To me, Best Actor has never been as exciting a category as, say, Best Picture or Best Actress, but this decade has some compelling entries to judge. It also has some problematic personas, but I can’t factor in whether or not I like an actor or what his career trajectory has been. As such, while I will comment on whether or not a win is deserved, whether or not I feel it was earned cannot in and of itself impact that actor’s position in the ranks. It’s all about the performance, baby.
In terms of commonalities between the performances that made this list, there’s a lot of scenery-chewing. I’ll talk about this more as we discuss the individual performances, but there’s generally a belief that the person who does the most acting deserves to win the most, and perhaps the Best Actor category is where this feels the truest. And as we shall see, that isn’t always actually a bad thing.
Finally, just a quick note that to me, this is a fluid list that I will update and change as I see fit over time.
10. Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
Malek is genuinely good as Freddie Mercury in what is otherwise a remarkably execrable film. He’s the film’s main attraction, and embodying such an outsized persona as Mercury is no small achievement. But I would contend that Malek isn’t doing as much of the heavy lifting as it might initially seem. His performance is really just a skilled impersonation. And since the movie isn’t actually all that interested in exploring Mercury’s psyche, Malek never has to go very deep. He basically just has to cosplay his way through a Behind the Music-esque biopic that plays so fast and loose with the facts of Mercury’s life that it actually becomes homophobic. And no, he doesn’t get points for helping get director Bryan Singer fired from the movie.
Should have won in 2018: If the Oscars had an honorary award for Thirstiest Candidate of the year, Malek would have won it hands down (previous winners would be Eddie Redmayne, Emma Stone, Anne Hathaway, and Melissa Leo). He made himself inevitable by campaigning the shit out of Hollywood. On the other end of the spectrum we have Bradley Cooper, who decided not to campaign at all until it was too late–partially because he was really hoping to get a Best Director Oscar for A Star is Born. It’s a shame because Cooper really deserved this win.
9. Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant (2015)
Leonardo DiCaprio winning an Oscar for The Revenant was a total inevitability as campaigns began to heat up. “Can you believe he’s never won before?” “He literally suffered for this movie.” That was the conversation Leo built up heading into award season, and in no time at all he was the biggest can’t-miss of the year. That he had been a serious contender several times before only hastened the urgency to “finally” reward him. As for the role itself, all it really asks him to do is suffer and be angry, which he does with great intensity. His win is a result of careful campaigning after years of putting in due diligence. His work in The Revenant is strictly fine. It’s like Kate Winslet finally winning an Oscar for The Reader even though it wouldn’t even factor into her own top five best performances in her career.
Should have won in 2015: Performances that carry big-budget blockbusters don’t carry much weight with awards bodies, but it’s an overlooked skill that Matt Damon deploys to great success in The Martian. He was consistently nominated against Leo in 2015 but always lost. It should have been the other way around.
8. Joaquin Phoenix, Joker (2019)
Call me a hater if you must, but I found everything about Joker to be deplorable–and while I think a lot of careful thought went into Joaquin Phoenix’s performance, it also feels like he’s not acting so much as deploying a series of tics and bizarro performance pieces. It often feels as though when it comes to winning awards, the performance that puts in the most acting wins, regardless of overall quality. That was the case with Leo and it is also the case with Joaquin. Like Leo, Joaquin already had several nominations to his name (for Gladiator, Walk the Line, and The Master), which helped make his case.
Should have won in 2019: It’s difficult for foreign-language performances to gain momentum, which is why Antonio Banderas had to settle for a nomination for Pain and Glory. There’s also the fact that his performance is a lot more quiet and subtle than Joaquin Phoenix’s. Banderas should have won.
7. Jean Dujardin, The Artist (2011)
A lot of people will probably roll their eyes that I’m ranking this performance as high as this, but I happen to like Jean Dujardin in The Artist. It’s hard to imagine The Artist working without his winning turn as a silent movie star who sees his fame dim with the arrival of talking pictures. Dujardin is effortlessly charming, managing the mean feat of displaying all the tricks silent film actors employed to embellish their emotions while keeping his performance grounded for modern audiences. Another actor could pull off the role, but the film would lose its emotional resonance without Dujardin’s (literally) winning performabce at its center. He may not be the best of the decade, but if they gave an Academy Award for charm he’d be head of the class, hands down.
Should have won in 2011: It wasn’t a solid year for Actors but Dujardin deserved it anyway.
6. Colin Firth, The King’s Speech (2010)
Colin Firth is genuinely good as King George VI, the uncertain monarch who had the crown thrust at him after his elder brother abdicated just in time for World War II. In trying times, George must find the strength to give his nation the courage it needs. A stutterer utterly lacking in confidence, George hired a speech therapist to help him correct the issue (and find his own resolve). I may have some harsh words for the movie itself, but Firth is the real deal. He gives a rounded, deep performance that makes you believe he’s a man desperately trying to do right by his family and his country.
