1. Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood, Gangs of New York, Ballad of Jack and Rose and The Boxer. He totally deserved his Oscar for TWBB, but Day-Lewis has been doing great work forever. His other over-the-top role of the decade, Bill The Butcher in Gangs of New York, was equally incendiary, and watching him flay the Irish for three hours was a guilty treat. But his performance in The Boxer was deft and nuanced in ways that the other two weren't, despite bringing the same level of physicality. Also, Ballad of Jack and Rose saw a different side of him, playing a washed-up hippy and overbearing father.
2. Guy Pearce in Memento. Okay, it's a gimmicky movie, but Pearce has proved himself over the last decade since breaking out with L.A. Confidential. He's an actor who can do anything, but seems most comfortable in indie films, surrounded by talented misfits. I don't think there's another actor who could have pulled off the short-term-memory-loss thing as well as he did.
3. Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises. I hated History of Violence (except for Maria Bello in the cheerleader outfit). It was overwrought, full of hammy dialogue and the kind of shitty bright-red-paint splatter effects that kept me away from David Cronenberg's work for years. But with Eastern Promises, it felt like Cronenberg reigned himself in and allowed his actors and his script to live up to their potential. Viggo plays a Russian mobster with a steely calculation that recalls Michael Corleone, if Michael had to do his own dirty work. It's amazing feat that, when the twist comes, even though it's heavily telegraphed, it catches you off-guard.
4. Ray Winstone in The Proposition. There are a lot of great performances in this film, including the above-stated Guy Pearce, John Hurt, Danny Huston and Emily Watson (also amazing in The Boxer...this is fast becoming an incestuous list). Winstone looks like a cockney thug, and yet he has a tremendous sadness and vulnerability, best displayed before this in Sexy Beast. The film, scripted by Nick Cave, is dark, and threatens to go off the edge at every turn. Because he's such an absolute badass (he was an amateur boxer), Winstone plays vulnerable better than anyone.
5. Hillary Swank in Million Dollar Baby. Sure, it's a guaranteed-Oscar kind of role--basically a female Rocky with more heartbreak and less stupidity--and Swank is backed up by two of the best actors out there, Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman. But Eastwood is the kind of director who lets his films stand on the power of their script and actors, and the movie rises or falls with her performance. I think it rises.
6. Kurt Russell in Dark Blue. Kurt Russell plays the American Blowhard better than anyone, managing to imbue him with vulnerability and flair. James Ellroy apparently wrote the original script, Plague Season, with Russell in mind. It's not a great film, but it's a great performance.
7. Leonardo Dicaprio, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg, Vera Farmiga, Jack Nicholson, Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen and Ray Winstone in The Departed. The secret to the Departed is that it's an ensemble film, a real feat considering most of the major actors don't share any screen time together. There isn't a bad performance in the film, though Mark Walhberg, never a favourite of mine, steals most of his scenes. Brilliantly scripted, capably directed, The Departed is worth a second, third or twenty-sixth look.
8. Tom Cruise in Collateral. Tom Cruise? Yes, I put him on my list. Michael Mann has a knack for bringing stellar performances out of stellar actors (Daniel Day-Lewis, Robert DeNiro), and competent performances out of frequently-incompetent actors (Colin Farell for one). Cruise falls somewhere in the middle, a great action star (whose Mission Impossible II and Minority Report are two of the better explosiony films to come out in this decade) who can be a great actor when he feels like it. He brings it all to the role of Vincent, a hit man hired to kill a slew of people in one Los Angeles night. Pretty much all of this could also be said for Will Smith in Mann's Ali.
9. Michael Shannon in Shotgun Stories. Josh turned me on to this one, about the death of a father who sired six sons, abandoned them to a hateful woman, reformed and found Jesus, and sired another three sons. The six kids meet at the father's funeral. Shannon plays Son, the oldest of the first three kids (along with Kid and Boy--now that's a guy who cared about his kids' names). His lethargic drawl fits his slightly damaged character perfectly.
10. There's lot more I could ramble on about, but Naomi Watts in Eastern Promises, Liev Schrieber in Hamlet 2000, Gene Hackman in Heist, Phillip Seymour-Hoffman in Almost Famous, Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt, etc etc.
But think about this. If you take the best performances from television over the decade--Ian MacShane, Michael K Williams, Edie Falco and James Gandolfini, Glenn Close and Michael Chiklis, Idris Elba and everyone else on The Wire, the ensemble from Arrested Development--you'd have to give it to television, I think. Maybe there's no one tv actor as radiant as Daniel Day-Lewis, but it's not all that far from him to Ian MacShane, is it?