10 – John C Reilly as Jim Kurring in Magnolia (1999)
At the centre of Paul Thomas Anderson's sprawling LA epic is John C Reilly, who gives the film its heart. Jim Kurring is a dedicated and honest cop looking for love, who finds himself drawn to Melora Walters' nervous, damaged junkie (Walters also gives a wonderful performance). In a bombastic film, Reilly gives an understated display as one of life's genuine nice guys, who just wants to do the best he can and wants to see the goodness in everyone he meets. When he and Claudia go out on their first date, every viewer will be desperate to see these two lonely souls make a connection.
9 - Dylan Baker as Bill Maplewood in Happiness (1998)
In Happiness, Dylan Baker plays Bill Maplewood as an ordinary family man, who lives with his seemingly perfect family in suburbia, but underneath this façade, Bill is a paedophile. He buys teenage boys' magazines to masturbate to in his car, and he invites his son's friends around so he can drug and molest them while they sleep. Todd Solondz finds a bleak humour in this sequence, as Bill desperately tries to get his target to swallow the drugged snack he has created, but most of the time, watching Baker's composed, unsettling portrayal is a deeply uncomfortable experience, and never more so than when he has a heart-to-heart with his son.
8 - Ray Winstone as Ray in Nil by Mouth (1997)
In the mid-1990's, Ray Winstone played three abusive characters: Simon in Ken Loach's Ladybird, Ladybird, the father in Tim Roth's The War Zone, and this performance as Ray in Gary Oldman's Nil by Mouth. It's an astonishing piece of acting, with Winstone giving a frightening portrayal of a man driven by rage, jealousy and alcohol. He flips back and forth between foul-mouthed, violent tirades and tearful remorse when he realises what he has done, and Winstone is utterly compelling at every turn.
7 - Anthony Hopkins as Richard Nixon in Nixon (1995)
Anthony Hopkins might not look exactly like Richard Nixon, but it's more important that an actor captures the spirit of the man he's playing, which is exactly what Hopkins does brilliantly in Oliver Stone's monumental biopic. Hunched and sweating, Hopkins doesn't just mimic his subject, he creates a rich portrait of a complex, driven, haunted character. Whether he's flying off on an unhinged rant ("I'm the President. The president can bomb anyone he likes") or sitting alone in Oval office, contemplating his actions, Hopkins has never been more compulsively watchable than he is here, and he gives a performance worthy of the tone of Shakespearean tragedy that Stone is going for.
6 - Jim Broadbent as WS Gilbert in Topsy-Turvy (1999)
As one half of musical duo Gilbert and Sullivan, Jim Broadbent is a pompous and harrumphing presence, and it's little wonder that his partner (Alan Corduner) wants to end their relationship. Broadbent's performance has many layers, however, and in the course of Mike Leigh's masterpiece, we see both his brilliance and his foolishness, his arrogance and his sadness. It's a finely detailed portrayal of Gilbert that's both hilarious and very endearing.
5 - David Thewlis as Johnny in Naked (1993)
The second performance from a Mike Leigh film to make this list, but while Jim Broadbent in Topsy-Turvy is just the pick of a great ensemble, Naked is essentially a one-man show. David Thewlis plays Johnny, who arrives in London after fleeing Manchester under a dark cloud and stirs up the lives of everyone he meets with his cruel tongue, sharp intelligence and destructive nature. The whole film is driven by Johnny's personality, and Thewlis' performance in this role is a tour de force; he manages to be charming and funny at times while being horribly crude and misogynistic at others. The actor never puts a foot wrong, and while I have problems with Naked as a film, its central performance is truly something to behold.
4 - Ian Holm as Mitchell Stevens in The Sweet Hereafter (1997)
There's a danger that the greatness of Ian Holm's performance in The Sweet Hereafter might be overlooked because it is a work of such subtlety. You need to watch for tiny gestures and looks that the actor loads with meaning. He plays a conniving lawyer determined to exploit a small town tragedy for a lucrative case, but Holm is at his most affecting when the film focuses on his relationship with his absent daughter. Mitchell Stevens is guarded, and emotionally closed-off, but Holm lets us know that he is suffering terrible emotional pain under the surface.
3 - Edward Norton as Derek Vinyard in American History X (1998)
In American History X, Edward Norton plays a Neo-Nazi who is eloquent, intelligent and charismatic, which is what makes him all the more dangerous. In Tony Kaye's flawed film, Norton gives a stunning performance in both the flashback scenes that show the shaven-headed Vinyard leading his gang of racist thugs, and the modern-day sequences, wherein a reformed Vinyard attempts to turn his life around and stop his younger brother from making the same mistakes he made. Norton's physical transformation is impressive, but it's the emotional and philosophical transformation his character undergoes that really lingers.
2 - Harvey Keitel as The Lieutenant in Bad Lieutenant (1992)
This is an actor plunging towards the depths. In Bad Lieutenant, the nameless protagonist steals, kills, gambles, takes drugs, pulls over two girls and masturbates next to their car – and then he is handed a shot at redemption, when he investigates the rape of a nun. Abel Ferrara's study of a man awash in moral corruption and guilt consistently pushes its lead character deeper into depravity, and Keitel never flinches as he charts The Lieutenant's downward spiral. An astonishing, no-holds-barred piece of acting, with perhaps the most vivid moment occurring late on, where The Lieutenant, in the presence of God, finally repents.
1 - John Goodman as Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski (1998)
This choice may surprise many. After all, it's a comic role and not the kind of performance that normally wins accolades, and within The Big Lebowski itself, Jeff Bridges' iconic Dude is more celebrated. However, I absolutely love Walter Sobchak, and I think John Goodman's performance as him is by far the most impressive and endlessly entertaining display offered by an actor in this decade. Walter is a well-meaning idiot who is filled with rage against the perceived injustices of the world; a Vietnam veteran who ties everything back to that conflict; a man who thinks he's the smartest guy in the room, who thinks he has all the answers, but doesn't really have a clue. Goodman gets every detail right, from the way his character looks, to his mannerisms and the specific way he delivers the Coens' priceless dialogue. Walter is the Coen brothers' greatest creation, and in Goodman we have the decade's greatest screen performance.