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The Greatest Performances of 21st Century (Part II): Supporting Actors

March 21, 2016
6 min read

You read our Part I of this series, where we covered supporting actresses. Today, it’s time for supporting actors.

Interestingly enough, some of the very best performances of the new century come out of this category. Ledger’s Oscar-winning turn in The Dark Knight (2008), Chris Cooper, so good, so funny in Adaptation (2002), Nicholson out of his mind crazy in The Departed (2006), Eddie Murphy giving the performance of his lifetime in Dreamgirls (2006) and Tom Cruise, unbilled and unrecognizable and hysterically over the top in Tropic Thunder (2008), so many great performances.

1. Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight (2008) — So brilliant….so perfect it is hard to find the words. “Why so serious?” became his motto in the film, and he understood that without Batman he was nothing, but he could reign chaos down on the city and did just that. Imagine the film without him….impossible. True genius at work….

2. Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club (2013) — Leto is haunting and truly breathtaking as the doomed young man dying of AIDS yet willing to devote his life to fighting it for those he cannot. His huge liquid eyes allow to see into his gentle soul and when his character dies, the heart and soul leave the film. He deserved the Oscar, and won it.

3. Chris Cooper in Adaptation (2002) — An interesting bit of casting sees Cooper as a romantic lead, though the most unlikely of them with his front teeth knocked out and usually filthy from climbing through the swamps in search of that elusive flower. With an alarming intensity he creates one of the most charismatic characters in film history, and as he said made great jazz with Meryl Streep.

4. J.K. Simmons in Whiplash (2014) — “Play Whiplash” is almost a challenge to the band NOT to screw up and earn the wrath of this instructor who pushes his students to their very limits, hoping to cross into greatness. He sees it in Miles Teller and in spite of each man, they go there together. You cannot take your eyes off Simmonds as he seethes through this film.

5. Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men (2007)As the walking bringer of death, Bardem was outstanding, his dead eyes looking long enough at a victim to decide if they were going to live or die….most died. Truly frightening, with the worst hair do in recent memory. Those normally warm brown eyes are filled with something less than contempt for humanity, as he plods forward he is chilling.

6. Jack Nicholson in The Departed (2006)Dangerous, willing to kill for sport if necessary, his Frank Costello was modelled on Whitey Bulger, who cut a deal with the FBI to be an informant all the while building his own crime empire immune from the police. Vicious and utterly mad, Nicholson is astonishing to watch in his last great performance.

7. Casey Affleck in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) — The younger Affleck is superb as one of history’s after thoughts, Bob Ford, the ambitious killer of his hero Jesse James. At one point Jesse (Brad Pitt) says to him, “I don’t know whether you want to be like be or be me.” True words…haunting…Bob does not know himself.

8. Viggo Mortensen in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) — The true King of MIddle Earth, Aragorn is a warrior who pledges his sword to help the hobbits destroy the deadly one ring. Fearless, devoted to his friends, it is he who steps forward at the last battle and offers the words for his thought fallen friends, “For Frodo” and charges ahead to certain death. Born to be king….

9. Thomas Haden Church in Sideways (2004) — As the washed up actor who still uses his one time small fame to bed women, Church was a revelation in Sideways (2004), a sorry state of a man marrying a beautiful woman but who cannot help himself when women pay attention to him. “You don’t understand my plight” he tells his best friend…neither do we.

10. Tom Cruise in Tropic Thunder (2008) — Unrecognizable, furiously foul-mouthed and energetic, Cruise is astonishing as the rich studio head who does more than call the shots, he makes and ruins careers with mere words. Unbilled, his presence in the film was a complete surprise, but one from which we and the film never recover….more….we wanted more.

11. Eddie Murphy in Dreamgirls (2006) — Murphy deserved the Oscar for his superb work in this film as a singer who changes with the times, but the times will not allow him to do so, leaving him a drug addict. With the Murphy charm in full mode, the character allows him to be darker as a character than he has ever been before, and the actor rises to the occasion.

12. Samuel Jackson in Django Unchained (2012) — As Steven, the aging house slave for Calvin Candie (DiCaprio) he is treacherous to his own kind, dispensing advice to his master that could end the lives of fellow blacks. Arrogant and vicious he is the sort of character his own kind hate.

13. Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast (2001) — Deadly, psychotic and a sociopath, his Don Logan was one of the most extraordinary characters created on film in 2001 because it was Kingsley, Gandhi portraying him. He did not speak so much as he barked orders, and you better obey or it will get ugly….and of course it does. Ferociously intense from the first moment we see him.

14. Ezra Miller in We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) — Portraying the grown up Kevin, a dangerous psychopathic teenager, Miller is superb, his eyes sizing up all around him like a king cobra about to strike. And strike he does. A magnificent performance of a deadly teenager who had everything and wanted none of it.

15. William Hurt in A History of Violence (2005) — At one point career dead, the Oscar-winning actor of the eighties made a startling comeback here as Richie, the brother of Joey, who left the world of crime to find peace. But Richie cannot let it go, he needs his brother dead to prove his loyalty to the mob…Hurt is brilliant.

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