Awards aren’t everything, but no one ever complained about having their hard work recognized. Consider that the impetus behind this list, which looks beyond awards season to shine a spotlight on the performances that have most affected us — if not necessarily the Academy — over the last 17 years. Some were contenders that got snubbed, while others were too out-there to ever be considered; all are worth praising.
Many others were and are, too — so many, in fact, that 25 spots weren’t enough for them all. Consider Denis Lavant’s bravura turn in “Holy Motors” or Maggie Gyllenhaal’s brilliant work in “Secretary,” among so many others, and remember that the first nine months of every moviegoing year feature plenty of performances worth remembering.
25. Jeon Do-yeon, “Secret Sunshine”
Lee Chang-dong movies abound in stellar performances — see also Yoon Jeong-hee in “Poetry” and Sol Kyung-gu and Moon So-ri in “Oasis” — but none is as devastating as Jeon Do-yeon is in “Secret Sunshine.” Her tear-streaked turn is grief embodied, and a reminder that the kind of tragedies you imagine only befalling other people can and will eventually befall you. Jeon was awarded Best Actress laurels at Cannes for her portrayal of a grieving widow who moves to her husband’s hometown with her young son in tow after the death of her other half; though intended as a kind of homecoming, the move results in even more hardship. Jeon ensures that we feel everything she does, which proves as cathartic as it is heartbreaking. “Secret Sunshine” was highly successful in South Korea, where Jeon remains a frequent onscreen presence — if only we were so lucky on this side of the globe. —MN
24. Charlize Theron, “Mad Max: Fury Road”
One of the most innovative action movies of the last 10 years, “Fury Road” also marked the return of Charlize Theron. Twice nominated and once crowned, for “North Country” and “Monster,” respectively, Theron has built an impressive career around playing flawed and complicated women. Though born out of a fantasy world, in many ways, Imperator Furiosa is a natural descendant of Aileen Wuornos. She’s a man-hating, independent woman who isn’t afraid to dole out justice as she sees fit. It’s a brooding role, but Theron flashes Furiosa’s softer side sparingly, adding a powerful grace and layers of depth to the role — and the movie. —JD
23. Bruno Ganz, “Downfall”
There are no wings over Berlin in “Downfall,” but Oliver Hirschbiegel’s account of Hitler’s last few days features a stellar lead performance by Bruno Ganz all the same. Bringing depth and dimension to his reviled character without ever letting us forget just who and what Hitler, the Swiss actor strives to remind us that there’s a man inside every monster — which only makes his actions more horrific to contemplate. Ganz never allows us to simply write Hitler off as evil, as that would almost be an excuse. Instead he digs deeper into his psyche than most other thespians would be comfortable with. —MN
22. Uma Thurman, “Kill Bill”
Much has been made about the characters Quentin Tarantino dreams up, but his real gift is his deep appreciation of his favorite actors and his ability to create roles that unlock all the aspects of what makes them so cool up on the big screen. With “Pulp Fiction,” he already revealed the badass that was lurking underneath Thurman’s authentic quirky demeanor, but the idea that she could actually kick ass – and to the degree she does for the entire four hours of “Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2” – was a complete revelation. Thurman retains all that makes her such a unique screen presence by playing a woman seeking bloody revenge for unspeakable horrors, while transforming into a martial arts virtuoso in the process. Beyond the raw physical ability and willingness to undergo intense train to learn such a wide variety of fight moves, she brings a physical grace, humor, cadence and an unreal sense of timing to create one of the greatest action heroes of all-time. —CO
21. Björk, “Dancer in the Dark”
The purest and most feral of Lars von Trier’s “holy women,” Selma isn’t a complicated figure. On the contrary, this increasingly blind single mother is something of a magical idiot, graced with a childlike simplicity that allows her to zone out of her depressing factory job and daydream that her life is a musical. The worse things get, the more she disappears into her delusions, eventually singing her way to the gallows after she’s convicted of a crime she was forced to commit. It’s the rare character who could truly only be played by one person, and von Trier found her. Leaning into the role like a woman possessed (which is pretty much the way Björk does everything), our planet’s foremost swanstress mines every inch of the hyper-violent precociousness that has always defined her music. She’s an absolute force of nature, her Selma hard to believe but impossible to deny — it’s the kind of openhearted performance that recalls Maria Falconetti’s immortal turn in “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” but in widescreen and with the volume cranked up to 11. It’s also still the only movie performance that Björk has ever given, but sometimes one is enough. See her in “Dancer in the Dark” and it feels like you really have seen it all. —DE