Greatest Acting Performances in Film History (in progress)

  1. Isabelle Adjani-Possession-Zulawski (1981)
  2. Laura Dern-Inland Empire-Lynch (2006)
  3. Orson Welles-Citizen Kane-Welles (1941)
  4. Renee Falconetti-The Passion of Joan of Arc-Dreyer (1927)
  5. Bette Davis-Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte-Aldrich (1965)
  6. Gena Rowlands-A Woman Under The Influence-Cassavetes (1974)
  7. Marlon Brando-Last Tango in Paris-Bertolucci (1972)
  8. Bette Davis-What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?-Aldrich (1962)
  9. Nicolas Cage-Leaving Las Vegas-Figgis (1995)
  10. Tatsuya Nakadai-Ran-Kurosawa (1985)
  11. Emil Jannings-The Blue Angel-von Sternberg (1930)
  12. Dennis Hopper-Blue Velvet-Lynch (1986)
  13. Andy Griffith-A Face in the Crowd-Kazan (1957)
  14. James Stewart-Vertigo-Hitchcock (1958)
  15. Bibi Anderson-Persona-Bergman (1966)
  16. Emily Watson-Breaking The Waves-Von Trier (1996)
  17. Malcolm McDowell-A Clockwork Orange-Kubrick (1971)
  18. Robert Deniro-Taxi Driver-Scorsese (1976)
  19. Gloria Swanson-Sunset Boulevard-Wilder (1950)
  20. Robert Deniro-Raging Bull-Scorsese (1980)
  21. Marlon Brando-On The Waterfront-Kazan (1954)
  22. Al Pacino-The Godfather, Part 2-Coppola (1974)
  23. Daniel Day Lewis-There Will Be Blood-Anderson (2007)
  24. Orson Welles-Touch of Evil-Welles (1958)
  25. Gene Hackman-The Conversation-Coppola (1974)
  26. Warren Oates-Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia-Peckinpah (1974)
  27. Takashi Shimura-Ikiru-Kurosawa (1952)
  28. Phillip Seymour Hoffman-Synecdoche, New York-Kaufman (2008)
  29. Jean Gabin-Pepe Le Moko-Duvivier (1937)
  30. Klaus Kinski-Aguirre, the Wrath of God-Herzog (1972)
  31. Ellen Burstyn-Requiem for a Dream-Aronofsky (2000)
  32. Charlie Chaplin-The Great Dictator-Chaplin (1940)
  33. Robert DeNiro-The King of Comedy-Scorsese (1983)
  34. Catherine Denueve-Belle de Jour-Bunuel (1967)
  35. Brigette Helm-Metropolis-Lang (1927)
  36. Emmanuelle Riva-Hiroshima, Mon Amour-Resnais (1959)
  37. Jack Nicholson-One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest-Forman (1975)
  38. Juliette Binoche-Blue-Kieslowski (1993)
  39. James Stewart-It's a Wonderful Life-Capra (1946)
  40. Machiko Kyo-Rashomon-Kurosawa (1950)
  41. Michael Gambon-The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover-Greenaway (1989)
  42. Anthony Perkins-Psycho-Hitchcock (1960)
  43. Gibson Gowland-Greed-Von Stroheim (1924)
  44. Sean Gullette-Pi-Aronofksy (1998)
  45. Jack Nicholson-Chinatown-Polanski (1974)

I'm happy you included "Rosemary's Baby" - that's a great performance. And creepy.

Yes, and repeat viewings have only increased its nuance, courage and power for me.

Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove? 3 almost 4 parts which i could not distinguish between the first three times i watched it; Takashi Shimura (Ikiru, Seven Samurai...), the blonde lady in Persona? I like the others, especially Brando in Waterfront (i think it is his best), and Gloria Swanson. I do not like Raging Bull, Vertigo or Taxi Driver so i am bias to what i remember or i refuse to watch again; Deniro was good in Raging Bull, i am not sure if i would ever put it as high as you have it.

i also liked Johnny Depp in Blow, as well as other stuff he has done as well as Chaplin the list stops there...i do not think about the actors when i watch movies...i am too far out on this subject...nevertheless i like this list better than simply Greatest Films because great performances get lost amongst the clutter of what makes a great film, like how i cannot name any, even with a little bit of thought.

Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove? 3 almost 4 parts which i could not distinguish between the first three times i watched it; Takashi Shimura (Ikiru, Seven Samurai...), the blonde lady in Persona?

All of these will make it on at some point, so long as I continue to make additions and expand the list. Each of these performances deserve inclusion, just not top 10.

I do not like Raging Bull, Vertigo or Taxi Driver so i am bias to what i remember or i refuse to watch again; Deniro was good in Raging Bull, i am not sure if i would ever put it as high as you have it.

In my opinion both Deniro's performances are astonishing (Raging Bull's could easily be #1), and Stewart's was vastly underrated in its day, but now seems more extraordinary and unleashed than ever.

i also liked Johnny Depp in Blow, as well as other stuff he has done as well as Chaplin the list stops there...

I've never seen Blow, but if there is a better current actor than Depp I'm not sure who it is, aside from maybe Daniel Day Lewis.

i do not think about the actors when i watch movies...

I hardly do also, but that's why I started this list, because I felt it may be a good idea to pay stricter attention to acting, and distinguish the best from the best.

i like this list better than simply Greatest Films because great performances get lost amongst the clutter of what makes a great film

i agree. thanks

Wow. I've been hearing many rave reviews about 'There Will Be Blood', but seeing you rank it so high (above Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver!!) it's now an absolute must-see for me. On a film note, I saw Citizen Kane for the first time today, it had a lot to live up to with everyone shouting its praises, and it really did I'm glad to say. It was emotive, powerful and compelling - and it didn't even feel dated. On that note for great performances - how about Orson Welles for Charles Foster Kane? I've also just recently updated my top films lists if you want to have a look some time and see what you think.

I checked that out and am very pleased by your reaction to Citizen Kane. Much of its emotional power is catapulted by its astonishing, unique structure. The film plays out like a multi-faceted stream-of-consciousness draining of Kane's life--as if the more accumulated substance is added, the less meaning is attained--everyone has something to say but in the end there is no understanding and no sympathy. He is just his material possessions. The only ones who know the truth are the audience and Kane. Therefore, in many ways, the audience becomes Kane looking back at what he accomplished. All it ended up being was an emptiness, ensuring he will be virtually forgotten by all involved--despite his "importance". His mistake is that he never made anyone else important.

Orson Welles' performance is one of the greatest of the decade without question and will appear on here at some point. I've heard some arguments that it was perhaps the first method acting performance, though Welles said he wanted nothing to do with "method acting" and that it was nothing of the sort.

There Will Be Blood is a very good film, probably a 7.25/10, with Day Lewis' performance being among the greatest ever.

I completely agree with your analysis of Kane, he was ultimately only concerned with himself and what he could gain (whether it be love, popularity or statues lol), as far as I see it he didn't want money as he was brought up with a huge amount in the first place. It is indeed a disorientating chain of events and the way it is presented in its flashback sequences is fantastic. His excess grew to the level that he became more and more extreme in every respect as he grew older, and most importantly more self obsessed.
I will definitely try and see TWBB soon and give you my thoughts on it.

Nice to see Takashi Shimura on your list. His performance in Ikiru is utterly miraculous.

Yea, absolutely. Incredible that I've never seen it mentioned or placed as one of the best performances ever. Considering that it's in a Kurosawa film, and one of his most famous no less, it should be flat out legendary.

I recently saw There Will Be Blood and I agree the highlight was Day Lewis' performance. What are your thoughts on the film as a whole?

I thought it was superb. Beautiful cinematography. Amazing performances. It showed very vividly the breakdown of Day Lewis' character, somehow making him likable and terrifying at the same time. And I enjoyed how it ended so ominously and quietly with him succeeding in his evil purposes by purging the sins of another by committing one of his own, by finally, completely losing it--it seems he can do nothing but stay there for eternity, his own personal hell is complete--he is infinitely stuck and there is nothing left to say, nothing left to tell. It was more "mature" than most of Anderson's films, exhibiting a certain refinement and mastery of the medium. He seems to be coming into his own as a director, though hopefully this doesn't make him lazy and predictable.

