Ranking Every Single Oscar Performance From a Summer Blockbuster Movie

Turns out, award-caliber films come out during the summer, too. Here’s our exhaustive rundown of all 54 nominated roles, from a problematic Robert Downey Jr. to multiple Meryl Streeps and Tom Hankses.

Let’s face it: There is no summer movie season this year. But all is not lost. Each Friday for the next few months, we’ll be presenting “The Ultimate Summer Movie Guide,” honoring the greatest, goofiest and most memorable aspects of blockbuster seasons gone by. Maybe it will be a celebration of an iconic film or actor. Perhaps it will be a salute to Marty McFly’s DeLorean. Or, like today, it will be a look back at the most acclaimed performances from summer blockbusters.

Traditionally, if you want to win an Oscar, don’t put your movie out in the summer. The fall and winter are when studios usually release their serious dramas, hoping to capitalize on a time in the calendar when everyone is thinking about awards. The summer? That’s for escapist action movies and silly comedies. That’s when audiences want to turn off their brains.

But the reality isn’t quite so clear-cut. Since blockbuster season kicked into high gear thanks to Jaws, several big studio movies have come out during the warm-weather months and gone on to Oscar glory months later. And so, I decided to put together a list of every Oscar-nominated and -winning performance in a summer blockbuster — and then assigned myself the unenviable task of ranking them all. How many could there be, right?

Well, first, we have to determine what counts as a blockbuster. For this list, I decided to be generous, including movies that were big hits in the summertime — even if their commercial success was a bit of a surprise. I also made room for movies that were supposed to be summer blockbusters but tanked. So this list isn’t just action films but also hit comedies and inspirational dramas. (No indies, though, which leaves off stuff like Little Miss Sunshine and Winter’s Bone.) Basically, if it landed at No. 1 at the box office or was released on a ton of screens or ended up as one of its year’s highest-grossing films, it’s a blockbuster for my purposes. 

That yielded far more results, obviously — a whopping 54 nominations in all. And because I decided to lump all four acting categories together, the ranking was that much more challenging. (And, honestly, more fun.) But I’m happy to say that all of these performances are, at the very least, good-enough. There are no outright stinkers on here — and, actually, there are a lot of excellent ones. 

Who says blockbusters are all mindless garbage? Well, okay, sure, 95 percent of them are — but here’s a guide to the award-worthy good stuff.

54) Charles Durning, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982)

Nominated for Best Supporting Actor

Guess what movie knocked E.T. off its perch at the top of the box office? This surprise musical smash, starring Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds, which was a lot more wholesome than you’d imagine a movie about a brothel would be. Durning plays the governor of Texas — a spineless politician who knows how to sweet-talk reporters without saying anything substantial — and he has an amusing number, “The Sidestep,” where he explains his shamelessly noncommittal worldview. But that’s about it.

53) Al Pacino, Dick Tracy (1990)

Nominated for Best Supporting Actor

Imagine if Michael Corleone was a raving lunatic and you get the idea of what Pacino brought to his performance as mob boss Big Boy Caprice in Warren Beatty’s big-screen adaptation of the comic strip. Truth is, this is more of an explosion than a performance — lots of screaming and chewing of the scenery — and it’s fun in small doses. But it also feels like a lot of shtick. 

52) Gary Sinise, Forrest Gump (1994)

Nominated for Best Supporting Actor

Forrest Gump was 1994’s biggest moneymaker and received 13 Oscar nominations, winning six. Sinise played Lt. Dan, whose life will keep crossing paths with Forrest’s over the years. His performance is sufficiently heartwarming and emotional and all that, but this film is so much about its main character that many of the supporting players fade from memory. (Truth be told, if anybody else in the ensemble other than Tom Hanks was going to be nominated, you’d think it would have been Robin Wright. Alas, she was not.)

51) Paul Giamatti, Cinderella Man (2005)

Nominated for Best Supporting Actor

I decided to include this biopic because, even though it was a box-office disappointment, it certainly seemed like it was going to be a blockbuster. Cinderella Man reunited director Ron Howard and star Russell Crowe, who had previously worked on the Best Picture-winning A Beautiful Mind, to tell the inspirational underdog story of boxer James J. Braddock — that sure sounds like a hit, doesn’t it? Instead, the movie underperformed, but Giamatti received his first and (to this point) only Oscar nomination as Braddock’s manager Joe Gould. At the time, a lot of observers felt like the Academy nominated Giamatti as compensation for snubbing his terrific work in the previous year’s Sideways. Either way, this is a perfectly fine Paul Giamatti performance — although there are probably at least a half-dozen of his that you prefer.  

