best film:  Apocalypse Now is the second best film of all-time and since Brando isn’t in The Searchers (#1) it’s the choice here even with The Godfather looming closely behind (also in the top 10). Brando has been in three masterpieces, the third, and weakest of the three, is On the Waterfront from Elia Kazan. Brando’s work in Apocalypse Now is the least of the three performances here amongst his masterpieces. It’s a great Harry Lime-character. Welles, who played Lime in The Third Man, says it’s a character who is talked about, infamous, revered the entire film and then shows up for a scene or two at the end. Brando’s work as Colonel Walter E. Kurtz is genius and worthy of such a buildup in one of the two greatest films ever made. Thank God Coppola had Brando to go to for those scenes.

best performance: On the Waterfront. With On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire Brando changed film acting. He’s preceded by Montgomery Clift in regards to Method and predated by Paul Muni as far as transforming for a role (and you could argue Lon Cheney before that)—but nobody did it better and had the impact on the medium and craft Brando did. His instinctual acting in On the Waterfront is still revelatory today, over 60 years later. His improvising with Eve Marie Saint, the physical and emotional tour-de-force throughout, and the final speech to Rod Steiger in the back of the car at the end (copied in Raging Bull and Boogie Nights among others) show a virtuoso at work.

stylistic innovations/traits:  Brando is the actor I’m most comfortable unequivocally calling a genius and an artist. He’s the most talented actor of all-time and if that’s all that mattered for this list- -then he would be at the #1 slot. Brando’s resume is another story. If you look at the five pictures on this page it’s insurmountably strong. He’s in, and sets the screen ablaze in, two of the best 10 films of all-time (Apocalypse Now, The Godfather). He’s in two of the best 10 performances of the 50’s (Streetcar, On the Waterfront), two of the best 10 performances of the 70’s (Last Tango, Godfather). These five films are as strong as it gets.  It’s beyond that it starts to get shaky. There is really only 5-6 years where I’m mentioning Brando amongst the best performances of the year—that’s about half of the others in my top 5 actors on this list. #6-10 on his list below cannot contend with his peers on this list. Brando has 21 overall films in the archives which is respectable, but he was often disinterested in his career, throwing away almost an entire decade (the 1960’s) in his prime. He’s a fascinating solo artist in a lot of films that ended up outside of their respective year’s top 25 (The Missouri Breaks, Guys and Dolls, Sayonara). Brando broke onto the scene in 1950 and his first 6 films are archiveable. Something happened with On the Waterfront (I’ve read he felt betrayed by Kazan who used the film as a defense for his HUAC actions).  Brando clearly lost interest, largely, in doing great work for the better part of two decades until he was revived by his masterpiece collaboration with Coppola. Brando’s disinterest and apathy clearly shows in his choices and filmography. I adore Brando, and will probably argue with myself about him not being #1 on this list whenever I’m watching one of those five landmark films/performances.

directors worked with:  Kazan (3), Coppola (2) and these are the key collaborators. Mankiewicz (2), Penn (2) and then once with Bertolucci to great acclaim and once with Lumet

Top 10 Performances:

  1. On the Waterfront
  2. The Godfather
  3. A Streetcar Named Desire
  4. The Last Tango in Paris
  5. Apocalypse Now
  6. The Wild One
  7. The Fugitive Kind
  8. Julius Caesar
  9. The Young Lions
  10. Burn!

Archiveable films

1950- The Men
1951- A Streetcar Named Desire
1952- Vita Zapata
1953- Julius Caesar
1953- The Wild One
1954- On the Waterfront
1955- Guys and Dolls
1957- Sayonara
1958- The Young Lions
1960- The Fugitive Kind
1961- One-Eyed Jacks
1964- Morituri
1966- The Chase
1969- Burn
1972- The Godfather
1972- The Last Tango In Paris
1976- The Missouri Breaks
1978- Superman: The Movie
1979- Apocalypse Now
1989- A Dry White Season
1990- The Freshman