I completely agree with you statements, the actor portraying Eli did a fantastic job too, though not in Day Lewis' league. Sadly I'm yet to see any other Anderson films, though if TWBB is anything to go by they should be great. It would indeed be fantastic if a new Cinematic legendary director came about. What would your top ten 00s films be, if such a list were to be made?

I don't know...probably...

-Memento #1 for sure
-21 Grams not too far behind
-Eternal Sunshine
-Mulholland Drive
-Requiem For a Dream

There's too many choices for #'s 6-10 and I still have a lot of others to watch but that's a pretty safe top 5 I think.

Pretty similar to mine, but I haven't seen Eternal Sunshine and I have TWBB in mine. I definitely need to see 21 grams again, it was a fantastic film.

Great list! the only choice I may disagree with is Daniel Day Lewis-There Will Be Blood. It was a great performance but i don't think its top 10.

By the way, which do you fell is more important to a film, the actors or director? Thanks

Director, by far. A brilliantly directed/executed film can still be a masterpiece or nearly so with mediocre acting. Great direction of other aspects will often even compliment mediocre acting and shed a different light on it even. A brilliantly acted film is generally mediocre if its' execution is mediocre. The ideas on display and how they're presented is the most important aspect.

thanks and I think you should do a list of the greatest directors of all time. I would like to see your choices

If you had to pick the best actor of all time, who would you pick?

Probably DeNiro

yea me too, even though he has not done much good work in the last decade.

Caught my first viewing of Splendor in the Grass last night and absolutely loved it. One of, if not, the best love story I've ever seen. I'm really glad you have Natalie Wood up there! I completely fell in love with her, I felt so bad for her when she went to visit Bud on his farm :>

Yea, it's a tremendously expressive performance.

I love Rosemary's Baby, but I think Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion beats out Mia Farrow by a mile... Her descent into madness was truly horrifying. She also manages to draw the viewer in so one isn't a passive witness but an active participant. It's staggering how she managed to make me mirror her isolation as I watched the film.

By the way, I like how you write about films and music. Just thought I'd throw that in =).

Thanks for the compliment.

I definitely agree that Deneuve's performance is amazing. I'd have to see it again to decide on where to put it and whether it beats out Farrow's (been about 5 years at least)...but it certainly won't be by a mile...not even Falconneti's performance is that good. The more times I see Rosemary's Baby the more astonishing & nuanced & pitch-perfect Farrow's performance gets--not to mention how challenging and unique the role is. It's vastly underrated/overlooked in my eyes, based on the "best acting performance" lists I've seen.

Nice to see you working on this list in particular (acting is almost unanimously ignored when compiling movie lists). I haven't actually seen most of these performances, but I do love Nicholson's performance in Shining - especially when he's talking to Lloyd the Bartender & the sequence when Wendy discovers his manuscript.

Indeed. Nicholson is always superb. Probably one of the top 5 actors ever.

Cruise is a terrible actor now, but he was excellent in Born on the Fourth of July, agreed. Other interesting choices like Depp in Edward Scissorhands. But Laura Dern, really? I haven't seen Blue Velvet in a while but don't remember her performance that well. Was I missing something?

Cruise is a terrible actor now, but he was excellent in Born on the Fourth of July, agreed.

Interestingly enough, if I observe his roles honestly I have to think he's a more consistently great actor now than he's ever been. I didn't care much for Lions For Lambs as a film, but his performance was superb. He was perfectly fine in Valkyrie as well, a well-made competent suspense flick, about on par with the Bourne films. Going further back, he was amazing in Magnolia. Superb in Eyes Wide Shut & Interview With A Vampire. Great in Vanilla Sky. And did everything one would expect for his other "less challenging" flicks (Jerry Macguire, Mission Impossible, War of the Worlds, The Firm). Infact, now that you've got me thinking about it, I can't remember a below average performance out of him since Top Gun (which was something like 20 years ago). And really, how can you beat those unexpected roles in Austin Powers & Tropic Thunder. C'mon man! Not a bad record at all. Perhaps surprisingly, it's actually one of the better track records (more varied role-wise and consistent performance-wise) over the same time span. Wow, thanks for bringing this just made me realize how underrated an actor he is, especially now.

