All Oscar-winning male lead performances, ranked

This is a ranking of the performances that won the Academy Award for Best Actor, excluding the sole winner ('The Way of All Flesh') classified as a lost film. Remember it is NOT a ranking of the films in question please! Also remember -- and I shouldn't have to say this, but this is the internet -- the ranking and my comments are entirely subjective, with no apologies made for personal biases and such.

  • The French Connection

    1.The French Connection

    ★★★★★

    Gene Hackman as Popeye Doyle
    One of the most charismatic of all American actors, Hackman had his signature moment in this film, although I might posit 'The Conversation', three years later, as his greatest work. In one of the most subversive and complex films ever to reach such award-vaunted status, Hackman illuminates and undercuts a true anti-hero caught in the middle of a frantic (and frantically futile) cat and mouse chase. Not only is his performance compelling, it’s abhorrent at times… and yet somehow still soulful. Hackman captures the completeness of a flawed, eccentric, often hotheaded figure with every bit of the complexity inherent to it visibly brewing behind his eyes. Villainous or heroic, he feels like a real human, and that is the true essence of cinematic acting.

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  • Gandhi

    2.Gandhi

    ★★★½

    Ben Kingsley as Mohandas Gandhi
    Of course Kingsley resembles Gandhi in aesthetic, but his work here is really the apex of an actor disappearing entirely into the essence of a celebrated historical figure, all the more impressively one whose voice, movements and appearance were captured on film. One needn’t worship Gandhi to find this performance a sterling accomplishment. Kingsley’s sensitivity is in evidence in most of his roles, and he arguably does more than director Attenborough to mold the legend of Gandhi into what feels like a living person.

  • Stalag 17

    3.Stalag 17

    ★★★★½

    William Holden as Sgt. Sefton
    Capable of a kind of hardened cynicism that remained believably acidic without ever boiling over into the sadism of Robert Mitchum or, later, Jack Nicholson, Holden is one of the greatest leading men in Hollywood history, and increasingly an unsung one. Even confronted with the likes of 'Sunset Blvd.', his best work could be in this beautifully staged POW thriller with comedic elements. It’s hard to think of another example of a Hollywood hero so defiantly unlikable, almost from the film’s beginning to its conclusion, who nevertheless manages to gather the entire audience into his corner. And underneath layers of sarcasm and bile, his eyes remain stirringly expressive. Wilder and Holden are master collaborators, making this an untouchable feat in the temperamental silly-putty of audience identification.

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  • Coming Home

    4.Coming Home

    ★★★½

    Jon Voight as Luke Martin
    Though it’s a solid film, the post-Vietnam drama 'Coming Home' is really significant more for the emblematic war of ideologies it precipitated along with 'The Deer Hunter' at the 51st Academy Awards than for anything in the picture itself. That is, except for Voight’s masterfully underplayed portrayal of a paralyzed veteran who makes a (believably drawn, far more so than similar turns in films like 'Born on the Fourth of July' and 'Forrest Gump') decision to speak out against the war. The anti-recruitment speech he gives at a high school, seemingly ad-libbed in part, is as sublime as the third act of 'All Quiet on the Western Front', and one of the most clearheaded and radical moments of antiwar sentiment that made it into a Vietnam-era film.

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  • Lincoln

    5.Lincoln

    ★★★½

    Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln
    Perhaps the most dedicated of all Method actors, Day-Lewis comes from a family of artists, and this is not the only film in which his own completeness of craft eclipses that of the (perfectly good) film he’s in. So much more than a historical photograph in three dimensions, his Lincoln reflects both a depth of understanding of the president as a public and private figure and — even if you’re completely lost in the film — an unmistakable commitment to the craft of acting itself. It’s hard not to be distracted by how entirely believable this performance is; it’s equally hard to think of that as some sort of flaw.

  • Ray

    6.Ray

    ★★★½

    Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles
    Having been hyped on Foxx’s turn in this film for years, I felt I wasn’t to be surprised by it. (Why I hadn’t ever bothered with the movie in the past eleven years despite an adoration of Mr. Charles’ music that’s only increased through the years speaks to how much I normally dislike biopics.) Several times while watching the film I unconsciously found myself thinking that I was truly watching Charles himself speak, perform, live, and would be newly surprised by the almost unpersuasive reminder that I was really watching Foxx. The film’s a bit of an overstuffed mess, but every accolade toward Foxx was fully deserved.

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  • Manchester by the Sea

    7.Manchester by the Sea

    ★★★★

    Casey Affleck as Lee
    Affleck’s win in 2017 was shrouded in understandable controversy over sexual assault charges in his past, but taken independently his is one of the most well-controlled, believable and haunting feats of acting in modern cinema. All of the major characters in Lonergan’s stunning exploration of grief cope with loss in a singular way that feels as random and unpredictable as our responses to such terrible circumstances in real life. Affleck’s shut-down daily slog merits a description rare in film acting: it’s raw.

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  • Sergeant York

    8.Sergeant York

    ★★★½

    Gary Cooper as Sgt. Alvin York
    Honestly, I’d have voted this year for Orson Welles in 'Citizen Kane', but Cooper nevertheless is stunning here; Hawks possesses a sentimentality toward Sgt. York as an evolving Christian and pacifist that could easily have passed into the realm of the saccharine in other hands. Instead, Cooper approaches a quiet role with his usual trad-hero (some would say macho) stoicism and lifts the film up immeasurably with his unwavering subtlety. The scene in which Cooper, on the verge of an unforgivable crime, instead appears in a church service and is overcome is a model of negative acting: a magical performative moment achieved as much through editing as acting, but that is not to minimize Cooper’s face, which makes the moment everything it is.

