For the love of entertainment
This one is going to get ugly. Like, really ugly. Deciding between the top four Best Actor winners from 2000-2009 is actually painful. There are four actors who genuinely deserve to be top dog here, but only one can snatch the title. Feel free to hate me for my choice if you must, but understand that the separations are hair thin.
Once again, it behooves me to remind you that in selecting the best performance by an actor in this time period, I have decided to only focus on the men who won an Oscar for Best Actor. No snubs may be considered, although I may be comment on them as necessary.
OK, let’s do this. Like ripping off a Band Aid.
This one was actually easy. Yes, The Pianist is a good movie. Yes, Brody did an excellent job getting across the pain and desperation of Wladyslaw Szpilman’s true story of survival against incredible odds as a Polish Jew during World War II. But let’s face some harsh facts here: this was not even the best performance of 2002, let alone the entire decade. Brody won because Daniel Day-Lewis and Jack Nicholson split the vote (for playing, respectively, a vicious gang leader in Gangs of New York and a recently widowed old man in About Schmidt). There, I said it. Sometimes the truth hurts. Love the movie if you will (it’s a great film), but facts are facts.
Should have won in 2002: Like I said, Day-Lewis and Nicholson split the vote. Day-Lewis was all sociopathic bluster in Gangs of New York, but I probably would have honored Nicholson’s uncharacteristically subtle work as a widower in About Schmidt.
Bridges is great as a faded, alcoholic country singer trying to get his career (and his life) back on track despite himself. The movie? Snooze. I have a recent history of having low tolerance for books about white men who can’t get their act together because #FirstWorldProblems, and Crazy Heart falls directly into that camp. To top it off, there’s a wholly unbelievable love story with a much younger woman who falls for the tortured artist because reasons. It’s insulting. But I digress: complaints about the movie aside, Bridges is great. To be fair, it should be noted that the movie only works because Bridges is so good. But at times he seems to be on autopilot, coasting on his natural charisma. Plus, when it comes to a ranking like this, there are just some amazing performances ahead.
Should have won in 2009: I preferred Colin Firth’s work in A Single Man.
Denzel’s turn as dirty cop Alonzo Harris set the screen on fire and watched it burn, but it lacked the transformative ‘oomph’ of other performances in this category. Like Bridges, you could also argue that Washington coasts on his natural charisma in order to bring Harris to life, but unlike Bridges there’s enough fire to make you take notice. Still, Denzel Washington coasting on charisma is a great deal better than a lot of other performances out there. Some may argue that he shouldn’t have won over Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind–and if I’m being honest, Crowe’s performance in that movie would have made it to sixth place in this ranking–but I’m actually OK with the way things turned out. I had a hard time choosing between the two performances back then, and I have the same difficulty today. In the end, the Academy chose Washington, so here we are.
Should have won in 2001: it’s a tough call between Crowe and Washington, but like I said: I’m okay with the way things turned out.
Maximus Decimus Meridius should have been a fairly standard action-drama role, but he became one of the most iconic movie characters of all time. That comes down to Russell Crowe’s bravura performance. Maximus’ bloody quest for revenge would not be the pop cultural landmark it is without Crowe, so credit must go where it is due. Still, at the end of the day it’s mostly an action-oriented role competing in a very difficult field. Crowe gets all the credit in the world for making it work, but the degree of difficulty is much, much lower than that of the other men who won Best Actor in this decade. Had Crowe won for A Beautiful Mind the following year (and please keep in mind that I’m not necessarily saying he should have), he actually would have ranked higher. Still: were you not entertained?
Should have won in 2000: Crowe’s instantly iconic performance carried the year and blew the competition away.
Sean Penn’s career was reinvented by his performance as the head of a gang whose beloved daughter is murdered. Penn’s rebirth from petulant critical darling to respected actor carried him all the way to a second Academy Award later the same decade (more on that later). And while I personally prefer the book Mystic River to the movie, Penn brought an exceptionally difficult character to life. A lesser actor would have either failed to make him sympathetic or made it difficult to believe the character’s propensity for violence. Penn embraced the shades of grey and made them sing. The scene where he storms into the crime scene where detectives have located his daughter’s body is nothing short of heartbreaking. That this gets crowded out of the top six says a lot about the caliber of the performances to come.
