Maybe even more so than debating the best movie of the year, we love arguing over which actors gave us the most astonishing, most surprising, most riveting performances of the year. And that makes sense: their faces are ones we become most acquainted with when we watch a movie (as opposed to, obviously, the director’s or the writer’s), so much so that by the end of even a mediocre film, we feel like we know them. But by the finale of a grand performance, we’re madly in love.
1. Forrest Whittaker, The Last King of Scotland: Actors all say they love playing villains, and Whitaker inhabits one of the worst ever here, avoiding the cartoonishness that can blight depictions of storied evil and making us understand how both his populace and those closest to him could be seduced by his malignant charm.
2. Sacha Baron Cohen, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan: He never got to call cut, never got a second take, and had to work with “costars” who didn’t know they were supposed to be feeding him straight lines. Baron Cohen’s performance expands the boundaries of what constitutes movie acting, and it’s hard to imagine anyone doing it better.
3. Michael Sheen, The Queen: Sheen’s tightrope performance as Prime Minister Tony Blair captures that irresistible charisma that got him elected in the first place while recognizing that Blair’s own fall from grace in recent years, years after those depicted in the film, inevitably detracts from our sympathy for him. This must be among the toughest kinds of roles for an actor to take on: playing a living person whose legacy is still being shaped.
4. Hugo Weaving, V for Vendetta: Without the use of the screen actor’s most essential tool — his face, and in particular those marvelously expressive eyes of his — and with the second most important tool — his voice — muffled, Weaving nevertheless creates an utterly compelling character, using only body language and voice inflection. That’s acting.
5. Clive Owen, Children of Men: His Theo’s insouciance crumbles in a single, quiet moment that rocks him off his carefully constructed foundation (and knocks the film into a new realm, too), when he walks away from, ahem, a major plot spoiler so that he can collapse in private. We never see him or his world the same again.
1. Helen Mirren, The Queen: There’s a reason why everyone is raving about Mirren — she takes a towering personage, one who has always seemed cold and remote, and made her warm and human while simultaneously creating a new understanding of the need for and importance of — at least in her own mind — that towering personage itself. This is one of the most remarkable performances in cinema history.
2. Jodelle Ferland, Tideland: And this is another one. Ferland was 10 years old when Terry Gilliam started shooting this shocking film about a childhood full of horrors, and it’s almost impossible to fathom how the director coaxed such an assured mien out of this kid: She appears perfectly unflappable until the precise moment at which her defenses collapse.
3. Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada: Streep whispers where other actors might yell, forcing you (and the characters around her) to lean forward and really pay attention to her — the brilliance of her wicked-witch fashion-magazine editor is that Streep makes her someone who absolutely must be heeded, no matter how much you’d like to dismiss her.
4. Judi Dench, Notes on a Scandal: You can neither love nor hate the lonely, manipulative, moralistic schoolteacher Dench creates here — you can only wonder at the twistiness of her complexity and marvel at Dench’s dedication to refusing to succumb to the expected.
5. Catherine O’Hara, For Your Consideration: What starts out, seemingly, as a brilliantly comedic portrait in cluelessness turns to something far more poignant as O’Hara’s ditzy actress shows herself, in the end, to be far less oblivious than we’d thought, throwing her entire performance into a new light.