50) Paul Newman, Road to Perdition (2002)

Nominated for Best Supporting Actor

The graphic novel adaptation you always forget is a graphic novel adaptation, Road to Perdition starred Tom Hanks as a pitiless hitman who has to go on the run with his son (Tyler Hoechlin) after he’s double-crossed by gangsters. Newman plays a mob boss, and although it’s a pretty small role, the Academy clearly wanted to honor an industry icon. He lends a bit of class to a father-son drama that ended up being a pretty decent-sized hit for a somber comic-book movie without much action.

49) Holly Hunter, The Firm (1993)

Nominated for Best Supporting Actress

There was a time in the mid-1990s when movies made out of John Grisham books were a big deal. The Firm, based on his most popular airport novel, starred Tom Cruise as a cocky lawyer in over his head, and Hunter plays a colorful secretary with big nails who’s always smoking. This is the sort of performance that only gets nominated if it’s done by a respected actress — “Hey, you’re a classy thespian, but you played this working-class broad real good!” — and it’s hardly representative of the best work that Hunter can do. In fact, that same Oscars, she was also nominated for Best Actress for The Piano, which she deservedly won.

48) Robert Downey Jr., Tropic Thunder (2008)

Nominated for Best Supporting Actor

Listen, times change. When Tropic Thunder came out — just a few months after Iron Man, by the way — Downey’s pretentious method actor Kirk Lazarus was a snotty sendup of serious-with-a-capital-S thespians, and so the use of blackface illustrated just how inappropriate the character’s behavior was. But in light of Black Lives Matter, it now doesn’t feel ironic — just in poor taste. For Downey’s part, he still defends the performance, saying earlier this year, “I [got] to hold up to nature the insane self-involved hypocrisy of artists and what they think they’re allowed to do on occasion.” (He does, however, say in that same interview that part of his interest in playing the role was “I get to be Black for a summer in my mind, so there’s something in it for me.”) The character’s ludicrousness remains really funny — but it now also comes across as pretty cringe-y.

47) Dudley Moore, Arthur (1981)

Nominated for Best Actor

Moore’s sole Oscar nomination came in this lively romantic-comedy about a spoiled, drunken playboy who wants out of his arranged marriage, even if that means losing out on his massive inheritance if he instead tries to wed the lowly thief Linda (Liza Minnelli). Arthur was a big hit, coasting on the bon-vivant charm of its star. (Basically, everyone just assumed Moore was Arthur with his quick wit and impish sensibility.) The film very much feels like a relic of its time — That rich, carefree, entitled Arthur sure is a lovable scamp (and also probably an alcoholic)! — although it’s still got its charms.

46) Susan Sarandon, The Client (1994)

Nominated for Best Actress

The second Grisham adaptation on this list, The Client was highlighted by Sarandon’s performance as Reggie Love, a down-on-her-luck lawyer who’s the only hope of a scared kid (Brad Renfoe) who witnessed a mobster’s suicide — and learned an incriminating secret that makes him the target of gangsters and a cocky prosecutor (Tommy Lee Jones). This is a reasonably entertaining thriller, and Sarandon brings sufficient warmth and complexity to her underdog character. But be honest: You don’t remember this movie or that she was nominated. (The following year, she’d win for Dead Man Walking.)

45) Jessica Chastain, The Help (2011)

Nominated for Best Supporting Actress

Because of movies like The Tree of Life and Zero Dark Thirty, we think of Chastain as a serious dramatic actress, which of course she is. But one of her first breakout roles was as the bubbly, larger-than-life Celia in The Help, where she’s very funny. That said, the character is little more than a reassuring fantasy — the one good white lady in the racist South — but Chastain brings enough realness to that lame trope that you sense Celia’s decency. Still, Chastain would soon be doing much better work in much better films.

44) Kathleen Quinlan, Apollo 13 (1995)

Nominated for Best Supporting Actress

Astronauts need supportive wives. Quinlan’s only Oscar nomination came in this true-life drama about the near-fatal moon mission led by Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks) — she played his loving spouse Marilyn, who worries about his safe return. Quinlan’s quite good in the part, but it’s the sort of simplistic character that’s become less interesting over time. Marilyn holds the family together and believes — she’s the movie’s emotional center — but she’s sidelined in a way that’s a bit patronizing in a “Behind every great man is a great woman” way.  

