Top 10 Greatest Acting Performances in Film History

Acting Performances

The noble art of acting was always built on a platform of theatricality. What the audiences and critics like is a little more substance to the confines of a good execution. The most intense acting performances leave a mark, and it’s always the performances that cut just within the limits of overacting that linger the longest. In no particular order, here are 10 of the best acting performances of all time captured on film.

10 of the Best Acting Performances Captured on Film

Al Pacino as Tony Montana in Scarface

Al Pacino

There’s no doubt that Al Pacino’s Tony Montana is an animal, yet the true power of his performance lies in the fact that he’s still able to find some glimmer of empathy in his creation. Sure, he’s a wild, attractive figure defined by excesses of personality and behavior. But there’s a wounded humanity about him that makes him perversely likable.

Meryl Streep as Sophie Zawistowski in Sophie’s Choice

Meryl Streep

They say Sophie’s Choice is worth watching simply for the pleasure of watching Meryl Streep act. The second of her three Academy Award wins, the film gave Streep a curious job: she must not be too fragile as it would give away what exactly her “choice” was, nor must she be embittered with unnatural strength as the balancing act of emotions would then feel unequal. Her imitation of distinct Polish intonations hide the character’s vulnerability, which Streep expertly reveals bit by bit and piece by piece, carefully unraveling her character. It’s almost with surgical precision that Streep even seems to elevate such a character that could so easily be written off as “strong woman survivor” by actresses of lesser quality.

Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance in The Shining

Jack Nicholson

The character Jack’s descent into madness from a seemingly normal starting point is one of the most compelling character arcs of all time. It is a complete transformation that impacts everything about him, from the way he moves to the way he speaks, and the success of it all comes down to Nicholson’s delivery. 

Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight Rises

Heath Ledger

When hunky twenty-year-old heartthrob Heath Ledger first came to the attention in 1999, it was easy to label him as a pretty boy and an actor of little depth. So despite his casting being sneered at widely, he changed perceptions of what actors could do in superhero movies. Captivating, animated, and terrifying in equal measure, Heath Ledger immersed himself completely in the role so that you wouldn’t guess it was him. In this film, you’ll be cheering for the villain.

Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos in Monster

Charlize Theron

Not only is Charlize Theron’s performance as Aileen Wuornos intense, it’s also one of the most convincingly transformative of all time. And that’s not merely a comment on a beautiful former model making herself ugly. Wuornos’s mannerisms and tics make Theron completely unrecognizable. She channels that same irresistibly morbid fascination that the real-life Wuornos managed in her infamous documentary with Nick Broomfield. She herself is compelling, without the film even having to glamourize her.

Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs

Anthony Hopkins

While the Lecter sequel and prequels somewhat detracted viewers from the impact of the character, the first appearance by Anthony Hopkins was a stunning moment in the history of thriller cinema. Well-mannered, polite, and genial, he’s a terrifying cannibal behind a veil of charm. Upon reading the script, Hopkins imagined that Lecter would be made up of three people: a combination of Katharine Hepburn, Truman Capote, and HAL from 2001: Space Odyssey. Hopkins said that in order to make Hannibal a memorable character, he had to “trick” the audience. “Play the opposite,” Hopkins stated. “Don’t play a monster. Just play someone who is, ‘Good morning. You’re not real FBI are you, Clarice?’”

Daniel Day-Lewis as Bill “the Butcher” Cutting in Gangs of New York

Daniel Day-Lewis

Daniel Day-Lewis remains easy to overlook despite his several nominations and awards since he is notoriously work-shy. He is one of the most selective actors in the film industry, having only been involved in 6 movies since the turn of the 21st century. But Day-Lewis’s performance as Bill the Butcher provides the menacing core of director Scorsese’s ambitious history of New York. He gives a particularly distinguished demonstration of coiled fury. Bill the Butcher, based on the life of Bill Poole, is a mid-19th-century meat cutter, fighter, and notorious gang leader from Lower Manhattan’s violent Five Points district. 

Uma Thurman as the Bride / Beatrix Kiddo in Kill Bill

Uma Thurman

Uma Thurman perfectly portrayed Beatrix as a fully-fleshed out, three-dimensional human being, and not just a straw character who can yield a sword. She is a hardened assassin, but that hasn’t stopped her from being considerate toward children. She is just as capable of slicing a woman’s brain open as she is of being maternal toward her own daughter. This slays the stereotype that mothers are only capable of nurturing. A woman can be a warrior, as well as a mother.

Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather

Marlon Brando

Critics and audiences consider Marlon Brando to be one of the greatest actors of all time, and Don Vito Corleone proved to be one of his greatest acting performances—maybe the greatest. It earned him a Best Actor Oscar, in any case. Director Francis Ford Coppola said that once he convinced Brando that the film wouldn’t glorify the mafia, Brando started transforming into Vito Corleone right before his eyes, popping cotton balls in his mouth and adapting the famous voice he used for the don. But even though he’s a criminal, Vito is more complicated than he appears. He justifies what he does and doesn’t seem to regret it, but at the same time, he recognizes that it’s not the best. Brando’s meticulousness in working out the details of his characterization produced precisely what Coppola counted on—that here was a “man of respect,” a man who inspired awe in others.

Bette Davis as Margo Channing in All About Eve

Bette Davis

Some acting performances have become so iconic that you cannot imagine anyone else occupying the roles. When, by 1950, Davis’s popularity had waned in Hollywood, snagging the persona of Margo only showed that she was so perfect for the character, it was almost autobiographical. Davis’s Margo Channing marks a victory: the triumph of personality and will over the superficial power of beauty. From among Bette Davis’s previous award-winning acting performances, this one radically redefined the conventional view of the sacredness theater. Portraying a threatened aging grand diva from Broadway, Davis got the best lines, a role that brought her Best Actress awards and nominations and resuscitated her career.

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