CATEGORIES FeaturesAny attempt to assess the best performances of a decade since the end of the so-called Studio Era in Hollywood will lead you to the same conclusion: American movies are a men's medium. In the '30s, '40s and '50, there were as many plum roles for the period's leading ladies as for the leading men and the names of Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn shined as bright on the marquees as Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant.
But in the decades since, the window for actresses narrowed while that for men lengthened. Winnowing my selections of the best lead male performances of the 2000s, I found myself including Clint Eastwood, who was a major star 45 years ago, and leaving off the top 10 such great work as Jamie Foxx's portrayal of Ray Charles in 'Ray,' Daniel Day-Lewis' turns in 'Gangs of New York' and 'There Will Be Blood,' Mickey Rourke's beefy comeback in 'The Wrestler,' and Philip Seymour Hoffman's fey rendition of Truman Capote in 'Capote.' Any attempt to assess the best performances of a decade since the end of the so-called Studio Era in Hollywood will lead you to the same conclusion: American movies are a men's medium. In the '30s, '40s and '50s, there were as many plum roles for the period's leading ladies as for the leading men and the names of Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn shined as bright on the marquees as Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant.
But in the decades since, the window for actresses narrowed while that for men lengthened. Winnowing my selections of the best lead male performances of the 2000s, I found myself including Clint Eastwood, who was a major star 45 years ago, and leaving off the top 10 such great work as Jamie Foxx's portrayal of Ray Charles in 'Ray,' Daniel Day-Lewis' turns in 'Gangs of New York' and 'There Will Be Blood,' Mickey Rourke's beefy comeback in 'The Wrestler,' and Philip Seymour Hoffman's fey rendition of Truman Capote in 'Capote.'
I couldn't even find a place for the decade's greatest novelty act, Sacha Baron Cohen's mischievous journey through America in 'Borat.'
No such trouble faced me in settling on a women's 10 best, or, for that matter, for the 10 best female supporting performances. But the supporting male bests, well, I hated to do it but had to leave off Alan Arkin ('Little Miss Sunshine'), Casey Affleck ('The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford'), Benicio del Toro ('Traffic'), John C. Reilly ('Chicago') and Christoph Waltz ('Inglourious Basterds').
I'm sure you'll remind me of some I've missed, among both women and men, both lead and supporting.
Best Supporting Actor
10. Robert Downey Jr., 'Tropic Thunder' (2008). As an Australian actor who could not come out of character playing a black man in a war movie, Downey gave one of the best performances of a career that ranks among the best of his generation.
9. John Travolta, 'Hairspray' (2007). For my money, the funniest drag performance since Jack Lemmon in 'Some Like it Hot.' Watching Travolta, as Edna Turnblad, lithely dancing in a fat suit is a memory to cherish.
8. Rip Torn, 'Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story' (2004). One of the great character actors of all time outdid himself as wheel chair-bound coach Patches O'Houlihan in this raucous Vince Vaughn/Ben Stiller comedy.
7. Morgan Freeman, 'Million Dollar Baby' (2004). As washed-up boxer, first-rate poet Eddie Scrap Iron Dupris, Freeman sealed his reputation as the best sidekick Clint Eastwood ever had.
6. Jackie Earle Haley, 'Little Children' (2006). Playing a registered -- and still active -- sex offender took both courage and a great performance, and Haley pulled it off in a way that was both creepy and empathetic.
5. Javier Bardem, 'No Country for Old Men' (2007). Wearing a Prince Valiant hair-do and staring through people with dead eyes, the Spanish star made his character Anton Chigurh the Menace of the Multiplex.
4. Ben Kingsley, 'Sexy Beast' (2000). I served on a festival jury with SIr Ben and I can say that he is not a physically intimating man. But as a brutal thug in this offbeat crime drama, he could have put a fright in the Incredible Hulk.
3. Thomas Haden Church, 'Sideways' (2004). Perhaps the surprise performance of the decade, the little-known character actor rose to the occasion as a womanizing, none-too-bright traveling companion of a grouchy connoisseur in California wine country.
2. Tom Wilkinson, 'Michael Clayton' (2007). The British actor's performance as a lawyer driven mad by conflicts of interest is an acting class in what supporting roles are all about.
1. Heath Ledger, 'The Dark Knight' (2008). This is not a sentimental choice. As the Joker, the late actor created the most compelling arch-villain a super-hero has ever had in a movie.
Best Supporting Actress
10. Jennifer Hudson, 'Dreamgirls' (2006). Honestly, she did not show that she's a great dramatic actress, but in the musical's turning point -- when Hudson's Effie White sings 'And I'm telling You I'm Not Going' -- she pinned audiences against their seats and broke their hearts.
9. Amy Ryan, 'Gone Baby Gone' (2007). Ben Affleck directed
8. Catherine Zeta-Jones, 'Chicago' (2002). Zeta-Jones may have looked gravity-challenged in the dancing scenes even if she hadn't been pregnant when they were filmed, but she was spot-on as the black widow Velma Kelly.
7. Leslie Mann, 'Knocked Up' (2007). The wife-actress of director Judd Apatow was a deft comedienne before she first worked for him in 'The 40 Year Old Virgin,' but she breaks out here as a married woman with a guy's outlook on sex.
6. Mo'Nique, 'Precious' (2009). I think this movie is vastly overrated, but not the praise being heaped on Mo'Nique's portrayal of an inner-city welfare mom so vile she could clear a hall with her mouth.
5. Cate Blanchett, 'I'm Not There' (2007). Among her many great performances of the decade, her manned-up portrayal of Bob Dylan was far the most representative in Todd Haynes' odd stunt film.
