The best movie scenes combine great direction and a fantastic script performed by talented actors. Some thespians, such as Marlon Brando, are notoriously mercurial yet consistently create dynamic, nuanced performances with little preparation, appearing to snatch inspiration out of thin air at a moment’s notice.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, actors like Daniel Day Lewis hold nothing back in preparation for big roles. While getting ready to play Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence, the actor remained in character after the camera stopped – a habit that has frustrated fellow movie stars.
More than a century of amazing movies featuring hundreds of terrific actresses and actors await those attempting to determine the best-acted scenes in movie history. When comparing music, visual art and any other types of creative endeavors, it’s worth noting that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Any artistic achievement depends on the individual tastes and preferences of the viewer, but some are so overwhelmingly impressive that they’re as close to objectively excellent as it’s possible to get.
The rundown of twenty best acted scenes in movie history includes scenes from movies that typically don’t receive Oscar attention, but nonetheless merit inclusion because of their impact on pop culture. In addition to classic dramatic performances, some of the best acting takes place in comedic situations, deserving of equal respect.
20. Daniel Day-Lewis – There Will Be Blood
One of the finest actors to appear on the silver screen, Daniel Day-Lewis is famous for the intense preparation process that he puts himself through. His version of method acting requires that he dives head-first into his roles, remaining in character throughout the production regardless of circumstance.
While Daniel has angered many of his peers over the decades, there’s no disputing the amazing results. In There Will Be Blood, Daniel Day Lewis plays the part of Daniel Plainview, an oil prospector willing to do what it takes to strike it rich. The ending of this Paul Thomas Anderson epic about the oil rush in late 19th-century California delivers on the promises of the title.
Daniel Day Lewis is at his finest during the final scene, slowly working himself into a violent fury as he seeks retribution against Eli Sunday, who publicly humiliated the powerful tycoon. As Plainview reveals his complete financial destruction of Eli Sunday, Daniel Day-Lewis perfectly scowls the famous line “I drink your milkshake!”, before chasing down and pummeling Eli to death with a bowling pin.
19. R. Lee Ermey – Full Metal Jacket
The profanity-laced tirade that introduces the audience to Sergeant Hartman, played by 11-year Marine veteran R. Lee Ermey, shows the brutal initiation that armed forces use to drill recruits into hardened killing machines. The ex-Marine won the role by barking orders at Stanley Kubrick after the director rejected Ermey’s initial audition.
One of the most remarkable aspects of this performance is the fact that Ermey wrote the entire rant himself after Kubrick initially wanted to pen the scene.
R. Lee Ermey nails every single part of the speech with a sociopathic aggressiveness, leaving space for additional anger when he needs to ramp up the rage to punish misbehaving recruits.
18. Jeff Bridges & Phillip Seymour Hoffman – The Big Lebowski
The Big Lebowski features a terrific cast that includes John Goodman, Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, The Marlboro Man and John Turturro. One of the best performances in the film takes place during the introduction of The Dude’s namesake, the multimillionaire, right-wing version of Jeffrey Lebowski.
Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a rigid, uptight sycophant who takes The Dude on a tour of the larger-than-life presence of Mr. Lebowski. Opposite David Huddleston, who plays a tycoon with an A-type personality, Jeff Bridges portrays the ultimate slacker, utilizing relaxed body language and a hesitant, muddled delivery of his lines to establish the contrast between two Lebowskis.
In the end, after the big Lebowski harshes The Dude’s buzz with a hot take on his stoner lifestyle, The Dude wins the scene by swiping a carpet that finally ties the room together, which is all The Dude really wanted.
17. Heath Ledger – The Dark Knight
Before The Dark Knight, Heath Ledger was known as an excellent actor, but no one expected his interpretation of the Joker to so fully and completely recreate the image of one of the most famous villains in the world. Previous incarnations of the Joker simply paled in comparison to the completely unhinged antagonist audiences witnessed on-screen.
Christopher Nolan’s reboot of Batman focused on a gritty portrayal of the comic books, which the actor embraced fully. Instead of an impeccable haircut and neatly applied makeup, Heath’s Joker had wild hair and face paint that appeared to be the work of a drunk mortician.