Should have won in 2003: many would make a case for Bill Murray’s performance in Lost in Translation. I am not one of those people.
And now, ladies and gentlemen, we draw first blood in this ranking. Whitaker is fantastic as the treacherous dictator Idi Amin. I really mean that: fantastic. But at the end of the day, it’s a supporting role. The movie is much more about James McAvoy’s character, which makes Idi Amin a sideshow that steals the spotlight more than the main event itself. Whitaker gets halted here because he just doesn’t fit the category so well. I can’t in good conscience put him any higher because the remaining actors transformed and carried the brunt of their movies. That’s a much meaner feat in the end.
Should have won in 2006: sentiment was with Peter O’Toole’s last shot at a competitive Oscar for Venus, but Whitaker earned the win. Assuming he’s the lead actor, of course.
For the second decade in a row, you’re going to think I’m nuts for not giving Daniel Day-Lewis the top spot. I know. I know. I’m the worst. His performance as Daniel Plainview, a sociopathic oil man, is towering. Staggering. Near-legendary in pop culture at this point for belatedly inspiring thousands of “I drink your milkshake” memes. So how can I deny him again? Well, on a second viewing, Daniel Plainview’s sociopathic bluster feels less authentic, although it is absolutely spellbinding. Day-Lewis is nothing short of incredible, but at no point do I feel like I’m watching a real person. We never get to see into the deep, dark, black, milkshake-filled heart of Daniel Plainview.
Should have won in 2007: Day-Lewis. Can you imagine the carnage if he had lost?
This hurts. Say what you will about Jamie Foxx–his career post-Oscar hasn’t been so great–but man, did he deserve his Oscar for playing music legend Ray Charles. Not only did he transform himself, he made it look effortless. Throughout award season, he slipped in and out of character at award shows. He could just turn it on and off like it was nothing. Hell, he even managed to look just like Ray Charles. Ray is the music biopic at its best, and Jamie Foxx as Ray is acting at its best. The fact that I’m putting such an incredible performance in third place (third place!!) is nothing short of astonishing. It seems criminal.
Should have won in 2004: Jamie Foxx carried the day.
I fully admit that Sean Penn making it this far for Milk is something of a sentimental choice on my part. So sue me, this is my list. I’m the decider! And there are those who will sniff and say that Mickey Rourke should have won for The Wrestler in 2008. I say shut your mouth. Penn always deserved to win over Rourke. Penn executed a perfect landing in a role with a significantly higher degree of difficulty. Mickey Rourke was basically just being Mickey Rourke.
Penn utterly disappeared behind the tics and mannerisms of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official, without for a moment devolving into caricature. Silly confession: I occasionally rewatch the trailer for this movie on YouTube and his performance gives me the chills every single time. It’s an astonishing achievement. Full stop.
Should have won in 2008: Penn all the way.
Like Jamie Foxx and Sean Penn, Hoffman completely transformed himself to play Truman Capote. Oddly enough, he still looks like Philip Seymour Hoffman, but then I guess so did Truman Capote in the end. It’s the mannerisms that were truly astonishingly captured here. The high-pitched, nasal voice. The fact that Hoffman captured all these things without turning them into a caricature. It would be so easy to go over-the-top with Capote. Hoffman had the immense talent to capture a larger than life man with nuance and subtlety. Capote is made better for that–because Hoffman gets to the heart of the fear and the insecurities that drove Capote to use that very persona as a shield. He showed you how this theatrical, larger-than-life man used his ‘in your face’ persona to mask deep pain and insecurity.
Should have won in 2005: 2005 was an incredibly tough year. There were two worthy performances that year: Hoffman’s and Heath Ledger’s in Brokeback Mountain. I always want to go with Ledger, but if I’m being honest Ledger would not have made it to the top of this ranking. That probably clarifies once and for all that Hoffman deserved it.