10) Samuel L. Jackson, Pulp Fiction (1994) – Quentin Tarantino’s game changing film that took the world by storm in 1994 was quickly labeled as John Travolta’s return from the acting abyss. But it was also a coming out party for Sam Jackson, a character actor up until then whose explosive, wild-eyed, theological hit man Jules Winfield was the heart and soul of the film. Aside form his ferocious bible scripture recitals, his short fuse, and his tendency to wax philosophical and subsequently confuse Vincent (Travolta), Jules’ cool seventies look and attitude was a hint at what was to come from Tarantino.
9) Joe Pesci, Goodfellas (1990) – Much like Jules Winfield, Pesci’s performance as Tommy DeVito in Martin Scorsese’s gangster masterpiece was a fireball who lit up the screen whenever he was involved. However, unlike Jules Winfield’s tendency to ratchet down his ferocity, Tommy’s psychological makeup was nothing of that sort. In fact, every time Pesci’s character is on screen, there is an undercurrent of tension, of fear that he will explode at any moment. This unpredictability from Pesci’s performance is what made it so completely pivotal and the most important role in the picture.
8) Elisabeth Shue, Leaving Las Vegas (1995) – Everyone remembers Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas (more on him later), but what is often overlooked is the very important, very heartbreaking, extremely tough performance from Elisabeth Shue. Shue plays Sera, the damaged, aimless prostitute who falls in love with Cage’s doomed alcoholic Ben. The relationship these two characters develop is vital for such a difficult film, and credit goes perhaps more to Shue for making this aspect of the film work. Not to mention the numerous difficult lines and scenes she has to endure. Sure, eventul winner Susan Sarandon was great in Dead Man Walking, but not better than Shue.
7) Frances McDormand, Fargo (1996) – McDormand plays Marge, a pregnant police chief in North Dakota who uncovers a seedy kidnapping plot in the Coen Brothers’ best, most intriguing genre mash up of crime-drama and quirk. Donning that cheeky Northern accent could have been easy to play for parody, but beneath all of the comedy and charm McDormand brings to the role, she makes us believe there is a real person, a real wife, and real police officer, underneath all that clothing and that cheesy grin. A perfect mix of humor and pathos.
6) Hilary Swank, Boys Don’t Cry (1999) – As the sexually confused young woman at the center of Kimberly Peirce’s unsettling drama, Swank shed all of her looks to embody a woman playing a man to gain the affection and attention she could never figure out how to get as a young woman. And at the same time, she made everyone forget she was in The Next Karate Kid. Aside from truly pulling off the look, Swank was able to get into the head of Brandon Teena and understand the confusion a girl like her must have been going through.
5) Edward Norton, American History X (1998) – This is clearly one of the times the Academy missed the mark. In no way is the annoying, forgotten Roberto Benigni’s performance in the absurd holocaust film Life is Beautiful even in the same realm of greatness as Norton’s performance. As Derek Vinyard, the angry skinhead at the center of American History X, Norton transformed his body and his usually subtle acting into something revelatory. Not only is Norton’s Derek a muscle-bound skinhead with a jarring Nazi Swastika tattooed across his chest, but he is an angry man with a purpose behind his transformation, making his heartbreaking storyline all the more believable.
4) Ralph Feinnes, Schindler’s List, (1993) – Feinnes’ turn as the dastardly, cold-blooded Nazi Amon Goeth must have been a hard role to accept, but he embodies the pure evil and hatred of the entire National Socialist party with his leering eyes and his cold delivery. Sure, Tommy Lee Jones was solid in The Fugitive, but Feinnes was simply unforgettable as the antagonist in Spielberg’s magnum opus.
3) Tom Hanks, Philadelphia (1993) – In what was perhaps the most daring performance of the nineties, Hanks portrayed AIDS stricken Andrew Beckett, a wrongly-fired attorney who fights for his rights while singlehandedly putting a national face on the AIDS virus. Aside from the social impact Hanks’ brave performance had on the country, it was the levelness of Hanks’ acting that made even the most calloused viewer empathize with Beckett’s plight. Hanks’ job in Forrest Gump is obviously the more popular of his two Oscar winning roles, but it is here where Hanks began his run as one of the best actors of the decade, and his acting in Philadelphia is simply amazing.
2) Anthony Hopkins, The Silence of the Lambs (1992) – It is clear that Anthony Hopkins’ turn as the psychological villain Hannibal Lecter is one of the more important in film history for a few reasons. First, it spawned numerous crappy sequels looking to capitalize on his first portrayal as the maniacal genius. Second, seemingly every great villain in the last eighteen years is compared to Hopkins’ turn as Lecter. Even a few years ago, Javier Bardem’s Chigurgh in No Country for Old Men was labeled “the best villain since Hannibal Lecter.” He may have been the best since Hopkins, but he was not better. Nobody has ever been better.
1) Nicolas Cage, Leaving Las Vegas (1995) – It’s amazing that once upon a time, Nicolas Cage could harness his abilities as an actor into something as stunning as his character Ben in Leaving Las Vegas. As an alcoholic who travels to Las Vegas to drink himself to death and unexpectedly steals the heart of prostitute Sera (Shue), Nicolas Cage goes beyond acting into another realm of pathos. Sure, there have been alcoholics in film, but none as fully involving and fully realized as Cage’s character. His ability to physically become the alcoholic, to appear as deteriorated as a person in his state may be, and to simultaneously create laughter in such a heartbreaking picture is the finest job by an actor of the decade, and perhaps in the last fourteen years.