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Ten Best Male Acting Performances in a Movie - My Definitive List

Updated on September 17, 2012
Movie performances that keep you going back to the theater again and again...
Movie performances that keep you going back to the theater again and again... | Source

How I Made My List

For a while I had the privilege of competing in my boss's Oscar pool at work. He was friends with a group of people of all ages who took movies very seriously and made it a point to watch all critically acclaimed movies that came out. Needless to say, I never won the pool. Or came even close. Or even was able to make picks that didn't totally humiliate me. But that's not the point.

In the days leading up to the Oscars, this group would email about various movie related topics. One of the years, someone asked everyone for their list of the best acting performances - the kind that made you continue watching a movie just to keep seeing that actor perform.

I jumped in and made my own list, though it was very hard. I will share some of my biases in making the list, because there are obviously so many ways you can approach this:

  • I definitely leaned towards more recent movies. I have seen some classic movies, but I stuck with more recent ones just to keep it simple. I also have a personal preference for more recent movies in general (by that I generally mean 90s and later, I realize that's not all that recent anymore!)
  • I think there are some amazing performances of people played mentally challenged individuals but I kept those off the list. Somehow I feel they might deserve their own category entirely. Just off the top of my head, Leonardo DiCaprio in What's Eating Gilbert Grape, Sean Penn in I am Sam, and obviously Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man are all incredible performances.
  • I was ok with including movies that I didn't think were perfect when I felt the acting performance itself was so gripping it made me want to watch the movie over and over.
  • I didn't include comedies - I think that definitely deserves its own category. I will have to make that list next!

My List - Top 10 Male Acting Performances in a Movie

1. Jack Nicholson – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Obviously this is one of the greatest movies of all time. This is the only 'classic' movie I have on my list because I do think it is simply the greatest acting performance of all time. It's particularly amazing to me how he took this amazing character from the book (also my favorite book of all time) and brought him to life.

2. Edward Norton – Primal Fear OR Fight Club (runner up role: 25th Hour)

He is my favorite actor so I allowed myself two picks. I could go on and on - crazy that there are three top roles to mention for him without even getting to American History X. I just think he's a phenomenal actor. I picked Primal Fear and Fight Club because I have watched those movies so many times just to see his performance. His ability to completely embody a role is just stunning.

3. Denzel Washington – Training Day (runner up role: Malcom X)

Again, there are so many roles you could think of for him, but I was blown away by his performance in Training Day. I think he took a role that could easily have been a caricature and gave it incredible depth. He's just captivating. Even though I didn't think the movie was perfect, I watched it to see him perform.

4. Al Pacino – Scent of a Woman (runner up role: Any Given Sunday)

Al Pacino makes this movie what it is. I could listen to his speech at the end a million times in a row and not get sick of it. I could also watch his speech in Any Given Sunday a million times, and in fact I have it on my ipod and it always chokes me up. I know his performances in the Godfather movies are also some of the most critically acclaimed, but it's these roles of his that are the most gripping to me personally.

5. Samuel L. Jackson & John Travolta – Pulp Fiction

I will be the first to admit it's totally cheating to pick two actors and lump them together. But I do think their roles in this movie are unique in how much time they spend together and how they play off each other. I suppose the same case could be made for Brad Pitt and Edward Norton in Fight Club, but somehow it feels different to me. I also think their roles skirt on comedy, but in the end, I think they are more dramatic.

6. Kevin Spacey – American Beauty

After I saw this movie when it came out, I decided promptly that Kevin Spacey was my favorite actor ever. He has since been edged out, but I thought this role was tremendous. If only he had continued to pick such fantastic roles. I think it takes a remarkable actor to portray a character whose main trait is apathy and make him so compelling.

7. Leonardo DiCaprio – Blood Diamond

It was hard for me to settle in a role for DiCaprio because every time I see him in a movie I am reminded of what a fantastic actor he is. I think he's often been underrated, maybe because of his looks and tendency to date models. But I think he's one of the most talented actors of his generation, hands down, and he really displays his range in this role.

8. Brad Pitt – Fight Club (runner up role: 12 Monkeys)

Brad Pitt is another actor who I think is often underrated because of his good looks and tendency to appear in the tabloids. But he is an incredibly gifted actor, and I think his role in Fight Club really shows off his skills.

9. Phillip Seymour Hoffman – Capote (runner up role: Magnolia)

He is such a remarkable character actor, and has had some of the greatest bit parts of all time (starting with his role in Scent of a Woman!), but I wanted to name one of his leading roles. I think he must be the most technically gifted actor of his generation and he completely disappears in every one of his characters.

10. Anthony Hopkins – The Silence of the Lambs

I almost feel like this is too easy because this role is such a classic and the character itself is so well written that perhaps it's more the character than the acting that really puts this one over the top. But at the same time, can you imagine anyone other than Hopkins pulling this off in the same way?

Honorable Mentions:

Because it's my list, I get to include a few extras that I didn't get to squeeze into the list of 10, and that were slightly smaller roles, but still amazing.

1. Heath Ledger – The Dark Knight

Obviously this is one of the most compelling roles of all time, and what Heath Ledger did with it was nothing short of genius. In light of everything that has happened afterwards (his death, the Colorado shootings), it's more difficult to watch, but the performance itself is clearly one of the greatest of all times.

