CORRECTION: in my original post, I incorrectly said that Oldman played Mozart in Immortal Beloved. Astute reader Poppabear pointed out that he played Beethoven. I have since made the correction below.
The Dark Knight Rises
The Dark Knight
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Air Force One
Murder in the First
Léon: The Professional
Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead
Gary Oldman is the film world's greatest living actor.
In terms of chameleon actors, who can lose themselves completely in a role, Oldman is unsurpassed. I cannot tell you how many times I've mentioned to people how Commissioner Gordon is Sirius Black and they are shocked. This is not simply a matter of makeup and costume but Oldman's total commitment to becoming his character.
As with #4 Johnny Depp, Oldman swings for the fences and sometimes he strikes out. His villain in The 5th Element is a horrible cartoon caricature. You can also see unimpressive performances in The Scarlet Letter and The Book of Eli.
But his body of amazing work overwhelms any misfires. Even in bad movies, Oldman can shine. In Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, Oldman plays a simpleton/savant against Tim Roth's more cerebral character. Oldman brings an openness and an optimism to his character that also comes off as vacant as Bill and Ted in their excellent adventure. The movie itself is pretentious and boring, but Oldman makes it watchable by making Rosencrantz simply likable.
My first experience of Oldman was in JFK, where he plays Lee Harvey Oswald. It is actually a fairly restrained performance and he must perform as a character mostly from people's memories. He infuses Oswald with a seething anger under a stoic exterior.
But where I first took notice of Oldman was in Bram Stoker's Dracula. His performance as the title monster is larger-than-life and requires him to chew scenery like crazy. And yet what grounds all of it is that it fueled by an intensity of emotion. He is absolutely fascinating to watch as he plays old man Dracula, monster Dracula, young gentleman Dracula... he transforms in body and voice while keeping the consistency throughout the performance. And I love all of the small looks and gestures he puts into his scenes, like where he catches himself before drinking his own blood in front of Harker and then covers his mistake with his creepy, plastered smile.
And his corrupt cop Stansfield in Leon: The Professional might be his most over-the-top performance, but it is a controlled insanity. There is a menace in the big moments and the small moments. His is a drug-addled psychotic that is absolutely terrifying in a way that Dracula was not. In the hands of any other actor, this would have been just another one-dimensional bad guy. And while Oldman performs him without any redeeming qualities, only he could pull off that craziness in a believable way. I can't think of the word "everyone" without thinking of Oldman screaming it.
His commitment to his craft is evident in Immortal Beloved. He committed himself to learning how to play piano like Beethoven in order to play the famous composer. Like his previous characters, Oldman's Beethoven has little to no redeeming qualities. But he burns with his trademark intensity. Watch the overwhelming sadness as he lays his head on the piano and plays the notes he cannot hear.
I should pause a moment here to talk about his intensity a bit more. I don't want to confuse intensity with simply large emotional displays. By intensity, I'm talking about the emotional energy that fuels the character. And each display of that intensity is distinct from each other. You can feel how his Dracula's passion for Mina is a much different kind of passion that Beethoven has for his great love. And the violence of Stansfield comes from such a different place as the monstrous actions of Dracula. Bruce Lee once said (quoting Eastern Philosophy) that you should be like the nature of water which takes the shape of whatever vessel it enters. Oldman brings his rich skill to every role but he shapes it to whatever is necessary.
But one of my favorite performances of Oldman's is that of Jim Gordon in Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy. You can see none of Dracula, Stansfield, Beethoven, or Black in Gordon. He is a completely changed. Gordon is a multi-layered character, but he might be the most virtuous person in the series. Playing villains gets more attention (see the series' Joker and Bane). But Oldman's Gordon is one of the best performances of Oldman's because he plays him as a good, straight-as-an-arrow man while making him fascinating to watch. The thing that underlies his entire performance is a deep and abiding sadness. He is a good man who is surrounded by evil. Watch him in the first movie when he puts a jacket on young Bruce. He is kind and comforting, but even there you can see a sense of helplessness. As Lt. Gordon, you can see how trapped he feels.
In The Dark Knight, he brings that intensity to fuel his righteousness. And when it all falls apart in the final scene, he has to be alternately confrontoational, apologetic, consoling... all while keeping his character consistent and intact. And as a good man who has done wrong, he shows the weight of his choices in his character in The Dark Knight Rises. He is a man who has lost so much but cannot stop doing what he is doing. He is a wounded warrior going once more into the breach. And he keeps his character in control and resists most scenery chewing in order create a stable spine on which the Dark Knight Trilogy can rest.
I am amazed by Gary Oldman. He can contort his behavior in ways that few actors can. For that reason he is the greatest living actor and the #3 greatest actor of all time.