But Laura Dern, really? I haven't seen Blue Velvet in a while but don't remember her performance that well.

Fuck yes. Possibly the greatest actress of all time. I have to see more Meryl Streep films (did I really just say that?) to make a more concrete decision, but otherwise I'm not kidding. BTW, her performance in Inland Empire is possibly even more astonishing (maybe top 3 or 5 on this list), though I'll have to actually finish the film some day to qualify for placement.

Great defense of Cruise. I'd still say that Magnolia was his last significant performance ... ok, ok, I do concur!

I do like Laura Dern (and agree she is underrated) but I don't remember that particular role really impressing me. But I last saw Blue Velvet about 10 years ago, so it's probably time for a reassessment.

Yep, by all means see it again. She is amazing. Perfectly controlled, emotional overracting.

Tom Cruise in Magnolia is good but he still remain a mediocre actor.

I made a number of changes in position and also added a new one, Day Lewis' unbelievable performance in My Left Foot, a film that until last night, I'd never completed. If I was ranking these on degree of difficulty that performance would rank #1.

Revised the Author Comments section to more precisely describe my current standpoint. Previous version was written a long time ago. Since then I've more exactly discovered and defined my own criteria.

Per Oscarsson as a struggling writer in Sult is timeless, it's quite simply one of the greatest performances ever. It's a drama, but in many ways his role is that of a human comedian. I urge you to watch it, based on your other choices I can see you really loving it.

And finish Inland Empire! As it stands, Laura Dern is a major omission. It's as though her and Lynch have some telepathic connection going on. She's like a chameleon, whatever the film is expressing is seen directly on her face; whether it be guilt, horror, dread, etc.

I'll have to check out Sult.

As regards Inland Empire, you have great timing. I finished it last night. It was astonishing. And to say Dern is a major omission is a HUGE understatement. Thanks.

Had you considered either of the leads of Eternal Sunshine? They're certainly part of the reason for the film's enormous success.

I've considered them both. Both are great performances. The whole cast is very good. The two leads are probably second tier, not quite on this list.

I like those performances too, but I preferred Nicholas Cage in Adaptation.


i saw a trailer for the new film with Daniel Day-Lewis (Nine), and it got me thinking: he is by far the best actor in Hollywood today. i do not know much about Meryl Streep (a failure on my part), but Daniel Day-Lewis has NEVER failed me in any film i have seen with him of 5+. he is not just passable in his performances, he takes over any film he is in regardless of the overall quality of the film and the supporting cast. i am astonished, and it hit my like a ton of bricks when i looked up his filmography, and of the films i have seen he was AMAZING, and i have heard nothing fowl about other notable performances in films i have not seen. Daniel Day-Lewis is the premiere actor of our time.

i watched Touch of Evil again last night, and like Day-Lewis, Orson Welles's directoral career is GREAT, but his acting is ASTONISHING as well (Touch of Evil, Citizen Kane, The Third the top of my head). just the way he carries himself in F For Fake (Shanghai may be another that i will have to watch again), and the list goes on...Arkadin is next, then the Shakespeare works!

Agreed, agreed and agreed. Agreed.

Not only that, but Day Lewis is possibly the greatest actor ever in my opinion, with DeNiro and possibly Brando (Brando's "weakness" is there isn't nearly as much to choose from) being his main competitors.

Yes, Welles is not only the greatest director ever (to me) but likely a top 10 actor also, which is pretty effing impressive. Which means, all things considered, I would consider him (perhaps even by a wide margin) the greatest artist to ever be involved in the world of film. He has challengers in the directing department (Tarkovsky & Lang being the main ones) but when you combine the acting skill as well...

