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Top Ten Tuesday: Greatest Acting Performances In Movie History

Ten years ago yesterday, the famous and talented Heath Ledger died at 28-years-old. He was well on his way to superstardom with two Oscar nominations under his belt, and Ledger ended up posthumously winning the Academy Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role for his portrayal as Joker in The Dark Knight. It was undoubtedly one of the greatest acting feats of all-time, but what other legends crack the list for best movie performances ever? [Note: there are tons of great performances that don’t make our list, but feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments]


10. Christoph Waltz as Hans Landa | Inglourious Basterds (2009)

The funniest role on this list comes from Christoph Waltz in Quentin Tarantino’s fictional film about World War II. Waltz plays Colonol Hans Landa, and somehow brings charm to a sadistic figure in the German army with brilliant acting from the long-but-memorable opening scene through the final sequence of the movie. Waltz does an exceptional job of blending humor with fear as Col. Landa, with the highlight being when he questions Bridget von Hammersmark about a mountain climbing accident, and he won an Oscar for his work.


Christoph Waltz in ‘Inglorious Basterds’ (courtesy: The Weinstein Company)


9. Leonardo DiCaprio as Billy Costigan | The Departed (2006)

The Departed is one of the most underrated films ever, and DiCaprio is at his best as undercover cop that infiltrates Frank Costello’s gang. He wasn’t even nominated for this role, but the Oscar-winner displays a lot of emotion, both subtle through his voice and overt through his actions, as he tries to stay sane and not get exposed as the rat.


Leonardo DiCaprio in ‘The Departed’ (courtesy: Warner Bros.)


8. Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview | There Will Be Blood (2007)

The Academy Awards can often be biased or overlook things, but there’s no denying that the six-time nominee and three-time winner Daniel Day-Lewis deserves a spot on this list. Day-Lewis has long been a leading man, and his best work probably comes in There Will Be Blood as the ambitious and ruthless oil prospector Daniel Plainview.


Daniel Day-Lewis in ‘There Will Be Blood’ (courtesy: Paramount Pictures)


7. Christian Bale as Dicky Eklund | The Figther (2010)

Christian Bale has been known for going through insane routines to get into his various characters, and he drops a lot of weight in middle of his run as Batman when he takes the real-life role of Dicky Eklund, a drug-addicted former boxer. Bale is almost unrecognizable as Eklund, and he won his only Oscar for his impressive work.


Christian Bale in ‘The Fighter’ (courtesy: Paramount Pictures)


6. Robert De Niro as Jake La Motta | Raging Bull (1980)

There is perhaps no one more dominant in the acting world than Robert De Niro over the past 50 years, as he was nominated for his first Oscar in 1975 (The Godfather: Part II) and his seventh and most recent in 2013 (Silver Linings Playbook). In Raging Bull, De Niro looks like a completely different person from start to finish as he puts the life of boxing champion Jake La Motta on the big screen.


Robert De Niro in ‘Raging Bull’ (courtesy: MGM)


5. Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance | The Shining (1980)

With 12 Oscar nominations, “Jack” certainly has a claim as the greatest actor of all-time, and he is as intimidating as it gets in The Shining, which oddly enough wasn’t critically-acclaimed at the time of release. Still, his iconic role of Jack Torrance is still analogized, spoofed, quoted, and talked about today, and that’s unlikely to ever change.


Jack Nicholson in ‘The Shining’ (courtesy: Warner Bros.)


4. Robert De Niro as Jimmy Conway | Goodfellas (1990)

If you haven’t gotten the picture by now, the Academy Awards often get things completely wrong for whatever reason. That includes not giving De Niro a nomination for his work as Jimmy Conway in Goodfellas. While the character was a cold, calculating mobster, De Niro gave him heart and emotion (even if it was self-centered), particularly when he finds out Tommy got whacked.


Robert De Niro in ‘Goodfellas’ (courtesy: Warner Bros.)


3. Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone | The Godfather (1972)

Vito Corleone spent most of The Godfather recovering from being shot or acting as his son’s consigliere, but when he was in charge, Marlon Brando was so great is such a short period of time that his character is perhaps the most popular in movie history. People will probably be impersonating the original Godfather until the end of time.


Marlon Brando in ‘The Godfather’ (courtesy: Paramount Pictures)


2. Al Pacino as Michael Corleone | The Godfather: Part II (1974)

Not to be outdone by his movie father, Al Pacino is absolutely perfect as the head of the Corleone crime family. Pacino wasn’t a star when he got the role, but thankfully, director Francis Ford Coppola won out against the studio in getting his guy, and it’s impossible to see anyone else as Michael. He’s great in The Godfather, but Pacino really sinks into the character in The Godfather: Part II.


Al Pacino in ‘The Godfather: Part II’ (courtesy: Paramount Pictures)


1. Heath Ledger as Joker | The Dark Knight (2008)

The Dark Knight was a different breed with Christopher Nolan at the helm, but superhero movies are basically never nominated for big-time awards (TDK was laughably not up for Best Picture). However, Heath Ledger was indescribably phenomenal as the Joker, and it earned him not only a nomination, but also a win at the Academy Awards. Ledger put everything he had into the role, stealing every scene he appeared in as “The Clown Prince of Crime”; the top spot on this list is well-deserved.


Heath Ledger in ‘The Dark Knight’ (courtesy: Warner Bros.)


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