43) Jack Warden, Heaven Can Wait (1978)

Nominated for Best Supporting Actor

This character actor was always a very good straight man, which made him an ideal choice to play Max, a trainer who’s about to find out that his deceased buddy Joe has returned in the body of another man (Warren Beatty). A movie like Heaven Can Wait — one of the biggest hits of 1978, which was also the summer of Grease and National Lampoon’s Animal House — needs an audience surrogate to ground all the silliness going on, and Warden could do that as well as anyone. The more rationally he tries to approach the preposterous situation, the funnier it gets.

42) Dyan Cannon, Heaven Can Wait (1978)

Nominated for Best Supporting Actress

Heaven Can Wait’s screwball-comedy element is best personified in Cannon’s performance as Julia, the unfaithful wife who thought she’d killed her husband — only to discover that, somehow, he’s alive and walking around. (Turns out, his body is being used by a soul that isn’t supposed to be dead. Look, it’s complicated.) Cannon is really funny as Julia, who really, really wants to murder her husband so she can be with her secret lover (Charles Grodin), and it’s the kind of high-energy but nicely controlled comic performance that you just about never see anymore — especially during the summer. 

41) Dianne Wiest, Parenthood (1989)

Nominated for Best Supporting Actress

Wiest is two-for-three with Oscar nominations, winning for Hannah and Her Sisters and Bullets Over Broadway. Her only loss came as Helen, a frazzled divorced mother overwhelmed by her kids and life in general. An ensemble family comedy, Parenthood would later inspire the popular NBC series, but director Ron Howard deftly balanced comedy and light drama — he’s well-served by Wiest, who keeps Helen grounded in reality so that she never seems too cartoonishly zany. Whether discovering her daughter’s sex photos or having her vibrator carted out in front of the whole family, Helen endures it all rather heroically. 

40) Don Ameche, Cocoon (1985)

Won for Best Supporting Actor

Only two movies made more money in the summer of 1985 than CocoonBack to the Future and the confusingly titled Rambo: First Blood Part II — which was a testament to this likable comedy-drama’s high-concept premise concerning a group of retirees who discover the fountain of youth. (Actually, it’s a pool that contains alien pods that make anyone who swims in it vivacious.) Ameche played one of the senior citizens, and he was close to 80 when he won the Oscar — a capper, of sorts, to a long career that had started out in vaudeville and radio. The choice was sentimental as much as anything else, although Ameche played his aging, reflective character with plenty of melancholy and warmth.

39) Glenn Close, The Natural (1984)

Nominated for Best Supporting Actress

In a summer with Ghostbusters, Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, adults checked out The Natural, a nostalgic romantic drama about an aging baseball player (Robert Redford) hoping to finally get his shot at the majors. Close played Iris, his true love he left behind as a teenager when he was chasing his athletic dreams, who reunites with him in adulthood. The veteran actress doesn’t have to do much beyond be ethereal and warm — Iris is meant to represent the life he could have had — and Close is quite good in the role, even though it’s fairly one-dimensional. (This was her third of seven Oscar nominations. She hasn’t won yet.)

38) Warren Beatty, Heaven Can Wait (1978)

Nominated for Best Actor

A smart romantic-comedy, Heaven Can Wait was produced and co-written by Beatty, who also co-directed and starred in this story of a football player who’s accidentally taken up to heaven before his time, returning to Earth in a new body with a desire to reclaim his old life. The film was sandwiched between his two political passion projects — 1975’s Shampoo and 1981’s Reds — and it finds Beatty relaxing into a grownup entertainment that’s far breezier than either of those films. That’s not meant as a knock, though: Heaven Can Wait was the last time he’d be this effortlessly charming on screen.

37) Meryl Streep, The Bridges of Madison County (1995)

Nominated for Best Actress

One of the oddest entries in Clint Eastwood’s filmography, this adaptation of the Robert James Waller bestseller saw Streep play Francesca, an unfulfilled housewife who falls in love with a rugged photographer (Eastwood). The book was widely dismissed as romantic hogwash, but the film version of The Bridges of Madison County was reasonably thoughtful and nuanced, riffing on regret and second chances. Streep, the master of accents, dives into her character’s Italian roots with her usual gusto. Yes, it’s a bit affected, but she generates real heat with Eastwood nonetheless.

36) Robert Duvall, Apocalypse Now (1979)

Nominated for Best Supporting Actor

Duvall isn’t in much of this Francis Ford Coppola war epic, but you know which part he’s in — hell, even if you haven’t seen Apocalypse Now, chances are you’ve seen his segment. As Kilgore, he’s all bloodlust and macho bluster, commanding his troops to rain fire from above and then hit the beach in time to surf. It’s a ludicrous caricature of a warmonger, but Duvall (so reserved in Coppola’s Godfather films) plays it to 11 with such gusto that it’s both amusing and unsettling. There’s probably never been a real-life warrior like Kilgore, which is a very good thing, but the actor portrayed him so vividly that you can practically smell the napalm.

