety displayed among them is exceptional. It was hard for me to leave them off the list, but I eventually settled on the following ten as the best this decade had to offer.
10 – Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in Milk (2008)
Sean Penn doesn't hide behind any prosthetics as Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant's superb biopic, and yet he is almost unrecognisable in the role – maybe it's the smile that does it. He certainly didn't smile much in many of this decade's other acclaimed performances, like the dour Mystic River and 21 Grams, but in this fresh, funny and touching turn, it's almost like watching a different actor. He fully inhabits the charmingly offbeat persona of Harvey Milk, capturing his wit and kindness as well as his growing determination to lead the fight against the discrimination of homosexuals. It's a complex role, but Penn pulls off the challenges it presents with effortless ease, and his inspiring display presents us with a figure as memorable, endearing and human as any he has ever portrayed.
9 – Eric Bana as Mark 'Chopper' Read in Chopper (2000)
It's hard to believe that the Eric Bana who gave such an electrifyingly funny turn in Chopper is the same Eric Bana who later became such a bland presence in so many mainstream Hollywood productions. Still, I suppose there's enough energy and conviction in this role to last a whole career. Bana had been working as a comedian before taking on this role, and his whole performance is blessed with perfect comic timing and a deadpan delivery. He plays the notorious criminal Mark 'Chopper' Read as a regular, down-to-earth Aussie ("I'm just a normal bloke who enjoys a bit of torture"), but with a simmering sense of menace, that can explode at any time, at the slightest provocation. He can be oddly charming, even while he is doing terrible things, but we never get a sense that Bana is playing for audience sympathy; he simply presents the many strange, conflicting sides of this unusual character, and allows us to draw whatever conclusion we want from them.
8 – Tom Hanks as Chuck Noland in Cast Away (2000)
In what looks like the last film Robert Zemeckis will ever make with real human beings at its core, Tom Hanks gives a performance that holds the entire movie together. As a man stranded on an island in the middle of a vast ocean, Hanks delivers one of the most compelling performances of his career, his innate likability making it easy to spend 90 minutes in his company alone, and his magnificent talent turning Chuck's slow learning process into great drama. The role required a great physical transformation from Hanks – the chunky character we meet at the start is a far cry from the bearded and skinny man he becomes – but it is the psychological transformation that his performance really hinges on, and he nails it. Cast Away is a slightly flabby film that grows increasingly unsure of itself when it's on American soil, but when Zemeckis lets Hanks and a volleyball take centre stage, it is utterly riveting.
7 – Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho (2000)
"I have all of the characteristics of a human being, but not a single, clear, identifiable emotion. I simply am not there". So says Patrick Bateman in Mary Harron's darkly comic adaptation of the infamous Bret Easton Ellis novel, and the fact that you believe every word is testament to Christian Bale's brilliant performance. He brings a preening arrogance to the public face of Bateman – an empty shell who's all surface – and he imbues the homicidal maniac the character becomes at night with a chilling, manic edge. Bale plays the ambiguity of the role well, suggesting that his murderous escapades are little more than the fantasies of a sick mind, but as disturbing as this performance is, it's also brilliantly funny. In American Psycho, Bale shows an ability to cut loose hilariously that has rarely been put to use in his subsequent features, and his whole performance can be encapsulated by one classic sequence: pontificating on Huey Lewis and the News one minute, and plunging an axe into his victim the next.
6 – Nicolas Cage as Charlie Kaufman/Donald Kaufman in Adaptation (2002)
With a double performance to rank alongside Jeremy Irons' turn in Dead Ringers, this was the last chance we had to savour Nicolas Cage's serious acting ability before he took his career down some insane avenues. In Adaptation, Cage plays both a version of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and his fictional brother Donald, and he manages to make them both into memorable, distinctive characters. As Charlie, Cage is neurotic, depressed and filled with self-loathing, and as his attempts to adapt Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief drive him to the edge of madness, he is forced to turn to the goofy and free-spirited Donald, himself an aspiring writer, although with much broader and more commercial tastes. There is no outward physical difference between the brothers, and so Cage differentiates between them solely with subtle changes in his attitude and demeanour, and he also manages to bring a rare and wonderful sensitivity to the relationship between the pair. It the most soulful acting he has ever done, twice over.
