Normally, gathering a list of the best performances by actors is one of the most difficult Top 10 lists to put together in that there are so many to choose from. However, unlike years past, 2010 didn't have an overabundance of stand-out performances by actors. For the first time in over a decade there were more awards-worthy performances by actresses than actors. Actors in supporting roles also fared better in 2010 than those tackling lead characters in theatrically released films. That said, there were 10 actors who stood out from the pack enough to make this list of the Top 10 Actors of 2010.
It wasn't until the second time I watched 127 Hours that I fully appreciated the brilliant performance of James Franco. Directed by Danny Boyle and based on the true story of mountain climber Aron Ralston, Franco's basically a one-man show in this dramatic film that caused some audience members to seek medical attention due to a particularly graphic and disturbing scene. Franco has been experiencing a career resurgence the past couple of years, and 127 Hours shows just how talented the 32 year old actor is when paired up with the right director and given the opportunity to dive into meaty material.
Colin Firth was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Actor category in 2010 for his outstanding performance in 2009's A Single Man. He follows that critically acclaimed film up with yet another award-worthy performance as a stuttering King of England who forms a unique friendship with an Australian speech therapist. Watching Firth and Geoffrey Rush (as the therapist) square off is one of the highlights of the year in films, and both men deliver incredibly moving and real performances.
Jesse Eisenberg had the difficult job of portraying one of the youngest billionaires in the world in The Social Network, a thought-provoking look behind the scenes at the events leading up to and immediately following the creation of Facebook. As I said in my 5 star review of the film, "Jesse Eisenberg is a revelation as the fast-talking, socially inept, computer genius who goes from obscurity and longing to get into elite clubs to being a self-made billionaire." Eisenberg, who up until The Social Network was best known for playing one of the few survivors in a world overrun by the undead in Zombieland, emerges as one of the finest actors of his generation with his incredible work in The Social Network.
He's best known for comedies and for being the star of 2011's Green Lantern superhero film, but Ryan Reynolds also has some serious dramatic chops as he displays in Buried, an intense thriller about a man buried alive in Iraq while an unseen kidnapper demands money for his release. To quote from my review, Reynolds delivers "a mature, committed performance, displaying talent sometimes hidden in the numerous romantic comedies and the spattering of action roles he's taken on in recent years. Buried rests squarely on his shoulders and he attacks the character with fierce determination and grit. We have to be able to feel every moment of panic and face this unimaginable terror with this poor truck driver, who was only guilty of being in the wrong place at the worst possible time, or else Buried would be dead on arrival. And the fact we are right there with him is because of how masterfully Reynolds brings to life his character."
Colin Farrell picks up dual honors from me for his work in 2010 films. Farrell earned a spot on my Top 10 Supporting Actors of 2010 with his performance in the gritty, real life drama The Way Back and he's a part of this Top 10 Actors list due to his tremendously engaging, emotionally moving portrayal of a divorced dad dedicated to his critically ill young daughter in Ondine. What Farrell pulls off here is one of his most mature performances to date.
Johnny Depp and Tim Burton reunited for the seventh time with Alice in Wonderland, a trippy adventure tale that took audiences of all ages down the rabbit hole and into the land of floating Cheshire cats, big-headed queens, and the maddest of all hatters. Burton and Depp can be counted on to deliver extraordinary films (that are extraordinarily risky), and Alice in Wonderland is one of their best collaborative efforts. Depp, hidden underneath some truly bizarre makeup, transforms into The Mad Hatter and brings this peculiar, manic being to life in a way only Depp possibly could.
This was a difficult choice for me to settle on as Leonardo DiCaprio was worthy of earning a place on this list for both of his 2010 films - Shutter Island and Inception. Ultimately Shutter Island won out due in large part to the fact Inception seems like so much more of an ensemble piece. And I do stand by my review of Shutter Island in which I state his performance in this Martin Scorsese film (DiCaprio's fourth with the Oscar-winning filmmaker) is the best of his career. A psychological drama reminiscent of Hitchcock's work, Shutter Island is the perfect combination of director, material, and cast, with DiCaprio pitch perfect as the conflicted and tormented main character.
Jeff Bridges earned his first Oscar for the 2009 film Crazy Heart, proving the 61 year old actor is in fact getting better with age. That's confirmed with his alternately hilarious and threatening portrayal of a drunken US Marshal recruited by a 14 year old, wise-beyond-her-years girl to track down her father's murderer. It's a role made famous by John Wayne (who won his only Oscar for playing Rooster Cogburn in the 1969 version of True Grit) and it's no small feat that Bridges is able to take over such a well-known character and completely make it his own.
Ryan Gosling's yet another actor who had the potential to make this Top 10 list for performances in more than one 2010 film. Gosling was totally convincing as a mentally unstable millionaire who killed his wife and got away with it in All Good Things, and he took on one his most difficult and complex characters to date in Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine (a film I wanted to love but just couldn't, despite stellar performances by Gosling and Michelle Williams). Gosling starts the film as a confidant young man who, as he ages and his relationship with Williams' character sours, gets increasingly cynical, bitter, and out of control. What Gosling does with the character proves just how capable he is of dissolving into any character, and his performance in Blue Valentine feels devastatingly real.
Aaron Johnson showed he can kick bad guys' butts in 2010's Kick-Ass, but it was his portrayal of a teenage John Lennon in Nowhere Boy that allowed him to show a real emotional connection to a character. Johnson plays Lennon as a trouble-making high school student with a confusing, dysfunctional family life and a burgeoning love for music. While Nowhere Boy is based on true events in the life of one of the most talented rock and rollers in history, the film concentrates on Lennon's personal life with his music playing second fiddle to the complex relationship involving Lennon, his absent mother, and the aunt who raised him. Johnson's absolutely terrific in Nowhere Boy, and although he doesn't much physically resemble the late Beatle, he does an outstanding job of bringing Lennon's story alive on screen.