35) Robin Williams, Dead Poets Society (1989)

Nominated for Best Actor

One of the great comics of his generations, Williams was already shifting to Serious Actor by the time he signed up to play an inspirational teacher in a repressive private school in Dead Poets Society. (He received his first Best Actor nomination for 1987’s Good Morning, Vietnam.) As John Keating, Williams has one foot in his improv roots and one in drama, riffing with feverish energy while also delivering heartfelt monologues about the importance of being your own person. In the annals of movies about role-model teachers, Dead Poets Society is better than most, although you can sometimes still see Williams trying hard to be comfortable in this somberer role. 

34) Ed Harris, The Truman Show (1998)

Nominated for Best Supporting Actor

If his character’s name isn’t enough of an indication, Harris is essentially playing god in this nervy summer studio hit. As Christof, he controls the 24-hour-a-day reality show that is Truman Burbank’s (Jim Carrey) life, but what’s dangerous about this TV producer is that he thinks he knows better than Truman about what he wants in the world. Especially in the final stretches of The Truman Show, watch how Harris reacts to Truman’s mutiny with a mixture of disappointment, anger and worry. Christof is like a dad who’s not ready for his child to leave the nest. The guy comes across as caring, but his possessiveness is quietly disturbing.

33) Toni Collette, The Sixth Sense (1999)

Nominated for Best Supporting Actress

This Australian actress first came to the world’s attention thanks to the comedy Muriel’s Wedding, but a few years later, she played the tough-as-nails, working-class single mom in The Sixth Sense, who doesn’t quite know what to do with her troubled son (Haley Joel Osment). M. Night Shyamalan’s breakout film is primarily a study of the relationship between the boy and his therapist (Bruce Willis), but Collette brings her supporting character to life, making you feel all the helplessness she’s going through. In a low-key way, The Sixth Sense is a hell of a tribute to all the overworked mothers scraping by to give their kids a better life. (Most people’s children don’t see ghosts, though.)

32) Ed Harris, Apollo 13 (1995)

Nominated for Best Supporting Actor

If your space mission was in life-or-death peril, be honest: You’d want Harris figuring out how to get you home safe. The actor’s calm competency is on display in Apollo 13, where he plays Gene Kranz, who won’t rest until his astronauts are back on Earth. Harris brings a modest heroism to parts like this — the best thing about Kranz is that he’s just good at his job — which makes it very easy to root for the guy. He’s like America’s can-do spirit in the form of one crew-cutted dude.

31) Debra Winger, An Officer and a Gentleman (1982)

Nominated for Best Actress

The summer of 1982 was dominated by E.T., but the season’s other big blockbuster was this tough-minded romantic drama about a directionless young man (Richard Gere) who wants to be a Navy pilot and falls in love with a working-class local gal (Debra Winger). An Officer and a Gentleman was the first of three Oscar nominations for Winger, who’s one of the underrated great actresses of the last 40 years. She has dynamite chemistry with Gere, but her character Paula is more interested and layered than the typical love interest in these sorts of movies. Winger gives you the sense of a woman who’s tired of waiting around for her life to start — a sentiment that also applied to the actress, who launched onto the scene in 1982 and quickly established herself as a major talent.

30) Leonardo DiCaprio, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood (2019)

Nominated for Best Actor

As Rick Dalton, DiCaprio got to play the version of a Hollywood actor he never experienced in real life: the washed-up bum who was never that good in the first place. Leo’s second go-round with Quentin Tarantino was less flashy than his turn as the evil slave owner in Django Unchained, but it’s fun to see the longtime industry golden child be middle-aged and desperate. But the truth is, he’s upstaged by his co-star — as he will be in these rankings, too.

29) John Gielgud, Arthur (1981)

Won for Best Supporting Actor

Gielgud was a monumental figure in theater in the 20th century, mastering Hamlet and Harold Pinter. So, of course, he won his Oscar in a comedic role, that of Hobson, the butler who looks after the partying, immature Arthur (Dudley Moore). Hobson gets all the best withering zingers in Arthur, but Gielgud also brought some real sweetness to the role. (Deep down, the guy really loves this drunken manchild.) The character’s stiff-upper-lipness is really amusing, even if it’s a bit of a one-note role. The Academy didn’t care: They wanted to celebrate an acting legend.

28) Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids (2011)

Nominated for Best Supporting Actress

Here’s where the world learned about McCarthy, whose Megan was the coarse wild card of this zany bridal party. A decade later, the performance is still a total blast, setting the stage for every bulldozing, unreasonably confident comedic character she’s played since. Bridesmaids was a gamble as a female-driven broad comedy opening in the summertime, but after it became a huge success, it was clear that its scene-stealer was going to be a major star.

27) Whoopi Goldberg, Ghost (1990)

Won for Best Supporting Actress

This EGOT winner earned the O for her portrayal of Oda Mae Brown, a sham psychic who just so happens to be able to communicate with Patrick Swayze’s Sam after he’s dead. It’s a very fun performance that capitalizes on Goldberg’s no-nonsense persona as she helps Sam get in touch with his wife (Demi Moore) — that is, when she’s not annoyed with him for barging into her life. Ghost is primarily a tear-jerking romantic drama, but she’s here to provide the comic relief, which she does superbly. 

26) Jamie Foxx, Collateral (2004)

Nominated for Best Supporting Actor

Yeah, I had forgotten that Foxx was nominated for this moody, absorbing L.A. crime-thriller, too. He’s Max, a taxi driver who picks up the wrong fare, a hitman (Tom Cruise) who ends up enlisting his help. One of the reasons you probably don’t recall Foxx’s nomination: This same Oscars, he won Best Actor for Ray. Another reason: Max is the sort of low-key portrayal that usually gets overlooked by the Academy. (If anything, you’d think Cruise would have gotten a nod, which he did not.) Nevertheless, Collateral works so well because of how Foxx and Cruise match wits over one tense, increasingly surreal night. Ray was the bigger performance, but this might have been the better one.

25) Tom Hanks, Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Nominated for Best Actor

As Captain Miller, Hanks found the role that would define the back half of his career: Even with this year’s Greyhound, he’s still playing grizzled, proficient, patriotic American heroes. We tend to remember Saving Private Ryan for its bravura, horrific opening battle sequence, but Hanks provides its heart as an everyman, part of the fabled Greatest Generation, who just wants to do his job and go home. This movie introduced a steeliness in Hanks he’d put to good use in future dramas like Road to Perdition and Bridge of Spies

24) Viola Davis, The Help (2011)

Nominated for Best Actress

First, let’s agree that Davis is one of the best actresses working today. Then, let’s acknowledge that she’s quite good in The Help as Aibileen Clark, a kindly maid working in the South in the 1960s. And, with all that out of the way, now let’s also say that it’s probably a good thing that she didn’t win the Oscar for this performance. The smash hit adaptation of the popular Kathryn Stockett novel is very much the kind of well-meaning, liberal-guilt depiction of racism that earns awards — and really shouldn’t. Davis said as much: In 2018, she admitted, as much as she loved working on the project, “I just felt that at the end of the day that it wasn’t the voices of the maids that were heard.” I’m not gonna penalize her too much for that, though — she’s her usual excellent self in this very flawed film.

23) Octavia Spencer, The Help (2011)

Won for Best Supporting Actress

Remember all that stuff I said about Davis in The Help? It also applies to Spencer, who before this film had never really gotten a substantial movie role, although she’d been working steadily since the mid-1990s. But as Minny, she turned the Dignified Maid cliché into something resonant, while also being really funny as she stares down the dumb racists around her. Her Oscar for The Help helped get her noticed as a dramatic actress, and since then she’s done a string of fine work in everything from Hidden Figures to Luce. It’s a pity it took a simplistic film about racial inequality to make that happen, but there’s no denying Spencer made the most of an outdated character type.

22) Joaquin Phoenix, Gladiator (2000)

Nominated for Best Supporting Actor

Commodus is such a superb brat in Gladiator — spoiled, petty, creepy — that you can’t wait for Russell Crowe’s hero Maximus to off this twit. And that’s all due to Phoenix, who relishes playing a guy so loathsome and immature. Landing just shy of boo-hiss villainy, Commodus gives the film an antagonist who’s everything that the honorable Maximus isn’t, and their yin-yang rivalry is the best part of this Best Picture-winner. As we’ve seen recently with Joker, Phoenix likes going big. He’s wonderfully evil here.

