Movie performances that are practically flawless

Good performances are, perhaps more than anything, what make movies worth watching. We certainly don't mean to undersell the importance of directors, writers, or composers, and there are definitely people working in each of those fields that make their work the star of the movies they make. That being said, when you watch a movie, you're watching performances first and foremost. They're the devices used to tell these stories to us, and as such there's something incredibly special about an actor who goes above and beyond the call of duty.

Some roles can't be played without a great actor at the wheel. Others wouldn't be nearly as special without a particular actor in the role. Picking out a selection of performances that aren't just good but perfect isn't necessarily easy, but it's one of our favorite topics when it comes to talking about movies. Here are some of our favorite performances that aren't just good but downright perfect. 

Charlize Theron brought fury to life

She may not be the titular character, but make no mistake: the star of Mad Max: Fury Road is Charlize Theron's Imperator Furiosa. She is the heart and soul of George Miller's gorgeous post-apocalyptic road war movie. Credit where it's due: Miller gave Theron stellar material to work with. That being said, the character would fall flat in the hands of an actor less capable than Theron.

Furiosa is, in Theron's hands, every bit her name, a woman of determined fury hellbent on freeing Immortan Joe's brides from lives of torment. She's the kind of character that an actor wouldn't usually give as much care as a traditionally prestigious role. Theron clearly wasn't content with that though, and instead she creates a true modern icon out of Furiosa, embellishing her determined fury with a quiet empathy that shines through in some of the film's calmer moments. As Furiosa finally achieves her ends and kills Immortan Joe, she grunts what's come to be the defining line of the film: "Remember me." We have, and will continue to do so for years to come.

Ryan Gosling balanced torment and levity

Ryan Gosling seems to have dedicated much of his career onscreen to defying expectations. After blowing up thanks to a turn in one of the most beloved romance films of all time, Gosling took on a litany of strange, uncomfortable roles in order to distance himself from the traditional career of a leading man in Hollywood. This has given us films like Lars and the Real Girl, Drive, and of course, The Nice Guys, which may well mark Gosling's finest hour as an actor.

Gosling takes on the role of Holland March, a depressed alcoholic private investigator in Los Angeles circa 1977. March is vulnerable, cowardly, and suicidal. There's a shocking degree of dramatic empathy to the performance, surprising considering the film is an action comedy, and Gosling sells March's darkest moments just as expertly as his funnier ones. We should touch on those funnier moments too, because it's genuinely astounding how hysterical Gosling is in this movie. We'd venture to say it's one of the great comedic performances of the decade, with Gosling's timing and nuance serving as a perfect foil to Russell Crowe's straight-man routine. It's a difficult contrast to balance, playing a suicidal alcoholic who's funny without compromising his character's empathy. It takes an actor as talented as Gosling is to pull it off.

Michael B. Jordan ruled Wakanda in his own way

Even the best films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe are often marred by bland, unmemorable villains with vaguely-defined goals and personalities. There's little difference between Ronan the Accuser from Guardians of the Galaxy and Malekith from Thor: The Dark World and both are equally forgettable. There are occasional exceptions like Loki (we're partial to Daniel Bruhl's underrated turn as Baron Zemo, too), but for the most part, Marvel villains are uninteresting. That changed when Michael B. Jordan hit screens as Erik "Killmonger" Stevens, the antagonist of Black Panther. 

Jordan melds swagger with terror, painting Killmonger as a sympathetic character who's just a few adjustments away from being the film's protagonist. His background as a poor kid in Oakland, CA feels all too familiar, so much so that the audience is more likely to relate to him than to T'Challa's royal upbringing. His shortcomings, namely his inability to distinguish justice from aimless violence, are all the more heartbreaking not only because of how close he is to being someone we love but because of how much worse they seem in light of  that. Jordan's charming recklessness and seething hatred make for a character who feels doomed from the moment we meet him, yet seeing him finally meet his tragic end still hurts tremendously. In the end, Killmonger did win in his own way: thanks to Jordan, he's far more likely to be the character audiences walk away thinking about than T'Challa. That's a sly victory in and of itself.

Hailee Steinfeld upstaged her own film's stars

It's always incredible when a young actor manages to hold their own in a film featuring a slew of major movie stars. It's all the more significant when that young actor doesn't just hold their own but manages to come out as the standout performer in the film. We'd say that there's few better examples of this than Hailee Steinfeld's turn in the Coen Brothers' remake of True Grit.

Steinfeld scored the role of Mattie Ross from a pool of 15,000 actresses. She was only 13 when filming began on her first major role. The movie tells the story of a young girl who hires a drunk US Marshal named Rooster Cogburn to help her track down the man who killed her father. Steinfeld acts alongside Matt Damon, Jeff Bridges, and Josh Brolin in the film, real heavy hitters working with excellent material under the Coens. It makes it all the more impressive that it's Steinfeld that leaves the biggest impression. Her take on Ross is snappy, angry, and fierce, with Steinfeld channeling the character's laser-like focus on vengeance with poise and nuance most actors four times her age aren't capable of portraying. Most actors go their entire lives without turning out a performance as stellar as the one Steinfeld crafted before she could buy a ticket to an R-rated movie. 

