There are certain scenes which are touch-points for actors. Some of the truly great performances ever captured on camera. This is not an exhaustive list, but this is a starting point for some of those performances. If you have a problem with Streep, Roberts, De Niro or Blanchett this is not going to be a great list for you. Consider this a starting point for the great film performances of the modern era.
Updated 7 June 2021
When I think of great film performances and great film scenes this is the first one that comes to mind. Let’s talk technically first off – watch the scene for the two actors image work, especially when Hoffman asks Streep “have you ever done anything wrong?” They are both so alive, and their personal history is so alive in every moment of the scene. Also look at the tactical changes they both go through and how they approach those tactics in terms of their delivery. They do both get loud at points, but more often than not they are both containing their emotion, only letting it out when it fully bubbles to the top. Michael Chekhov said “The actor should be a volcano, in a completely relaxed body” there is no better example of that than the actors working in this scene.
Listen, if you haven’t seen Moonlight yet, I honestly don’t know what you are doing with your life. This film is incredible, and to truly understand this scene you really need to have seen the whole film. However, the two actors working here are doing incredible work, similarly to Streep and Hoffman above, their history together is so alive, so palpable and so dangerous in this scene that it feels like anything could happen. From the first moment you don’t know if they are going to beat the crap out of each other or make out on the table. Technically, watch for when they look at each other and when they look away, how their objectives change through the scene – especially Andre Holland’s character, Kevin.
Manchester by the Sea (2017)
Michelle Williams is one of the most consistently underrated actors of her generation, and here she is truly incredible. Casey Affleck does a good job here too, but the power of Williams’ performance is undeniable. It’s great writing for sure, but the emotional commitment to the given circumstances is so real and so powerful that it’s a thrill to watch. It really feels like the scene collapses for a moment in the middle, in the despair of it all and how the two of them pull it out at the end, the chaos and sadness of it, feels so real it hurts.
August Osage County (2013)
Sometimes you just need to watch a group of absolute professionals go to work. This ladies and gentlemen is the NBA of acting and I give you Kobe, LeBron and Jordan all hanging out for a nice plate of catfish. By that I mean, Streep, Roberts and an exceptional performance from Julianne Nicholson. Let’s also take a quick minute to thank the genius writer that is Tracy Letts, straight out of Steppenwolf in Chicago, this is an amazing script executed by our generations creme de la creme of acting talent. Sit down, strap in and enjoy the ride. Spectacular stuff. Watch for change in tactics, real-live serious active listening, investment in the stakes and reaction to changing circumstances.
Blue Jasmine (2013)
We cannot have one of these lists and not include Cate Blanchett. Picking a single scene from her extraordinary back catalog of incredible work is a difficult task, but I landed on this scene from Blue Jasmine for a number of reasons. I’ll get to Cate in a second, but when you first watch this scene take a look at the excellent performances from the two child actors here, they do an outstanding job across the table from one of this generations great actors. Blanchett is exceptional, her drunkenness is completely believable, the images and when she chooses to engage with them versus stay on talking to the boys is unpredictable and alive, plus watch when the emotional history hits her?! A joy to watch.
There Will Be Blood (2007)
Here’s Daniel Day-Lewis in one of his most iconic performances, plus a HUGE spoiler alert on this clip! But it is exceptional for the size and the scope of his choices in this scene that make complete sense for this moment. Also check out the physicality that Day-Lewis has taken on for Daniel Plainveiw, the stiff legs and injuries of the old oil man. His vocal choices are unique and powerful treading the edge of what seems naturalistic, but his commitment to it and the utterly grounded way in which he executes them make this one of the all time great performances and an exceptional scene to study for actors.
What, you thought we were going to do a list of the best scenes for actors and not include the iconic scene from Heat at the restaurant? You’ve gotta be kidding me. This is a classic and it is a classic for a reason. Pacino, the cop, and De Niro, the criminal, sit down for a nice chat at a restaurant. What follows is two men whose lives have become completely about chasing each other, finding common ground, then asserting the most clear of boundaries. Everything you could want is here acting-wise; given circumstances, stakes, objectives, actions – watch how nothing either of them says is done without purpose, watch what causes them both to engage in an image and where in the frame they place it. Awesome stuff.