21) Clint Eastwood, Unforgiven (1992)

Nominated for Best Actor

Eastwood was only nominated twice for his acting — for this and Million Dollar Baby, which both won Best Picture — and he’s expertly craggy as Will Munny, a retired, widowed gunman who agrees to do one last job. Unforgiven is very much about demystifying the romantic myth of the Old West, and in a sense, the director-star is commenting on his own legacy, turning the fabled Man With No Name into a sad, reflective older man who’s seen what a lifetime of violence does to your soul. Eastwood seemed to understand the role from the inside.

20) Jack Palance, City Slickers (1991)

Won for Best Supporting Actor

Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves were the biggest hits of summer 1991, but right behind those two was this midlife-crisis comedy about a bunch of New York buddies who decide to take part in a cattle drive to feel young again. Palance, a veteran of Westerns, is very funny as Curly, the rough-edged cowboy who will lead these morons on their series of misadventures. Curly’s shame at being around such greenhorns is City Slickers’ best running joke, but to this day, nothing in the movie is truly as entertaining as what Palance did on stage after he won his Oscar.

19) Johnny Depp, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

Nominated for Best Actor

No, really, there was a time, long ago, when people thought fondly of Depp, a respected actor’s actor who eschewed the mainstream to do challenging, artsy work in films like Ed Wood. But then he decided to hitch his wagon to a silly-sounding Disney film, based on a pretty boring theme-park attraction, to play Jack Sparrow, a flamboyant captain who’s a hopeless fool with a good heart. That didn’t sound very promising, but the first Pirates of the Caribbean was a happy surprise, a big, rollicking summer hit that found Depp adopting his quirky intensity for a blockbuster — in the process giving us an extremely entertaining, funny performance. This is all impossible to believe now because of his personal and professional failings since, but nonetheless The Curse of the Black Pearl earned Depp his first Oscar nomination, which was richly deserved. This movie put him on top of the world. It feels a lot longer than 17 years ago. 

18) Haley Joel Osment, The Sixth Sense (1999)

Nominated for Best Supporting Actor

Before The Sixth Sense, Osment was probably best known as Forrest Gump’s son at the end of that Best Picture-winning colossus, but he got a much more substantial role in this emotional, unsettling ghost story. One of the few child actors to receive an Oscar nomination, he’s believably terrified as Cole — there’s nothing cutesy or phony about the performance. Put bluntly, The Sixth Sense wouldn’t work without Osment, who makes you feel what it’s like to have such an amazing power that you wish dearly you could give up. Osment’s never done anything as terrific since, but when it really counted, he absolutely delivered.

17) Tom Hanks, Forrest Gump (1994)

Won for Best Actor

Do you adore Forrest Gump or find it reactionary and manipulative? Your answer will determine where you’d rank Hanks’ Oscar-winning portrayal, because although it’s an iconic performance, it mirrors the film’s overall strengths and weaknesses. As years go by, I continue to find it affecting, but the actor’s tics and mannerisms are pretty apparent, too. Nevertheless, this remains a beloved film from a beloved American actor. Even if you can’t stand Forrest Gump, you are outnumbered by the many, many people who adore him and the movie.

16) Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood (2019)

Won for Best Supporting Actor

Pitt was so delightful as aging stuntman Cliff Booth in Quentin Tarantino’s love letter to bygone Hollywood that most viewers conveniently forget that the character… may have killed his wife. Nonetheless, Cliff is the quintessential wingman, and Pitt played him with such easygoing charm that the character’s likability and the star’s mega-watt charisma melded wonderfully. As for Cliff’s possible dark side, that only plays into what audiences loved about him: He seems like the sort of guy who’s seen some shit, and he plans on keeping his secrets to himself.

15) Sean Connery, The Untouchables (1987)

Won for Best Supporting Actor

This gangster drama was the only time Connery was ever nominated for an Oscar. He won as Jimmy Malone, a grizzled cop who shows idealistic Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) how dirty you have to get to bring down Al Capone (Robert De Niro). After years of playing 007, Connery seemed to relish portraying this showy, caustic good guy who long ago shed his naiveté but hasn’t lost his sense of right and wrong. After The Untouchables, Connery was very happy to transition into the Crusty Tough Guys phase of his career thanks to movies like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and The Rock. But he’s especially dynamic here — never more so than during his memorable “Chicago way” speech.

14) Louis Gossett Jr., An Officer and a Gentleman (1982)

Won for Best Supporting Actor

The movies are full of tough-love mentors, but they rarely were as imposing as Foley, the drill sergeant who wants to break new recruit Zack’s (Richard Gere) spirit. The clash between those two men is at the heart of An Officer and a Gentleman, and Gossett Jr. is terrific as a professional soul-crusher. A few years later, Full Metal Jacket’s R. Lee Ermey would give us a hilarious, ultra-macho cartoon version of the same kind of character, but Foley, no matter how mean or profane, felt like a real person — which made his growing respect for Zack all the more emotional.