5 – Olivier Gourmet as Olivier in The Son (2002)
Our first sight of Olivier Gourmet in The Son reveals little of note. He is quiet, balding, he wears thick glasses, and he goes about his business with the minimum of fuss. By the end of the film – as is the case with every Dardenne brothers picture – our relationship with this man has developed to the point where we are on the edge of our seats, anxiously anticipating his every decision. We stare into Gourmet's impassive face searching for a slight clue as to what he's thinking, and every twitch or gesture he makes speaks volumes. This is a marvellous piece of screen acting from Gourmet, who withholds so much, drawing us ever closer into his experience. He allows us to see the world through his eyes and he can transmit such complex emotions while seeming to do nothing at all; it is a masterpiece of natural, minimalist acting – less acting than simply being.
4 – Heath Ledger as Ennis Del Mar in Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Heath Ledger's performance in Brokeback Mountain is one of the most moving studies of the pain caused by a love that cannot be as you are likely to see on screen. The feelings he develops for Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) leave Ennis Del Mar wracked with tumultuous, confusing emotions, which he tries to internalise as best he can, tensing his body and only occasionally allowing some mumbled dialogue to escape from the side of his tight mouth. This is such an affecting piece of acting from Ledger; he makes Del Mar so wilfully distant and hard to read at the start of the film, and then gradually allows us in slightly as his relationship with Twist develops. When he finally allows all of the emotions he has bottled up to spring forth, and we finally see his tears fall, it is a shattering moment. Of course, the film has been given an added dimension of sadness now following Ledger's untimely passing last year, when we realise the character he is playing has grown older than Ledger ever would, but this film is a fitting legacy.
3 – Ben Kingsley as Don Logan in Sexy Beast (2000)
There was a time when Ghandi was the character most people thought of when the name of Ben Kingsley was mentioned. Now, we immediately think of Don Logan, the blistering force of nature that the actor embodied in Sexy Beast, and a character that couldn't possibly be more different to the man who preached non-violent protest. As Don, every muscle in Kingsley's body seems primed for violence, even when he is sitting silently in a chair he seems to radiate menace, keeping everyone around him, and the audience, in a constant state of unease. It is a ferocious performance, and Kingsley relishes every vile and hilarious sentence that screenwriters Louis Mellis and David Scinto put into his mouth, firing insults at anyone who gets in his way ("Like a crocodile, fat crocodile, fat bastard. You look like fucking Idi Amin, you know what I mean?"). Sometimes, he will simply resort to shouting the word "yes" or "no" over and over again, and while it sounds ridiculous on paper – like a child throwing a tantrum – Kingsley makes it terrifying.
2 – Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood (2007)
From the wordless opening twenty minutes to the unhinged finale, Daniel Day-Lewis' performance as the misanthropic oil baron Daniel Plainview grabs the viewer by the throat and refuses to let go, shaking you to the core with the sheer forcefulness and rage of the man. It is a stylised, almost theatrical piece of acting, but the actor finds subtlety in the characterisation too, through Daniel's relationship with his adopted son. Consider the lovely moment between Plainview and the infant HW on a train, or the extraordinary baptism scene, when Plainview chokes up as he screams, "I've abandoned my boy!" He allows us to see moments of humanity in the monster, and that's why we continue to be fascinated by Plainview even as his behaviour grows increasingly bizarre. The final scenes skirt the edges of ridiculousness, with Plainview roaring about milkshakes and drainage, but Day-Lewis ensures it remains engrossing and utterly unpredictable right up to the final act of violence, which finally ends his story. This is an astonishing portrait of greed and hatred, of the need to dominate and destroy all competitors, and of the utter ruthlessness that eventually leaves a man completely alone.
1 – Casey Affleck as Robert Ford in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
At the start of Andrew Dominik's magnificent film, Robert Ford gazes at Jesse James with nothing less than awe. He wants to be part of his gang, he wants Jesse to know him, to like him, and he hangs around the legendary outlaw at every opportunity, just hoping for some kind of recognition. By the end of the film, Ford will have gunned down his idol in cold blood. Casey Affleck's incredible performance shows us how Ford's adoration gradually developed into resentment. He does so much of his acting with his slightly heavy-lidded eyes, which are alive with an eagerness to please and subsequently awash with hurt when he is mocked or rebuffed by his hero, and the quivering tenor to his voice is a constant reminder of his youth and naïveté. There's a real pathos about Robert Ford 's story, and as creepy a figure as Ford can be, we ultimately empathise with him, and his increasing sense of disillusionment as his life plays out in an unexpected and bewildering way. The film is full of beautifully acted sequences from Affleck, but I think my favourite moments occur towards the end of the film, when an older, wiser and sadder Ford is reflecting on his actions. "You know what I expected? Applause" he says with a rueful smile, but there was no applause for Robert Ford, and he was left with nothing but a deep sense of regret at the murder that defined his life, a regret we can still see in his eyes in the film's haunting final shot.