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

20. Mia Farrow

Rosemary Woodhouse, Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

Part of the agonizing horror of this movie is watching poor Rosemary take so long to learn what the audience already knows about the people she trusts implicitly. She is simply too pure, too good-hearted, and too naïve to face the evil that is breathing down her neck, Snow White stepping out of her fairy tale and into a horror story. Watching her is like riding in the backseat of a car as the driver steers toward a cliff, pedal to the metal. This kind of aloof innocence could easily become grating, but the magic trick of Farrow’s performance as this mother-to-be is convincing us to care about her, to stay with her rather than jump. We feel so deeply for Rosemary. We see her inner strength and goodness as she desperately tries to break free of the constraints of dependence shackled around her. When she finally realizes what’s happening, her horror finally joins our own. And in the final scene, a mother’s act of love becomes a betrayal to an audience that still recoils in disgust. We stayed with her—and she sent us over the cliff alone. —Anthony Breznican

19. Robert De Niro

Rupert Pupkin, The King of Comedy (1983)

Johnny Boy, Vito Corleone, Jake La Motta—it was De Niro’s tough-guy roles that cemented his place in history as one of acting’s greats. But that animal intensity wasn’t the only arrow in his quiver. The King of Comedy was his fifth collaboration with Martin Scorsese, a dark, daring satire of obsession and celebrity culture centered around Rupert Pupkin, an ingratiating aspiring comic and autograph collector who kidnaps Jerry Lewis’s late-night host in a bid for fame. Pupkin is like the extrovert analogue of Travis Bickle, a delusional social outcast on a destructive mission of self-actualization, and De Niro plays him as someone just pathetic enough to be dangerous, with a twinkle in his eye this side of deranged. —KS

18. Juliette Binoche

Julie Vignon de Courcy, Blue (1993)

Even in our shrinking world, it’s still rare for lead actresses in foreign-language films to be nominated, and when they are, they rarely win. (Sophia Loren in Two Women and Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose are the sole exceptions). Binoche’s quietly devastating performance as a woman seeking a reason to live after the sudden death of her husband and daughter deserves to be among them. Blue, the first film of director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s dazzling three-color trilogy (Blue, White, Red), slips beneath the surface of grief and glides into deep, still pools of loss. If that sounds depressing, it isn’t. Binoche—in virtually every frame and often without dialogue—captures the sharp beauty of solitude and the clarity of pain. Her reluctant journey back to the land of the living will, yes, renew your faith in the strength of the human spirit. More importantly, it will renew your faith in the strength of a single actor to take you someplace you never want to go—and make you grateful that she did. —Sean Smith

17. Gene Kelly

Don Lockwood, Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

Kelly’s signature film, with his classic drizzly song-and-dance, might be the greatest musical ever made. Early drafts of the film featured Don as a singing cowboy rather than a silent-film star, so it was kismet when Kelly came aboard to star and co-direct. Kelly and Don were the perfect pairing, and the actor’s blinding confidence in this setting, as this character, practically emanates through Don’s every pore. No one who ever lived could’ve been a better Don Lockwood, a perfect symbiosis preserved for all time in the most famous rain dance in movie history. —JL

16. Henry Fonda

Juror No. 8, 12 Angry Men (1957)

Playing young Abraham Lincoln and Tom Joad earlier in his career cast Fonda as the face of humble righteousness, and playing the lone contrarian set against 11 jurors who want to sentence a murder suspect to death in Sidney Lumet’s classic cineplay cemented that reputation. There’s a reason he was cast so frequently as a U.S. president. Fonda’s compassionate Juror No. 8 never raises his voice or loses his cool—even as tempers flare. He never insults his colleagues or chastises them for their ignorant prejudices. He just shows them the path toward doing the right thing. In a decade when the movies were trying desperately to look different from upstart television, 12 Angry Men failed that test miserably and paid the price at the box-office. But time—and regular TV screenings—have rightfully confirmed it a classic, in large part because Fonda’s stoic and heroic performance reflects the American character as we want it to be. —JL