2. Tom Cruise - Magnolia

Say what you want about Tom Cruise, but his acting in this was incredible. I think once Tropic Thunder came out, people began to appreciate Tom Cruise's range more, but his role in Magnolia was far better.

What Did I Miss?

I would love to hear what others think? Any of these seem completely off to you? Any I've forgotten that absolutely should be on there? Please comment!


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    • twoseven profile image

      twoseven 4 years ago from Madison, Wisconsin

      Tom Hanks as Forest Gump was outstanding for sure. It was so hard to narrow it down! I wouldn't include Tom Hanks from any other movie, because I feel like he's usually just playing some version of Tom Hanks (which is fine by me!), but in Forest Gump he definitely completely inhabited the character. Thanks for the comment!

    • ChristyWrites profile image

      Christy Birmingham 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Ohhhh good list here! I agree that Al Pacino was excellent in Scent of a Woman (he was such a character!). How about Tom Hanks as Forest Gump for another one? I loved that movie and he was excellent in it.

    • twoseven profile image

      twoseven 4 years ago from Madison, Wisconsin

      cam8510 - Thanks for the comment - I agree that would make a great addition! I thought he was excellent. He is one of those actors who completely inhabits any role he takes on.

    • cam8510 profile image

      Chris Mills 4 years ago from Missoula, Montana at least until March 2018

      I enjoyed your hub. Keeping with recent films, I suggest Daniel Day Lewis as Abraham Lincoln.

    • twoseven profile image

      twoseven 4 years ago from Madison, Wisconsin

      Millionaire Tips - Thank you for the comment! I am now thinking I have to add an 11 and it has to be Johnny Depp :) He is an amazing actor and has so many performances - maybe I was just overwhelmed trying to pick one! Glad you also love Denzel Washington and Will Smith. I'm eager to see them both come out with another movie that really displays both of their amazing acting skills.

    • Millionaire Tips profile image

      Shasta Matova 4 years ago from USA

      It is always interesting to see which actors other people are drawn to. I was surprised that Johnny Depp was not on the list, and pleased that Denzel Washington was on it. I like Will Smith as well.

    • twoseven profile image

      twoseven 4 years ago from Madison, Wisconsin

      B.Leekley - Sorry I somehow didn't respond to your comment until now! I completely agree with all of your other mentions. This really shows why it is pure folly to try to make a list of only 10 acting performances! Brando is phenomenal in everything, and I agree Paul Newman has to be on any self-respecting list. I also loved Kevin Spacey in the Negotiator - I feel that is really an underappreciated movie! Thanks for making me think of so many other great performances!

      CrazedNovelist - Thank you for the comment! I'm glad you feel the same way I do about Edward Norton. He's one of the best actors ever as far as I'm concerned.

    • CrazedNovelist profile image

      A.E. Williams 4 years ago from Hampton, GA

      Very good work! I agree with all of those recommendations. I definitely believe Edward Norton in Fight Club is AMAZING! Also... Pulp Fiction and American Beauty are GREAT movies. Samuel L. Jackson, John Travolta, and Kevin Spacey were wonderful in those roles. Good work!

    • B. Leekley profile image

      Brian Leekley 5 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

      Of the several movies in your list I've seen, I agree, and I agree with your other choices by reputation. As for additional contenders, I've liked Marlon Brando films from his first ones to his last ones. My favorite of his is BURN, and in his bio, he said he did his best acting in it. How about Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight in MIDNIGHT COWBOY? Oskar Werner and Henri Serre in JULES AND JIM? Anthony Quinn in LA STRADA? Paul Newman in THE HUSTLER? Alec Guinness in THE BRIDGE OVER THE RIVER KWAI. Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis in THE SWEET SMALL OF SUCCESS? Al Pacino in THE GODFATHER PART II? Kevin Spacey in THE NEGOTIATOR? With some Google help and an evening, I could list many more outstanding male performances in outstanding movies.

    • twoseven profile image

      twoseven 5 years ago from Madison, Wisconsin

      Thanks for the comments! A huge part of me agrees with you about heath ledger. It was an amazing performance and he completely inhabited the character.

      Now you are inspiring me to work on my list of best female acting performances!

    • hawaiianodysseus profile image

      Hawaiian Odysseus 5 years ago from Southeast Washington state

      You did a great job in creating this list.

      Personally, I would have put Heath Ledger (as The Joker) in the #1 slot. What an incredible quantum leap from his roles in "The Patriot" and "Bareback Mountain."

      Speaking of the latter, the glaring omission I saw on your list was Jake Gyllenhaal.

      It'll be interesting to see your picks for the top ten actresses.

      Thank you for sharing this!

    • twoseven profile image

      twoseven 5 years ago from Madison, Wisconsin

      AhalitaMoonfire - I haven't seen Knights Tale, but now I will have to! Thanks for sharing. And I totally agree about Edward Scissor Hands. Now I'm thinking that not having Johnny Depp on my list is a pretty big omission. Thanks for the comment!!

    • AhalitaMoonfire profile image

      AhalitaMoonfire 5 years ago from Ohio

      I would also say Heath Ledger was great in 'Knights Tale'. Also I like to suggest Johnny Depp in the movie 'Edward Scissor Hands'.