#10 

William Holden in Network 

Watching actors of the Hollywood Golden Age perform during their late years is a wonderful treat.  Because of the Hays Code and a cinematic tendency to veer toward the disgustingly artificial, many of the era’s greatest actors mostly had to work in projects that turned them into more of a personality than a versatile talent.  Holden is magnificent in Network, playing the sort of character he did in Sunset Boulevard, just saddled with increased cynicism.

#9 

Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver 

Most cheap imitations of Robert De Niro stem from Taxi Driver, and there’s a reason for it — it is his most memorable performance in a lengthy career.  Is it the way we can never really figure Travis Bickle out, the way he’s both likable and terrifying? Hard to say.  Seeing is believing.  

#8 

Philip Seymour Hoffman 

in Magnolia, Capote, & The Master 

When Philip Seymour Hoffman died back in 2014, I knew of his considerable talent but had not yet experienced much of it myself to really understand how much of an artistic loss it was.  Cut to about a year later when I chose Hoffman as my Star of the Month for October and I found myself devastated long after the fact.  Every performance is so detailed and emotionally impeccable that even the smallest of a role strikes us as thoroughly divine.  Comedy suits him just as well as drama; it’s crushing to think how many Oscars he could have won had he lived a healthy lifespan.

#7 

The Silence of the Lambs in The Silence of the Lambs 

Playing a villain is harder than playing a hero, but only if you’re going against the grain and playing someone really evil.  Thankfully, Hopkins fits the description.  Like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, much of the film’s horror stems from his performance alone, which, as of late, is one of the most widely lauded of all time, villainous or otherwise.  

#6 

Tom Cruise in Magnolia 

Much as I love them, it’s time for Tom Cruise to take a break from the Mission: Impossible movies and go back to daring his acting talents to jump to brand new extremes.  Magnolia proves that his talents are not limited to star power bits alone, that, like Olivier, his range goes far and beyond what’s expected of most actors in his position.  He’s the most heartbreaking character in the film, as his emotional weaknesses are not especially known until it’s far too late.  

#5 

Joaquin Phoenix 

in The Master Inherent Vice 

I like Phoenix best when he’s slightly unhinged — after all, unpredictability is part of his public persona, and actors are often best suited to roles that somewhat parallel their own lives.  So the men he plays in Inherent Vice and The Master aren’t necessarily him, but they match him well because he can so easily play colorful characters in a colorfully realistic way.

#4 

Bradley Cooper in Joy

Cooper won’t be getting much award love this season since Joy isn’t the masterpiece most want it to be and since his role is relatively small.  But the film wouldn’t be quite as memorable without him.  The best scenes of the movie feature him, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence — his charisma is huge, and anytime he’s with Jennifer Lawrence, you know you’re in for something good.  Except Serena. Avoid.

#3 

Christoph Waltz 

in Inglourious Basterds Django Unchained 

These days, Tarantino seems to adore Christoph as much as he likes Uma, and as much as I love the latter, I can think of no person better fit for his later career epics as Waltz is.  A master at playing smiling sadists, our breathing ceases every time he walks into a room.  He’s the kind of actor that will become a genre specialty, like a Lee Van Cleef or Franco Nero, and I have no problem with that — Waltz is best when acting in broad strokes.  I cannot see him being an actor that jumps between little movies for a career.  His personality is just too big.  Even his role as the main villain in this year’s James Bond flick, Spectre, didn’t seem to amplify his slithery malice quite enough.  

#2 

J.K. Simmons in Whiplash

A great James Bond villain ain’t shit nowadays, especially now that Simmons has given cinema what is perhaps the greatest screen antagonist of the last ten years.  Authentically unhinged and merciless, Simmons, normally typecast as a friendly everyman, completely 360’s everything we’ve come to know about him — he’s so good in Whiplash one cannot look at him the same way.  Who knows if his manner is deceitful or not?

#1 

Jake Gyllenhaal 

in Nightcrawler 

Nightcrawler would be a delectable television satire regardless of if Gyllenhaal graced us with his presence, but he, without a doubt, is what makes it such a detectable television satire in the first place.  You’ll never seem him creepier, and you’ll never see him more gaunt — Gyllenhaal never takes it easy when faced with a challenging role, and after seeing Nightcrawler, the positivity that he’s another Brando just may cross your mind.