Andy Serkis made you care about an ape

We feel firmly in the right in saying that motion captured performances are just as impressive and important as live-action ones. When it comes to motion capture, there's nobody better in the industry than Andy Serkis, and his role as ape revolutionary Caesar in the rebooted Planet of the Apes trilogy is not only the best of his career but the best motion captured performance of all time.

It's first imperative to point out that Serkis plays a Caesar we see grow and evolve, both as a character and literally, over the course of several years. He's effectively playing different characters at any point in time, with the Caesar we meet early on in Rise of the Planet of the Apes bearing little to no resemblance to the one who greets us in War for the Planet of the Apes. Serkis's performance is soulful, resonant, and all too (appropriately) human. He takes the character on a journey from a young ape confused by his place in the world to a grizzled, unbreakable leader of a new nation, his performance never once faltering along the way. Yes, the special effects crew does a stellar job in transferring that performance to animation, but at its core is tremendous work done by a true pioneer in motion capture.

Choi Min-sik became something less than human

While we can't say we've done it before, we're certain that there's a tremendous degree of difficulty in performing the role of a human stripped of their humanity, someone whose soul has been ravaged to a point of no return. No actor has succeeded at this quite like Choi Min-sik in the brutal, horrifying masterpiece that is Oldboy.

Choi stars as Oh Dae-su, a man out for revenge after being imprisoned in a hotel room under mysterious circumstances by unknown forces. There's very little that's recognizable as human in the character when he emerges from his prison and what's left is slowly built up and then abruptly stripped away in the film's climax. The role requires an actor capable of scraping down to the absolute depths of the human soul and showing the audience what he finds. Choi succeeds astoundingly at this, making for a turn that viewers will never forget, no matter how much they'd like to (seriously, we'd love to forget about that octopus scene).

J.K Simmons turned a jazz instructor into a monster

Before we talk about the role that won him an Oscar, we feel it's important to give an honorable mention to J.K Simmons' role as J. Jonah Jameson in Sam Raimi's original Spider-Man trilogy. It's of the best instances of comic book casting of all time. Simmons' Jameson seems to have been ripped directly from a classic Spidey comic and we think it's pretty obvious why neither of the Spider-Man reboots have dared to recast him.

That being said, we have to give the nod to Simmons' magnum opus, his role as Terence Fletcher in 2014's Whiplash. Fletcher is the jazz professor from hell, a maniacally focused and demanding conductor who berates and abuses his students until they achieve brilliance or go insane. His simultaneous mentorship and relentless antagonism of Miles Teller's Andrew is both engrossing and repulsive. Simmons strikes the perfect balance of mania, never going so over the top as to ruin the audience's suspension of disbelief. There's a humanity Simmons gives to Fletcher when he easily could have been a cartoonish monster. There are plenty of great iconic movie antagonists, but Fletcher's realism (and uncanny resemblance to real-life coaches, art school instructors, and directors) makes for one that will haunt any young artist's deepest insecurities.

Meryl Streep elevated the trivial into the sublime

Meryl Streep is one of the great actors of all time. Her filmography contains a multitude of flawless performances, far more than we could list here. How did we go about deciding which one warranted discussion here? It was simple: we picked a role that Streep's performance elevated beyond what it should have been, in this case her turn as Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada.

The film is based on the novel of the same namea breezy, fun read, but far from high art. It tells the story of a college graduate working as the personal assistant to Priestly, the tyrannical editor-in-chief of a fashion magazine. The film, and the role of Priestly, should have been a forgettable one. Instead Streep brings the same A-game she displays in everything from Sophie's Choice to The Post. Streep becomes an infinitely quotable ice queen whose unwavering facade of steely perfection masks fear and self-loathing she can never risk showing the world. The skill with which Streep brings humanity to a cartoonish role elevates it far beyond its roots, with the role now one of Streep's most iconic. It's one thing to act well in an already well-crafted film but it takes a truly magnificent performer to turn a role like Priestly into an Oscar-nominated performance.

Samuel L. Jackson was an unforgettable hitman

There's very little to say about Quentin Tarantino's masterclass in filmmaking, Pulp Fiction, that hasn't already been said. It's arguably the most quotable movie of a generation and a hefty percentage of those quotes are spouted out with righteous vigor by Samuel L. Jackson's iconic Jules, a hitman who finds himself in the midst of an existential crisis over the course of the film. Jackson is extremely prolific as an actor and has appeared in a number of Tarantino films, but it's his turn as Jules that stands out as one of his finest hours as an actor.

