The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
King Lear (TV Movie)
X-Men: The Last Stand
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
And the Band Played On...
A Performance of Macbeth (TV Movie)
I am making two exceptions when it comes to #11 on the list, Ian McKellen. First, I've included TV movies, something I have tried to omit from every one else's list. Second, some of these TV movies are simply tapings of stage performances. Some my gripe about inconsistency, but I don't think you can appreciate McKellen's acting genius without at least one of these roles. (and it is my list and I'll do with it what I want :)
Let us first talk about his other film performances.
He received an Oscar nomination for his role as Richard III in the movie of the same name. His performance was diabolical and purely evil. But what he did with his monologues was look at you, the audience, as if you were his secret conspirator. He wasn't just confessing his ill intents and pre-meditated crimes. He was bragging. It felt as if he was trying to impress you, and by doing so drawing you to his side. It was an inventive way to get you to follow the villain.
He played another evil individual in Apt Pupil. He starts as an old, decrepit man who is blackmailed into reliving his days as a Nazi. But then he begins to come alive in the darkness and he gains strength from it. It was as if the we saw a sleeping monster awaken. He eyes, is gestures… everything about him sharpened with deadly precision.
He is of course most famous for 2 roles: Magneto and Gandalf. To the former, he is one of the most important on screen comic book villains. What makes his performance so great in the X-Men movies is that he plays Magneto as evil. I know many talk about the performance as a sympathetic one, and it is. He exudes charisma and bitter experience when speaking about war. But beneath all of that, McKellen does not give you compassion. Instead there is a condescension, a derisive outlook. You almost fall for it, but McKellen shows you how much he is a coward (when confronted by Wolverine in the Statue of Liberty, Stryker in his cell, or Jean Grey with the cure weapon). He also shows you how genocidal he is. McKellen's Magneto is a broken monster, but a monster nonetheless.
And it is an incredible foil to the heroic Gandalf. He received another Oscar nomination for this part, and rightly so. McKellen brought a Shakespearean respectability to a movie about trolls and dwarves and magic rings. In the books, Gandalf always seemed cold and distant to me. And yet McKellen could read the exact same words and fill them with varying emotions. When I read "Fly, you fools." I always pictured Gandalf as being stoically angry. But upon seeing McKellen say that iconic line, I was emotionally gut punched. They were the words of a man who knew he was dead, and his last thoughts were only of what could motivate those he love to avoid his fate.
And watch the subtle differences he brings to his portrayal of Gandalf the Gray vs. Gandalf the White. There are differences in movement, of posture, etc. But the biggest difference I found was a sense of melancholy. Gandalf the White bears a sadness to him that is not there in Gandalf the Gray. And yet, he speaks the most hopeful words of the movie. His speech about the journey after death is so moving that I hope that someone like him is with me as prepare to make that final transition to the white shores.
This is one of the reasons why watching him in The Hobbit movies is so much fun: this Gandalf is more playful. McKellen still plays him as the weight of the world on his shoulders, but he gives him more youth and enjoyment from the simple pleasures and adventures of Middle Earth.
As I said at the beginning, I've included a few TV movies as well. His performance in And the Band Played On… is much more subtle than any of his other work, but he disappears into the life of a quiet, sick man. He performance of madness in King Lear is sad and tragic to behold. But it is his Macbeth that gives me pause. Upon seeing this performance, I was in awe. His Macbeth is human and craven and terrified and terrorizing and arrogant and weak and hateful and pitiable all at the same time.
Just watch the madness of evil take hold of his soul! This is acting at its finest. McKellen makes you feel the dark tendrils of sin worm their way around his callow conscience and crack through to corrupt his heart. Watching this is harrowing to me. Truly harrowing. I have very rarely been affected by a performance like this, which is why I had to include in accolades to the #11 greatest actor of all time.