I mean, Brando was in more films than Day-Lewis, who has only appeared in nine films in the last twenty years. Sadly, both men are/were not nearly as prolific as a plethora of lesser actors.

With the possible exception of There Will Be Blood, the Daniel Day-Lewis performances I've seen haven't exactly stood out in my mind as the most shining examples of great acting in film history, but I really should see the two Sheridan films in your top ten before I can comment.

I guess you're right...I should probably re-word that to "I've seen less Brando films to compare"

Day Lewis is astonishing in those two Sheridan films...My Left Foot may be the greatest male performance in history.

How about Ellen Burstyn in Requiem for a Dream?

It is definitely e performance I intend on adding. I just haven't watched the film in a couple years and would have to see it again to determine where to place her. From what I remember, it was quite remarkable and one of the best performances of the decade. Thank you.

James Dean in East of Eden & Rebel Without a Cause

Interesting list.

Vivien Leigh in A Street Car Named Desire is probably the best female performance I've ever seen given on screen.

I totally agree on Mia Farrow. It was a crime she wasn't even nominated for her performance.

Where's Faye Dunaway for Mommie Dearest? Granted, much fun has been poked at the film but you can't deny Dunaway is amazing in it.

Ellen Burstyn in Requiem For A Dream who was inexplicably beaten by Julia gasp Roberts for Erin Brockovich.

Judy Davis for Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives who was inexplicably beaten by Marisa Tomei for My Cousin Vinny.

Paul Newman in The Verdict, Hud and almost anything else.

I completely agree with your thoughts on Day Lewis. He's given amazing performances in My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father and There Will Be Blood to mention just two.

Edward Norton in Primal Fear.

Alec Baldwin's brief turn in Glengarry Glen Ross as well as Jack Lemmon and Al Pacino in the same film. Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot as well, come to think of it and Marilyn for the same film who wasn't even nominated.

Anyway, that's all I have so far.

Thanks for this list and the opportunity for me to leave comments.

Lots of great suggestions, thanks.

I admire you but Tom Cruis and Nicolas Cage can't be on your top 20. Try with Laurence Olivier Othello.

If you read my author comments you might understand

This list needs a significant overhaul. Performances such as Streep for Sophie's Choice and other "perfect" examples of acting no longer deserve to be on here, relative to more outlandish, stunning, unique, "I can't believe she/he just did that" type performances. Meryl Streep is an amazing actress in much the same way that Whitney Houston is an amazing vocalist (I honeslty don't mean any sarcasm here - they really are each an amazing vocalist & actress). Streep does exactly what she should do in her roles and they are totally believable and competent. What I look for in the GREATEST performances are those where the actress/actor blows me out of the water, steps way outside themselves and delivers something totally indelible - performances that are unlikely to ever be repeated.

Unfair as it could be argued to be, but as I've said before, the role itself plays a major part with this. Someone playing George Washington is far less likely to meet my requirements than someone playing Joan of Arc.

Done, looks pretty good now.


Ian McKellen, Macbeth, 1978. Better than all these interpretations together considered, imnho.

Are you saying it's better than all the performances on this list? Or are you saying that it's better than all cinematic Macbeth performances?

I suggest you to watch him in that work of art. To you all the answers-))

Other interpretations:
Chris Walken in the Deer Hunter.
Judi Dench in Macbeth.
Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman, excessive but sublime in some way.
Ian McKellen in King Lear
R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket
M. Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire.
M. Brando in Last Tango in Paris
G. Bjornstrand in Winter Light

Thanks, those are all great though I havent seen Dench (Macbeth) and Mckellen (King Lear) yet. I did sample some of Mckellens performance in Macbeth and it was indeed amazing. :)

"Robert DeNiro-The King of New York-Scorsese (1983)"

Did you mean The King of Comedy?

Great list by the way. Though I am sad to see Daniel Day Lewis's phenomenal performance in My Left Foot get bumped off. :(

Oh yea, thanks :) Several others were removed too. They'll be back on here though -- just under renewed consideration. I've refined my criteria over the last year, leading to somewhat different results than before.