Oscars: The 20 greatest award-winning performances of this century

Magnetic: (clockwise from top left) Olivia Colman in ‘The Favourite’, Natalie Portman in ‘Black Swan’, Alex Hibbert and Mahershala Ali in ‘Moonlight’, and Heath Ledger in ‘The Dark Knight’
Magnetic: (clockwise from top left) Olivia Colman in ‘The Favourite’, Natalie Portman in ‘Black Swan’, Alex Hibbert and Mahershala Ali in ‘Moonlight’, and Heath Ledger in ‘The Dark Knight’

The Oscars tend to get things wrong. A quick glance over the acting winners of the last two decades, however, reveals that they don’t always inspire fury. In truth, the Oscars have rewarded brilliant performances of late, heralded bona fide movie stars and celebrated the power of transcendent acting. As much as it often feels like it, it’s not all biopics, weeping and physical transformation.

As the Academy prepares to award a generally very good bunch of actors this weekend, most likely including Brad Pitt and Laura Dern, we’ve ranked the 20 best Oscar-winning performances since 2000.

And there’s not a Rami Malek or an Eddie Redmayne in sight.

The top 20 Oscar-winning performances of the past 20 years

20. Catherine Zeta-Jones (Chicago, Best Supporting Actress 2003)

Chicago, probably because it won Best Picture at the 2003 Oscars, has earnt a relatively bad reputation in the 17 years since its release – emblematic of a moment wherein the Academy Awards completely lost their minds. It’s not all that fair; the film is just as immaculately glossy and stylised as the musical that inspired it. It also does a disservice to fellow Oscar-winner Zeta-Jones. Her Velma Kelly is campy, vampy and endearingly dramatic, Zeta-Jones giving every bit of herself to one of the most flamboyant characters in modern musical theatre. She fits the part like a glove, and was suitably rewarded.

19. Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook, Best Actress 2013)

It is rare for Oscar to reward sheer star power – that indefinable magnetism that has made the likes of Keanu Reeves, Cameron Diaz and Jennifer Lopez such dazzling screen presences. They’re not always great, certainly haven’t got incredible ranges, but they’re born for the camera. Lawrence’s win for Silver Linings Playbook is an Oscar exception. It’s a loud, broad performance but she’s sensational, capturing heightened emotions and waltzing away with the film from under the noses of (at the time, at least) much bigger names.

18. Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk, Best Supporting Actress 2019)

There’s a spectacular power to King’s silences here, which director Barry Jenkins recognised. When he captures her in extreme close-up, shortly after she paints her face, fixes her wig and prepares to face the world, King conveys pain, responsibility and fight in a just few changes of her expression. It’s a phenomenal performance in a film already filled with effective cameos and an ensemble cast working at the top of their game. It is more powerful still because it was King finally being granted the kind of role she’d been worthy of for so long.

17. Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart, Best Actor 2010)

There’s an inclination here to argue that Jeff Bridges merely played himself in Crazy Heart, replicating his own shaggy masculinity and lackadaisical cool. And it’s also sort of true. Regardless, he’s so fantastic to watch that it’s largely irrelevant. This was a career Oscar, and one of the few times where no one could justifiably have any objections.

16. Angelina Jolie (Girl, Interrupted, Best Supporting Actress 2000)

In many respects, Jolie’s work in Girl, Interrupted was the natural end point of her off-screen star image at the time. There are immediate parallels between the fictional sociopath she plays in the film and the drug-taking, blood-vial-wearing bad girl Jolie was endlessly described as. It’s still a remarkable performance, though, alive with cruelty, self-loathing and rage.

15. Christopher Plummer (Beginners, Best Supporting Actor 2011)

Beginners is a film of two halves – one of bittersweet late-in-life discovery; the other a frightfully boring love story between two very dull people. Plummer is in the former, and is marvellous. As an elderly man exploring his homosexuality for the very first time, he turns in a performance of wonderful curiosity and mischief.

14. Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave, Best Supporting Actress 2014)

A true star-is-born performance from Nyong’o here. She carries in her work the pain and hopelessness of the millions of faceless, unknown women lost to the slave trade, and provides the film with its bruising heart and its most horrifying tragedy.

13. Viola Davis (Fences, Best Supporting Actress 2017)

In the hands of a less gifted actor, Davis’s role in Fences could have been an underwhelming one: the part of the stoic wife, married to a dictatorial husband, and endlessly cleaning up his volatility. Instead it’s glorious. Davis knew this role in her bones, having won a Tony for the same part years prior, but close up, through the lens of a camera, she is even more electrifying – silent but withering when it’s necessary, and a volcano of emotion when it’s least expected.

12. Charlize Theron (Monster, Best Actress 2004)

It is disappointing that Theron’s performance in Monster has come to exemplify a form of Oscar-baiting in the years since. Yes, she embarked upon a staggering physical transformation, and yes, she was a blonde and beautiful female actor “uglying herself” to rave reviews. But reducing her work to a bag of visual tricks undermines the depth, grit and romantic tragedy with which she imbues her version of the real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos. Monster is a deeply complex love story at its heart, and Theron shines.

11. Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men, Best Supporting Actor 2008)

In the Coen brothers masterpiece, Bardem often distorts his face into something almost uncanny, like a Michael Myers mask, or a rough sketch of a human. It’s disquieting. His character is part hit man and, if we’re being metaphorical, part vampire – a chilling moral void who transforms every interaction into an uncomfortable battle of wits that only he is guaranteed to survive. To watch an actor so associated with vitality and expressiveness play someone so cold is nothing short of majestic.

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10. Mahershala Ali (Moonlight, Best Supporting Actor 2017)

The criteria for a “supporting” performance has fluctuated over the years, particularly with the increase in actors being placed wherever they have the best chance of winning. Mahershala Ali in Moonlight, however, is the very definition of Best Supporting Actor. He only appears in the film’s first act, but delivers a performance so empathetic, cool and warm that it ripples through the entirety of the movie. He’s the ghost hovering over Moonlight, and is breathtaking as a result.

9. Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds, Best Supporting Actor 2010)

Waltz’s snide and preening sociopath routine has become slightly exhausting in the decade since he won his first of two Oscars. It’d be foolish, however, to let that diminish the terrifying power of his turn in Inglourious Basterds. Here, he is pure evil itself, slinky, cat-like and sinister, matching the spirit of a film that is as playful as it is angry.

8. Marion Cotillard (La Vie en Rose, Best Actress 2008)

It is somehow more impressive when an actor delivers power and pathos in a film that otherwise doesn’t work very well. Marion Cotillard’s star-making role as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose is a case in point. Surrounded by rote biopic-by-numbers montaging and a narrative that offers few surprises, Cotillard is otherwise staggering – nailing the odd rhythms, volatility and unconventional star-wattage that made Piaf such a hero.

7. JK Simmons (Whiplash, Best Supporting Actor 2015)

As a domineering music teacher responsible for the slow torture of a young prodigy, JK Simmons is chilling. But his work in Whiplash is particularly great because he understands the ambiguities at his character’s heart – he is menacing and violent, as well as inspiring and compassionate. It’s a jumble of uncomfortable parts designed to keep the audience on their toes, and Simmons embodies all with a steely fire.

6. Denzel Washington (Training Day, Best Actor 2002)

Never has an actor appeared to take such pleasure in portraying a boogeyman. Denzel Washington’s ferocious performance as an LAPD narcotics officer in Training Day remains remarkable, not only as a piece of actorly transformation but as an example of over-the-top acting being so chillingly effective. Everything here is flashy and unsubtle, but Washington crafts something akin to a mouse trap – all coiled rage and relentless intimidation, leaving no one who encounters him unscathed.

5. Natalie Portman (Black Swan, Best Actress 2011)

In any other film, Portman’s hysterical and tortured performance as an unravelling ballet dancer may have been too much. She and Black Swan, however, mirror one another perfectly. Her win was partly down to Academy Awards cliché: the weight loss, the dance training, and so forth, but her professional transformation was equally as powerful. Here was an actor so often cast as vulnerable, baby-voiced child-women becoming something grandly monstrous.

4. Olivia Colman (The Favourite, Best Actress 2019)

In a film dominated by startling performers, Olivia Colman still managed to steal the show. As Queen Anne, she bares the numerous facets of her skill set, all of which were already familiar to UK audiences, and throws them all into one of the richest characters in recent film memory. She is by turns hilarious, heartbreaking and utterly mad. That Coleman’s Oscar win was such a surprise, in an awards season otherwise swept by Glenn Close, was the icing on the cake.

3. Mo’Nique (Precious, Best Supporting Actress 2010)

Known for more than a decade as a stand-up comic and as the star of early Noughties sitcoms like The Parkers, Mo’Nique earnt so much acclaim for Precious partly because her presence in it was so surprising. It was also because it was a staggeringly haunting performance, one built on horror, abuse and destruction. Her character’s backstory is barely sketched, but Mo’Nique instils in her so much weighty pain and trauma that it hardly matters. It is a travesty that she has never received a follow-up role of the same quality.

2. Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood, Best Actor 2008)

Daniel Day-Lewis is so incredible in There Will Be Blood because it is essentially 12 different performances in one. It begins in total silence, before twisting and transforming into something nightmarish and terrifying. It is sometimes incredibly broad and loud, at other points subtle and rich. Paul Thomas Anderson’s film is a masterpiece on its own, but Day-Lewis provides it with its soul.

1. Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight, Best Supporting Actor 2009)

It sort of had to be, didn’t it? There are lots of obvious off-screen reasons Ledger’s work in The Dark Knight is so potent, specifically that we were watching a man deliver the performance of a lifetime shortly after he had tragically died. But everything he actually does in it warrants equal respect. His Joker exists in the sinister middle ground between human and almost supernatural; an unknowable, unpredictable and disturbing portrait of comic-book insanity that lingers long after the film itself has ended. It also remains one of the most important acting performances of the 21st century, responsible for how we talk about acting, how the media reports about acting, and what we consider to be awards-worthy today… for better and for worse. It is no surprise that many have attempted to emulate it in the decade since, but often achieve only photocopied pastiche as a result. And yes, that means Joaquin, too.