A gigolo, a cowboy, an academic, a barber, an addict, a long-strawed consumer of your milkshake—these are just a few of the indelible characters given life by our favorite performances of the ‘00s. The five core A.V. Club film writers only found universal agreement on #1, but it was not hard to coalesce around the 20 lead or supporting players that made the strongest impression on us.
20. Anne Hathaway as Kym, Rachel Getting Married (2008)
Princess Diaries star Anne Hathaway established her credentials as a serious actress with a devastating lead performance in Rachel Getting Married as Kym, a former model and full-time fuck-up who leaves rehab to attend her sister’s wedding and wreak psychological havoc on her loved ones. Kym’s poisonous narcissism and sociopathic inability to consider anything beyond her own desires and needs lends the film an exhilarating tension. Kym is an inveterate upsetter who angrily demands the spotlight even on the biggest night of her sister’s life. Hathaway’s revelatory performance is a masterpiece of barely suppressed rage, intermittently spiked by ill-timed emotional explosions.
19. Mark Ruffalo as Terry Prescott, You Can Count On Me (2000)
Mark Ruffalo had little to no profile in the movie business prior to playing the male lead in Kenneth Lonergan’s writer-director debut, You Can Count On Me, opposite the more experienced Laura Linney. But it only took a scene or two for Ruffalo to make a career-defining impact. Playing Linney’s mumbly, duplicitous brother—in town to hit her up for money, as quickly and painlessly as possible—Ruffalo invests Lonergan’s precise, sometimes stagy dialogue with a naturalism that’s especially magnetic when set against Linney’s fussiness. Ruffalo toes a precarious line as the oft-obstinate Terry Prescott, displaying enough humor and charm to earn sympathy for the moments when he’s deliberately hurtful. By the time he and Linney reach You Can Count On Me’s devastating final scene, their conflicting acting styles mesh beautifully, and all their characters’ shared pain comes spilling out in a few well-written lines. And a star is born.
18. Denzel Washington as Alonzo, Training Day (2001)
Denzel Washington personifies dignity and self-respect even when playing notorious drug kingpin Frank Lucas in American Gangster. So part of the illicit thrill of Washington’s wildly theatrical performance in Training Day lies in watching one of film’s preeminent good guys go bad as a dirty cop who takes neophyte police officer Ethan Hawke on a guided tour of urban hell. Washington doesn’t just play bad; he’s downright evil, a devil with a badge intent on corrupting or destroying his hapless sidekick. When he famously proclaims that King Kong had nothing on him, it registers less as chest-beating hyperbole than understatement.
17. Edward Norton as Monty Brogan, 25th Hour (2002)
A great deal of the push-and-pull strain in Spike Lee’s 25th Hour (which screenwriter David Benioff adapted closely from his own novel) comes from the story’s relationship to protagonist Monty Brogan. He’s a drug dealer headed for a well-deserved prison sentence, and he’s an unrepentant asshole as well, devoted to his own comforts and luxuries with no particular interest in what they cost anyone else. And yet Edward Norton gives audiences a reason to sympathize with this mook, largely because he sees his punishment coming, knows there’s no escape, and is trying to twist himself into the frame of mind necessary to accept it, and walk to the gallows on his own two feet. Norton’s stiff-backed performance never compromises on all the things wrong with Monty as a human being: He’s proud, he’s selfish, he’s self-pitying, and he isn’t a very good friend even to his best friends. But he’s also human and hurting, and Norton brings out his vulnerability too. By the end of the film, it’s actually possible to sympathize with him and care for him, without excusing or forgiving anything he’s done, or even really wanting him to wriggle out from under the boot that’s landed on him. He even manages to make the movie’s most forced, mannered sequence—the “Fuck you, New York” mirror monologue—hypnotic, by investing it with so much outsized, curdled malice that it becomes clear that Monty’s hatred of all things is largely aimed inward, long before the bitter punchline.
