The 25 greatest movie performances from the last 25 years

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Sep 4, 2017

September 2017 is Syfy’s 25th anniversary, so we’re using it as an excuse to look back and celebrate the last 25 years of ALL science fiction, fantasy, and horror, a time that has seen the genres we love conquer the world of pop culture. For us, that means lists! ALL THE LISTS! We’ll be doing two “25 greatest” lists per day all throughout September, looking back at the moments, people, and characters that shaped the last quarter century. So keep checking back. Please note: Our lists are not ranked; all items have equal standing in our brains.

What items in our lists were your favorites? Did we miss something? We welcome respectful debate and discussion, so please let us know in the comments! 

Genre fare has exploded in the last 25 years, and the performances of the actors and actresses on the list below have been a large part of its success. Here's our take on the 25 greatest film performances of the last 25 years.

Arrival (2016) - "Kangaroo" Clip - Paramount Pictures

Amy Adams, Arrival

Fundamentally, Arrival is about communication. What a casting coup to have secured Adams, who communicates volumes with her eyes. Fear, delight, optimism, intelligence, pain. It’s all there in her performance of Louise, a scientist recruited to speak to aliens. She brings a likability to every role she plays, even when she plays a person who may or may not save the world. And herself.

Attack The Block Clip 2

John Boyega, Attack the Block

Although John Boyega deserves credit for his performance as the kindly Finn in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it’s his previous credit in Attack the Block that helped catapult him to a galaxy far, far away. Boyega plays Moses, a cynical young gangbanger. The young actor veered away from making Moses an outright thug. Instead, he gave his character a strong (a)moral code, which turned him into an unlikely hero during an alien invasion.

Gravity Extended CLIP - Hang On (2013) - Sandra Bullock Movie HD

Sandra Bullock, Gravity

Bullock plays Ryan Stone, a biomedical engineer way out of her depth, far away from Earth. This film is practically a one-woman show, and Bullock is the reason why it won as many awards as it did. She arrests the audience as Ryan goes from frying pan to fire and back again.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (1/11) Movie CLIP - Train Ride (2004) HD

Jim Carrey, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Carrey sets aside his rubbery face and full-body antics for a quiet performance as the lovelorn Joel. He spends the film balancing his newfound happiness with depression, and it looks as if he will either burst into tears or burst into song at any moment. It was a delight to see him break out of his Merry Melodies persona and prove to the world that he can really, truly act.

District 9(2009) - Eviction Scene

Sharlto Copley, District 9

At the beginning of District 9, Copley plays nebbishy pencil pusher Wikus van der Merwe. But when he’s involved in a ridiculous accident, the character evolves…in more ways than one. Copley wows us with his transformation into someone more likable and, dare I say, more human.

Essie Davis, The Babadook

Horror movie actors tend to scream in fear. Here, in this 2014 film, Davis turns her pain inward. It’s as if each acting choice she makes is equivalent to self-harm. I’ve rarely felt such sympathy for a character in a horror movie. If this were an ordered list of best acting, Davis would earn a place near the top.

Vin Diesel, The Iron Giant

Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy isn’t the only character that Vin Diesel has given voice to. Prior to that, he was the Iron Giant, a robot alien who learns about humanity from a boy. It was one of Diesel’s most poignant roles. Although much of his dialog was grunts and groans, Diesel made him as real as any human character.

Iron Man - Suit Up Scene - Mark III Armor - Movie CLIP HD

Robert Downey Jr, Iron Man

You want someone to play arrogant, brilliant, and more than a touch self-serving? Look no further than RDJ and his larger-than-life portrayal of the genius-billionaire-playboy-philanthropist. His performance could have bordered on parody, but Downey never forgets that he’s playing a hero, even if he’s a flawed one, and we ended up with a combination of actor and role that was near perfect.

Melancholia - Ending 720p HD

Kirsten Dunst, Melancholia

Dunst’s character Justine suffers from depression, which she keeps well hidden from her newly-wed husband. Still, it asserts itself with alternating anger, numbness, and brutal honesty. Because of Dunst’s engaging performance, her despair doesn’t drag the film —about the apocalyptic approach of an oncoming planet — down. Her character makes the movie race towards its inevitable conclusion, both bleak and beautiful.

Chris Evans, Sunshine

Before Evans was the heroic Captain America, he was the no-less-heroic-yet-absolutely-no-less-palatable Mace in Sunshine. Mace adhered to the mission, regardless of the cost to anyone, including himself. What he did, he did without a malicious bone in his body. Whatever risks there were, he weighed them against all of humanity. Humanity won every time. Evans proves that not all heroes wear smiles, and set the stage for his rise to leading man status with a serious turn that surprised many.

Contact Space Travel (HD)

Jodie Foster, Contact

Strong female leads are still remarkable here in 2017, and back in 1997, it was even more true. While Sigourney Weaver broke the male action hero mold in Aliens, Foster takes the lead scientist role and makes it her own. Her Ellie Arroway is brilliant but unpolished, perfectly capturing the kind of personality that could, to quote H.R. Hadden, "think like a Vegan."

No Man's Land Scene | Wonder Woman (2017) Movie Clip

Gal Gadot, Wonder Woman

Gadot portrayed Diana as intelligent, kind, and not afraid to wallop injustice. She perfectly balances the character’s dual nature of sweet and strong. Hers is the best performance of a superhero we’ve seen in the DC Universe since Christopher Reeve, and her arrival on screen in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was like a ray of light in an otherwise dark film.