The pencil magic trick sequence, when the Joker infiltrates a conference of Gotham mob bosses, is one of Heath’s most iconic scenes. After disappearing the writing utensil into a henchman’s eye socket, the Joker introduces his Batman-killing service to the furious group of gangsters.
Heath infuses dark humor, terror and unorthodox wisdom into the speech through a chaotic series of facial expressions and body language that hints at the boiling insanity of the Joker.
16. Javier Bardem & Gene Jones – No Country for Old Men
Based on the novel written by one of the United States finest scribes, Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men features a cast of hardened characters who spread fear through their violent instability. Javier Bardem plays Anton Chigurh, the most ruthless and violent character in the film.
The depth of Anton’s psychopathy is revealed during the infamous gas station scene, in which Bardem asks “What’s the most you ever lost on a coin toss?”, before demanding that the gas station owner call heads or tails, implying that the owner’s life has lead him to this moment of life and death.
Javier Bardem plays Anton with a cool yet determined detachment that nonetheless manages to portray a sense of overwhelming menace. Gene Jones, who had previously appeared in Chappelle’s Show, starts the scene appearing confused, before building a slow, internal panic as he realizes what’s at stake.
15. Bruce Campbell – Army of Darkness
Bruce Campbell‘s escape from execution via the witch pit and his subsequent speech is a masterpiece of hilarious camp moviemaking, setting the high bar for cheesy, cult-horror fun.
After killing the undead attackers and climbing out of the murder pit, Ash Williams is understandably pissed, and turns to his trusty double-barrel shotgun to deliver a message by shredding the sword of a knight with buckshot.
The medieval crowd gathered to watch the spectacle is taken aback as Bruce Campbell announces the power given to him by his “boomstick”, explaining the features of the firearm and imploring the crowd to “shop smart, shop S-Mart”.
When another monster somehow climbs out of the pit, he stylishly finishes it off with a couple of shots from the boomstick. Bruce Campbell puts an exclamation on this swagger-loaded scene with a perfect twirl of his still-smoking shotgun.
14. Max Schreck – Nosferatu
One of the most influential silent film performances was Max Schreck’s genre-defining turn as a vampire. In Nosferatu, he plays Count Orlok, a frightening and repulsive creature based on the ideas created by Bram Stoker.
This German actor was an innovative performer, transforming into a vampire by layering makeup and using prostheses to exaggerate his naturally emaciated look into a frightening, unholy character.
The finest performances in the film is the sequence where Hutter cuts his finger while dining with Count Orlok. Witnessing the plasma leak from Hutter, Max Schreck reveals the insane bloodlust of Nosferatu through intense, disconcerting eyes and strange, shifty movements towards his victim, eventually licking the cut finger as an appetizer before the entree.
13. Samuel L. Jackson – Pulp Fiction
Quentin Tarantino‘s Pulp Fiction was a significant departure from the traditional gangland crime dramas, solidifying its reputation in movie history through sharp dialogue, powerful characters and a non-linear narrative that smoothly transitions from one plotline to the next.
Many scenes in Pulp Fiction have become iconic, such the Jack Rabbit Slims dance contest and the diner robbery incident, but the strongest performance by far is Jules’ vicious shakedown of hapless cronies who disrespected Marsellus Wallace.
In a sadistic twist on the traditional last meal before execution, Samuel L. Jackson questions the doomed while eating the victim’s Big Kahuna burger and drinking his beverage, exuding power and exclaiming, “this is a tasty burger!”.
Samuel L. Jackson then delivers one of the most famous bible readings in movie history before laying his vengeance upon the cowering victim.
12. Martin Sheen & Marlon Brando – Apocalypse Now
Another timeless classic by Francis Ford Coppola, this film adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness delves into the futility and madness of the Vietnam.
Apocalypse Now features many amazing sequences presented by top notch thespians. When Willard, played by Martin Sheen, finally finds his way into Colonel Kurtz’s compound after a lengthy journey through war-torn jungles. The audience is introduced to the fallen hero, brilliant before driven insane, through Marlon Brando carefully considered evocation of Kurtz.
Brando’s vacant, 1000-yard stare gives way to a quiet rage as Willard informs the Colonel that command considers him unfit for command. Brando responds by unleashing a soul-penetrating glare. Suddenly lucid, Colonel Kurtz declares that Willard is an errand boy working for a government that has committed the same atrocities as Kurtz himself.