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  • The Best Years of Our Lives

    9.The Best Years of Our Lives

    ★★★★★

    Fredric March as Al
    Almost nothing about this film is not utterly masterful; without question, it is the best movie to receive an award in this category. March is just one master among many here, but one could fill pages with highlights of his brilliant performance as a displaced patriarch returning home to a family that’s learned to subsist and thrive in his absence. There is that galvanizing shot in which Gregg Toland captures him wandering lonely down the hallway of his own home late at night, coping with the emotional movements of his wife and daughter; or that in which he watches a friend play piano, distractedly, as his eyes wander with a mixture of sternness and deep regret to a phone booth in which he knows that his daughter’s heart is being broken by Dana Andrews. March’s work might actually be enhanced by the lack of closure Al is given — Wyler pointedly chooses not to resolve the matter of his alcoholism and the potential damage it’s causing his marriage. It would be unfair to single out any performance in this masterpiece as the “best”; instead, let’s just use this as an excuse to repeat once again that anyone who does not presently have this film in his or her life will never regret letting its warmth and beauty in the door.

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  • Tender Mercies

    10.Tender Mercies

    ★★★★

    Robert Duvall as Mac Sledge
    Even at the time of its release, 'Tender Mercies' was criminally under-seen by the public; it’s something of a miracle that it managed enough attention to garner such a reception from the Academy. But once one sees the film, the accolades are difficult to question. The film could be derided or praised (praised, from these quarters) as an example of one in which “nothing happens,” but its believability as a representation of a life — that of a washed-up country singer who recovers from a drinking problem and finds solace in a new relationship — strictly requires the presence of a performance like Duvall’s in which, well, everything happens… and happens in a heartfelt and entirely convincing manner. Sporadically musical but mostly resistant of the typical excesses of such stories, this is really a tone-poem, and incredibly moving; meanwhile, Duvall had long been a rock of sensitivity in mainstream films and television (watch his Twilight Zone episode, “Miniature,” to see some of his most heartbreaking work) and this was a long-festering moment of deserved recognition.

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  • Network

    11.Network

    ★★★★★

    Peter Finch as Howard Beale
    I’ll be saying this a few times throughout this list, but here’s the first instance: this is not a “leading role” by any stretch of the imagination. It’s magnificent, yes, but it’s a character-actor moment all the way. (It’s also the only posthumous award given in this category thus far.) Even those who have not seen 'Network' (and for god’s sake, get on that) know the meat and potatoes of this performance back to front. In a lot of ways it’s the opposite of Cooper, March and Duvall just above — wild, over the top, utterly unhinged until its virtual explosion. Beale is an uncontainable force, harnessed cynically by others, and Finch gleefully spins this element of Paddy Chayefsky’s script into a full-on tornado. To boot, it’s very difficult not to think that 'Network' successfully predicted the scourge of modern, showmanship-based punditry; Finch deserves as much celebration for this as do Chayefsky and Lumet.

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  • The Private Life of Henry VIII

    12.The Private Life of Henry VIII

    ★★★★★

    Charles Laughton as Henry VIII
    Korda’s historical anti-biopic is essentially a black comedy — and a splendid, nasty one — about both the madness bred by power and the pathetic mess aging makes of everyone, particularly those with lofty ideals of the self. Laughton, like Finch, was hardly a model of subtlety; Alfred Hitchcock, always an advocate of subdued performances, infamously clashed with him on both their films together. In signature roles like that of Captain Bligh in 'Mutiny on the Bounty' or the barrister Sir Robarts in 'Witness for the Prosecution', Laughton is a tempest of sneer and outrageous intimidation. There’s a bit of that in his Henry VIII, but significantly less than you’d probably expect (and certainly less than in Robert Shaw’s much more unvarnished fun-having in 'A Man for All Seasons'); Laughton’s sophisticated work here is able to suggest majesty, braggadocio and pain throughout the picture, all without compromising Korda’s sly vision for the film.

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  • The Silence of the Lambs

    13.The Silence of the Lambs

    ★★★★★

    Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter
    Again, not a leading performance; not even close, even if once you’re introduced to Hannibal in this film his is the face you won’t forget after all else recedes into memory. The role had been portrayed before by Brian Cox in 'Manhunter', but Hopkins turned it into a pop culture icon. The power, more perhaps than in most of these Oscar-winning performances, is in his eyes, and of course in the intensity of the de facto partnership formed with Jodie Foster’s Clarice. Erudite and terrifying, Hopkins’ Lecter is a classical, silent era-worthy monument to horror and movie villainy, never once as simple as it could so obviously be.

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  • The Pianist

    14.The Pianist

    ★★★★

    Adrien Brody as Władysław Szpilman
    In this case, not a lot of attention paid to Brody in this part was likely due to any judgment of his actual resemblance to Szpilman; an advantage, since such things tend to be a distraction. Each time I revisit this film, which is quite rife with bloat in its first two acts then comes beautifully together, it becomes more clear that Brody’s work is what makes it powerful. His passion more than eclipses Polanski’s own, no matter how personal the story was to the latter.

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  • Milk

    15.Milk

    ★★★★½

    Sean Penn as Harvey Milk
    Penn is not an actor whose serious work I typically enjoy; before this, my favorite work of his was as Spicoli in 'Fast Times' — indeed, it might still be. I don’t praise Penn here on the basis of how well he captures Milk from the documentary and news footage that exists, but rather on the completeness and genuine sensitivity of this performance. Every moment he’s onscreen seems felt, and the creation of Milk as a character coheres extremely well, far more so than in most Hollywood biographies.

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  • Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

    16.Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

    ★★★★½

    Fredric March as, um, the title character
    Undoubtedly the most bizarre performance to gain the award in this category, for one of the weirdest filmed nightmares in classic Hollywood. Spencer Tracy would later star in a remake and his Dr. Jekyll would be fraught with melancholy; March’s, by contrast, indulges in perverse, wicked joy both within and without his special effects-laden transitions. It’s extremely hard to reconcile March as we see him here with the restrained March of 'Best Years' a decade and a half later.

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  • Patton

    17.Patton

    ★★½

    George C. Scott as George S. Patton
    Scott was one of the greats, and he is… persuasive in his signature role, which alas is trapped in a film that’s a far step down from his very best, but if you’ve seen stuff like 'Hardcore' you know his presence lit a fire under even the weakest products in his filmography. If you just watch the opening moments of this film, you’ll see everything you need to understand why this was such an iconic performance. Since I like the guy so much, I should apologize to him posthumously for pitting all these actors against each other; his hatred of such things prompted his refusal of this Oscar.