The Mist - Religious Nut

Marcia Gay Harden, The Mist

Televangelists have a particular rhythm when they talk. Harden must have studied them extensively, because when she speaks, one hand on a Bible and the other sweeping to Heaven, she captures them to a tee. We hated her character at first sight, but that makes us love Harden all the harder.

Under the Skin - Victim #1

Scarlet Johansson, Under the Skin

Dialogue is unimportant in Johansson’s role as an alien tasked with seducing men and killing them by submerging them in deadly goo. So she embraces the physical: her swaying body and her still face, which eventually betrays bewilderment as she feels sympathy for her victims. Every inch of this film is impacted by her presence.

Joker ( Heath Ledger ) Mob Scene

Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight

Ledger was absolutely mesmerizing as the maniacal Joker. We didn’t need to ask him if he danced with the devil in the pale moonlight; he was the devil. His Joker was one of the best performances of a villain in any genre. His Academy Award wasn’t just a posthumous hat-tip (he was nominated after he died in 2008). He earned it by chewing scenery and asking for seconds.

Lord of the RIngs - Gandalf vs Balrog (Crisp 480p)

Ian McKellan, The Lord of the Rings

Sir Ian is one of those actors we would spend money to see reading the phone book. So when he plays the iconic Gandalf, it’s just a bonus. None shall pass the bar of his talent, as he perfectly captured the warmth and humanity of Middle-earth’s most famous wizard while also wielding a mean sword and seizing the moments of power that showed just how formidable Gandalf could be.

Bram Stoker's Dracula (1/8) Movie CLIP - Renunciation of God (1992) HD

Gary Oldman, Bram Stoker's Dracula

Gary Oldman had a huge challenge in playing Dracula, a character who’s been done time and again to varying degrees of success. The actor makes a passionate play of the monstrous count, engendering both sympathy and terror, and his performance is one of the most romantic turns in horror history. When he tells Mina Murray “I have crossed oceans of time for you,” we believe him. Swoon.

Batman Returns (5/10) Movie CLIP - Meow (1992) HD

Michelle Pfeiffer, Batman Returns

Hello there. It’s not often that we see a performer like Pfeiffer (who had just come off of dramas Dangerous Liaisons and The Fabulous Baker Boys) take such delight in her villainy. Every minute she’s on screen, she revels in the mayhem she causes. Her turn was witty, weird, and wonderful, and made Selina Kyle one of the most mesmerizing parts of Tim Burton’s Batman sequel.

Moon - Best Scene - Sam Rockwell

Sam Rockwell, Moon

Sam Bell is the only man on the moon, kept sane and alive by a robot companion, Gerty. In other words, Rockwell spends the movie acting in a void, with only canned robot voice—and himself—to play against. From the start, Rockwell infuses his character with longing, so when we learn a terrible secret, we feel for him that much more. Because of Rockwell, Moon is worth the trip.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: Professor Snape Reveals He's The Half-Blood Prince

Alan Rickman, Harry Potter franchise

The late, great Rickman has a hell of a resume, but it was his turn as Harry Potter nemesis Severus Snape that immortalized him for a generation. Over the course of eight films, he took his Potions professor from villain to hero, and all it took was a shift in the viewer’s perception and a master class in acting. It was a role that required someone with humor, pathos, and gravitas. Rickman nailed it.

Andy Serkis, War for the Planet of the Apes

Serkis has made a good living as a motion-capture actor, playing characters animated on top of his performance. An average actor would be lost in the digital translation, but Serkis always manages to shine through. Gollum put him on the map, but it’s with his third turn as heroic ape Caesar that we truly see the scope and power of Serkis’s performance. As the leader of a tribe of enhanced simians, he is always riveting, even when we can’t see his face.

Independence Day Desert Scene

Will Smith, Independence Day

Marine pilot Steven Hiller is the role every male star would want to play: brave, funny, nice. Smith makes him cocky and gives him an enthusiasm for his work that an audience finds instantly likable. He’s not just a hero. He’s the hero next door. His not-so-warm welcome of an alien invader to Earth became an iconic moment and helped solidify Smith’s position as a movie star.

Mad Max: Fury Road - Max vs. Furiosa Scene (3/10) | Movieclips

Charlize Theron, Mad Max: Fury Road

Theron sheds her good looks and one of her arms (not really – thanks, CGI) to play Imperator Furiosa. Max may be mad, but Theron’s Furiosa is angry—angry enough to rescue the local warlord’s wives away from him and smart enough to (mostly) get away with it. A stunning woman like Theron could take pretty-girl parts for the rest of her life, and no one would question her decisions. But taking on the role of the grim trucker, she showed us just how much talent she has, and she did it single-handedly, becoming the focus of a film that bore a different character’s name.

Ex Machina (5/10) Movie CLIP - Are You Attracted to Me? (2015) HD

Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina

Ava is an intelligent robot designed to pass the Turing Test, and Vikander is talented enough to show a character who is both fragilely feminine AND made of steel. Even with a straight face, we can see the gears of her mind turning as she deals with the machinations of her creator (played by Oscar Isaac, whose turn her could well have put him on this list), and in a really challenging role, Vikander knocked it out of the park.

The Matrix - Neo vs Smith - Ultra HD

Hugo Weaving, The Matrix

Weaving plays the evil Agent Smith to oily perfection, and when he says, “Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet,” we feel his distaste for the VR world he polices. He’s not a big man, but because of his intensity, when he comes after Neo, we can’t help but cringe. He’s just that good, and Weaving’s performance would remain a highlight through two less-than-well-received Matrix sequels.

Those were OUR choices. What are yours? Let us know in the comments which performances from the last 25 years of sci-fi, fantasy and genre movies you’d put on your list!

Be sure to check out all of the other lists here!