13) Tom Hanks, Big (1988)

Nominated for Best Actor

Here’s where everything changed for Hanks. No longer the goofy guy from Splash, he found a sweeter, more nuanced side — ironically, in a movie in which he plays a kid in a grownup’s body. Big was one of 1988’s biggest hits — a lovable, feel-good comedy with depth and genuine sentiment — and it was lit up by Hanks’ bighearted persona. As Josh, who’s both delighted and terrified that he’s big, the actor conveyed the complexity of trying to seem like an adult when you know you’re not — a feeling most actual grownups can certainly appreciate. 

12) Nicole Kidman, Moulin Rouge! (2001)

Nominated for Best Actress

It can’t be easy to play a vision of loveliness — a songbird who captures the heart of every man who lays eyes on you — but Kidman managed to turn a cliché into a flesh-and-blood character. The hippest hit of the summer of 2001, Moulin Rouge! allowed Kidman to be a full-blown movie star in a way she hadn’t been able to up to that point. But as Satine, she’s sexy and utterly confident — not to mention funny and vulnerable. Ewan McGregor’s hopeless romantic had no choice but to swoon, which everyone in the audience did as well. Few performances are as magnificently alive as this one.

11) Russell Crowe, Gladiator (2000)

Won for Best Actor

Some actors go their whole career doing impressive work, but that’s different from being a movie star — that’s a specific, challenging, hard-to-define talent. You either have it or you don’t, and with Gladiator, Crowe proved that he had it. Previously a highly respected serious actor in dramas like The Insider, Crowe found another gear to play Maximus, a noble Roman warrior who is betrayed, loses those closest to him and vows revenge. This is a highly polished popcorn flick with delusions of grandeur, which is among the reasons why some people loathe it, but Crowe’s utterly stirring performance goes a long way toward selling this swaggering swords-and-sandals epic. He exudes rugged decency effortlessly, paving the way for an action-movie career that never produced a better film than this one.

10) Gene Hackman, Unforgiven (1992)

Won for Best Supporting Actor

With each passing year, Hackman’s retirement from acting is more of a shame. One of his finest final performances was his Oscar-winning turn in Unforgiven, where he plays Little Bill Daggett, a vindictive, vain sheriff who will square off with Clint Eastwood’s aging outlaw. After decades of Westerns in which the bad guy had a big mustache and a bigger personality, Daggett was simply a mean ol’ sonofabitch, and Hackman’s weathered, elemental portrayal made his cruelty that much more shocking. It’s very hard to picture some actors playing Old West characters, but Hackman seems right at home — in fact, he could run the place with that flinty look in his eyes.

9) Tommy Lee Jones, The Fugitive (1993)

Won for Best Supporting Actor

As Gerard, the FBI agent on the hunt for Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford), Jones embodied all the qualities we enjoy in his performances: that slightly aloof tone, the wry sense of humor, a hint that he knows he’s smarter than everybody else on the screen. The character’s doggedness made him compelling — although, ironically, we’re supposed to be rooting for the wrongly-accused Kimble. The cat-and-mouse game between two worthy combatants animated The Fugitive, making it that summer’s second-biggest hit, behind only Jurassic Park

8) John Malkovich, In the Line of Fire (1993)

Nominated for Best Supporting Actor

So, here’s an unpopular opinion I’ve held for more than 25 years: I think the Academy awarded the wrong antagonist from a summer 1993 blockbuster with Best Supporting Actor. Of course Tommy Lee Jones is very good in The Fugitive, but I’ve always preferred the sneering chilliness of In the Line of Fire’s Malkovich, who plays Mitch Leary, a psychopath who’s determined to gun down the president. The only thing that’s stopping him is Clint Eastwood’s haunted Secret Service agent, who Mitch enjoys tormenting. Malkovich makes the man’s haughtiness both appealing and unsettling, and it powers In the Line of Fire, a sharp, underrated action-thriller that’s worth seeking out.

7) Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Won for Best Supporting Actor

Waltz was a stage and film actor largely unknown in the States before Quentin Tarantino tapped him to play Hans Landa, a fiendish Nazi officer who’s been given the ghoulish nickname “The Jew Hunter.” He’s the scary center of Inglourious Basterds, but Waltz also locates the character’s dark humor: For him, rounding up Jews is just a fun game. Landa represents a vain, arrogant, blasé form of evil that’s superficially charming but also deeply frightening because there’s not a whiff of humanity to it. After taking home the Oscar, Waltz launched a Hollywood career, winning a second Academy Award for Tarantino’s Django Unchained. But Landa remains his most inspired creation — the film’s opening sequence is a masterclass in slowly building unease.

6) Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada (2006)

Nominated for Best Actress

The Devil Wears Prada profoundly affected how studios thought about summer movie season — hey, maybe comedies starring women could go up against the superhero films — and Streep is killer as Miranda Priestly, the cooly judgmental and terrifying editor of an influential New York fashion magazine. Because of all her accolades as The Greatest Living Actress, it’s easy to overlook Streep’s comedic chops, but she’s an absolute riot here, terrorizing all around her with a cutting look or a snide putdown. Technically speaking, Miranda isn’t The Devil Wears Prada’s main character, but she’s the one who everybody was talking about after they saw the film.

5) Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia (2009)

Nominated for Best Actress

This might be a mildly controversial take, but Julie & Julia might contain Streep’s best performance of the 21st century. Some might think it’s easy to play Julia Child — everybody can do her voice, right? — but what’s especially affecting about Streep’s portrayal is how she humanizes the character, showing the ambitions and insecurity that drove her to become a chef. Remember, this was the 1950s, when women were supposed to know their place, and Streep makes her character’s determination downright inspiring and heroic. Released years before #TimesUp, Julie & Julia is ripe for rediscovery as a moving female empowerment tale that fleshes out a cultural caricature and makes her a fascinating, complex human being.

4) Alec Guinness, Star Wars (1977)

Nominated for Best Supporting Actor

There’s a delightful moment in the life of every child who grew up on Star Wars when he or she discovers that Guinness had a whole career before playing Obi-Wan Kenobi, including stirring war epics (The Bridge on the River Kwai) and dark comedies (Kind Hearts and Coronets). In that context, it’s easy to see that Guinness was mostly lending some veteran British authority to his role as the aging Jedi knight — not exactly slumming, but mostly coasting on his regal bearing — while appearing alongside a bunch of kids who were just getting started in the business. But it’s a testament to how serious Guinness took Obi-Wan that he remains one of the most beloved characters in that franchise — he’s the epitome of the wise old elder. And, hey, he’s pretty good with a lightsaber, too.

3) Kevin Kline, A Fish Called Wanda (1988)

Won for Best Supporting Actor

I’m cheating slightly by including A Fish Called Wanda, which opened in July 1988 on only three screens, before slowly expanding over the next several weeks thanks to good word-of-mouth, eventually becoming one of the year’s top-grossing films. But, really, I just wanted to single out Kline’s great performance as Otto, the utterly stupid, incredibly arrogant crook on the hunt for some missing stolen diamonds. Lots of comedies are built around dumb guys, but Otto may be the absolute dumbest, which is even funnier because Kline is very smart about how to play an idiot. What makes the character brilliant is Otto is absolutely sure he’s a criminal mastermind. Good god, he is not.  

2) Sigourney Weaver, Aliens (1986)

Nominated for Best Actress

Action-horror sequels tend not to get acting nominations, but there was simply no denying how galvanic Sigourney Weaver was in the role of Ripley, the sole human survivor from the 1979 original who tangles with extraterrestrials one more time. In Alien, Ripley was part of a crew — she only slowly emerges as that film’s hero — but here, she’s in charge from the start, commanding your attention with her ferocious intensity. At a time when the idea of a female-driven action movie was unheard of, Aliens was groundbreaking, and Weaver remains remarkable in it: part maternal figure, part ass-kicking dynamo.

1) Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight (2008)

Won for Best Supporting Actor

Posthumous Oscar wins are rare, but from the moment that audiences first saw the Joker in The Dark Knight, it seemed pretty obvious that Ledger, who had died about six months prior, was going to take home Best Supporting Actor. It is easy now to be exhausted by the whole Joker mythos — the idea that playing a dark clown is somehow an indicator of great artistic depth — but when Ledger signed on for the film, it seemed like a bad idea to many superhero fans. (The sensitive actor from Brokeback Mountain as Batman’s maniacal foe? Yeah, okay…) But Ledger gave us a Joker who seemed legitimately dangerous and unstable, injecting The Dark Knight with an unpredictable edge that was thrilling. Fanboys and internet memes have subsequently diluted the genuine shock of first witnessing Ledger’s portrayal, but that’s not his fault. It remains one of the all-time great villain performances in one of the best summer blockbusters ever.