For the love of entertainment
Unlike the Best Picture race of the 2010’s, there’s actually some competition here. That will be a common theme in the Best Actor rankings, so get used to some serious horse races. Unfortunately, the same can’t always be said of the Best Actress race, but this is not exactly the forum to discuss gender inequality in Hollywood.
Once again, in determining the best of the best I have decided to limit the field to the men who actually won an Academy Award for Best Actor. I would go insane if I tried to weigh all the nominees and performances that were snubbed.
I happen to like Jean Dujardin in The Artist, but there’s no denying the performance is out of its depth with the other contenders. In a less competitive category Dujardin would stand a better chance, but as it is… well, here we are.
Which is not to take away from Dujardin’s performance or his deserved Best Actor win. It’s hard to imagine The Artist working as a movie without his winning turn as George Valentin, a silent movie star who sees his fame dim with the arrival of talking pictures, even as his love interest’s star begins to eclipse his own. Dujardin is effortlessly charming, displaying a fine comedic flair as well as hitting all the dramatic notes he needed. He manages the mean feat of displaying all the tricks silent film actors employed to embellish their emotions while keeping his performance grounded for modern audiences. In the end, Dujardin loses out simply because his role lacks the emotional heft and resonance of his competitors. But if they gave an Academy Award for charm, he’d be head of the class, hands down.
Should have won in 2011: Many made cases for George Clooney in The Descendants or Brad Pitt in Moneyball, but to me the only real threat to Dujardin was Gary Oldman in Tinker, Tailer, Soldier, Spy–and he was never going to win. Dujardin deserved it anyway.
By December of 2015 three out of the four acting categories were totally up in the air. The one lock? Leonardo DiCaprio. He had made himself a total inevitability. “Can you believe he’s never won before? He’s such a committed actor–he turned down Spiderman because he’s such a serious actor that he won’t do franchises. He’s never even done a sequel! It’s not about money to him, it’s about quality moviemaking.” “The conditions he endured making The Revenant! It was so cold and he was dirty and in pain! He literally suffered for this movie.” That was the conversation Leo built up around himself heading into award season, and in no time at all it made him 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 with an Oscar. And Leo knows how to work the award circuit. Once he turned on the charm there was no resisting him. He cleverly protects his image by doing all his bad-boy partying in private–without inviting the paparazzi along. As for the role itself, all it really asks him to do is suffer and be angry. He does it with great intensity, but there isn’t actually any range to display here. Just pain and rage.
Should have won in 2015: If we’re being real, Eddie Redmayne deserved to have a second consecutive Best Actor win for playing a transgender pioneer in The Danish Girl.
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 Colin Firth was granted front-runner status in 2010 because he lost the Best Actor race to Jeff Bridges the year before, when Firth also turned in a sterling performance in A Single Man. One wouldn’t necessarily be wrong to point that out, but I feel confident that Firth’s performance would have ended up on top anyway. He deserved to win here.
I’m not a Casey Affleck fan. He projects an entitled Boston-frat-boy persona that turns me off. That persona carries into his performances. Lucky for Casey, Manchester By the Sea plays right into his wheelhouse. Lee Chandler used to be Casey: a ne’er-do-well Boston frat boy type. Until tragedy left him a shell of his former self, that is. Now Lee is determined to stay in the shadows. Grief has consumed him and odds are he’ll never get better. Casey rises to the challenge pretty well. It’s 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 gets a lot of credit for that. Flashbacks to Lee’s earlier life aren’t exactly departures for Casey, but he seems to instinctively know how to inhabit the grey areas to bring Lee’s grief to life.
Should have won in 2016: Casey lost his frontrunner status as award season went on. Part of this is because troubling allegations of sexual harassment from 2010 resurfaced, another part is because Manchester lost ground to movies that were released later. In particular, Denzel Washington’s performance in Fences got a lot of notice in December and ended up claiming the SAG Award in Casey’s place. But the momentum came late (plus it’s hard to win 3 Oscars), so Casey made a comeback in the end. I’ve already said I’m focusing on performances and winners only, so I can’t factor in alleged misbehavior or a dislike of a contender. You may think I’m biased when I say that based on merit I still would have gone for Denzel (he’d have ended up with the same ranking), but I really do think he was better. Casey just did grief, although he did it really well. Denzel did grief, rage, pride, joy, and a host of other emotions. It’s not my personal opinion–it’s that Denzel really was better.
You think I’m crazy, don’t you? I know. I feel crazy for putting a Daniel Day-Lewis performance anywhere but first place. But here’s the thing: Lincoln takes the character of Abraham Lincoln and bathes him in the sweet glow of sainthood. The character, as written, is preachy, sanctimonious, and consequently one-note. That isn’t Daniel Day-Lewis’ fault necessarily, but it hurts the ranking for sure because it stifles his 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 a great performance feels relatively colorless against his competition. You remember my complaints about The King’s Speech in the Best Picture ranking? The same applies here, with more forgiveness for the end result of course. Day-Lewis’ mastery of the material is the only reason the performance ranks so high. But fear not, Day-Lewis fans: he has not one, but two more decades to try for the top dog spot. And he has a really good shot at both of those.
Should have won in 2012: Day-Lewis deserved it. But his inevitability made the race the most boring of the night.
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 find medication that will keep him alive, McConaughey makes us feel the desperation, the intensity of this man’s will to live. He makes us feel the pride when Woodroof beats the odds. He makes us feel anger at a system stacked against him. He makes us whoop with joy when he raises his middle finger at that system and sets up his own practice of sorts to get dying people the medication they need. He makes us like Ron Woodroof. And he does all that without ever letting us forget that Woodroof is something of an asshole.
And yes, so is McConaughey. The man is incapable of doing anything that doesn’t make me roll my eyes. To be fair, I have to go by performance alone (just like with Casey Affleck), and in that regard there can be no doubt that Dallas Buyers Club is the high point of Matthew McConaughey’s career.
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.
Should have won in 2013: incredible as it seems, McConaughey deserved it.
Can you believe this performance almost lost?! People were so caught up with Birdman that Michael Keaton nearly ran away with Eddie Redmayne’s Oscar, which would have been a travesty. 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 the legendary Stephen Hawking–a fearsomely intelligent physicist on the verge of revolutionizing science when he is given two years to live thanks to debilitating motor neuron disease. But Hawking does not go gentle into that good night, defying the odds not only in order to live decades more, but to realize his life’s work.
Redmayne does an incredible job capturing Hawking’s deterioration over time. By the end of the movie you could almost forget that the man embodying this role 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. It’s all right there, brilliantly executed.
And to think, Redmayne almost didn’t make the list. Seriously, I participate in an annual Oscar pool and out of 20 contenders, only 8 chose Redmayne over Keaton. That’s how easily Michael Keaton could have stolen a spot on this list. Thankfully, the Academy chose wisely.
Should have won in 2014: Redmayne. All the way. Don’t let those Keaton fanatics tell you anything different.
That’s it for now. I’ll update this ranking every year through 2019 with new winners as they are announced. So stand by.