15. Humphrey Bogart

Sam Spade, The Maltese Falcon (1941)

When we think of the doomed noir private eye, we think of Bogart. He is to tough-talking shamuses what Marilyn Monroe was to sex. And this is where it all kicked off—as San Francisco gumshoe Sam Spade in John Huston’s crackerjack adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. It was a turning point in Bogie’s career—the moment he went from playing villains to heroes. And it’s easy to see why. Whether he’s smacking Peter Lorre around, getting played by Mary Astor’s femme fatale, or receiving a blustery history lesson about a priceless statue of a black bird from Sidney Greenstreet, Spade is caught in the middle but always in control—and always as cool as the barrel of a revolver. —CN

14. John Cazale

Fredo, The Godfather: Part II (1974)

In the short, remarkable career he carved out before his tragic early death, Cazale never made a false move. Every performance—from Dog Day Afternoon to The Deer Hunter to The Conversation—was a master class in the battle between strength and weakness, power and impotence. Still, his most memorable character will always be Fredo Corleone. In Coppola’s sequel, Cazale’s Fredo emerges as more than just a black-sheep punchline: He becomes a tragic figure of heartbreaking proportions, an overlooked man who craves power and his due so much that he betrays his family. “It ain’t the way I wanted it!” he says, his voice cracking as he screams at his kid brother and boss, Michael. “I can handle things! I’m smart! Not like everybody says… like dumb! I’m smart and I want respect!” —CN

13. Naomi Watts

Betty/Diane, Mulholland Drive (2001)

Watts’s performance in David Lynch’s disorienting masterpiece announced the young Brit as an actress with dazzling versatility. Mulholland Drive subverts any sense of narrative order and identity, but Watts’s bright-eyed, fresh-off-the-bus naïf, who transforms into something entirely unrecognizable by the closing reel, is the focal point holding all of its disparate pieces together. She’s vulnerable, she’s beguiling, she’s embittered; she’s eventually every woman who’s ever come and gone with dreams of Hollywood glamour. And in one spectacular audition for a B-movie, she’s all of them at once. —Stephan Lee

12. Robert Mitchum

Harry Powell, The Night of the Hunter (1955)

Like Peter Lorre’s whistling in M or the two-note cello in Jaws, Mitchum’s resonant baritone dripping out the verses of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arm” signals a predator’s approach. Mitchum’s minatory performance as the Reverend Harry Powell, a murderous preacher, in Charles Laughton’s darkly dreamlike fairy tale is both dread-inducing and charismatic, a Big Bad Wolf who knocks on the front door with his hat in hand. Because the film wasn’t a success in its time, there wasn’t much of a chance of the actor getting a nomination—Ernest Borgnine won that year as the much cuddlier Marty—but it’s a performance that’s hard to shake. You can fit how we feel about it on four knuckles: LOVE. —KS

11. Maria Falconetti

Joan, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

To be fair, the Academy Awards only began in 1929, the year after Carl Theodor Dreyer’s epic-in-miniature was released in Paris. To be more fair, the early Oscars were almost entirely focused on domestic product. And to be the most fair of all, The Passion of Joan of Arc had a tangled history almost immediately: It was censored by the Church even before most of the film’s negatives were lost in a fire. But 87 years later, Falconetti’s turn as the sainted martyr is a first-round pick for the performance of the cinematic medium. Dreyer made the bold decision to shoot Passion almost entirely in close-ups, and so Falconetti’s performance comes with a high degree of difficulty: no set, no props, no actors. Really, there’s not even dialogue or story. It’s a film of faces, and Falconetti’s face begins to feel like an abstraction of human emotion: terror, joy, sorrow and strength. Falconetti had a difficult life—she never acted onscreen again—but her Joan belongs to the ages. —DF

/ ( 4 of 5 )

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