16. Laura Linney as “Sammy” Prescott, You Can Count On Me (2000)
As an actor, Laura Linney excels at playing high-strung women who want things a certain way, and thus aren’t always equipped to deal with life’s inevitable disappointments. That gulf between expectation and reality lends a special poignancy to her You Can Count On Me performance as Sammy, a single mother in small-town New York who hosts her fuck-up brother (Mark Ruffalo) after his long, unexplained absence from her life. Their sibling bond is a tighter than most, forged during childhood after their parents died in a traffic accident. To see her excitement over his visit slowly dissipate with news of more screw-ups is especially heartbreaking because of Linney’s brittle performance—to say nothing of the fact that Sammy makes more than a few mistakes of her own.
15. Björk as Selma Jezkova, Dancer In The Dark (2000)
Legend has it that writer-director Lars von Trier badgered, exhausted, and tormented Björk into the wretched emotional states she displays in Dancer In The Dark, and that she swore afterward that the film would be her last. And given the contents of von Trier’s films and his documented unusual working methods, it’s all too easy to believe that story. But regardless of its cause, Björk’s performance is stunningly vulnerable and tender. Von Trier’s ’00s films tend to put women through the wringer, examining how society and the men around them victimize them, and how they become complicit martyrs to that victimization. But all this would just be meaningless psychological torture porn if von Trier’s female leads weren’t so often achingly sympathetic figures. And Björk in Dancer is among the best; she’s an abused little girl in oversized sweaters, always cringing away from the next anticipated blow that life has to offer, yet possessed of a deep-seated, joyous love of the music that makes her constantly threatened existence worth living. Her performance alone makes Dancer a luminous tearjerker rather than an exercise in empty viewer masochism.
14. Anamaria Marinca as Otilia, 4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days (2007)
In the great Romanian drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days, Anamaria Marinca plays a young woman who arranges for her roommate to have an illegal abortion in Bucharest during the last years of Ceausescu’s regime. The job goes well beyond merely being a chaperone, as Marinca’s Otilia reserves a hotel room from a deeply suspicious clerk, negotiates with a sleazy black-market abortionist, and does everything she can to lead her friend through a procedure that’s dangerous on any number of levels. Much of the film’s unbearable tension comes from Marinca’s role as audience surrogate, and her face reflects both the severity and blind panic of the situation, and the resolve to see it through. The film’s most unnerving scene finds Otilia stranded in the middle of a dinner conversation, and Marinca says everything without having to say a word.
13. Naomi Watts as Betty Elms, Mulholland Dr. (2001)
Naomi Watts was 30 and a movie-industry veteran when she shot the pilot to a proposed David Lynch-created TV series called Mulholland Dr. in 1999. Her practiced skills as an actress allowed her to step into the part of Betty Elms, a wide-eyed Hollywood newcomer drawn into a bizarre underworld of noirish intrigue. She’s disarmingly convincing in her naïveté, but the pilot didn’t get far. When Lynch decided to convert the movie into a feature film, he asked Watts to come at the character from a different angle for the film’s new segments, drawing on what she’d already done, but putting a lot of dark, desperate shades beneath the sunshine. She killed, bringing her naïf act in line with Lynch’s depiction of Hollywood as a dream-eating nightmareland, and making the pain feel real amid all the oddness around her.
12. Jeff Daniels as Bernard Berkman, The Squid And The Whale (2005)
A bearded, belligerent Jeff Daniels, a long way from his early good-guy roles, stepped in for Bill Murray at the last minute as Bernard, a misanthropic writer intent on rejecting a world that has rejected him in The Squid And The Whale, Noah Baumbach’s brutally honest, unflinching look at domestic discord and the emotional damage incurred when mom and dad split up. Bernard oozes snobbish disdain for lesser intellects, but Daniels’ sad eyes and air of exhaustion betray that beneath that surface contempt lies almost unbearable pain; his self-aggrandizement masks self-hatred and a gnawing sense that his life has passed him by. Though his Bernard divides the world into two neat categories—intellectuals, who read books and like interesting movies, and philistines, who don’t—it’s only because the world, especially the world of emotion, is so unforgivably messy and beyond his control.
11. Mickey Rourke as Randy “The Ram” Robinson, The Wrestler (2008)
Is it the mark of a great performance when an actor can say more with the back of his head and two slumping shoulders than most can convey with dialogue? Mickey Rourke makes himself a slouching vision of tragic indefatigability from the wordless first shot of The Wrestler, then fleshes out that vision as the film reveals a sweet, irresponsible lug fundamentally unequipped to be anything more than he already is, no matter what those around him may hope.
10. Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh, No Country For Old Men (2007)
Josh Brolin and Tommy Lee Jones did excellent work as the separate leads in the Coen brothers’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men, but Javier Bardem steals all his scenes as soft-spoken killer-for-hire Anton Chigurh, with his ridiculous Prince Valiant haircut and eerily silent cattle-stunner murder method. Bardem’s beatific, purring calm is much of what makes him mesmerizing, but in his best scenes—as when he tries to force a local-yokel gas-station clerk to unknowingly gamble for his life, and the baffled clerk balks—he hints at a much deeper well of emotion. Chigurh is a murderer with a keen sense of his own menace, and in moments where his adversaries refuse to play by the civilized rules he affects, Bardem shows subtle, controlled glimpses of a boiling frustration just below the surface. It’s as though he’s fought his way up from crazed slasher to urbane assassin solely through force of will, but at every moment, he can feel his control splintering. And none of this is in the script; Bardem wears the movie’s tension solely in his face and body instead of his words.
9. Julianne Moore as Cathy Whitaker, Far From Heaven (2002)
Far From Heaven, Todd Haynes’ return visit to the world of 1950s Douglas Sirk melodramas, could easily have become an academic exercise in recreating the look and feel of the films that inspired it. And yet it isn’t, which owes a lot to Haynes’ investment in using the form to discuss past and present attitudes toward race and sexuality. It owes even more to Julianne Moore’s performance as a homemaker whose desire and discontent lead her to pound against the restrictions of her time. Moore’s turn is appropriate to the genre and the era, but also richly, heartbreakingly human. It’s a magnetic patch of blue in a Technicolor world.
8. Paul Giamatti as Harvey Pekar, American Splendor (2003)
It says something about the quality of Paul Giamatti’s portrayal of comics writer Harvey Pekar in American Splendor that the actual Pekar appears in the movie several times, and yet the actor never seems to be a pale imitation. Giamatti becomes his own version of Pekar, playing him as a variation on the type of character Giamatti usually plays: a smart, miserable, underappreciated, and funny little man. Giamatti does a superb impression of Pekar’s permanent grimace, but he also captures Pekar’s frustration at wanting to be recognized for more than just what he does to earn a living. The real Pekar has been working almost his whole life to get people to understand that ordinary folks have deep passions and stories worth hearing. Giamatti—a character actor who rarely gets the spotlight—understands this instinct all too well, and conveys it honestly and entertainingly in American Splendor.
7. Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman, American Psycho (2000)
Sometimes it feels like Christian Bale isn’t acting so much as he’s cranking up his natural grim intensity until it seems like he’s about to explode, then letting the resulting tension carry his latest film. And in recent movies, particularly The Dark Knight and Terminator: Salvation, he’s become something of a parody of himself, all steely glower and fake growly voice. But in American Psycho—something of an adult breakthrough after memorable youthful roles in Empire Of The Sun, Swing Kids, and Newsies—Bale put that dynamic to chilling use, and he’s never since seemed so layered. Mary Harron’s adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ notorious novel cuts some of the trivia and much of the gore, and sharpens Ellis’ themes to a razor edge. And much of that edge comes from Bale, blank-faced but seething with barely contained malice and insanity. As he navigates the cutthroat business world of the ’80s, relying on his polished surface to let him fit in, but occasionally exploding into probably-just-metaphorical violence, he lays out a memorable portrait of a sociopath in the process of disintegration.
6. Peter Sarsgaard as Charles Lane, Shattered Glass (2003)
Back in May 1998, the journalistic career of Stephen Glass, then associate editor of The New Republic, started to unravel when his piece on a 15-year-old computer hacker exposed a pattern of distortions, made-up quotes, and out-and-out fabrications in his articles. The thankless task of investigating these allegations against Glass (Hayden Christensen), a well-liked figure in his office, fell to Charles Lane, the magazine’s newly installed editor-in-chief. In Shattered Glass, Peter Sarsgaard plays Lane as a consummate professional who tries to protect his reporter and the integrity of the magazine while digging into painful truths that will severely undermine both. Actors often have a hard time suppressing their natural charisma, but Sarsgaard pegs Lane as a meat-and-potatoes journalist who isn’t always so skilled at navigating office politics. He’s also the master of the leveling stare, capable of reducing Christensen’s slick fabulist to a quivering mass with a single glance.