  • Yankee Doodle Dandy

    18.Yankee Doodle Dandy

    ★★½

    James Cagney as George M. Cohan
    This patriotic film numbs me personally, but the ever-enthusiastic Cagney commits himself, body mind and spirit, as fully and unreservedly as ever; like Jimmy Stewart and Buster Keaton, he’s the rare classical actor who used his entire body in every performance. For Cagney’s most brilliant and emotional work, watch him bring a violently tragic marriage to life alongside Doris Day in 'Love Me or Leave Me'.

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  • A Man for All Seasons

    19.A Man for All Seasons

    ★★★½

    Paul Scofield as Thomas More
    In one of the quieter (and consequently, most frequently forgotten) major Oscar-gathering films, Scofield lifts sensitivity and strength from what could have been a glorified textbook page. Something about the way he says the word “love”…

  • The Last Command

    20.The Last Command

    ★★★★★

    Emil Jannings as Grand Duke Alexander
    Jannings’ is the sort of performance that will provide much-needed aid to someone trying to rid a person of their inborn stereotypes about silent film acting. The film tasks Jannings with telling its entire story of a glory lost and one last internal triumph in his face, and he succeeds unforgettably.

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  • Elmer Gantry

    21.Elmer Gantry

    ★★★½

    Burt Lancaster in Elmer Gantry
    This was a difficult year, with two performances arguably more deserving of the Oscar: Jack Lemmon’s comedic mastery in Billy Wilder’s masterpiece 'The Apartment', and one of Spencer Tracy’s best performances in the otherwise less noteworthy 'Inherit the Wind'. However, Lancaster is one of the rare popular Hollywood actors capable of charisma and disappearing-act subtlety, and he’s able to display his skill in both directions here as Sinclair Lewis’ seductive preacher and charlatan.

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  • The Last King of Scotland

    22.The Last King of Scotland

    ★★½

    Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin
    Like Sean Penn above, Whitaker was bringing life to an exceptionally well-recorded persona, which is why it’s so impressive that he arguably does more work than anyone else involved in the film to sell Idi Amin Dada as a dangerous madman but also a persuasive leader and a three-dimensional character. That the performance is wildly out of character for Whitaker makes it more compelling yet. He is the sole reason to see this film.

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  • The Champ

    23.The Champ

    ★★★½

    Wallace Beery as Andy Purcell
    The movie is pure MGM syrup, a tearjerker of a boxer and his young boy and their financially-addled foibles, the whole thing relying on multiple implausibilities, though the rousing climax is one of those movie-magic moments that can be certifiably called irresistible. The bulky, formidable Beery was born for parts like this; he succeeds on the film’s terms here by leaving the copping of sentimentality to others, just solid as a rock throughout and thus inspiring of exactly the widespread hope and endearment producer Irving Thalberg and writer Frances Marion must have wanted.

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  • Amadeus

    24.Amadeus

    ★★★★

    F. Murray Abraham as Salieri
    An extremely unorthodox choice by the Academy, but a damned good one — in general, the Academy prefers boisterous observed-from-afar antagonists like Whitaker’s role above to the actual audience vessels in such films. Salieri is the notable exception; a stand-in for the unrealized artistic aspirations of so many of us, he watches in awe as a gift for music visits and never seems to leave a man who seems to be an unmitigated oaf, Mozart as played memorably by Tom Hulce. Abraham’s performance, melodramatic but not showy, is unforgivingly dark and cynical, much like the film itself, which makes this Oscar one worth cheering for anyone who thinks “Best Actor” ought to mean what it says it does.

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  • Capote

    25.Capote

    ★★★★

    Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote
    Not Hoffman’s best performance or the best film he was in — in both cases I vote 'Synecdoche, New York' — but a strong example of how difficult it was to pin him down, particularly in his seemingly elastic voice. (I saw this soon after hearing his work in the animated film 'Mary and Max', which made his Capote even more jarring.) As in all his best work from 'Happiness' to 'The Master', even his smile seems earned by hidden pain.

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  • There Will Be Blood

    26.There Will Be Blood

    ★★★★½

    Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview
    This is the most “fun” of Day-Lewis’ Oscar winning performances, for what that’s worth; in a manner reminiscent to the best and broadest silent acting, he projects calm, misanthropic, cutthroat professionalism whose cracks he only rarely permits shown. It seems almost too trite a statement to make, but his transformations are perhaps more impressive than any other actor’s.

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  • Goodbye, Mr. Chips

    27.Goodbye, Mr. Chips

    ★★★½

    Robert Donat as Mr. Chips
    Yes, it sucks that Clark Gable, whose performance in the finest in 'Gone with the Wind', lost. And so did James Stewart for his wonderful turn in Frank Capra’s 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington'. But Donat gave several Oscar-worthy performances in his lifetime and this one as a priggish schoolteacher briefly warmed up by a good marriage is certainly full of the charm typical of his best work. My favorite work of Donat’s can be seen in 'The 39 Steps' and the lovely comedy 'Vacation from Marriage'.

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  • The Bridge on the River Kwai

    28.The Bridge on the River Kwai

    ★★★★

    Alec Guinness as Lt. Nicholson
    As with Donat, an actor I adore rewarded for what probably isn’t even one of his ten best performances; the award in this ceremony rightfully belonged to Laughton for 'Witness for the Prosecution'. That said, Guinness is a memorable presence in nearly all of his films, and at least he wasn’t saddled in Lean’s POW epic with the kind of butt-stupid dialogue George Lucas would later give him.

  • All the King's Men

    29.All the King's Men

    ★★½

    Broderick Crawford as Willie Stark
    I wanted to like this sharply satirical film of Robert Penn Warren’s novel a lot more than I did, but the Academy’s choice to honor the physically atypical, very un-Hollywood Crawford for his oddly pitched work as corruptible politician Stark is one of the few times a choice they made seems to have come about for pure, celebratory reasons.

  • Captains Courageous

    30.Captains Courageous

    ★★★

    Spencer Tracy as Manuel
    Tracy’s two wins typify a “right actor, wrong movie” problem seen over and over again in this category. In a way, however, this is the most understandable kind of win, a single strong performance that elevates an otherwise utterly mediocre film. It is by no means a leading role, by the way.

