Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood (2007)
I'm writing these in alphabetical order, but I'm sure glad Daniel ended up at the top of the heap where he rightly belongs. I don't think there was another performance last decade as audacious, strange, and brave as Daniel Plainview. Day-Lewis carries this whole film on his back, and he is absolutely unforgettable.
-Also Oscar worthy in Scorsese's Gangs of New York (2002).
Ryan Gosling, Half Nelson (2006)
Gosling gets my vote for the most promising actor of his generation. As Dan Dunne, a committed but drug-addicted middle school teacher who develops a close relationship with a student, Gosling gave a performance lacking any false notes or histrionics.
-Gosling was also so moving and natural in a completely different role in Lars and the Real Girl (2007). I can't wait to see what he does with Blue Valentine, which releases soon.
Heath Ledger, Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Ledger is the only actor who makes both my supporting and lead lists for different roles this decade. What else to say about this actor we lost far too young? With Brokeback and The Dark Knight, I think Ledger qualifies as this generation's James Dean. It's amazing that he was only 25 when this astonishing performance was filmed.
Viggo Mortenson, A History of Violence (2005)
While his most-seen work this decade was in The Lord of the Rings movies, Mortenson's most brilliant work was with director David Cronenberg. As a small-town man with the past Tom Stall, Mortenson gives a brilliantly layered performance.
-Also terrific as a Russian mobster in Eastern Promises and of course in those movies about some hobbits or something.....
Bill Murray, Lost in Translation (2003)
I've seen this performance more than any other on this list, and I grow more in love with it every time. As washed-up movie actor Bob Harris, Murray creates a hilarious and lonely portrait of a lost soul without ever going even the teeniest bit over-the-top.
Edward Norton, 25th Hour (2002)
Spike Lee's post-9/11 New York movie is perhaps one of the most overlooked great movies of the decade. As Monty Brogan, a drug dealer about to be sent to jail, Norton gives a deeply emotional performance that ties the whole beautiful movie together. Just watch this brilliant scene, which is filled with hate but is subtextually a mournful love letter to the city he's leaving.
Sean Penn, Mystic River (2003)
As grieving and angry father Jimmy Markum, I don't think Penn has ever been better, and he's certainly one of our best actors. He turns one man's sorrow into a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions.
-I almost chose Penn's performance in Milk. As much as I loved Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, I was firmly on team Penn in Oscar Race 2008.
Mark Ruffalo, You Can Count on Me (2000)
I don't think there's ever been a brother-sister duo as beautifully acted and felt as Laura Linney and Ruffalo in Ken Lonergan's lovely movie. His first big role, and I still don't know why he's not a biggest star.
-Also great in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I'm also rooting for a Supporting Actor nomination (win??) for this year's The Kids Are All Right.
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote (2005)
Yes, Hoffman does a wonderful imitation of Truman Capote. But he goes so much deeper than that, giving us a multi-faceted view of a character who is simultaneously an outcast and an insider.
-I also loved Hoffman's work in Almost Famous (2000), 25th Hour (2002), The Savages (2008), and Synecdoche, NY (2008).
Tom Wilkinson, In the Bedroom (2001)
Matt Fowler is a very different grieving father from Sean Penn's Jimmy Markum, but his deep sadness may be even more felt by the viewer. His performance has to be great so that the surprising twists of this domestic drama ring true, and it is.
-I also loved Wilkinson in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and Michael Clayton (2007)
Oscar did a pretty good job of recognizing my favorites. While only 3 won the grand prize (Day-Lewis, Penn, and Hoffman), all except Edward Norton and Viggo Mortenson were nominated, and Mortenson was nominated for Eastern Promises.
I'm also struck by the darkness of these portraits. Several killers, a couple grieving fathers, and a few substance abusers. Looking at the group, I'm also excited for their future work. Most of these actors make good choices in their roles, and I have a feeling many of them will be filling out the Oscar slots for years to come.