11. Liam Neeson & Ben Kingsley – Schindler’s List
Towards the end of Schindler’s List, in order to safely surrender, Oskar Schindler receives a letter outlining his good deeds and a ring with the inscription from the Talmud, “whoever saves one life saves the world entire”. After Oskar, played by Liam Neeson receives this gift from Itzhak Stern, acted by Ben Kingsley, he becomes overwhelmed with grief, dropping the ring.
Oskar confesses that he could have saved more, slowly breaking down, while Itzhak pleads for the German to see the good that he has done. “I threw away so much money… you have no idea” Oskar laments, before calculating the people he could have saved if he sold his car and gold pin. When he collapses, Itzhak and others surround Oskar in solidarity.
10. Diane Keaton & Al Pacino – The Godfather Part II
One of the saddest scenes in the sequel to The Godfather shows the results of Michael’s abuse and complete disregard towards his wife Kay, consistent with the lack of power and respect for women in the Mafia crime world.
Diane Keaton expresses a deepening exasperation and sadness as Al Pacino transmits a dull rage that grows into full-blown fury when Kay reveals that she didn’t suffer a miscarriage, but opted to abort the potential heir to the Corleone empire rather than raise him to live in Michael’s world.
Thinly-veiled threats descend into physical spousal abuse as Kay becomes separated from her children and Michael Corleone spirals into isolating everyone close to him and the family.
9. Sidney Poitier & Rod Steiger – In the Heat of the Night
Set in a tiny locale in the state of Mississippi, In the Heat of the Night is a crime mystery that provides a scathing view into the racism of the deep south. Sidney Poitier plays the part of Mr. Virgil Tibbs, a brilliant detective from Philadelphia who becomes ensnared in a murder investigation while passing through the town of Sparta.
One of the most famous and best-acted scenes in this Academy-award winning film takes place at the local police station, where Virgil disproves a suspect’s involvement in the crime through the use of rational logic. This pisses off the local police chief Bill Gillespie, played by Rod Steiger, who disrespects Virgil in front of other police officers.
Throughout the scene, Sidney lends an air of dignified intelligence and patience until Steiger crosses the line. Virgil expresses a restrained rage, putting the officers in their place by reminding them that “They call me Mr. Tibbs” – one of the first steps that Virgil must take to earn respect from the local police, despite his superior intelligence, social status and civilized behaviour.
8. Meryl Streep – Sophie’s Choice
Considered by many to be the greatest actress over the past half-century, Meryl Streep excels in all the films she’s graced with her presence, leading to a record 19 Oscar nominations, winning the award on three occasions.
One of her Oscar wins was for her performance in Sophie’s Choice, a heart-wrenching film about the terrible results of Nazi atrocities inflicted upon civilians during World War II.
The best acted scene refers to the title of the film, with the title character forced by the Nazis to choose which of her children will live at a labor camp and which child will die in a gas chamber. Meryl’s performance is pitch perfect and completely devastating, as Sophie desperately pleads for mercy before breaking down and sending her daughter to her death.
7. Jack Nicholson & Shelley Duvall – The Shining
Based on the Stephen King novel, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is a classic psychological horror film about an alcoholic writer driven to murder by supernatural influences.
The most iconic scene from this movie takes place during the final act, in which Jack escapes from a locked pantry and begins to hunt his wife with an axe. As Wendy, played by Shelley Duvall, screams in terror, Jack rips into a locked door with the axe, sticking his head through the hole and quipping, ‘Here’s Johnny!’.
Nicholson’s unhinged eyes and wild facial expressions combine with his creepy rendition of the three little pigs fairy tale to create horror that elicits fear decades later.
6. Charlize Theron & Christina Ricci – Monster
Monster is based on the real-life story of Aileen Wuornos, a prostitute turned serial killer who may or may not have killed her victims in self-defense. In order to play Aileen, Charlize Theron wore dental implants, gained 30 pounds and drastically altered her appearance to hide her normally attractive features.
One of the scenes that humanizes Aileen is the bus stop meeting in which she admits that she’s made some terrible mistakes to her lover Selby, played by Christina Ricci.