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  • It Happened One Night

    31.It Happened One Night

    ★★★★★

    Clark Gable as Peter
    Capra’s humanist screwball comedy is one of my favorite films of the period, and its sweep of its Oscars suggest an early awareness of its universally appreciable loveliness. Gable doesn’t do much here that he doesn’t do in almost all of his roles, and it seems clear that he and Claudette Colbert were rewarded as much for the general quality of the film they were in as for any specific strength in their individual work. Though I enjoy that a film I love so much is the first of the three “Big Five” winners, as a voter I would actually have gone for William Powell in 'The Thin Man', a movie I like considerably less.

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  • Separate Tables

    32.Separate Tables

    ★★★★

    David Niven as Major Pollock
    Not a leading role, not by a longshot. In many of his films, Niven comes across as the shallowest kind of playboy; it’s something he was good at, but not something that generally brings buckets of awards. At the time of this film’s release, his most famous role was as Phileas Fogg in the deplorable 'Around the World in Eighty Days'; audiences must have been thrown by Niven’s nervous embodiment here of a secretive hotel patron who turns out to be guilty of a “crime against nature” (given as molestation in the film but probably code by playwright Terence Rattigan for homosexuality, illegal in Britain then). You have to watch nearly the entire movie to understand what made Niven’s performance so celebrated, but it is indeed special, and quite a surprise for those who know him best for things like 'The Pink Panther'.

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  • Marty

    33.Marty

    ★★★½

    Ernest Borgnine as Marty
    Reviving a role originated on television by Rod Steiger, Borgnine is as unlikely a choice for this category as the film itself was for Best Picture — its origins as a Paddy Chayefsky teleplay are all but inescapable, as particularly in the scenes focusing on the supporting cast it mostly resembles an elevated sitcom. But Borgnine is winning and believable as a lonely but high-spirited man coping with the single life as he grows older and tries to bust out of a comfortable groove. He coasts mostly on charm here as in most of his roles, but the aspired naturalism of the film warrants such minimal embellishment. I still think it’s criminal that Cagney lost this year, though.

  • Save the Tiger

    34.Save the Tiger

    ★★★★

    Jack Lemmon as Harry Stoner
    This is one of those films that seems to bleed melancholy from every pore, a pained portrait of a businessman suffering from undiagnosed depression. Some don’t like that Lemmon has some pretentious, verbose dialogue forced into his mouth, but he conquers it brilliantly. The only caveats are that he had several superior performances, and that this was the year of Jack Nicholson’s best work ever in Hal Ashby’s even more beautiful 'The Last Detail'. But please don’t let that stop you from seeking out this surprising, undeservedly forgotten film.

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  • The African Queen

    35.The African Queen

    ★★★★

    Humphrey Bogart as Charlie Allnut
    More than anyone else save perhaps Cary Grant, Bogart exemplifies the idea that someone who always delivers more or less exactly what you expect is not necessarily a bad actor… can, in fact, be a great one. It’s not remarkable that the persona Bogart started to establish for Huston in 'The Maltese Falcon' became a sensation. What’s remarkable is that he never let it become a trap, and found ways to make it sing in a wide variety of films, genres, tones; you come to this movie to see the Bogart you know in the jungle, and that’s just what you get. (As a side note, one laments that he went unrewarded for his most adventurous, perception-stretching part in the same director’s 'Treasure of the Sierra Madre', but that wasn’t really a lead role.)

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  • The Philadelphia Story

    36.The Philadelphia Story

    ★★★

    James Stewart as Macaulay Connor
    In a bit of classic Oscar irony, Stewart’s only competitive award came one of the very few times he didn’t deserve one. But the relatively weak nature of his work here isn’t really his fault so much as a result of the overly wordy play by Philip Barry that's being shot (despite several rewrites to attempt to make it more cinematic) and Cukor’s unremarkable, stagy treatment of it. Among other things, it requires Stewart to look slightly demonic while saying the word “holocausts” in a scene that has him sweet-talking Katharine Hepburn. This was a year in which the great Henry Fonda was nominated for redeeming John Ford’s generally tiresome film of 'The Grapes of Wrath', and Charlie Chaplin for middle-fingering fascism in 'The Great Dictator'. Still, had he not won this year, Stewart might never have received an Academy Award; dodging that shame might be the preferable conclusion here.

  • The Theory of Everything

    37.The Theory of Everything

    ★★★

    Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking
    Pretty easy to mock Oscar-baity roles like this, but at least Redmayne is less showy and scenery-chewing than most Oscar winners who took roles of this nature. For the most part, he does well by just staying out of the way.

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  • The Informer

    38.The Informer

    ★★★½

    Victor McLaglen as Gypo
    The most remarkable aspect of this particular film is how wildly out of character it is for director Ford — visually at least, it’s essentially his stab at what would eventually be known as film noir. McLaglen does emerge with a full-bodied performance as a guilty informer during the Irish War of Independence, but yet again, Charles Laughton was robbed of an Oscar for his truly unforgettable Captain Bligh — the nightmare boss of the ages — in 'Mutiny on the Bounty'.

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  • The Story of Louis Pasteur

    39.The Story of Louis Pasteur

    ★★½

    Paul Muni as Louis Pasteur
    Muni’s series of biographical performances are serviceable enough, judging from this and the more easily available 'Life of Emile Zola', but his best work was arguably behind him by this point; watch the astounding 'I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang!' as soon as you can. My cynicism toward this win for a fairly nondescript film and performance is mounted all the more because this was the year one of my favorite performances of all time was nominated: Walter Huston in William Wyler’s shattering 'Dodsworth' — Huston and the film are infinitely better, more memorable and more age-durable than this innocent enough claptrap.