Should have won in 2010: One could argue that Firth won in 2010 because he lost to Jeff Bridges the year before. One wouldn’t necessarily be wrong to point that out, but I feel confident Firth’s performance would have ended up on top anyway. He deserved to win.
5. Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour (2017)
Darkest Hour is a prestige pic all the way, but Gary Oldman subverts a lot of the tropes that go with it by celebrating Churchill’s flaws just as much as his strengths. There’s a mischievous twinkle in Oldman’s eyes that made a lot of his scenes for me. The movie constantly supplies him with big moments and he knocks each of them out of the park. Yes, it’s another case of the most acting winning, but Oldman manages to put in enough subtle work to make it worth your while. And really, Churchill wasn’t exactly a wilting flower, so any performance as him would feel off without at least a little capital-A Acting.
Should have won in 2017: My heart demands I vote for Timothée Chalamet and his gorgeously understated performance in Call Me By Your Name over Oldman’s much showier role.
4. Casey Affleck, Manchester By the Sea (2016)
Casey Affleck projects an entitled Boston-frat-boy persona that turns me off. Luckily for Casey, Manchester By the Sea plays right into his wheelhouse. His character, Lee, was a ne’er-do-well Boston frat boy until tragedy left him a shell of his former self. Now his grief has consumed him and odds are he’ll never get better. Casey rises to the challenge with an understated performance that’s more about the negative spaces than anything else. Lee is so bottled up and unable to deal with his emotions that we don’t get a big breakdown scene typical of an Oscar performance. He never explains how he feels, but you know anyway. Casey deserves a lot of credit for that. He seems to instinctively know how to inhabit the grey areas to bring Lee’s grief to life.
Should have won in 2016: I struggle with this one because Denzel Washington was magnificent in Fences–going large in all the areas Affleck is lowkey. It’s tempting to say Washington is better because he’s showier, but even though I find Affleck the actor problematic, I think I’d give it to him.
3. Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln (2012)
Lincoln takes the character of Abraham Lincoln and bathes him in the sweet glow of sainthood. Unfortunately, that stifles Daniel Day-Lewis’ opportunities to really do anything with the role. Yes, he does a miraculous transformation (which is why he stays so high on the list). Yes, he definitely deserved to win. But it says a lot when such a great performance feels relatively colorless against his competition. Day-Lewis’ mastery of the material is the only reason the performance ranks so high. It’s a technically flawless performance that didn’t inspire much of an emotional response in me. That isn’t to suggest that emotional resonance is the only criteria to rate a performance by any means, so I’ll just take this opportunity to remind everyone that this list merely represents my own opinion on the subject and is not meant to be a definitive take.
Should have won in 2012: Day-Lewis deserved it. Like I said: this performance is a master class in technique.
No one is more surprised than me that Matthew McConaughey won an Oscar. What’s even more surprising? Dude really deserved it. As Ron Woodroof, a hard-living Texan who finds out he’s been diagnosed with AIDS in 1985, McConaughey does exactly what was lacking in Day-Lewis’ performance: he burns. As Woodroof goes on a quest to get medication that will keep him alive, McConaughey makes us feel the desperation, the intensity of this man’s will to live. He even makes us like Ron Woodroof without ever letting us forget that Woodroof is something of an asshole. The movie has been (rightly) accused of whitewashing details of Ron Woodroof’s life. But those are issues with the movie itself when it all comes down to it. McConaughey’s performance still crackles. Of all the performances on this list, McConaughey’s is the one that made me feel the most.
Should have won in 2013: McConaughey deserved it.
1. Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything (2014)
Not since Daniel Day-Lewis brought Christy Brown to life in My Left Foot has such a layered, deep, and thoughtful performance been given to a brilliant but afflicted man. In this case, it’s Stephen Hawking–a fearsomely intelligent physicist on the verge of revolutionizing science when he is afflicted with a debilitating motor neuron disease. Redmayne does an incredible job capturing Hawking’s deterioration over time. By the end of the movie, you could almost forget that the actor is physically capable of walking and talking. No small feat, but even better: Redmayne fully captures Stephen Hawking. His intelligence. His resolve. His sadness. His sharp-edged playful side. His problematic areas. It’s all right there, brilliantly executed.
Should have won in 2014: Can you believe Redmayne almost lost? Michael Keaton nearly ran away with Eddie Redmayne’s Oscar. In my Oscar pool, only 8 out of 20 chose Redmayne over Keaton. That’s how easily Michael Keaton could have stolen a spot on this list. Thankfully, the Academy chose wisely.
Now just for fun, let’s see what the ranking would look like if the people who should have won made the list:
10. Matt Damon, The Martian (2015)
9. Jean Dujardin, The Artist (2011)
8. Colin Firth, The King’s Speech (2010)
7. Antonio Banderas, Pain and Glory (2019)
6. Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea (2016)
5. Bradley Cooper, A Star is Born (2018)
4. Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln (2012)
3. Timothée Chalamet, Call Me By Your Name (2017)
2. Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
1. Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything (2014)