As this maddening list attests—one that nearly broke us trying to order “properly”—putting together a Best of Decade list is dangerous work. There’s just a million factors to consider, a million people and look, we anguish and anguish and at the end of the day it’s all arbitrary anyhow, so don’t give us shit!
As the 100 Best Films of The 2010s Decade proved, no matter what you claim about the state of cinema and the sky is falling, the best of the best was unimpeachable. The 2010s were filled with unassailable classics and our 100 best films of the decade could’ve honestly been 1,000 films long.
The same applies to performances, here a list of seemingly random 63 picks that could have gone to 200 plus, but pencils down, such is life. We tried our best to examine all the best actors of the decade, the emotional intelligence they held, the way they gutted us, the graceful subtlety that so many performances possessed, the refined restraint, the ferocity that was impossible to ignore, the big performances, the little ones, the loud ones, the intimate ones, all of the above. Maybe we failed, but we tried our best to observe, meditate on, analyze, inspect, scrutinize and pour over everything. As if we were writers, or doctors, nuclear physicists and or theoretical philosophers. But above all, in the end, we tried to do like simple human beings, hopelessly inquisitive humans, just like you.
63. James Franco, “Spring Breakers”
James Franco is a… complicated presence in our current pop cultural landscape. He’s proven to be a less-than-great human being, a filmmaker whose output is all over the place in terms of quality, and, when he puts his mind to it, a fascinating and compelling actor who consistently makes unusual choices in scene after scene. And to be sure, there may be no better Franco performance than his turn as a cornrowed, demented Florida gangster named Alien in Harmony Korine’s candy-coated American nightmare, “Spring Breakers.” Franco is almost unrecognizable beneath his array of hideous Hawaiian shirts, the iced-out grill that accompanies the character’s predatory smile, and a narcotized, wasteoid drawl that rears its head when Alien compels his scantily-clad collegiate cohorts (played by the previously squeaky-clean likes of Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens) to “look at his shit.” Franco was allegedly inspired by real-life Houston rapper Riff Raff, and the actor is frighteningly convincing acting in scenes alongside legendary trap pioneer Gucci Mane, who gives a genuinely chilling performance in the film. There are countless memorable moments in Korine’s demented exploration of America’s underbelly: an interlude where Alien and the Spring Breakers perform a spirited rendition of “Everytime” by Britney Spears whilst brandishing automatic weapons, or a queasy sequence in which the girls force Alien to fellate a pistol for their own amusement. Franco rightly remains a contentious and polarizing figure in American art, and while there’s no way we can stand by the heinous and egregious behavior he’s been accused of in his personal life, his work in “Spring Breakers” is some of the most committedly batshit screen acting of the decade. – Nicholas Laskin
62. Tim Heidecker, “The Comedy”
It’s hard to argue against the notion that a certain degree of ironic remove is essential to enjoying and making sense of Tim Heidecker’s body of work, which is only part of what makes his disturbing, perceptive turn in Rick Alverson’s “The Comedy” so definitive. Upon first glance, “The Comedy” could read as a wallow in caustic, calculated antagonism: an update of Lars Von Trier’s “The Idiots” set amongst the drifting and disaffected who populate the cozier corners of Williamsburg. And yet, a more critical reading reveals “The Comedy” to be a lacerating deconstruction that tears a gash through the very concept of irony itself. Alverson’s film is a scathing takedown of hipster entitlement that, somehow, appeals to the very people it purports to mock. And to be sure, Heidecker’s brilliant performance as trust-fund man-child Swanson is a huge reason why “The Comedy” is as successful as it is. Swanson is every bit as terrifying as Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker – maybe more so because he’s the kind of guy you might bump into on the subway, and not just a cackling villain in a comic book movie. Swanson’s weapon is provocation, and Heidecker, of all people, knows what a powerful tool that can be. To date, this is the most fearless and singular turn in all of Heidecker’s filmography. – NL
61. Helena Howard, “Madeline’s Madeline”
Imagine you’re a teen actor performing at your annual drama festival and a visionary director like Josephine Decker spots you doing a monologue, and asks you to be the lead in their new movie. It’s something most young actors dream of happening: the honest-to-God discovery. That’s exactly what happened to now 20-year-old actress Helena Howard when she was given the titular role in “Madeline’s Madeline.” One of the most mind-bending, unsettling portraits of mental illness you’re likely to ever come across, the success of Decker’s film lies firmly in the hands of Howard. Luckily for Decker, she found an actress who would not only elevate the already stellar material but turn in one of the most awe-inspiring, brave performances of the decade. Mental illness is notoriously hard to play – look no further than Joaquin Phoenix’s unevenly manic portrayal in this year’s “Joker” – but Howard occupies the headspace of a mentally unstable young woman with fearlessness and enormous empathy. Madeline is an unthinkably demanding role – both physically and emotionally – for even the most seasoned actor, so seeing such a young actress effortlessly handle everything Decker throws her way, is utterly mesmerizing. A true star-making performance, Howard’s towering turn is the kind of performance that gets you high on the very possibilities of cinema and performance. – Max Roux