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  • Lilies of the Field

    40.Lilies of the Field

    ★★½

    Sidney Poitier as Homer
    One of many instances in which it’s almost certain that an actor gained an Oscar for the general quality of his career to date rather than for the film in question; this pedestrian story of a wandering handyman and soldier helping some nuns build a house is so thin and forgettable one doubts the legitimacy of anyone claiming they remembered the film from its October release all the way to Oscar time the following year. (Its status as an independently produced, low-budget picture also likely would exclude it from typical consideration.) Poitier is a great actor, no doubt about it (and incidentally he’s the earliest winner in this category for whom we’re able to use present tense in that sentence!), but he seldom found himself in memorable or even worthy movies — undoubtedly due to racism, conscious or not, that barred him from parts that weren’t somehow “about” his race. So as with Stewart, a win for a mediocre film and decent performance to which one can’t really reasonably object.

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  • The Color of Money

    41.The Color of Money

    ★★½

    Paul Newman as Fast Eddie
    Another situation like Poitier’s, though it feels different to me personally because I generally don’t like Newman very much. Somehow he usually appears vacant to me. Contrary to that, I actually enjoyed him in this fairly ordinary movie from the empty-headed 1980s let’s-make-lots-of-money genre, but Bob Hoskins in 'Mona Lisa' was the more deserving nominee.

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  • Philadelphia

    42.Philadelphia

    ★★

    Tom Hanks as Andrew Becket
    In the course of this project I learned how wildly against the grain I am on this movie; I didn’t realize how beloved it was and still is. My numerous serious problems with it are best listed elsewhere, but they have nothing to do with Hanks, who’s fine in it — I’ve long felt he betrayed his true talent as a comedic actor (his work in Penny Marshall’s 'Big' is extraordinary) when he transitioned almost entirely to drama in the ’90s, but 'Captain Phillips' managed at last to shut me up. Still, I’m not sure people remember that Hanks was up against Liam Neeson in 'Schindler’s List' in this category; maybe others disagree, but divorced from the emotional context of the time that still seems to me a more formidable effort.

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  • Harry and Tonto

    43.Harry and Tonto

    ★★½

    Art Carney as Harry
    One of the most notorious upsets in Oscar history — to the point that some sort of foul was charged — but looking at the nominees it’s easy to see that, as with 'Rocky'‘s otherwise baffling Best Picture win in 1976, it was simply a question of multiple celebrated nominees running at cross-purposes and cancelling out one another. Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffman got shut out surely for this reason, as did my own choice, Jack Nicholson in 'Chinatown', but I do like Carney and he’s pretty OK in this, and lord knows Nicholson’s been amply compensated over the years.

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  • American Beauty

    44.American Beauty

    ★★★★

    Kevin Spacey as Lester Burnham
    Spacey needed one at some point and this was as good a time as any; I enjoy Mendes’ film quite a lot, though adolescent associations may play a role in that. In retrospect, Richard Farnsworth’s powerful work in 'The Straight Story' was probably a better choice this year.

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  • Boys Town

    45.Boys Town

    ★★½

    Spencer Tracy as Father Flanagan
    Tracy is as watchable as ever in a tiresome juvenile-delinquent film.

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  • Hamlet

    46.Hamlet

    ★★★½

    Laurence Olivier as Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
    In no way does Olivier’s film of 'Hamlet' seem like the definitive screen version it’s sometimes credited to be, but he was a fine actor and the novelty of a self-directed performance winning (which would happen once more, many years later, to a far worse film) survives the scrutiny. This was also a rather weak year at the Oscars in general.

  • My Left Foot: The Story of Christy Brown

    47.My Left Foot: The Story of Christy Brown

    ★★½

    Daniel Day-Lewis as Christy Brown
    By-the-numbers biopic is unmistakably benefited by Day-Lewis’ performance, but it seems a good deal broader — as much “about” the difficulty of the performance as for any way that it believably embodies a character — than his later work.

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  • Charly

    48.Charly

    ★★

    Cliff Robertson as Charly
    By this point you surely notice the alarming preponderance of Best Actor winners so rewarded for portraying disabled or ill people; the Academy seems to see the suffering narrative as code for a difficult performance. Unfortunately, so do a lot of people. Robertson is likable in this execrable Flowers for Algernon adaptation until the raping starts, then he and the film both quickly reach intolerable territory.

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  • On the Waterfront

    49.On the Waterfront

    ★★½

    Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy
    Well, here’s where I’ll start to lose everyone. As readers of my movie blog are well aware, I am not a fan of the man frequently cited as the greatest actor ever to work in American film; not only am I not a fan, I actively dislike all of his work that I’ve seen. This performance which made a large part of his reputation and still looms broadly over film culture is part of a film that’s already problematic for several reasons, and I don’t want to put blame on Brando for Kazan’s politics or for the fact that this film features an extremely disturbing scene of violence against a woman for which I have never ever seen it called out, not even once. My problem with Brando is that when I watch him, I can see the “acting” happening; I’ve never bought any of his work. Here, it’s an egregious problem that he’s adopting mannerisms and speech patterns extremely at odds with everything else happening on camera. Not only is it a failure as “realism,” it takes me completely out of a film that already struggles to keep my rapt attention. Some would say that Brando sticking out here just marks his as the most artistically accomplished work here; I think he sinks the film even further into the area of indulgence. But obviously I accept that this seems to be a matter of me not “getting” it. And for plenty more of that, keep reading!

  • The Artist

    50.The Artist

    ★★

    Jean Dujardin as George Valentin
    Dujardin is charming enough in a largely charmless film. I preferred Gary Oldman or George Clooney out of the slate this year, but I bristle less at this than the same film’s other awards.

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  • High Noon

    51.High Noon

    ★★

    Gary Cooper as Marshal Kane
    Howard Hawks was right; this badly plotted, amateurishly shot nonsense is one full-of-shit excuse for a western and its continued cultural cachet and cinematic influence are a plague on film society. Cooper isn’t exactly bad, but this is the dark side of his “negative acting” — his stonefaced machismo is so at odds with the truly lame story being told that it hurts the film even more. Worse, he won over Alec Guinness’ life-affirming work in the magnificent Ealing comedy 'The Lavender Hill Mob', but I suppose we should be grateful (and surprised) a British film was even nominated.