Oofft this is a difficult scene to watch, and it’s difficult because of the power of the performances coming from Denzel Washington and the extraordinary Viola Davis, she got nominated for an Academy Award for this performance and in the first minute you can see why. The pain of this relationship, the crushing reality of the situation and the relentless pursuit of objective makes this scene an incredible resource for actors. Just watch her, watch what she does, how she approaches each line and each moment. Then on top of that add the emotional connection to the given circumstances of this scene. This is a stellar performance and one for the ages.
Call Me By Your Name (2017)
In the years since 2017 Timothée Chalamet has become a massive acting superstar and a big part of why that has happened, is captured here in his performance in Call Me By Your Name. He is, frankly, nothing short of sensational. Additionally, massive credit to the filmmaker here as well. The temptation to layer this moment with dialogue and a thick soundtrack full of strings and harps would be massive. Instead, here is what we get: two actors fully immersed in their given circumstances, an emotional life so real and palpable that everything else is extraneous. You can feel every inch of the heartbreak here. Take a look.
First time I watched this, I watched it on a plane to the States and absolutely bawled my eyes out. It is a beautiful film and the highlight of it is the performance from Saoirse Ronan. Her first major american film, she is simply outstanding. Not only in the high stakes, dramatic moments but also in her ability to bring a hidden vulnerability to everything she does. Watch this little scene and see how much is happening under the surface of the performance. How alive she is in the moment and how naturally and realistically she responds to him. Its really beautiful and puts a smile on my face every time. Enjoy.
I, Tonya (2017)
Again a wonderfully made film centred around an exceptional performance from Margot Robbie. Especially when you consider that Robbie is an Australian, playing Tonya Harding the famous American figure skater, the depth of the character work here and the amazing emotional connection is really a joy to watch. This scene at the climax of the film when she gets sentenced following the attack on Nancy Kerrigan is absolutely heartbreaking to watch. Robbie embodies the shock, sadness and desperation of this moment. It’s a really powerful moment and worth a watch:
In the market for a fantastic piece of immersive Mexican cinema, paired with an exceptionally powerful performance from Yalitza Aparicio? Well look no further – Roma is an incredible film. A massive, encompassing, extraordinarily beautiful movie and Yalitza’s performance as Cleo is a thing to behold. This is her first acting role and she is amazing in it. You should be able to find Roma on Netflix and it is a must watch if you can get your hands on it! Sadly, clips are few and far between online but the trailer gives you more than enough to go from:
Breaking Bad (2011)
It is hard to discuss incredible television without bringing up Breaking Bad. The now iconic role of Walter White, performed by the now iconic Brian Cranston is largely considered one of the greatest protagonists (villains?) of contemporary TV. In this scene, Walter’s wife, Skyler, confronts him and tries to pursuade him to turn himself in. This scene gives the actor playing Skyler, Anna Gunn, so much to work for. Check it out:
Promising Young Woman (2020)
Firstly, what a film. It’s so exciting to see Carey Mulligan, who is just a downright brilliant actor, getting to shine in a role and film like this. In this scene, Cassandra (Carey Mullligan) confronts Dean Walker (Connie Britton) about the sexual assault of a young woman, under her watch. Cassandra holds all the cards here; she is a woman with a plan. And we get to watch her slowly and carefully reveal the details of that plan.
This is a classic. And one of the best written villains in film history. Misery is based off of a 1987 Stephen King novel of the same name. The writing, the cinematography, and, of course, the brilliant performances, are all working in synchronicity to capture this moment of escalation: a switch from sweet to scary that catches everyone by surprise.
Angels in America (2003)
This incredible miniseries is based on the American masterpiece Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes by Tony Kushner. Needless to say, if you haven’t read this play, or watched this minseries, and you are an actor working in theatre, then drop what you’re doing and get on it now! In this scene, we get to see Al Pacino shine as the moral corrupt Roy Cohn. It’s all about the writing here folks, and Al Pacino knows how to work it.
There you have it, folks, there are many more fantastic performances that we will add to this list as time goes by, but these clips will get you started. Watch all of these movies and thoroughly analyse what the actors are doing to make them effective. Combine their commonalities and try and bring them into your work! If you need somewhere to practice these new found skills why now check out our online Scene Club!