Updated: Sep 28
As an actor, one of the best ways to learn your craft is to watch examples of really stellar acting. It can inspire you, teach you, and help you develop an understanding of the type of roles you want to and can play.
To help give you a starting point of acting scenes to take inspiration from, here is a list we came up with of the top ten best acted scenes in cinema. (According to us and in no particular order)
Requiem for a Dream - Ellen Burstyn
In one of the most heartbreaking monologues put to film, Ellen Burstyn’s character in Requiem for a Dream, Sara Goldfarb, explains to her son, Harry, how her life has become meaningless and she has learned to live for the pursuit of losing weight so she can fit in a red dress and be on her favorite television program. Burstyn is absolutely heart-rending, vulnerable, and honest in her performance, revealing her heart in all of its pitiful human loneliness.
Good Will Hunting - Robin Williams
Robin Williams may be known for having been one of the greatest comedic actors of our time, having played such iconic roles as the Genie in Aladdin, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Mork, but his dramatic turns were no less impressive than his funny ones. In Good Will Hunting, Williams played a psychiatrist who helps an unrecognized genius confront his past.
In this scene, Williams’ character Dr. Sean Maguire explains to Will that there is more to life than can be learned from books. He’s brimming with wisdom and empathy and challenge, a performance that is complex and convincing and layered.
Forrest Gump - Tom Hanks
Tom Hanks did such a fantastic job bringing the now-iconic character Forrest Gump to life that it’s easy to forget how challenging it must have been to play somebody so unique. In the hands of another, less talented actor, it may have been easy to lean so far into the character’s simple purity that it were to become a caricature, but Hanks gives Forrest real life.
In this scene, Forrest finds out that he has a son with the love of his life, Jenny. When he asks her if the son is smart or like him, the audience gains an entirely new level of understanding of his character. It hits hard, to put it lightly.
Boyhood - Patricia Arquette
In a movie called Boyhood, it comes as a surprise that one of the most touching and best acted scenes comes in the form of a mother describing her experience of becoming an empty-nester and looking back on her life, wondering if there should have been more. Patricia Arquette is natural and surprising as she breaks into unexpected sobs and delivers a monologue that makes her son - and the audience - finally see her as more than a mother but rather a person of her own. It’s a moment that is relatable to anybody who has reached middle age, or anybody who ever will.
Sophie’s Choice - Meryl Streep
The entire conceit of Sophie’s Choice is about asking the question of how a person responds when faced with an impossible decision, something so horrible most of us can’t even begin to imagine being put in Sophie’s shoes. Yet that is exactly the work that Meryl Streep was tasked with when she took on the role of Sophie.
In this scene, we discover what the titular choice is, and see Streep masterfully play the scenario in which her character comes to terms with having to do the impossible. She does an astonishing job - and she does it all in a foreign language. Talk about a challenging role.
Inglorious Basterds - Christoph Waltz
In one of the tensest scenes ever put to film, Christoph Waltz plays Hans Landa, “The Jew Hunter,” explaining his talents for hunting down jews to a man who is hiding a Jewish family just downstairs. He imbues this evil character with a magnetism and even charm that immediately makes the viewer feel conflicted, and the horrible dramatic irony of the scene has you holding your breath for its entire duration.
Blue is the Warmest Color - Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux
In this scene in the French film Blue is the Warmest Color, protagonist Adele comes home from cheating on her partner, Emma. Adele tries to lie about where she has been but Emma exposes the truth and kicks her out of the house. Both actresses do a spectacular job at playing a very difficult but universally recognizable scene, Lea expressing fury and Adele everything from fear to desperation to hopelessness. Adele plays as much with her body as she does with her words, liquid leaking from her face as we watch her heart breaking. It’s visceral and hits you like a truck.
Silence of the Lambs - Anthony Hopkins
Despite only being onscreen for sixteen minutes of the movie’s two hour and 18-minute runtime, Anthony Hopkins makes an indelible impression as Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, having gone down in history as one of film’s most iconic and terrifying villains. Hopkins does a fantastic job portraying a complete and total psychopath - who also happens to be a genius - as he expertly extracts emotion and trauma from his scene partner. He may be locked in a prison cell but his presence exudes power and sucks all the air from the room.
There Will Be Blood - Daniel Day Lewis
Daniel Day Lewis won an Oscarfor his portrayal of the ruthless oil tycoon Daniel Plainview in the epic There Will Be Blood. Truly a performance every actor should study. This is one of his greatest performances of all time.
Django Unchained - Leonardo DiCaprio
The mythology around this scene goes deep. By the time Django Unchained was released, the meme of Leonardo DiCaprio deserving but never winning an Oscar for his acting was at its peak. At the same time, the story of DiCaprio actually cutting his hand open while playing this scene and continuing on anyway circulated, adding more fuel to the legend of his talent and dedication. And, indeed, it’s an impressive piece of acting, with DiCaprio exuding a terrifying rage as he puts literal blood and sweat into his craft.