  • Training Day

    52.Training Day

    ★★★

    Denzel Washington as Alonzo Harris
    One of those rare occasions when a brainless (but immensely watchable) Hollywood action movie somehow makes it all the way to Oscar night; this one did so wholly on the strength of Washington’s shameless scenery-chewing as a corrupt police detective systematically ripping away Ethan Hawke’s illusions about police work. You can draw a straight line from Charles Laughton’s Captain Bligh to this, except that Harris isn’t nearly as scary. Is it the drugs? Washington is a reliable actor — I’ve never really formed much of an opinion on him, and I haven’t yet seen several of his signature roles — but despite flashes of wicked genius this is a whole lot of silly.

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  • Crazy Heart

    53.Crazy Heart

    ★★½

    Jeff Bridges as Bad Blake
    I can’t properly judge this performance due to a bias against Jeff Bridges; not that I think he’s a terrible actor, but physically he skeeves me the fuck out, probably because I saw 'The Fisher King' at a young age and was traumatized by his scumminess, which I can’t quite seem to un-see. (Movies like 'The Big Lebowski' and 'Tideland' in which “needs a bath” seems to be the entirety of his character motivation have not helped.) There’s nothing especially wrong with this performance (there’s a lot wrong with the movie), but once the paradigms of washed-up-alcoholic-working-musician are established there’s not much of anywhere to go.

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  • The Lost Weekend

    54.The Lost Weekend

    ★★★

    Ray Milland as Don
    Wilder’s most ridiculous film nevertheless has some strong writing; when we talked about actors being rewarded for suffering narratives, remember that “illness” includes alcoholism. Milland is probably one of the weakest performers in general ever to get an Oscar; Peter Bogdanovich once called him a “road company Cary Grant,” and I doubt he meant it as a slam but it works for our purposes here. He’s only ranked this highly because (a) the material isn’t awful and (b) any actor who can acquit himself from that hilarious proto-'Trainspotting' “coming down” sequence that has him battling a hallucinated bat deserves some sort of kudos.

  • A Free Soul

    55.A Free Soul

    ★★★★½

    Lionel Barrymore as Stephen Ashe
    By contrast: I like Barrymore. I loved this movie. His performance is its weakest point, particularly a celebrated sequence near the end that has him addressing a courtroom and spewing out what was supposedly the longest single-take monologue in movie history at the time. It’s outrageously goofy and really has no place in an otherwise restrained film about a weakening father-daughter relationship. Hey, this isn’t a lead performance, by the way.

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  • Kramer vs. Kramer

    56.Kramer vs. Kramer

    ★★★

    Dustin Hoffman as Ted Kramer
    I always remember this film as being much worse than it is — in reality, the most commercially successful of all divorce dramas is a passable movie and Hoffman’s very good, as he almost always is, but Peter Sellers losing to him for 'Being There' is utter unmitigated horseshit.

  • To Kill a Mockingbird

    57.To Kill a Mockingbird

    ★★

    Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch
    The two problems here are that I generally think Peck was a poor actor, or at least one who was almost always miscast. (He’s reasonably good when he’s playing a crook or a Nazi.) Like Paul Newman, he is — for me — fatally inexpressive. Secondly, Atticus as written in the novel (which I love muchly) doesn’t jibe for me with the detached figure depicted in the movie version; it’s always felt to me like Peck was playing Batman or some other superhero, someone who withholds large amounts of information from his loved ones and keeps all of his emotional cards annoyingly close to his chest. The publication of Go Set a Watchman this year softens this judgment a bit; it adds a dimension to Atticus running at odds with the way a younger Scout saw him in a manner that seems to correlate more with the filmed Atticus. Since I understand that Harper Lee was more involved with this production than is usual for authors of source material, perhaps this explains a bit about Peck’s portrayal, but this is really grasping at straws for a film that in final judgment remains a massive disappointment to me. This same year, Jack Lemmon brilliantly pumped life into the world of a lost-soul alcoholic in 'Days of Wine and Roses', making Milland above seem even more like a cartoon; the Oscar ought to have been his.

  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

    58.One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

    ★★½

    Jack Nicholson as McMurphy
    McMurphy’s an asshole. Sorry. Nicholson’s not bad here but this is one of the many popular films whose reputation could not be more puzzling to me if it had spaceships in it. Should’ve been Al Pacino, at his best in 'Dog Day Afternoon', rewarded years later instead for his worst — see a pattern here?

  • Kiss of the Spider Woman

    59.Kiss of the Spider Woman

    ★★★½

    William Hurt as Luis
    This was an out-of-nowhere win for an actor at the very start of his career for a relatively obscure independent production — a strange, compelling story of a pair of prisoners stuck in close quarters. Hurt’s a fine actor, if one who’s made a number of strange career decisions, and this really only suffers because by our modern sensibilities it’s such a stereotyped portrayal of a gay man by a straight one.

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  • Darkest Hour

    60.Darkest Hour

    ★★½

    Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill
    Oldman gets caked with makeup and CGI and who knows what else, with the final result that he looks like Jim Broadbent and sounds like Timothy Spall in Mr. Turner. The transformation is impressive; transformations usually are. Daniel Kaluuya and Daniel Day-Lewis were better, subtler; but this was really a lifetime thing for Oldman.

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  • The Goodbye Girl

    61.The Goodbye Girl

    ★★★½

    Richard Dreyfuss as Elliot Garfield
    Woody Allen’s phenomenal self-directed performance in 'Annie Hall', probably the best he ever was onscreen, didn’t win most likely because people didn’t understand that he was acting. Annoying in the bulk of his films, Dreyfuss proves at certain opportune moments that he’s gifted and funny; a few of those moments occur in this decent romantic comedy, the significance of which is obviously eclipsed by orders of magnitude by this year’s Best Picture winner.

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  • The King's Speech

    62.The King's Speech

    ★★★

    Colin Firth as George VI
    Again with a note on bias: I’ve never liked Firth. No particular reason, I just don’t like him. I’ll sit down with a bunch of his work come up with a good reason if you pay me, I guess, but until then… Both Jesse Eisenberg and James Franco, of all people, turned out stronger performances this year, but this crowd-pleasing movie was something of a juggernaut in 2010.