There's a calm, controlled intensity to Jules that lingers throughout Jackson's performance. He calculates everything and he always has the upper hand. This is why his near-death experience in the film shakes him to his core. Jackson makes this experience less an unraveling and more a crossroads for the character. It makes his encounter with petty criminals Ringo and Yolanda all the more riveting and pivotal. The simultaneous controlled rage and desperate empathy with which Jackson delivers the line, "But I'm trying, Ringo. I'm trying real hard to be the shepherd," is stunning. In a film filled with memorable characters and performances, Jackson's stands out as the definitive performance in one of the great modern American films.

Tom Hardy dug deep into a broken athlete's soul

There are few films in which Tom Hardy isn't magnetic. There's a gruff vulnerability he carries into his performances that makes him the rare movie star that can still disappear into roles. There's a particular Hardy performance that often goes undiscussed in conversations about his career, which is a shame, because it's the best work Hardy has ever done.

Gavin O'Connor's 2011 mixed martial arts drama Warrior is one of the unsung triumphs of the decade. What could have been a glorified Lifetime cable drama instead stands as a beautiful story about fathers, sons, and brothers. The performances by Hardy, Joel Edgerton, and Nick Nolte are largely what elevate the film beyond its simple trappings. Hardy's Tommy is a raw, exposed nerve of a human being, ravaged by trauma, guilt, and hate. Hardy masks the character's confusion, sadness, and fear with a shield of brashness that deflects every friendly hand that comes his way. It's a testament to Hardy's talents that the character is never outright unlikable despite giving us every reason to hate him. He's the unstoppable force to Edgerton's Brendan, the immovable wall.

It's impossible to watch Hardy's performance in Warrior and not see pieces of Tommy in every role he's taken on since, from Mad Max: Fury Road to Locke. It is the quintessential role of one of the most talented actors of a generation.

The Breakfast Club was bigger than any one member

Even the most stellar of ensemble films will have one or two primary characters. Pulp Fiction has Vincent and Jules. The Usual Suspects is very much Verbal's story. It's very rare for an ensemble cast to have no true standout, the star of the film being the ensemble itself. The Breakfast Club distinguishes itself as the best of this sort of movie. It's impossible to pinpoint a single performance amongst the main cast as the best, not only because they're all so good but because were one removed, the rest would falter.

Filmmaker John Hughes' masterpiece tells the story of five kids from different social circles who find themselves in Saturday morning detention. The film's magnificence comes in the cast's palpable chemistry. A veritable who's who of '80s teen stars make up the titular Breakfast Club, including Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson, and Ally Sheedy. Nelson's brash Bender is perhaps the loudest (and therefore most memorable by default) but to say any single character is better than the others is selling the talented cast short. Each performance works in tandem with the other four to create magic. Every character receives equal focus and equally compelling arcs. There's no lead, no standout actor. Instead there's something far rarer: an ensemble creating a collective performance that works flawlessly.

Kathy Bates brought insanity to life

Films based on Stephen King books provide a cornucopia of stellar villains to choose from. From Jack Nicholson's Jack Torrance in The Shining to both iterations of Pennywise from It, there's no shortage of iconic villainous performances based on characters from the author's bibliography. However, there's an easy standout in our eyes: Kathy Bates' Oscar-winning turn as Annie Wilkes in 1990's Misery.

Wilkes is fan culture gone toxic — well, more toxic than it already is. Her attachment to writer Paul Sheldon's novels is fanatical, leading her to kidnap him after a car accident. Oftentimes when a villain is so memorable, it's because the actor brings an empathy one wouldn't expect to the role. Bates' performance as Wilkes is not that kind of performance. It skews far more towards the Heath Ledger's Joker end of the spectrum, someone so unhinged and unpredictable that it frightens you to your core. Bates plays Wilkes as a woman who truly believes her behavior is normal, making it all the more horrifying when she lashes out. Look no further than her iconic leg-smashing scene for evidence. Wilkes is an all-time great villain and Bates' performance is, similarly, one of the best of all time.

Spike Lee turned simmering tension into a masterpiece

There are few films that feel as primal as Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing. It channels a righteous anger like few are able to. Lee's film meditates on the complexities and frustrations of race relations on the hottest day of the year in Brooklyn. He wrote and directed the film, which would be impressive enough, but he also stars in it, turning in an audacious performance that shakes you to your core.

Lee's Mookie is a man adrift throughout the film. He's just trying to get by day to day and make some money working at a local pizzeria owned by a racist Italian family. It puts him occasionally at odds with his friends Buggin' Out and Rakim, both of whom are more aggressive in their disdain of racial tensions perpetuated by their white neighbors (specifically the aforementioned Italian family). While managing his directorial duties, Lee also performs Mookie with a powerful frustration. He takes the character on a journey from selfish passivity to furious activity that cannot be suppressed, channeling the character's anger and slowly building towards a breaking point. Lee's turn as Mookie is as powerful today as it was when the film was first released.