Welcome to Debate Club, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, tackle the greatest arguments in pop culture.
It was the decade of Pulp Fiction and Fight Club, the era that gave us The Phantom Menace and Jurassic Park. The '90s were a goldmine of great genre films, but for this week's Debate Club, we decided to assign ourselves an impossible task: picking the five best performances of the decade.
Indeed, our list will probably be as notable for what was included as for what was left off (seriously, narrowing down 10 years of visionary, groundbreaking films to select only a handful of truly iconic acting jobs was impossible). But these were the five that made the cut — and just because they're all incredible doesn’t mean they're all capital-S serious. A couple of these are brilliant for how funny they are.
Okay here we go.
Alan Rickman, Galaxy Quest (1999)
Rickman was a classically trained actor who had become a big Hollywood star as bad guys in genre staples (Die Hard, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves), which is what made him perfect to play the frustrated Sir Alexander Dane, the Serious Thespian who learns that the role he's been running from all these years is what fits him best of all.
Dane's ultimate acceptance doesn't make his annoyance at being typecast any less hilarious. Nobody rolls their eyes like Alan Rickman did.
John Malkovich, Being John Malkovich (1999)
What a sense of humor it requires to agree to play yourself in a crazy-ass mind-bender like Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze's classic. Malkovich's initial thought upon reading the script was that "no one would ever be goofy enough to make that movie." But once Spike Jonze decided he was in, so was Malkovich, and his presence and intensity elevate the movie to a whole other level.
He dedicates himself to playing himself — and the other people playing himself — just as he has dedicated himself to playing anyone. And that's why it works. That's why it's immortal.
Toni Collette, The Sixth Sense (1999)
Many of us were disappointed that Toni Collette didn't land an Oscar nomination for her searing work in 2018's Hereditary. If she had, it would have been the second time the Academy had recognized her in an indelible horror film.
The Sixth Sense is principally about the relationship between a traumatized boy (Haley Joel Osment) and a damaged psychologist (Bruce Willis) — you know, the whole "I see dead people" business — but Collette's Best Supporting Actress nod was richly deserved. She's Lynn, a single mother who has enough on her plate without worrying that her son might be insane. Collette's co-stars are terrific in The Sixth Sense — we could just have easily put Osment in this spot — but the amount of nuance and feeling she brings to this role grows more impressive over time.
It's hard to watch this scene and not get choked up as Lynn finally gets closure for something that's long troubled her.
Keanu Reeves, The Matrix (1999)
With the rise of the John Wick franchise, audiences have become used to Keanu Reeves as an aging but still potent hit man. Watch the first Matrix now, though, and what stands out is just how young Reeves is here .. and yet that Zen-like confidence is already present. His Neo is 'the One' not just because Morpheus says so but because Reeves exudes the calm authority of a noble warrior.
The Matrix rewrote the rules of action cinema — we've been living in a Hollywood of post-apocalyptic, world-building franchises ever since — and Reeves was a different type of action hero. Sure, he'd shown off his chops in Point Break and Speed, but with the Wachowskis he helped fashion a character who could take down an entire robot uprising — all the while never once mussing his hair.
Jodie Foster, The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Anthony Hopkins is the lingering image of director Jonathan Demme's masterpiece, and for good reason: They've been trying to make mastermind villains like Hannibal Lecter for nearly 30 years now, with varying success.
But it's Foster — who won the Academy Award for Best Actress — who has the tougher role. She needs to be vulnerable, assertive, strong, scared, formidable and terrified all at once while centering the film for an audience desperate for something to hang on to. That she does this so understatedly, like it's just all in a day's work, makes it that much more of a miracle.