  • A Double Life

    63.A Double Life

    ★★★

    Ronald Colman as Anthony John
    Colman’s a psychotic stage actor who disappears into a gig playing Othello to such an extent that he has a Jekyll-and-Hyde meltdown. This is as oddball and schlocky as it sounds, and Colman’s wildly melodramatic performance seems like something out of a Corman movie.

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  • Bohemian Rhapsody

    64.Bohemian Rhapsody

    ★★

    64. Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury
    Malek's absurd prosthetic teeth are the only offensive element of this performance; but while he bears some physical resemblance to Mercury superficially, he's much more slight, and fails to compensate for the awful screenplay's shortcomings in his performance, but he does lip-sync his way through the Queen catalog gamely enough. This was a particularly weak year in the Best Actor field, for the record.

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  • Rain Man

    65.Rain Man

    ★★

    Dustin Hoffman as Raymond
    UGH, this devilry. Again, Hoffman reduced to copping to the worst temptations of awards-bait with this gawking autism porn. This is the year Tom Hanks should have won.

  • Mystic River

    66.Mystic River

    ★★

    Sean Penn as “IZZAT MAH DAUGHTER OVA THUURREERRRR”
    This disgraceful film prompted what was probably a mercy vote for Penn to have a career-summary Oscar; if the world had known 'Milk' was going to happen five years hence, maybe Bill Murray would have received the statue he deserved for his lovely performance in the gorgeous 'Lost in Translation', and then we’d have world peace. (Ben Kingsley’s work in 'House of Sand and Fog' was also vastly better than this, as was the film.)

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  • As Good as It Gets

    67.As Good as It Gets

    ★★★★

    Jack Nicholson as Melvin
    Nicholson, his skills somewhat diminished since 1975, plays another total prick, this one with a taste for women much too young for him. This one also has OCD (check those boxes, y’all). I get why people hate this movie now, but eh, it’s funny. Nicholson might have deserved the Oscar just for the moment in the car when he claims to passengers Helen Hunt and Greg Kinnear that he has “the entire trip programmed,” flips a switch and lets “YMCA” play for a moment, then turns it off and says “I’m just kiddin’.” For the record I’ve done this on every car trip I’ve taken since 1997.

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  • Shine

    68.Shine

    ★★

    Geoffrey Rush as David Helfgott
    I also don’t like Geoffrey Rush, so now you really understand my apprehension about 'The King’s Speech'. He’s all right here but the film is telegraphed biopic bullshit. I don’t much care for Billy Bob Thornton either, but he obviously deserved the Oscar more for his work in 'Sling Blade'.

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  • Judgment at Nuremberg

    69.Judgment at Nuremberg

    ★★½

    Maximilian Schell as Hans Rolfe
    Not even kind of a lead performance. Make some rules here, Academy. This is like saying Jeff Goldblum was the “best actor” in 'Nashville'.

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  • Cyrano de Bergerac

    70.Cyrano de Bergerac

    ★★★½

    Jose Ferrer as Cyrano
    Another nutty upset, for a Rostand adaptation almost no one went to see. Ferrer doesn’t do much with the role but he’s not bad. What is bad? William Holden not winning for 'Sunset Blvd.'. That’s bad.

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  • Dallas Buyers Club

    71.Dallas Buyers Club

    ★★★½

    Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodroof
    The McConnasaince is mythical nonsense; he’s the same mediocrity as ever, in a whole bunch of dreadful films like 'Mud' and 'Killer Joe', but this award was practically inevitable with all the hype surrounding the damn guy, and if you were going to reward one of his performances, this is probably the strongest of them. If Bruce Dern didn’t win for 'Nebraska', at least it could have been Chiwetel Ejiofor.

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  • Reversal of Fortune

    72.Reversal of Fortune

    ★★★

    Jeremy Irons as Claus von Bülow
    Oh come on, not a lead performance at all, and to boot not the strongest or most charismatic performance in this legal drama. Irons won for being memorably “weird,” maybe paving the way for Hopkins the following year?

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  • Ben-Hur

    73.Ben-Hur

    ★★★

    Charlton Heston as Judah Ben-Hur
    This film was lavished with awards, but it’s the 1959 equivalent of your garden variety moronic blockbuster today. Heston won an Oscar for Hollywood’s most convincing onscreen belching. At least three other people deserved the thing more: Laurence Harvey in 'Room at the Top', Jack Lemmon in 'Some Like It Hot', and (are you fucking kidding me?) James Stewart in 'Anatomy of a Murder'.

  • Disraeli

    74.Disraeli

    ★★½

    George Arliss as Benjamin Disraeli
    Ever heard of this movie? No? There’s a reason! I actually would have thrown down for Wallace Beery this time rather than for 'The Champ'.

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  • Watch on the Rhine

    75.Watch on the Rhine

    ★★

    Paul Lukas as Kurt
    You probably remember Lukas as one of the German spies in 'The Lady Vanishes' or as the professor in the Disney film '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea'. You probably don’t remember this dull-as-dishwater propaganda film for which he won over Bogart in freaking 'Casablanca'.

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  • Leaving Las Vegas

    76.Leaving Las Vegas

    ★★

    Nicolas Cage as Ben
    Here’s another dude people are All About whose presence I’ve rarely appreciated. This is another alcoholism suffering narrative, a little more maudlin than usual; Cage makes use of his usual performance style, which consists of him looking slack-jawed and bored with everything. Acting, The Craft Of!

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  • The King and I

    77.The King and I

    ★★½

    Yul Brynner as King Mongkut
    Not a lead performance, and even if it were, it’s not the least bit memorable or praiseworthy; most of the winners above and below this, I can at least understand from some perspective why they happened. This one, I have no idea.

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  • Raging Bull

    78.Raging Bull

    ★★

    Robert De Niro as Jake LaMotta
    Yeah, yeah, tell me all about how much weight the guy gained to play this part and what a sterling Methodical achievement it all was; gaining or losing weight isn’t acting, and endless yelling isn’t acting either. There’s almost nothing else here; Scorsese seems to believe an empty narrative of insecure masculinity is some sort of an end unto itself. The film is painful. I’m less a fan of David Lynch’s 'The Elephant Man' than most, but please give this one to John Hurt. De Niro’s overrated in general anyway.