While Ricci’s character dives deeper into sadness, Theron’s Aileen disintegrates into a heartbreaking mess, shaking and sobbing uncontrollably, expressing that her lover is the only person who saw her as something other than a complete monster.
5. Denzel Washington – Malcolm X
Spike Lee‘s biopic about Malcolm X stars Denzel Washington, who studied numerous tapes, speeches and recordings of Malcolm X to faithfully recreate the body language and speech patterns of the revolutionary civil rights leader.
Throughout the film, Denzel recreates the oratory skills of Malcolm X through numerous speeches, but one of the most powerful performances in the film showcases the actor’s ability to create an aura of power using a few key words and gestures.
When one of his disciples is attacked by the police, several residents who witnessed the incident comment that Malcolm and his Muslim disciples are men of words, not action.
Malcolm X responds by leading a group of men to the police station, peacefully arranging medical treatment for his seriously injured brother. Denzel insinuates rage, empathy, strength and power with a subtle effortlessness, dispersing the crowd with a simple hand gesture much to the chagrin of the police.
4. Robert De Niro & Christopher Walken – The Deer Hunter
As the gun is passed between the two captive soldiers, De Niro cycles through a desperate range of emotions, from maniacal laughter and devastated cries to bursts of machismo and the pure, violent rage of an escape. Walken responds to De Niro’s lead flawlessly, deteriorating further into instability as his captors continually yell “Mao!” while slapping his face.
Considering that historical reports don’t mention the use of russian roulette during the Vietnam War, if The Deer Hunter chose to be historically accurate, this fantastic scene wouldn’t have been conceived at all.
3. Anthony Hopkins & Jodie Foster – Silence of the Lambs
When Clarice Starling first meets Dr. Hannibal Lecter, the audience is treated to the beginning of one of the most unusual on-screen pairings in film history.
Anthony Hopkins’ unflinching presentation of a brilliant, psychopathic serial killer captivated audiences while sending a chill down their collective spines. Jodie Foster responds with an equally terrific performance as an FBI agent with the talent and determination to joust with the intellect of Hannibal Lecter. Their first exchange displays Starling’s morbid fascination with Lecter and the building blocks of the mutual respect that they develop throughout the film.
The scene also contains the legendary line, “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti”, which is delivered by Anthony Hopkins with a reptilian slither.
2. Ellen Burstyn – Requiem for a Dream
One of the main themes of Requiem for a Dream is the destructive and tragic consequences of addictive behavior, particularly the pain caused by addicts towards their loved ones.
In a movie loaded with disturbing sequences replete with brutal imagery, the most emotionally affecting scene takes place when Ellen Burstyn’s character, Sara Goldfarb, reveals her amphetamine abuse to her son Harry.
Burstyn’s monologue expresses deep despair and desperate faith in her dream of happiness: a world in which she isn’t lonesome, unwanted and disconnected. Ellen’s performance was so genuine and powerful that the cameraman filming the scene fogged his eyepiece with tears, skewing the point of view of the shot.
1. Marlon Brando & Stray Cat – The Godfather
One of the most iconic performances in movie history was Marlon Brando’s portrayal of Vito Corleone in The Godfather, in particular the opening scene where the owner of a funeral parlour, Amerigo Bonasera, asks Vito Corleone for a favor, knowing that Sicilian tradition dictates that the Don cannot refuse a request on the wedding day of his daughter.
As Corleone listens to Bonasera’s request for vengeance against the men who attacked his daughter, the subtle rise and fall of Brando’s facial features, along with furtive glances of disgust, communicate the gravity of Bonasera’s disrespect upon the Don’s soul. Vito’s not upset that he’s being asked to kill; he’s disappointed that Bonasera shows a lack of respect and friendship. The scene immediately shows the audience the magnitude of power wielded by the Godfather, who is accustomed to most people groveling at his feet.
Brando stuffed his cheeks with tissue and developed a raspy accent after listening to actual Dons from the mafia, explaining that “powerful people don’t need to shout”.
The cat frolicking in the Godfather’s lap was a stray that happened to show up at the right time. Brando decided to improvise, inviting the cat to take part in what would turn out to be one of the best acted scenes in movie history.
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