4. Sophie Okenedo, 'Hotel Rwanda' (2004). The British actress gave an absolute breakout performance as the wife of a hotel manager trying to keep her family save during the Rwanda Genocide of 1994.
3. Adriana Barraza, 'Babel' (2006). As a nanny trying to protect two children while lost in the desert, the Mexican actress gave a performance that was impossible to tell from a woman lost in the desert with two children. For my money, the most realistic performance of the decade.
2. Frances McDormand, 'Almost Famous' (2000). A marvel every time we see her, McDormand was at her very best as the worried mother of a teenage son traveling with a rock band.
1. Catherine O'Hara, 'For Your Consideration' (2006). Proving they have no sense of irony, Academy voters overlooked O'Hara's sensational comedy performance as an actress doing everything she can to get a nomination. She should have got it.
10. Imelda Staunton, 'Vera Drake' (2004). The veteran British actress plays a homemaker and part-time abortionist with clueless innocence in Mike Leigh's deft morality play.
9. Ellen Page, 'Juno' (2007). The pint-sized Canadian newcomer claimed the role of a pregnant teenager with sassy confidence and confounded activists on both sides of the abortion issue.
8. Sienna Miller, 'Interview' (2007). I know, you didn't see it.. Hardly anyone did. But it is one of the decade's niftiest two-character dramas, directed by Steve Buscemi and starring Buscemi as a proud journalist forced to spend a night interviewing a soap actress who, thanks to Miller's stunning performance, makes him look like a rank amateur.
7. Nicole Kidman, 'Dogville' (2003). Another little-seen movie with a knock-out performance, this one by Kidman as a gun moll on the lam in a small Colorado mining town that first accepts her, then makes her life even more of a hell.
6. Penelope Cruz, 'Volver' (2006). It was the Spanish actress's decade to shine, and that she did in this Pedro Almodovar drama about the spirit of a woman who returns to her small town to right the wrongs of her life.
5. Charlize Theron, 'Monster' (2003). The lithesome former South African model did more than dress down to play serial killer Aileen Wournos; she also porked up and wore gnarly tooth protheses that made you forget it was a performance and not a documentary.
4. Kate Winslet, 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind' (2004). It's hard to recognize Winslet at first, too. As bookstore clerk Clem Kruczynski, she's a bundle of energy topped with cobalt blue hair and overflowing with flower people charm.
3. Samantha Morton, 'Minority Report' (2002). One of my favorite actresses since stealing Woody Allen's "Sweet and Lowdown' from co-star Sean Penn, Morton is riveting here as a woman whose ability to see into the future puts her at mortal risk.
2. Julie Christie, 'Away From Her' (2008). Forty-two years after winning the Best Actress Oscar for 'Darling,' Christie notches her career fourth nomination for her sublimely subtle portrayal of a woman with Alzheimer's trying to fade gracefully in a residential home.
1. Diane Lane, 'Unfaithful' (2002). Full disclosure: her late father was one of my best friends. In fact, days before his death, I took him to see a rough cut of 'Unfaithful' in a Manhattan screening room and at the end of the movie, he said 'It's the crowning achievement of her career.' To which, I and everyone else, have since agreed.
10. Denzel Washington, 'Training Day' (2001). Washington can play anything, but what he does best is what he does here, play a villain with a bravado that makes him a pleasure to be with.
9. Jim Carrey, 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind' (2004). As he did with the earlier 'The Truman Show,' Carrey proved that he can do more than physical comedy. Here, he plays a man trying to race through his own memories to save those of the woman he loves.
8. Clint Eastwood, 'Gran Torino' (2008). I might have chosen his performance in 'Million Dollar Baby,' but, in truth, this performance as a grizzled Korean War at odds with the changing world around him, reminds me of the Eastwood we've always loved -- and this is probably the last time we'll see him on screen.
7. Sean Penn, 'Mystic River' (2003). With this Oscar-winning portrayal of a man out to avenge his daughter's murder, Penn entered a new, more fully dimensional phase of his career and became more of a force to be reckoned with than ever.
6. Benicio Del Toro, 'Things We Lost in the Fire' (2007). Overlooked and underseen, this drama about a recovering alcoholic lawyer and his relationship with his best friend's grieving widow may be the best thing he or Del Toro''s co-star, Halle Berry, have done.
5. Heath Ledger, 'Brokeback Mountain' (2005). Ang Lee's drama about a gay romance between cowboys in the contemporary west may come to be considered the most important film of the decade and Ledger's performance as the most conflicted of the lovers is an astonishment.
4. Johnny Depp, the 'Pirates of the Caribbean' trilogy, (2003-2007). Depp has been one of the most daring actors of his generation and his creation of Jack Sparrow, a pirate with eyeliner and ambiguous sexuality, is an absolute riot of invention.
3. Viggo Mortensen, 'Eastern Promises' (2007). A stand-out in 'The Lord of the Rings' trilogy and an Oscar should-have-been for 'A History of Violence,' the underrated Mortensen finally got his due for his pitch-perfect portrayal here of an Eastern European double-agent.
2, Forest Whitaker, 'Last King of Scotland' (2006). Sometimes an actor's performance is so big, his character overwhelms the screen, as well. That was true of Whitaker's spot-on portrayal of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin.
1. George Clooney, 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' (2000). Clooney may be about to win his first Best Actor Oscar for 'Up in the Air,' but it is his untethered attempt at farce in this Coen Brothers' movie that tops my list of Clooney bests.