  • The Revenant

    79.The Revenant

    ★★

    Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugh Glass
    Not a DiCaprio fan at all, though I think he had some sublime moments in 'The Wolf of Wall Steet'. It's kind of been beaten to death at this point but "endurance test" acting isn't really acting. Still, DiCaprio was seen as being "owed" an Oscar by this point (which is pretty flawed logic but oh well).

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  • Wall Street

    80.Wall Street

    ★★

    Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko
    One-note performance (and not a leading one!) delivered under the leadership of one of the Hollywood directors most egregiously addicted to the overstated, mawkish and obvious. It’s a lethal combination. William Hurt had just won a couple of years earlier but his work in 'Broadcast News' is infinitely, insultingly superior to this (though I hasten to add that it’s also not actually a leading role).

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  • Life Is Beautiful

    81.Life Is Beautiful

    ★★

    Roberto Benigni as Guido
    The second self-directed performance, if “directed” is a word you can apply to work this all-over-the-place. People remember Benigni’s sustained freakout when he won, the capping moment of the extended act of manipulative fraud that is this movie. This would’ve been a nice year to reward Ian McKellen.

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  • In Old Arizona

    82.In Old Arizona

    ★★★½

    Warner Baxter as The Cisco Kid
    At the 2nd Academy Awards, the very start of the tradition: a completely inexplicable Best Actor winner! Baxter’s pretty bad here, but it wouldn’t be a significantly notable performance without the Oscar win. Do see this film for one of the most outrageously mean-spirited endings in the history of Hollywood storytelling.

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  • In the Heat of the Night

    83.In the Heat of the Night

    ★★½

    Rod Steiger as Chief Gillespie
    A one-note performance as a racist cop in a mostly one-note film. It’s hard to think of a more backward-looking Academy choice than going for this over Dustin Hoffman in 'The Graduate'.

  • True Grit

    84.True Grit

    ★★½

    John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn
    Speaking of Hoffman, to put it very charitably, he and Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy might have been done a disservice by his placement in the lead rather than supporting actor category. Both would have been great choices, all the more so laid against this humiliating shitshow, a compensatory win for a has-been actor and overall asshole Wayne in a thoroughly wafer-thin, badly directed excuse for a motion picture.

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  • On Golden Pond

    85.On Golden Pond

    ★★½

    Henry Fonda as Norman
    One of my favorite actors ever, copping to every worst tendency of “adorable old people” acting in this miserable awards-bait feature.

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  • The Godfather

    86.The Godfather

    ★★½

    Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone
    Fill mouth with toilet paper + mumble = Oscar. Although the Godfather films aren’t to my taste, I can appreciate them as a sort of upside-down Americana and I understand why they are beloved and iconic more than I do with, say, 'Raging Bull'… but I can’t abide the interpretation of Brando’s Corleone as anything but bad vaudeville. This was a missed opportunity to reward the horribly underrated Paul Winfield for his superb work in 'Sounder', a film with the kind of humanity and subtlety that doesn’t seem to even exist in the world of Coppola’s gangster pictures.

  • Scent of a Woman

    87.Scent of a Woman

    ★½

    Al Pacino as Lt. Slade
    This is the point at which we pass the realm of “performances that didn’t deserve Oscars” to “actually horrific performances.” Pacino’s hammy cluelessness in this abysmal relic is meant to call fallen idols to mind — he’s playing a supposed war hero who’s planning on killing himself — but he plays it like Yogi Bear on a cocaine binge. Won over Stephen Rea in 'The Crying Game'; no further comment.

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  • Going My Way

    88.Going My Way

    Bing Crosby as Father O’Malley
    A fine singer. Not a great singer, not great the way Frank Sinatra was, but a fine singer who made some wonderful records. Very, very, very definitely not an actor, especially not one who can credibly walk the streets trying to “rap” with the kids in an unlaundered T-shirt. No. Please no.

  • My Fair Lady

    89.My Fair Lady

    ½

    Rex Harrison as Professor Higgins
    It’s true that I hate this movie so much, hate this character so much — and love Peter Sellers in 'Dr. Strangelove', loser to this, so much — that it could blind me. But I generally don’t agree with the high regard for Harrison; he plays every role as a smug creep, and it wears you out after five minutes, tops.

  • Forrest Gump

    90.Forrest Gump

    ½

    Tom Hanks as Forrest
    Hanks didn’t win an Oscar for channeling childhood innocence and the discovery of adult freedom flawlessly in 'Big'. Zemeckis didn’t win an Oscar for brilliantly satirizing postwar American culture in 'Used Cars' or warmly defining the teenage experience in 'I Wanna Hold Your Hand'. No, what got them on that stage was this cutesy, risible, vaguely fascist, dismayingly insipid caricature of postwar American culture, and it’s still immensely popular, and that’s why I hate everything.

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  • Cat Ballou

    91.Cat Ballou

    ★½

    Lee Marvin as Tim Strawn / Kid Shelleen
    grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. One of those movies that dares you, dares you, to watch it. Marvin isn’t the worst element, although he comes across as incompetent as all hell, but nothing except Nat King Cole survives intact from this dip in the terrible waters of, oh dear, “western musical comedy.”

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  • Gladiator

    92.Gladiator

    ½

    Russell Crowe as Maximus Meridius
    I really laughed a lot the first time I watched this. This is the — in my experience, very rare — film with no redeeming qualities. There is not a single good thing about it. It should die, horribly, mauled by tigers. Anyway, that’s our show. Goodnight, everybody!!

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  • Joker

    93.Joker

    Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur
    Phoenix is a fine actor, whose great work in The Master, Walk the Line and even The Village couldn't garner him the praise and notoriety he managed with the sub-Marilyn Manson claptrap of Todd Phillips' tryhard production in which the bad guy from Batman shows himself to be real gritty, dangerous and virginal. Phoenix only really operates by the numbers here, dutifully coloring within the lines of the brand of neurotic outrageousness that is within the boundaries of wholesome comic book entertainment.

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