5. Billy Bob Thornton as Ed Crane, The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)
Billy Bob Thornton first became a familiar screen presence in the ’90s, projecting a down-home vibe that made him seem warm and approachable even when he was playing a grunting, mentally handicapped ex-con. But in the ’00s, his career choices and eccentric offscreen behavior have made him seem like more of an oddball, standing slightly outside ordinary human behavior. The Coen brothers apparently spotted Thornton’s quirks before anyone else, and they cast him perfectly in The Man Who Wasn’t There as a laconic barber who responds to everything that happens to him—cuckolding, business opportunities, having his wife framed for a murder he committed—with the same detached attitude and craggy, alien expression. Thornton narrates the film too, but though he lets the audience see the world from behind his eyes, it doesn’t make the character any more sympathetic—not even when he’s sharing nuggets like “My wife and I have not performed the sex act in many years.”
4. Samantha Morton as Morvern Callar, Morvern Callar (2002)
As the title character in Lynne Ramsay’s impressionistic Morvern Callar, Samantha Morton initially seems blank by design—just another blob of color in Ramsay’s visual palette. But then Ramsay gradually reveals the story, which has her heroine discovering her boyfriend’s corpse after his suicide, along with a stack of presents and an unpublished novel. Once Morvern and her best friend flee their dingy Scottish town and head to a Spanish resort, Morton begins subtly fleshing out the character. In some ways, she’s just another aimless young person craving a life of idleness, yet Morton responds with soulfulness and wonder to good music, a pleasant breeze, and other less decadent pleasures. She intends to take what her boyfriend left and escape the poisonous influence of her party-obsessed friends and minimum-wage job, in order to find a place where she can sink into solitude. Morton—who doesn’t have much dialogue in Morvern Callar—reveals Morvern’s shift in philosophy mainly through body language, facial expressions, and the ever-brightening twinkle in her eye.
3. Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Neil, Mysterious Skin (2004)
Joseph Gordon-Levitt went from former child star to one of the most promising actors of his generation with a daring lead performance in Mysterious Skin as Neil, a victim of childhood molestation who channels his complex, contradictory emotions about being abused into becoming a male prostitute. Gordon-Levitt’s stunning performance recalls the raw, animal sexuality and vulnerability of a young Marlon Brando. He’s absolutely fearless, particularly in a harrowing scene where he picks up a trick (Billy Drago) whose frail body is covered with lesions. His Neil is equally wounded; he just wears his scars on the inside.
2. Heath Ledger as Ennis Del Mar, Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Though Heath Ledger’s disquieting performance as The Joker in The Dark Knight emerged as the most talked-about role after his death, his quieter work as Ennis Del Mar, the tortured Wyoming cattle wrangler in Brokeback Mountain, better suggested the depth of his talent and soul. Growling his lines as if he were pushing them through a mouthful of Skoal, Ledger is both the billboard-ready personification of Western masculinity and a shame-filled man whose love for another cowboy (Jake Gyllenhaal) doesn’t square with that image. Ennis’ refusal to commit to the relationship comes at a high cost to himself, his lover, and the family he’s deceiving, and Ledger’s performance captures the bone-deep agony, loneliness, and unrequited desire of an old-fashioned guy who can’t follow his heart.
1. Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview, There Will Be Blood (2007)
Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance in There Will Be Blood begins in silence and finishes in bellows. He starts the film as a restless striver, an independent man of modest means. He ends it wealthy, alone, and wasted, a man whose shocking last act only confirms his status as one of the living damned. Day-Lewis follows Plainview’s every step downward, as the mania for success—here defined as nothing less than the relentless quest for domination—eats away at the better parts of his soul. Day-Lewis plays him as a man aware of the implications of every heartless choice made in the interest of business—and chillingly ready to live with the consequences.