best film:  It was the Coen brothers 2013 film Inside Llewyn Davis (where Oscar Isaac plays the titular Llewyn) over Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011) until Isaac’s big 2021 came along with both The Card Counter (by a rejuvenated Paul Schrader) and Dune (Denis Villeneuve).  The Coen Brothers’ film remains one of their very best – and Isaac’s two (2) 2021 films both landed in the top five (5) of the 2020s thus far.


best performance:  It is not his debut, but Oscar Isaac is a revelation in Inside Llewyn Davis. This is a young Al Pacino in the making (his work in A Most Violent Year the following year in 2014 solidified that comparison). Still, he could go on to be the best actor of his generation and never top his work here as the young Odysseus-like character trapped in a web (partially of his own making) in 1961 in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Isaac’s delivery of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” is poetically sad.


Isaac is magical here – the best performance of 2013 – heavy eyes – “I’m tired”… “I thought I needed a night’s sleep but it’s more than that”- tragic. He is quick to give up and brings an entire life’s worth of unseen baggage with him. Isaac is also one hell of a folk singer and musician – the film and performances do not work without both this level of a musician and actor.


stylistic innovations/traits:  Oscar Isaac is just a year older than Ryan Gosling – the star of 2011’s Drive (featuring Isaac in support) making Isaac the second youngest actor on the list thus far. He has eleven (11) films in the archives in eleven (11) years spanning from 2011 to 2021. He capitalized on his big 2013 (giving the best performance of the year) with a rock solid 2014 with both A Most Violent Year and Ex Machina. The Star Wars films are fine additions to his resume, but it is his brilliant 2021 that finally landed him a spot (and a rather solid one at that) on this list. If narrative cinema is just over one hundred years old, it would stand to reason that the actor that gave the best male of performance of the year twice – would have an enviable position on this list (even if he seems to be in the middle of his career). Isaac’s Duke Leto is a genuine character – and his Nathan (from Ex Machina) is devilishly cunning. Both William Tell (The Card Counter) and Llewyn Davis are about as full and complex as a character gets.


Isaac in Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter (the middle film in what is coming to be known as Schrader’s “Man in a Room” trilogy) – Oscar Isaac plays William Tell. Isaac is genius here. Isaac is in nearly every scene and never makes a false move. He is exacting – intense and damaged. The diner scene with Tye Sheridan’s Cirk where Isaac’s Tell talks about his torturing experience – describing the noise of it all – may be the best acting of the 2020s thus far.


directors worked with:  J.C. Chandor (2), Alex Garland (2), J.J. Abrams (2), Nicolas Winding Refn (1), the Coen brothers (1), Rian Johnson (1), Paul Schrader (1), Denis Villeneuve (1)


Isaac excels here as Nathan in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina. Nathan is an eccentric billionaire – and Isaac, Alicia Vikander and Domhnall Gleeson weave a beautiful little dance together in Garland’s chamber piece.


top five performances:

  1. Inside Llewyn Davis
  2. The Card Counter
  3. Dune
  4. Ex Machina
  5. A Most Violent Year


archiveable films

2011- Drive
2013- Inside Llewyn Davis
2014- A Most Violent Year
2014- Ex Machina
2015- Star Wars: The Force Awakens
2017- Star Wars: The Last Jedi
2018- Annihilation
2019- Triple Frontier
2019- Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker
2021- The Card Counter
2021- Dune