Everett Collection
January 16, 2015 at 05:30 PM EST

30. Christian Bale

Patrick Bateman, American Psycho (2000)

Academy members like to reward actors they believe have captured the essential essence of a character. So Christian Bale was never likely to give an Oscar speech for his portrayal of man who has no essential essence at all. Technically speaking, Patrick Bateman is an investment banker by day and serial killer by night. But regardless of the hour or activity, Bale brilliantly makes it clear that he is pretending to be someone who is pretending to be someone, while creating a worryingly believable portrait of modern manhood along the way. The result is the perfect central performance for a film that, like its source material, is at its core a deep study of superficiality.  —Clark Collis

29. Ruth Gordon

Maude, Harold and Maude, (1971)

On paper, Maude and Harold’s relationship is strange at best and disturbing at worst: The 79-year-old Maude and the 20-year-old Harold connect over their mutual obsession with death, eventually striking up a romance that culminates in a sleepover (and almost a marriage). But Gordon shapes Maude into a character who’s a delightful eccentric rather than a creep, one whose lust for life is comical and contagious. There’s more to Maude than just her joy, though, and the actress’s performance hints that beneath all of the wide-eyed exuberance is a longing for something she hasn’t yet found—a suspicion realized by the film’s end. —Ariana Bacle

28. R. Lee Ermey

Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, Full Metal Jacket (1987)

Gunnery Sergeant Hartman changed how we see authority, and I mean that in the most literal sense. I’m not even just talking about drill sergeants in movies, because there’s no doubt that Ermey’s performance became the mold for everyone that came after it. What I mean is that voice—the one you’re probably hearing in your own head right now—has become intrinsically linked with an entire structure of society. Each spitted syllable hits bone. That’s just how powerful a movie can be. Sure, it locked Ermey into a lifetime of rehashing Hartman—but how many Oscar nominees can say that they’ve done that? I can’t hear you, maggot! —KS

27. Bill Murray

Phil Connors, Groundhog Day (1993)

Don’t drive angry. This is just one of many lessons to be gleaned from 1993’s sly, philosophical romantic comedy Groundhog Day. Director Harold Ramis and Murray—longtime collaborators on classic works including Stripes, Ghostbusters, and Caddyshack—argued throughout filming, and stopped speaking soon after. But if the leading man was unhappy, his performance certainly didn’t suffer: Groundhog Day shows Murray as an actor at the height of his dramatic and comedic powers. As Phil, a weatherman trapped in an endless loop in Punxsutawney, Pa., Murray reaches ecstatic highs while experimenting with his newfound godlike powers, as well as existential lows as he endlessly repeats the same 24-hour period. Murray’s deadpan wit and sad clown face arguably have never been better.

26. Liv Ullmann

Elisabet Vogler, Persona (1966)

The great stealth-missile freakout of 1960s cinema, Persona is a film about two women in a house by the sea. Over the film’s not-even-90-minute running time, the two women become friends, then enemies, then… something else. Bibi Andersson is great as initially serene nurse Alma—but it’s Ullmann who quietly steals the movie. Literally quietly: Ullmann plays Elisabet, an actress rendered mute by some inexplicable mental/emotional illness. Ullmann’s performance is by turns sweetly innocent and insidiously cerebral. She gives Persona a Rorschachian rewatchability. Who is Elisabet, really? What is she thinking? “What is anyone thinking?” is what you start asking yourself—and if that sounds like artsy blathering, you have to understand how Ullmann grounds the artiest of art films with grace, humor, and sadness. Existential misery shouldn’t feel this exciting. —DF

25. Dennis Hopper

Frank Booth, Blue Velvet (1986)

The Academy might have taken Hopper’s demand—“Don’t you f—ing look at me!”—a little too seriously when they failed to nominate him for his apocalyptic performance as Frank Booth, the suburban boogeyman who breathes in nitrous and breathes out venom. A sadistic monster that lurched out of the recesses of David Lynch’s haunted mental attic, Booth is a greaser delinquent gone rancid—the mutated apotheosis of Norman Mailer’s hipster psychopath. So who better to play him than one of the goons who messed with James Dean? Hopper detonates on-screen, sucking from a gas mask like a hellish scuba diver and searing his performance on audience’s brains like a threat: See you in your dreams. —KS

24. Reese Withersoon

Tracy Flick, Election (1999)

PICK FLICK. Somebody should have sent the Academy a few of this dainty teenage steamroller’s homemade campaign cupcakes, but at the time Election was released, it did next to nothing at the box office and wasn’t considered any kind of awards contender. It wasn’t until later that moviegoers realized, “Hey, wait… this isn’t just a throwaway high school comedy.” It’s an epic battle between the Type-As and the Type-Bs, a clash of personalities that has no winners, only emotional casualties. And Witherspoon’s Tracy Flick will stand atop that ruin forever, raising her fist in the air. It’s a pity there isn’t a golden statue clenched in it. —Anthony Breznican

23. Tom Cruise

Charlie Babbitt, Rain Man (1988)

Dustin Hoffman won the Oscar for his flashier part, but Cruise is a revelation as Rain Man’s straight man, a fast-talking Lamborghini salesman who embarks on a cross-country road trip with his long-lost autistic older brother. Cruise (who was 26 at the time and coming off swaggering roles in Top Gun and Cocktail) simultaneously tees up Hoffman’s showy turn and propels the drama, maturing from a bitter, self-centered jerk to a caring protector. (Hoffman’s character, meanwhile, doesn’t evolve so much as reveal hidden talents). Rain Man cemented Cruise’s bona fides, demonstrating his emotional range as well as an ambition to take on projects showcasing more than just hard-charging charisma. —Chris Lee

22. Sidney Poitier

Virgil Tibbs, In the Heat of the Night (1967)

Poitier had already made history, winning the Best Actor prize three years earlier for Lilies in the Field, and costar Rod Steiger’s gruff performance as a stubborn Mississippi sheriff sucked up most of the pre-Oscar attention. Yet it’s still staggering that Poitier’s role, as a proud Philadelphia detective (“They call me Mr. Tibbs!”) marooned in the Deep South, missed the cut. In the movie’s watershed scene, Poitier’s character responds to a slap from a plantation owner by slapping the old white man right back. In that moment the whole movie crackles with genuine danger, all thanks to Poitier’s power. —JM

21. Nicole Kidman

Suzanne Stone Maretto, To Die For (1995)

Gus Van Sant’s blacker-than-black 1995 dramedy could have been remembered for featuring two of a generation’s finest actors—Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix—in early supporting roles. But come on… Can you even think about To Die For without remembering the gleaming sharp edge that was Kidman as sociopathic Suzanne Stone? Beautiful, ice cold, and fueled relentlessly by ambition, Stone dreamed of being a world-famous news anchor. With her long legs and Barbie eyes, Kidman plays both a believable seductress and a wicked villainess, often in the very same scene. Kidman was known at the time mainly as a flame-haired siren with a famous husband; it was this film and this performance that had the world sitting up just a little bit straighter and realizing the accomplished actress before them.

/ ( 3 of 5 )

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