Ranking the Best Actor Oscar Winners of the 2010s

Best Actor Oscar Winners of the 2010s

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.

Jean Dujardin-The Artist9. Jean Dujardin, The Artist (2011)

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–which is not to take away from Dujardin’s performance. 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. 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: It wasn’t a solid year for Actors but Dujardin deserved it anyway.

Colin Firth The King's Speech8. 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.

Leonardo DiCaprio The Revenant7. Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant (2015)

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 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.

Should have won in 2015: I’ve complained about the “give Leo an Oscar” campaign, but the truth is his great intensity really did deserve the win.

Rami Malek Bohemian Rhapsody

6. 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 the way Bohemian Rhapsody is structured puts Mercury on such a pedestal that Malek isn’t doing as much of the heavy lifting as it might initially seem. 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 it.

Gary Oldman Darkest Hour5. Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour (2017)

It isn’t just the astonishing physical transformation Gary Oldman underwent to play Winston Churchill, although that helps because it’s not just the Academy Award-winning makeup at play. Oldman’s embodies Churchill down to posture and movement. Darkest Hour is a prestige pic all the way but 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.

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.

Casey Affleck Manchester By the Sea4. 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.

Daniel Day-Lewis Lincoln3. Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln (2012)

Lincoln takes the character of Abraham Lincoln and bathes him in the sweet glow of sainthood. The character as written is, 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. Day-Lewis’ mastery of the material is the only reason the performance ranks so high.

Should have won in 2012: Day-Lewis deserved it. But his inevitability made the race the most boring of the night.

Matthew McConaughey-Dallas Buyers Club2. Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

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.

Should have won in 2013: McConaughey deserved it.

Eddie Redmayne-The Theory of Everything1. 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. 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.

Check out my Academy Awards page for more best and worsts. Up next: Best Supporting Actor of the 10’s.

Now just for fun, let’s see what the ranking would look like if the people who should have won made the list:

10. TBD

9. Jean Dujardin, The Artist (2011)

8. Colin Firth, The King’s Speech (2010)

7. Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant (2015)

6. Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea (2016)

5. Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln (2012)

4. Bradley Cooper, A Star is Born (2018)

3. Timothée Chalamet, Call Me By Your Name (2017)

2. Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

1. Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything (2014)

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